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Me talk okay words

I of course obsessively Google my own name, and I just found that the Hipcrime blog mentioned my talk at the Full Circle Series (recording available at the C-realm site here). More than that, they actually bothered to transcribe part of it! It reads much like I was giving a talk without notes (which I was), but I’m surprised at much sense I made. Here’s Hipcrime’s transcription:

It turns out that here is a whole forgotten tradition of economics, a very liberal and almost radical tradition of economics that has really; as I said, it’s forgotten. It’s amazing the degree to which it’s fallen off the radar. The most prominent practitioner of this, was a guy named John Kenneth Galbraith. He was a big-shot academic, but he also wrote popular books, and his first big best–seller was called The Affluent Society. And If anybody remembers that book at all, people say that Galbraith was being arch or sarcastic when he was talking about “the Affluent Society,” and that he was talking about really, how poor we were, or whatever. That’s not true. The book The Affluent Society was exactly about that.

His point was, and he was his writing in the fifties, his point was, we’ve solved the problem of production. We can make anything we want; any thing we want, in more or less the quantities we want it. Anything that comes from private industry, whether it’s a car or a razor or whatever, it’s coming in enough profusion that we don’t really have to worry about that aspect of the economy anymore. And his evidence was, look around you.  Look at all these people trying to convince you to buy stuff. Hungry people don’t need to be convinced to buy food. Naked people don’t need to be convinced to buy clothes. The most advertising that anyone would do in that situation is just to tell you where to find it. But that’s not the sort of advertising he was seeing in the fifties. That was the fifties; it’s gotten much worse since then. If we were still at the other space; at the other space there were ads in the elevator, because God forbid you should spend that ten-second ride without possibly being convinced to buy something.

And so, all this advertising is expensive, and they wouldn’t do it if we actually wanted the things they were making. Which is actually a pretty radical thing to say, because all our economic ideas are based on the idea that at the end, when people make stuff and sell it, they’re filling our wants. That I may want a silk shirt one day, and a cool new razor the next day, and if I do, that’s great because somebody’s actually coming and supplying that want, and the amount of misery in the world goes down a little bit. But if we didn’t want the thing until these people actually made it and convinced us to want it, then the whole system is not quite as good as we thought.

Far more radical was his next book called The New Industrial State. That’s where he asked the question, ‘well, who’s doing this?’ And obviously you or I can’t afford gigantic marketing campaigns. His point, which is pretty obvious, is that these giant marketing campaigns are coming from very big businesses. But then he made the point that not only do these big businesses like to convince us to buy things, but they actually need toThey have no choice. And he took the example of a car: You start designing a car, you have to tool up, you have to hire the workers, you have to find a plant, all this stuff. And mainstream economics would have it that, after all this process, the car company goes to the free market and lets supply and demand dictate how much they’re going to sell and at what price. And his point is, they can’t possibly do that! They have to control the whole process, including sales. When they start designing the car, they have to know more or less how much it’s going to cost, and they have to be pretty well sure that they’re going to sell enough. And they ensure they’re going to sell enough by advertising.

So GM manufactures cars, and then GM manufactures our desire for cars, and everybody’s happy unless you think we don’t need quite so many cars. Now note how radical this is. Again, you’re getting very far away from the image that we have of businesses as just these helpful things that are giving us things we want.

Galbraith was very big until the nineteen-seventies. And to really take him seriously means abandoning all of economics and a lot of our social thought and completely rethinking our economy, and that’s very hard. And things seemed to be going okay, so he really got dropped and forgotten. And one reason is, we don’t like to be told we’re being manipulated. We like to think that we’re making our own decisions.

The Hipcrime post also has other transcriptions of parts of other podcasts that are worth reading. Check it out!

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