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The Affluent Society by J.K. Galbraith: review

Reading The Affluent Society is a revitalising and empowering shot in the arm for anyone questioning in any way what JK calls the ‘conventional wisdom’. The book, first written in 1958 and then reissued as a new edition in 1998 is an astonishing tour de force, debunking and deconstructing the tenets of the ‘central tradition’ of economics.

For example his observation of the overarching importance of production in that tradition – the fact that all production is seen as equally important irrespective of the real marginal utility of the goods produced – will chime with the ‘more than GDP’ approach of Carnegie and other organisations interested in well being as opposed to material possessions. His repetitous critique of the need to ‘manufacture wants’ to address the producers’ concern that in the absence of advertising no-one would really need many of the goods we produce, is extremely effective. In fact he uses repetition of key messages very effectively throughout the book, coming at the same central issues from different angles again and again, and in so doing progressively builds up the readers assimilation of the ideas – a real case study in how to get a message across so that it sticks.

This view that production for the sake of goods produced is no longer urgent is carried across into a forensic analysis of the balance between private production and public services. He vividly contrasts the healthy state of markets that privately produce (often useless) goods with the poverty and underinvestment in fundamentally important public services, and explains the provenance of the conventional wisdom that applauds the former and distrusts the latter.

Restoring the ‘social balance’ – by which he means engineering the commitment to invest properly in public services such as education and health – is seen as a key objective, and one that has under-appreciated positive impact on pure economic outcomes.

Galbraith also highights (in passing but repeatedly) the peculiar position of military investment within the public investment space. While he accepts unreservedly the role that military research and development has played in accelerating technological innovation, he is critical of the weight it carries in claiming a disproportionate part of the limited funds governments spend. In the 1998 afterword, he has become most concerned about the ‘production of weapons of ever greater devastation’ and our ‘promiscuous commitment to weaponry’.

He writes compellingly about poverty, contrasting the detached ‘central tradition’ view of an unemployed underclass as a necessary evil with a real grounded feeling for the waste of resource – not to provide more unnecessary production but to improve quality of life.

Galbraith’s wry and somewhat ironic commentary made me laugh out loud occasionally, and having read the book for the first time I am tempted to read it again equipped with a highlighter pen. But if I don’t make the time to do that, at least there’s the excellent index which should help to find the ‘just so’ quotes – of which there are many.

It’s astonishing that this book was written 50 years ago. In one way it is depressing that such a compelling analysis has not been instrumental in shifting the ‘conventional wisdom’ and that the dysfunctional pseudo-science of taught economics is so resistant to common sense. But as Galbraith himself says ideas do not of themselves change the world until circumstances (or ‘events dear boy’ as Macmillan may or may not have said) create a propitious environment. So maybe now is the time.

 

 

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