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.