John Kenneth Galbraith dies aged 97

John Kenneth Galbraith, the Canadian-born economist and JFK’s Ambassador to India, has died. 

Galbraith was probably the second most well-known and widely read economist of the 20th Century, after John Maynard Keynes. He was the first pop-star economist, a distinction achieved by few others (Paul Krugman and Jeff Sachs are perhaps the other two).  He spent most of his life at Harvard, though he studied for his Masters and PhD here in Berkeley.

His most well-known work was The Affluent Society, published in 1958, in which he famously contrasted ‘private affluence and public
squalor’.  He argued that public services lag behind private goods and services, in part because there is no mechanism to ensure that part of a nation’s rising prosperity is spent on public goods.  In general, as people become more prosperous they want both extra public goods – such as better schools or a clean environment – and extra private goods. Indeed the proportion of their income they would spend on public goods may well rise as a share of their income.  But in general, public goods and services do not keep pace with this demand because there is nothing like a market mechanism to ensure that public provision keeps pace. Galbraith argued that this is a political failure (though this was later analyzed somewhat differently by public choice economists). A few years ago he said:

There’s no question that in my lifetime, the contrast between what I
called private affluence and public squalor has become very much
greater. What do we worry about? We worry about our schools. We worry
about our public recreational facilities. We worry about our law
enforcement and our public housing. All of the things that bear upon
our standard of living are in the public sector. We don’t worry about
the supply of automobiles. We don’t even worry about the supply of
foods. Things that come from the private sector are in abundant supply;
things that depend on the public sector are widely a problem. We’re a
world, as I said in The Affluent Society, of filthy streets and clean
houses, poor schools and expensive television. I consider that contrast to be one of my most successful arguments.

Though he had a distinguished career, and was in many ways a member of the establishment, Galbraith always saw himself as somewhat detached from the political and intellectual classes.  He coined the term "conventional wisdom", which he meant pejoratively as meaning a widely shared view which was often incorrect. 

Galbraith expressed in his autobiography (A Life in Our Times) a thought which must be familiar to every blogger today:

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.

It is easy to underestimate Galbraith’s impact. Like Darwin’s theory of evolution, The Affluent Society seems obvious, almost clichéd, to a modern reader. But it was a revolutionary idea that private markets alone would not deliver many of the goods and services that we value as part of the good life, and we are still arguing today about the implications of this important insight.

He was also a funny man. One of his most famous aphorisms always sticks in my mind:

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

4 thoughts on “John Kenneth Galbraith dies aged 97”

  1. it was a revolutionary idea that private markets alone would not
    deliver many of the goods and services that we value as part of the
    good life

    I’m more convinced by Pete Boettke’s view:

    He did set a standard for writing that
    we should aspire to achieve, but his core ideas are either restated
    Veblen, warmed over Keynes, or Marxist platitudes.  It is not clear
    that any of his ideas are original enough to warrant that he be placed
    in that company of critics of the market economy.

    pop-star economist

    what about Milton Friedman? 

  2. Lord (Meghnad) Desai, Labour peer, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the LSE and former Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, was on the radio this morning (I thought on the Today programme, but I can’t find it on the Today website) denouncing Galbraith as an economist who wrote well but produced no original or useful ideas after about the 1950s.  The BBC website article about him says, among other things:

    …many of today’s leading economists feel his ideas have been largely discredited and he has never been regarded as one of the great economic theorists.  "He was an economic commentator who fostered popular interest in the subject," says Madsen Pirie, president of the free-trade supporting think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute.  "But I don’t regard him as someone who made a major contribution to the theoretical understanding of economic systems."

    It seems to me that some at least of this kind of stuff from economists is down to jealousy, and to the tendency of a certain kind of academic to ridicule fellow-professionals who popularise their ideas on television or in books read and enjoyed by lay people.
    It’s a reminder of Galbraith’s great age when he died that it was he who conducted the survey of the effects of allied bombing on Germany at the end of the second world war, concluding that the bombing had stiffened rather than undermined German civilian morale, had not done such significant damage to the infrastructure as materially to affect the German war effort (and that the damage done was quickly repaired), and that the US economy was probably more adversely affected by the diversion of resources to the production of bombs and bombers than the German economy by being bombed.
    What a gift for the pungent, witty and illuminating epigram, though!

  3. Brian, I sympathise with your point but surely one can disentangle the motivations of a critic and the actual content of their criticism?Arguing that his critics are jealous doesn’t make them factually wrong – I don’t think that the survey of allied bombing is sufficient reason to claim he had a lasting theoretical legacy in economics. He was a truly great populiser of economics (deserving our awe and respect) but he clearly wasn’t a great economist (as defined by providing original insights). I know full well that there’s a less than perfect correlation between professional standing and original insights (i’d say Mises is the best example of this), but we do have the capacity to look back and see if it was justified. The fact that Galbraith was respected more by policy makers than fellow economists is, I feel, telling.

  4. "The fact that Galbraith was respected more by policy makers than fellow economists is, I feel, telling. "  Spot on – the policy-maker is always looking for justifications, however spurious, to interfere.  Galbraith provided – a fine example of the market mechanism at work.

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