FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Legacy of John Kenneth Galbraith

by RALPH NADER

I first came across the name of John Kenneth Galbraith during my student years at Princeton where I picked up his book American Capitalism. Wondering why it was not on any reading list for my economics course, I put the question to the professor. He replied: “It’s really not about economics. It’s about political economy.”

Before the discipline of economics broke off from what students used to major in–“political economy”-early in the 20th century, my professor’s comment would not have been a put down. Today, most economists see economics as a branch of mathematics and tend to dismiss economists who bring into their study the variables of politics and power.

The passing at age 97 of Harvard Professor emeritus Ken Galbraith was a loss to the political economy of the United States. His books, articles, letters, testimony and advice to Presidents, members of Congress and the general public for over 60 years connected numbers to understanding what was really going on between the powers-that-be–the haves–and the powerless–the have nots. He proposed policies that were designed to lift the livelihoods of regular people and their essential public services.

What would a Galbraithian economy look like in the United States? For starters, major public investments–fueled by corporate tax reforms–in public works–public transit, repaired schools, clinics, upgraded drinking water systems, good parks and libraries, and environmental health projects. These forms of public wealth for everyone, he believed, would also advance the objective of a full employment economy.

Galbraith believed that uncontrolled capitalism, especially the giant corporations, required prudent regulation to diminish the damage their out-of-control greed and power inflict on society. Always a realist, he was more than aware of the capture of regulatory agencies by the very companies that they were created to regulate.

He saw sham in the pretense that the large defense manufacturers are free market corporations. Since over 90% of their business comes from the Department of Defense, he urged that they should be taken over and treated as public corporations shorn of their profiteering, waste and unaccountable lobbying pressure.

It was not for mere rhetorical flourish that he coined the phrase “the conventional wisdom.” All his life he was challenging the “vested interest” in one’s ideas. He described “economists” as being the “most economical about ideas. They make the ones they learned in graduate school last a lifetime.”

Full of sharp wit, humor and irony, Galbraith was a joy to read and a pleasure to correspond with–he responded to letters of all kinds. A man of many causes, he spoke out very early against the Vietnam War, poverty, violations of civil liberties and almost anything that degraded our struggling democratic society. He was one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action. What impressed me so much about this great political economist was his mostly unfailing good judgment and solid reasoning behind it.

He was quick to see a trend, sense a decay and reprimand both with his fundamental public philosophy. As far back as July 1970, he wrote an article in Harper’s magazine titled “Who Needs Democrats? And What it Takes to be Needed.”

He wrote:

“The function of the Democratic Party, in this century at least, has, in fact, been to embrace its solutions even when it outraged not only Republicans but the Democratic establishment as well. And if the Democratic Party does not render this function, at whatever cost in reputable outrage it has no purpose at all. The play will pass to those who do espouse solutions. The system is not working.The only answer lies in political action to get a system that does work. To this conclusion, if only because there is no alternative conclusion, people will be forced to come.”

Ken Galbraith was accurate in observing the decline of the Democratic Party–more accurate than he no doubt wanted to be. What remains is his hope for “political action to get a system that does work.”

Maybe Galbraith’s thousands of friends, colleagues and admirers could help bring about his desired transformation by establishing the “John Kenneth Galbraith Institute for a Progressive Political Economy.” Right wingers do this for their intellectual heroes–to wit the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama. Can progressives do anything less for Canada’s gift to America–a man who came from rural Ontario and lived the nexus between knowledge and action as if people mattered?

 

 

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

More articles by:
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
Jeffrey St. Clair
Noam Chomsky, John Halle and a Confederacy of Lampreys: a Note on Lesser Evil Voting
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Feardom: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail