A Mind of His Own

John Kenneth Galbraith has been a Harvard economist, an accomplished diplomat, a political activist, a close adviser to presidents, a novelist and memoirist, and the best-selling economic writer of his time. But among economists he was perhaps most known for, and proudest of, his economic apostasy. He refused to accept what he considered the simplifying assumptions and the mathematical models that were fundamental to both the liberal and conservative economic orthodoxy of his day. Richard Parker’s comprehensive biography arrives at an appropriate time; many of the basic assumptions of orthodox economic theory that Galbraith challenged for much of his career are now being questioned within the orthodox tradition itself.

In fact, Galbraith devoted a chapter to the inherently misleading nature of conventional economic wisdom in his best and most influential book, The Affluent Society, published in 1958; his status today as an outsider in his own profession was readily predictable even then. But he was also one of the leading progressive intellectuals of the post–World War II period. His disdain and sarcastic wit were most aroused when it came to discussing the abuses of business power and the accumulation of undeserved wealth, especially on Wall Street. His sympathies were for the worker, the poor, and the otherwise disadvantaged.

Advocating such views required considerable intellectual courage. In those early postwar years, even being a follower, as Galbraith was, of the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who advocated government spending to mitigate recession, could arouse suspicions of subversion. Galbraith’s still more outspoken views, already visible when he served as a government official during World War II, almost resulted in his being denied tenure at Harvard.

Galbraith will turn ninety-seven in October, and it is unlikely that many professional economists in their thirties, forties, and perhaps even their fifties have read him with much care. By contemporary standards, Galbraith was more an economic sociologist than a technical economist, a remarkably gifted writer who viewed economics more as an explanation of how we have lived, and how we might live better, than as a set of mathematically demonstrable hypotheses about how to maximize economic production. But this description does not do justice to his breadth and originality. Galbraith made errors, but his works incisively dealt with deeply consequential changes in the modern economy and its relation to government which he believed practitioners of orthodox economics were neglecting. Among the changes was an immense increase in corporate power that put in doubt much economic doctrine about the working of market forces. Had Galbraith devoted more effort to gathering empirical evidence to support his views and to finding ways to test them statistically, his influence on economics would have been greater. Galbraith bears the responsibility for failing to do this.

Richard Parker is an economist who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Although he criticizes some of Galbraith’s work and corrects his occasionally distorted recollections of the past, Parker is a Galbraith partisan and had the economist’s full cooperation …

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