Galbraith was the witty economist

Appreciation

May 01, 2006|By BARRY STAVRO | BARRY STAVRO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

John Kenneth Galbraith's best-selling books challenged the idea that a surging economy was a measure of social excellence and instead urged government to divert more of the nation's wealth to social needs.

The longtime professor of economics, who was 97, died Saturday of natural causes at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., according to his son, Alan Galbraith.

Galbraith's fame was cemented with the 1958 publication of The Affluent Society," a phrase that soon worked its way into our language, and The New Industrial State, a follow-up work published in 1967. His books appeared at a time when America was without peer as an economic power, and Galbraith, an esteemed Harvard University professor, argued that the free-market economy was a myth and that the 1,000 largest American corporations dominated both our economy and our social life.

Giant corporations essentially operated free of competition, he said, often turning out frivolous goods for an increasingly consumer-minded society, while the capitalistic economy ignored more pressing social needs. "Americans still have an extraordinary capacity to ignore poverty," Galbraith told an interviewer in 1983. "I am struck by our superb capacity to manufacture consumer gadgetry including electronic games versus our capacity to produce schools."

He asked for a change in public values in favor of supporting everything from the arts to better housing for the poor, and he favored intervention by the federal government to rein in corporate power, while using more tax money to better social needs, such as improving education and protecting the environment.

The Affluent Society was translated into a dozen languages and sold more than 1 million copies. It also helped influence a surge of federal spending on social programs in the 1960s, in what came to be known as "The Great Society" during Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency. Forbes magazine, no fan of Galbraith's liberal ways, called him "overbearing, witty, acid-penned," but conceded that he was "America's favorite economist."

Galbraith was a man of varied talents. He also worked as a journalist and served roles in four Democratic presidential administrations, including deputy administrator of the Office of Price Administration for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II and as ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration.

Galbraith was a Keynesian economist, after the British economist John Maynard Keynes whose theories gained wide currency during the Depression of the 1930s. Keynes argued that governments could smooth out the boom-and-bust cycles of capitalistic economies by spending more to prime the economy and create jobs during bad times, while in boom times, he said, governments should raise taxes to build a budget surplus and check inflation.

Galbraith retired from Harvard University in 1975 but he remained widely sought out despite his theories having fallen somewhat from favor.

Galbraith was born on a modest cattle farm in Ontario, Canada, in 1908. His father was a teacher and a county official, and Galbraith would grow up with a keen interest in agriculture, later earning a doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1934. (Galbraith became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1937.)

Galbraith, as many of his fellow Keynesian economists did, went to work for Roosevelt's New Deal administration, trying to use economic theories as his tools to fine-tune the economy.

In 1941 Galbraith was appointed deputy administrator of the Office of Price Administration in charge of fixing civilian prices on essential supplies -- such as rubber, gasoline and food -- that were rationed to help support the war effort. After a shaky start, Galbraith's price controls worked well: Americans saved more and their money in turn helped finance the war.

Galbraith's influence reached its zenith after The Affluent Society was published. The book's most widely quoted passage was a scathing attack on middle-class consumption: "The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered, and power-braked car out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter.

... They ... spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air-mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?"

Galbraith's book caught the attention of John F. Kennedy. Galbraith had already served as a speechwriter for twice-defeated presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson, and he wrote speeches for Kennedy as well, and actively campaigned for his election as president in 1960.

For many, Galbraith -- who was 6 feet, 8 inches tall -- towered over his contemporaries. But more than three dozen Americans won the Nobel Prize for Economics since 1969, and Galbraith was not among them.

In addition to his son Alan, Galbraith is survived by his wife, Catherine (they married in 1937), and two other sons, Peter and James.

Barry Stavro writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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