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Economist and Political Advisor John K Galbraith Dies at 97

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John Kenneth Galbraith, the Canadian-born economics professor whose theories profoundly influenced 20th Century Democratic politics, died Saturday of natural causes, according to his son. He was 97.

Galbraith served as an adviser to Democratic presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton and was ambassador to India under John F. Kennedy.

He joined the Harvard faculty in 1934. A subscriber to Keynesian economic theories, in 1958 Galbraith published The Affluent Society, one of his most influential and referenced books. It has been translated into a dozen languages and sold more than 1 million copies, an extraordinary record for a book on economics. In 1999, the Modern Library ranked the book Number 46 on its list of the 20th century’s 100 best English-language nonfiction works. Excerpts from the Minneapolis Tribune:

On the idea that measures to provide economic security, such as unemployment insurance, would make workers lazy: “The notion that economic insecurity is essential for efficiency and economic advance was a major miscalculation – perhaps the greatest in the history of economic ideas. … In fact the years of increasing concern for economic security have been ones of unparalleled advance in productivity.”

Galbraith argued that free-market economics is a myth and that a consumer-based economy ignores social needs.

William Grieder wrote in The Nation last year that Galbraith’s work and ideas of 50 years ago are as important today as then:

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.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Galbraith published The New Industrial State in 1967. Even after his retirement from Harvard in 1975, he continued to write. In 1987, he penned an article for Atlantic Monthly that foresaw the ’87 stock market crash by examining parallels with the Great Depression.

Galbraith received the Medal of Freedom twice: from President Truman in 1946 and from President Clinton in 2000.

Personal Reflections:

Reading about Galbraith for this article, I was struck by several things. First, he studied agricultural economics; as did I. Second, because I did not study economics as an undergrad (I suppose), I did not read economic theorists — and I’ve not read Galbraith. However, I’ve reached many of the same conclusions as he, based on the dozen or so obits I read to write this article.

One of those is the concept of free market economics as myth. This is a term that I’ve used regularly for the last 10 years or so as I’ve made a personal philosophical journey from Ayn Randian belief in “the market” to first-hand observation of market failures: monopolies, oligopolies, regulatory and legislative tilting of the economic playing field (points Rand made with a sledgehammer with which I still agree — we just disagree on the solution to the problem).

Another is the intense focus of the field of economics on math and models. I’ve semi-jokingly said that economists are fighting for the respectabililty afforded “hard” science. The models are, in my opinion, a veneer that has diverted the field from the study of human and societal economic concerns.

Perhaps I’ll take up the 1958 tome after I finish American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips.

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