John Kenneth Galbraith, the Canadian born Harvard economist who passed away in Cambridge, Mass. recently, had many critics, but few equals. His contributions to economic thought will be remembered, and cited long after contemporary Nobel Prize winners in economics (which he never received) are forgotten.
For an agricultural economist, with an undergraduate degree in animal husbandry from Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Galbraith had a particularly exciting career. He was an active Democrat, and policy advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and consulted by leading Democrats so long as his health allowed it.
He became a writer first and an academic second, while employed as a journalist for Fortune before taking up a post at Harvard. His writing skills made him the most famous of Harvard professors. He turned his attention to the depression and The Great Crash may be his most widely known book. His memoir of his childhood, family and neighbours The Scotch was his personal favourite.
He excelled in government administration, beginning service in the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, where he ended up running the office charged with setting U.S. prices in wartime.At war's end Galbraith assessed the effectiveness of U.S. strategic bombing and judged it a failure. It was one of many occasions where his policy views would be ignored. The U.S. military to this day believe they can efficiently bomb and destroy the war-making capacity of others.
His position did invoke the rage of key members of the Harvard Board of Regents who endeavoured to block his appointment to the economics department.
His activism also took the form of dissent with polices of the Democratic administration he served as Ambassador to India. His biographer Richard Parker has revealed how Galbraith fought with his friends and Harvard colleagues over advice given to President Kennedy to send U.S. troops to Vietnam, and won the argument, only to see the advisors carry on anyway.
When his friend Kennedy died, Galbraith continued to argue with President Johnson, first privately then publicly. His biographer quotes the first sentence of a memo: Mr. President, despite much official crap to the contrary, we are going to lose in Vietnam.
The interest generated in his work sprang from the way Galbraith was so much a part of the world; he was a political animal, deeply engaged with the issues and problems of his times, not simply an observer standing apart.
Faced with the supply-side economics of the Ronald Reagan so-called revolution which amounted to cutting taxes for the very wealthy to increase their incentive to create wealth, and reducing access to welfare so as to force people to find jobs, many reacted with indignation. Galbraith preferred irony. His assessment of the supply-siders was that we were to believe the rich do not work hard enough because they do not have enough money, and the poor do not work hard enough because they have too much.
Galbraith lived long enough he died at 97 to see the world he was born into change beyond belief, and he believed in change. In that sense he was a liberal, though he was once quoted as saying he was on the left in whatever country he found himself a Democrat in the U.S., but a socialist in the U.K., always to the left.
His 1992 book The Culture of Contentment summed up what had gone wrong in post-war America. The affluent had got control of the political system. As voter participation dropped to below 50 per cent, higher income people had continued to be politically active pursuing their private interest, but not lower income people. Still later in The Good Society (1996) he argued about the need for an agenda for the common good. The result was that policies Galbraith had been arguing for in his economic trilogy The Affluent Society, The New Industrial State, and Economics and the Public Purpose had been lost from sight in post-Vietnam America. It was as if Galbraith had discovered he had not been living in the country he thought he had been living in.
Perhaps he never did leave Iona Station, Ontario, that far behind after all.
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