Monday, May 01, 2006

Profile: John Kenneth Galbraith (1908 - 2006)

Economist, ambassador, professor, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Interviewed by Cal Fussman

A good rule of conversation is never answer a foolish question.
Giving an opinion that people don't want to hear can work both ways. If it's a person you like, it can be very hard. If it's a person for whom you have a major distaste, it can be extremely enjoyable.

My mother died when I was very young, and my father was the dominant force in the family. In southern Ontario, he would have been called a political boss. In good Galbraith fashion, he took his eminence for granted. The most important lesson I received from him was that the Galbraiths had a natural commitment to political adventure.

I would hope I laugh quite a few times a day. I don't seek to add to the solemnity of life.

For any sensible person, money is two things: a major liberating force and a great convenience. It's devastating to those who have in mind nothing else.

Modesty is an overrated virtue.

One of the characteristic features of John E Kennedy was his wonderful commitment to the truth. We had breakfast together on the day I left to be ambassador to India in 1961. The New York Times was on the table and there was a story on the front page about the new ambassador to India. Kennedy pointed to it and said, "What did you think of that story?" which, needless to say, I had read. It wasn't unfavorable. I said I liked it all right but I didn't see why they had to call me arrogant. Kennedy said, "I don't see why not. Everybody else does."

I have no capacity to cook. It's a field of ignorance which I have carefully cultivated.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was good on great issues or small. A great war. A great depression. He presided over both. No question about it--he's the person who most impressed me. In my life, he had no close competitor.

I met Winston Churchill once. I went to a gathering that he assembled one night for a discussion on European union. I was principally impressed by the way his wife grabbed his arm every time he reached for another drink.

I've always thought that true good sense requires one to see and comment upon the ridiculous.

Kitty and I were married in 1937. No question--there is a secret to maintaining a marriage over time: Each partner must systematically subordinate himself or herself to the other. That is the only formula for a happy marriage.

Is it good to have friends whom you don't agree with? Temporarily. But it has always been my purpose to get them to change their minds.

I have managed most of my life to exclude religious speculation from my mode of thought. I've found that, on the whole, it adds very little to economics.

The terrible truth with which we must all contend is that the day may come when nuclear arms fall under the control of some idiot someplace in the world. And that will be the day of reckoning.

I've long been an admirer of Adam Smith, who's greatly praised by conservatives--who unfortunately have never read him. They would be shocked to find some of the things Smith advocates.

Strong government, to some extent, is in response to huge problems.

In richer countries such as ours, I want to see everybody assured of a basic income.

Kennedy sent me to Vietnam in 1961, and I concluded from that visit that this was a hopeless enterprise. The jungle was something with which we could not contend.

I saw John Kennedy on the Cape a few weeks before his death. We spent a day together. Much of that was on a) that he was going to get out of Vietnam, and b) the pressures that he was under from the military.

LBJ and I were both from rural backgrounds--he in Texas and I in Canada. That was the origin of a closer relationship than if I had spent my life as a Harvard elite. We'd been friends for many years, back when he was in Congress. It was very sad that we clashed on Vietnam, but it was an overriding issue. Johnson had one answer which was not entirely unpersuasive. I recall his exact words: "Ken, if you knew what I have to do to contend with the military, you would be glad for what I do." The pressures of the military were very powerful. More powerful than most of us then realized.

If I had to pick out perhaps the greatest achievement that I've seen in all my years, it is in the diminishing role of race and discrimination. We have made greater progress there than I ever anticipated.

A shield against nuclear weapons is foolish. It owes much to the fact that the people advocating it are the people who would be benefiting from the effort.

How much money should a man carry in his wallet when he goes out of the house? I never thought of that.


'Towering economist' JK Galbraith dies at 97
Posted on : Mon, 01 May 2006 12:16:00 GMT | Author : Helen Steele

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.: John Kenneth Galbraith died Saturday at the age of 97 leaving a legacy that will continue to gnaw at the conscience of America's excessively consumerist society.

The towering economist (he was 6'8”) will be remembered as much for his controversial views expressed in his bestseller books as for his ability to influence the decision-making process of the US Presidents. Prof Galbraith's contribution to life in general and economics in particular can never be underrated, although some of his books eventually discredited him.

The bestselling quality in most of his books was his wry sense of humor and a rare ability to make the most complex concept of economy accessible to the man on the street. His eloquence and riveting style of writing have given us popular phrases like 'conventional wisdom', 'countervailing power', 'the bland leading the bland' and 'affluent society' – the last is a reference to his most influential book. 'The Affluent Society' remains unrivalled in the impact it caused on the US's policy making process.

The book is an oblique criticism of the US's thrust on industrialization and increasing encouragement of consumer culture. The effort, Galbraith argued in the book, would widen the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The US administration was overlooking how it impacted the nation's social welfare, the book said.

His ready wit even allowed him to express some very uncomfortable of ideas in a disarming manner; e.g. “If you can't comfort the afflicted, then afflict the comfortable”. Another of his very popular quotes: "Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists”.

For a man so popular and influential in his field, the beginnings of his career and life are surprisingly modest. Galbraith was born in 1908 in a small Scottish farming community in Ontario. He graduated in 1931 in animal husbandry and soil management from the Ontario Agricultural College in the town Guelph. Soon afterwards he completed a PhD in agricultural economics and took up teaching and research positions at Harvard, Princeton and Cambridge universities.

Galbraith later went on to become the most famous of economists with a string of best sellers, mostly non-fiction, though his novel 'The Triumph” was also successful. He is remembered also for his contribution to White House policies during his post as economic advisor to the President of the US. He was appointed in charge of the war-time system of price controls at the American Office of Price Administration followed by a stint at the State Department where he oversaw both the Office of Economic Security and the Strategic Bombing Survey. It was for his work here that got him the President's Certificate of Merit and the Medal of Freedom.

At the time of his death, his wife and two of his three sons were by his bedside.

Friends, among whom was former president John F Kennedy, called Galbraith the 'towering thinker'.

John Kenneth Galbraith : His Life, His Politics, His Economics: by Richard Parker
The Anatomy of Power: by John Kenneth Galbraith
The Economics of Innocent Fraud : Truth For Our Time by John Kenneth Galbraith
The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith
The Essential Galbraith by John Kenneth Galbraith

No comments:

Post a Comment