From its polite opening line, “wealth is not without its advantages…”, John Kenneth Galbraith’s best-selling attack on some of America’s most cherished economic myths survives as the apotheosis of the impressive reaffirmation of classical liberalism by a public intellectual. : provocative, humane and entertaining, a book that shaped the American mind from the 1950s and 1960s until the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In addition to tackling economic dogmas, Galbraith also coined some surprising and influential concepts of his own. “Conventional Wisdom,” the title of the first chapter of it, for example, has now passed into language. At first this book purported to be a study of poverty entitled Why the Poor Are Poor, until Galbraith’s wife suggested that the most optimistic society would be the rich. certainly some of the entertaining iconoclasm of it stems from that first draft. In the end, however, he expressed a marriage of British theory, especially Keynesianism, with American industrial experience, which made him a mid-Atlantic bestseller for the postwar world.
before getting to its core message, the first half of affluent society is devoted to demonstrating how classical economic theory, from adam smith to malthus to david ricardo, casts a bleak view of human prospects, casting an air of pessimism about the socioeconomic situation. study of the human condition. this galbraith strives to dispel. he is a witty and engaging optimist for whom gdp is “the accepted measure not only of economic achievement but also of broader social achievement.”
The idea that the production of goods and services should be the measure of civilized success is clearly influenced by his time, but he also challenged the idea that increased material production is the only indicator of economic well-being. Through his book, Galbraith, a Canadian who became an important figure in American life, especially as President John F Kennedy’s favorite confidante, began to emerge as an unofficial spokesman for a more progressive American materialism during the 1960s. an era in which capitalism and the cold war were inextricably intertwined. As a disciple of Keynes, he argued that the United States should aggressively invest in roads, schools, and hospitals.
Galbraith, the inveterate popularizer, is always quotable: “The study of money, above all other fields of economics,” he once wrote, “is one in which complexity is used to disguise the truth or to evade the truth, not to reveal it. the process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repulsed. with something this important, a deeper mystery seems only decent.”
In this spirit, the second half of the affluent society attacks some deep-seated economic myths. What is the point of productivity if many of the goods we produce are simply artificial necessities promoted by the advertising media of mass society? “As a society becomes increasingly prosperous,” Galbraith writes, “desires are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied.” In addition to this dependency effect, why ignore waste and extravagance in the private sector while at the same time talking about “wasted” public spending on public works?
Galbraith is not just an eloquent contrarian cheerleader for a superior brand of American consumerism. he is also, rather presciently, willing to deliver a cautionary note on inflation. but in the end, he despises a society in which “the dull lead the dull.” His main project is to break “the slavery of a myth: that the production of goods is the central problem of our lives.”
to emphasize this, galbraith is downright provocative. “In the world of lesser madness, the behavior of both the totally rational and the totally insane seems equally strange. The notion that ours is a world where production is paramount is an old one. so is the corresponding behavior. the discovery that production is no longer so urgent implies a great tear in our attitudes. what was once sound economic performance cannot be sound economic performance now.”
A consequence of this analysis is, for Galbraith, “the central economic objective of our society: to eliminate hard work as a necessary economic institution. this,” he continues, “is not a utopian vision. We are already well on our way.” once, she says, there was always “a leisure class.” this has been replaced by a new class, in other words, by the kind of people who could read a book like affluent society: bureaucrats, engineers, doctors, teachers, designers, academics, journalists, and advertising executives. for this new class, the economic theories shaped by the harsh conditions of mass poverty have no relevance, since they are not adapted to the realities of a much wealthier era.
With hindsight, much of Galbraith reads like a lengthy footnote to the great American assertion that the true goal of a free society should be “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “. In 1979, almost a generation after he first completed this essay on economic optimism, Galbraith expressed some doubt: “Let’s put the elimination of poverty on the social and political agenda. and let us protect our wealth from those who, in the name of defending it, would leave the planet alone with its ashes. The affluent society is not without its flaws. but it is well worth saving from its own adverse or destructive tendencies.”
late in his life, speaking on American television, he articulated a fundamental liberal pragmatism: “where the market works, I’m for that. where the government is necessary, I am for that. I am deeply suspicious of someone who says: “I am in favor of privatization” or “I am deeply in favor of public ownership”. I’m all for what works in the particular case.”
a catchphrase“wealth is not without its advantages and the converse, though often made, has never proved very persuasive.”
three to comparejk galbraith: the great crack 1929 (1955)jk galbraith: the new industrial state (1967)vance packard: the hidden persuaders (1957)
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