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John Kenneth Galbraith was an institutional economist, Harvard professor, advisor to presidents, bureaucrat, ambassador to India, raconteur, caustic wit, and man of letters. His concepts of countervailing power, the affluent society, conventional wisdom, want creation, and the technostructure of the industrial state have become part of the modern vernacular and the battle for the controlling metaphors of economics and politics. Born on a farm in southern Ontario, Canada, he attended Ontario Agricultural College, graduating in 1931. His family and community background are detailed in his memoir, The Scotch (1964). A desire to understand the causes of the Great Depression led him to seek a PhD in agricultural economics at the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1934. The influence of Progressive Era economists such as Richard Ely (1854–1943), John R. Commons (1862–1945), and Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) was in evidence and it created an atmosphere accepting of the New Deal initiatives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945).
Galbraith’s first job involved research in agricultural economics under the tutelage of Harvard professor John D. Black (1883–1960), who was well connected in Washington, D.C. Before beginning, Galbraith served as a summer intern in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. There he learned the role of power in the economy as he witnessed southern congressmen stopping the payment of agricultural subsidies to tenant farmers (mostly blacks). During World War II (1939–1945), Galbraith was placed in charge of price control and rationing in the Office of Price Administration. The political pressure from business was intense, charges of communism flew, and Galbraith was fired in 1943.
Galbraith’s writing and analysis led to a stint at Fortune magazine from 1943 to 1948. During this time, he also participated in the Strategic Bombing Survey to assess the role of air power in winning the war. The survey concluded that strategic bombing played a minor role and that ground troops were essential in both Germany and Japan. Galbraith later objected to what he called “military Keynesianism”—stimulating the economy via military spending at the expense of social programs.
Upon his controversial return to Harvard, Galbraith wrote American Capitalism (1952), in which he argued that a decentralized private economy excelled in production and innovation. He further maintained that concentration and bigness were inevitable. Countervailing the power of buyers, unions, and government would be more effective in controlling the seller’s power than traditional antitrust.
In his best-selling Affluent Society (1958), Galbraith observed that wealthy economies were no longer typified by scarcity. In fact, corporations maintained themselves by creating demand, rather than merely responding to it, as the “conventional wisdom” had it, producing what he called the “dependence effect.” He observed a “social imbalance” between abundant private consumption goods and inadequate publicly provided goods, such as education, clean air and water, and transportation. His description of “the family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power steered, and power-braked car out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards and posts” (1958, pp. 199–200) has become legendary and still applies today.
The New Industrial State (1967) describes giant corporations that are run and planned by a hired bureaucratic technostructure rather than owners and that strive for survival and independence rather than profit maximization. Advertising, information management, and access to government are key assets. The economy cannot be understood without attention to the use of power in both politics and business. Robert M. Solow contested Galbraith’s argument that giant corporations controlled the economy (1967). But, after subsequent decades of mergers, Galbraith’s concerns seem warranted. Solow also objected to Galbraith’s “revised sequence” of consumption (want creation rather than only prior want fulfillment) by asserting that advertising only serves to cancel other advertising. Galbraith’s concerns drew the label of “sociologist” from
Milton Friedman (1912–2006), and along with Galbraith’s argument that public planning must balance the private planning of the corporate technostructure, the label of “socialist.”
Galbraith questioned the monotheistic worship of gross domestic product as the test of a good society and wondered if the same energy (and the discipline of economics itself) might be better directed toward social harmony, aesthetic enjoyment, and leisure. Galbraith remained a social critic until his death in 2006.
- Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1952. American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1958. The Affluent Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1964. The Scotch. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1967. The New Industrial State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1983. The Anatomy of Power. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Parker, Richard. 2005. John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
- Reisman, David. 1980. Galbraith and Market Capitalism. New York: New York University Press.
- Sasson, Helen, ed. 1999. Between Friends: Perspectives on John Kenneth Galbraith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Solow, Robert M. 1967. The New Industrial State or Son of Affluence. The Public Interest 9: 100–108.
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