Galbraith’s legacy

Richard Parker of Harvard probes the legacy of John Kenneth Galbraith, perhaps in anticipation of the Progressive Economics Forum’s soon-to-be-inaugurated John Kenneth Galbraith Prize in Economics (at the Canadian Economics Association meetings in Halifax this June).

From the Post-Autistic Economics Review:

Does John Kenneth Galbraith Have a Legacy?

… I think it would behoove all of us today to attend, rather more humbly, to three fundamental objections that Galbraith raised almost a half century ago. The first was that power will always and everywhere be present in both economics and politics, and that economists who thought the “natural laws” of the market would felicitously trump the use of power by the powerful to gain unnatural market rents were wrong. In this of course he was guided by Berle and Means, by Robinson and Chamberlin, and in a way by Schumpeter–to whom he owes much, especially in his first major work, American Capitalism, and in key elements of The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State. At the simplest level, here Galbraith kept reminding us that wage markets behave differently from capital markets and capital markets from technology and natural resource markets, that time is not homogeneous or continuous, that the future is at best imperfectly known–I’m putting this as neutrally and in as familiar terms for my colleagues as I can, not precisely in Galbraith’s words–and finally that all this (plus that stubbornly irreducible question of power) bears large implications for the possibilities, real or heuristic, of any equilibrium-based model–as well as for the future of the world.

Especially in The Affluent Society and beyond, he emphasized two features of that reality. Here first was that America had moved by the 1950s into a post-scarcity age (not nearly so transient as an era, nor–as he reminded us in talking about the role of nuclear weapons–not so surely permanent either) and that in this new age the parsimonious definition that Lionel Robbins had famously given to economics–a study of allocation under conditions of scarcity–therefore no longer operated with the same force or had the same importance it once had. (Sen’s work on modern famine as principally a distributive, rather than an absolute scarcity, issue reminds us indirectly of this as well–though I daresay neither he nor Ambassador Galbraith would consider, say, India an affluent society.) His other point here was that the great corporation–that distinctive institution of modern capitalism–through advertising, branding, marketing, et cetera–now and hereafter would exercise a major influence over the nature and shape and intensity of consumer demand not wholly subservient to either the consumer nor the market.

The second major argument Galbraith made was that politics was and is universally important to economics. Not just in government’s conservatively-imagined role as a night watchman, but in its active manipulation of markets and their behavior for more liberal ends. This was not just to point to the extensive system of legal regulation that was well established by the mid-20th century, but to the unprecedented size of government income and spending relative to post-World War II GDP–a third to as much as half of GDP in fact in the modern advanced industrial economies. It was this achievement of an enormous economic scale–beyond its regulatory scope–that, in Ken’s view, made our world so different from the 19th and early 20th century world Marshall and his colleagues had described.

These facts about our age–and I do think we must call them facts, rather than Galbraithian hypotheses–of affluence, of the market power of great corporations, and the giant presence of modern governments in economies, combined to make his final point: that to a great degree, the important decisions about the overarching shape and direction of economies–versus the relatively trivial questions of the price of this good or that service, negotiated in the classic equililbrium-seeking “tapping” models of Walrasian markets themselves–had become the issue of our times. But this then led, if one stipulated that democratic theory was capable of evolving, to a powerful inference,: that those great decisions were fundamentally–while capable of being clarified by economists–at the heart of democratic politics, and the informed interplay of democratic citizens.

But what were those key decisions that citizens needed to make? Here I shall conclude by once again citing Braudel on events as “the ephemera of history.” The large questions for citizens, according to Galbraith, now were how to sustain an essentially equitable prosperity that attended to the private market’s habits of distribution of wealth and income; that recognized that public goods in an era of prosperity were quite often more important than private goods, and needed public action sustained by public ideology–not just private markets–to achieve them; and that war–war in an age that had finally discovered how mankind could end all life on the planet itself — made even prosperity and the right allocation of public and private goods–ephemeral to mastering the dark forces of Mars in our midst.

… Economics today is a very different discipline than it was in those years. In a major study by the American Economics Association a decade ago, nearly two-thirds of American economists openly agreed that the profession had become “over-mathematicized and too unrelated to the real world.” Today, after thirty post-Golden Age years, it is fair to say that while there is still some agreement about methodologies in economics, larger agreements still elude us about purposes and goals and visions. And that is a tragedy for the world because it has helped validate a kind of new fundamentalism that Keynes, and Galbraith, and Samuelson (and Solow and Arrow and a host of other heroes of my teachers’ generation) rightly tried to destroy.

We see that new fundamentalism everywhere around us–in shape and size of Washington’s most recent tax cuts, in our military actions in the Middle East and South Asia, in the angry assertions that “the market” –whatever that truly might be — “always knows best,” and that those who would interfere with “the market” are uselessly acting to hold back the natural tide. And not least in the censorious rebukes hurled at those who would challenge these “new” truths. Times columnist Tom Friedman has a pungent phrase to describe the “market as god” core (as Harvey Cox has put it) of this view–but is more sympathetic than Cox. Friedman argues that we live in a world of “golden handcuffs” and ought to get used to it, and indeed celebrate our gilt shackles because of the ever more comfortable world to which they are leading us.

Galbraith doesn’t think so, and neither did Keynes–and in a world today where the economics “Nobel” was given recently to a psychologist, for god’s sake, for investigating the behavioral irrationalities that trump the antique idea of rational maximizing agents, when the promise of game theory has proved greater in nuclear war planning than explaining the ways of markets, when most computer-based forecasting is good for a matter of weeks and months rather than years, and when econometrics, in the words of Lawrence Summers, has never been decisive in settling any economic question of consequence, we ought to at least give pause to think back to the ways in which Prof. Galbraith’s work anticipated every one of these facts that have been discovered in the last 20 years about limits of his and my beloved profession.

Paul Samuelson many years ago remarked of Galbraith that he was the era’s best-known economist for non-economists. There is a slighting tone in that remark–at least when heard by economists–that I think we ought to revisit and reexamine. I think too that Samuelson himself–surveying the post-Golden Age world–would admit now his words contain a useful, second interpretation: that in fighting to make economics available to non-economists, to make sure that economic questions are understood as political and diplomatic and morally signficant questions that democratic societies must engage at a deeper level, his friend Ken Galbraith has enriched us all.

After 70 years at Harvard, after four dozen books that together have sold more than 7 million copies, let me conclude by suggesting that I think we would all do well to reconsider in this new century what made Ken one of the very wisest economists–not the smartest or most technically-gifted–but the wisest of the past century. To do so would, I believe, then help us decide what questions we intend to ask–and what answers we intend to give–in a world that spends more on arms than aid, in which two billion people live on less than $2 per day, in which 12 million children die each year from preventable disease and malnutrition—that’s a Holocaust of children every six months–and in which power and wealth still seem to hold such unnecessary sway.

Those were his questions. What we owe him is not just our thanks for asking them but our own answers.


  • Wisdom is the combination of intellect and compassionate understanding. Because one without the other can lead to unintended negative outcomes and or purposeful maliciousness and destruction.And that was why Galbraith was wise. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  • Thanks for the post.

    I enjoyed immensely and througoughly recommend Parker’s relatively recent biography of Galbraith.

    In many ways, the right somewhow managed to successfully tag him as not a “real” economist due to lack of arid mathematical rigour, but the book shows his centrality to the history of US and international economic thought from the Depression/New Deal to our own day. Galbraith often seems wrong with the benefit of hindsight, but only if his writings ar divorced from the context in which they were written. No one could have seen the economy of the 1990s in the 1960s and 1970s when Galbraith wrote of monopolistic competion and the new industrial state. What is enduring is his – against the mainstream – recognition that economic theory and policy cannot be divorced from power and the play of class interests in shaping economic institutions. Galbraith was also much more centrally engaged in Democratic Party debates and struggles than I had recalled (with Kenneday and then as a key player in the anti Vietnam struggle), and his evolution to an avowedly democratic socialist position (as opposed to Democratic liberalism) is noted and remains worthy of note. Finally, I was struck by the extent to which Galbraith championed the cause of left economists who fell victims to academic censure, such as Bowles and Gintis, and also the advancement of women economists. There is no more telling anecdote in the book than the story of Galbraith dining with Cambridge’s great left Keynesian, Joan Robinson, who, as President of the American Economics Association, he ad invited to address the annual meetings. The great mainstram economists of the day like Samuelson completely refused to recognize here presence.

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