John Kenneth Galbraith, 97, Dies; Economist Held a Mirror to Society
April 30, 2006
John Kenneth Galbraith, 97, Dies; Economist Held a Mirror to Society
By HOLCOMB B. NOBLE and DOUGLAS MARTIN
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planning of giant corporations superseded market mechanisms.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
"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
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
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
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
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
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