BOOKS/Alvena Bieri

Primers for Progressive Populists

Suppose a friend earnestly asked me to recommend several recent books for a good, progressive citizen to read and study. It hasn't happened yet, but it could! There's a vast literature out there, I would answer, but you might start by reading some well-known people like economists John Kenneth Galbraith or Lester Thurow because so much of progressive, or new populist, thought is tied to understanding our economy and how it affects us ordinary people.

John Kenneth Galbraith, author of The Affluent Society and a list of other books that takes up a whole page, is over 90 years old now. About a year ago an updated version of this book, which was first published in 1958, came out in paperback (Houghton Mifflin, 1998, $13.) Galbraith has a sense of history and of the real world. Part of his experience came from his years in a poor part of the world when he was the U.S. ambassador to India.

In a writing style easier to understand than the usual Economics 101 textbook, he writes that most of our present ideas on how economies work are still influenced largely by the Big Three economists of the past, Adam Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo. He also takes us through the philosophies of Thorstein Veblen, who gave us the timeless phrase, "conspicuous consumption" and John Maynard Keynes, who had a new way of looking at what government can do to control and expand the economy.

Galbraith teaches that the old standbys of economics like the free market, the law of supply and demand, and completely free competition are largely human-created phenomena, not natural laws written firmly into the structure of the universe. Two brief examples: The law of supply and demand is skewed by advertising, and as we know by now, the corporation heads who claim publicly that they are all for free competition often really want not competition, but a monopoly.

Galbraith sees the public good, not just private consumption, as important. He says the very same people who are spending thou sands of dollars on luxuries are the same ones who balk when asked to vote a bond issue for a new school.

Galbraith emphasizes the significance of the growing gap between rich and poor in our country. This is also the subject of Shifting Fortunes, a small, new book from United For A Fair Economy (37 Temple Place, Boston, MA, 1999, $6.95.) The writers are from the staff of the group in addition to Holly Sklar, author of Chaos or Community? and a widely known newspaper opinion writer.

Their point is simple. It's bad for this society that there is such a chasm now between rich and poor. They write that "the top 1 percent had 40 percent of the nation's household wealth as of 1997." As a small step in the direction of closing the gap, economists Lester Thurow and Edward Wolff, author of the recent Top Heavy, propose a wealth tax which is explained in the conclusion of the book. It would be similar to that of Switzerland and many other European countries.

Finally, to my hypothetical friend I would suggest a book by Charles A. Reich, the same Yale law professor who wrote The Greening of America in the late 1960s. It is Opposing the System, published by Random House in 1995 and selling for $23. Reich argues that we have been seriously misled about what this country is really all about. He echoes the ideas of Robert L. Heilbroner, who holds that capitalism is mostly about the power of some people over the rest of us. Reich lays out "a new map of reality" to replace our old, mistaken impressions. This new thinking emphasizes that "our problems do not stem from a lack of personal responsibility, but rather from the avoidance of responsibility by the System."

Reich is a clear writer who wants us to judge our System by its results, not just by what politicians and the media tell us. "Military triumphs," he writes, "budgetary victories, space exploration, patriotic observances may stir enthusiasm ... but nothing produced by the 500 largest corporations has any meaning apart from the life of human beings ..."

John Ruskin wrote something similar in 1862: "That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings."

And that is what progressive populists are all about.

Alvena Bieri is a writer in Stillwater, Okla.

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