John Kenneth Galbraith was famous long ago as America’s most widely read economist, until his expansive understanding of economic liberalism was pushed aside by political events and conservative ideology. Galbraith is still alive, however, and at 96 still writing provocative books (his latest, The Economics of Innocent Fraud, was a bestseller last year in Britain). Let’s hope the professor is around long enough to enjoy a Galbraith revival. His books, I feel certain, are going to come back in vogue. When the right’s rigid ideology falters and breaks down, sooner perhaps than people imagine, Americans will need an explanation for what went wrong. They can read Galbraith.
The striking quality about the man and his work is how forcefully the books he wrote across nearly fifty years speak to our present circumstances. Read Galbraith to recognize the many important matters–society’s condition, for instance–excluded from the brittle, math-obsessed economics that poses as hard science. Study Galbraith’s critical voice in the serious public policy debates of his time to appreciate what is missing from today’s politics and media. Listen to Galbraith address such taboo subjects as corporate power to understand what honest economists should be confronting now.
The occasion for these observations is the publication of John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, a fine new biography by Richard Parker. Parker has wisely chosen to provide a readable historical narrative of large events and intellectual arguments interwoven with the course of Galbraith’s extraordinary life. From the New Deal onward, readers can grasp what was driving the country, its politics and economics. Galbraith was a major actor in both. But the book is not just a softheaded homage. His many critics are treated with judicious fairness, as are Galbraith’s oversights and corrections. One can observe, with no special pleading by the author, an indomitable spirit–a man often disappointed by events, his ideas repulsed by conventional thinking, yet never embittered. Above all, Galbraith is an empiricist–he understands that facts trump theory–and a sharp contrast with the current crowd of conservative ideologues. Across many decades, Galbraith’s liberalism evolved in new directions– usually tougher and more critical of the complacent mainstream as he proceeded–but always confident that the liberal tradition acts on behalf of common sense and powerless people, that imagining a more perfect world helps to achieve the possible.
Other economists, including some fellow liberals, loathed the man for roughly the same reasons readers loved him. His success as an author made professional colleagues crazy with envy. By Parker’s count, he has written a staggering forty-eight books, and the big, celebrated ones sold hundreds of thousands of copies each (an awesome total of 7.5 million). For starters, Galbraith was a bestseller because he writes in English–fluid, magisterial prose with a generous clarity that leads readers across dense and difficult terrain. With droll detachment, he further entertains them with an occasional aside tweaking self-important authority figures, including orthodox economists. His readers were flattered to be included in the joke. Fellow economists retaliated with overwrought rebuttals and muttered contempt.
Memorable aphorisms, scattered throughout the work, are still timely. “What is called sound economics is very often what mirrors the needs of the respectably affluent.” Does that not speak to our own times? I first came across this line in one of his unheralded books, Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went (1975). These words, I thought, should be engraved on the wall at the House Ways and Means Committee and maybe the Treasury. Though Galbraith was an unwavering adherent of John Maynard Keynes, Money provided the most succinct, dry-eyed explanation I have read on why Keynesian economics was not used to curb inflation during the 1960s. The doctrine, he explained, expected politicians to raise taxes at the very time citizens were already suffering from inflation–“a peculiarly gratuitous action,” Galbraith observed, that would have added insult to injury.
“American liberals have made scarcely a new proposal for reform in 20 years. It is not evident that they have had any important new ideas…. Rather they had a file. Little is ever added. Platform-making consists, in effect, in emptying out the drawers.” Does that sound familiar? Galbraith wrote that in 1952, when he found the political imagination of New Deal liberalism already exhausted. “The threat to men of great dignity, privilege and pretense is not from the radicals they revile; it is from accepting their own myth.” That line is from The Great Crash, 1929, a book that sold nearly 800,000 copies. His observation also describes the self-inflated corporate titans of recent notoriety.
Across the arc of his long career, as Parker’s book makes clear, Galbraith maintained this critical temperament. That quality is what makes his old books so relevant to the present–his ability to see through economic theory and examine the much larger, infinitely more complex variables of politics, history, psychology and, above all, power. American Capitalism (1952) argued (too optimistically) that the rise of “countervailing power” fostered by big government would moderate the excesses of concentrated corporate power–a premise discarded a decade later when the evidence led in the opposite direction. The Affluent Society (1958) celebrated the new abundance of private mass consumption but warned presciently that vital public investments could be pushed aside to society’s great detriment (the condition we face today). The New Industrial State (1967) contained a far darker analysis of the economy’s power structure, arguing that the technocratic managers of the modern corporation had not only defeated labor and other countervailing forces but overwhelmed society itself.
Economics and the Public Purpose (1973) was, most provocatively, “socialist,” in a Galbraith manner of speaking. He defined his brand of socialism in five flavors: public authority over healthcare, public transportation and housing; government ownership of arms manufacturers; government ownership of several hundred of the largest corporations; planning to promote public values and goals like energy conservation and the environment; a market strategy to defend competition by nurturing small businesses and workers’ rights against conglomerates.
As these examples illustrate, Galbraith wrestled with many of the largest economic questions in defense of society’s interests. These are the very questions that economists and politicians ought to be arguing over right now. When conservative economics professors discover their grad students are reading Galbraith on the sly, then we will know that the ideological tide is turning.