Friday, February 15, 2008

The Affluent Society

Today I learned that it's been fifty years since the publication of The Affluent Society, by one of the 20th century's great normative economists, John Kenneth Galbraith. That I found out is thanks to this article that, remarkably, argues that Galbraith was "the midwife of miserabilism" because he rejected growth as the sole societal goal, which fits nicely into what I was saying about metrics the other day.

Probably predictably, I dislike the phrase "economic growth" and avoid it wherever possible. What does it mean? Presumably growth in "GDP", whatever that is, not that "GDP growth" gets a lot of play in the contexts that use economic growth instead. The kind of argument Galbraith was making - that we should aim for more than growth, and that growth can have ill consequences - often gets wrapped up as an "anti-economics" argument, for the same reason that "economic growth" is considered the correct phraseology.

It's true that "political economy" was money centric in the beginning: it was called "The Wealth of Nations", after all. While - perhaps because - authors like Galbraith were attacking the "value of our stuff" as a meaningful objective, economic science was maturing to the point where we could suppress the objective and attempt to sterilize the descriptive part of our job. Whether society aims for "GDP growth", putting a man on the moon or turning lead into gold is another one of those normative questions that belong to a forum of debate.

That's what makes Galbraith's essays so important - he was trying to convince, not to prove. He was a master of the provocative opinion piece. The Affluent Society remains a vital argument in support of public works. Paul Krugman was very critical of Galbraith's stature as an economist in "Peddling Prosperity", which probably misses the point that Galbraith was making arguments, not scientific economic theory. As a manifesto writer, he was very special indeed.

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