The Starving and the Poor

The Nature of Mass Poverty by John Kenneth Galbraith Harvard University Press, $8.95

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH has always presented himself as a loner, a maverick among economists. Disdained by the economics establishment, Galbraith often purports to be the sole purveyor of truth and reason. Whether he is or not, Galbraith makes academics and politicians on all sides squirm nervously whenever he comes out with a new theory. He attacks mercilessly--some would say thoughtlessly--but his work is some of the freshest and most pleasingly controversial of any academic. Critics always find some hole in his argument, but this is not a failing in his work, just a consequence of the fact that he usually tackles brand new intellectual territory.

The Nature of Mass Poverty, his latest work, is the book Galbraith always wanted to write. Distinguishing India's large-scale famine and suffering from the U.S.'s poverty in the midst of plenty, Galbraith says in his introduction that most of his books (and other literature on poverty) have treated the latter subject.

Galbraith, known for his caustic wit, usually wins believers for his theories even when he seems to lack empirical evidence. In Mass Poverty he tones down the wit (but not his elegant literary style). Unfortunately, his basic thesis, no matter how well phrased, seems to gloss over a complicated issue because he "proves" it with hastily explained historical examples. Although Galbraith's own experiences in government as an ambassador to India add richness to the book, many of his examples suggest counter examples, or at least cry out for more development. The solutions he suggests for mass poverty are unconvincing in places, partly because of the unconventionality of the ideas he throws out in a mere 140 pages, and partly because it is impossible to make blanket statements for all underdeveloped countries.

THE strength of Galbraith's book comes from its criticism of current wisdom about mass poverty and U.S. government programs to combat it. He claims that the U.S. government and academics, liberals and conservatives have approached the poverty backwards, once they discovered that the problem existed. Uninterested in poverty relief until 1950, the U.S.'s sudden fascination with the problem at that point stemmed from a smug feeling of post-war cultural and economic supremacy combined with the belief that poverty opened doors for communist take-over.

Firmly committed to action in places like Vietnam and India, the U.S. had only to decide how to act. "There had to be action, the commitment to this was powerful," Galbraith writes. "But if there was to be a remedy, there had to be a cause. If it couldn't be identified, it would have to be invented or assumed." By inventing causes, U.S. foreign policy makers showed they were blinded by their own cultural and economic experience. As a consequence, they matched causes to actions that were politically and economically feasible. Academics and officials therefore took up the cry that technological backwardness lay at the heart of the problems of the starving masses. Surprise: the U.S. had plenty of technical know-how and capital to spare. (Overpopulation, for example, could not be a cause of poverty, Galbraith says, because the solution is birth control--politically impossible for anyone with a Catholic constituency.)

What the U.S. failed to recognize, Galbraith says, is the true nature of the "equilibrium of poverty." He claimed that in the U.S., income can be increased simply by a little macroeconomic maneuvering, and most of the time each individual can boost his own economic status if he so wishes. In places like India, however, Malthusian forces keep the poor poor. Growing population and the overwhelming pressure of current needs swamp small increases in national product. The models of economic growth taught to eager American college students do not apply to a country with hordes of people on the edge of subsistence. Centuries of poverty have destroyed the people's desire for change. In a process Galbraith calls "accommodation," they have resigned themselves to their life. Galbraith's most original contribution is the idea that accommodation is a normal and rational response to intolerable circumstances, not a sign of laziness.

Unfortunately, the solutions Galbraith generates from his new theory are not as convincing as his critique of old theories. He argues the only way to break the "equilibrium of poverty" accommodation produces is to aid those few people who are the least placid about their poverty, the least willing to accommodate. Facilitating escape from poverty is just as crucial to Galbraith as breaking accommodation. Education is the best way to show people alternatives to their miserable lives, and it also gives them tools needed when they manage to escape poverty. But without a means to escape, the desire to do so can be more frustrating than productive. Escape can lead a person either to urban areas of his country or to another country altogether. Galbraith contends that mass exodus from impoverished rural areas benefits the rural residents who remain by giving them more land per capita, aids urban areas by providing industrial labor, and even helps more developed countries by providing migrant workers for jobs too menial for their more affluent citizenry.

Migration is Galbraith's most controversial solution to poverty. He brushes aside the possibility that those the least willing to tolerate poverty are probably the ones who through their energy and motivation are the most able to help their poverty-stricken brethren. Ireland is the classic case where the able and strong abandoned a country, leaving the weak and infirm behind. True, Ireland is better off now than during the potato famines, but to attribute this to migration requires ridiculously long-run analysis. Similarly Galbraith plays down the racial hatred migrants have inspired and the dreadful standard of living--hardly better than what they left--that they are often forced to accept. Finally, while Galbraith says countries like Germany and Switzerland have been able to expand their economies without putting their own countrymen out of work, he does not explain how the U.S. with today's unemployment and inflation can afford to do so. Galbraith says, "One must surely rejoice in the discovery of a remedy for poverty where no one, those involved or those affected, can, in the fullness of time, be deemed to have lost." One must also surely wonder how many people will lose before time reaches its "fullness."

GALBRAITH is quick to say that migration is not the only answer; any attack on poverty must be fought on several fronts. But he is very vague about ways to escape to the industrial sectors of a nation. He is convinced that urban poverty is less intractable than rural poverty although he does not quite say why. His best points about industrialization reduce to the platitudes that developed countries of all political leanings have given each other the wrong advice about ways to attract industry, and that more research is needed to determine the correct advice.

Perhaps Galbraith never quite makes it clear who he talks about. His examples mention China, India, Vietnam, Pakistan and others, but he never explains why poverty in the U.S. is so different. Although most of the U.S. is affluent, Galbraith's equilibrium of poverty--accommodation theory--would seem to apply just as well to rural Appalachia or to a ghetto housing project where longstanding pressures operate to destroy aspirations. But though his analysis falls short in places, Galbraith has shed new light on the basic problem of poverty in the world. His work on causes should force a long overdue reassessment of U.S. development policy.