Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Production is the meaning of life? Reading "The Affluent Society"

Galbraith was a public intellectual of a generation that I missed.  I had previously read his book on the crash of 1929 and enjoyed his clear, concise writing style which sometimes rolled into figurative language when it seemed necessary.  That same writing is on display here, but this is a more troubling document in a couple of ways.  Basically, Galbraith is making the argument that the United States was over-everything: producing, consuming, and working.  In the time he was first writing this, he sounds like the economic consequences of Keynes’ grandchildren had come through, and affluence reigned.  It did, but then, as now it was unevenly distributed.  My key takeaway was a feeling that the minimum income is a thing whose time has long since come, but also that Galbraith would sit so far left of conventional discourse these days that he would be a marginal figure.  He is the man who invented the phrase, in this book, of “Conventional Wisdom,” but sadly his wisdom would not be listened to today.

The second aspect that makes this a “troubling” book to read is that it has gone through multiple editions where there was fairly heavy editing.  I’m used to a new edition just having a amendatory preface and the text staying the same.  I can’t really say how this changes any interpretation of the work, but the edition I have is the 40th anniversary from 1998.  I was expecting a book from 1958, and I was thrown at the first mention of Nixon as president.  I got used to the long time frame that Galbraith used for references, but I wanted a first edition.  I really wanted to have all the editions together to see when and where his thinking shifted, but I was reading this for pleasure and not for any sort of school assignment.  I think it detracted from the work, but only because I was aware of it.