Private Affluence, Public Squalor

What astonishes the contemporary reader is, first of all, that a genuine, independent intellectual like Galbraith was permitted to serve in government, let alone become the confidant of presidents. Facile anti-intellectualism is the order of the day now…

Thomas Frank, author of What’s Wrong With Kansas? is writing about John Kenneth Galbraith, subject of a new biography by Richard Parker which Frank reviews in the New York Times. Amid discussion of the influence of Straussianism on high politics, it’s refreshing to remember that it hasn’t always been thus. We could probably extend this observation of Frank’s to Australia as well:

Optimistic superstition with regard to all things economic is a typically American folly, as vigorous and unrepentant today as it was in 1929. We shower high honors on any author who can repackage the comforting idea that the free market is a democratic expression of the popular will; we pay an army of lecturers to persuade us that each new corporate cost-cutting initiative is an unprecedented victory for the little guy…

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

“Facile anti-intellectualism is the order of the day now, as even Democrats race to embrace the free-market logic of the Chicagoans.”

This seems a slightly peculiar statement in view of the apparently powerful influence of Straussians on on the present American body politic. Straussians are anything but anti-intellectual, glorifying in arcane elitist intellectual bullshit every bit as pretentious and self-important as the post-structuralists. Certainly the obfuscating lies they tell to the ignorant herd (e.g. read Tim Blair) are both facile and anti-intellectual, so maybe that’s what Frank means.

Also, the claim that “free-market logic of the Chicagoans” is in the ascendancy seems a little out of date. It’s probably an exaggeration to say that neoliberalism is in full retreat in the US under Bush, but his administration is hardly a model exponent of minimalist government.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

correct Ken it is very out of date. If anything the ascendancy of alleged Chicagoanism (i.e. pro-market economics) in the Democratic party was under Clinton, which led to gains for both the party itself and the poor. The present Republican party has abandoned any genuine neoliberalism while John Kerry was a step leftward from Clinton.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, I think that Frank would define intellectuals as independent rational thinkers, which Straussians patently are not (try reading some of their exegesis of political theory – they’re more like a cult than scholars). The rhetoric of George W. Bush is hardly intellectual, the whole discourse of “liberal meeja” and “elites” and the blue state/red state thing posits the common folk against nasty book learnin cosmopolitan types, just like in Oz. That’s what I think Frank (in the context of his other writing) is on about.

As to neo-liberalism, yeah, but union-busting Walmart style, welfare to sub-minimum training wages, and the absence of effective corporate regulation means that the Bushies might be big spenders and Mercantilists in the service of Halliburton, but they’re sure not Keynesian redistributionists…

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Galbraith is a verbose fossil of little relevance to the moderate left. See Krugman on Galbraith here
http://www.pkarchive.org/cranks/GalbraithGoodSociety.html

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Jason, I beg to differ. Kerry’s rhetoric might have been to the left of Clintonism, but he was an avowed free trader prior to the campaign, and the presence of advisors from Clintonomics Central plus his hortarory invocation of Clinton prosperity suggest that he would have been very similar in economic policy if he won. Clinton junked his “investments” for fiscal austerity within days of entering office, and never did anything (bar minimum wage rises) to redress the massive bargaining imbalance in the US labour market.

The DLC crowd if anything criticise the Republicans for porkbarrelling (fairly) and support a return to neo-liberal economics.

Ok, leave you to it, off to do some work…

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Point me to any contribution Krugman’s ever made comparable to Galbraith’s in government or policy, Jason.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

Is this a reverse Rafe-ian Inquisition?

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Nope! Civil discussion, Ken.

Ok, I’m outa here!

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Mark
are you kidding? Krugman is simply the more celebrated economist, Galbraith is someone who writes fancy prose for the sort of diletanntes who regard John Ralston Saul as the definitive word on the Emlightenment. (though Krugman has been a great populariser as well, his articles actually have depth). Galbraith is, to put it meanly, regarded as a bit of a joke in the profession.
Krugman has made enormous contributions to international trade theory, industry policy and pioneered the study of the importance of geography in economics. Have a look at any official or unofficial website.

C.L.
2022 years ago

Although I sometimes like to make fun of the Chicagoan cult – especially when Jason and I have a harmless go at each other – I think it’s true that the high point of their actual influence on goverance in the anglophone world has peaked and is now in decline.

Certainly this is true vis-a-vis the early 90s when people like me were writing master’s theses on their influence. The rhetoric and the dream survive but in the mouths and synapses of Bushies and Howardians big government has been sneakily rehabilitated. So what’s going on?

Partly, I think, the WOT has colonised the mission mentality of the anglophone right. Combatting terrorism and advancing a foreign policy characterised by the Fuykuyaman Manifest Destiny of liberal democracy – sans liberal economics – has become priority number one. The anti-Kenynesian, neo-liberal worldview of Chicago has been relegated to the B-Team of saleable intellectual propositions.

The more that has become true for a world under putative reconstruction, the more it has become true for the governments themselves. Moreover, the expenditures and dirigisme undergirding economies at war are difficult to reconcile with state minimalism.

As a Santa-socialist, I’m not perturbed by government playing significant roles in banking regulation, some statutory marketing, some degree of protectionism, or in appropriating for itself an influential degree of public ownership. I also believe in a near authoritarian government role in water management and – at the local level – in heritage protection and the de-uglification of our cities. That’s to say nothing of my support for the Bush Doctrine on liberty.

Notwithstanding all that, the contradictions for Bushies and Howardians cannot be denied. Presuming that a resolution cannot and will not wait till the WOT is completed – an impossible projection – the political economy characterising Australian and US affairs should be quite interesting over the next 3-5 years. We’ve already seen the Australian left take the opportunity to outflank the economic liberals with economic liberalism. Might we see the same thing enunciated as differentiating policy from a Democrat presidential contender in 2008?

C.L.
2022 years ago

‘goverance’

Also known as governance.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Mark, I am with Jason on this one.

apart from a well written book on the Depression Galbraith was a windbag.
Krugman is a brilliant economist in all the fields Jason stated.

C.L.
2022 years ago

Glabraith understands there’s more to life than economics. Even that there’s more to an economy than economics. I’ve noticed that many non religious libertarians treat market economics as a kind of utopian journey that actually interests – even excites (!) – them. They hanker for a system that has nowhere existed in history and which never will. Religious zealots.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

incidentally, let me retract my statement that Galbraith is regarded as a ‘bit of a joke’. perhaps a bit harsh, put that down to the aggressive zeal of a young turk. but it is true that if publication in peer reviewed journals counts for anything in the intellectual stakes, then Krugman is the more influential economist

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

“I think that Frank would define intellectuals as independent rational thinkers.”

I have no idea where he could get that definition from:)

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

“I’ve noticed that many non religious libertarians treat market economics as a kind of utopian journey that actually interests – even excites (!) – them. They hanker for a system that has nowhere existed in history and which never will. Religious zealots.”

I’ve come across dozens of similar statements in my years tracking anti-market thought, but they are all curiously unaccompanied by names or quotations. It’s at odds with my own experience in the market movement. Randian nutcases aside, you get dogmatists and enthusiasts, but no more than I have experienced in other activities or observed in other political movements.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“apart from a well written book on the Depression Galbraith was a windbag.
Krugman is a brilliant economist in all the fields Jason stated.”

Jason and Homer, I’m a sociologist not an economist and thus only know Krugman’s journalism so it was a serious question.

But, as C.L., notes, there’s some virtue in being able to disseminate ideas for a popular audience and influence policy directly and indirectly, which is in no way measurable by counting articles in refereed journals.

As Frank observes:

“It defines as well Galbraith’s relationship to his profession, which like so many other academic fields spent much of the 20th century insulating itself behind an impenetrable language — in the case of economics, a language of equations and models and perfectly rational actors. Galbraith went in the opposite direction, becoming a public intellectual who spent his life advising politicians, honing his famously aphoristic style, even working as a journalist.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Mark
Ever heard of the NY Times? Krugman has influenced as many if not more people through his columns than Galbraith has through his books, plus Krugman’s books sell too.

And if CL is trying to imply that Krugman is some sort of Chicago-ite in comparison to Galbraith then CL is even more of a socialist than I thought. Krugman is your classic punching bag among Republicans. The truth is he is just a sensible middle of the road economist

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Like I said, Jason, that’s how I’m aware of him. Stuff Galbraith wrote in the 50s and 60s is still being read today, and I doubt that’ll be true of Krugman.

Frank got to the important point in his review – Galbraith’s contribution was to question the irationality and short-sighted behaviour of big business. Obviously, Kalecki and Keynes got there first but spreading the message in the States was a very important thing.

Plus I’m very fond of his diary as Ambassador to India and he was on the right side of most controversies in the FDR and JFK administrations in my book.

When I did first year economics, he was the only person on the reading list who made any sense to me whatsoever.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Mark
in that case the same can be said about Hayek.
And you see Hayek discussion lists but not Galbraith discussion lists, one reason being a lot of what JKG wrote was just not that deep. I got into JKG when I was younger too but then I realised whatever sensible stuff he had to say about advertising inducing demand, etc had been discussed more rigorously elsewhere and what was left was just shallow stylistics .
By all means I concede he was a very public figure, a diplomat and all but that doesn’t make him a great thinker.
But by all means if the Left thinks he has more to offer than Krugman who has thought about tradeoffs more but cares as much about social justice as JKG, then go for it.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Jason, I haven’t read any of Krugman’s books but aren’t they just fairly ephemeral attacks on Bush/corporate scandals/election financing etc. I haven’t read them so I’m prepared to stand corrected…

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Bugger, every time I think of something to say Jason gets in there ahead of me.

Galbraith is just an old lefty in the Democrats whereas Krugman is a true centrist plus he has a towering intellect. His NYT column easily beats JKG books ( except he depression one.)

both are good writers but Kruggers has the full monty so to speak.

derrida derider
derrida derider
2022 years ago

Well, I’ve got a lot of enjoyment from reading both. Its true that Galbraith is no technical economist, while Krugman is an excellent one (though his technical work has suffered in recent years because of his writing commitments). But Krugman is simply a competent writer, whereas JKG is a terrific one. You get much more entertainment from Galbraith.

And Galbraith often has clever ideas – but they need to be taken up by the Krugmans of this world and properly formalised and tested before we know whether they’re useful.

Galbraith’s best written book, IMO, is “Money – whence it came from and where it went”. A history of monetary innovation, mainly focused on the US, should by all rights be boring – but Galbraith makes it live because he paints it very much as a picture of human folly. As he notes, greed can induce ripely perverse behaviour – and there’s plenty of it portrayed in that book.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

From Robert Solow’s Presidential Lecture – on Unemployment 1980 (I think).

There is a long-standing tension in economics between belief in the advantages of the market mechanism and awareness of its imperfections. . . . There is a large element of Rorschach test in the way each of us responds to this tension. Some of us see the Smithian virtues as a needle in a haystack, as an island of measure zero in a sea of imperfections. Others see all the potential sources of market failure as so many fleas on the thick hide of an ox, requiring only an occasional flick of the tail to be brushed away. A hopeless eclectic without any strength of character, like me, has a terrible time of it. If I may invoke the name of two of my most awesome predecessors as President of this [American Economic] Association, I need only listen to Milton Friedman talk for a minute and my mind floods with thoughts of increasing returns to scale, ologopolistic interdependence, consumer ignorance, environmental pollution, intergenerational inequality, and on and on. There is almost no cure for it, except to listen for a minute to John Kenneth Galbraith, in which case all I can think of are the discipline of competition, the large number of substitutes for any commodity, the stupidities of regulation, the Pareto optimality of Walrasian equilibrium, the importance of decentralizing decision making to where the knowledge is, and on and on. Sometimes I think it is only my weakness of character that keeps me from making obvious errors.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

I’m much closer to Krugman than Galbraith politically. Krugman is cleverer I guess, but Mark, your initial challenge to Jason was right on the money.

Krugman has not been influential on policy matters

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks Nicholas, very interesting comment.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Nicholas,
kruggers was not an architect of strategic trade theory. That was others who had not read Kruggers properly.

Kruggers was quite rightly peeved at their using his arguments forsomething he ddidn’t support.

not quite aan Albrectson!

Rafe
2022 years ago

From where I sit, most of Galbraith’s views are a joke, but he did tell a genuine joke on himself when he wrote a reminiscence on his youth on a farm in Canada. As a gangling adolescent he was keen on a girl next door, and one day they were leaning on a fence when a bull became amorous with a cow nearby. Seizing the moment, the callow Galbraith remarked that he wouldn’t mind trying that, to which the young lady replied “Well its your cow”.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Homer,

Krugman was a prime mover in strategic trade theory. Made his name with the stuff. Its quite true that he was never a strong supporter of strategic trade policies, but he was an enfant terrible at that stage and making his name, and it served his purposes to play that down just a little. I’m not really accusing him of anything too terrible, because he didn’t say anything outrageous, and he was stirring the pot, which was an OK thing to do. But STT is not much to be proud of. If I were Krugman, and looking for good things I did in my academic career, I’d be proud of being smart and useful and provocative when it comes to thinking about international macro-economic issues (not the micro ones in STT). I’d be proud of the little book ‘the self organising economy’ (I think that’s the title). But having said something like that in the previous post I suddenly remembered that that little book is a set of lectures, and its peppered with apologies for not being the full academic quid. Krugman doesn’t realise that that is when he is at his best – or perhaps he does realise that which is why he’s doing what he’s doing. Good on him for the good things.

Michael Warby
2022 years ago

The decline of economic liberalisation is quite straightforward. It was not a passing policy fad but a response to certain pressures. If those pressures go away, of course policy makers move on to other, easier and more congenial, things. Helped somewhat by external events.

Economic liberalisation essentially achieved its policy needs