John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics
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John Kenneth Galbraith’s books—among them The Affluent Society and American Capitalism—are famous for good reason. Written by a scholar renowned for energetic political engagement and irrepressible wit, they are models of provocative good sense that warn prophetically of the dangers of deregulated markets, war in Asia, corporate greed, and stock-market bubbles. Galbraith’s work has also deeply—and controversially—influenced his own profession, and in Richard Parker’s hands his biography becomes a vital reinterpretation of American economics and public policy.
Born and raised on a small Canadian farm, Galbraith began teaching at Harvard during the Depression. He was FDR’s “price czar” during the war and then a senior editor of Fortune before returning to Harvard and to fame as a bestselling writer. Parker shows how, from his early championing of Keynes to his acerbic analysis of America’s “private wealth and public squalor,” Galbraith regularly challenged prevailing theories and policies. And his account of Galbraith’s remarkable friendship with John F. Kennedy, whom he served as a close advisor while ambassador to India, is especially relevant for its analysis of the intense, dynamic debates that economists and politicians can have over how America should manage its wealth and power. This masterful chronicle gives color, depth, and meaning to the record of an extraordinary life.
claim firsthand knowledge of the extreme poverty that beset the world’s great majority; but most were, like Galbraith, Westerners whose efforts were driven by a combination of human compassion and intellectual challenge. But for development economics Galbraith had two distinct assets: an intimate, personal knowledge of agricultural life, the Third World’s primary occupation and chief source of national and export incomes; and detailed familiarity with the economic structures and reconstruction
employment-generating policies with the least effect on the balance of payments—a quest, as one economist later put it, that was like “looking for needles in the proverbial haystack.”47 But Galbraith kept pressing Kennedy to resist these directions. As an alternative, he gave Kennedy a list of wide-ranging recommendations for measures meant to solve what he considered a relatively small problem. Foreign aid, for example, could be tied to the recipients’ purchase of U.S. goods and services;
education spending.31 BY CONTRAST, in The New York Times Robert Bellah said he “knew of no book … that treats more incisively or more convincingly the profoundly injurious consequences of these policies to our economy.” The Washington Post’s chief book critic, Jonathan Yardley, praised it as “measured, ironic … yet angry” about the “complacency for which sooner or later we will pay a heavy price.” Across the country, nearly two dozen major papers and magazines rushed to praise the book, and its
“depending on the situation some weeks hence.” 118. Ibid., document 253 (Bundy to JFK). 119. Ibid., document 254, notes of NSC meeting. The draft NSAM of November 13 (ibid., document 247) includes a section that follows Galbraith’s and Harriman’s advice on opening discussions with the Russians in Geneva, and with the North Vietnamese through the Indians. In the final version (ibid., document 272), NSAM 111, issued on November 22, the section was deleted. 120. Bundy to Kennedy, November 15,
35. William Baumol, Business Behavior: Value and Growth, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), and Robin Marris, The Economic Theory of Managerial Capitalism (London: Macmillan, 1964). 36. See Herbert Simon, Models of Man: Social and Rational (New York: John Wiley, 1957), and R. Cyert and J. G. March, A Behavioral Theory of the Firm (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963). The theoretical and empirical literature has expanded enormously since the 1960s. Although much of this newer work