From LA to Oxford to John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society”

Oxford! After a few months away from the place over the summer, which I spent in Berlin, Omaha, and Los Angeles, I’m back in the city that I temporarily call home. Californian jet lag is seeking to drag me into bed with its reach across nine time zones, and the arrival of a new class of Rhodes Scholars portends new faces and names to memorize, which makes the arrival a bit exhausting at times.

However, there are few other places I’ve lived where I’m within reach of so many good libraries, and where it’s simultaneously possible to hang out with such a cosmopolitan cast of characters. This evening, for example, after about an hour of fruitless efforts to retrieve my luggage from illicitly-used college housing, I had the chance to meet for dinner with the freshly-arrived Nauman Asghar, a Pakistani Rhodes Scholar who’s a lawyer and journalist from Lahore. Being able to talk with someone like him, who brings not only a technical legal training to the table but also a background of writing on international politics, about how the courts and judicial system function in “a hard country” like Pakistan is a rare opportunity to deepen an education forged mostly in seminar rooms and libraries with personal stories and local expertise from international students whom I would never have met otherwise.

Your correspondent's underprivileged life continues at this place ...

For this post, however, and probably for several future posts, it’s going to be a bit of Back to the Future. As I have mentioned in previous posts, a good friend of mine, John Raimo, operates a blog called Tandem Reading. In it, he and other friends – mostly members of a circle of friends from Princeton – get together on occasion to discuss and write about good books that we read in tandem (hence the name) and then write short blog posts about. Since graduating, we both found that in spite of the institutional strengths of places like Middlebury, Göttingen, the Humboldt University in Berlin, and Oxford, it was difficult at any of these places to recreate the atmosphere that we remembered fondly from Princeton.Then, at Princeton, it seemed possible, over the brunch table at the Terrace eating club, to find intellectual companionship and community with people who, even though they might have been majoring in different subjects from you, were still able to engage over, say, an op-ed in The New York Times or, more ambitiously, a book like Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism or C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination. Many friends simply moved on, of course, whether to auto journalism or teaching at public schools in New York City to working at Google to attending some of the country’s best MFA programs: such are the fates of young American meritocrats today.

But perhaps more troublingly, those of us who stayed within universities – in the sense of going to graduate school regardless of academic discipline – found that something was often missing from the kind of discussions we had. Sure, many classroom directions went in the direction of greater technical specialization; instead of talking about how much you loved Arendt, you’d try to situate her model of totalitarianism among those presented by, say, Franz Neumann, Merle Fainsod, or Sheila Fitzpatrick. These kinds of discussions were essential to a deepening of scholarship and providing context for more specialized writing and discussion.

But for many of us, increased academic specialization often seemed to come with a decrease in more general literacy in the social sciences or humanities, particularly in a recent historical context. Students and sometimes senior scholars who proudly wore the title of “social scientist” – emphasis on the “scientist,” please, they say, trying to act as if they could match up intellectually with physicists and chemists – seemed obsessed with statistical approaches and rational-choice theory while often seeming dismissive of the social science tradition of the 1950s and 1960s that produced works like Mills’, Galbraith’s, or, more exotically, Erich Fromm’s and Theodor Adorno’s. Students in literature departments seemed quick to rebrand themselves as interested in “ethnic studies,” which often seemed to ignore … literature, much less distinguished traditions of literary criticism.

Ass-kicking sociologists and motorcycles: two essential elements of any young man's education (C. Wright Mills on a motorcycle)

As a result, we – or at least John – felt it necessary to do something to try to re-found, expand, or at the least preserve the kind of discussion of great works that we thought were foundational or at least important for educated American citizens, much less those of us arrogant enough to think we had a future as scholars or professors. I participated in a discussion of Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg’s Cartographies of Time, and since then the blog has gone on to discuss David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and other works.

And in this post, I hope to inaugurate a new discussion along with Raimo as well as another friend (more details coming soon) about another book from the same period of really great American social science, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. In this post, I want to begin a discussion of the book by focusing on its first two chapters, “The Affluent Society” and “The Concept of the Conventional Wisdom.”

John Kenneth Galbraith, author of "The Affluent Society"

Both the man and the book are of great interest, and not just to historians. Galbraith, who was born in Canada, took his undergraduate degrees in Toronto and later received his PhD in economics from Berkeley in the mid-1930s. He became a US citizen in 1937, and after a varied period in the 1930s and 1940s that saw him teaching between Berkeley and Cambridge, editing Fortune Magazine, and working in the federal government, he was appointed a professor at Harvard in 1949. It would become his home base for establishing a reputation as, if not the most influential economist, then as probably the most prominent economic policy entrepreneur in the United States for much of the middle 20th century. Paul Krugman, for example, has described him as someone who wrote more for the public – often simplifying economic knowledge – than for other academic economists, a reputation that, well-earned or not, continues to dog the man.

Still works like The Affluent Society seem particularly relevant for the contemporary American political context – a country and time when we seem to still exclusively define our national prosperity by GDP, wealth, money, and material standards, and less by our spiritual character, morality, sense of sacrifice, or ability to maintain a “great society.” The Republican debates running at present underscore how much one of our major political parties believe that markets are the optimum institution for the provision not only of commercial (shoes, Big Macs) but also social goods (public secondary education, healthcare). Almost no political party in America today would claim that a class of social engineers should determine policies, and no political party has found a way to turn the established economic phenomenon of market failure into a digestible pro-market ideology that still finds a way to care about poverty and inequality. And this inability of, broadly, Baby Boomer policy intellectuals and policymakers is disappointing in the face of the Great Recession.

Galbraith is relevant because he was able identify this inability to look beyond measures like GDP; to grossly compress the book, Galbraith argues for greater attention to phenomena like inequality, education, health, and so on to define the greatness of a country. Rather than focusing on consuming the latest and greatest iPad 2s or cars with Wi-Fi, we might redirect our wealth (via taxation or donation) to infrastructure, education, culture, and so on – or at least be frank that the public good might not be the sum of private interest for these circumstances.

Maybe not the only thing in life?

True, actually developing the apparatus to realize this goal in a democratic, consensual way, is another thing. Changing social norms in a country like the USA with strong aspirational, consumerist drives to what Galbraith would prefer may be even more difficult. But his work gives us some outline of what an alternative vision for policy economics in America might look like. In the face of the Great Recession, it might involve recognizing that, like “the recession of the early Reagan years, [the recession] brought no tears whatever for the lost automobiles, clothing, washing machines or other consumer goods; it brought widespread suffering and sorrow for the lost jobs.”

So what does Galbraith actually talk about in the sections of the book of interest for my discussion here? In Chapter One, “The Affluent Society,” Galbraith begins to lay out his historical destruction of economics. He makes the point that for the majority of human history, people were poor. Not poor in the sense of lacking refrigerators, moreover, but in actively lacking enough to eat, to clothe themselves, or the house themselves. As Galbraith puts it, “this poverty was not the elegant torture of the spirit which came from contemplating another man’s more spacious possessions. it was the unedifying mortification of the flesh – from hunger, sickness, and cold.” As a result, any tradition of proto-economics had to be concerned with, to put it brutally, the acquisition of more stuff. You won’t worry about obesity or child diabetes if you don’t have enough to eat, in other words. Once the discipline became more sophisticated, Galbraith seems to foreshadow, standards like GDP (as opposed to Gini coefficients or child poverty) became enshrined as the standard units of comparison for cross-national or intranational comparison of wealth.

The Human Development Index: A Different Approach to Prosperity?

True, we might note, the latter half of the 20th century saw a flowering of economic disciplines and sub-disciplines, particularly within welfare economics. Dissatisfied with traditional approaches that measured actors’ utility in dollars, scholars like Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Subhir Anand, and James Foster argued for a “capabilities approach” to welfare that stressed individuals’ freedom to realize their capabilities as opposed to sheer wealth when measuring the prosperity of a country. Per capita GDP may be higher in the USA, they might argue, but citizens can better fulfill themselves in more comprehensive welfare states like Denmark and Norway. Put more succinctly, people need not just money but education, health, and open futures to have a good life. This work subsequently influenced the introduction of the Human Development Index into the toolkit of the UNDP. (Given that this approach was to a large extent pioneered by South Asian economists like Sen and Mahbub ul-Haq who attended Cambridge in the 1950s, I suspect there is a great intellectual history in the making of post-colonial British Empire academico-intellectual networks and the ideas they promoted or fertilized.) Still, the academic prestige and clout even of honest scholars like Sen and Nussbaum is trivial compared with the deluge of advertising most people are deluged with on a daily basis that tells us that consumption, not health or education, is the key to satisfaction.

On a slightly more tangential note, I found Galbraith’s mention of the relationship of nuclear weapons to economic thought unexpected but interesting in Chapter One. At one point in the first chapter, Galbraith makes the point that the specter of nuclear armageddon (ripe when he wrote the book in 1958 and openly discussed as a future possibility by nuclear theorists) kept the fear of poverty (and the love of GDP as opposed to more balanced definitions of welfare) alive in the economic mind. Galbraith writes: “the unearthly light of nuclear explosions would signal [man’s] return to utter deprivation if, indeed, he survived at all.” In other words, even in an affluent society like the USA of the 1950s, a return to primitive conditions remained a possibility, perhaps fueling a desire to accumulate. I find this interesting in historical perspective in that market fundamentalism has, I think, only grown in the West since the collapse of the USSR (and with it the most real likelihood of global nuclear war and devastation). Clearly, proliferation remains a major challenge in the world today, and it is not unthinkable that, say, Pakistan and India, could enter a nuclear exchange in our lifetimes. Still, I wonder more – and would welcome comments from readers, or from John or our other conversation – on how the spectre of terrorism (which could bring death but not utter impoverishment in the way nuclear war would) has affected Western attitudes towards economics and consumption.

Chapter Two, “The Concept of the Conventional Wisdom,” is where I think things get more interesting. Here, Galbraith introduces the concept of the conventional wisdom – conventional wisdom not in the sense of “you should drink orange juice if you have a cold” but in the sense of policy norms, ideas about how the world works that are taken for granted at the Council on Foreign Relations, symposia in Washington, DC, Congressional Committees, and much of academia. In 2011, these ideas might include slogans like “The private sector is more efficient than the public sector,” “Economic freedom is necessary for political freedom,” or “Markets work.” Often times, the actual scientific evidence for the conventional wisdom is very slim. So how does the conventional wisdom become the conventional wisdom?

Galbraith suggests that the real explanation is clarity and self-esteem. “Perhaps the most important of all,” he writes, “people approve most of what they best understand. This is a prime manifestation of vested interest. For a vested interest in understanding is more preciously guarded than any other treasure. It is why men react, not infrequently with something akin to religious passion, to the defense of what they have so laboriously learned.”

It could well be possible that slogans like the ones I just listed about are actually scientifically true; but what goes on most of the time, Galbraith suggests, is that people are eager to feel like insiders and feel like they completely grasp an idea. He suggestively compares the then-growing infrastructure of think tanks and policy fora with religious institutions and cults. The people who most espouse the conventional wisdom, or who demonstrate their ability to master the challenges of the world (by making loads of money), are often invited to recite the dogma as it applies to government, foreign policy, and the point of a liberal education. Sometimes, it seems that academics and businessmen attend conferences for no other reason than to hear the dogma recited in what resembles a religious rite that boosts their self-esteem, for they are hearing Important People tell them that they hold the correct opinions.

A lot of this resembles the current punditocracy in the United States. Perhaps the best example of what Galbraith sees in “the conventional wisdom” is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Like many pundits, Friedman holds court on a wide range of topics from the War in Iraq to city government to health care to education policy to green policy to globalization. His credentials for taking part in these discussions is, much like those of the author of the present post, questionable. Friedman, like many other espousers of “the conventional wisdom,” often seems well-known and influential for … being well-known and influential. He encourages Americans to engage in thrift and sacrifice and the need for us Millenials to bone up against intense international competition for jobs and economic success when he is married to a multi-millionaire heiresss, lives in a huge mansion in Bethesda which emits more greenhouse gases than the average American house. Characteristically for conveyors of the conventional wisdom, Friedman often writes about the need for new ideas while offering relatively few new ideas himself, and indeed, the whole point of the conventional wisdom is that it clamors for new ideas while also rejecting most of them as, well, unconventional.

Writer Matt Taibbi has effectively skewered Friedman’s writing as cliché-ridden, terminally ill with a cancer of mixed metaphors, and unimpressive in terms of ideas. The World is Flat he attacks as “no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country. It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we’re not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we’re not in Kansas anymore.) That’s the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that’s all there is.”

Thomas Friedman, purveyor of the conventional wisdom

Still, as Galbraith points out, there’s a huge value to the conventional wisdom, and, he suggests, we shouldn’t be so judgmental of people who espouse it as Taibbi is. Societally, proponents of “the conventional wisdom” serve as a moderating influence to slow down change and to prevent ideas that are too radical from entering the mainstream. True, given the dominance of Tea Party rhetoric in America in 2011 and the unimpressive short-term results of post-2008 economic policy, one could argue that “the conventional wisdom” has led us astray in our present situation. But without a conventional wisdom, Galbraith argues, you get more political radicalism and more ideological swerving, which can be devastating. “Few men are unuseful,” Galbraith notes, “and the man of conventional wisdom is not. Every society must be protected from a too facile flow of thought.” I leave it open to my discussants the extent to which American society’s conventional wisdom has succeeded at preventing a “too facile flow of thought,” but works like Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class or Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On (about the lack of attention paid to the AIDS crisis in 1980s America) might a place to start.

On a personal level, the exponents of the conventional wisdom deserve some sympathy. Sure, we might be jealous of these people when they give speeches at CFR, the UN, or prestigious universities. But they’re just making a different economic calculus than we might, and Galbraith seems to suggest that we shouldn’t attack the purveyors of the conventional wisdom so much. The bargain of people putting forth “the conventional wisdom,” he argues, “is to exchange a strong and lofty position in the present for a weak one in the present.” Events might discredit the pro-globalization picture of Friedman’s earlier work, for example, rendering him less credible. “He risks being devastated by hostile events. But by then he may be dead.” Unlike scholars or academics (although I would not stress this comparison too heavily), mainstream purveyors of “the conventional wisdom” are in the business of writing books and articles read now, not in the future. Life as a writer or intellectual, Galbraith seems to suggest, is to some extent about this choice between seeking influence and relevant and (not mutually exclusive) a wide posthumous readership.

This gets to the question of how the conventional wisdom dies or changes, and how new purveyors of the conventional wisdom emerge. The answer is simple: the conventional wisdom dies by failing to keep up with events. As Avner Offer underlined in our summer conversation, market liberal ideas were (in his opinion) discredited by the stock market crash in 2008 and the global recession which we have still to escape and which may yet worsen. At some point (think Russia in 1991), it becomes too costly, whether economically or politically, to hold on to the conventional wisdom, and the mind demonstrates its flexibility and adaptability by jumping from, say, socialist norms to market liberal ones.

Taleb: The New Conventional Wisdom?

This new conventional wisdom requires new faces to purvey it. “At some stage,” Galbraith writes, “the irrelevance [of the conventional wisdom] will often be dramatized by some individual. To him will accrue the credit for overthrowing the conventional wisdom and for installing the new ideas.” While the GOP debates make me uncertain whether “the conventional wisdom” of 1980 – 2008 has really been thrown out, the above description is about as good as it gets of Nassim Taleb, whose The Black Swan seemed to crystallize the contradictions and problems behind the collapse. Sometimes, determining the new conventional wisdom takes time to sort out. Two young Americans, Jared Cohen and Evgeny Morozov, have staked out somewhat opposite positions on whether technological proliferation (more Twitter and Facebook in Belarus or Iran) enhances processes of political liberation, but events have yet to definitively crown one or the other as the primo thinker on technology and youth politics today. (Attributing technology as a cause of the Egyptian Revolution is fine, but you also need to explain why it hasn’t worked for Belarus or Uzbekistan, or indicate what level of Facebook use might stir greater change in those post-Soviet countries.) At least in the case of these two, they should both be around should their conventional wisdom be discredited.

It’s been a stimulating read thus far and we’re not even into the real meat of the discussion yet. I look forward to reading more, and, hopefully, to a dynamic conversation among friends that, hopefully, will discredit some of my own conventional wisdom.

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