James Galbraith on Countervailing Powers


My magazine piece on the decline of labor was all about labor’s role as a countervailing power against the corporate community. The concept of countervailing powers is, of course, the brainchild of John Kenneth Galbraith, and today Ezra Klein talks to his son, James Galbraith, about how this applies to the world today:

What if labor never gets off the mat, and initiatives like the one in Wisconsin succeed? Are there any other actors in the economy who can play the countervailing role that labor has traditionally played?

There are certainly other organizations in the system. Voluntary associations and churches and so forth. But there’s nothing able to play the role as effectively on economic issues as an organization based on economic roles. Everything else is divided up into particular concerns — many of which are very important, like civil rights and environmental issues. But what has faded out is an organization with a clear and coherent focus on the economic position on the working population. And not the working population composed of manufacturing workers, but the mass of service sector jobs and others who are not organized.

This is a very good way of putting it, and it’s similar to a few paragraphs I wrote for an early draft of my article. The left still has plenty of interest groups, and they play important roles. But most of the best funded groups don’t really focus strongly on economic issues, and most of the groups that focus on economic issues aren’t well funded. As I put it in the article, we lack a countervailing power “as big, crude, and uncompromising as organized labor used to be.” Somehow we need to figure out how to get that back.

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