Reviving a Public Spending Agenda

Date Published: 
Sat, 01/01/2011

By Lawrence B. Glickman, Department of History, University of South Carolina

In the 1950s and early 1960s intellectuals and political leaders debated the importance of “public spending.”  Set off by the economist Paul Samuelson’s important series of articles on the topic, and popularized by John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, the syndicated columns of America’s most influential pundit, Walter Lippmann, and by Democratic politicians critical of the Eisenhower administration economic policies and political priorities, the benefits of public consumption became a key issue in political discourse and even the 1960 presidential election.  A number of commentators described  public spending as the major political topic of the postwar era.  From the mid-1950s through the 1960s, the New York Times assigned a reporter, Edwin L. Dale, Jr., to the public spending beat. Just as the newspaper had labor and consumer affairs correspondents in this era, it assigned a reporter to the issue because of the fundamental importance of the topic.

Advocates of public spending (or “public expenditures”) held that there were two imbalances in the way the nation consumed: one in the relationship between public and private and the other within the public realm.  According to the advocates of public spending, the government overencouraged private consumption and itself underconsumed. In the postwar years, the Government sanctioned all manner of private consumption but itself did not spend enough money in key areas, including defense spending, infrastructure, education, urban renewal, and the environment.   “Our people have been led to believe in the enormous fallacy that the highest purpose of the American social order is to multiply the enjoyment of consumer goods,” declared Lippmann in 1957. “As a result, our public institutions... have been...scandalously starved.”