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The Essential Galbraith Paperback – Import 9 Oct 2001

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Product Description About the Author John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) was a critically acclaimed author and one of America's foremost economists. His most famous works include The Affluent Society The Good Society and The Great Crash. Galbraith was the receipient of the Order of Canada and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Lifetime Achievement and he was twice awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. Preface I send this book to press and on to my readers with one slight sense of concern. It is that someone will ask who decided that this was The Essential Galbraith. The author will be a plausible suspect. In fact it was associates my publisher and the wider professional and reading public who were responsible. The selection here is of writing that is thought to have had some durable impact on economic and other scholarly thought or on the world at large. Thus as later noted the piece on Countervailing Power an excerpt from American Capitalism is still in print after nearly fifty years. The balance of power between buyer and seller therein described was considered a major modification of the traditional competitive supply-and-demand construct to which all who have studied economics were exposed. It is perhaps a measure of the enduring nature of the term "the Conventional Wisdom" as defined in the second essay that one rarely gets through a newspaper today without encountering it. Though I try however unsuccessfully to convey an aspect of modesty I am always pleased to have added this phrase to the language. The Affluent Society from which several chapters are here included was the most widely published economic volume of its time. After his nomination for President in 1960 one of the first questions asked of John F. Kennedy was whether if elected he would be guided by the ideas expressed by his known supporter in that book. He responded favorably but also with a certain note of ambiguity. Later in this collection come three pieces from The Great Crash 1929 which was published in 1955 just after the twenty-fifth anniversary of that catastrophic event. It was a bestseller at the time; so it has remained to this day. Even now as we are launched in a new century there is inevitable unease about the future of the economy and therewith the stock market so a knowledge of what happened in 1929 is indeed still essential. There are other essays here which were similarly selected and thus selected themselves. The reader will I think have no trouble accepting their relevance either to history or to the present day and I have added some headnotes to suggest my view of their particular significance then and now. I end with a paper given at the London School of Economics in 1999 on the unfinished business of the millennium; this had the largest circulation both here in the United States and around the world of any lecture I have ever given. John Kenneth Galbraith March 2001 introduction If as Professor Galbraith says in the preface others are responsible for the contents of this book it is of primary interest to inquire why he himself eschews the credit. It has been widely believed that he is not a man for whom modesty is a familiar virtue so why does he find it necessary now to step back into the shadows? The answer seems to lie in the fact that what has been considered vanity could be better viewed as a deep sense of security. He is secure in his basic beliefs and secure that his readers for whom he has the deepest respect will be able to discern them. He is not given to self-analysis and so while he clearly understands what is the Essential Galbraith he prefers that others define it. It should first be noted that in the pages that follow readers will find John Kenneth Galbraith the economist and the writer with little trace of the diplomat the art historian the novelist the book reviewer the theater critic or even except in the last essay the lecturer. This is highly appropriate because economics has in fact been his chosen field and writing his obviously innate talent. He has always believed that economics should be studied not in the abstract or as a mathematical construct but as it affects the lives of men and women every day. He is not afraid to overturn or at least reexamine strongly held beliefs of earlier generations realizing that as technology communications and business change so too must the economist"s interpretation of them. He has brought to the subject a new way of looking at the role of the great corporations as they faced the countervailing power of trade unions and consumer coalitions. He has identified those who are the guiding intelligence of the corporate world naming them the technostructure and has undermined belief in what he calls the myth of consumer sovereignty. A better balance between public and private expenditures has been a recurring theme in his writing with its reminder that the affluence of our contemporary society should be made to extend to the poorest and most defenseless of our citizens. The uses of power and the persistence of financial euphoria in our public marketplace have consistently attracted his interest as have the problems of the developing countries notably India. Above all the constant thread through his work is his concern with how economics affects the quality of our daily lives and how it will change that of succeeding generations. These are some of the essentials of the Essential Galbraith but there are more. There is his continuing fondness for certain of his economic predecessors -- for the gift for language and the basic structure that Adam Smith gave to political economy for the irreverence and unique perception of Thorstein Veblen for the profound effect John Maynard Keynes and his General Theory of Employment Interest and Money had and continue to have on the economic world. Finally there is a writing style that illuminates and enhances all that is said: sardonic humor felicitous phrasing reasoned argument in reasonable words or as he would say clarity of thought reflected in clarity of prose. So how can the Essential Galbraith be defined? He is a committed liberal a compassionate optimist a cautious but firm iconoclast and a writer whose words can change the way the world looks at its problems. And none of that would he ever write about himself. Andrea D. Williams March 2001 The Essential Galbraith Countervailing Power [from American Capitalism] This is a chapter from one of my first books the generously titled American Capitalism which came out in 1952 barely into the second half of the last century. Then and for well over a hundred years before a near-sacred doctrine in the economic textbooks had been the beneficent regulatory role of competition. It was the competition of many sellers that protected the consumer and also the individually powerless wage earner from the full economic effects of monopoly. The preservation of competition through the antitrust laws -- the fabled Sherman Act in particular -- was a vital element of public policy going back to the latter part of the nineteenth century. Now as I argued in American Capitalism a new process was at work: trade unions a countering organizational force were the obvious response to the greater power of the big corporations. Similarly but less evidently when there was one expression of economic power -- such as the large producer of consumer staples -- another one developed in the form of the seller of those staples -- the A&P or the latter-day Wal-Mart. The numerous and technically competitive farmers found their best economic recourse in purchasing cooperatives when dealing with those who bought and bargained for their product. Thus the answer to monopoly was less and less the rule of law and more and more the coercion of countering bargaining power. Not exceptionally perhaps I carried this idea somewhat to the extreme but it did involve an impressive attack on established belief. A substantial number of economists greeted my thesis with interest and approval when it was published but a much larger number of defenders of the orthodox view were strongly at odds. At the annual meeting of the American Economic Association the most prestigious gathering of economists it was suggested by the head of the organization the distinguished Calvin Hoover of Duke University that there be a major reception for the book. This was quickly vetoed but a special meeting to discuss it was added to the program. At lunch that day I heard someone at the next table say "We must go now -- it"s time to hear them kill off Galbraith." It didn"t prove to be quite that bad; there was even some supporting comment. The concept of countervailing power was allowed to pass into economics and in a small way into public instruction. The book has been continuously in print ever since -- as I say a matter of almost fifty years. * * * * On the night of November 2 1907 J. P. Morgan the elder played solitaire in his library while panic gripped Wall Street. Then when the other bankers had divided up the cost of saving the tottering Trust Company of America he presided at the signing of the agreement authorized the purchase of the Tennessee Coal & Iron Company by the Steel Corporation to encourage the market cleared the transaction with President Roosevelt and the panic was over. There as legend has preserved and doubtless improved the story was a man with power a self-respecting man could fear. A mere two decades later in the crash of 1929 it was evident that the Wall Street bankers were as helpless as everyone else. Their effort to check the collapse in the market in the autumn of that year is now recalled as an amusing anecdote; the heads of the New York Stock Exchange and the National City Bank fell into the toils of the law and the first went to prison; the son of the Great Morgan went to a congressional hearing in Washington and acquired fame not for his authority but for his embarrassment when a circus midget was placed on his knee. As the banker as a symbol of economic power passed into the shadows his place was taken by the giant industrial corporation. The substitute was much more plausible. The association of power with the banker had always depended on the somewhat tenuous belief in a "money trust" -- on the notion that the means for financing the initiation and expansion of business enterprises was concentrated in the hands of a few men. The ancestry of this idea was in Marx"s doctrine of finance capital; it was not susceptible to statistical or other empirical verification at least in the United States. By contrast the fact that a substantial proportion of all production was concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of huge firms was readily verified. That three or four giant firms in an industry might exercise power analogous to that of a monopoly and not different in consequences was an idea that had come to have the most respectable of ancestry in classical economics. So as the J. P. Morgan Company left the stage it was replaced by the two hundred largest corporations -- giant devils in company strength. Here was economic power identified by the greatest and most conservative tradition in economic theory. Here was power to control the prices the citizen paid the wages he received and which interposed the most formidable of obstacles of size and experience to the aspiring new firm. What more might it accomplish were it to turn its vast resources to corrupting politics and controlling access to public opinion? Yet as was so dramatically revealed to be the case with the omnipotence of the banker in 1929 there are considerable gaps between the myth and the fact. The comparative importance of a small number of great corporations in the American economy cannot be denied except by those who have a singular immunity to statistical evidence or a striking capacity to manipulate it. In principle the American is controlled livelihood and soul by the large corporation; in practice he or she seems not to be completely enslaved. Once again the danger is in the future; the present seems still tolerable. Once again there may be lessons from the present which if learned will save us in the future. ii As with social efficiency and its neglect of technical dynamics the paradox of the unexercised power of the large corporation begins with an important oversight in the underlying economic theory. In the competitive model -- the economy of many sellers each with a small share of the total market -- the restraint on the private exercise of economic power was provided by other firms on the same side of the market. It was the eagerness of competitors to sell not the complaints of buyers that saved the latter from spoliation. It was assumed no doubt accurately that the nineteenth-century textile manufacturer who overcharged for his product would promptly lose his market to another manufacturer who did not. If all manufacturers found themselves in a position where they could exploit a strong demand and mark up their prices accordingly there would soon be an inflow of new competitors. The resulting increase in supply would bring prices and profits back to normal. As with the seller who was tempted to use his economic power against the customer so with the buyer who was tempted to use it against his labor or suppliers. The man who paid less than the prevailing wage would lose his labor force to those who paid the worker his full (marginal) contribution to the earnings of the firm. In all cases the incentive to socially desirable behavior was provided by the competitor. It was to the same side of the market -- the restraint of sellers by other sellers and of buyers by other buyers in other words to competition -- that economists came to look for the self-regulatory mechanism of the economy. They also came to look to competition exclusively and in formal theory they still do. The notion that there might be another regulatory mechanism in the economy has been almost completely excluded from economic thought. Thus with the widespread disappearance of competition in its classical form and its replacement by the small group of firms if not in overt at least in conventional or tacit collusion it was easy to suppose that since competition had disappeared all effective restraint on private power had disappeared. Indeed this conclusion was all but inevitable if no search was made for other restraints and so complete was the preoccupation with competition that none was. In fact new restraints on private power did appear to replace competition. They were nurtured by the same process of concentration which impaired or destroyed competition. But they appeared not on the same side of the market but on the opposite side not with competitors but with customers or suppliers. It will be convenient to have a name for this counterpart of competition and I shall call it countervailing power.1 To begin with a broad and somewhat too dogmatically stated proposition private economic power is held in check by the countervailing power of those who are subject to it. The first begets the second. The long trend toward concentration of industrial enterprise in the hands of a relatively few firms has brought into existence not only strong sellers as economists have supposed but also strong buyers as they have failed to see. The two develop together not in precise step but in such manner that there can be no doubt that the one is in response to the other. The fact that a seller enjoys a measure of monopoly power and is reaping a measure of monopoly return as a result means that there is an inducement to those firms from whom he buys or those to whom he sells to develop the power with which they can defend themselves against exploitation. It means also that there is a reward to them in the form of a share of the gains of their opponents" market power if they are able to do so. In this way the existence of market power creates an incentive to the organization of another position of power that neutralizes it. The contention I am here making is a formidable one. It comes to this: competition which at least since the time of Adam Smith has been viewed as the autonomous regulator of economic activity and as the only available regulatory mechanism apart from the state has in fact been superseded. Not entirely to be sure. I should like to be explicit on this point. Competition still plays a role. There are still important markets where the power of the firm as say a seller is checked or circumscribed by those who provide a similar or a substitute product or service. This in the broadest sense that can be meaningful is the meaning of competition. The role of the buyer on the other side of such markets is essentially a passive one. It consists in looking for perhaps asking for and responding to the best bargain. The active restraint is provided by the competitor who offers or threatens to offer a better bargain. However this is not the only or even the typical restraint on the exercise of economic power. In the typical modern market of few sellers the active restraint is provided not by competitors but from the other side of the market by strong buyers. Given the convention against price competition it is the role of the competitor that becomes passive in these markets. It was always one of the basic presuppositions of competition that market power exercised in its absence would invite the competitors who would eliminate such exercise of power. The profits of a monopoly position inspired competitors to try for a share. In other words competition was regarded as a self-generating regulatory force. The doubt whether this was in fact so after a market had been pre-empted by a few large sellers after entry of new firms had become difficult and after existing firms had accepted a convention against price competition was what destroyed the faith in competition as a regulatory mechanism. Countervailing power is also a self-generating force and this is a matter of great importance. Something although not very much could be claimed for the regulatory role of the strong buyer in relation to the market power of sellers did it happen that as an accident of economic development such strong buyers were frequently juxtaposed to strong sellers. However the tendency of power to be organized in response to a given position of power is the vital characteristic of the phenomenon I am here identifying. As noted power on one side of a market creates both the need for and the prospect of reward to the exercise of countervailing power from the other side.2 This means that as a common rule we can rely on countervailing power to appear as a curb on economic power. There are also it should be added circumstances in which it does not appear or is effectively prevented from appearing. To these I shall return. For some reason critics of the theory have seized with particular avidity on these exceptions to deny the existence of the phenomenon itself. It is plain that by a similar line of argument one could deny the existence of competition by finding one monopoly. In the market of small numbers or oligopoly the practical barriers to entry and the convention against price competition have eliminated the self-generating capacity of competition. The self- generating tendency of countervailing power by contrast is readily assimilated to the common sense of the situation and its existence once we have learned to look for it is readily subject to empirical observation. Market power can be exercised by strong buyers against weak sellers as well as by strong sellers against weak buyers. In the competitive model competition acted as a restraint on both kinds of exercise of power. This is also the case with countervailing power. In turning to its practical manifestations it will be convenient in fact to begin with a case where it is exercised by weak sellers against strong buyers. iii The operation of countervailing power is to be seen with the greatest clarity in the labor market where it is also most fully developed. Because of his comparative immobility the individual worker has long been highly vulnerable to private economic power. The customer of any particular steel mill at the turn of the century could always take himself elsewhere if he felt he (there were few women) was being overcharged. Or he could exercise his sovereign privilege of not buying steel at all. The worker had no comparable freedom if he felt he was being underpaid. Normally he could not move and he had to have work. Not often has the power of one man over another been used more callously than in the American labor market after the rise of the large corporation. As late as the early twenties the steel industry worked a twelve-hour day and seventy-two-hour week with an incredible twenty-four-hour stint every fortnight when the shift changed. No such power is exercised today and for the reason that its earlier exercise stimulated the counteraction that brought it to an end. In the ultimate sense it was the power of the steel industry not the organizing abilities of John L. Lewis and Philip Murray that in years long past brought the United Steel Workers into being. The economic power that the worker faced in the sale of his labor -- the competition of many sellers dealing with few buyers -- made it necessary that he organize for his own protection. There were rewards to the power of the steel companies in which when he had successfully developed countervailing power he could share. As a general though not invariable rule one finds the strongest unions in the United States where markets are served by strong corporations those in the automobile steel electrical rubber farm-machinery and nonferrous-metal-mining and smelting industries. Not only has the strength of the corporations in these industries made it necessary for workers to develop the protection of countervailing power; it has provided unions with the opportunity for getting something more as well. If successful they could share in the fruits of the corporation"s market power. By contrast there has not been a single union of any consequence in American agriculture the country"s closest approach to the competitive model. The reason lies not in the difficulties in organization; these are considerable but greater difficulties in organization have been overcome. The reason is that the farmer has not possessed any power over his labor force and has not had any rewards from market power which it was worth the while of a union to seek. As an interesting verification of the point in California the large farmers have had considerable power vis-à-vis their labor force. Almost uniquely in the United States that state has been marked by persistent attempts at organization by farm workers. Elsewhere in industries which approach the competition of the model one typically finds weaker or less comprehensive unions. The textile industry3 boot and shoe manufacture lumbering and other forest industries in most parts of the country and smaller wholesale and retail enterprises are all cases in point. I do not of course advance the theory of countervailing power as a monolithic explanation of trade-union organization. No such complex social phenomenon is likely to have any single simple explanation. American trade unions developed in the face of the implacable hostility not alone of employers but often of the community as well. In this environment organization of the skilled crafts was much easier than the average which undoubtedly explains the earlier appearance of durable unions here. In the modern bituminous-coal-mining and more clearly in the clothing industries unions have another explanation. They have emerged as a supplement to the weak market position of the operators and manufacturers. They have assumed price- and market- regulating functions that are the normal functions of managements and on which the latter because of the competitive character of the industry have been forced to default. Nevertheless as an explanation of the incidence of trade-union strength in the American economy the theory of countervailing power clearly fits the broad contours of experience. There is I venture no other so satisfactory explanation of labor organization in the modern capitalist community and none which so sensibly integrates the union into the theory of that society. iv As observed the labor market serves admirably to illustrate the incentives to the development of countervailing power and it is of great importance in this market. However such development in response to positions of market power is pervasive in the economy. As a regulatory device one of its most important manifestations is in the relation of the large retailer to the firms from which it buys. The way in which countervailing power operates in these markets is worth examining in some detail. One of the seemingly harmless simplifications of formal economic theory has been the assumption that producers of consumers" goods sell their products directly to consumers. All business units are held for this reason to have broadly parallel interests. Each buys labor and materials combines them and passes the resulting product along to the public at prices that over some period of time maximize returns. It is recognized that this is indeed a simplification; courses in marketing in the universities deal with what is excluded by this assumption. Yet it has long been supposed that the assumption does no appreciable violence to reality. Did the real world correspond to the assumed one the lot of the consumer would be an unhappy one. In fact goods pass to consumers by way of retailers and other intermediaries and this is a circumstance of first importance. Retailers are required by their situation to develop countervailing power on the consumer"s behalf. As has been frequently noted retailing remains one of the industries to which entry is characteristically free. It takes small capital and no very rare talent to set up as a seller of goods. Through history there has always been an ample supply of men with both money and ability and with access to something to sell. The small man can provide convenience and intimacy of service and can give an attention to detail all of which allow him to coexist with larger competitors. The advantage of the larger competitor ordinarily lies in its lower prices. It lives constantly under the threat of an erosion of its business by the more rapid growth of rivals and by the appearance of new firms. This loss of volume in turn destroys the chance for the lower costs and lower prices on which the firm depends. This means that the larger retailer is extraordinarily sensitive to higher prices charged by its suppliers. It means also that it is strongly rewarded if it can develop the market power which permits it to force lower prices. The opportunity to exercise such power exists only when the suppliers are enjoying something that can be taken away i.e. when they are enjoying the fruits of market power from which they can be separated. Thus as in the labor market we find the mass retailer from a position across the market with both a protective and a profit incentive to develop countervailing power when the firm with which it is doing business is in possession of market power. Critics have suggested that these are possibly important but certainly disparate phenomena. This may be so but only if all similarity between social phenomena be denied. In the present instance the market context is the same. The motivating incentives are identical. The fact that there are characteristics in common has been what has caused people to call competition competition when they encountered it say in agriculture and then again in the laundry business. Countervailing power in the retail business is identified with the large and powerful retail enterprises. Its practical manifestation over the last half-century has been the rise of the food chains the variety chains the mail-order houses (now graduated into chain stores) the department-store chains and the cooperative buying organizations of the surviving independent department and food stores. The buyers of all the great retail firms deal directly with the manufacturer and there are few of the latter who in setting prices do not have to reckon with the attitude and reaction of their powerful customers. The retail buyers have a variety of weapons at their disposal to use against the market power of their suppliers. Their ultimate sanction is to develop their own source of supply as the food chains Sears and many others have extensively done. They can also concentrate their entire patronage on a single supplier and in return for a lower price give him security in his volume and relieve him of selling and advertising costs. This policy has been widely followed and there have also been numerous complaints of the leverage it gives the retailer on his source of supply. The more commonplace but more important tactic in the exercise of countervailing power consists merely in keeping the seller in a state of uncertainty as to the intentions of a buyer who is indispensable to him. The larger of the retail buying organizations place orders around which the production schedules and occasionally the investment of even the largest manufacturers become organized. A shift in this custom imposes prompt and heavy loss. The threat or even the fear of this sanction is enough to cause the supplier to surrender some or all of the rewards of its market power. It must frequently in addition make a partial surrender to less potent buyers if it is not to be more than ever in the power of its large customers. It will be clear that in this operation there are rare opportunities for playing one supplier off against another. A measure of the importance which large retailing organizations attach to the deployment of their countervailing power is the prestige they accord to their buyers. These men (and some women) are the key employees of the modern large retail organization; they are highly paid and they are among the most intelligent and resourceful people to be found anywhere in business. In the everyday course of business they may be considerably better known and command rather more respect than the salesmen from whom they buy. This is a not unimportant index of the power they wield. There are producers of consumers" goods who have protected themselves from the exercise of countervailing power. Some like those in the automobile and the oil industries have done so by integrating their distribution through to the consumer -- a strategy which attests to the importance of the use of countervailing power by retailers. Others have found it possible to maintain dominance over an organization of small and dependent and therefore fairly powerless dealers. v There is an old saying or should be that it is a wise economist who recognizes the scope of his own generalizations. It is now time to consider the limits in place and time on the operations of countervailing power. A study of the instances where countervailing power fails to function is not without advantage in showing its achievements in the decisively important areas where it does operate. Some industries because they are integrated through to the consumer or because their product passes through a dependent dealer organization have not been faced with countervailing power. There are a few cases where a very strong market position has proven impregnable even against the attacks of strong buyers. And there are cases where the dangers from countervailing power have apparently been recognized and where it has been successfully resisted. An example of successful resistance to countervailing power is the residential-building industry. No segment of American capitalism evokes less pride. Yet anyone approaching the industry with the preconceptions of competition in mind is unlikely to see very accurately the reasons for its shortcomings. There are many thousands of individual firms in the business of building houses. Nearly all are small. The members of the industry oppose little market power to the would-be house owner. Except in times of extremely high building activity there is aggressive competition for business. The industry does show many detailed manifestations of guild restraint. Builders are frequently in alliance with each other unions and local politicians to protect prices and wages and to maintain established building traditions. These derelictions have been seized upon avidly by the critics of the industry. Since they represent its


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