John Kenneth Galbraith (1908- ), educated at the University of Toronto, the University of California (Ph.D., 1934), and Cambridge University, is one of the leading economists of our century.
Also linked to our presentation of John Kenneth Galbraight – USA – a text on November 1, 2005.
John Kenneth Galbraith – USA
Among his many books the most influential are The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967), in both of which he attacks the “conventional wisdom” that our economy is driven by the free choice of consumers. Instead, he argues, modern business “uses its political influence to persuade the government to maintain full employment and total demand for all output of all firms.”
Galbraith believes the economy is a kind of treadmill, designed by business interests to keep people working and consuming, regardless of what they might want if they were left to their own devices. Given this vision of the artificiality of “affluence” in Western societies, he is naturally distressed by the existence of what he sees as equally artificial poverty.
As an adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Galbraith is associated with the social programs Charles Murray finds objectionable. “How to Get the Poor Off Our Conscience” was published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1985. Born in 1908 and raised on a small Canadian farm, Ontario, Galbraith began to teach at Harvard in his twenties. In 1938 he left to work in New Deal Washington, eventually rising to become FDR’s “price czar” during the war. Following his years as a writer at Fortune, where he did much to introduce the work of John Maynard Keynes to a wide audience, he returned to Harvard in 1949 and began writing the books that would make him famous. A pertinent text, ‘How to Get the Poor Off Our Conscience’ you may read on an other today’s edition on this blog.
Galbraith not only criticized his colleagues directly for ignoring the messy world of people, policy and political power, he disparaged them implicitly by writing elegant, wry, thoroughly comprehensible prose directed not at his profession but at the general educated public. He “sought to define economics not as a scientific field,” Parker says, but as Keynes had, “as an instrumental practice that was designed to achieve central moral and political ends and that was at its best when economists educated and persuaded the public.”
Trained as an academic agricultural economist (he got his doctoral degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1934), Galbraith has written dozens of books and hundreds of articles about economics, politics and public policy, including the worldwide best sellers “American Capitalism” (1952), “The Affluent Society” (1958) and “New Industrial State” (1967), as well as an autobiography, a book on Indian art, a 1967 blueprint for withdrawing from Vietnam and several best-selling novels. He wrote and hosted a multiepisode PBS series, was deputy director of the Office of Price Administration during World War II, directed the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in Europe after the war, was an editor at Fortune magazine, campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson (1952 and 1956), campaigned and wrote speeches and policy papers for Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, chaired Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), was U.S. ambassador to India (1961 to 1963) and–oh yes–taught economics at Harvard University from 1948 to 1975.
Galbraith (who became an American citizen in 1937) remained forever shaped by his farmer-activist father’s liberal political views. In fact, Galbraith came to symbolize American liberalism like few others of his time. He worked on every Democratic presidential campaign from Stevenson’s first run in 1952 to George McGovern’s in 1972. From 1953 to 1956 he helped convene, and wrote papers for, an informal, high-level Stevenson policy advisory group and was one of three main speechwriters during the 1956 campaign, “darting back to Cambridge to meet with classes.”
Galbraith’s closest friend in politics was Kennedy, whom he had known since JFK’s undergraduate days at Harvard. By the late 1950s, the young U.S. senator from Massachusetts was relying increasingly on the older man’s economic and political advice. Kennedy made him a floor manager during the 1960 Democratic National Convention, and they stayed in close touch during the campaign, JFK “peppering Galbraith with request[s] for short speeches, . . . advice on economic policy, ideas on strategy.” Galbraith had fallen in love with India on an earlier visit, so when Kennedy was elected, he asked for, and received, the ambassadorship.
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