John Kenneth Galbraith; Popularized Modern Economics

By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 1, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith, 97, an economist, author, professor, presidential counselor and U.S. ambassador to India, who used caustic wit and an iconoclastic temperament to help set the foundation of modern economic thinking, died April 29 at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. The cause of death was complications from pneumonia.

Dr. Galbraith spent more than 25 years on the Harvard University faculty and advised Democratic presidents and candidates from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Socially, he may have been without peer in his field; he was said to have been one of the few economists, if not the only, invited to Truman Capote's 1966 Black and White Ball in New York.

He was an unabashed popularizer of economics -- credited with coining "countervailing power" and "conventional wisdom," among other phrases -- and many of his more than 40 books were international bestsellers.

One of the most influential was "The Affluent Society" (1958), which argued that overproduction of consumer goods was harming the public sector and depriving Americans of such benefits as clean air, clean streets, good schools and support for the arts.

In the book, he painted a picture of epic opulence: "The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered, and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground."

"They picnic," he added, "on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night in a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings."

Dr. Galbraith was generally considered to have been an apostle of the theories advanced by British economist John Maynard Keynes: that government could promote full employment and a stable economy by stimulating spending and investment with adjustments in interest and tax rates, and deficit financing.

He lamented what he believed was an excess accumulation of private wealth at the expense of public needs, and he warned that an unfettered free market system and capitalism without regulation would fail to meet basic social demands. This was echoed in "The Affluent Society."

'Renaissance Man'

Dr. Galbraith's observations on a variety of economic and political matters were circulated at the highest levels, although they were sometimes ignored.

In the early 1960s, while serving as President John F. Kennedy's ambassador to India, Dr. Galbraith expressed grave doubts about increasing U.S. involvement in the cankerous conflict brewing in Southeast Asia that would erupt into the Vietnam War. Later that decade, he was chairman of the left-leaning Americans for Democratic Action, and he backed the unsuccessful antiwar presidential candidacy of Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy (D-Minn.) in 1968.

Regarded by admirers such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) as a "true Renaissance man," Dr. Galbraith also wrote about the art of India and penned several novels. One work of fiction, "The Triumph" (1968), was about the final days of a Central American dictatorship and its relationship to what the author called "an uncontrollably funny institution" -- the U.S. State Department.

On national political commentary and journalistic punditry, Dr. Galbraith observed: "Nearly all of our political comment originates in Washington. Washington politicians, after talking things over with each other, relay misinformation to Washington journalists who, after further intramural discussion, print it where it is thoughtfully read by the same politicians. It is the only completely closed system for the recycling of garbage that has yet been devised."

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