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John Kenneth Galbraith was an influential Canadian-born American economist, professor, and diplomat. After being trained in Agricultural Economics at University of Toronto and University of California, Berkeley, Galbraith accepted a fellowship at Cambridge University, England, where he studied the theories of John Maynard Keynes. Besides an editorship at Fortune magazine and several government appointments, Galbraith taught at Princeton University and Harvard University, where he was the Paul W. Warburg Professor of Economics from 1949 to 1975. A political liberal, he served on the administration of several presidents including John F. Kennedy, who appointed him US ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963 and Lyndon Johnson, under whom Galbraith helped conceive the Great Society program. Galbraith was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1946 and 2000), Order of Canada (1997), and India’s Padma Vibhusan (2001).
Besides several works of fiction, Galbraith published 33 books in economics spanning a wide and complex range of issues. His best known works include American Capitalism (1952), The Great Crash (1955), The Affluent Society (1958), The Liberal Hour (1960), The New Industrial State (1967), The Triumph (1968), Ambassador’s Journal (1969), Economics, Peace and Laughter (1972), Money (1975), The Age of Uncertainty (1979), Annals of an Abiding Liberal (1979), A Life of Our Time (1981), The Tenured Professor (1990), and The Good Society: The Human Agenda (1996). In fact, Galbraith coined and popularized phrases such as ”the affluent society,” ”conventional wisdom,” and ”countervailing power.”
In American Capitalism, Galbraith debunked myths about the socially optimal effects of free markets and critiqued an increasingly oligopolistic economy characterized by power concentration. A nation’s economy would stabilize if countervailing forces keep corporations and unions in equilibrium as they exert pressures on each other for profits and wages. In The New Industrial State, Galbraith expanded his theory of corporations and argued that the notion of a perfectly competitive firm must be replaced by one vying for market shares (and not profit maximization) via conventional (vertical integration, advertising, and product differentiation) and unconventional means (bureaucratization and capture of political favor).
In his most famous book, The Affluent Society, Galbraith attacked the culturally hegemonic ”American way of life” and contrasted private-sector affluence with public-sector poverty that exacerbated income disparities. According to him, post-World War II America will thrive if the government spent public taxes on infrastructure and education, a move that political commentators feel contributed to the failure of the War on Poverty. In an updated version, The Good Society, Galbraith argued that America had become a ”democracy of the fortunate” where overproduction of consumer goods had increased the perils of both inflation and recession.
Galbraith remained a staunch Kenyesian and institutionalist throughout his life and believed in the importance of public education, the political process, and the provision of public goods. a sentiment best expressed from The Affluent Society: ”Let there be a coalition of the concerned … The affluent would still be affluent, the comfortable still comfortable, but the poor would be part of the political system.”
- Parker, R. (2006) John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.