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The Culture of Contentment.

John Kenneth Galbraith continues in this recent book to advocate higher taxes, more government spending for nonmilitary services, and regulation of large industry. However, here is a turnaround from the customary criticism that conservative economists tolerate short term suffering for long term goals. In The Culture of Contentment, Galbraith suggests that the conservative economics of the Reagan/Bush presidencies was shortsighted. Thus, policy developed solely in terms of the general human instinct to respond and protect immediate comfort and contentment. Galbraith acknowledges that the Reagan/Bush years were good for the majority of the voting public but suggests that long run interests are at stake unless problems of the underclass are approached.

Galbraith pokes fun at economists who warn about the adverse effects on the morals and working morale of the impoverished due to government support and subsidy. At the same time, they tolerate by their silence or even justify protection from market uncertainty for farmers, depositors, and corporate executives of the largest firms. The income of the affluent is thus made relatively secure by a variety of public benefits while the poor are relegated to the vagaries of the market.

The collapse of the Soviet Union is not presented as a triumph of capitalistic ideology over socialism but rather as system failure in not satisfying the diverse and unstable demand for goods and services that make up the modern consumers' economy. Furthermore, the system failed to recognize that even modest economic and educational advances will render it impossible to exclude people from the institutions by which they are governed. Similarly, according to Galbraith, the U.S. and other industrialized countries have accommodated themselves not to reality or common need but to the contented majority of those that actually vote.

The book contains over fifty footnotes, not all self-citations. Repeatedly, the author warns about his or anyone's ability to forecast the future. He suggests that the self-corrective capacity of democracy could break through when adverse developments resulting from the Culture of Contentment reach the point whereby they challenge the well-being of the comfortable. Harm could be avoided by a strong political appeal to the disadvantaged. Otherwise, widespread economic disaster, adverse military action, and the eruption of an angry underclass are plausible possibilities.

Galbraith has come to terms with his formidable ability to verbally describe. Gone is the indignation and expected reform of the Affluent Society or the New Industrial State. He suggests, in this essay, that his method is that of the anthropologist, examining the tribal rites of strange and different peoples, rather than that of the economist or the political theorist. However, Galbraith admits that he, himself, is one of the self-approving contented of which he writes. Thus, he understands highly motivated resistance to ideas which vigorously invade the ethos of contentment.

Galbraith recognizes, but does not cite, Public Choice explanations for why the state provides income security for the affluent but resists the same for the poor. The preferences of the voting majority are reflected in the fact that social expenditure, favorable to the fortunate, constitute in the aggregate by far the largest part of the federal budget. Galbraith employs another Public Choice argument to explain the logic of inaction. Present cost and taxation are specific; future advantage is dispersed. Therefore, expenditure and new investment in economic infrastructure is resisted.

This book, like all of Galbraith's work, is well written. It provokes, infuriates, and, as such, teems with research hypotheses for mature economists. For undergraduates, it is an excellent concise introduction to major ideological economic controversies. Written by one of the profession's chief protagonists, it instructs as only a primary source can. Academic guidance recommended.

Maryann O. Keating Valparaiso University
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Author:Keating, Maryann O.
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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