sioned much less comment,” he states. It is the mood and the “culture” of this uppercrust crowd that Galbraith seeks to explain. To put it informally, he is interested in showing exactly what variety bill of goods these voters have bought. In this task, Professor Galbraith is his usual devastatingly rational and persuasive self. He examines one of the central tenets of the politics of contentment: that government is a burden \(as per R. Reagan, “Government is not the lows that the contented will naturally oppose taxation, and the many “wasteful” uses for their tax dollars. But those government functions which favor, or do not threaten, the contented are not opposed: Social Security, military expenditures, bailouts of wealthy depositors at failed banks, interest payments on government debt… “These constitute in the aggregate by far the largest part of the federal budget and that which in recent times has shown by far the greatest increase. What remains expenditures for welfare, low-cost housing, health care for those otherwise unprotected, public education and the diverse needs of the great urban slums is what is now viewed as the burden of government.” How is it, Galbraith asks, that the contented majority has thought itself to be opposed to government solutions and yet accepted such an expensive government program as the Reagan-era military build-up? How is it that the new understanding of government’s role has led to the expenditure of billions to rescue failed financial institutions instead of the reasonable regulation that could have prevented such a debacle? How have we come to be saddled with an economy that requires a large and permanent underclass and that was designed in the 1980s to richly reward those corporate honchos whose energies. were spent on mergers and acquisitions rather than on long-term, productive investment? ti Galbraith explains these and other familiar highlights of the Age of Reagan as the natural consequences of the dominating politics of contentment. As would be expected, he is especially attuned to the role economists have played in constructing the rationale for the policies that gained favor in the recent decade. Noting that reputable economics has always accommodated itself to “what the socially and economically favored most wish or need to have believed,” Galbraith finds in current economics age-old arguments against government action, as well as a suspicious moral approach to questions of wealth and poverty. George Gilder, for one, a popular theorist in the Reagan White House, wrote of the ways regressive taxes help the poor and argued that “In order to succeed, the poor need most of all the spur of their poverty.” The companion doctrine of what came to be known as supply-side economics was, of course, that the rich needed tax relief, so as to be able to productively use their wealth. “To this end,” Galbraith concludes, “the rich needed the spur of more money, the poor the spur of their own poverty.” The political and economic critique of the Culture of Contentment is vintage Galbraith. He draws on a distinguished career in the field of reasonable, comprehensible, and sane ecobeen marked by The Affluent Society in 1958, The New Industrial State in 1967, and Economics and Public Purpose in 1973. The “Galbraith argument” holds up the New Deal as the standard for favorable government policy; against this period of crisis, government response, and social progress our own times are measured. Clearly the domination by the contented is, as it has always been, an obstacle to progress. But… there are a few nagging questions about whether Galbraith’s framework the culture of contentment is a suitable explanation for our times. In the income figures provided by Professor Galbraith, we find almost 13 percent of Americans living below the poverty line. We find, by contrast, 20 percent living on more than $50,000 per year. Those at the bottom, he asserts, play little part in influencing politics, so it is not surprising that government policies have favored those at the top. But what these figures also tell us is that with 13 percent at the bottom and 20 percent at the top, that leaves 67 percent a vast majority in the middle.. Galbraith places much of this group in the contented electoral majority. There is first of all the problem of whether it was, in fact, contentment and comfort that led those in the middle class to vote for Reagan and Bush and to turn against government and taxes. Could it not be argued that wageearners in the $20,000 to $50,000 range have been working harder just to keep even and have legitimate fears about losing income to the IRS? Maybe the contentment is not so deep as Galbraith supposes. In black America, even though a numerical majority are employed, it is known what is happening to black communities and to black families the pain touches all who pay attention. Among women there is a discontent with social policies that make it difficult to raise and support children with or without help from fathers. Among working families there is an awareness that it is harder in this generation than in the previous one to become financially secure. It is true that the significant segment of the middle class represented by such people has not rallied to a new vision of New Deal politics. But there are other explanations than contentment to explain that. \(The most obvious being There is a mass resignation at work. The political culture is producing little that offers citizens real hope; and power protects itself in innumerable ways by preventing people from imagining something better, from believing in it, and from acting for it. The Culture of Contentment suggests Americans are victims of a failure of conscience or of intelligence, or both. But that is not the same as a failure of imagination, which may be the more accurate diagnosis. Even if Galbraith’s analysis serves as an explanation for what was going on in the 1980s, does it stand up now? The professor sensed the beginnings of a new ferment as his book was going to press. Thus, it was important to note that the contented majority is not always silent in its contentment. “They can be…very angry and very articulate about what seems to invade their state of self-satisfaction.” In this case, if many of the contented are now discontented are they still operating within the culture of contentment? Galbraith’s answer seems to be yes. As long as the common understanding of the purpose of politics is to insure one’s own well-being and comfort and privilege, as long as citizens’ bearings are set by calculations about what burdens of government can be shirked or avoided, then the polity is more interested in contentment than in citizenship. At any rate, whether or not the contented are as numerous and as monolithic as Galbraith would suggest, it is hard to deny that contentment is at least one of many factors that explains the deterioration of politics and the decline of a civic vision. Galbraith envisions several possible scenarios that might break the mood of contentment: widespread economic disaster, an unpopular foreign war, or an angry uprising by the underclass. The 1930s and the 1960s saw such conditions. Hinted at but not explored is another possibility: that a new understanding of politics and citizenship could gain in strength and compete with the politics of contentment. Is this a matter merely of the public being seized by a social conscience or awakened to an intelligent view of the long-term best interests of the community? Few would argue that politics operates on such an ethereal or altruistic level. The link that needs to be made is between individual selfinterest and the self-interest of the community. Understanding that we live with corporate capitalism means understanding that the community as a whole cannot experience progress without a strong role played by government. The new article of faith will need to be “Not less government but better government.” And better government depends on active citizenship. What Galbraith seems not to envision is away to get to that point by appealing to pocketbook issues. It could, in fact, be that stifled economic aspiration is as much a factor in American political culture as widespread contentment. There may be a natural majority out there in favor of again setting out toward the Great Society if only this majority can regain its faith in government that is to say, if it can regain faith in itself. It may not be contentedness impeding that so much as it is hopelessness. ANDERSON & COMPANY COFFEE TEA SPICES TWO JEFFERSON SQUARE AUSTIN, TEXAS 78731 512 453-1533 Send me your list. Name Street City Zip THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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