JKG

John Kenneth Galbraith’s NYT obituary is definitely worth reading. Like most progressive economists, I enjoyed his books, but I’ve never found anything to cite in them. Even by the 1970s, economics was moving in a much more formal direction. But he was a beautiful writer. From the obit:

He continued to rise early and, despite the seeming effortlessness of his prose, revised each day’s work at least five times. “It was usually on about the fourth day that I put in that note of spontaneity for which I am known,” he said.

Update: The official Harvard release is here.

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13 Responses to JKG

  1. cba says:

    nice article.

    here’s a good quote:

    “One of my greatest pleasures in my writing has come from the thought that perhaps my work might annoy someone of comfortably pretentious position. Then comes the realization that such people rarely read.”

    having read precious little JKG, perhaps i fall into the category of the comfortably pretentious…

  2. Andrew Carr says:

    He had a pretty amazing career, and some very quotable lines, such as “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.”

    [url=http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050314/parker]This story from The Nation[/url] on Galbraiths efforts to keep Kennedy from sending the USA into Vietnam is well worth re-reading. It shows something of the character of the man, and his intimate role in US politics.

  3. Patrick says:

    That line sums up perfectly how clever and, once you thought about it, absolutely wrong Galbraith was about almost everything he ever said.

    But for an almost endearing conservative view, here is William F Buckley Jr writing about him at the issue of his biography.

    I find much more lamentable the passing of Jean-Francois Revel, who at least correctly identified sympathy for the communists as moral bankruptcy, and that at a time when everyone from Satre to Galbraith himself were busy assuring us that indeed communism was the way of the future. (OK, Galbraith not so explicitly as Satre, but not so far either)

  4. Sacha says:

    I didn’t know much about Galbraith, although I knew the name. When, in the last week or so, I’d read that he’d been an economist, diplomat, advisor to govt and influential amongst elites I thought, that that sounded like a pretty good life to lead! (and I’m not commenting on his ideas as I don’t know them well)

  5. Patrick says:

    He was not really, as Andrew points out, and as both Lords Desai and Skidelsky pointed out on the BBC, an economist.

    He was an astute enough observer of history, and politics. He was witty, charming, arrogant and of boundless energy. He was utterly blind to the world before him, as opposed to that which had passed, and utterly misunderstood the importance of what had happened, as opposed to merely what had happened.

    An arguable exception can be made for The Affluent Society, but that only reinforces the point that he was a pop sociologist, not an economist.

    Also his diplomatic efforts in India, whilst a diplomatic success, were ultimately a disaster, as he participated in and reinforced the catastrophic Ghandi-Nehru-hell in a handbasket mentality that led India precariously close to, er, hell in an empty ricebasket!

    But undoubtedly, however much suffering his utterly wrong policy ideas inflicted on people, he led a good life.

  6. Sacha says:

    These things may (or may not) be true, my point was that he worked influentially in a number of fields, which is somewhat inspiring.

  7. Patrick says:

    Yes, except economics, where his only influence was negative, as in post-war America, or India. If that is your criteria for inspiration, try Bono – he has done less harm, at least!

  8. Peter says:

    Patrick — I disagree profoundly with you! It is only because the people who call themselves “economists” in our society have such a narrow view of the scope and the methods of their own discipline that Galbraith could be called anything other than an economist. If he wasn’t an economist, then so too were not Adam Smith, Marshall, Marx, or Keynes, all of whom addressed the same sociological, political and historical aspects of economics essential to any deep understanding of the subject. An economics discpline without any appreciation of these aspects has correctly been called autistic.

  9. Peter says:

    He continued to rise early and, despite the seeming effortlessness of his prose, revised each day’s work at least five times. “It was usually on about the fourth day that I put in that note of spontaneity for which I am known,” he said.

    In contrast, Bertrand Russell, who was also a great English prose stylist, and who wrote a great deal more than Galbraith in a similarly-long life, says in his autobio that he rarely revised, except to remove unwitting repetition.

  10. Patrick says:

    Peter, I can accept your definition of the suitable range of matters for economic study (ha ha, not quite what you said at all!). But if all those disciplines are essential to complete economist, possessing all of those disciplines does not make one an economist!

    I would say that the examples you cite are telling against Galbraith – who was Marx? – but the rest wrote work that has great significance for government policy (in limited circumstances in Marshall’s case). So did Galbraith, but even more than Keynes he was just so baldly wrong about almost everything he predicted that his policy prescriptions are useless to anyone but the student of the 60s and 70s, motivated perhaps by a desire to learn how it all went so badly wrong.

    As for Marx, if you mean the failed politician, well then what he has in common with Galbraith is that he also missed the point entirely. His work, just like JGK’s, was outdated before he wrote it, and was rendered completely redundant scarcely had the ink dried by evolutionary forces whose existence he never suspected. The other thing he has in common is that he offers no assistance to the economist, or indeed the policy-maker.

    As for Russell, the quote probably says a lot less about Russell’s revision than about his ego.

  11. Peter says:

    Patrick — your criticisms now of Galbraith (and of Marx and Keynes) are that he (and they) were not GOOD economists, or not GOOD predictors of economic phenomena (which, incidentally, may not be the same thing at all). They are very different criticisms from saying these guys were not economists, and indicate you have accepted my point that he was, indeed, an economist. We can disagree whether or not he was a good one.

    Unfortunately, your initial criticism (that JKG was not an economist) I have heard often from economists when disparaging the work of people they disagree with. Such a statement has no bearing on the strength or otherwise of the arguments they disagree with. I think economists would have greater prestige if they more often played the ball, and not the man!

  12. Patrick says:

    Yes and no. Keynes clearly was an economist, and a pretty good one whatever I actually think of his work. Marx and Galbraith were not. Galbraith gets called an economist because he was a historian with a touch for economics. But that is an error – Owen Dixon’s new biography is great, and Ayres, the biographer, shows a pretty good touch of the legal issues. But no-one in their right mind will be turning to him for legal advice. After all, it was most famously Kennedy, rarely if ever of his right mind, who turned to Galbraith for economic advice!

    With respect, your last point just underlies mine – I really make a point of not playing the man in general, even if they are dead, but it is precisely when one plays Galbraith’s ball that one realises it is not that of an economist.

  13. cba says:

    received this at work and though it would make a funny interlude to the more serious discussion (which is very interesting)

    What Pres. Lyndon B Johnson said to Galbraith when he decided to not use a draft of a speech Galbraith prepared:

    “Did y’ever think, Ken, that making a speech on economics is a lot like
    pissing down your leg? It seems hot to you, but it never does to anyone
    else.”

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