The Affluent Society by J.K. Galbraith: Review

Mar 06, 2012 3 Comments by

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.

Featured image: Sunset on the Highway. Author: Jamie Woods. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=download&id=807824

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About the author

Graham Barnes is a Currency Designer. @GrahamJBarnes He is a Member of Feasta's Co-Ordination Group and co-organiser of the Feasta Currency Group. He holds a PhD in Computer Science and worked at a senior level in IT and online marketing in a previous life. His current projects include the detailed design and delivery of currencies to be sponsored by a local authority; by a social entrepreneur to complement and enhance a well established sustainability methodology; and by a restaurant chain.

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3 Responses to “The Affluent Society by J.K. Galbraith: Review”

  1. Caroline Whyte says:

    Thanks for this review. I just glanced through the notes I took when I read this book, five years ago or so. There were a few things that I felt at the time that Galbraith hadn’t taken sufficiently into account in it. Apparently he didn’t give much attention to the environmental crisis, and although he considered Henry George to be an important American economist, he didn’t seem to fully grasp George’s arguments on land value tax, arguing instead for sales tax. More generally, he seemed to be making assumptions about the historic role of scarcity in different types of economies that are inaccurate; most anthropologists would paint a very different picture of hunter-gatherer life than that evoked in this book.
    However, despite these quibbles I thought it was an extremely powerful book overall, way ahead of its time. As Graham mentions, it’s also very witty. I remember one section where Galbraith pokes fun at academic economists who do not in any way challenge the status quo, but nonetheless spend a lot of time having heated arguments about little details of economic theory, in order to give the impression that they’re engaging in a substantive debate. Galbraith also gives a searing indictment of the advertising industry and points out that we allow advertisors to get away with things we wouldn’t dream of allowing public bodies to do.
    So overall I think it’s well worth reading and I hope Graham is right when he suggests that the time has come when the ideas it expresses will finally be given the attention they deserve.

  2. Phoebe Bright says:

    For those who like listening, the book is available from Audible – http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B0030E6NLS&qid=1331039685&sr=1-1 Am currently half way through and learning much.

  3. Roy H W Johnston says:

    I too have read and enjoyed Galbraith but in later years I have come around to recognising his failure to recognise the long-term significance of the dependence of employment on ‘growth’. This is a consequence of private ownership, and the motivation to keep the wages at or near subsistence level, so that their contribution to the market is constrained. This can be compensated by the investment of some of the surplus into ‘growth’, generating employment elsewhere. This is OK for as long as ‘finite planet’ effects do not come into play, as isnow beginning to happen. If ownership was vested in a co-operative of workers, suppliers and consumers, there would be no motivation to maximise profit; one could work with a stable break-even system. We need to explore this seriously, in thecurrent climate change situation.

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