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The Culture of Contentment


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A wry critique of neocon economics by a Keynesian economist writing in 1992. Recommended by the Archdruid Report, a blog focused on the coming collapse due to peak oil and high financial overhead. This book is quite helpful in laying out what ails us. We the voting majority are very happy with how things are, thank-you very much and we wouldn’t want to vote in anything painful like higher taxes or anything that would benefit someone else or some future generation which would cut into our comfort now. But we didn’t ever question more money for the military because communism was a big threat to the culture of contentment or at least a big threat to those wanting more marketshare. The rest went along because of the fear mongering about how the communist were all about oppression and loss of personal liberty. And psychologically, he comments, you can’t just be happy without threat of unhappiness because that would just be perceived as "a careless evasion of reality". (This says a mouthful, but it fits. Since Americans consider death to be optional, there has to be some other threat thus the right of every American to have enemies.) We are also generous about bailing out large private institutions like banks and big companies to protect the investments of the contented. The only difference between this voting public and any other society was that the contented had become the majority.

To shore up this culture of contentment it was necessary to make this majority feel good about being wealthy and make sure those not so wealthy are not alienated from the concerns of their betters. Both also had to be relieved of their guilt for the struggles of those less fortunate. Reagan’s greatest contribution to neocon policies, he says, was to make the rich feel good about themselves and put the blame on the poor (for not taking advantage of the opportunities of the free market). That explains the shift between the political Marxism of the shabby chic college students of the ’70s (my generation) and the sweater sets and pearls of those who followed in the ’80s—the Young Republicans. Yuck.

Since the Republicans have been most successful at making the contented feel good the Democrats have been loosing at this game, he says.

The field of economics, he points out, is most untrustworthy for it is easily corrupted to justify certain political agendas and is prone to distancing itself from reality. Lots of worthwhile details here for those wanting to be conversant in economic theory. He describes why current practices of monetary policy are unsound because of the impact of debt. His description of the Savings and Loans debacle as a result of deregulation is easily applied to the recent subprime mortgage debacle. If regulations had been enforced no bailing out of these institutions would have been needed. Duh. He also points out that all the mergers and acquisitions of the ’80s created huge debt, undercutting their resiliance in hard times as well as their ability to finance research and development or going bankrupt altogether.

Debt and deficits don’t seem to disturb the culture of contentment because the rich make money by lending it so it is not discussed as a bad thing. What does disturb the contented, he says, are depressions and long messy wars. Well we got a long messy war and with the high price of gasoline, this culture of contentment is ripe for discontent (especially since we have a government that is saying ‘let them eat ethanol’). This all bodes well for Obama.

The book also served to fill in some gaps in my knowledge. The free market concept, for instance, is just the Laissez Faire philosophy warmed over. This was a successful 18th century attempt by merchants to divert current policy from the equitable redistribution of wealth through taxation. Galbraith points out that this Laissez faire theory believed that people should be paid very minimally in order to motivate them to work; and because people would continue to breed, the market was failsafe—ensured a population of minimally paid slaves. This underclass he says should be offered some concessions for they are a potential for unrest and violence, but since most have come from somewhere worse and have bought into the culture of contentment of the US, this seems less of a threat.

Galbraith does not talk about the prospect of collapse here (he scoffs at predictions), but he does comment a bit on the Russian collapse and how communism was brought down by ideology thus implying the same will happen to us if we cling to the ideology of a free market which was what Orlov was saying. He confirms some points that Orlov brought up about the situation there regarding consumer goods and agriculture and cultural unrest. His main thesis is that a mixed economy strengthens the core of capitalism by balancing the inequities between the citizenry and the market.

I’m inclined to go along with his theory of contentment because I think it’s true that most of the population is too comfortable and fail to see very far into the future for fear that it will jinx what they are enjoying now. And most respond to a good story about being a superior nation of great strength and leadership and all that self-congratulatory stuff. People are beginning to worry about the state of the planet though.

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