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John Kenneth Galbraith
"How Much Should
a Country Consume?"

This essay appeared in 1958, the same year as Galbraith’s best-selling book The Affluent Society.  It attracted very little notice and is currently hard to find.  Today, it seems more important than ever, so I am putting some quotations from the essay up on the web, enough to give a general idea of its main point.  The entire essay is available in Henry Jarrett, editor, Perspectives on Conservation (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1958, pp. 89-99).

When you read what the essay says about America’s extravagant consumption, remember that the average American today consumes more than twice as much as when Galbraith wrote.  For example, Galbraith wrote about wasteful automobile use, but the average American today drives more than twice as much as in 1958.


…since World War I, our [America's] consumption of most materials has exceeded that of all mankind before that conflict.

This gargantuan and growing appetite has become the point of departure for all discussions of the resource problem.  In face of this vast use, what is happening to our domestic reserves or ores, to our energy sources, to our renewable resources?  ….

If we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, to decrease waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes.  But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem.   If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem, this is the forbidden question.  Over it hangs a nearly total silence.  It is as though, in the discussion of the chance of avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed.  ….

The President’s Materials Policy Commission took a … position which is worth examining in some slight detail.  It began by stating its conviction that economic growth was important and, in degree, sacrosanct. "First, we share the belief of the American people in the principle of Growth."  (It is instructive to note the commission’s use of a capital G.  A certain divinity is associated with the word.)  Growth in this context means an increasing output of consumers’ goods and an increase in the plant by which they are supplied.  Having started with this renunciation, the commission was scarcely in a position to look critically at consumption in relation to the resource problem, and it did not.

…. Although it did not support the observation with any concrete recommendation, it did comment with some vigor on present tendencies in consumption. "The United States," it observed, "has been lavish in its use of materials…. We drive heavier automobiles than is necessary for mere transportation, and we adorn them with chromium…. We must be aware that many of our production and consumption habits are extremely expensive of scarce resources and that a trivial change in taste or a slight reduction in personal satisfaction can often bring about tremendous savings."

The captious will want to inquire, if the losses in satisfaction here are trivial and the savings are tremendous, why the commission did not seize the opportunity to urge savings. Why did it make no recommendation? But given its position on growth and the meaning of growth, it could in fact go no further.

…. The automobiles are too heavy …?  One can ask with equal cogency if we need to make all the automobiles we now turn out.  ….

As with automobiles, so with everything else.  In an opulent society the marginal urgency of all kinds of goods is low.  It is easy to bring our doubts and questions to bear on the automobiles.  But the case is not different for (say) that part of our food production which contributes not to nutrition but to obesity, that part of our tobacco which contributes not to comfort but to carcinoma, and that part of our clothing which is designed not to cover nakedness but to suggest it.  … We cannot single out any one product without calling into question all products.  Thus having specifically endorsed ever more luxurious standards of consumption - for that is what is meant by growth - the PMAC obviously could not pursue the notion of wasteful consumption without involving itself in a major contradiction.  It made its gesture against the automobiles and then, wisely, it stopped.

There are several reasons why our consumption standards have not been called in question in the course of the conservation discussion over the last fifty years.  ….

It is … suggested that uninhibited consumption has something to do with individual liberty.  If we begin interfering with consumption, we shall be abridging a basic freedom. I shall not dwell long on this.  …  Freedom is not much concerned with tail fins or even with automobiles.  Those who argue that it is identified with the greatest possible range of choice of consumers’ goods are only confessing their exceedingly simple-minded and mechanical view of man and his liberties.

…  tradition has also abetted this exclusion of consumption from consideration.  Economics is a subject in which old questions are lovingly debated but new ones are regarded with misgiving.  On the whole it is a mark of stability and sound scholarship to concern oneself with questions that were relevant in the world of Ricardo.  In the Ricardian world, to be literal about it, goods were indeed scarce.  One might talk, although without courting great popularity, about redistributing wealth and income and thus curbing the luxurious consumption of the classes.  But the notion that people as a whole might have more than a minimum - that there might be a restraint on the consumption of the community as a whole - was unthinkable.  In modern times this has, of course, become thinkable.  Goods are plentiful  Demand for them must be elaborately contrived.  Those who create wants rank among our most talented and highly paid citizens.  Want creation - advertising - is a ten billion dollar industry.  But tradition remains strongly against questioning or even thinking about wants.

Finally, we are committed to a high level of consumption because, whether we need the goods or not, we very much need the employment their production provides.  I need not dwell on this.  The point is decidedly obvious at this writing in early 1958 [during a recession].  We are not missing the cars that Detroit is currently not producing.  Nor are we missing the steel that Pittsburgh and Gary are currently not making.  The absence of these products is not causing any detectable suffering.  But there is much suffering and discomfort as the result of the failure of those industries to employ as many men as in the recent past.  We are chained to a high level of production and consumption not by the pressure of want but by the urgencies of economic security.

…  However, let me conclude with one suggestion.  …

…  it would seem to me that any concern for material use should … have as its aim the shifting of consumption patterns from those which have a high material requirement to those which have a much lower requirement.  Education, health services, sanitary services, good parks and playgrounds, orchestras, effective local government, a clean countryside, all have rather small materials requirements. I have argued elsewhere [in The Affluent Society] that the present tendency of our economy is to discriminate against such production.  A variety of forces, among them the massed pressures of modern merchandising, have forced an inordinate concentration of our consumption on what might be termed consumer hardware. …


Though this essay makes exactly the right point about growth and natural resources, it is disappointing that it does not mention work time.

Galbraith says that we don’t need all the cars and all the steel we produce, but "whether we need the goods or not, we very much need the employment their production provides."  Obviously, shorter work hours can help deal with this problem: The same number of people can be employed without as much wasteful production, if each person works fewer hours. 

American work hours declined steadily from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the Great Depression, but they stopped declining after World War II, when the nation began promoting the cult of growth and consumerism that Galbraith criticized.  Perhaps 1958  was too soon to notice this, because it had only been a bit more than a decade since the standard work week stopped declining.

When Galbraith wrote this essay, the fact that work hours had stopped declining was a new issue. It is understandable that he missed it because, as he says, "Economics is a subject in which old questions are lovingly debated but new ones are regarded with misgiving."

But our excessive work hours should a glaringly obvious issue today. We still feel we must consume more, whether we want the products or not, to avoid unemployment. Yet our standard work week has not declined for over six decades, and we now work the longest hours of any developed nation.

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Full Employment and Full Enjoyment!