[Marxism] John Kenneth Galbraith

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 30 07:30:13 MDT 2006

NY Times, April 30, 2006
John Kenneth Galbraith, 97, Dies; Economist Held a Mirror to Society

John Kenneth Galbraith, the iconoclastic economist, teacher and diplomat 
and an unapologetically liberal member of the political and academic 
establishment that he needled in prolific writings for more than half a 
century, died yesterday at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was 97.

Mr. Galbraith lived in Cambridge and at an "unfarmed farm" near Newfane, 
Vt. His death was confirmed by his son J. Alan Galbraith.

Mr. Galbraith was one of the most widely read authors in the history of 
economics; among his 33 books was "The Affluent Society" (1958), one of 
those rare works that forces a nation to re-examine its values. He wrote 
fluidly, even on complex topics, and many of his compelling phrases — among 
them "the affluent society," "conventional wisdom" and "countervailing 
power" — became part of the language.

An imposing presence, lanky and angular at 6 feet 8 inches tall, Mr. 
Galbraith was consulted frequently by national leaders, and he gave advice 
freely, though it may have been ignored as often as it was taken. Mr. 
Galbraith clearly preferred taking issue with the conventional wisdom he 

He strived to change the very texture of the national conversation about 
power and its nature in the modern world by explaining how the planning of 
giant corporations superseded market mechanisms. His sweeping ideas, which 
might have gained even greater traction had he developed disciples willing 
and able to prove them with mathematical models, came to strike some as 
almost quaint in today's harsh, interconnected world where corporations 
devour one another.

"The distinctiveness of his contribution appears to be slipping from view," 
Stephen P. Dunn wrote in The Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics in 2002.

Mr. Galbraith, a revered lecturer for generations of Harvard students, 
nonetheless always commanded attention.

Robert Lekachman, a liberal economist who shared many of Mr. Galbraith's 
views on an affluent society that they both thought not generous enough to 
its poor or sufficiently attendant to its public needs, once described the 
quality of his discourse as "witty, supple, eloquent, and edged with that 
sheen of malice which the fallen sons of Adam always find attractive when 
it is directed at targets other than themselves."

 From the 1930's to the 1990's, Mr. Galbraith helped define the terms of 
the national political debate, influencing the direction of the Democratic 
Party and the thinking of its leaders.

He tutored Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 
and 1956, on Keynesian economics. He advised President John F. Kennedy 
(often over lobster stew at the Locke-Ober restaurant in their beloved 
Boston) and served as his ambassador to India.

Though he eventually broke with President Lyndon B. Johnson over the war in 
Vietnam, he helped conceive Mr. Johnson's Great Society program and wrote a 
major presidential address that outlined its purposes. In 1968, pursuing 
his opposition to the war, he helped Senator Eugene J. McCarthy seek the 
Democratic nomination for president.

In the course of his long career, he undertook a number of government 
assignments, including the organization of price controls in World War II 
and speechwriting for Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson.

He drew on his experiences in government to write three satirical novels. 
One in 1968, "The Triumph," a best seller, was an assault on the State 
Department's slapstick attempts to assist a mythical banana republic, 
Puerto Santos. In 1990, he took on the Harvard economics department with "A 
Tenured Professor," ridiculing, among others, a certain outspoken character 
who bore no small resemblance to himself.

At his death Mr. Galbraith was the Paul M. Warburg emeritus professor of 
economics at Harvard, where he had taught for most of his career. A popular 
lecturer, he treated economics as an aspect of society and culture rather 
than as an arcane discipline of numbers.

Keeping It Simple

Mr. Galbraith was admired, envied and sometimes scorned for his eloquence 
and wit and his ability to make complicated, dry issues understandable to 
any educated reader. He enjoyed his international reputation as a slayer of 
sacred cows and a maverick among economists whose pronouncements became 
known as "classic Galbraithian heresies."

But other economists, even many of his fellow liberals, did not generally 
share his views on production and consumption, and he was not regarded by 
his peers as among the top-ranked theorists and scholars. Such criticism 
did not sit well with Mr. Galbraith, a man no one ever called modest, and 
he would respond that his critics had rightly recognized that his ideas 
were "deeply subversive of the established orthodoxy."

"As a matter of vested interest, if not of truth," he added, "they were 
compelled to resist." He once said, "Economists are economical, among other 
things, of ideas; most make those of their graduate days last a lifetime."

Nearly 40 years after writing "The Affluent Society," Mr. Galbraith updated 
it in 1996 as "The Good Society." In it, he said that his earlier concerns 
had only worsened: that if anything, America had become even more a 
"democracy of the fortunate," with the poor increasingly excluded from a 
fair place at the table.

Mr. Galbraith gave broad thought to how America changed from a nation of 
small farms and workshops to one of big factories and superstores, and 
judgments of this legacy are as broad as his ambition. Beginning with 
"American Capitalism" in 1952, he laid out a detailed critique of an 
increasingly oligopolistic economy. Combined with works in the 1950's by 
writers like David Reisman, Vance Packard and William H. Whyte, the book 
changed people's views of the postwar world.

Mr. Galbraith argued that technology mandated long-term contracts to 
diminish high-stakes uncertainty. He said companies used advertising to 
induce consumers to buy things they had never dreamed they needed.

Other economists, like Gary S. Becker and George J. Stigler, both Nobel 
Prize winners, countered with proofs showing that advertising is 
essentially informative rather than manipulative.

Many viewed Mr. Galbraith as the leading scion of the American 
institutionalist school of economics, commonly associated with Thorstein 
Veblen and his idea of "conspicuous consumption." This school deplored the 
universal pretensions of economic theory, and stressed the importance of 
historical and social factors in shaping "economic laws."

Some, therefore, said Mr. Galbraith might best be called an "economic 
sociologist." This view was reinforced by Mr. Galbraith's nontechnical 
phrasing, called glibness by the envious and antagonistic.

Mr. Galbraith's pride in following in the tradition of Veblen was 
challenged by the emergence of what came to be called the new 
institutionalist school. This approach, associated with the University of 
Chicago, claimed to prove that economics determines historical and 
political change, not vice versa.

Some suggested that Mr. Galbraith's liberalism crippled his influence. In a 
review of "John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics" 
by Richard Parker (Farrar, 2005), J. Bradford DeLong wrote in Foreign 
Affairs that Mr. Galbraith's lifelong sermon of social democracy was 
destined to fail in a land of "rugged individualism." He compared Mr. 
Galbraith to Sisyphus, endlessly pushing the same rock up a hill that 
always turns out to be too steep.

Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, maintains that Mr. Galbraith 
not only reached but also defined the summit of his field. In the 2000 
commencement address at Harvard, Mr. Parker's book recounts, Mr. Sen said 
the influence of "The Affluent Society" was so pervasive that its many 
piercing insights were taken for granted.

"It's like reading 'Hamlet' and deciding it's full of quotations," he said.

John Kenneth Galbraith was born Oct. 15, 1908, on a 150-acre farm in 
Dunwich Township in southern Ontario, Canada, the only son of William 
Archibald and Catherine Kendall Galbraith. His forebears had left Scotland 
years before.

His father was a farmer and schoolteacher, the head of a farm-cooperative 
insurance company, an organizer of the township telephone company, and a 
town and county auditor. His mother, whom he described as beautiful but 
decidedly firm, died when he was 14.

The Farming Life

Mr. Galbraith said in his memoir "A Life in Our Times" (1981) that no one 
could understand farming without knowing two things about it: a farmer's 
sense of inferiority and his appreciation of manual labor. His own sense of 
inferiority, he said, was coupled with his belief that the Galbraith clan 
was more intelligent, knowledgeable and affluent than its neighbors.

"My legacy was the inherent insecurity of the farm-reared boy in 
combination with the aggressive feeling that I owed to all I encountered to 
make them better informed," he said.

Mr. Galbraith said he inherited his liberalism, his interest in politics 
and his wit from his father. When he was about 8, he once recalled, he 
would join his father at political rallies. At one event, he wrote in his 
1964 memoir "The Scotch," his father mounted a large pile of manure to 
address the crowd.

"He apologized with ill-concealed sincerity for speaking from the Tory 
platform," Mr. Galbraith related. "The effect on this agrarian audience was 
electric. Afterward I congratulated him on the brilliance of the sally. He 
said, 'It was good but it didn't change any votes.' "

At age 18 he enrolled at Ontario Agricultural College, where he took 
practical farming courses like poultry husbandry and basic plumbing. But as 
the Depression dragged down Canadian farmers, the questions of the way farm 
products were sold and at what prices became more urgent to him than how 
they were produced. He completed his undergraduate work at the University 
of Toronto and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he 
received his master's degree in 1933 and his doctorate in agricultural 
economics in 1934.

A major influence on him was the caustic social commentary he found in 
Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class." Mr. Galbraith called Veblen one of 
American history's most astute social scientists, but also acknowledged 
that he tended to be overcritical.

"I've thought to resist this tendency," Mr. Galbraith said, "but in other 
respects Veblen's influence on me has lasted long. One of my greatest 
pleasures in my writing has come from the thought that perhaps my work 
might annoy someone of comfortably pretentious position. Then comes the 
realization that such people rarely read."

While at Berkeley, he began contributing to The Journal of Farm Economics 
and other publications. His writings came to the attention of Harvard, 
where he became an instructor and tutor from 1934 to 1939. In those years 
the theories of John Maynard Keynes were exciting economists everywhere 
because they promised solutions to the most urgent problems of the time: 
the Depression and unemployment. The government must intervene in moments 
of crisis, Lord Keynes maintained, and unbalance the budget if necessary to 
prime the pump and get the nation's economic machinery running again.

Keynesianism gave economic validation to what President Roosevelt was 
doing, Mr. Galbraith thought, and he resolved in 1937 "to go to the temple" 
— Cambridge University — on a fellowship grant for a year of study with the 
disciples of Lord Keynes.

In 1937 Mr. Galbraith married Catherine Merriam Atwater, the daughter of a 
prominent New York lawyer and a linguist, whom he met when she was a 
graduate student at Radcliffe.

In addition to his wife and his son J. Alan, of Washington, a lawyer, he is 
survived by two other sons, Peter, a former United States ambassador to 
Croatia and a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and 
Nonproliferation in Washington, and James, an economist at the University 
of Texas; a sister, Catherine Denholm of Toronto; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Galbraith became an American citizen, and taught economics at Princeton 
in 1939. But after the fall of France in 1940, Mr. Galbraith joined the 
Roosevelt administration to help manage an economy being prepared for war. 
He rose to become the administrator of wage and price controls in the 
Office of Price Administration. Prices remained stable, but he grew 
controversial, drawing the constant fire of industry complaints. "I reached 
the point that all price fixers reach," he said, "My enemies outnumbered my 

He was forced to resign in 1943 and was rejected by the Army as too tall 
when he sought to enlist. He then held a variety of government and private 
jobs, including director of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey in 
1945, director of the Office of Economic Security Policy in the State 
Department in 1946, and a member of the board of editors of Fortune 
magazine from 1943 to 1948. It was at Fortune, he said, that he became 
addicted to writing.

In 1949 he returned to Harvard as a professor of economics; his lectures 
were delivered before standing-room-only audiences. And he began to write 
with intensity, rising early and writing at least two or three hours a day, 
before his normally full schedule of other duties began, for most of the 
rest of his life.

He completed two books in 1952, "American Capitalism: The Concept of 
Countervailing Power" and "A Theory of Price Control." In "American 
Capitalism," he set out to debunk myths about the free market economy and 
explore concentrations of economic power. He described the pressures that 
corporations and unions exerted on each other for increased profits and 
increased wages, and said these countervailing forces kept those giant 
groups in equilibrium and the nation's economy prosperous and stable.

In his 1981 memoir, he said that though the basic idea was still sound, he 
had been "a bit carried away" by his notion of countervailing power. "I 
made it far more inevitable and rather more equalizing than, in practice, 
it ever is," he wrote, adding that often it does not emerge, with the 
result that "numerous groups — the ghetto young, the rural poor, textile 
workers, many consumers — remain weak or helpless."

He summarized the lessons of his days at the Office of Price Administration 
in "A Theory of Price Control," later calling it the best book he ever 
wrote. He said: "The only difficulty is that five people read it. Maybe 10. 
I made up my mind that I would never again place myself at the mercy of the 
technical economists who had the enormous power to ignore what I had 
written. I set out to involve a larger community."

He wrote two more major books in the 50's dealing with economics, but both 
were aimed at a large general audience. Both were best sellers.

In "The Great Crash 1929," he rattled the complacent, recalled the mistakes 
of an earlier day and suggested that some were being repeated as the book 
appeared, in 1955. Mr. Galbraith testified at a Senate hearing and said 
that another crash was inevitable. The stock market dropped sharply that 
day, and he was widely blamed.

"The Affluent Society" appeared in 1958, making Mr. Galbraith known around 
the world. In it, he depicted a consumer culture gone wild, rich in goods 
but poor in the social services that make for community. He argued that 
America had become so obsessed with overproducing consumer goods that it 
had increased the perils of both inflation and recession by creating an 
artificial demand for frivolous or useless products, by encouraging 
overextension of consumer credit and by emphasizing the private sector at 
the expense of the public sector. He declared that this obsession with 
products like the biggest and fastest automobile damaged the quality of 
life in America by creating "private opulence and public squalor."

Anticipating the environmental movement by nearly a decade, he asked, "Is 
the added production or the added efficiency in production worth its effect 
on ambient air, water and space — the countryside?" Mr. Galbraith called 
for a change in values that would shun the seductions of advertising and 
champion clean air, good housing and aid for the arts.

Later, in "The New Industrial State" (1967), he tried to trace the shift of 
power from the landed aristocracy through the great industrialists to the 
technical and managerial experts of modern corporations. He called for a 
new class of intellectuals and professionals to determine policy. While 
critics, as usual, praised his ability to write compellingly, they also 
continued to complain that he oversimplified economic matters and either 
ignored or failed to keep up with corporate changes. Mr. Galbraith conceded 
some errors and revised his book in 1971.

A Move Into Politics

One of his early readers was Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois, who 
twice ran unsuccessfully for president against Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mr. 
Galbraith often wrote to Mr. Stevenson, introducing him to Keynesian 
taxation and unemployment policies. In 1953, Mr. Galbraith and Thomas K. 
Finletter, the former secretary of the Air Force and later ambassador to 
NATO, formed a sort of brain trust for Mr. Stevenson that included 
Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and 
the foreign policy specialist George W. Ball.

Although Mr. Galbraith did not at first regard Kennedy, a former student of 
his at Harvard, as a serious member of Congress, he began to change his 
view after Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1952 and began calling him 
for advice. The senator's conversations became increasingly wide-ranging 
and well informed, Mr. Galbraith said, and his respect and affection grew.

After Mr. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, he appointed Mr. Galbraith 
the United States ambassador to India. There were those, Mr. Galbraith 
among them, who believed that the president had done this to get a 
potential loose cannon out of Washington.

He said in his memoir: "Kennedy, I always believed, was pleased to have me 
in his administration, but at a suitable distance such as in India." Mr. 
Galbraith was fascinated with India; he had spent a year there in 1956 
advising its government and was eager to return.

He spent 27 months as ambassador, clashed with the State Department and was 
more favorably regarded as a diplomat by those outside the government. He 
fought for increased American military and economic aid for India and acted 
as a sort of informal adviser to the Indian government on economic policy. 
Known by his staff as "the Great Mogul," he achieved an excellent rapport 
with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other senior officials in the 
Indian government.

When India became embroiled in a border war with China in the Himalayas in 
1962, Ambassador Galbraith effectively took charge of both the American 
military and the diplomatic response during what was a brief but 
potentially explosive crisis. He saw to it that India received restrained 
American help and took it upon himself to announce that the United States 
recognized India's disputed northern borders.

The reason he had so much control over the American response, he said, was 
that the border fighting occurred during the far more consequential Cuban 
missile crisis, and no one at the highest levels at the White House, the 
State Department or the Pentagon was readily responding to his cables.

Mr. Galbraith published "Ambassador's Journal: A Personal Account of the 
Kennedy Years," a book based on the diary he kept during his time in India, 
in 1969. A year earlier he published "Indian Painting: The Scenes, Themes 
and Legends," which he wrote with Mohinder Singh Randhawa. An avid champion 
of Indian art, he donated much of his collection to the Harvard University 
Art Museums.

In 1963, Mr. Galbraith added fiction to his repertory for the first time 
with "The McLandress Dimension," a novel he wrote under the pseudonym Mark 

After Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Galbraith served as an adviser to 
President Johnson, meeting with him often at the White House or on trips to 
the president's ranch in Texas to talk about what could be accomplished 
with the Great Society programs. Mr. Galbraith said that Johnson had 
summoned him to write the final draft of his speech outlining the purposes 
of the Great Society, and that when the writing was done, said: "I'm not 
going to change a word. That's great."

The relationship between the two men soon broke apart over their 
differences over the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, when Adlai Stevenson 
died in 1965, the ambassadorship to the United Nations became vacant, and 
word reached Mr. Galbraith that the president was considering him as Mr. 
Stevenson's successor.

A Job Declined

Not wanting to be placed in the position of having to defend administration 
positions he strongly opposed, Mr. Galbraith suggested Justice Arthur J. 
Goldberg of the Supreme Court. The president named Mr. Goldberg, and Mr. 
Galbraith later blamed himself for a "poisonous" mistake that "cost the 
court a good and liberal jurist." Others said he took too much credit for 
what happened.

In 1973 he published "Economics and the Public Purpose," in which he sought 
to extend the planning system already used by the industrial core of the 
economy to the market economy, to small-business owners and to 
entrepreneurs. Mr. Galbraith called for a "new socialism," with more 
steeply progressive taxes; public support of the arts; public ownership of 
housing, medical and transportation facilities; and the conversion of some 
corporations and military contractors into public corporations.

He continued to rise early and, despite the seeming effortlessness of his 
prose, revised each day's work at least five times. "It was usually on 
about the fourth day that I put in that note of spontaneity for which I am 
known," he said.

He served as president of the American Economic Association, the 
profession's highest honor, and was elected to membership in the National 
Institute of Arts and Letters. He continued to pour out magazine articles, 
book reviews, op-ed essays, letters to editors; he lectured everywhere, 
sometimes debating William F. Buckley Jr., his friend and Gstaad skiing 
partner. He was so prolific that Art Buchwald, the humorist, once 
introduced him by citing his literary production: "Since 1959 alone, he has 
written 12 books, 135 articles, 61 book reviews, 16 book introductions, 312 
book blurbs and 105,876 letters to The New York Times, of which all but 3 
have been printed."

In 1977 he wrote and narrated "The Age of Uncertainty," a 13-part 
television series surveying 200 years of economic theory and practice. In 
1990 he wrote "A Tenured Professor," about a Harvard professor who devised 
a legal, foolproof and computer-assisted system for playing the stock 
market and used his billions of dollars in profits on programs for 
education and peace — only to be investigated by Congress for un-American 
activities and forced to shut down his operations.

In 1996, as Mr. Galbraith approached his 90th year, he wrote "The Good 
Society." Matthew Miller wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "We're 
not likely to find as elegant a little restatement of the liberal creed, or 
its call to conscience."

Mr. Galbraith said Republicans out to roll back the welfare state made a 
fundamental error in thinking that politicians and their actions drive 
history. In fact, he argued, it is the reverse. Liberals did not create big 
government; history did.

Mr. Galbraith, who received the Medal of Freedom from President Bill 
Clinton in 2000, continued to make his views known. Some were surprising, 
like his speech in 1999 praising Johnson's presidency, which he had helped 
to bring down by working with McCarthy.

There always seemed to be one more book. One, "The Essential Galbraith" 
(2001), was a collection of essays and excerpts that a reviewer in Business 
Week said remained very timely. Another, "Name-Dropping from F.D.R. On" 
(1999), recounted encounters with the powerful, including President 
Kennedy's response when Mr. Galbraith complained that an article in The New 
York Times had described him as arrogant.

Kennedy retorted that he didn't see why it shouldn't: "Everybody else does."

In 2004, Mr. Galbraith, who was then 95, published "The Economics of 
Innocent Fraud," a short book that questioned much of the standard economic 
wisdom by questioning the ability of markets to regulate themselves, the 
usefulness of monetary policy and the effectiveness of corporate governance.

He remained optimistic about the ability of government to improve the lot 
of the less fortunate. "Let there be a coalition of the concerned," he 
urged. "The affluent would still be affluent, the comfortable still 
comfortable, but the poor would be part of the political system."

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