British economist John Maynard Keynes famously wrote in 1923, in a tract on monetary policy, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”
Economists have debated the significance of this wry theoretical phrase. Some have critiqued him, along with other economists who sought to moderate the austerity policies of governments during times of intense economic retraction, as not caring about the future or future generations. They accuse Keynes of being willing for short term benefit to enact policies that would damage the economy in the longer term, leaving ruinously burdensome debt, for example, that would debilitate the future economy for following generations. One critic even went so far as to suggest that because Keynes was gay and didn’t have children, he simply didn’t care about the future and could afford to adopt a recklessly short-termist approach to the economy.
Putting aside the fact that it’s laughable for capitalist economists to accuse anyone else of dangerously short-term thinking, as I’ll discuss below, I take Keynes to mean by this historically lightning-rod statement that, simply put, an economy is successful only if it serves the needs of those living within it.
In other words, we might understand his position as propounding that people don’t exist for the economy but rather the economy exists for people. If now and then, as has been an historical inevitability with capitalism, the economy experiences a sharp downturn, a whole generation can actually be sacrificed, subject to a life of austerity, waiting for the indifferent market to correct and revitalize. Keynes didn’t cotton to such thinking.
What is the point of sustaining an economic system that doesn’t meet people’s needs but offers, indeed ensures, them suffering?
Keynes’ enduring quotation has been in my mind lately because Trump has stubbornly persisted in his strategy of imposing tariffs on China, despite the damage his actions have inflicted on American lives, insisting in the long term this trade war will reap benefits for the American economy.
The short term negative impacts on the lives of those living in the United States has been devastating. Farmers’ incomes are the lowest in generations, and bankruptcies among farmers are hitting record highs. In economic terms, they are dying.
And, frankly, for the soybean farmers dying in the short term, even if they survive for the long term—a survival that is severely in doubt—the long term promises no relief. Indeed, what these farmers anxiously presage is that the relationships they have carefully cultivated in Chinese markets are permanently ruined beyond repair.
But it’s not only in this area of the economy that we see Trump inflicting death in the short term such that the long term does not even matter. Trump’s version of Keynes’ precept might aptly be written thusly: “In the short term, I’m doing all I can to kill you so you don’t have to worry about the long term.” Not pithy, I know, but I think it captures Trump’s character and practice.
Take one of his recent actions with regard to environmental policy. Last February Trump signed a resolution to repeal an Obama-era regulation known as the “stream protection rule,” which mandated strict guidelines for coal mines dumping their waste to ensure that in fact they were not polluting water sources and poisoning streams. Study after study highlights the deleterious and even deadly impact on people’s health coal companies’ dumping practices had caused in destroying 2,000 miles of streams.
Nonetheless, even in the wake of former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s authoritarian policies that led to the poisoning of Flint’s water supplies, Trump and the Republicans had no problem reversing policy put in place to protect and preserve human life in a most basic way, by ensuring clean and safe water. They had no problem creating conditions that threaten and undermine human life to serve coal companies and, supposedly, to save jobs and help the economy. Again, in the short term, people will die or have their health severely compromised before the long term arrives, and the very conditions that make human life possible are allowed to be severely compromised.
Of course, Trump’s own government scientists issued a report on climate change last November, focusing on both its environmental and economic impacts, highlighting the need for urgent short-term action to ensure our long-term survival. Among many alarm bells sounded, the report warns,
“Extreme weather and climate-related impacts on one system can result in increased risks or failures in other critical systems, including water resources, food production and distribution, energy and transportation, public health, international trade, and national security.”
It attributes the many floods and wildfires in recent years, increasing in frequency and intensity, on humanly-caused climate change, underscoring the urgency of action and the limited window of time we have in which to enact policy and change behavior to preserve the very basis of our lives.
Just as with the tariffs and the China trade war, in which there is “no rush,” on this economic issue of climate change and of the environment overall, there is no short-term urgency.
And yet, in many ways, what need now are short-term actions to keep alive our long-term prospects.
A recent study concluded that raising the minimum wage could decrease suicide rates by ten percent, saving 1,230 lives annually.
This is one example of how in the short term, we are all dead; and an example of how short-term thinking and action are necessary.
Maybe–no, absolutely– it’s not in the end an issue of short or long term but a matter of respecting and working to create and implement policies that support life.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.