Sunday, February 2, 2014

Karl Widerquist and the Middle Ages

Last Sunday I posted an excerpt from the 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren by John Maynard Keynes. Now I want to look at some thoughts on that essay, from a paper by Karl Widerquist.

The paper is Widerquist's The Economic Possibilities of Our Grandparents: An Introduction to Keynes’s “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”. The paper is available online and as a PDF for download, from

I'll be quoting from a slightly different version, a DOC file that turned up in this Google search:

The DOC file, from 2003, is identified as "Work in progress, do not cite or quote without author’s permission". So I wrote Widerquist for permission.

He got back to me the same day -- Sunday -- which was neat. A lot of times you don't get a response from somebody until the workweek resumes. Me, I'm hovering over the desktop every spare minute. When Karl Widerquist got back to me on Sunday, it struck me that he's doing something he wants to do. It's not just a job for him. Nice to see.

Karl wrote:
Yes you can quote me, but you should know that that article was eventually published in Dissent Magazine... That version might be better worded. The citation info for the published version is:

Karl Widerquist “Re-Reading Keynes: Economic Possibilities of Our Grandparents” Dissent, Winter 2006

If you prefer the wording of the original version and would rather cite that, OK, but if you do, please tell your readers something, "this is an early version of the paper later published as..."

Okay, so you know, I'm quoting from an early version of the paper later published as "Re-Reading Keynes: Economic Possibilities of Our Grandparents" in the Winter 2006 issue of Dissent.

Here's the text that struck me, that I wanted to put on the blog:

The trend of the diminishing workweek, that was well underway in Keynes’s day, came to an abrupt end in the industrialized nations about 30 years ago, and in the United States, the trend went nearly as rapidly into reverse, despite a continued healthy growth in national output. Most Americans work longer hours now than peasants did in the Middle Ages, and the working class does not seem to be on the verge of being freed from the struggle for subsistence.

Most Americans work longer hours now than peasants did in the Middle Ages. Holy crap. I never thought about that. Little facts like that fascinate me. Adam Smith wrote of the value of silver in Roman times, and his time, and in the time between. Someday I'm going to gather up a few of these little facts and use them to describe the cycle of civilization. Someday.

Written around 2003, Widerquist's phrase "about 30 years ago" refers to a time around the year 1973. My first reaction to that was: Yup. The early-1970s end of the golden age, not Reagan and the 1980s.

My second reaction was to try to confirm the date by throwing a graph together at FRED to look at hours-per-workweek since the late 1940s:

Graph #1: A Crude Look at Hours per Work Week
The blue line stops in 1970. I didn't find a comparable measure ("average hours of work per week, total") for the later years. So I patched-in weekly manufacturing hours, to have something to look at.

In the years where red and blue both appear, the manufacturing (red) hours are mostly contained within the wide blue band of average hours, total. So I figure the red line is a fairly good proxy for the data I was looking for.

I picture the red line in the 1970s as a good fit to where the wide blue band would have been if it continued out to 1980. And then, just after the 1982 recession, hours-per-week shoots up and starts to climb.

Reagan and the 1980s. Not the early-1970s end of the golden age.

So I don't know. I'm sure there are better numbers to look at.

My third reaction: D'oh! Use the internet!

In a Joe Weisenthal post that coincidentally confirms my low opinion of his work, Weisenthal leads me to this FRED graph:

Graph #2: Average Hours Worked per Year (US)
Downtrend stops with the 1982 recession and the line runs flat for twenty years. Reagan-and-the-'80s, again.

But if you look, the downtrend shows a definite flattening after the 1974 recession. End-of-the-golden-age, again.

So, who can say.

1 comment:

Jazzbumpa said...


I've noticed a lot of things changing in that general time frame - some as early as 73, some well into the 80's.

I don't think you will be able to pin down a specific date. The economy is big and complex, and the various aspects of it changed over a period of time, and so different metrics have different inflection points.