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John Kenneth Galbraith: A Mind of His Own
May 11, 2005 10:44 AM   Subscribe

How To Get Ahead. "In this, the high summer of the great conservative revolt, no one, whatever his past political aberrations, can remain unaffected. I am not. Accordingly, I am here offering, also in a great conservative tradition, advice and counsel to the young—advice and counsel on how to get ahead in an ideologically restructured world. I propose to tell you, graduates of the class of [...], how now to proceed if you wish the acclaim and goodwill as well as the income of your fellow men. The advice I offer I do not find wholly acceptable for myself. But that too is in a great tradition of advice to the young".
John Kenneth Galbraith, from an Address to the Yale Graduating Class, 1979. (more inside)
posted by matteo (16 comments total)

 
___
But you must be decently selective in your attack on government. Do not oppose military expenditures; there are no real bureaucrats in the Pentagon, only dedicated Americans who understand the full dimension of the Soviet threat. Be careful about saving money on air safety. No one wants airplanes loaded with the relatively loaded running into each other at high speeds or dropping off their engines in a random way. You should never demand the lifting of the heavy hand of bureaucracy from the nuclear power industry just before an event, as it will be called, at Three Mile Island.
...
Thus you can make clear that what we are now having is a revolt of the rich against the poor. None can doubt that this is the meaning of Proposition 13; two-thirds of the saving went to large property owners and the corporations. The services curtailed or to be curtailed—schools, libraries, recreation facilities, police—are those most needed by the poor. And inflation transfers the purchasing power of the aged and the thrifty and the poor to the profits, dividends, and capital gains of the already affluent. But it causes anguish to have these things said.
So I urge you, if you want an interesting life, to cause this pain. It is one of the very few socially useful forms of meanness. That is because it promotes social tranquillity. Nothing so contributes to such tranquillity as screams of fiscal anguish from the affluent. The screams persuade the poor that the rich are suffering too.
posted by matteo at 10:46 AM on May 11, 2005


Five years later, Galbraith stated "that the Soviet system has made great material progress in recent years is evident both from the statistics and from the general urban scene.... One sees it in the appearance of well-being of the people on the streets.... and the general aspect of restaurants, theaters, and shops.... Partly, the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.”
posted by Kwantsar at 11:44 AM on May 11, 2005


Kwantsar, that was under G in A Pocket Compendium of Liberal Flubs, I take it? We need one of those for both sides, lest you suppose that Conservatives never say anything that's stupid and wrong. Then maybe people could actually discuss the point under discussion.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:02 PM on May 11, 2005


No such book exists, to my knowledge, Spiggott. And it wasn't merely a case of a liberal saying something stupid and wrong. It was a case of North America's most well-known political economist and public intellectual (no doubt still embraced to this day by more than his fair share of lickspittles) being laughably on the wrong side of one of the Twentieth Century's largest economic debates.
posted by Kwantsar at 12:15 PM on May 11, 2005


Nothing so contributes to such tranquillity as screams of fiscal anguish from the affluent.

I completely disagree. No one wants to hear complaining from a more affluent person.
posted by orange swan at 12:17 PM on May 11, 2005


being laughably on the wrong side of

unlike, say, the CIA?
Kwantsar, I don't really know how old you are, and I choose to believe that you were too young to remember how prominent among those who didn't really see the Soviet collapse was that famous liberal and underfunded institution, the CIA (followed by a massive consensus in academia -- conventional wisdom was on that wavelength).

I find interesting that whenever Galbraith's 75-year-long academic career is mentioned (I disagree that he has enjoyed in America the kind of public-intellectual celebrity status you seem to award him -- best-selling author and influential economist yes, "most well-known political economist and public intellectual" really is overplaying his influence) the most that so many "lickspittles" can do is to call him a commie-lover by rehashing a quote that shows how JKG made the same mistake scores of other economists -- liberal and conservatives alike -- did. the same mistake the CIA, as I said above, made. and one hopes the Langley boys had access to better data than Professor Galbraith (they certainly had a bigger budget than a Harvard Economics Department).

I'd be happy to read, from one of their "lickspittles", how luminaries like Milton Friedman, David Stockman or Arthur Laffer never made a mistake in their career. God knows they still have their fans, that massive US debt with their name stampe on it notwithstanding.

I also have to record the irony -- you chose to link to D'Souza page, a man whose unremarkable academic career can be summed up by quotes like "slavery was not a racist institution" and segregation offered "blacks protection from white racists by minimizing social contact between the races".. check out how the famously liberal AEI (you know, the guys who are cheering for massive preemptive invasion of the Middle East by the USA) skewers poor D'Souza.
posted by matteo at 12:34 PM on May 11, 2005


Well, matteo, I just googled the quote and D'Souza came up. It's not like DU, Commondreams, Yglesias or Atrios would prominently feature such a quote.

And I think both you and Spiggott are drawing the battle lines wrong. The issue of whether central planning "works" can't be drawn neatly on the liberal-conservative axis. It's a conflict between statists (really, isn't the CIA a statist institution?) and individualists. Hayek, Mises, Pareto and Barone all knew what Galbraith didn't.
posted by Kwantsar at 12:53 PM on May 11, 2005


Battle lines aside, this is pretty funny stuff. Good post.
posted by gurple at 1:00 PM on May 11, 2005


Wait, Salma Hayek knows more than Galbraith? What is she on Huffingtonpost.com now, too. ;-)
posted by Cassford at 1:35 PM on May 11, 2005


the most that so many "lickspittles" can do is to call him a commie-lover by rehashing a quote that shows how JKG made the same mistake scores of other economists -- liberal and conservatives alike -- did.

matteo this is a little too close to the "everyone believed saddam hussein had WMDs" defense.

kwantsar has a good point and the single quote he googled is not inconsistent with JGK's general views. he wasn't william f. buckely's bête noir for no reason.
posted by three blind mice at 2:53 PM on May 11, 2005


1979 was a great year for conservatism.

At the very moment that Galbraith was talking about inflation as if nothing could about it by economists or politicians, a bipartisan consensus was forming around Paul Volcker, which would destroy the foundations of (industrialized nation) inflation.

Thatcher was elected, with a truly profound effect upon the world, and the invasion of Afghanistan and seizure of the hostages in Tehran gave lie to many of the most precious doctrines of the left.

There are whole categories of leftists, thriving in 1979, which no longer have a politically meaningful existence: labor socialists, nationalizers and large-scale redistributionists, Communist sympathizers, welfare "rights" advocates, etc. The great shift of Evangelical Christians from Democrat to Republican was taking place, transforming Jimmy Carter's narrow majority into Ronald Reagan's comfortable one.
posted by MattD at 3:17 PM on May 11, 2005


Thatcher was elected, with a truly profound effect upon the world, and the invasion of Afghanistan and seizure of the hostages in Tehran gave lie to many of the most precious doctrines of the left.

Heard that before, and from a certain point of view there is a discernible truth to it. But by the same token, if this orgy of deficit spending that was started under Reagan, and continues today under George W. Bush results in the U.S. going down in a huge flaming wreck, history is not likely to view kindly on them, either.

In that instance Jimmy Carter's call to duty and national sacrifice might end up making him look better than any of them.
posted by psmealey at 3:48 PM on May 11, 2005


MattD points out something interesting. There are substantial swaths of american idealogical heritage that have been demonstrated at least not feasible, if not very correct. Many of them are associated with the Left, and have faded away.

There are, of course, substantial swaths of American idealogical heritage on the Right that have been fairly well refuted: privatizing everything is good, creationism, laissez faire regulation models, the urgent need for strong regulation of sexual behavior, xenophobia, etc. These ideas are about as defensible as, say, nationalization of industry or 100% local media control. That is, not indefensible, but outside the domain of what scholars would consider feasable or sensible.

Except the antiquated Rightwing ideas still have incredibly ardent supporters.

What does it say that the Left tends to shift to new intellectual paradigms? Is it a natural function of liberalism vs. conservatism? Or am I engaging in wishful thinking that the vestigal rightwing ideaology has been seriously refuted?
posted by allan at 4:08 PM on May 11, 2005


What does it say that the Left tends to shift to new intellectual paradigms? Is it a natural function of liberalism vs. conservatism? Or am I engaging in wishful thinking that the vestigal rightwing ideaology has been seriously refuted?
Short answer: Yes, you are.

To elaborate, the things you have listed for the Right aren't really "ideologies" in the sense of the things MattD listed. Also, they are really more like straw-men Rightist ideas than actual ones.

For instance, almost no one save maybe the most ardent Libertarian supports the "privatization of everything". Most conservatives merely support the general principle that the market and individual is better suited at doing most things more efficiently than the state, and I'm not sure how this has been "refuted". I'm not even sure how "privatization of everything" has been refuted, since no one has ever come even close to trying it.

Laissez-faire capitalism has to some extent been shown to have flaws, but not in the way that nationalization of industry has. The lesson of the Great Depression could be that some very minimal level of government oversight is needed for the economy, and I think most conservatives in modern times hold this view.

Creationism, well, I personally agree with you on. That needs to go, but I see the resurgence of its power as more of a reactionary lashing out against a final secular victory. But, who knows?

I think it's a bit unfair to say xenophobia is an ideology of only the Right. Both sides have had their fair share of heavy xenophobia over time in the US. There's no need to unrealistically demonize one side as pure evil.

As "the urgent need for strong regulation of sexual behavior", this seems much more a subjective issue than others. It would be hard to say how this has been "refuted", as it depends on your view. Many would say that the erosion of social mores since the 60s has harmed society. Many would say the opposite. It's hard to make an objective case either way.

Overall, I think the reason the Right has been able to hold on to many of its core ideologies is because they have not been utterly destroyed like many of those on the Left have. From MattD's list: "labor socialists, nationalizers and large-scale redistributionists, Communist sympathizers, welfare "rights" advocates, etc." The horrible history of Socialism and Communism in the 20th century has made many of these ideologies simply too difficult to hold. I'm not saying that they have no value, just that some of the Right's ideologies have not been faced with such overwhelming evidence against them like that of the experiences of Russia, China, etc.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:21 PM on May 11, 2005


The horrible history of Socialism

???
you know, the American penchant of equating Socialism with Communism is indeed very baffling.


Laissez-faire capitalism has to some extent been shown to have flaws

which is a very polite way to describe such things as the widespread use of child and slave labor (in the West during the first half of 20th century, right now in most of the "cheap-labor" countries that make your Gap clothes and Nike shoes). "robber barons" of the past and their 21st century grandkids (say, Enron) come to mind also as "flaws". to some extent of course, because we don't want to offend anybody.


The lesson of the Great Depression could be that some very minimal level of government oversight is needed for the economy

either that or the lesson of the Great Depression is that you follow Herbert Hoover's strategy, America will go belly up -- remember those Wall Street bankers begging, just begging FDR to nationalize their banks. and FDR telling them to be confident that there was no need of such drastic measures. the lesson of the Great Depression is that in 1933 and in the following years America's corpse was miracolously brought back to life by the largest injection of Socialism evar in a free-market country, like Pulp Fiction's big shot adrenaline in Uma Thurman's heart. the New Deal is not exactly "some very minimal level" of govt oversight. and I suggest that the recent massive failure of Bush's plan to change FDR's Social Security is proof that most Americans would still prefer the much-maligned (even by Bush) FDR over Hoover -- or, since this thread should be about economists, John Maynard Keynes over Jean-Baptiste Say.
posted by matteo at 4:16 AM on May 12, 2005


or, since this thread should be about economists, John Maynard Keynes over Jean-Baptiste Say.
Then why not Joseph Alois Schumpeter? I disagree with your assertation that America was brought back by FDR's Socialist policies. It was brought back by WWII. FDR's policies ultimately served as confidence-building measures, and nothing more. Schumpeter argued at the time that FDR's policies actually prolonged the Depression, as the Depression represented the market trying to lose a large number of massively inefficient firms. FDR's goal was to try to stabilize the economy, but he should have let the market stabilize itself. And the "very minimal level" of controls I was talking about were not the New Deal programs. I was referring to the creation of things like the FDIC, the Federal Reserve, the SEC, and other measures and organizations designed to provide a level of oversight to prevent the worst abuses of the economy.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:12 PM on May 12, 2005


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