In an episode of Mad Men, Don Draper attempts to give his father-in-law five dollars after the old man realizes and complains that his money went missing. “You people,” says the aggravated grandfather after being offered reimbursement for the lost money, “You think money is the answer to every problem.” “No,” says a disingenuous Draper, “Just this particular problem.” And this, my dear wolfpack, is one simplified exemplification of the relationship between the conventional wisdom and the reproblematization of concerns in modern economic theory.
The identification of John Galbraith’s conventional wisdom, as the conceptual category for the ideas that take commonplace acceptance in a particular historical situation, with the father-in-law’s perspective of traditional fiscal responsibility, one that presupposes a particular understanding of money’s social designation, is the implication of creating such a category to create similarities and distinctions in the discourse of our modern economic reality (a concept that must also be interrogated and reevaluated). On one level, one can say that the aforementioned scene in Mad Men closely resembles Galbraith’s articulation of the emergence of the leisure class, and the conceptual changes that were implicated within the discourse arising from such a class distinction. Here, the value and meaning of money has changed from a moment in history where the unequivocal relationship between money and survival was tantamount to survival itself, to a modern displacement of value in consumer markets. Yet, the conventional wisdom has with its identifications numerous disidentifications that are implicit in such totalizing characterizations of economic behavior, which holds such concepts susceptible to moments of unintelligibility, incoherence, and irresoluteness in the face of a changing, fluid reality. In rendering a version of history that promises to resolve itself through an ordering of knowledge, how does Galbraith ensure that the space occupied by the conventional wisdom remains intact through various historical transformations? How does the conventional wisdom become integral in explaining these complex economic processes? What are in question here are the qualities allowing the conventional wisdom to overcome preemptive disqualifications, and the ways in which it fails to accomplish this task.
Our point of departure begins with Galbraith’s analysis of the way in which the conventional wisdom failed to understand the modern concern for security coinciding with a fetish for stability. The argument, here, contends that the conventional wisdom takes as an assumption the importance of insecurity in insuring high levels of productivity, and that this assumption translates to characterizing security in terms of the risks and hazards of modern economic life. Since the conventional wisdom opposes governmental assistance on the basis that such policies encourage idleness and unproductive behavior, the drive for productivity, under this perspective, stems solely from unfettered competition. Yet, the mere existence of social security programs proves that this conservatism is false, considering the remarkable rates of growth that followed the security imperatives of the 1930s. The limitation on the number of risks available in economic life turned the conventional wisdom obsolete by recognizing the ability of contemporary society to meet levels of subsistence, while generating surpluses conducive to reducing the importance of other risks. Therefore, the mitigation of the “business cycle” has provided the conditions conducive for Don Draper to charitably give grandpa five dollars.
This makes sense: government intervention on maintaining a standard of living through unemployment, old age, and survival pensions reflects the inadequacies of the conventional wisdom to explain security in a modern context. But the availability of identifying the conventional wisdom is possible only when one becomes cognizant of the historical possibilities that surround the concern for security. Following the discourse of economic theory while simultaneously recognizing the fluctuations occurring in reality is the obstacle confronting Galbraith if he is to posit a way of characterizing the complexity of this trajectory that is capable of producing other mobilizations necessary for effective solutions. If we take Galbraith seriously in identifying particular historical moments in their relation to the conventional wisdom, then there exists a possibility in distinguishing these moments in their importance, magnitude, and significance to the future hinging on the proliferation of the “march of ideas”. However, the question of how these identifications are made complicates the understanding of economic discourse through the object that the conventional wisdom attempts to encompass. This is because of the loose association between a complex history and a particular transformative event that the conventional wisdom brings to presence. But if this association is tethered by the articulation of history through the aggregation of particular events, and all of these considerations are located within specific socio-historical imperatives, then the conventional wisdom looses the capacity to generate a coherent history, and is instead situated within another discursive history promulgated by particular liberal motivations.
The distancing of the conventional wisdom of any time period seems to be justified by the liberalization of reality. Galbraith writes that the importance of insecurity to the world preceding our modern one was “cherished almost exclusively either in the second person or in the abstract. Its need was thought urgent for inspiring the efforts of other persons or people in general” (81). There was no one individual who celebrated his or her own insecurity in the presence of scarcity and famine. The distance associated in recognizing the essential nature of insecurity was experienced through the lives of others. Now, the individual was protected by government pensions as opposed to being subjected to the auto-corrective features of a competitive market, which is assumed to be insecurity as perceived through the second person. Since security solved, for the most part, the high risks involved in a volatile market while maintaining an increase in production, the distancing involved in the search for security is mediated by the fact that it has become a finished business, i.e., that the distance has been reconfigured into a separation. Hence, the separation between the individual and specific socio-economic prescriptions become necessary to progress living standards on the basis of an idealized rational individual with particular desires and needs to be satisfied. Analogously, the conventional wisdom depends on a rationalization of history with marked identifications and separations that distances the experience of history and its idealized rendering. What is at stake in presupposing artificial distinctions is the failure to recognize the difficulty in seeing something as both political and economical without subverting one to another’s rationale. If viewed in this way, the conventional wisdom is unable to cognitively map the contemporary situation without referring back to a history whose trajectory would inevitably produce the conditions for the situation’s existence.
For the reasons outlined in this précis, I am reluctant to embrace my own identification of the conventional wisdom through Mad Men. On the one hand, the conventional wisdom easily explains the obsolescence of old belief systems in emerging realities. On the other hand, Don Draper cannot be integrated into the conventional wisdom schema since the cooption of his beliefs has not occurred, or has yet to manifest intelligibly in the form of the conventional wisdom. As such, the possibility for discerning the situation as an event will be obscured so long as the conventional wisdom remains salient in organizing a coherent history. Draper can neither be characterized solely on the basis of an opposition to the conventional wisdom nor as the conventional wisdom itself since Galbraith’s understanding of this concept has obfuscated what the situation could mean, and how it is to be interpreted.