Too Busy to Think

I’ve had a subscription to The New Yorker for years now. It was a gift from my son, as he knew that I was a fan of long-form narrative nonfiction. I still am. Most stories are impossible to capture in a few sentences, let alone 140 characters.

The New Yorker still offers information and stories that I find worthwhile. Often lately, I find the urban, smarter-than-thou orientation of many of the writers somewhat off-putting. It seems like many of the issues taken up in each issue are often predictable, at least predictable in a liberal, elite sort of way.

In a recent issue (the one with the baseball umpire on the cover), Elizabeth Kolbert, a longtime writer for the magazine, wonders why all of us feel so busy and lacking for time. She takes up a short essay written in 1928 by noted economist, John Maynard Keynes.

New Yorker, May 26, 2014

New Yorker, May 26, 2014

The essay titled, “Economic Possiblities for Our Grandchildren,” finds Keynes imagining a world a century later. His prediction at the time was for a glorius increase in our “standard of life” in both the United States and Europe. He thought we would evolve to the point where no one would need to worry about making money. “Our grandchildren,” Keynes wrote, would work about three hours a day, believing even this amount to be greatly inflated and far more than was actually necessary.

Like our intellectuals and leaders today, he was deluded by technology’s promises that are never delivered. He couldn’t imagine a world without infinite growth and never-ending progress. Many know better today. Not Kolbert, however.

She wonders how Keynes could have gotten so much right in his forecast and yet be so “wrong about the future of leisure?” From there, she looks at a host of other writers, books, and research on leisure, some of it training a fresh orientation towards Keynes and his predictions.

I was reminded of another article from 2012, written by David Graeber in The Baffler, a publication that takes a distinctly different tack on questions than The New Yorker does. Graeber doesn’t view technology as a positive, or merely benign element.

Like Kolbert wondering where all the leisure promised by Keynes went, Graeber considers the failed promise of flying cars and all manner of supposed technological innovations, like what became of “force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now?” Like Keynes promised leisure, they’re nowhere to be found.

There’s a reason for this, which Kolbert doesn’t even come close to approaching. Graeber, however, hit the nail on the head, in my opinion.  He posits that rather than technology unleashing a creative torrent that would lead to bigger and better things, and a utopian existence, we’ve instead become a nation of bureaucrats.

Graeber makes an interesting point in that the “final victory over the Soviet Union did not lead to the domination of the market, but, in fact, cemented the dominance of conservative managerial elites, corporate bureaucrats who use the pretext of short-term, competitive, bottom-line thinking to squelch anything likely to have revolutionary implications of any kind.” One of neoliberalism’s myriad failures.

According to Graeber that’s why we don’t have the leisure predicted by Keynes, or flying cars, for that matter.

3 thoughts on “Too Busy to Think

  1. Honestly, I got to the third or fourth paragraph of The New Yorker article and couldn’t read much further. Yes, Keynesian economics HAS produced much leisure time for many, in the form of unemployment. For those still holding on to a job or trying to free-lance an income together, there is no leisure time. I call this demographic myopia to living in a world of limits. Until we can power technology on air or water, there will continue to be limits. Perhaps this myopic group will shrink at this point, but then The New Yorker will be out of business and we’ll have nothing to talk about.

    • I read Kolbert’s entire article–I really wanted to know why the promise of leisure detailed by Keynes hasn’t materialized. She offered nothing to further my understanding.

      Graeber, in his piece in The Baffler, clearly explains why we don’t have flying cars, and all manner of other “George Jetson-type” cartoon innovations that we saw while growing up.

      Chris Hedges book, The Death Of The Liberal Class, explains why The New Yorker and other similar, liberal publications, miss the forest for the trees.

      It appears that the education industrial complex, especially its “higher order” institutions like Yale and others, will continue to turn out graduates that see the world one way, and are blinded to any other possibilitiy, even the train called “collapse” barreling down the track.

      I don’t have anything else to add to this.

  2. Technology and a beautiful future?

    Well, let me state this. Every single technological tool that I saw debuted in Iraq, used to hunt individual combatants or suppress mass populations, is now in use in the USA.

    Every single one.

    It’s a race between total collapse or total subjection. Place your bets. Either way, our chlidren and grandchldren, if we get that far, will be working a lot harder than Keynes ever imagined.

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