If you feel troubled by society’s fixation on producing more and more stuff regardless of whether we need it, then The Affluent Society may offer some comfort. If you also labour in a dull job that does little for you other than pay the bills, this book offers some hope, albeit distant. And if you wonder why poverty persists and why the debt culture gripped us to choking point, and worry that we haven’t yet broken its hold, then read on.
As the veteran of many a tedious job and multiple shopping trips that left me feeling uneasy and empty rather than radiantly fulfilled as the glossy ads had promised, I was excited to discover that The Affluent Society had pinpointed where I was going wrong. Written in 1958 in an amusingly quaint style – the author uses words like ‘pornografia’ and the wonderful ‘boondoggling’ – and updated forty years later, it introduced concepts that would become part of the common discourse. The distinguished economist and philosopher Amartya Sen said of it, ‘It’s like reading Hamlet and deciding it’s full of quotations. You realize where they came from.’
Its author, J. K. Galbraith, was a great popularizer of economics whose interest lay in solutions. He grew up on a Canadian farm and was teaching economics at Harvard in his twenties; he worked on the New Deal in FDR’s administration and served as ambassador to India under JFK. His most famous book is The Great Crash (see SF, No. 21), about the 1929 collapse of the stock market. (Galbraith said that when he couldn’t find it in the La Guardia bookshop he was told by a sales assistant, ‘That’s certainly not a title you could sell in an airport.’)
Often witty and always with the common good of society at its core, Galbraith’s cogent critique in The Affluent Society of how we run our economy still stands up today. Indeed his warning that ‘we do not really know the extent of the dange
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