John Galbraith's Lasting Economic Impact

John Kenneth Galbraith, the renowned economist, teacher and diplomat, died Saturday at the age of 97. Galbraith, who served presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, reached a mass audience with books like The Affluent Society. He was an unabashed liberal, who believed government has a large role to play in the economy.

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The renowned economist, teacher and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith died yesterday at the age of 97. Galbraith influenced public opinion perhaps more than any other economist of his time. His clear writing and speaking style engaged audiences in ways most other economists couldn't match. Galbraith used that power in books like The Affluent Society to argue that government should play a large role in the economy. Reporter Steve Tripoli has this appreciation.

STEVE TRIPOLI reporting:

John Kenneth Galbraith was born and raised on a Canadian farm and the memory stayed with him. Even after more than 50 years at Harvard he said he woke up each morning feeling glad he wouldn't have to spend the day in the hard toil of his youth. He called the release from toil for many one of the Twentieth Century's great achievements. But capitalism's great achievements were only fine with Galbraith to a point. Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Solo says Galbraith wanted capitalist energies channeled.

Mr. ROBERT SOLO (Economist): He was prepared to do what most economists are not prepared to do, and that is to make judgments, to say, look, all this attention to ridiculous and incredibly expensive clothes or cars or what have you is really immoral in a society where there are a lot of people who don't do very well at all.

TRIPOLI: Solo says those beliefs reflect the core of Galbraith's philosophy.

Mr. SOLO: What he stands for in the economics profession is two things: a healthy distrust of unregulated market outcomes, and secondly, a belief that the state, the government, has an important role to play in having a view of how the economy ought to spend its productive capacity.

TRIPOLI: Galbraith expanded on those ideas in The Affluent Society, published in 1958, the New Industrial State, in 1967, and Economics and the Public Purpose, in 1973. He affected policy and made himself as close to a household name as any economist could hope for in the process.

Galbraith talked about things that hit home for most people, like the role of advertising in society or the 1929 stock market crash. That left him with an audience most economists ignore, the public. Thomas Karier of Eastern Washington University says Galbraith reached that audience by cultivating skills and interests most economists don't bother with.

Professor THOMAS KARIER (Eastern Washington University): He was really a literate economist. He was one of the most literate economists in that he was widely read and he focused a lot on how to convey his ideas in his writing, and not just to other economists but to the entire world. I think the profession today has very little concern about that.

TRIPOLI: Galbraith had a career beyond economics as well. He wrote on subjects ranging from art to civil rights to urban planning. He was in charge of wartime price controls in the Roosevelt Administration and John F. Kennedy's ambassador to India. He maintained a voluminous correspondence with President Kennedy, advising him on everything from presidential appointments to economic policy to America's growing involvement in Vietnam, which he strongly opposed.

When Galbraith publicly broke with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War, antiwar Democrat Eugene McCarthy announced his challenge to the President from Galbraith's Cambridge home. This wide-ranging energy and public presence was packed into a six-foot-eight-inch frame that literally towered above most of his contemporaries. Robert Solow says Galbraith had one other thing going for him that most economists couldn't match.

Mr. ROBERT SOLOW (Economist): He was a glamorous person. He knew glamorous people. He was one of them. He could circulate with movie actresses or Jacqueline Kennedy, and he liked to do it, whereas most of us academic creeps don't ever get to do that. His colleagues, his colleagues in the profession, were probably a little envious of that.

TRIPOLI: Galbraith skewered his free market opponents, saying the desire to protect one's self from market risk is as common to business executives as it is to farmers and Social Security recipients. That's why government is essential, he argued, as an agent for spreading risk across society. He spoke here during a 1997 appearance on NPR's TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH (Economist): The role of government may be debated, but that there is a large role for government in the modern society just cannot be doubted. What about the next slump? If we have of a period of rising unemployment, if we have a period of rising financial distress, does anyone, for goodness sake, suppose the government will be expected to stand by?

TRIPOLI: His views rankled free market economists who believed that expanded government hurts long-term prosperity and that big corporations are nothing like the consumer manipulators Galbraith described in his writings. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman is both a long-time Galbraith friend and ideological adversary.

Mr. MILTON FRIEDMAN (Economist): He's been descriptively accurate. Government is large. Government is important. There are large corporations, but the corporations do not have anything like the kind of independent power over consumer behavior that Galbraith attributed to them, and government has not had the favorable affect over the lives of individuals in the country that Galbraith hoped from them.

TRIPOLI: Friedman argues that the results of government intervention in everything from welfare to education to industrial regulation hardly vindicate Galbraith. Fellow Nobelist Robert Solow disagrees with Friedman and says Galbraith's affluent society argument still resonates, that America permits what Galbraith called public squalor in the midst of private affluence.

Mr. SOLOW: In fact, he gets righter in that respect all the time. The kind of fundamental bias of American capitalism against public expenditure and therefore against all the parts of life that for one reason or another really depend on public expenditure, I think that insight has lasted, so I think he was very right there.

TRIPOLI: Both friend and foe agree that Galbraith had much more impact on the public than on his fellow economists. Milton Friedman calls Galbraith's work not so much economics as it is sociology. Supporters say he cared more about the big picture than economic intricacies, and the big picture was on Galbraith's mind in a 1999 speech at the London School of Economics.

He said the 20th century was leaving behind two pieces of unfinished business, the large number of very poor people in the world and the elimination of nuclear weapons. Galbraith also warned his business school audience that economic measurements like gross domestic product, or GDP, aren't necessarily good measures of social progress.

Mr. GALBRAITH: I do not suggest an increase in GDP, and its measurement is unimportant, but there are limits. Success is measured by economic output. There is no close relationship to human achievement.

TRIPOLI: For NPR News, I'm Steve Tripoli in Boston.

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