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?


 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
September 4-6, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Regime Change Refugees: On the Shores of Europe
Lawrence Ware
No Refuge: the Specter of White Supremacy Still Haunts Black America
Paul Street
Bi-Polar Disorder: Obama’s Bait-and-Switch Environmental Politics
Kali Akuno
Until We Win: Black Labor and Liberation in the Disposable Era
Arun Gupta
Field Notes to Life During the Apocalypse
Steve Hendricks
Come Again? Second Thoughts on My Ashley Madison Affair
Paul Craig Roberts
Whither the Economy?
Ron Jacobs
Bernie Sanders’ Vision: As Myopic as Every Other Candidate or Not?
Rob Urie
Capitalism and Crisis
Jeffrey St. Clair
Arkansas Bloodsuckers: the Clintons, Prisoners and the Blood Trade
Richard W. Behan
Republican Fail, Advantage Sanders: the Indefensible Budget for Defense
Ted Rall
Call It By Its Name: Censorship
Susan Babbitt
“Swarms” Entering the UK? What We Can Still Learn About the Migrant Crisis From Che Guevara
Andrew Levine
Compassionate Conservatism: a Reconsideration and an Appreciation
John Wight
Adrift Without Sanctuary: a Sick and Twisted Morality
Binoy Kampmark
Sieges in an Age of Austerity: Monitoring Julian Assange
Colin Todhunter
Europe’s Refugee Crisis and the Depraved Morality of David Cameron
JP Sottile
Chinese Military Parade Freak-Out
Kathleen Wallace
The Child Has a Name, They All Do
David Rosen
Why So Few Riots?
Norm Kent
The Rent Boy Raid: Homeland Security Should Monitor Our Borders Not Our Bedrooms
Michael Welton
Canada’s Arrogant Autocrat: the Rogue Politics of Stephen Harper
Ramzy Baroud
Palestine’s Crisis of Leadership: Did Abbas Destroy Palestinian Democracy?
Jim Connolly
Sniping at the Sandernistas: Left Perfectionism in the Belly of the Beast
Pepe Escobar
Say Hello to China’s New Toys
Sylvia C. Frain
Tiny Guam, Huge US Marine Base Expansions
Pete Dolack
Turning National Parks into Corporate Profit Centers
Ann Garrison
Africa’s Problem From Hell: Samantha Power
Dan Glazebrook
British Home Secretary Theresa May: Savior or Slaughterer of Black People?
Christopher Brauchli
Poor, Poor, Pitiful Citigroup
Norman Pollack
Paradigm of a Fascist Mindset: Nicholas Burns on Iran
Barry Lando
Standing at the Bar of History: Could the i-Phone Really Have Prevented the Holocaust?
Linn Washington Jr.
Critics of BlackLivesMatter# Practice Defiant Denial
Roger Annis
Canada’s Web of Lies Over Syrian Refugee Crisis
Chris Zinda
Constitutional Crisis in the Heart of Dixie
Rannie Amiri
Everything Stinks: Beirut Protests and Garbage Politics
Graham Peebles
Criminalizing Refugees
Missy Comley Beattie
In Order To Breathe
James McEnteer
Blast From the Past in Buenos Aires
Patrick Higgins
A Response to the “Cruise Missile Left”
Tom H. Hastings
Too Broke to Pay Attention
Edward Leer
Love, Betrayal, and Donuts
Louis Proyect
Migrating Through Hell: Quemada-Diez’s “La Jaula de Oro”
Charles R. Larson
Class and Colonialism in British Cairo
David Yearsley
Michael Sarin: Drumming Like Summer Fireworks Over a Choppy Lake