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What Jack Ma and John Maynard Keynes Get Wrong about Human Progress

September 1, 2019 in Economics

By Ryan Bourne

Ryan Bourne

British economist John Maynard Keynes once said that “[p}ractical men who believe themselves quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” It’s unclear whether Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma is a Keynes discipline, or considers himself immune to economists’ musings. But in forecasting that technology and automation might deliver a 12-hour working week, Ma certainly echoes Keynesian thinking about economic progress.

Sharing a stage with U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk in Shanghai, Alibaba founder Ma this week predicted that artificial intelligence and automation will deliver unheard of gains to productivity. Offering an upbeat story of its effects, he suggested that producing more with fewer workers will reduce the desirable working time to just “three days a week, four hours a day.” Instead, we will be able to spend extra time enjoying “being human beings” and going to “karaoke in the evening.”

In a 1930 essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” Keynes made a similar prediction. Within a century, he believed we’d be four to eight times as rich. Such would be the technological advances in production driving more output with less labor input, our economic needs could be fulfilled by just working “three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week.” Even working that long would be reflective of our natural human desire to stay occupied, rather than out of necessity. Keynes even mused that people would have more time to sing too!

As we contemplate the long hours we’ll spend at our desks this next week, it’s easy, in retrospect, to dismiss Keynes’ musing as a flight of fancy. But in fact, a lot of what he wrote was prescient. What he got wrong should make us think skeptically about Ma’s musings of what it means to be human.

Keynes’ forecast of our prosperity boom was unnervingly accurate. With a decade to go, the U.S. is already six times as rich in real GDP per capita terms as on the eve of 1930.

Improvements in the technology of domestic appliances has meant that traditional “household work” — the basics of laundry, cooking, and cleaning — have fallen time-wise from being a near full-time occupation (38 hours) in 1930 to just 15 hours in 2015. If Keynes’ prediction had been about chores, he hit the bullseye.

What he got wrong was what technology and innovation would mean for paid working hours. Yes, full-time production …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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