Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Culture of Contentment by John Kenneth Galbraith

Galbraith is a theorist. I mean that in a bad way. He analyzes economic, political, and even cultural trends from a purely economic viewpoint.

His thesis is that the country is run for the benefit of a powerful elite, who benefit from things like low taxes and high interest rates (used to keep down inflation instead of Galbraith's favorite higher taxes). They are able to so run things because they have enlisted the middle class, who also benefit from these and from government programs designed to prop up the economic well-being of the middle class.

He is worried that this is shortsighted, considers it hypocritical that it doesn't work harder for the poor, and is not hopeful that it is robust against the inevitable (he claims self-inflicted) crises.

Reasonable evidence can be marshaled for these points.

Unfortunately he overreaches. He, trying to make the point that the military industrial complex is self-perpetuating, feels compelled to denigrate any risks to the world from communism, going so far as to claim that you couldn't have communism without capitalism first (claiming Marx as his authority). Either this very highly educated man never heard of Mao or he is being disingenuous. I suspect the latter, but other glaring (though less vital) errors make me wonder.

In a section devoted to proving that only government is "disrespected" he claims that the term "bureaucrat" is only used of government functionaries, not corporate or military ones. This could only be said by someone with little experience of either. True, some of the complaints about the military I've heard have used phrases of more Anglo-Saxon origin than "bureaucrat."

He assumes that only economic motives lead someone to join the army, and introduces as evidence Harvard with no students at all joining the First Gulf Campaign. The notion that there might be cultural reasons does not seem to cross his mind. (Harvard was just as rich and elite a hundred years ago, when they did provide officers to the armed forces.)

His approach to the middle class is excessively snide. It seems not to have occurred to him that an economic system that prospers 80% of the population is an unprecedented achievement, and not something to be dismantled without care.

If he'd spent a little more time with the people he purports to be concerned about, he might have written something less theoretical, more humble, and more useful. Skip it.

True, I sometimes indulge myself in analysis where I follow some particular theme to see where it leads, without trying to introduce too much complexity. I don't generally suggest policy on that basis, though. I was perhaps a little uncharitable to Galbraith, but after having read a far more insightful book I wasn't in the mood for overly simplistic models of the world. Looking back on yesterday's post: I still don't recommend his book.

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