Professor J. K. Galbraith

Author of 'The Affluent Society' and one of the 'action intellectuals' of mid-20th-century America

John Kenneth Galbraith, economist: born Dunwich, Ontario 15 October 1908; Tutor, Harvard University 1934-39, Lecturer 1948-49, Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics 1949-75 (Emeritus); Research Fellow, Cambridge University 1937; Assistant Professor of Economics, Princeton University 1939-42; Assistant Administrator, Office of Price Administration 1941, Deputy Administrator 1942-43; Director, State Department Office of Economic Security Policy 1945; US ambassador to India 1961-63; Chairman, Americans for Democratic Action 1967-69; married 1937 Catherine Atwater (three sons, and one son deceased); died Cambridge, Massachusetts 29 April 2006.

J. K. Galbraith may not have been the most brilliant economist the United States has produced. There are whole schools of economic thought that acknowledge with difficulty that he was an economist at all. What can be said is that no American economist, and hardly an economist anywhere, has possessed his gift for expounding questions of economics and political economy with anything approaching his lucid and entertaining style.

The secret of Galbraith's talent as a teacher - for that is what he was, a teacher to audiences that varied in size from one to millions, and might be a class of undergraduates, the readers of a paperback book or the President of the United States - lay not only in his remarkable intellect, but also in the breadth of his experience. What do they know of economics who only economics know? Like his admired model, John Maynard Keynes, Galbraith knew many worlds, from Canada to Switzerland, from Cambridge, Mass., to Cambridge, England, and from Washington to India. He knew Keynes and Nehru, he worked closely with Presidents Roosevelt, Stevenson, Kennedy and Johnson, he interviewed Albert Speer in prison and the Nazi leaders before their execution. He raided all these experiences for insights.

He was at different times a university teacher, a journalist on Fortune magazine, the official responsible for setting all prices in the US during the Second World War, a White House adviser, a best-selling author, a television documentary-maker, and ambassador, and at all times a wit, an untiring partygoer and diner-out, an astonishingly disciplined worker, the most loyal of friends and indefatigable of controversialists, an abiding liberal and the sworn enemy of all pomposity, even including, most of the time, his own.

Galbraith enriched the vocabulary of literate people everywhere with phrases like "the conventional wisdom", the "technostructure" and the "affluent society". He wrote more than two dozen books and hundreds of articles on everything from Indian painting to economic theory, two of his books, The Great Crash and The Affluent Society, 20th-century masterpieces of rigorous analysis coated with sardonic humour fit to stand with Voltaire or Veblen. Yet his intellectual and literary career had to be sandwiched between incessant lobbying for liberal political causes and a substantial career of public service. He was one of the "action intellectuals" of mid-century America, and it is arguable that his intellectual achievement and his political effectiveness each suffered from his insistence on matching action and reflection.

My own friendship with him, such as it was, began when I arranged to interview him about his (significant) role in organising a radical challenge to Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election of 1968. I arrived in his office at Harvard to find him sprawled on the sofa, having obviously consumed a cocktail or three over the lunch-hour. After he had offered only a few surly observations on the invincible ignorance of journalists, I took a deep breath and said that he was wasting my time. Even before I reached the elevator, I could hear a galumphing sound behind me as of an apologetic giraffe, but I set my face, got into the lift and flew back to New York.

Two days later I received a note which I still cherish. If I was prepared to risk wasting more of my time, it ventured, he would be happy to help. I discovered much later that on the morning of my appointment he had learned from Jacqueline Kennedy of her intention of marrying Aristotle Onassis. He was so upset by the thought of a woman whom he not only liked and admired but who was the widow of his hero marrying such a man that he had drowned his sorrows - something uncharacteristic, at least at lunchtime. After that he was enormously generous and helpful, not only with my immediate project, but on every subsequent encounter.

Immensely tall, Ken Galbraith spoke in the faintly grating accent of his native Ontario. His manner was sardonic, but kindly. In an autobiography he blamed his lifelong passion for imparting his own opinions on his farming antecedents. He had inherited, he maintained (his tongue as usual in his cheek - no one knew better how to use that contortion as a literary device), "the inherent insecurity of the farm-reared boy in combination with an aggressive feeling that I owed it to all I encountered to make them better informed". Few have fulfilled that self-imposed obligation with more insight or with such good-humour.

Galbraith described in his book The Scotch (1964) the somewhat grudging politics of the world he grew up in, the farmland of southern Ontario occupied by Scots driven from the Highlands by the clearances, and therefore sworn enemies of all Tories. His father was a leading local liberal, and Ken worked as a child on the family farm of 150 acres which fed a good herd of shorthorn cattle.

Born John Kenneth Galbraith in 1908, he was a great reader as a child, and went to high school at the age of 10. His higher education began at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Ontario. From there he went to Berkeley to do a PhD, where he spent "three utterly contented years". By the summer of 1934 he was working in New Deal Washington and sharing the excitement of the arrival of Keynes's ideas. That autumn he went to Harvard as a junior instructor teaching agricultural economics to undergraduates.

In 1937 he met and married his wife Kitty, with whom, as he once said, he "lived happily ever afterwards". Their honeymoon took them to England, where he studied at Trinity and met not only the Keynesians, such as Piero Sraffa and Joan Robinson, but also more conservative scholars such as D.H. Robertson and J.H. Clapham. He also went one day a week to the London School of Economics, where he attended the seminar run by the future gurus of free market economics, Friedrich von Hayek and Lionel Robbins.

Warned to expect no tenure at Harvard, he taught briefly in 1939 at Princeton, which he disliked as a snobbish and conservative place, and then worked for the American Farm Bureau in Chicago before returning to the considerable responsibility of being, at the age of 33 and foreign-born, assistant (later deputy) administrator of the Office of Price Administration, which had power over the price of every commodity in the country. (His friend Paul Porter once proposed they should make everything cost $5: it was a joke.) One of his subordinates was a young lawyer called Richard Nixon.

From 1943 until 1948 he worked for Henry Luce's Fortune magazine, then a nest of controversial intellectuals, many of them, like Daniel Bell, Dwight Macdonald and James Burnham men of the left. Twice during that period Galbraith took leave of absence for public service.

His first task was the survey of strategic bombing. It proved ideally suited to his intellectual energy and contrary instincts. He and a remarkable team of fellow researchers (they included, among less surprising luminaries, W.H. Auden and the composer Nicholas Nabokov) showed that, so far from being a ruthlessly efficient machine, German war industry was highly ineffective and strategic bombing inflicted surprisingly little damage on it. Later the survey was extended to Japan. The experience left Galbraith with a lifelong revulsion against warfare and a growing reputation in government circles as a brilliant if irritatingly unpredictable analyst.

The second absence from Fortune was to allow him to serve as the Director of the Office of Economic Security Policy in the State Department. Galbraith despised the old guard of American diplomats, drawn as he saw it from the very ranks of the American upper class he had found so irritating at Harvard and Princeton before the war. He recalled in his memoirs how, at Harvard in the 1930s, students were allotted to five coded groups. There were three categories of private school in descending order of social exclusivity, for students from public high schools, and for Jews, wherever educated, for whom a fixed quota was established.

Galbraith never wore his radical credentials on his sleeve, but he was, as he put it in the title of one of his books, "an abiding liberal". More precisely, since, in the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy, "liberal" was used as a euphemism for "socialist", he was an old-fashioned Fabian socialist or as it would now be termed "social democrat". His models were the British Fabians around Sidney and Beatrice Webb. He said of them something that came close to expressing his own political creed: "it was a world in which decency, compassion and wide-ranging intelligence were combined with the belief that the nature of the economic order is, above all, a matter of moral commitment".

He continued to believe, he wrote shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, "that men and women of such decency deserve to be right". In January 1947 he was one of the founders, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jnr, and Joseph L. Rauh, of what was to be the home of those liberals who, unlike Henry Wallace and his largely fellow-travelling fraction of the left, accepted the need to confront the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

In 1948 he was persuaded to return to what was to be his base until the 1970s: the rapidly changing, socially more open, intellectually more dynamic Harvard of the post-war era. His initial preoccupation was with the idea of countervailing power, about which he published a book, American Capitalism: the concept of countervailing power, in 1952. The real check on the power of the big corporations in an age of oligopoly, he argued, was not market competition but the countervailing power of other organisations: consumers, retailers, above all trade unions.

He worked in 1952 (and again in 1956) as an adviser for Adlai Stevenson, and after his defeat experienced what he called a "brief darkness" of depression severe enough to drive him to consult (in secret so that his credentials as an economist would not suffer) a psychiatrist. Recovered, he produced what most people regard as his two best books, each in its way nearly perfect in achieving what he set out to do: The Great Crash, 1929 (1955) and The Affluent Society (1958). The pleasure with which he wrote the former is palpable. It derived, he said himself in characteristic vein, "from learning how the fashionable, the smug, secure and pompous could arrange their own demise . . . The threat to men of great dignity, privilege and pretence" - he wrote happily - "is not from the radicals they revile; it is from accepting their own myth."

The second book, which as he worked on was called "The Opulent Society" and only received its inspired title after a desperate search for synonyms in the dictionary, has perhaps had most lasting influence. By contrasting "private affluence" with "public squalor", Galbraith not only raised a banner against the near-universal conviction of the 1950s that progress could be measured by increases in the Gross National Product. It also sounded what were to be resonant chords of concern for the quality of life and for the environment. Finally, the argument that wants were at least in part created externally by advertising, not spontaneously generated by inner needs, was as original and influential as it seemed subversive to the corporate world and its celebrants.

From the late 1950s on, Galbraith wanted to produce a large general book to express his heartfelt rejection of the conventional wisdom about the relationship of the modern corporation to the market. Eventually it emerged as The New Industrial State: one of its merits was its insistence that the motivation and functional style of corporations and their managers were strangely similar in the US, Russia and India. But it was not published until 1967.

In the meantime there were to be many distractions. Politics, above all. Galbraith had worked for Stevenson until 1952 and 1956, and during the Eisenhower years he was active in ensuring that, out of office, the Democrats should not become intellectually flabby. He was active in creating the Finletter Group, a collection of élite Democrats who met in Manhattan to muse over national problems, and later played an important part, as head of the domestic policy committee, in the Democratic Advisory Council. Having known John F. Kennedy since he was an undergraduate, Galbraith naturally got involved in his 1960 campaign and was rewarded first with a job in the White House and then with the embassy in New Delhi.

India suited Galbraith. It was full of Fabian socialists and intelligent economists, and its prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a fellow Cambridge man formed by very similar intellectual influences and moral imperatives to those that had moulded Galbraith's own life. In Delhi, too, he found it possible to get a great deal of writing done while still appearing to be one of the most energetic of the capital's diplomats. He was able to use his influence with Nehru to persuade the Indians to accept a ceasefire and end the disastrous war with China.

The next phase of his life, however, like that of American liberals in general, was clouded by another war. Galbraith liked Lyndon Johnson, in an amused way. But he was deeply shocked by the Vietnam War. He began by arguing with Kennedy about it and sending Johnson carefully worded memoranda. He ended by playing a substantial part in the campaign to find a presidential candidate who would represent the movement against the war, and indeed briefly considered standing himself, in spite of his Canadian birth, in that role. In the end he campaigned actively for Senator Eugene McCarthy and against a war that caused him, he said, "despair".

Nixon's victory in 1968 marked the end of an era, the end of the era of the liberal consensus in America, and Galbraith was far too intelligent not to realise that once again, as in the Eisenhower years, he and his fellow liberal intellectuals would be marginalised from the active political life. He poured his energy into a series of books and into a television series undertaken for the BBC on the history of economics, The Age of Uncertainty (1977), of great originality, a new outlet for his extraordinary gifts as a teacher.

The New Industrial State was fairly roughly handled by reviewers, both liberal and conservative. In the 1970s, intellectual fashion was flowing in a conservative direction, and Galbraith's stature as an economic pundit was undermined both by the swing away from the liberal politics in which he had been so much involved, as well as by the rise of new prophets such as Professor Milton Friedman, an old sparring partner. Galbraith continued to throw himself into one fray after another with undiminished vigour and, if anything, ever greater acerbity. He produced an undammed flow of books, lectures, collections of essays, even a couple of novels.

His last serious attempt at a general interpretation of politics, published in 1992, was The Culture of Contentment. Its thesis, that the reason why Americans, and the citizens of other advanced democracies, did not embrace liberal politics was because of the widespread satisfaction of their wishes, might have been persuasive in the triumphalist conservative mood of the early 1980s. By the time it appeared it was strangely out of kilter with the prevailing mood of angry confusion.

Galbraith's skill at using humour and wit to put across a profoundly serious message, the elegance of his prose, were unchanged. But it was hard to resist the conclusion that the very completeness of his identity of his beliefs with the dominant social democratic public philosophy in the Western world in the quarter of a century after the Second World War left him stranded by the harsher, less idealistic mood of the 1980s like a lofty monument surviving on a hillside from an earlier civilisation.

His world was that the great American liberal civilisation built on the back of the prosperity of which Galbraith was both a severe critic and a personal and intellectual beneficiary. Indeed, it can be argued that his work in controlling inflation in the Second World War may even have made him one of the creators of the age of affluence.

J. K. Galbraith's last book, The Economics of Innocent Fraud, appeared in 2004 when he was 95. He is survived by his wife Kitty. Of four sons, one died of leukaemia as a child. One of the survivors is a successful lawyer in Washington DC, another was the US ambassador in Zagreb and the third is a professor of economics at the University of Texas. The Galbraiths lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also owned a farm in Vermont, 235 acres bought in the 1950s for under $7,000. They were frequent visitors to London and to the mountain village turned fashionable ski resort of Gstaad in Switzerland.

Godfrey Hodgson

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