In a 1930 essay titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” John Maynard Keynes ridiculed economists for having a high opinion of themselves and their work. As the Great Depression engulfed the world, Keynes looked back at historic rates of economic growth, arguing that the real problem people would face in the future was not poverty but the moral quandary of how to live in a society of such abundance and wealth that work would cease to be necessary. The “economic problem,” as he put it, was technical, unimportant in the larger scheme of things. “If economists,” he wrote, “could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!” John Kenneth Galbraith—the Harvard-based economist whose books shaped the public conversation on economic matters for a generation in mid-twentieth-century America—would have agreed.
Today, given the rise of mathematical methods and computer modeling, economics is if anything even more labyrinthine, esoteric and inaccessible to the layman than it was in the days of Keynes and Galbraith. It is also more intellectually and politically ascendant than it was in the 1930s. Its methods now dominate much of the social sciences, having made inroads in law and political science. Its central theme of the superiority of free markets is the gospel of political life. This makes the publication of the Library of America edition of four of Galbraith’s best-known books—American Capitalism; The Great Crash, 1929; The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State—a cause for celebration. (The volume is edited by Galbraith’s son James, also an economist.) Galbraith delighted in puncturing the self-importance of his profession. He was a satirist of economics almost as much as a practitioner of it. He took generally accepted ideas about the economy and turned them upside down. Instead of atomistic individuals and firms, he saw behemoth corporations; instead of the free market, a quasi-planned economy. Other economists believed that consumers were rational, calculating actors, whose demands and tastes were deserving of the utmost deference. Galbraith saw people who were easily manipulated by savvy corporations and slick advertising campaigns, who had no real idea of what they wanted, or why. In many ways, our economic world is quite different from the one Galbraith described at mid-century. But at a time when free-market orthodoxy seems more baroque, smug and dominant than ever, despite the recession caused by the collapse of the real estate bubble, his gleeful skewering of the “conventional wisdom” (a phrase he famously coined) remains a welcome corrective.
* * *
John Kenneth Galbraith was born in 1908, the third child of a farm family in the small Canadian town of Iona Station. He became an economist almost by accident. Shortly before his graduation from Ontario Agricultural College (which he described in later life as “probably the worst college in the English-speaking world”), he stumbled upon an advertisement for a graduate fellowship in agricultural economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He applied and was accepted, and after completing his studies he managed to secure a nontenure-track position at Harvard.
It took some time for Galbraith to become a full professor, but even then he never retreated into academic life. To learn of the sheer variety of his activities—detailed in the chronology in the Library of America volume—is exhausting. He was prolific, writing four dozen books—among them three novels—and more than 1,100 articles. Before he earned tenure, he did a stint at the Office of Price Administration during World War II, creating the system of price controls that prevented inflation during the wartime boom. In the 1940s he was a writer for a new magazine called Fortune, where his articles helped spread popular interpretations of Keynesianism. He participated in the United States Postwar Strategic Bombing Survey, which found that the supposedly accurate air-bombing of Europe had in fact failed to destroy the munitions plants it had targeted. He was closely tied to the Democratic Party of the postwar years, advising Adlai Stevenson and serving as the American ambassador to India under John F. Kennedy, although he ultimately became an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam (and steadily moved to the left of the Democratic Party). In the ’70s he was pilloried by the conservative movement: the Heritage Foundation held him up as an example of all that was wrong with liberalism, and Milton Friedman’s PBS series Free to Choose was created as a conservative alternative to a series Galbraith produced for the BBC called The Age of Uncertainty.