Galbraith dies

John Kenneth Galbraith has just died. Here’s an NYT obit. Galbraith wasn’t exceptionally influential as an economic theorist, but he had a huge (and I think, generally positive) influence as a public intellectual. He’ll always be remembered as someone willing to challenge the “conventional wisdom”, one of many phrases he coined that have gone into general usage.

15 thoughts on “Galbraith dies

  1. He made economists sexy, John and was probably the last great intellectual – and social democratic – colossus of the generation forged in WWII.

  2. I agree with Geoff – a colossus – one of the biggest influences on me becoming an economist. Made it exciting and related economics to the broader social environment.

  3. I remember watching as a 17 year old the program ‘The age of uncertainty’ which he created and which made quite an impression on me.

  4. Maybe the last of the great ‘political economists’. Where have they gone? Well, maybe there are a few around, like JQ and some others around who are not ruled by numbers.

    I came across Galbraith during my BEc studies at Newcastle University. I went to the annual Honours collquium in 1996 and met people whose entire degrees were made up of boiling the economy down to equations and numbers. I didn’t think I would ever get a job from the degree I had which basically taught that economics is an art and that even science isn’t a science. It was in reading Galbraith’s work and about him that led me to know that the economy is not a vacuum and that while you can boil things down to numbers, understanding what they mean can be entirely different. He showed me that my degree would actually be a very useful tool, as it indeed has been.

    Vale JK Galbraith

  5. The one thing that people continually overlook in Galbraith’s long and distinguished career as a public figure is that he acted as the “economic czar” of the US war economy during WWII.

    In 1939 he was made an assistant professor at Princeton. A year later he was asked to work as an economist in Washington and, in 1941, was named deputy administrator in charge of price controls for the office of Price Administration.

    “By 1943 we had virtually everything under control,� Galbraith later recalled, to the chagrin of many. Before political pressure forced him to leave the Roosevelt administration in 1943, he admitted that “I reached the point that all price fixers reach – my enemies outnumbered my friends.�

    He oversaw the most successful socialist economy in the history of the world. The US economy, under Galbraiths centralised command, almost doubled in size from 1941-6. THese figures would be the envy of any Politburo:

    During World War II (from 1940 to 1945), the size of the U.S. economy roughly doubled — the fastest period of growth in U.S. history. And during this era, the top tax rate soared to 91 percent, and the bottom rate to 18 percent — again, the highest in U.S. history. In 1944, federal taxes reached 21.7 percent of the GDP — again, the highest in U.S. history.

    Galbraith also backed practice up with theory. His book on the theory of price control for a command economy is the go-to text for socialist economists.

    I would also reccommend a dose of institutional economics as an antidote to the excessive mathematical formalism of standard neo-classical economics. Social science must include the study of how instinctual endowmentsand and the institutional environment form individual embodiments.

  6. I very much enjoyed Brad deLong’s obituary post on Galbraith, particularly commenters’ listing their favorite Galbraith quotations. Prof. Quiggin’s patronising remarks say much more about contemporary economists than they do about JKG.

  7. patronising???
    John Quiggin, who is generally to the left of Brad De Long, being chastised by a commenter for not being sufficiently kind to Galbraith? will wonders never cease?

  8. Will Galbraith the Berkeley agricultural economist graduate be remembered as a novel writer? Indeed, in a “Tenured Professor” he depicts an economist who becomes rich by short-selling US traded assets. The young lad gets into trouble at Harvard because his business practices are un-american? Not bad for using “dismal scientists” in fictions. Beats the lawyers!

  9. Leaving aside left and right, Gordon, I would have thought that I make it obvious on a daily basis that I regard the contribution of public intellectuals to be at least as important as that of economic theorists.

  10. Ah, yes, The Age of Uncertainty. My introduction to both Galbraith and economics. I must be around two years your junior, Guido.

  11. My JKG faves were always The Affluent Society and A Short History of Financial Euphoria – again probably revealing my age.

    My favourite anecdotes stem from his time as head of wartime price control, and the special pleadings of various captains of industry to be spared – if anyone has heard the one about the ant, the pile of bull dung and the finger twitching, it’s a gem.

  12. Well said, Prof. Quiggin. My favorite JKG quote is: “The trouble with competition is that in the end somebody wins.”

  13. Like Guido my introduction to Galbraith was the “Age of Uncertainty” which my leaving economics class had to read in 1977. The WA leaving ecomomic syllabus at the time was still heavily Keynsian and the likes of Friedman and Hayek were marginalised (no pun intended).It was a refreshing relief to read an ecomomic book that was readily understandable by a 17 year old.

    Incidentally, I recall the book was made into a a television series and broadcasted by the ABC about the same time. I recall the series was serialised by one of the National Papers. I cannot remember which one but I am willing to bet it was not one Paddy Mc Guiness had anything to do with unless he used the book as a demonstaration of what was wrong.

    Unlike Bob I did not take an economics degree ( I settled for law which is just as dismal) but in my first yeat at UWA I took an ecomomic history unit. By the third term when we were studying depression and post depression ecomomics it had become clear that Galbraith and Keynes were very much out of favour with the Uni ecomomics faculty (but not the Ecomonic historians ) largely on doctrinal grounds or, as one of my tutors said, because economists like Galbraith and Keynes “changed their ideology when confronted with facts”. I took this to mean that Galbraith and Keynes formed their views on economics from experience of the real world and not some abstract model based on assumptions which cannot exist.

    While I did not always agree with him I nonetheless will miss Galbraiths wit and his ability to produce succinct memorable quotes. He may not have been exceptional influential as an economic theorist (I will leave to others to decide whether or not he was a great economist) but he undoubtedly was a great communicator and a positive influence on millions.

  14. I’ve just caught up ith youre April/May correspondence on JK Galbraith’s “Age of Uncertainty”. I was one of the producer/directors of that series, and I don’t have a copy. Do you know of anyone who has one? Or how to get one? (The BBC, who own the copyright, no longer have a copy!)

  15. Galbraith was a disaster as an economist but he had a nice line of self-deprecating wit. This is a story from his time on the farm in Canada when he was courting the girl next door, wihout success. I first saw the story in a memoire of his youth that he published in The Liberal Hour a long time ago but it is now on line if you google Galbraith+cow.

    “Galbraith was chatting with our class at one of our Friday afternoon get-togethers. He told us of the days when he was a young man on the family farm in Canada. He and a girlfriend were leaning over the fence looking into the cow pasture. “A bull came up to the nearest cow and mounted her. I said to the young lady, ‘My, that ought to be fun!’ She replied, ‘Well, go ahead, it’s your cow.’ “

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