Krugman reminds us of Keynes

But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.

Virtually all of my students misunderstand and misquote Keynes to be saying that

In the long run we will all be dead

But, this misses the point. It suggests that “by the time the long run gets here we will all be dead anyway. So why worry” The natural response is that our decedents won’t be dead, humanity won’t be dead, etc. The conclusion is that Keynes was selfish and shortsighted.

Yet, what is meant is that in long run we ARE all dead. Or, as I tell my students: This story only has one ending. If you’re worried about whether things will work out in the end – don’t. They won’t work out in the end. In the end everyone is dead.

In the end, everyone we’ve ever known and cared about has died. In the end, the earth has grown cold and everything that humanity has built either withered away or froze in the blackness of space. That’s what the end is like.

So it can’t be about the end. It has to be about the experiences that people will have before the end comes. And, those experiences are currently miserable. That matters and it matters as much as anything because there is no cosmic final act in which all wrongs will be righted and all sacrifices rewarded.

So if you want to argue that current misery is warranted then the argument must be that future misery will be alleviated. In which case we need to talk about what that misery is. Is it greater or lesser than the current misery? Will it occur with probability one? Will we have additional methods for alleviating pain at that time, etc? This is the argument I have not seen elucidated by the Austerity Now crowd.

In general, however, the notion that wisdom always requires sacrificing the short term for the long term and that what matters it was happens in the “end” is naive in its understanding of our ultimate fate.