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April 30, 2006

Mind-Numbing Chatter and the Loss of a Great Thinker, John Kenneth Galbraith

I used to blog about Sunday talk shows on a more regular basis. It's not that I've stopped watching them; it's that I'm less interested in what I'm watching. My original reason for tuning in was simple - the lead stories in Monday newspapers were based on what people said Sunday morning, so why not just get the news straight from the horse's mouth? Now that I've been following them for several years, my excitement has waned.

So instead of TiVo'ing both This Week and Meet the Press (when I lived in LA, where they come on at ridiculously early times like 7am), I watch half an hour of each (during the football off-season). First of all, I only have broadcast tv now. Second, the first half hour of each show is plenty of time; usually the interviews are done during that time and the rest is spent on roundtables, and in the case of ABC, gimmicky recaps of comedy / tragedy (late night shows and obits).

First I saw Ben Stein ramble in defense of SecDef Rumsfeld on CBS News Sunday Morning (a folksy show that's a good way to ease into Sunday, hosted by Charles Osgood of radio fame). Then 9 o'clock rolled around an I saw SecState Rice on This Week. She defended everything from the administration's scare-mongering re Iran to its "helpful" energy policy. I'm really bored with the company line and the mainstream press's complete inability to offer serious, hard-hitting questions to challenge their sound bites.

Next up was a debate between someone I thought was a good ol' boy Republican and a Nor'Easter Dem. Turns out the first was a retired Dem, former LA Senator Bennett Johnston and the latter was NY senior Senator Chuck Schumer. Schumer harped about record oil profits, Johnston carped that instability and disaster have tightened the supply of oil leading to the current prices. This lasted fifteen minutes, ending with them agreeing that the Western Gulf of Mexico should be opened for drilling and more money should go to researching alternative fuels.

At this point, I switched to MtP. Their roundtable on oil lasted the whole hour, but I could only stay for 30 minutes (had an appointment on ABC). Here's what I really hate about these shows: roundtables are always held between The Establishment and The Establishment. Alternative voices are rarely invited, nor are they taken seriously if they are. So this roundtable featured Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, American Petroleum Institute President Red Cavaney, commentator Jim Cramer, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and energy analyst Daniel Yergin. That's four shills for Big Oil and one mildly left of center politician discussin big oil's rape of America. Why would anyone listen? That ain't a debate, it's a convention of sycophants with one guy starting every comment with "I guess I'm the only one who disagrees." No you're not - you're just the only one invited to the party!

Something the oil shills kept saying was that big conglomerates are needed to compete with the huge national companies overseas. Tim kept spewing numbers like $400 million in compensation for CEOs. Here's a thought: what if the US joined the rest of the world and allowed energy sales to benefit the entire country instead of a few billionaires? Imagine we lived in a country where record oil profits meant more money for schools, healthcare, and other societal needs. That's what Chavez is doing in Venezuela; why can't we do it here? We're not a nation of "rugged individualists;" we're a nation fed on the lies of the ruling class that blindly accepts falling wages because we foolishly think the American dream of pullin yourself up by your bootstraps is actually attainable.

Okay, so ultimately I don't like these talk shows because they absolutely never have a credible voice from outside the halls of power on their shows. It's not entirely their fault - I was watching The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS last week and got thoroughly frustrated with the idiot speaking against nuclear power; he wasn't an idiot, he just played one on tv because he had no sound bites and he couldn't articulate his crucial points in a convincing tone.

Right, so the halls of power aren't open to imagination. Nor are they open to many women or people of color. Condi was the only one who fit either of those categories amongst the peeps interviewed. (Roundtables of pundits don't count; tokenism is much easier in the halls of rambling cranks than it is in the halls of Actual Power.)

After an hour of this nonsense, I went back to ABC for a dose of Ebert & Roepert. Shockingly, they didn't like RV. They repeated their love of Akeelah and the Bee (no word on whether this will get them free Starbucks) and Flight 93. Even though half the show repeated their reviews from last week (see aforementioned movies), it was still more engaging than the chatter boxes.

Then I saw Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakariah. Ug. The man is too ubiquitous. I think he was also on the pundit roundtable I didn't watch on This Week. And why exactly does he take on Three Topics in 30 minutes?!?! There's no chance for any substance in what he / his staff reports on. The interviews are the quickest bits of nothing. Most interesting segment was on the textile market in Ghana. 90% of ppl in Ghana buy second-hand Western clothing. It's cheaper than Ghanian clothes (until recently, to wear traditional clothing, one had to buy the cloth than pay a tailor to make the clothes; now there are a few ready-to-wear manufacturers).

The part not talked about in the brief snippet: Western excess fuels this problem; our disposable clothing and finicky taste floods the world with secondhand clothing that is practically brand-new. It's a billion dollar a year business. I think it is a symptom of the larger problem of US-backed free-trade capitalism: excess consumption of unnecessary products, fueling our dependence on the corrupt system.

This ties into the obituary I read this morning for John Kenneth Galbraith. He followed Thorstein Veblen's example. Veblen wrote "Theory of the Leisure Class," and coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption." Snippets from Galbraith's extremely significant contribution to the world of ideas and politics:

"The Affluent Society" appeared in 1958, making Mr. Galbraith known around the world. In it, he depicted a consumer culture gone wild, rich in goods but poor in the social services that make for community. He argued that America had become so obsessed with overproducing consumer goods that it had increased the perils of both inflation and recession by creating an artificial demand for frivolous or useless products, by encouraging overextension of consumer credit and by emphasizing the private sector at the expense of the public sector. He declared that this obsession with products like the biggest and fastest automobile damaged the quality of life in America by creating "private opulence and public squalor."

Anticipating the environmental movement by nearly a decade, he asked, "Is the added production or the added efficiency in production worth its effect on ambient air, water and space — the countryside?" Mr. Galbraith called for a change in values that would shun the seductions of advertising and champion clean air, good housing and aid for the arts. [...]

In 1973 he published "Economics and the Public Purpose," in which he sought to extend the planning system already used by the industrial core of the economy to the market economy, to small-business owners and to entrepreneurs. Mr. Galbraith called for a "new socialism," with more steeply progressive taxes; public support of the arts; public ownership of housing, medical and transportation facilities; and the conversion of some corporations and military contractors into public corporations. [...]

In 2004, Mr. Galbraith, who was then 95, published "The Economics of Innocent Fraud," a short book that questioned much of the standard economic wisdom by questioning the ability of markets to regulate themselves, the usefulness of monetary policy and the effectiveness of corporate governance.

He remained optimistic about the ability of government to improve the lot of the less fortunate. "Let there be a coalition of the concerned," he urged. "The affluent would still be affluent, the comfortable still comfortable, but the poor would be part of the political system."

Despite the fact that Galbraith's ideas are dismissed by the corporate ruling class, his ideas have helped shape the world, especially in other countries that are pursuing viable alternatives to the lopsided development goals of the USG. I hope he did not suffer in his final years. While the world mourns the loss of a great man, can we really expect to live much longer than 97? May his ideas continue to illuminate the world.

Article quoted: "John Kenneth Galbraith, 97, Dies; Economist Held a Mirror to Society," by Holcomb Noble and Douglas Martin, front page of today's NYT

Posted by cj at April 30, 2006 11:32 AM

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