Farewell to John Kenneth Galbraith

On April 29, 2006, John Kenneth Galbraith died at the age of 97. Canadian born, but a Harvard economist for a half century, he was the epitome of an educated leftwing intellectual. He was a prolific writer, read by a popular audience rather than by academic economists. His best-selling books included “American Capitalism (1952),” “The Affluent Society (1958),” and “The New Industrial State (1967).”

Like other liberal (in the US sense) intellectuals of his day, Galbraith disdained the free market because it allowed people to choose what they wanted, rather than what enlightened intellectuals thought was best for them. He argued that control of production had passed from consumers whose choices told corporations what to produce, to corporations, which now exercised control over consumers by advertising, marketing and salesmanship.

He described this as artificial affluence, and contrasted it with what he called a neglected public sector. Thus Americans, he said, were able to buy luxury items, while their public spaces were degraded and their children attended poorly-maintained schools. Other analysts, however, have put the poverty of American education down to other causes than any lack of funding.

Galbraith was lavish in his praise of the socialist countries he visited. His 1984 New Yorker article, for example, claimed that: “Partly, the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.” This view was presumably based on an uncritical acceptance of the bogus statistics the Soviets published.

In his 1973 account of his experiences in “A China Passage,” Galbraith wrote that there was "no serious doubt that China is devising a highly effective economic system," "Dissidents are brought firmly into line in China, but, one suspects, with great politeness," he wrote. This was just after the peak of the Mao terror in which as many as 3 million may have been killed. He thought that Chinese industrial and agricultural output was expanding annually at a rate of 10 to 11 percent, again taking as fact the wildly implausible official statistics.

Paul Krugman, in many ways a latterday successor to Galbraith’s position as an all-purpose leftist intellectual, disparaged Galbraith as a “media personality” not taken seriously by fellow academics, an inclined to come out with over-simplistic answers to complex problems. Krugman was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics, not for his partisan columns in the New York Times, but for earlier work on New Trade Theory and the New Economic Geography. Galbraith sold more books, but was never in the running for A Nobel Prize.