The Culture of Contentment

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Satisfied citizens of the middle class and above have come to dominate American society, according to THE CULTURE OF CONTENTMENT. These contented Americans worry mostly about current conditions and their own immediate welfare, failing to consider future consequences of current policies. This short-sightedness, Galbraith conjectures, is likely to lead to one or more social problems.

Galbraith cites a variety of twentieth century cases in support of his argument. Political and social elites in the communist countries, for example, all failed to see that their repression would lead to eventual overthrow. At home, the savings and loan crisis was caused by a short-sighted desire for insurance on deposits with no consideration of the risk-seeking behavior that such insurance would cause. Elites in the United States also tried to prevent the New Deal reforms from occurring, reforms which in fact later served the elites well.

The system of contentment used to be functional, when the lower classes had some hope of advancement into the upper classes. Now, Galbraith says, there is a functional underclass, a group of citizens that cannot expect to improve their condition. The contented upper class, in typical myopic fashion, does not realize the danger posed by such a permanent underclass with no hope for the future. Supply-side economics, the Reagan Administration’s answer to the problems of the poor, is presented as an amalgam of ideas cobbled together to justify policies that favored the wealthy, with no empirical evidence to support them. Galbraith predicts social unrest as the discontented attempt to improve their situation. He admits that he has no sweeping solutions to offer, but he does have some modest recommendations. As might be expected, this diehard Keynesian suggests that pursuit of sound fiscal policies would be of help, and that monetarist policies of high interest rates should be abandoned.