John Kenneth Galbraith, RIP

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The influential economist is dead at the age of 97. Among the worst headlines I've seen so far is The (Australian) Age's "Galbraith takes his leave of the affluent society."

Back in 1999, Reason Contributing Editor Jack Pitney wrote of JKG's memoir Name-Dropping:

There is a quaint frozen-in-time quality to Galbraith's thought–sort of Austin Powers without the bad teeth and mojo. Looking at Great Society welfare programs, he maintains that the solution to poverty is simply to give money to poor people, without necessarily expecting them to do work. In the decades since LBJ's War on Poverty, all but the staunchest statists have surrendered to reality and abandoned such notions. Oddly, Galbraith vents inordinate anger about America's effort to defeat Soviet communism in the Cold War. Austin–I mean, Mr. Galbraith…we won.

More here.

Jacob Sullum dismissed Galbraith's fears of advertising and consumerism here.

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  1. Aww, and his favorite holiday was tomorrow. 🙁

  2. Galbraith is an enigma to me. How does somebody whose ideas have been discredited and whose theories turned out to be quite the opposite of reality remain famous and continue to garner plaudits?

    For sure, he told comforting lies in a way that made them seem daring and full of truth. That making things better requires more money and power to governments, that the educated left wing should rule. A glib old windbag, that’s what he was.

  3. He was an evil man, and the evil that he did in life continues to fester and plague mankind.

  4. John Kenneth Galbraith is to American economics what Gordon Lightfoot is to American folk music.

    Or would he be rather Rod McKuen?

  5. After reading his “A Tenured Professor,” I found him to be a bit more loveable.

  6. Hey, Hey, Alan Stivell, don’t go trashing Gordon Lightfoot. He’s our national treasure.

  7. All comfort to his family and friends

    Milton Friedman demolished his ideas in From Galbraith to Economic Freedom .:

    http://tinyurl.com/kuafv

  8. Oddly enough, Galbraith was a Canadian who moved to the U.S., and Jane Jacobs, an American who moved to Canada. What did she see in Toronto that he didn’t?

  9. Galbraith’s most prophetic and ironic quote:

    “If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.”

    Though, I must say I’m partial to this classic:

    “Under Capitalism, man exploits man. Under Communism, it’s the other way around.”

  10. How does somebody whose ideas have been discredited and whose theories turned out to be quite the opposite of reality remain famous and continue to garner plaudits?

    I’ll never tell!

  11. Does anyone have the impression that libertarian thinkers are overwhelmingly Jewish? Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and now, it seems, Jane Jacobs, who is at least greatly loved by libertarians. Galbraith was not Jewish, of course. Maybe it’s the Jewish association with free enterprise and capitalism.

  12. Uri:

    A vast number of Marxist intellectuals are also Jewish. A people of extremes, indeed…

  13. Proud Canadian…your national treasure is Rush…currently the only reason we don’t use you for a military “training exercise”.

    And Ayn Rand was a militanr atheist. No one who wrote Galt’s speech can be considered Jewish regardless of birth.

  14. I agree Postmodern

    I also like these:

    “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.”

    “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

    “Humility is not always compatible with truth.”

    “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”

  15. “Galbraith is an enigma to me. How does somebody whose ideas have been discredited and whose theories turned out to be quite the opposite of reality remain famous and continue to garner plaudits?”

    I can answer that. He let his most embarrassing works go out of print. If you can find a copy of “The New Industrial State” in a library, give the first few chapters a read (and further if you can stand it). When I did so, I finally understood that left-wingers simply do not believe that supply and demand pricing occurs, anywhere, ever. Prices are merely a tool that corporations use in their plots to “get us,” and the remedy is to put someone like Galbraith in charge (as FDR did).

    Another answer here: http://www.ncpa.org/oped/bartlett/oct1498.html

    I do not mourn his passing.

  16. Like David Hasselhoff, he was far more influential than meritocracy would dictate he should have been.

    Does that mean he was right? Hmm…

  17. I’ve read part of The New Industrial State, and wondered how he could get things so terribly wrong… and realized that in the time he was writing, everything he wrote seemed self-evident. Industries were consolidating into bureaucracies (the vaunted “Generals”), the “company man” was more sinecured bureaucrat than entrepreneur, corporations were protected by the realities of the Cold War, finance had not yet become a game of electronic button-pushing, and the Soviet Union seemed to be an equal competitor to the U.S.

    Then came the computer and communications revolution, the fall of communism, and the hegemony of global capitalism and free trade, which knocked down all of Galbraith’s observations and predictions where they stood. It’s appropriate that he’d croak in a year when a WEB PAGE has twice the market capitalization of General Motors, which could be bankrupt by the end of the year.

    Had Galbraith been a younger man, I’d fault him a lot more, but given that he was already turning 80 when communism fell, and was no spring chicken when the computer revolution began, I can’t blame him too much for holding true to his failed philosophy, neural plasticity being what it is.

  18. darkheart:

    You make a nice distinction between the views of two extremes and their take on the truth. The truth always seems to lie in the middle, where only the non-extremists are tempted to look.

  19. “I’ve read part of The New Industrial State, and wondered how he could get things so terribly wrong… and realized that in the time he was writing, everything he wrote seemed self-evident.”

    No, sorry. Even in the context of the time (1966), Galbraith got it wrong. His argument consisted in claiming that small or new companies were no longer important in the economy because by noting the existence of many large, mature companies. But the 1960s were a great time for new retailers, restaurants (McDonalds), and consumer goods. That these are not the kind of science-driven businesses Galbraith associated with entrepreneurship is irrelevant.

    Galbraith, however, was not interested in empirical data. He even said in the introduction to TNIS that truly revolutionary ideas (like his) do not need it.

  20. I’ve read part of The New Industrial State, and wondered how he could get things so terribly wrong… and realized that in the time he was writing, everything he wrote seemed self-evident…

    Excellent comment. Even for people who remember the fifties and sixties (let alone the forties, when every model except free market capitalism seemed to have a shot at the future), it’s tough to get your mind around how different attitudes were then. To make too much of a villain of Galbraith is to downplay the insight of Hayek and Friedman, whose masterstroke was to see the direction things were headed back when things were actually headed in the other direction.

  21. Amen.

  22. You make a nice distinction between the views of two extremes and their take on the truth. The truth always seems to lie in the middle, where only the non-extremists are tempted to look.

    Right, just like in the debate between those extremists who saw the concept that one human should own another as inherently immoral and those other extremists who believed it was perfectly natural for the lives of certain people to be completely controlled by certain other people. The real truth must have been in some middle that only non-extremists were capable of seeing.

  23. Brian-
    By the time technological advances were making slaveholding economically unviable, opposition to slaveholding was no longer an extremist position. I’ll bet you like the slogan “Extermism in prusuit of virtue is no vice,” but it’s just a slogan.

  24. By the time technological advances were making slaveholding economically unviable, opposition to slaveholding was no longer an extremist position.

    And your statement implies that before that time, it was an extremist position.

  25. By the time technological advances were making slaveholding economically unviable, opposition to slaveholding was no longer an extremist position.

    Uri,

    What? Who cares if it was an “extreme” position by that time? Pick a time when it was extreme if you prefer. The point is that whether something is extreme or not, has no relevance to its truth. Therefore, your statement that “The truth always seems to lie in the middle, where only the non-extremists are tempted to look” is meaningless if not just plain wrong. All the more so if what is extreme today isn’t extreme tomorrow – exactly when, then, should we discount an idea for being extreme? Only when you don’t like it I presume. In fact it is utterly pointless to say the truth usually lies in the middle if what is the middle changes over time.

    I’ll bet you like the slogan “Extermism in prusuit of virtue is no vice,” but it’s just a slogan.

    No Uri, I don’t care if something is viewed as “extreme” today or tomorrow or yesterday – whether something is right, or good, or true must come from looking beyond such subjective and temporally shifting standards. It must come from some moral philosophy; certainly not from attempting to demean a position as “extreme” and thus claim it is less likely to be true from that fact alone.

  26. Brian:

    The Pope would certainly agree with you. Do you consider vegans extremists? How about the opponents of capital punishment? Anti-abortionists? Communists?

  27. how about no one has a monopoly on the truth. though i do say it seems like some have much less of a grasp on it than others

  28. Uri ben Tzvi: With May Day upon us, I must ask: You don’t think Communists were extremists?

    And Tim Cavanaugh, amen on the prescient insights of Hayek and Friedman.

  29. Galbraith’s economic theories were overly technical, arcane and irrelevant. He was far more interested in criticizing the mistakes of the present than in creating worthy economic models on the scale of Adam Smith and Carl Marx. At best, he’ll be a footnote in the anals of history!

  30. At best, he’ll be a footnote in the anals of history!

    I thought only biological organisms had anals.

    Y’know, as opposed to annals.

  31. The Pope would certainly agree with you. Do you consider vegans extremists? How about the opponents of capital punishment? Anti-abortionists? Communists?

    Come on Uri, for someone who is so good at knowing what I “probably think” (and being so arrogantly prickish as to feel the need to let me know that it’s just a slogan! Oh really? Damn, there goes everything I thought I knew!) I really expected a bit better.

    First, who cares? I thought I made it clear that whether someone is considered an extremist is irrelevant to determining the truth of the issue. Whether opposition to slavery was an extremist position at one time (as your post implicitly concedes) or whether it had become more mainstream (as your post claims) has nothing to do with the fact that opposing slavery was the right thing to do. So the Pope would agree with me on that? Ok, great! I suppose that being an atheist, it would be one of the few things we might agree on, but I’m happy he’s at least right about something. But so what? Are you telling me that you wouldn’t have agreed with us too, however extreme or otherwise that view was at the time? Of course you probably believe in “moderation in all things” so who knows – but Uri, it’s just a slogan!

    At any rate, the point is that there is no more reason to assume that the “truth” lies somewhere between libertarian “extremists” and communists than there was to believe the truth fell somewhere between abolitionists and apologists. It could – but if it does it is going to take some kind of argument from principles, not a completely arbitrary choice by you to label the two views equally extreme so that your preferred result conveniently lands in the middle where (surprise surprise), you tell us the truth really is. Nice try through.

  32. Galbraith in his later years (at least) reminds me of George Bernard Shaw saying in the late 30s that the English should simply welcome the Nazis into their houses as guests, should the Nazis choose to invade England. Just a bit out of touch, somehow.

  33. Unlike many Keynsians and other leftists Galbraith does not seem to have had any appreciation for individual liberty. He seems to have been a competent administrator who oversaw spectacularly flawed policies that stayed frozen in time in his mind.

    I am told that he was also extremely charming and gentlemanly, but these seem to be his only redeeming qualities.

    I recall that in debates between Galbraith and William F Buckley in the sixties Galbraith was considered the winner. By the late 70s Buckley was winning.

    As Tim Cavanaugh and others have pointed out until the early 70s Galbraith’s ides were indeed predominant. Those who remember the ’64 election will remember how extreme and out of the mainstream Barry Goldwater’s lukewarm support for the free market was. “Everybody” knew that the massive government intervention of “The Great Society” was the wave of the future. Hell, Soviet Communism was considered nothing but an alternative but equally valid economic system.

    Oddly enough, Galbraith was a Canadian who moved to the U.S., and Jane Jacobs, an American who moved to Canada. What did she see in Toronto that he didn’t?

    bob, if you knew anything about Canada and its history you would know that when Jacobs moved to Canada they were only just beginning to socialize the medical sector of it’s economy. When Galbraith left in the 30s it did not have anywhere near the welfare state it has today, in fact, it didn’t have anywhere near the welfare state the US has today (it possibly didn’t have the welfare state the US had then. There are no meaningful parallels or contrasts here.

    It is one thing to criticize (and God knows that both Jacobs and Galbraith are deserving of criticism) but one ought not to be making criticisms that have no basis in historical fact.

    Besides Galbraith had a choice; go home to work the family farm in the middle of a depression or do post graduate work at Berkeley on a scholarship. What would you have done?

  34. Hell Suddenly Running Deficits
    http://robertelegal.wordpress.com/

  35. I must say though, that through the charm and gentility of Galbraith’s speeches and interviews I have alway heard the same preachy, smarmy, smug self-righteousness that I find characteristic of New Deal liberals.

  36. From “The Age” obit:

    John Kenneth Galbraith, the iconoclastic American economist… (emphasis mine)

    Hold it, guys, I thought an iconoclast was someone who knocked down icons.

    It seems to me that Galbraith was about as responsible as anyone for setting up the icons of 20th century America.

    I’m not surprised that an Australian paper would print such a fawning obit. But I really love how liberals try to pretend that they’ve been outsiders fighting “the establishment” rather that being firmly esconced in it’s highest levels. 🙂

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