Our Commitment to Immaturity, Mendacity and Profound Gullibility

I admire John Kenneth Galbraith for the clarity of his thinking and the quality of his prose. The greatest compliment I have ever received was when Irma Adelman told me that I reminded her of John Kenneth because like him I was an old world liberal.

Here, for the record, is a quote from JKG’s book Economics, Peace and Laughter:

In a well-to-do community we cannot be much concerned over what people are persuaded to buy. The marginal utility of money is low; were it otherwise, people would not be open to persuasion. The more serious conflict is with truth and aesthetics. There is little that can be said about most economic goods. A toothbrush does little but clean teeth. Alcohol is important mostly for making people more or less drunk. An automobile can take one reliably to a destination and back, and its further features are of small consequence as compared with the traffic encountered. There being so little to be said, much must be invented. Social distinction must be associated with a house or a swimming pool, sexual fulfillment with a particular shape of automobile, social acceptance with a hair oil or mouthwash, improved health with a hand lotion or, at best, a purgative. We live surrounded by a systematic appeal to a dream world which all mature, scientific reality would reject. We, quite literally, advertise our commitment to immaturity, mendacity and profound gullibility. It is the hallmark of the culture. And it is justified as being economically indispensable.

2 thoughts on “Our Commitment to Immaturity, Mendacity and Profound Gullibility

  1. Arun Anantharaman Wednesday January 5, 2005 / 8:18 pm

    Coincidentally, I have been reading this book – Growth Fetish, a sort of condemnation of the process of growth that is the hallmark of the culture Galbraith talks about.

    I don’t know what an old world liberal is, but it is an unfortunate problem that the process of growth as engendered by neoliberal politics and market fundamentalism leads to the sort of society Galbraith describes. Sadly, we seem to be growing the same way. Maybe it is the inevitable that the growth process takes this shape, but it would be a better world if it didn’t.

    To quote Clive Hamilton, the author of the Growth Fetish, “Writing in 1865, John Stuart Mill devoted sustained attention to a concept that would be unthinkable to today’s economists and policy makers – the idea of the stationary state. Like many of his contemporaries, he believed that any serious discussion of the relationship between economic growth and human wellbeing leads ineluctably to a consideration of the stationary state. Mill asked, ‘Towards what ultimate point is society tending by its industrial progress? When the progress ceases, in what condition are we to expect that it will leave mankind?’ One searches in vain for any mention of these questions in modern economics texts.

    Anyways…I suppose the patriotic way of looking at it is – the momentum and the currency markets are with us. Just grow when you can & let the kids handle the problems we pass on.


  2. Ram Thursday January 13, 2005 / 5:19 am

    There seems to be this idea that this “dream world” of associations is something we have control over. This is not true, building such associations is a basic survival strategy of the human brain. Branding and other such value associations is just an offshoot of this process. It is something we do automatically, the businesses and ad agencies just try to build on it. And this is not something new, or even limited to humans, many other species learn to identify social class, we extend such social learning to objects and artifacts, that’s all.

    JKG is trying to make a dissociation between “real” utility (toothbrush cleans teeth) and “fictional” utility (stylish toothbrush signals X), but that is an artificial, and prescriptive, distinction from the point of view of survival, utility is utility. (BTW, his terminology for the two, truth and aesthetics, is a bit distressing, because it runs, and muddles, a whole lot of things together).


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