Big, airy, soft gray. Rectangular blue coffee table with the glossy finish that always reminds me of pudding, like its surface is coated with smooth blue pudding. Green couch, a little ratty with wear. Big plants on the floor, smaller plants on the bookshelves. Disheveled shelves, poorly organized, under the stained-glass windows. One of each—a window, a bookshelf—on either side of the fireplace. Utterly derelict fireplace, cobwebs in the wire netting, why have we never cleaned the fireplace? Impressive mantel, though. Broad and white and shelfy, like a glacier. Like the edge of an ancient glacier inching its way into the living room. The mantel clutter-free except for that urn Robert gave us as a wedding gift, tucked back there on the right-hand side. Brown speckled urn, little Grecian handles, to someday store our ashes, joked Ed when we opened the box. Which was kind of a sweet thing to say, if you think about it.
“We’re in the living room?” asks Keynes.
We’re in the living room.
“So start your speech!”
Thanks for inviting me, it’s a pleasure to be here, and:
In 1930, with the whole world on the verge of the economic disaster that here in the U.S. we called the Great Depression but which in England they called the Great Slump, a name I’ve always thought had a playful ring to it—slump—though obviously nothing about that situation was playful and my god I am rambling already.
In 1930, with the whole world on the verge of the Great Depression, which in England they called the Great Slump, the British economist John Maynard Keynes, by that time already well known, though not as spectacularly famous as he would eventually become, penned a short article titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which he made certain specific predictions about future economic growth. He predicted there would be a lot of it. Keynes had no children of his own, let alone any grandchildren, but his message was really to all the fear-stricken people of England on the cusp of their Great Slump, and his message was: You don’t need to worry so much.
Of course, when an economist tells you not to worry, you might worry all the more. An economist’s “don’t worry” usually means something bloodlessly calculated, like “worrying will increase the inclination to hoard currency and decrease spending on consumer goods.” Keynes worried about those things, too. But he was before all else a humanist, an old-school liberal pragmatist, who believed in the importance of a stable monetary policy for improving the standard of living, but who condemned the love of money for its own sake as a somewhat disgusting morbidity. When he proposed that people not worry, it wasn’t to paper over the inequities of a system by which the rich come to control an ever-increasing percentage of the aggregate wealth while the poor are systematically disenfranchised. He was saying that he really didn’t think worrying was the right thing to do.
And people were very worried, then. In that sense, it was not so different from today. The reasons for worry may have been a little different: there was vast economic inequality and rampant nationalism, but no global environmental crisis, at least not that anyone was paying attention to. But the amount of worry was about the same, and the various types of worry as well. There was the pessimism of the revolutionaries, as Keynes called it, the worry of those who thought the world so doomed that the only hope was to turn everything upside down. Then there was the pessimism of the reactionaries, those who thought the world so doomed that any sort of change at all would send civilization reeling into the abyss. Keynes’s reply to both was that actually, in the larger scheme of things, if you stepped back a little and looked at history, at where we’ve come from and how greatly things have changed, not just in the previous couple of years but over the previous centuries, at the incredible things humans are capable of and the incredible things we have actually done, then you would see a world on track to great prosperity. Think how exponentially the standard of living had improved for the average person over just a few hundred years. And weren’t the next hundred years likely to see even greater improvements?
And so in this article, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” written on the cusp of the worst economic slump of modern times, Keynes predicts that over the following century, owing to advances in technology and accumulated capital, the problems of poverty and hunger, which he calls the economic problem, by which he means the struggle of humans to survive, to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves—all these sorts of problems, he says, will be permanently solved. Everyone will have more than they need, and will no longer have to work so much, at which point we will all come to realize that the economic problem, which humans have always assumed was our number one problem—the reason we spend large chunks of our lives at jobs we often dislike or even despise—we’ll see that this problem is not our ultimate problem at all. No longer struggling merely to get by, finding ourselves instead with time on our hands, we will at long last recognize humanity’s true dilemma, its permanent problem, which is—
Ali turns—wakes? No, snugs into the covers. Was I mumbling? I often do and don’t realize, catch myself while walking down the street. But I think I’d notice my mumbling in a room as quiet as this. In the dark stillness of a room I can’t see but know is still out there, all around me, the carpeting I don’t want to set anything down on and the shellacked furniture much uglier than ours. If I can hear Ed breathing, certainly I would hear my own mumbling. And Ali’s breathing, little soft puffs. What time is it, anyway? Don’t check, you’ll wake her.
Light sleeper like her mom. Late. Early. The least you can give her is sleep. The very least a mother can do. Someday, daughter, all this insomnia will be yours (imaginary wide-sweeping arm gesture). Until then, I will do everything in my power to guard your quiet. I will lie still as a mummy. A mommy mummy. British people call their mothers mummy. Keynes. Ali. Ed. I will keep my busy thoughts trapped in the dungeon of my overactive imagination, where no one else will be made to suffer them.
“No one but us!” Keynes quips.
Where was I?
“The living room. Coffee table, bookshelves, urn. You had described what I meant by the economic problem and had me declaring that humanity’s true dilemma, its permanent problem, is—”
What to do with all our free time.
“And we are back.”