Alan Arvesen (aarvesen) wrote,
Alan Arvesen

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The Affluent Society

One of the more remarkably nerdy things I like to read about is economics.  There are some truly interesting works in the economics cannon.  The first several books of Wealth of Nations are both enjoyable to read and remarkable insightful.  I enjoyed reading Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom.  I liked reading Sowell's Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy, even though he could can get a little too barking right wing for comfort's sake (e.g. it's good to price gouge hotel rooms during hurricanes).  I gave Das Kapital an honest try about four years ago, but Marx was friggin impenetrable.  Not to mention that the labor theory of value is so obviously flawed that it made it hard to get past the first 80 pages (haha, though apparently Adam Smith subscribed to it as well... oh well).

I am currently reading The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith.  JKG is a heft lefty so he can balance out that Sowell and Friedman I have read in the past.  Even better though is that the guy is genuinely enjoyable to read.  Even to the point of being actually funny.  It's like reading Camus.  His fist sentence:

Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.

with its superb dry wit reminds me of the opening of The Myth of Sysiphus: that he had never yet known anyone to sacrifice their life for the ontological proof of the existence of God.

He also reminds me of Camus in another fashion.   Traci used to say that the most striking thing about Camus was that he was so damned decent.  He was incredibly humane and understanding, at least in his writings, and even in the cases of The Stranger and The Fall.  Meursault and Clamence aren't exactly meant to be likable characters.  I mean, they are respectively a murderer and a felon.  But the Camus is very careful in his descriptions of them and his descriptions of their actions.  Both are of course absurd characters.  And both of course are very different: while Clamence maintains no illusions about his fundamental depravities, Meursault is as self reflective as a stick.  However, Camus wants us to take a look at these guys and see that they aren't so very different from you and I.  This isn't a comment about the banality of evil, but rather a comment on the human condition.  Clamence leads a life where he wants to be admired but knows at heart he is a fraud; Meursault not so much leads a life as follows one, and his actions are both unexpected and unmotivated.

But here is the rub: even when both of these guys are bad, and of course shooting someone for no reason on the beach is pretty damn bad, Camus doesn't want you to hate them.

The height of this is The Plague, where each character is uniquely human and uniquely flawed,and you can tell that Camus loves each of them. And he wants you to love them as well.

The feeling I get from The Affluent Society is that Galbraith is keeping his eye on Everyman.  The first few chapters (other than the coinage of the phrase "the conventional wisdom") focus on the pessimism and uncertainty inherent in classical economics.  By this I mean that with traditionally, laborers were expected to get the short end of the stick.  Not only because of collusion between the owners of the means of production and the avarice of land lords, but because of technical reasons in the economy.  The short of which revolve around such theories as that paying workers more leads to inflation, which erodes their purchasing power until it falls once again to only being able to support yourself and your progeny to the point that the "race" of workers will not die out.  Heh.

TAS was written in the late 50's and some of the things no longer apply.  For instance, inflation is not a serious threat in the United States.  Nor is Marxism regarded as a viable system of economic policy any longer.  And unions do not hold the same sway they once did.  But just like reading The Federalist Papers, some of the topics are surprisingly relevant.  JKG talks about job security and how losing your job is supposed to be a feature of a competitive free market and can, in general, be tied to one's own incapability or sloth.  Of course, that doesn't count for things like losing your job because your employer, rather than yourself, is incompetent.  And as, JKG points out, these sorts of dictums are usually opined by college professors, who enjoy tenure and nearly indefeasible job security.

I remember in undergrad that some of my friends proclaimed themselves as Marxists, which I thought even then was retarded.  However, the surveys and secondary material (see: Marx considered impenetrable, supra) that I read on Marx pointed out some very strong critiques of capitalism (JKG says that the allure of Marxism centered around this: since he was so "manifestly" correct about some things, could he not perhaps be right about every thing?).  Such as: capital tends to concentrate rather than disperse.  Such as: there are obviously economic classes, and that there is obviously class friction.

But then of course you spin off into Marxist fantasy land with the proletariat revolution, the classless society, and the withering away of the state.  What we find, of course, is that some animals are more equal than others, and that classless societies re-stratify.  And without the rule of law - after all, that is one of the primary purposes of the state, to monopolize violence so that the rule of law can be enforced - the guys who end up in the top layer of society tend to be bullies and crooks.  Such as pretty much any feudal prince.

Anyway, JKG is trying to stick up for the little guy without being a Marxist.  So far it's an admirable job, though I sure Dinseh D'Souza has something bad to say about him.
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