Galbraith’s narrative begins with World War I and its aftermath, and concludes with the breakup of the former Soviet Union. In discussing key economic, political, and social events of those years, Galbraith criticizes both proponents of capitalism and communism—the former for not recognizing the inherent callousness in its system and the latter for failing to recognize the importance of satisfying consumer demand.
According to Galbraith, the twentieth century has largely been the struggle between two opposing points of view: the necessity of nations suppressing their individual desires for those of the larger community (e.g., the United Nations, the European Economic Community, the North American Free Trade Association), and the tendency of nations to resist any infringement on their sovereignty (the defeat of the League of Nations, the controversy over the levying of foreign tariffs). This same struggle is mirrored in an individual’s objectives and those of the larger community of which she or he is also a member (e.g., the speculation of Wall Street brokers in the 1920’s, the clamor for tax cuts by the wealthy in the 1980’s).
As Galbraith was present during many of the key events he discusses, he provides an insider’s view of why and how decisions were made, including the role of Keynesian thought on the actions of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet and the War on Poverty initiative during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Galbraith is a highly readable economist, blending anecdote with historical event with a discussion of economic terms the average layperson can understand. One cautionary note should be included: Because Galbraith relies almost exclusively on his recollections, there are few footnotes, only a handful of references are cited, and the author makes no attempt to present both sides of an argument or issue.