How Much is Enough?

This is an excerpt from my presentation at the European Economic Summit, Amsterdam September 7-9, 2016.

How much is enough? This is a very easy question to ask but difficult to answer, but the answer, when found, will lead to the ability to realise the most important things in our lives.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus stated, “nothing is enough, for the man to whom enough is too little.” Contrast that with the well-known answer to our question from J.D. Rockefeller, which although stated over a hundred years ago seems to have characterized our capitalist system recently. When asked ‘how much is enough’ he stated ‘just a little bit more!’

In 2012 father and son Sidelsky write a much discussed book with the title, ‘How Much is Enough’ which was inspired by the 1930 essay by Keynes entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” in which he describes a moral economy, wherein we can ask ourselves the question, ‘How much is enough, what do we need money for?’  Keynes proposed the answer – “enough for living a good life.”  Keynes maintained that by 2030, developed societies will be wealthy enough that leisure time, rather than work, will characterize national lifestyles. He uses a realistic estimate for growth — 2 percent per year — and pointed out that with that growth the “capital equipment” in the world would increase seven and a half times. With a world as wealthy as this, he said, “We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day [sic], only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines.”

The Wall Street crash was still a year away when in 1928 John Maynard Keynes spoke to an audience of Cambridge undergraduates. The great economist told the students that by the time they were old men the big economic problems of the day would be solved. The capitalist system was capable of delivering such a sustained and steady increase in output that workers would eventually have all the material goods they could possibly want. They would need to toil for only 15 hours a week and could then spend the rest of the time enjoying themselves. I heard this again in the seventies, that with the development of technology, our work would become so efficient that we would enjoy a sea of spare time in which to enjoy our lives and that the 15-hour week would become reality.

The Sidelsky’s described 7 aspects of what Keynes called the good life:  Health, security, respect, personality, free time, friendship and harmony. Interestingly, they did not include good work, which is essential for human creativity, productivity and dignity. However, if our question of enough is not answered, then Epicurus’ advice is also valid for work. If the question of enough is not answered, then no amount of work is enough and this seems to have negated Keyne’s prediction that we will have less need to work.

Can we combine our human need for productive work with our longing for the ‘good life’? I believe that answering our question is the key to this. A good friend of mine is Dave Rae, who had a successful career with Apple, first as president of Apple Canada and then vp for the Pacific region. He found a good balance between the goodness of work and the goodness of free time. His policy was never to work more than 45 hours a week. He maintained throughout his career, that if you cannot get the job done well in that time, you are either doing the wrong things or doing them in the wrong way.

His free time, he devoted to helping students and others, while bringing up a very balanced family with a happy marriage and three children, and being very generous with his money.

The problem in not being able to answer our question was tackled by Prof.Dr. Thomas Sedlacek, in his book the economics of good and evil,

“The more we have, the more we want. Why? Perhaps we thought (and this sounds truly intuitive) that the more we have, the less we will need. We thought that consumption leads to saturation of our needs. But the opposite has proven to be true. The more we have, the more additional things we need. Every new satisfied want will beget a new one and will leave us wanting.  For consumption is like a drug.”

If the question of enough is not answered, we will always be left wanting, according to Sedlacek, becoming victims to ‘affluenza’, the sickness of our times, for which the cure is the answer to our question.

Anselm Grün is a Franciscan monk, and director of very large group of enterprises, employing over 600 people in southern Germany. He leads these enterprises according to Franciscan rules.

In his recent book “Of Greed and Desire” he says that the attitude of never having enough leads to a very unrestful behaviour, ‘a nomadic existence’ and continual dissatisfaction. “When we desire possessions, we are looking for rest which we never find because we ultimately discover that the possessions are possessing us and lead us into more needs.”

The pulling power of our desire for more is very strong – that very thing which we think will give us freedom ultimately leads us into captivity. This thought was captured succinctly by E.F. Schmacher in his seminal book “Small is Beautiful.”  He states, “The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. Every increase of needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear. Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war.”

Listening to Sedlacek, Grün and Schumacher, we can conclude that the answer lies in our ability to limit our needs and desires, to develop a sober lifestyle of sufficiency in which we can be content and thankful for all that God has given us to enjoy.  If we do not pursue such a path, then we become subject to inward desires and outside forces which control us, resulting in loss of freedom.

Stuffocation’  s a new word which we could easily add to our dictionary. The trend watcher James Wallmann coined the term to describe the feeling that too many things, too much stuff is suffocating our way of life.

Thanks to mass production and global markets, we have access to a huge amount of relatively cheap products which we readily buy … and then store! The explosion of self-storage facilities over the past 10 years testify to the fact that we have too much stuff and too little space to keep it. Not only too little physical space but also too little emotional space. The excess of things is beginning to show us that more is, in fact, less.

I was very surprised to read some comments from Steve Howard, Head of Sustainability at IKEA, a company which survives very nicely by offering us such a wide range of things we never knew we needed, who said “we have reached a limit on how much we can consume!  We will be increasingly building a circular Ikea where you can repair and recycle products.”  In economic terms, Howard says, ““If we look on a global basis, in the west we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff … peak home furnishings… ”

We have reached a clutter crisis. The more we have the more stress this brings. It all has to be managed, used, repaired, stored, maintained – and this is not bringing the satisfaction we expected!

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1911 in “The Dawn of Day” that, with the absence of God growing in Western culture, we would replace God with money.

“What induces one man to use false weights, another to set his house on fire after having insured it for more than its value, while three-fourths of our upper classes indulge in legalized fraud . . . what gives rise to all this?

It is not real want — for their existence is by no means precarious . . . but they are urged on day and night by a terrible impatience at seeing their wealth pile up so slowly, and by an equally terrible longing and love for these heaps of gold. . . .

What once was done “for the love of God” is now done for the love of money, i.e., for the love of that which at present affords us the highest feeling of power and a good conscience.”

The new god of the world is money … or rather the power behind money, which Jesus unmasked and named as mammon. It is this dynamic force which powers our inward desires for more than enough and prevents us from finding rest, peace and contentment.  Jesus, when unmasking this power behind money, desires to set us free. Free from want and bondage and free to live a good life, having sufficient at all times and free to share liberally from our surplus.

So what is the goal of wealth acumulaton, which will arise from productive work, as Keynes described? Listening to Andrew Carnegie in the article “The goal of wealth” he sets out the duty of the man of wealth.

“First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer (North American review, 148, nr. 391 June 1889.)

Wealth creation is not merely the accumulation of money, but should be seen in the ability to lead a good life. The goal of our work should be to build an asset based economy in which the assets are managed for people to enjoy the God-given life. The focus should not be on money but on all the different types of assets needed for the good life. Examples are: physical assets to enjoy good health; emotional assets to enjoy inner strength hand peace; time assets with which to enjoy meaningful relationships; spiritual assets to enjoy Gods activity.

Financial assets are important, in a balanced relationship to the other forms of assets, with which we can be generous and achieve long term, life goals.

For the follower of Jesus, this means developing an eternal perspective on wealth creation. The ‘good life’ in which we find contentment and happiness is to be found in the ability to give, as he stated, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:32)

He founded the ‘sharing economy’ which characterized the early church.

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”  (Acts 4:32-24)

Peter J. Briscoe

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