01 May 2006

J K Galbraith

J K Galbraith's death at 97 is a loss of the greatest liberal economist. He wrote many books in his life and held many high powered jobs, but it was his 1958 book The Affluent Society that made him famous. In it he pointed out the paradox of an extremely rich country with a large minority living in poverty, and the failure of right-wing economics to address this problem. As a liberal I have never really understood why right-wing parties get as much support as they do, as it involves many people voting against their own interests. Whether it is the Republicans in the US or the Conservatives in the UK, right-wing parties are basically pushing economic policies based on selfishness and greed. Of course overtly arguing for selfishness and greed is not a vote winner, so they have to be dressed up as loony economic theories that argue, for example, that the lowest paid workers should not be helped because the low pay is an incentive to work harder. High paid workers however apparently need more money as an incentive for them to increase their performance. Trickle-down theories which argued that tax cuts for the rich were the best way to help the poor were also vigourously opposed by Galbraith.

In a recent episode of The West Wing shown in the UK (The Debate, an episode which was shown live in the US), the fictional Republican candidate Arnold Vinick said at one point that he and the Democratic candidate wanted the same things - they just disagreed about the way to achieve those aims. I have heard this sentiment before from politicians, and it may be true in the fictional world of The West Wing, but mostly it is not true. I believe most right-wingers want policies that support their prejudices: they do not want a fairer society so do not support economic theories that purport to achieve it.

Galbraith lived and died in the richest country in the world, a country with a Republican president and in which 37 million people (over 12% of the population) live in poverty.

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