Unemployed in ‘The Affluent Society’

I read John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society more than 15 years ago in an edition, the fourth, that was then already 10 years old.

I don’t know how the argument of that book has held up over time or whether it is still well-regarded within the discipline of economics. But yesterday I found myself plucking this book down from the shelf for two reasons: 1) More than 14 million Americans are unable to find work, and 2) I am one of them.

Given that, a few passages from Galbraith’s book seem particularly timely.

On “the situation”:

The situation is this. Production for the sake of the goods produced is no longer very urgent. … At the same time, production does remain important and urgent for its effect on economic security. When [people] are unemployed, society does not miss the goods they do not produce. The loss here is marginal. But the [people] who are without work do miss the income they no longer earn. Here the effect is not marginal. It involves all or a large share of the [people's] earnings and hence all or a large share of what they are able to buy. (pg. 140)

On “highly convenient indifference”:

A system of morality is at stake. For what we regard as the Puritan inheritance was soundly grounded on economic circumstance. … The central or classical tradition of economics was more than an analysis of economic behavior and a set of rules for economic polity. It also had a moral code. The world owed no [person] a living. Unless [they] worked, [they] did not eat. The obligation thus imposed required [them] to labor on [their] own behalf and therewith on behalf of others. Failure to work, even when it could be afforded, was offensive to what came to be called the Victorian, but could as well have been named the economic, morality. “To live in idleness, even if you have the means, is not only injurious to yourself, but a species of fraud upon the community.”

But if the goods have ceased to be urgent, where is the fraud? Are we desperately dependent on the diligence of the worker who applies maroon enamel to the functionless metal of a motorcar? The idle man may still be an enemy of himself. But it is hard to say that the loss of his effort is damaging to society. Yet it is such damage which causes us to condemn idleness.

Again, the fact that a [person] was damaging society by [their] failure to produce has been, in the last analysis, the basis for a fair amount of highly convenient indifference and even cruelty in our behavior. The churches have long featured the virtue of loving one’s neighbor. But the practical churchman has also recognized the need to reconcile this with basic economic necessities. A good deal of practical heartlessness was what served the social good. … In the United States, as in other western countries, we have for long had a respected secular priesthood whose function it has been to rise above questions of religious ethics, kindness and compassion and show how these might have to be sacrificed on the altar of the larger good. That larger good, invariably, was more efficient production. The sacrifice obviously loses some of its point if it is on behalf of the more efficient production of goods for the satisfaction of wants of which people are not yet aware. It is even more tenuous, in its philosophical foundations, if it is to permit the more efficient contriving of wants of which people are not aware. And this latter is no insignificant industry in our time. …

In the world of scarcity, the need for goods was, as just noticed, powerfully reinforced by the compulsion to work. The individual who did not work, unless rarely favored by circumstance, was penalized by a total loss of income. That penalty still persists widely even though it now enforces the production of relatively unimportant goods. (pp. 210-212)

On “a comfortable disregard for those excluded” from affluence:

There is  … the danger that, with affluence, we will settle into a comfortable disregard for those excluded from its benefits and its culture. And there is the likelihood that, as so often in the past, we will develop a doctrine to justify the neglect. Indeed, we are already well on the way to doing so … — the thesis that the rich have not been working because of too little income and the poor have been idling because of too much. That is social perception and justification at an unduly primitive level. More influential is the argument that stresses the inefficiency of government and sees its costs and taxes (those for defense apart) as a threat to liberty. From this comes the philosophical basis for resistance to government help to the poor. … Such doctrine, once again, allows the affluent to relax not with the ostentatious cruelty of Social Darwinism, but nonetheless in the contented belief that no ameliorative action is possible or socially wise. (pg. 262)

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know that young people going “this is shit, I’m going to go
    work at McDonalds (or wherever) instead” is condemnation of young people
    so much as a condemnation of the working conditions of fruit and
    vegetable pickers.

    This is more where I’m driving at.

    Farm labor is essentially an endless series of temp jobs. How well does
    an attaboy and team spirit usually work on temps in your office?

    Ah, there’s the missing piece.
    I haven’t done farmwork but I have temped, and a “you’re very good at filing my junk” sort of statement was not effective at all.

    So, is the only way to motivate people in temp jobs “throw money at it?”

  • Lori

     So, is the only way to motivate people in temp jobs “throw money at it?”  

    It depends on the temp job and the worker. In the kind of temp work the middle class-ish American citizens usually do you can often motivate people with the possibility of a permanent job with benefits or at least benefits through the temp agency. Farm work isn’t really like that. You could possibly motivate people through providing better working or living conditions during the harvest. I suspect it depends one the worker. 

    If we want American citizens do get back to doing farm labor I suspect that yes, it will require throwing more money at them. It’s also going to require a pretty big cultural shift in expectations. I’m not sure how likely either of those things are. 

  • Anonymous

    NoScript is convinced that something here is a clickjacking attempt. No, no, it’s just Disqus being weird. Le sigh.

    I agree with you; both of those things are necessary for a real change that benefits not only workers, but also farm owners and people who eat produce (which is what I’m trying to think of here).

  • Anonymous

    NoScript is convinced that something here is a clickjacking attempt. No, no, it’s just Disqus being weird. Le sigh.

    I don’t think I’ve installed NoScript on Firefox at school, and yet Firefox does the same thing to me at school.

  • James Hanley

    I don’t know how the argument of that book has held up over time or
    whether it is still well-regarded within the discipline of economics.

    The answers are, “not well,” and “not at all.”  The book is a polemic based on feelings, not an analysis based on either sound economic theory or empirical data. 

    Galbraith is an economist beloved by those who prefer not to study economics.  He says things that please a certain group of listeners because it sounds intuitively right to them.  But he’s not an economist who’s regarded as anything more than an archaic curiosity piece by most current economists.

  • Apocalypse Review

    This from the person who has an obvious libertarian bias as expressed in his blog. It was no less a luminary than Milton Friedman’s wife who said she could guess people’s economic views from their political ones and vice versa.

    Galbraith says some of the same kinds of things Krugman does, for all that Krugman has pooh-poohed Galbraith and argued that as much as the math is needed in economics, a feeling for the ideas and concepts and a way to express economic shifts in words alone is also necessary.

  • Apocalypse Review

    I’ll agree that Galbraith is not that well-regarded but that has to do more with an ideological shift in the economics profession itself than anything to do with the factual accuracy or lack of it in his work.

    Galbraith correctly argued that monopoly pricing power in advanced economies is what gives rise to the modern problem of positive inflation and recession at the same time, and that’s been borne out by every recession since the 1960s.


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