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John Kenneth Galbraith, 97, Dies; Economist Held a Mirror to Society

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  • Ram Lau
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/30/obituaries/30galbraith.html? April 30, 2006 John Kenneth Galbraith, 97, Dies; Economist Held a Mirror to Society By HOLCOMB
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 30, 2006
      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 distrusted.

      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      planning of giant corporations superseded market mechanisms.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

      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

      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 friends."

      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 Epernay.

      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

      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

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

      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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