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Challenging the Vested Interests

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?