Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Affluent Society - “The Redress of Balance” Precis

“The Redress of Balance”, chapter twenty-one, deals with the need for a balance between the goods and services we have and our need for public goods. The text argues that the private goods are privileged over public goods because of the ability to advertise, and thereby create a sense of need for private goods. Although society may need things such as schools, hospitals, poverty relief, and public parks because they are not advertised for in the way products like alcohol, cigarettes, and cars are advertised there is less motivation to address these public needs. The inherent difference in the will for the public good as opposed to the private good lies not some quality of the good itself, but rather in who the good is sold to. The private good is sold to an individual so it can be directly marketed to the individual. The public good on the other hand serves the interest of a community as a whole and therefore requires that the need to prove the necessity of the good to the community. Public goods must be of a vital pressing interest to the entire community, while private goods simply need to be something the individual desires. The only public good that seems to have little problem in being argued for is national security. Beyond just the greater requirements placed on public goods, the funds for public goods are far more likely to be argued to not exist.
The funds for public goods come from both income and sales taxes. Income taxes provide not only funds for public goods, but also a means to create equality by taxing the rich greater than the poor. The issue that arises with the question of equality is the degree to which equality should be ensured, or more simply how much inequality is acceptable and even desired. Because of political tension the attempt to decrease inequality has been achieved not by raising the taxes of the wealthy, but by lowering the taxes of the poor which then decreases the government’s ability to fund programs to decrease inequity among people. Despite the seemingly obvious goals of public programs and taxation the liberal, who argues for them, will align themselves closer with the vague goal of social balance. The term social balance is ambiguous, both in Galbraith’s argument and in the real world. Social balance seems to refer to the desire for less inequality, more economic balance between the rich and the poor, and to the desire for a primarily economic stability in society. The use of the term balance falsely supposes that even when there is not a direct effort for a completely equal distribution of wealth there is some natural balance of distribution of the wealth of public goods that should be worked for. It is unclear what degree of inequality is acceptable or who should have more wealth and who should have less. Sales taxes are often used because although they do not in any way contribute to social balance, they provide a way to avoid having to clearly define social balance or the desirable degree of social balance while funding the public goods to contribute to social balance.
Sales taxes are reviled because of how sales taxes affect those who buy little and those who are able to and choose to purchase many goods by the same percent cost per good purchased. Galbraith argues that even with this apparent inequality of economic pressure sales taxes place on the poor versus the rich, sales taxes are a function of social balance because they provide the resources to fund programs for decreasing inequality. The liberal then who opposes the sales tax is the enemy of social balance, which Galbraith argues is necessary for decreasing poverty. The liberal argues for the income tax, in part at least, because “income taxes... have, in addition, their role as built-in stabilizers of the economy. As incomes fall, the personal tax, through the mechanism of the progressive rates, automatically reduces itself.” unlike sales taxes the effects of income taxes are not equal; they are proportionate (Galbraith 231). The political potential of sales taxes to fund public goods to contribute to social balance should not be ignored, according to Galbraith, who seems to view them as more politically viable than income taxes.
The end of this chapter discusses how it is impossible to know when one has reached social balance and how the uncertainty of social balance is a mark of the affluent society we live in. Social balance is described as the, “satisfaction of private and public needs” (Galbraith 233). Galbraith further describes social balance as when, “the opulence of our private consumption will no longer be in contrast with the poverty of our school, the unloveliness and congestion of our cities, our inability to get to work without struggle and the social disorder that is associated with imbalance.” (Galbraith 233). The fact that social balance is undefinable and unmeasurable perpetuates the liberal attempt through conventional wisdom to solve the issue of poverty. Because there is no definable end goal in the pursuit of social balance, the liberal ascribing to the conventional wisdom always has a purpose: creation and increased social balance. Nothing is really accomplished in this pursuit, but the continuation of the pursuit.
This chapter seems especially aimed at the liberal member of the affluent society who at once disdains poverty and at the same time does not make any real efforts to redress poverty. “The Redress of Balance” seeks to force its reader to re-examine their own complacency in their ideas about how redress poverty. Poverty is taken by the assumed liberal reader and the author as something that needs to be, at least partially, eliminated from society and the methods to reduce poverty, and thereby increase equality, are also agreed upon. The text assumes the reader agrees that through public goods, such as schools, hospitals, and a police force issues of poverty can be addressed. The reason such obvious solutions have not been put into place in the necessary degree is because of the complacency of the people and the lack of motivation. I see myself as part of this intended audience, which I believe makes me both more worried about the implications of the text and more eager to find an argument to counter the arguments of the piece to avoid guilt for not taking more action to restore social balance.
Interestingly Galbraith views public goods not simply as desired out of needs of societies but states, “there are large ready-made needs for schools, hospitals, slum clearance and urban redevelopment, sanitation, parks, playgrounds, police and other pressing public services. Of these needs, almost no one must be persuaded. They exist because, as public officials of all kinds and ranks explain each day with practiced skill, the money to provide for them is unavailable.” indicating that public goods like private goods must be argued for. The use of the word because suggests that although there is a need for public goods such as schools and hospitals it must be argued for, like private goods must be advertised for. The text does not address the problem of creating a community where all or a majority of the members agree on the need for a public good. In situations of great inequality it seems likely that those who could afford individual replacements for public goods, such as private education, home and work security systems and officers, would often choose the private option and try to avoid contribution to the funds for the public good. The poor who cannot afford these services then go without education or safety from crime and the division between the affluent and the poor widens. Furthermore in societies with diversity the creation of several subgroups as opposed to one, unified society could serve to undermine the creation of a public willing to provide funding for the public good and work with the other subgroups to provide the public good for everyone. The problem with public goods is not simply that they must be argued for but that the public good requires a public concerned with the interests of the society as a whole, not just their individual interests which may conflict with the needs of the society as a whole.
Assuming there is a cohesive group who in general have the same needs and interests there are still fundamental questions that must be addressed in shaping and funding public goods. Galbraith cites, “the ancient and unresolvable question of whether the rich are too rich” as a fundamental problem that arises in determining how and whether to fund public goods (Galbraith 227). The unresolvability of the question of how to fund public goods ties the issue of funding to the unresolvable issue of when social balance is achieved. Galbraith states, “at what point may we conclude that balance has been achieved in the satisfaction of private and public needs. The answer is that no test can be applied, for none exists.” describing the issue of funding. The text presents the issue of social balance as being impossible to call into question the way in which social balance is conceived of as being important and the means which are typically employed to achieve social balance. This questioning of the system of social balance is not idle, rather it is designed to impel the sympathetic, liberal reader into finding the political and economic willpower to overturn the current lack of meaningful action to address poverty in a society of staggering wealth.
This argument is made by examples and descriptions which are assumed to be easily relatable to the readers’ understanding of the modern affluent society. The need for police protection, hospitals, and schools are easily understandable, at least in the abstract. Galbraith describes liberal conventional wisdom as believing that poverty must be addressed and that the government through social programs which create social balance to address inequalities. The readers are expected to follow this conventional wisdom and from the hopelessness presented by the current conventional wisdom find new ways of addressing inequality. This chapter address the problems with the use of the conventional wisdom to solve problems of inequality and poverty. The Affluent Society presents a theory of how thoughts in society work and why what is seemingly desired by the conventional wisdom, of liberals at least, is not completed. This chapter explains how the conventional wisdom and approaches to solve the recognized problem of poverty actually prevents the substantive changes the prevailing societal ideas, social wisdom, advocate for. “The Redress of Balance” acts to push us from the ineffectiveness of our current ideas for redressing poverty into new ideas that have the affects in society we call for, rather than just being satisfying in the abstract, intellectual realm, through illustration of the failure of the current framework of ideas on addressing poverty.

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