Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review: The New Industrial State, by John Kenneth Galbraith

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967, pp. 427.

The conventional view of the American economy is that it is an arena where market forces predominate so that no single buyer or seller exercises significant control over prices, individuals and small business are the principal sources of innovation, and enterprises fight to keep government and organized labor at bay in their pursuit of that crucial form of feedback, profit, won through their competition to cater to the wants of the consumer.

However, in his 1967 classic The New Industrial State John Galbraith made the case for quite a different reality. The American economy, Galbraith held, was thoroughly planned--if in a somewhat more diffuse way than contemporaneous Soviet-style economies. Rather than some government bureau attempting to direct the whole, the function was spread among a small number of key actors, in particular the largest industrial corporations. This was because only the large corporation could raise the capital and organize the skills needed to design and produce the highly complex products characteristic of mid-twentieth century technology.1 And even for them, such investments were only viable when the market and its uncertainties were tamed--not least, the tastes of consumers.

Such corporations pursued the reduction of uncertainty at a number of levels, from that of the individual firm (through such methods as vertical integration, or the use of the market power that comes with large size to influence the prices at which they buy their inputs and sell their production), to that of the usually oligopolistic industries of which they were a part (through the avoidance of disruptive competition among firms), to the level of the whole economy through their influence on and cooperation with government (which pays for much R & D, and regulates demand with high public outlays, progressive taxation, and wage and price controls) and their dealings with organized labor (negotiations with which stabilize wage levels, and often bring it into line as an ally when pursuing government contracts). These corporations also made the private consumer a more predictable actor, not only through research of the consumer in advance of the development of the products to be marketed to them, but the advertising moulding his or her tastes.2

The corporations, in turn, were dominated by their "technostructures," the assemblages of technicians that made such companies functional, who had to be seen in this collective way because the planning process indispensable to their operations was far too vast and complex to be controlled by a single individual (given the volume and variety of information that had to be collected and processed, and decisions that had to be made). One result was the diminished power of the Chief Executive Officer and other senior management, often reduced to ratifying the decisions of comparatively obscure experts within their firms.3 In their turn, managers (typically salaried employees rather than owner-founders or their heirs) had seen their power grow relative to that of shareholders, as these were even further removed from being able to usefully observe and understand the intricate internal workings of these companies, while their prospects for exercising detailed control over company operations were further diminished by the wide diffusion of stock ownership. The result was that, so long as a company continued to deliver an "acceptable" level of profit, the technostructure enjoyed the degree of autonomy without which its elaborate planning was impossible.

The culture of such "mature" corporations naturally differed from that of such enterprises in their more formative phases, or the businesses of earlier eras altogether. The businessmen of the classic, nineteenth century mould (the Henry Ford type, for example), thoroughly "individualistic," and resolutely anti-intellectual, anti-statist and anti-union in sensibility and policy, were a poor fit with the model of enterprise Galbraith described in this book--and prone to get into trouble when trying to run a mature industrial company (as Ford appears, in Galbraith's account of his career in his earlier The Liberal Hour).

By contrast the "new" CEOs were more comfortable in an organization, more willing to give expertise its due, and more pragmatic in their dealings with government and labor, permitting the smoother operation of their businesses and the economy as a whole. They were not unconcerned with profit, but maximizing it was not their sole or even primary object--in part because they were salaried personnel whose own income was less closely connected to company fortunes, and in part because other motives had come to the fore, in particular "identification" with the company that gave them their privileged positions, and the satisfaction afforded by the "adaptation" of the company in line with their own, particular ideas about its mission.

Of course, identification and adaptation were not such powerful motives for less senior personnel. However, line workers too were more secure and better compensated than before, living as they did in a time of high employment and rising living standards (affording them much more than life's basics), while they were trading their blue collars for white ones and the less grinding working conditions that went with them, enabling those factors to influence them in a way they could not have before. The result was to weaken the sense of the employer (at least, in mature companies with a pragmatic attitude toward labor) as an enemy, helping to make the relationship between employee and employer less fraught with insecurity and confrontation, and the softer line of new-style, "enlightened" management toward organized labor that much more viable.

The discussions of identification and adaptation assumed company as well as personal goals beyond the merely pecuniary, and Galbraith naturally discussed this matter at length, writing of the "social goals" which are the formal missions of major industrial firms--objects at which they strove to make a profit, rather than having been incidental to profit-making as such. Lest the utopian rhetoric of privately owned, profit-driven corporations pursuing social goals cause confusion, what Galbraith referred to by the term are rising production and consumption, technological advance, and the agendas associated with it: the growth of the Gross Domestic Product, and the waging of the Cold War.

This model of the economy's "commanding heights" laid out, Galbraith then proceeded to consider the system's weaknesses, offering an extensive critique of the limits of the goals pursued by the country's technostructures. As he noted, the manner in which government supported R & D and sustained demand was highly militarized, a fact which helped lock in Cold War tensions, and all their dangers (the most extreme of which was major nuclear war). Additionally, values and interests out of line with the accepted goals--like leisure, ecology, aesthetics--were typically denigrated and marginalized. This raised the question of who would promote peace rather than war, protect the environment or defend intellectual and cultural values, and other such essential goods. Galbraith believed the answer lay in the emergence of what he termed the "educational and scientific estate." The dependence of the technostructure on this "estate" for expert knowledge, technological advance, and the training of the work force made its members both more numerous, and more powerful, and made them a potential champion of those needs and values so poorly served by the rest of the system.

Taken together these ideas comprise a satisfactorily comprehensive analysis of the heart of the American economy at the time of the book's writing, as well as certain of its key problems and potential palliatives, one which remains relevant today in many ways. What Galbraith's book has to say about how large, high-tech enterprises work is just as true today as it was then--if not more so. The indispensability of the technostructure to the major industrial enterprise, the marginalization of the individual entrepreneur and small business in the economy (and especially in high-tech manufacturing), the fact of oligopoly, the reality of close collaboration between big business and government, are irrefutable facts of twenty-first century life. The long-term decline of organized labor Galbraith recognized is an equally irrefutable fact of American economic history in the past half century.

Yet, there is also no disputing that the "ideology" of the older "entrepreneurial" mentality Galbraith identified with older-style, profit-fixated businessmen resurged in the 1970s with the ascendance of neoliberal economic thought. Of course, for all the rhetoric, small enterprises did not reverse a two century-long trend toward Big Business or Big Government; if anything, the movement in this direction remained as vigorous as ever. Nonetheless, the associated attitudes profoundly changed the milieu in which the technostructures operate--generally in ways unconducive to their functioning.

This has most obviously been the case at the macroeconomic level as deregulation and loose money policies, as well as the abandonment of full employment as a policy goal, intensified some forms of economic competition and made demand less reliable (by holding down wages, increasing the incidence of financial crises, encouraging the dependence of consumption on unsustainable borrowing, etc.). However, it has also been the case in the ways in which individual corporations have been run, by contributing to the dominance of the industries of which Galbraith wrote by a speculation-minded financial sector intent on short-run profit and share price maximization (and the linking of executive compensation to them). This has led to a preoccupation with cost-cutting (often targeting areas like R & D) directed at making quarterly earnings statements appear more attractive, at the expense of long-range company development; an increasing investment of company resources in mergers-and-acquisitions games as they pursue or fend off takeover attempts, at the expense of other imperatives; and the neglect of a company's core business (e.g. its social goal) to focus on more profitable speculative finance (as General Motors did).

The economic performance of the advanced industrial nations during this time, unsurprisingly, has been characterized by technological stagnation (evident in just about every area but IT) and falling growth rates (which compare very unfavorably with the post-World War II period), while the failure of corporate giants has long ceased to be an unheard-of event (as the events of 2008 and after have reminded us all).4 Consequently, even though Galbraith did not anticipate this turn, the economic history of these decades lends a great deal of support to his theory about how high-tech, capital-intensive firms, and the economies founded on them, necessarily operate. Taken along with the rather weak performance of the scientific and educational estate in the role of "loyal opposition," one can conclude that the principal failure of Galbraith (like many another mid-century American liberal) was his overestimation of the degree to which American political culture would adapt to the economic and technological realities that had become so apparent by mid-century.5

1. Galbraith's ideas regarding the decline of competition, and the emergence of oligopoly and its relationship to technological innovation, were previously (and more fully) elaborated in his earlier American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power (1952).
2. As their income enables them to go further and further beyond the point of meeting their most basic physical needs (food, shelter, warmth), consumers enjoy an increasing range of choice in their use of their purchasing power--another uncertainty business tries to manage. The result is that instead of being catered to by business, business strives to determine their wants for them. This idea was previously discussed in American Capitalism, and received even fuller treatment in 1958's The Affluent Society (reviewed here).
3. Galbraith remarks that "financial markets have long since accepted the reality of the technostructure as distinct from the entrepreneur," and goes on to jokingly paint an image of how the financial world would hang on "anything affecting his tenure in office," fluctuations in his health major news, and his replacement "handicapped like a horse." Yet, is such fuss not a routine matter where celebrity CEOs like Steve Jobs have been concerned--in part because it remains the norm to identify the achievements of a whole company with its chief?
4. There are those who would point to information technology as a counterexample to Galbraith's analysis of the place of the individual entrepreneur and the start-up in the '70s and after. Yet, the actual history of computing as we know it is dominated by state-subsidized R & D (it was the Defense Department which produced the ARPANet, CERN which gave us the World Wide Web) and the research of established firms like IBM (the hard disk drive, DRAM), Hewlett-Packard (the first to market a "personal computer") and Xerox (the graphical user interface). Additionally, the success of newer firms meant that they quickly fell into line with the model of innovation described here, without which Apple could not have delivered the Ipad, and Google would not be experimenting with driverless cars--the phase of old-fashioned entrepreneurship on closer inspection smaller and shorter-lived than the hype would have it. It is also worth keeping in mind that, even to the extent that it can be construed as exceptional, the sector has received disproportionate attention because of the false impressions created by the inflated share-prices of IT companies (as with Apple and Google right now), the frequent exaggeration of the economic impact of personal computing (the contribution to productivity has been hard to find), and its convenience as ideological fodder (proponents of orthodox economic thinking and purveyors of techno-hype desperately seizing on the myth in their search for some validation of their ideas).
5. Chris Hedges offers a more recent and quite different take on that estate's influence and vitality in Death of the Liberal Class.

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