Economics, “the study of how people allocate scarce resources for production, distribution, and consumption, both individually and collectively,” has been described as dry, boring and even dismal. Martin Riker describes one sleepless night for a young economics professor, scheduled to deliver a guest lecture the following day. Mimicking patterns of insomnia, The Guest Lecture describes a mother's angst over partisan politics, climate change, personal identity crises and “how my daughter’s generation will never know the sense of well-being my own took for granted, the limitless security we felt but never realized we were feeling.” Abigail lays awake in her hotel bed, imagining a conversation with the subject of her talk, John Maynard Keynes, and his essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.”
Published a year after the start of the Great Depression, in 1930, the essay imagined a better world for children over the next century. Optimistic and pragmatic, Keynes urged understanding the difference between wants and needs as well as absolute needs and relative needs. Prioritizing needs would allow more free time for education, art and other endeavors. “Leisure” may sound “like another word for doom, for failure” and yet “the belief that not working is something everyone should want,” Abigail muses. “Scarcity would be eradicated, rich countries would share with poorer countries, and before you knew it, everyone would be fed, housed, clothed… The whole world would be finished with ‘just a job.’” People would judge their lives, “not in dollars and possessions, but in how our time is spent.” Keynes critiques Abigail’s speech and life, urging conciseness: “You were born into an era of overload. Leaving things out is the great unmastered art form of your age.”
Keynes had flaws, as conceded by Abigail, including anti-Semitism. But a key failing of his essay might be his failure to recognize our shortcomings – the distractions of television and the internet, the reckless consumerism and endless growth that contribute to environmental degradation, income inequality, erosion of democracy, widespread failure to achieve contentment and a culture that “churns out citizens full of antagonism toward itself.” She mourns how “the imagination, wellspring of optimism and possibility has turned on itself, and now spends all its time obsessing and making everything worse.” She blames politics for the despair, noting that while the world always had challenges, the US quickly transformed from optimism and hope under Obama to pessimism and anger under Trump. She regards ideology as a set of assumptions that sooth fears. “Ideology isn’t a bad thing… but failure to recognize ideology for what it is, to bear in mind that society and culture are things we made up and can remake and improve, keeps us from changing those aspects of our lives that could be better…. Like the story that we’re all going to get our acts together on climate change before it’s too late. That is one I personally need in order to get through the day…”
Other people determine our success. After failing to secure tenure, Abigail questions every aspect of her identity and inability to reveal her essential self: “That for too long you’d held in your head many self-romanticizing notions about your position as an outsider, notions that allowed you to feel sure of yourself and important to yourself as long as you were never forced to share them – the notions – with anyone else? That as long as you didn’t share this side of yourself with anyone else, it was all unadulterated potential, never forced to perform, never exposed to judgment.” The realization comes on the heels of hearing a radio show that posed the question “How many Black friends do you have?” Abigail decides that she has no friends at all. She feels alienated, incapable of starting conversations even when dropping her child off at kindergarten: “The other parents all lined up talking like they already knew each other, like maybe there’d been an orientation or parent party I’d missed.”
Mistakes made while young, ones that should not have mattered then or years later, haunt her nights. She cringes over her interactions with others: “you are uniquely ill-equipped to convey to the world what you care about or what you want to say. You know these things in your mind, or think you know them, and you are capable of saying these things or writing them, but the moment you do, you immediately doubt them. You are capable of being many selves but the moment you commit to one, it becomes an imposter, a dummy to dress up and roll out into the world in your place." She hates the dummy and wonders how other people learned to be so “public.” She frets about the fear of “not having lived,” which is really “a terrible series of tortures with no redeeming value.” She hides because the “person who puts herself out there is always the accused” and prefers instead “to live in a juvenile state of perpetual expectation.”
So Abigail is left alone with her imagination, “the place where you ought to feel most safe and free, that you are in fact most weighed down by doubt and fear.” She tries to tame her racing thoughts. Sometimes “ideas spill out and for the most part make sense. A single thought doesn’t stick in the same spot but moves on to make room for a new on.”
Abigail envies the Bloomsbury group, Keynes’ talented circle of friends including Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and T.S. Eliot. “So many amazing people and the different ways they’ve contributed to humanity and all along all I’ve wanted was to be one of them.” Still, Abigail is grateful for her husband and child. “Having a child doesn’t make you better than other people, but it did make me better than myself,” she notes. “Being absorbed with someone other than yourself must be better than being absorbed with only yourself.” And those experiences can provide training for meeting and understanding others: Step back, learn about yourself by assessing how others speak to you. “From this you can tell not who they are, but who they think you are.” We must remember the same when addressing others. Enjoy the process and do not count on success: “whether or not the world wants what you are good at doing at precisely the moment when you are offering it is anybody’s guess…. If you’re going to bet on yourself, bet irrelevance.”
The book ends like a dream, vague, unsubstantial, not entirely satisfying, much like society’s general discontent. We fail to wrestle control over our economic system, with inadequate demands and failure of imagination. “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” concludes that the world, each life in it, could be very different – by confronting new ideas with a good attitude, extracting bad habits and refusing to live by rote while applying imagination to envision potential. We are but guests in this world who might do better by imagining conversations with children of the next century.