Nearly 40 years after writing "The Affluent Society," (economist John Kenneth) Galbraith updated it in 1996 as "The Good Society." In it, he said that his earlier concerns had only worsened: that if anything, America had become even more a "democracy of the fortunate," with the poor increasingly excluded from a fair place at the table.
Galbraith likely was distressed, as much as any of us, by the kudzu-like spread of the most obnoxious and appalling aspects of conservatism across the American political and social landscape.
A major influence on him was the caustic social commentary he found in (Thorstein) Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class." Mr. Galbraith called Veblen one of American history's most astute social scientists, but also acknowledged that he tended to be overcritical.
"I've thought to resist this tendency," Mr. Galbraith said, "but in other respects Veblen's influence on me has lasted long. One of my greatest pleasures in my writing has come from the thought that perhaps my work might annoy someone of comfortably pretentious position. Then comes the realization that such people rarely read."
I'll pause for a moment while you acquaint (or re-acquaint) yourself with Veblen. He's worth a post all to himself, but I try to keep it light around here.
Galbraith's seminal work was written the year I was born:
"The Affluent Society" appeared in 1958, making Mr. Galbraith known around the world. In it, he depicted a consumer culture gone wild, rich in goods but poor in the social services that make for community. He argued that America had become so obsessed with overproducing consumer goods that it had increased the perils of both inflation and recession by creating an artificial demand for frivolous or useless products, by encouraging overextension of consumer credit and by emphasizing the private sector at the expense of the public sector. He declared that this obsession with products like the biggest and fastest automobile damaged the quality of life in America by creating "private opulence and public squalor."
Almost fifty years ago, and before that by Veblen 107 years ago. How far we have come.
And the call to arms:
"Let there be a coalition of the concerned," he urged. "The affluent would still be affluent, the comfortable still comfortable, but the poor would be part of the political system."
Rest in peace, Mr. Galbraith.