It's one thing for authors who are consultants or graphic designers to note the importance of life outside the ledger sheet, but it's quite another thing for an estimable economist to do the same thing. After all, what is economics but the study of money and the creation and transfer of goods and services. But economics really isn't just about the bottom line. The eminent economic scholar John Kenneth Galbraith demonstrated that for us 40 years ago when he published his seminal The Affluent Society. He challenged the notion that economics was all about maximizing production. He described how an affluent society creates the needs it then seeks to fill, and he cautioned of the dangers of a system that maintains a robust private sector and an impoverished public sphere. Economics, Galbraith said, was also about the environment and the quality of our lives.
Forty years later, Galbraith's The Affluent Society has been republished, updated and boasting a new introduction by the author. Though elegantly written, the book can be at times complex reading. After the passage of a significant chunk of time, most of what Galbraith had to say stands up quite well and is well worth the effort.
Consider this oft-quoted passage about the limits of the good life. A family is on an outing. "They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?" Such cultural criticism doesn't sound like it was launched in 1958 at the height of unquestioned consumerist America, when a burgeoning middle class sought to raise its baby boomer kids in a sanitized suburban style.
It was also in this book that Galbraith defined the now ubiquitous phrase "the conventional wisdom" and then showed how it was doomed to forever be fighting the last war. He wrote: "The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events . . . Ideas are inherently conservative. They yield not to the attack of other ideas but . . . to the massive onslaught of circumstance with which they cannot contend."
There is much to learn and appreciate here. Forty years later, Galbraith's ideas are fresh and provocative.