In his post, Will makes a number of good points, I think. Writing about the change in political and economic argument in the United States since the 1960s, he contrasts Galbraith’s more historical style (putting economic thought in historical context) with the social science, data- and abstract-driven approach that seems to characterize thinking today. Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times is a good example, alongside the work of David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell, of the shift he’s talking about. In his piece, “Occupy the Schools,” Kristof makes the argument that the most effective fight against inequality in American today is to be found not at Zuccotti Park but in the American classroom, especially as regards early education. Children who receive more early childhood education (which in many cases has to be subsidized by the taxpayer in the form of Head Start or state-level programs) is one of the greatest vaccines against future measures of inequality or blight – being overweight, out-of-wedlock marriage, drug use, low skills, etc.
The point that Will is making (and which I agree with) is that while all of what Kristof is writing is true, and important, there has been a change in the nature of acceptable political argument since the time Galbraith was writing. The use of social science data is necessary for evidence-based policy, and we would certainly never say that one should dismiss that kind of quantitative analysis entirely. But a liberal case for social intervention that relies entirely on pointing to data correlation can, well, lack the conviction that a Galbraith writes with sometimes. As John pointed out in a previous post, Galbraith later thought that his passage on “the American genius” might have been a bit overdone. But how often does a Gladwellian or Brooksian approach to crunching down social science into pop non-fiction really stir the heart? More substantively, the reliance on social science data as the sine qua non of argumentative truth can obscure entire shifts in the philosophy of science, or in disciplines themselves – in the way that data was collected and evaluated. Galbraith’s approach, which focuses less on “how does GDP growth correlate with some aggregate measure for happiness?” (kind of the approach in a work like The Spirit Level), instead aims to deconstruct entirely intellectual paradigms in economics. This, I think, tends to be a more effective approach in the long run, at least if one is arguing with dismantle-the-entire-state type libertarians or conservatives.
Enough from me for now, though – yours truly is still coping with a head cold and needs rest to continue blogging furiously in days to come.