Commentary Magazine

Poverty and Affluence

To the Editor:

Ben B. Seligman’s review of Gunnar Myrdal’s Challenge to Affluence [February] points out that there is now general agreement that the economy is performing badly but that attempts to analyze the fundamental causes and to propose solutions are greeted with “a gravelly grunt disguised as semi-scholarly criticism.”

Unfortunately, neither “liberals” nor “conservatives” seem prepared to come to grips with the implications of the emerging cybernated era in which machine power and machine skill will be combined in an abundance productive system with effectively unlimited capacity. Both philosophies fail to confront the new reality: that rampant science and technology can no longer be controlled on the basis of an agricultural political system and an industrial economy.

It is still thought that the political philosophies of “liberals” and “conservatives” have very little in common. However, in the perspective of the coming era of cybernation and abundance, their differences concern only means rather than goals. The fundamental goal of both is the preservation of the outmoded industrial scarcity system, and their only disagreement is about what is to be done with productive surpluses as well as the surplus people that they create through unemployment.

Our most urgent requirement is to study the underlying realities of the age of cybernation and abundance and make the changes in our socio-economic system necessary to allow us to benefit from them. This, indeed, was the subject of my book Free Men and Free Markets, reviewed by Robert L. Heilbroner in your October issue. In an otherwise negative review, Heilbroner stated that “we should . . . take seriously the problems Theobald is interested in” and that the proposal for a guaranteed income (Basic Economic Security or BES) was economically sound. . . .

In another article, “On the Seriousness of the Future” (published in the American Scholar), Heilbroner has stated that: “The likelihood is that the great structural problems of society will continue to go unsolved, that they will continue to work their damage on us, both as individuals and as a collectivity, that the Great Paralysis will continue.”

The only cure for mental and moral paralysis is mental and moral activity. It is therefore difficult to understand why Heilbroner should dismiss proposals acknowledged to be economically sound on the sole grounds that they are not enactable within the political structure of the moment. It is my firm conviction that “the pocketbook and the flag” cannot maintain their pre-eminent position in a world of nuclear weapons and an open struggle for full human rights. The moral imperative is no longer opposed by economic necessity or political in-feasibility.

Robert Theobald
New York City



To the Editor:

In his excellent review, . . . Ben B. Seligman has, I am afraid, misinterpreted my position (and by implication, that of the ADA). . . .

Indignation at the scandalous extent of poverty in this country does not require us to deny the remarkable achievement of the American economy in providing so many people so high a material level of living. Indeed, it is this very demonstration of the productive ability of the economy which makes the existence of poverty so cruelly ironical. In a poor country, poverty is inescapable; in a rich one it ought not be tolerated.

It is not that I am “dazzled by the dynamism and resilience of the American system.” It is simply that I don’t see any sense in throwing the baby out with the bath water. It is not that the cornucopia is “pointed in the wrong direction,” but rather that it is not flowing freely enough in all the right directions. The solution surely is not to break the cornucopia. . . . (If I did not appreciate David T. Bazelon’s tour de force [The Paper Economy], it was because it did not seem to me that it got us very far in that direction.)

There is a great deal to be said on the subject of what Ben Seligman refers to as “the standard Keynesian remedies”—depending on how one looks at Keynes. Better Keynesians than myself, Robert Lekachman, and Sir Roy Harrod (the latter writing in Encounter), have pointed out, in effect, that—to paraphrase G.B. Shaw—the trouble with Keynesianism is that it has never been tried. Many of us would agree that the simplistic application of Keynesian policy which we have finally reached in the United States is not going to do much—if it does anything—to relieve poverty. But there is a wider choice than this in the Keynesian armory. . . .

It is true that American economists have not yet been very inventive or persuasive in coming forward with the kinds of radical proposals which will have to be debated, sifted, refined, adapted, and—most particularly—made politically convincing before we can believe that we are on the road to eliminating poverty. It is to Robert Theobald’s credit that he has tried, and it is no disrespect to him to insist that we must examine every proposal to be as sure as we can be that it is not “an Indian rope trick” or one that will clog the cornucopia it is intended to release and re-direct.

Edward D. Hollander
Robert R. Nathan Associates
Washington, D.C.

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