Challenge to Affluence
“As I see it,” Gunnar Myrdal writes, “the most important problem in the world today…is that America shall succeed in getting out of the rut of slow economic progress.” It is not mere hyberbole that leads Myrdal, an internationally known economist, to call this “the most important problem in the world,” nor mere humanitarian concern that makes him, a Swede, fasten on America’s well-being. Myrdal’s contention is that a rich and expansive America is a force for imaginative, accomodating, and magnanimous international relations, while a stagnant and frustrated America is not. America, says Myrdal, is a poor loser in the game of international politics. As a nation that has not mastered its domestic economic difficulties, it is hardly in a position to assert a natural leadership in foreign economic affairs. Rather, a sense of failure at home is apt to generate a peevish and recriminative attitude abroad. Hence on America’s domestic prosperity hinges not only the well-being of its own citizens, but to an important degree the well-being of the world.
But how to get America out of its rut? The cure, says Professor Myrdal, is for the American government to do what other Western governments (and Sweden in particular) are doing—that is, to take active steps in “applying the new knowledge we have about how to induce economic progress.” Furthermore these measures will not only accelerate America’s rate of economic growth, but they will also serve to help America catch up with the main line of social advance, behind which she now lags badly. “Never before in the history of America” he writes in italics, “has there been a greater and more complete identity between the ideals of social justice and the requirements of economic progress.”
These measures of mixed stimulation and reform stem from Myrdal’s diagnosis of what ails America. More and more people, he tells us, are going to be forced out of the effective working force by the entry of automation, and these unfortunates, unlike their counterparts in the past, will not be able to re-enter the labor market by selling their basic working skills elsewhere. For the trouble is that the market for untrained labor skills is steadily contracting, with the result that those who are once pushed outside the economic circuit remain permanently outside—not only unemployed but unemployable. At the same time their inability to buy naturally inhibits the growth of the very industries from which they are displaced. What portends is a prospect of chronic underperformance, chronic unemployment, and the development of a structurally unprivileged subproletariat.
But the cure follows from the nature of the disease. What we need to do is to prevent the displaced workers from becoming a hard core of unemployables, and simultaneously to increase the purchasing power in the hands of the lower echelons of society. Thus Myrdal calls for a massive program of reeducation and retraining, for the redistribution of purchasing power by taxes and transfers, for increased social security payments and coverage, for better unemployment benefits, for higher minimum wages, for an adequate health program. He urges as well public investments on the grand scale, not only to remove our terrible slums but to absorb the work force which cannot quickly be retained. Needless to say, he asks that we use the government’s budgetary powers boldly and intelligently. And finally, on the foreign front he suggests that we reconsider a number of rather blind commitments. Some of these have to do with our frozen attitude in the Cold War; another—more interesting because it is more novel—calls into question our uncritical support of the Common Market and reminds us sharply that the so-called Outer Seven countries (principally Britain and the Scandinavian bloc) have much more in common with us politically and culturally than the Inner Six.
Thus Challenge to Affluence presents itself—with minor exceptions and reservations—as a seemingly unexceptionable tract for liberal reform. It is not, to be sure, without its faults: Myrdal talks to us in the kindly but firm tone of the proverbial Dutch uncle, and it is never pleasant to be lectured at, no matter with what good intentions. Then, too, like so many pained uncles, he cannot resist I-told-you-sos (in the form of endless quotations from his own earlier books), and again like many an uncle, his pedestrian recital of our faults and our proper course ends by becoming boring. Perhaps more important, the lecture is not at all times entirely convincing. The fundamental point—that we are developing into a structurally lopsided economy—is asserted rather than forcefully demonstrated, and some of the reiterated strictures against the Common Market (constantly denigrated as “bureaucratic”) strike me as going much too far.
Yet these faults and flaws are not the important thing about this book. Neither is the basic program of reform itself. Rather what impresses me as the central issue is a problem with which Myrdal scarcely comes to grips—but which, by its very absence gives Myrdal’s lecture its peculiar significance, or lack of it.
For who, after all, can cavil with Myrdal’s program in the large? Who does not wish to retrain the technologically displaced, to shunt income from those who have too much to those who have too little, to tear down the slums, to apply our new knowledge of economic mechanics more fearlessly? Is this not merely a program of elementary common sense, of decency and justice? Is it not inherently a program which inspires the overwhelming support of the great majority of the population?
The answer is, of course, that it is not; and it is here that important and interesting social inquiry begins—not in the rediagnosis of a malperforming capitalist mechanism, or in the design of economic attachments which, if properly hooked up, would make the machine once again function smoothly. The real question is why we are so indifferent to remediable evil, so uninterested in attainable reform. Why will Gunnar Myrdal’s eminently reasonable book not result in the immediate drafting of suitable legislation to put it into effect?
For answers to these questions we seek in vain in his lecture. Not that Myrdal, who is a wise old uncle, is blind to these matters. He himself mentions “the resistance of prejudice and vested interests,” and suggests that it will “postpone” the needed “huge reforms”; “America’s course,” he writes, “will be in all likelihood a checkered one.” But having said as much as he goes on to repose his ultimate faith in the power of education to bring enlightenment.
Perhaps. One hopes so. But if we are to mend our ways, we will at least have to know whom to educate. The big business elite? The people at large? The petty bourgeoisie? Who shall do the educating? And in what terms shall this education be couched? To raise these questions is to bring us face to face with the recognition that society is not merely a great neutral machine to be repaired by a neutral repairman as soon as enough people are taught that it is not functioning properly. Society is an organism which exists, among other purposes, in order to create, perpetuate, and justify privilege. To change the economic or the political structure of society is thus a matter which is rarely if ever accomplished by the force of sweet reasonableness. It is, rather, accomplished by the bitter unreasonableness of force—political or military.
And that is why Gunnar Myrdal’s lecture is not, finally, interesting. It tells us what we should do—but not how to do it. The real, the absolutely central issue is ignored: how will this program for reform be put into effect? Who will vote for it? Who will fight for it? Why is it not in effect already? Until these questions are spelled out clearly, lectures by well-meaning Swedish uncles are apt to have about as much effect as lectures by well-meaning Dutch uncles.