Noted economist J. K. Galbraith dies

April 30, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

John Kenneth Galbraith, the iconoclastic economist, teacher and diplomat and an unapologetically liberal member of the political and academic establishment, died last night at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass., of natural causes. He was 97.

His death was confirmed by son J. Alan Galbraith.

Dr. Galbraith was one of the most widely read authors in the history of economics; among his 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.

Dr. Galbraith was consulted frequently by national leaders, and he gave advice freely, though it may have been ignored as often as it was taken.

He strived to change the 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conversation about power and its nature in the modern world by explaining how the planning of giant corporations superseded market mechanisms.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 came to strike some as almost quaint in a 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.

Robert Lekachman, a liberal economist who shared many of Dr. Galbraith's views on an affluent society they both thought not generous enough to its poor nor 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 1930s to the 1990s, Dr. Galbraith helped define the terms of the national political debate, influencing both 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 of the Great Society program and wrote a major presidential address that outlined its purposes. In 1968, pursuing his opposition to the war, he helped Sen. 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 presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson.

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 Dr. 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."

"Economists," he once said, "are economical, among other things, of ideas; most make those of their graduate days last a lifetime."

Last year, J. Bradford DeLong wrote in Foreign Affairs that Dr. Galbraith's lifelong sermon of social democracy was destined to fail in a land of "rugged individualism." He compared Dr. Galbraith to Sisyphus, endlessly pushing the same rock up a hill.

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