Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Ishiguro Test

Quiz time.  It’s multiple choice, so don’t get too worried—unless you are one of those people who habitually panics about multiple choice tests, in which case, since you have a preternatural obsession and are going to worry no matter what I suggest, go ahead and worry.

What is the title of the novel whose plot is summarized in the following paragraph?

The narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is an emotionally reserved adult reflecting on the past.  The reflections have a high literary flair, which is presumably because Ishiguro can write so well, but which is not quite in keeping with how we would expect the narrator to write.  The emotionally reserved part is fine, but one wonders how the narrator learned to write so incredibly well..  That is a minor problem however—indeed, the book has such high literary merit it is easy to overlook.  The novel starts at a moment when the narrator has cause to reflect on the past and then immediately starts jumping back into autobiographical mode, with enough breaks in the autobiography to remind you of when the narrator is writing.  As the story unfolds, there are a number of small surprises and one Big Surprise.  But, in every case, there was such extensive foreshadowing that the surprises never actually surprise.  By the time the Reveals happen, the overriding response is, “Well of course that is what was going on.”   This is clever writing, by the way—it would not be easy to write a book in which the surprises just gradually emerge in a manner that the reader is never surprised by the surprise.  Despite the fact that the narrator continues to live past the point in which the novel ends, there is a sense of completeness here.  The arc of the narrator’s Life has ended despite the fact that the narrator will continue to live for a time, probably relatively short, past the end of the novel.  All in all, the novel is extremely good, in part because Ishiguro writes so incredibly well, but also because the story has some intrinsic interest, taking on a matter of contemporary relevance.

Here is the quiz.
The novel described above is:
a) Remains of the Day
b) Never Let Me Go

I’ll pause while you decide.

Time’s up.  It was a trick question.  The summary above fits both novels.  This leads to a strange phenomenon—on the surface, these two novels are completely different.  In one, we have an English butler as a narrator.  In the other we have a 31 year old woman who used to live in a boarding school.  Yet, underneath the structure, underneath the Big Surprise (which will be discussed shortly—it is impossible to discuss these books and keep the surprise hidden—so if you are averse to knowing what happens in these books, you’ll want to stop reading now—then again, neither surprise is really all that surprising by the time you get to it), underneath the storylines, the novels have the same structure written in the same way by a person with exactly the same sense of emotional reserve.

I read The Remains of the Day a year or so ago.  I thought it was amazing.  Vastly better than Never Let Me Go.  What I have no way of knowing is whether if I had read these novels in the other order, I would have liked Never Let Me Go  more.  (For example, decades ago when I read Ludlum a lot, I liked The Aquitaine Progression the best—it was the first one I read, and I suspect I liked it the best because once you have read one Ludlum novel, you have read them all.)  That being said, I suspect the tale of the English butler is a superior novel.  There is vastly more subtlety to the whole thing.  It is an extended reflection on the idea of decorum and loyalty in an world in which such things are breaking down.  Is it wrong to maintain standards when one discovers the English Lord whom you serve is a Nazi?

Never Let Me Go got high praise all around.  It certainly deserves praise, but I did not think it was anywhere near as gripping as The Remains of the Day.   The problem: once you realize that the narrator is a clone, being raised for the sole purpose of being a medical donor to those in need of donations (the science of the donations is never made clear), then the rest of the novel just feels like it is running out the course.  The Remains of the Day stayed intriguing until the end.  But, I found myself, just waiting for Never Let Me Go to get around to announcing what was already known and then wrapping up.  Perhaps my problem was that I found the narrator personally more interesting in one novel than in the other. 

But, I have this nagging idea that Ishiguro was also simply going through the motions in crafting this novel.  He had an idea—let’s discuss cloning in a way which will get people thinking about it, really thinking about it (more about this anon).  Then, needing a way to tell that story, he thought he might as well rehash the structure of his greatest novel.  If so, then he was partly successful, but Never Let Me Go needed a bit more work to bring it to full success.

The cloning idea does merit thought.  Imagine science does develop the ability to clone humans.  Do the clones have a soul?  Are they people with Natural Rights?  Or, since they have been created, are they best considered no different than the biological agents used to make vaccines?  It would seem rather important to settle this matter before we start cloning humans, but of course, we won’t.  Someday we will be faced with exactly the sort of question which lies at the heart of Ishiguro’s novel.  I expect this is the reason for much of the praise of this novel—people who have never thought about this issue would find themselves suddenly pondering a deep moral question in a novel they picked up having no idea that is what it contained.

On the surface, Ishiguro’s novel is an argument for the humanity of the clones.  Yet…I have another nagging succession.  Is the novel more nuanced than the first reading would suggest?  The clones…well, as  I think about them, they aren’t entirely convincing as people.  Maybe this is just the emotional reserve of the narrator, but maybe the emotional reserve is a clue to that something on which I cannot place my finger that makes me suspect that on a rereading, maybe the clones won’t seem so human after all.  Therein lies the real question about the Greatness of Ishiguro’s book.  If the matter of whether the clones are fully human, complete with souls, is ambiguous in this novel, then it might just be a Great Book.  If the novel does not support debate on this question, however, it will be a period piece, worth your time if you enjoy nicely crafted sentences.  Then again, if you just want that, I’d suggest reading the Remains of the Day instead—that one has serious Great Book potential.

The song is obvious Judy Bridgewater’s Never Let Me Go: it is the song from which the book gets its title.  But, here is the funny part.  Judy Bridgewater doesn’t exist.  The album from which the song comes in the novel doesn’t exist.  Ishiguro made up the song when writing the novel.  But, I just included a link to a YouTube video with a version of a song which does not exist being sung by a person who does not exist.  Gotta love the modern age.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Cat's Cradle

A history of human stupidity. 

I am not about to write such a thing, but the idea is amusing.  Sadly, the book would be too long to read in a lifetime—and that is assuming you were just reading the abridged version. 

But, we have the next best thing: Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle.  It’s nominally fiction, but fiction of the sort that says something truer than non-fiction.

This is Vonnegut’s fourth novel.  As I have noted in this space before, thanks to the Library of America publishing all of Vonnegut, I embarked on reading him in order and it all makes so much more sense now.  I had read this novel before, and when I finished it, I had no idea what I just read and thus I promptly forgot the whole thing.  But now, after reading Sirens of Titan and Mother Night, the novel was perfectly sensible.   What is curious about this fact:  Cat’s Cradle is in no way a sequel to the previous two books other than being the intellectual sequel—Vonnegut could only have written this book after writing the previous two. 

Insofar as there is a thesis in this book it is this:  History is just one stupid human act after another and in the end we all die and it was perfectly meaningless.  Yet,  this is no cause for despair.  Because, when you look at it, when you really look closely at it, when you press your eyeball right up against history and stare as intensely as you can at it, then you see that all this human stupidity is really quite funny.  You just have to stop taking everything so seriously.  You have to stop striving for some Big Think overarching narrative story that makes sense of the whole thing in terms of Grand Causes or Grand Cosmic Ends.  Just chop up reality into really tiny parts (this book is 183 pages long and has 127 chapters—you do the math) and look at each part on its own and realize that each part, which follows from what went before and leads to what comes after, each part individually is just another senseless act of stupidity in a long string of actions of senseless stupidity all leading to yet more acts of senseless stupidity.  In the end, we all die.  But, don’t get all worked up about that either—even our death is just one more small little bit of human stupidity following inexorably from what came before.  So laugh.  Really, just laugh. 

This is a brilliant book.  Wrong, of course—there is a Grand Overarching Cosmic Narrative—but wrong in a useful way.  For example—take this moment.  (Whether that means the moment the following is being written or the moment the following is being read is irrelevant, but it will be more amusing to consider the latter).  I want to, and truth be told, you Dear Reader also want to, imagine that this moment is larger than it is, that there is some Great Purpose to this moment, that this moment cannot be stripped out of eternity and held up like a 1.44 page chapter as an entity unto itself and laughed at.  I (and you) want to believe that there is some larger meaning to all this, that I am not simply adding to the chronicle of human stupidity by writing this and that you are not adding an even greater stupidity by actually reading this.  (Who’s the more foolish: the fool or the fool who follows him? (If you don’t know the soruce of that, I weep for you.))  We, you and I, Dear Reader, want to weave this moment into something meaningful.  Yet, is it?  Can I honestly say that by writing these rambling semi-coherent reflections I am adding to human wisdom?  I am rehashing a book which I said up front was a book I read before and promptly forgot because it seemed so purposeless and now I am calling it brilliant because I found some purpose in a purposeless book and you are reading my second-hand reflections on the book hoping to discover…what?  What, Dear Reader, did you really hope to attain in the few moments you read this blog post?  Did you honestly expect to become more wise, to lessen the amount of human stupidity in history by charging forth after reading this to revolutionize the world?  Did you really believe that by reading this blog post you would make the world would a better place?

I just opened Cat’s Cradle at random.  Chapter 98.  We read in that chapter:
“I agree with one Bokonist idea.  I agree that all religions, including Bokononism, are nothing but lies.”
Is that Bokonist Idea the truth or a lie?  That of course is the Joke.    As the Cretan said, “All Cretans are liars.”  The apostle Paul (or should that be Saint Paul?) said that.  Now Paul was writing to Titus when he said that and Titus was ministering to the people of Crete and Paul used that joke to remind Titus about the sort of people he was serving.  Paul wasn't kidding—as he said, “that statement is true.”  Paul has a sense of humor too.  So, opening up Cat’s Cradle at random, truly at random, I suddenly found Vonnegut and Paul sharing a joke and then I wrote about it, and you Dear Reader, read about it, and what did we all, you, me, Vonnegut, and Paul, just accomplish?  This paragraph is 2000 years in the making, and we just advanced humanity…how?

So, while I believe in the Grand Cosmic Narrative, while I believe there is a teleological point to human existence, it is hard to escape the Vonnegutian Perspective.  Moment by moment, history sure does seem like just one stupid thing after another.  Momet by moment, those acts of stupidity are pretty funny.  I am very amused that you are actually still reading this, Dear Reader.  At what point did you miss the cue that there is nothing here worth reading?

Page 47.  I just picked that page number at random.  (Was it truly random?  Why 47?  I have no idea.)  I am about to turn to page 47 and will transcribe a sentence from that page.  I note this to give you fair warning.  Do you really believe there is any possibility that something on page 47 of this book will generate an observation which is worth your time, Dear Reader?  Think of this as the Rorschach test moment.  If your answer to that was “Yes,” then what, Dear Reader, gives you any hope that a sentence on a random page from a random book on a random blog written by Your Humble Narrator will have meaning?  And, if your answer was “No,” then why are you still reading (that isn’t a rhetorical question)?

From page 47: OK.  I’ll admit it, this is really quite eerie.  The first thing on page 47 is the end of chapter 32:
But all I could say as a Christian then was, “Life is sure funny sometimes.”
“And sometimes it isn’t,” said Marvin Breed.
Here is the part I find seriously troubling.  I really did just pick the number 47 at random, wrote the preceding paragraph and then turned to page 47 and there it was.  I did not rewrite the preceding paragraph in any way after turning to page 47.  I, of course, have absolutely no way to convince you, Dear Reader, that this was, in fact what happened.  Indeed, I suspect you think this whole thing is rigged.  Honestly, if I was reading this blog post I would think this whole thing was some lame attempt to make a point.   I can’t think of anything the author could write that would convince me otherwise.  But, as the writer of this blog post, I know something you, the Reader, don’t know.  It really did just happen   It wasn't made up.  I am troubled.  This is just too strange for my tastes.  I mean I get that God has a sense of humor too, but to orchestrate things so that I would turn to that page at the end of this blog post and find those two sentences right at the top of the page…well, that is just a bit too much Grand Cosmic Narrative for my tastes.  I am seriously troubled.  (Really, no joke here.)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Get Your Motor Runnin'

Some books defy summary.  So, I won’t even try.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The structure of this book is either a) the message itself or b) a way of masking the lack of a message.  Pirsig has a Philosophy—a big think, redo everything about the world, Philosophy.  He sketches it out in this book.  If this book was just that Philosophy, you’d think it was the wild ramblings of that crazy grad student whom you hate to see at a cocktail party because you know he will just start going off on his theory and he will never shut up and in the end his theory makes no sense but he is so convinced it not only makes sense but it will revolutionize the world if only you could understand this big idea he has which isn’t really definable because, you see, rationality is a trap and he sees how we can get around that trap by going beyond or above or around (it’s never really clear) rationality to see the true thing which is One and which generates everything from Rationality itself to Humanity to how to repair a motorcycle and let me just show you how some obscure details in motorcycle repair are really examples of this Oneness of all our ideas…and by this point you are frantically looking around the room hoping someone will come over and interrupt this guy and save you from this conversation, but everyone else in the room is avoiding eye contact with you because they see the guy talking to you and nobody else wants to get trapped in this conversation.  If the book had been just this, nobody would have read it.  It would have been the manuscript of a guy you knew was going to end up in an insane asylum.

Robert Pirsig ended up in an insane asylum.

He came out.  Schizophrenic.  So, the other, normal Pirsig wrote a book about his motorcycle trip across America.  He had his son with him.  The drove and stopped and drove again and stopped again and drove again.  Nothing of any interest whatsoever happened on this trip.  If that had been the book, nobody would have read it.

But, somehow combine those two things: guy takes trip on motorcycle and starts describing the theories of that old, pre-insane asylum guy and suddenly you have a 1970s bestseller.  The structure is clever in a way.  Pirsig can talk about his theories, but if you think there are giant holes all over the place, that is just because he is, you know, sketching out his fragmentary memories of what his other self thought before his other self went insane.

Oh, but Pirsig is a clever one—after he has lulled you into all this, it turns out that his other self wasn't insane at all, it is his new conventional self that is insane for thinking that life should be boring and conventional and so Pirsig rides off into sunset in the last chapter laughing maniacally now that his old self, which was not insane, triumphs in his schizophrenic battle.  And we feel free and liberated and forget that that the philosophical theory had all those strange holes because, you know, it’s a happy ending and I feel so good about myself right now.  Or something like that.

Now you don’t want to read the book.  But, you know what? Despite the fact that this book is utterly absurd and pretentious and annoying in a million ways, I enjoyed reading it.  Why?
“The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn’t the way it ever is.  People should see that it’s never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance.  It’s never been anything else, ever, but you can’t get that across in an essay.”
Therein lies the clever part of this book: this is just Pirsig ruminating about his life and philosophy while riding on his motorcycle.  You don’t have to treat all that Philosophy stuff in the book as some sort of mandate from God; it’s just a guy on his motorcycle remembering his life and what he used to think about and the circumstances in which he thought about it.

That’s the part that made the book an enjoyable read.  It was less what Pirsig was saying and more triggering all sorts of thoughts about things from my own life and what I think and why I think what I think.  Pirsig’s book was, in other words, like a really long blog entry in which the events of his life trigger thoughts about other events in his life which trigger thoughts about what he thinks about Life, the Universe, and Everything.  Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a Launchpad.  I use books.  Pirsig thinks like a westernized Zen Buddhist, 1970s style.  I think like an American Evangelical Protestant.  So, I could rename this blog: “Evangelicalism and the Art of Reading” and it would be pretty much the same thing.  Except I never went insane and ended up in an insane asylum getting electric shock treatment.

Where does this this all lead?  Pirsig taught English composition classes in college for a while and one of the things he tried to do was get his students thinking about deep, big things like “What is Quality?”  Pirsig would have been an annoying teacher.  Which is exactly what I am at times.  Annoying.  You don’t have to take my word for it, though.  (Note to my current and former students who are about to write me and tell me I am not as bad a teacher as I am pretending to be here—yeah, I know.  Bear with me a minute.) 

In my economics classes, I assign supplemental books.  I assign them to try to convince students that the world is bigger and more interesting than a textbook and a lecture, that there is this whole world of knowledge and a joy of learning things out there.  I tell them to just read the book and enjoy it and that I will throw a few questions on the test about the book and if they read the book they will know the answers to the questions, but really, just read and enjoy the books.  Some students do this and they love it.  Other students just skip the reading.  Then there are that few who get really angry about it.  Last semester, one of those angry students wrote on the course evaluation:  “Why do I need to read only for knowledge?”  That comment has both deeply amused me and deeply intrigued me since I read it.  At one level it is funny.  You come to college and get upset that you might need to, you know, read a book in order to get something called knowledge?  But, then again, on the other hand, I understand the complaint: students have been conditioned to think that college isn’t about knowledge; it is about getting good grades to get a good job.  So, if the purpose of a professor is to hand out the material which will be on the test used to determine the grade and thus the job prospects, then why should a student be expected to read for something as irrelevant as knowledge?  Why, after all, do I, the Professor, impose my view that gaining knowledge, and more importantly gaining the desire to acquire knowledge, is a more important goal than grade maximization?

Similarly in my Great Books classes, I spend a lot of time letting conversations wander all over and constantly arguing against whatever was just said.  Some students find themselves caught up into whole new thought patterns by this exercise and love every minute of it.  Some students hate it.  Last semester, again on the course evaluation, one student wrote: “I do not like the way he conveys his ideas that makes him sound like a stubborn 3 year old.”  Again, I was both amused and intrigued.  I know exactly what she means.  I spend a lot of time in a Great Books classes asking “why?” over and over and over and over.  Why is the outrageous thing I said wrong?  Why is what you just said right?  So, if the student who wrote that evaluation were to have said that in class, I would have instantly asked “Why is that bad?”  And no matter what she said, I would have then asked “Why is what you just said right?”  And she would have said I was acting like a stubborn 3 year old.  Socrates also acted like a stubborn 3 year old.  He was really annoying when you get right down to it.  They killed him for it.  Fortunately, I just get a course evaluation saying she didn’t like the class.

So, why do I think all this pondering about Big Questions is so interesting?  Why do I want to share my belief that thinking about Big Questions is endlessly fascinating?  How best to convey that belief?  Well, how about using mundane details from my life—like a couple of comments on teaching evaluations—as a means for thinking about the purpose of education?  Interestingly, if I knew a class full of students would all complain about being expected to read for knowledge, I would just assign more books to be read for knowledge.  If I knew a class would complain that I argued like a stubborn 3 year old, I would increase the frequency of times I asked “Why?”  Apparently I am a contrarian.  Is that part of my nature or part of my philosophy of learning? 

A shocking addendum: In an afterward written 10 years later, Pirsig notes that the manuscript for his book was rejected 121 times before someone finally agreed to publish it.  That fascinates me.  What kind of person sends a manuscript to a publisher after 121 previous publishers have rejected it?  

By the way, if you don;t want to read 531 pages of Pirsig, you can just watch the movie.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Whaddya Want?

In the (rather lengthy) reading packet for my recent sojourn into the Realms of Intellectual Inquiry with Kentucky School Teachers were excerpts from John Kenneth Galbraith’s (he of three names—so as not be confused with John Galbraith, you know, the one without the Kenneth) book, The Affluent Society.  Here is the funny thing about Galbraith.  To non-economists of a certain age (read: old), Galbraith was one of the leading lights of economics, the guy who popularized Keynes, the guy who understood economics and could explain it to the masses.  But, within the economic guild, Galbraith barely exists—sure his name floats around in the waters here and there, but I never met an economist who actually took him seriously.  Occasionally, I would see a reference to Galbraith's claim that the function of advertising was to manufacture desires; said reference was usually provided as a launching point to show that advertising does nothing of the kind.  So, Galbraith was the non-economist’s economist and the economist’s non-economist.  I was never tempted to read him.

But, I was suddenly faced with a remarkable coincidence: 1) as mentioned above (in case the Reader has forgotten) there was Galbraith in that there reading packet (did I mention the reading packet was lengthy?) and 2) the Library of America (Arbiter of Taste) just published a volume of Galbraith.  Clearly the Universe was whispering in my ear, “Time to Read Galbraith.”  Who am I to argue with the Whisperings of the Universe?

In one way, Galbraith was exactly what I assumed he was—a rather sloppy and lousy economist.  My goodness, there it is, that Saskatchewan of economics: an actual sighting of someone arguing post-Friedman that inflation is caused by wage demands, not that silly money stuff about which you may have heard.   But, it turns out that Galbraith’s rather dated economics is a minor part of the argument as a whole; indeed, strip out the sloppy macroeconomic model, and The Affluent Society would be a vastly better book.

One way to read The Affluent Society is that it is merely Walden, Part 2.  By the mid-20th century, it was obvious: America was a very affluent society.  Indeed, the level of wealth in mid-20th century America was staggeringly high by historical standards.  And, we are even more affluent now than we were when Galbraith was writing.  As we have gained all this new wealth, we have all this new stuff.  Getting wealth and stuff makes us happier, right?  So, surely we must all be in some sort of perpetual ecstasy these days.  But, we aren’t.  Why?  “Among the many models of the good society, no one has urged the squirrel wheel.”  Yes, we want more wealth and better stuff, but there is always even newer and even better stuff on the horizon, so we are left with a perpetual feeling that we aren’t quite at the Stuff Frontier.  This breeds dissatisfaction.  Sure, I have an iPhone 6, but that iWatch sure seems even more Awesome.

At this point in the argument, Galbraith starts running into problems.  He doesn’t like the fact that we always want more.  He thinks we should be content with the basic necessities of life.  But along comes The Corporation (insert shudder) which through Advertising (insert screams of terror) manufactures in us false desires for the things which they are producing.  Left to ourselves, we would have a different set of desires.  And, what, pray tell  would that look like?  How exactly are our desires being corrupted?  “Houses; automobiles; the uncomplicated forms of alcohol, food and sexual enjoyment; sports; and movies require little prior preparation of the subject for the highest enjoyment.  A mass appeal is thus successful, and hence it is on these things that we find concentrated the main weight of modern want creation.”  Hmmm.  Something seems amiss in that there list of manufactured enjoyments.  Ah, yes, he clears it up in the next sentence: “By contrast, more esoteric desires—music and fine arts, literary and scientific interests, and to some extent even travel—can normally be synthesized, if at all, only on the basis of a good deal of prior education.”  If only we were all as enlightened as John Kenneth Galbraith to like the proper things, the things requiring a fine (preferably Ivy League) education, you know things like fine art and sophisticated forms of alcohol  and sophisticated food, and, yes, even sophisticated sexual enjoyment (oh, JKG, how it would have been nice for you to have explained that one), if only we all had these educated tastes, then those corporations (shudder) and their advertising (terror) would not be so effective.

And, suddenly, the game is up.  Clearly that Advertising doesn’t seem to be working on dear old J Kenneth Galbraith.  He sees right through it and enjoys his sophisticated pleasures.  That is because his desires are natural and not manufactured.  He likes cognac and Mozart because it is natural to like Cognac and Mozart—all you need is a fine education; you, unenlightened Reader, like Beer and Football because corporations convinced you to like them.  And I, Your Humble Narrator, like cognac, beer, Mozart and football because…hmmm.  I am stuck there.

One way of look at it: all our desires are manufactured.  Nobody is born liking Mozart or Drake.  Some people develop good taste and like the former; some don’t and like the latter.  Why?  Taste formation is a complicated thing.  But, it is not clear that our desires are any more manufactured in an age of television advertising than they were in the Dark Ages.  People liked decorative clothing long before corporations came along to tell them they should like them.

Another way to look at it: we have necessities: food and shelter.  But, once you have shelter from the rain, it is wrong to want insulation to keep you warm in winter?  Is it wrong to want air conditioning to keep you cool in the summer?  Is it wrong to want a man cave so you can put in a large screen TV and an epic audio system so you can watch football in a state of total immersion?  Nobody wanted those things before they were invented.  But, it sure is nice now that they are invented, even though I only have two of the three.  Is it bad that in idle moments I think I would be really nice to have the third?

Galbraith would surely say it is wrong, but that is because his preference set is quite different than mine.  You see, dear old JK Galbraith has a sophisticated set of preferences based on objective reality.  I am not exaggerating.  JKG knows that because of all those false wants, we spend too much on private goods (you know, things you buy for yourself) and not enough on public goods (you know, things the government buys for you).  You aren’t allowed to disagree with JKG on that point, by the way: “This disparity between our flow of private and public goods and services is no matter of subjective judgement.”  If you think we aren’t underfunding public goods, you are a flat-earther.  It is objectively true.

Now that line of argument would be intriguing if John Kenneth Galbraith could actually stick to his argument.  But, he can’t.  You see: only some public goods are underfunded.  Military expenditures are overfunded.  Uh…  So, public goods that Galbraith wants more of are underfunded and public goods Galbraith wants less of are overfunded.  And Galbraith knows this because…well, because, he, unlike the rest of us who disagree with objective truth, sees through the attempt to manufacture false desires.

What genuinely puzzles me about Galbraith is how he is so certain that his own desires haven’t been manufactured.  How does he know he isn’t the deluded one and the people he thinks are deluded aren’t seeing clearly? 

In the end, The Affluent Society is a flawed book.  But flawed in a way that makes it eminently worth reading.  It makes you think.  That is high praise.  Higher praise: I was faced with the choice on where to keep Galbraith’s book.  Does it belong in the economics section or the non-economics, nonfiction section of my library?  He now lives in the latter—this is very high praise.  Before reading him, I assumed he would be filed under economics and relegated to being a bad economics book.  But, the parts that are good in this book, the non-economics parts, are so worthy of respect, that he got filed outside of economics.  I am not sure he would see that as praise, but it is.

And, for those of you who don’t want to read the whole book, here is a musical version of the main argument.