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January 21, 2005

John Kenneth Galbraith

Ah this will be interesting: Foreign Affairs wants 3000 words on John Kenneth Galbraith--on Richard Parker (2005), John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux: 0374281688)--by the end of February.

Posted by DeLong at January 21, 2005 01:05 PM

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3000 words to encapsulate a lifetime with a highly varied and peculiar career. Indeed.

Posted by: Carol at January 21, 2005 01:19 PM

Ah, don't miss this one that speaks to today-
"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."
- John Kenneth Galbraith

Posted by: Roberto Riley at January 21, 2005 01:43 PM

Surely something worth adding on the military-industrial complex, perhaps in even stronger shape than JKG would have foreseen.

Posted by: P O'Neill at January 21, 2005 02:11 PM

When I started my agricultual-economist interlude in Davis, I had an office in Voorhees Hall. There, as in most others of the Hallways of Academe, was a table of throwaway books. I spotted and picked up one of Galbraith's several autobiographies, this one covering in depth the early years of his career.

I was delighted to learn of his graduate research into the origions of Sunkist and other agricultural cooperatives in California, which gave farmers countervailing power against the buyer monopoly...a monopoly which was driven or enforced by the railroad monopoly. Drive up I-80 towards Donner, and visit Newcastle: the Southern-Pacific depot their was the bottleneck through which the stone fruit and citrus of Placer County (where all those wonderful Satsumas are still grown) passed on their way to Chicago and the broader market beyond. The Santa Fe railroad was a similar chokepoint for the orange groves of the San Fernando Valley, Riverside, and the southern (Orange County) Los Angeles Basin. By forming Sunkist, the farmers were able to push back against the monopsonists.

Those of us who drink the marginalist koolaid from time to time might object that a monopsony-monopoly chain is pretty inefficient, but Galbraith would snort that it was better, for the smallholding citrus producer, than was an uncountervailed monopsonist...and would make a similar claim for the Union. In fact, that process--of the accretion of organizations to shield their members from unbalanced exposure of their marginal benefits--appears to me to be a primary theme of The New Industrial State, and indeed of Galbraith's entire intellectual career.

Once an agricultural political economist from Berkeley, always an agricultural political economist.

But my delight at finding myself walking backwards down Galbraith's trail (I was an industrial societies political economist first, an economist second, and only much later and by happy accident an agricultural economist advising California growers on how to exploit market power) was nothing compared to my glee at Galbraith's description of his time in Davis.

It was his first Job: teaching accounting to the young hayseeds at the University Farm. There was still no agricultural economics department in Davis, instead he was supervised by a resident member of the Berkeley department, Professor Voorhees, future founder of the Davis Department of Agricultural Economics, who Galbraith described as (quoting from delighted memory) "the stupidest man ever to call himself an agricultural economist."

(In unwitting tribute, Voorhees Hall remains the ugliest building on the Davis campus of the University of California.)

Posted by: Marcus Sitz at January 21, 2005 02:48 PM

Thank you, Marcus. I would make a point of walking around the block to pass by Galbraith's house on the way to campus. There was always a wave and a few words when he was about.

Posted by: anne at January 21, 2005 03:01 PM

Wow - nothing here about the larry summers fiasco! I'm looking to start a betting pool about when the dismal scientist will resign. I can't imagine him lasting past valentine's day.


Posted by: df at January 21, 2005 04:35 PM

His economics? I have not read this book, but I'm not sure he would even be considered an economist these days. His big picture economics, forecasting growing dominance by large firms seems to be closer to Greider than the point of view of an economist and when he writes about technical issues (read The Good Society -- or even just Krugman's review of The Good Society) it seems like he hasn't been in a classroom in forty years.

What is his legacy? An intellectual who coined the phrase "conventional wisdom" and an updated modified and civilized version of Veblen? A shame, because it turns a great career into a cartoon character.

I might mention that a trusted former colleague of mine said that at Harvard, among his peers, he was quite unpleasant. Actually, the colleague used much stronger words.

[Not true of the late 1970s and after, I know. I'm skeptical about earlier as well...]

oh well. Enjoy writing the Foreign Affairs piece because as I have heard, after all the time you put into it, on an hourly basis, you would have made more money as a barrista at the local Starbucks.

Posted by: cb at January 21, 2005 05:34 PM

John Kenneth Galbraith is a splendid thinker, a splendid teacher and a kind and generous person.

Posted by: anne at January 21, 2005 05:45 PM

"an updated modified and civilized version of Veblen?"

It would be hard, I suppose, to be *less* civilized than Veblen...from how many great universities was the great Norwegian-American scholar (whom the economists deride as a "sociologists", and the sociologists damn as an "economist") chased, for philandering and phornicating? Five?

Why would Galbraith need to spend time in the classroom, except to teach? He made a very good point, from a positive "observational" standpoint, about the pressures on the "atoms" of atomistic competition to join. The incentive to combine, to capture or defend rents, is ubiquitous.

If you don't want to call it "economics" then call it Political Economy. The economics of rents, which is not particularly marginalist, has driven a lot of interesting work, claiming names as varied as Dasgupta, Krugman, North and Buchanan. All owe a debt to Galbraith.

Posted by: Marcus Sitz at January 21, 2005 06:15 PM

Nil nisi bonum.

Well, I'm not going to respect that about JKB. And not mainly because he wrote once to the effect that Ireland very roughly was a wonderful country of mists, amity, whisky and fairies, but had never produced a single good economist.

[Richard Cantillon and Mountifort Longfield were excellent economists! Next thing you know, they'll be claiming that Ireland never produced any good generals...]

Can somebody help me make this 25-year memory more accurate? It's published in several of his collections.

The absurdity of the claim may generalise to one's view of the man; if he was so wrong on this what about other matters: among ignored Irish economists who were originators in their fields are:

(18th century) Richard Cantillon, major monetary economist and demand theorist.

(19th century) F Y Edgeworth, prolific outstanding economist and statistician also, who seemed curiously to accept Marshall's low opinion of his work.

(20th century) R C Geary, an Irish Fisher, Pearson and Malinvaud in one, somebody who managed three careers simultaneously as mathematical statistician (author of 100+ scientific papers in Econometrica, Biometrika, JRSS etc., inventor of instrumental variable estimation independently of Riersol), official statistician (Director of the Irish Central Statistical Office, Director of Statistics for the United Nations), and economist/econometrician (first Director of the Economic (and Social) Research Institute in Dublin, author of many reports and textbooks).

(20th century again) Terence (W M, William Moore) Gorman, the great educator, the inventor (with many others he always said) of the methods of duality, and the ultimate analyst (almost alone except for Leontief, Sato, Strotz and Goldman, to all of whom we attributed most of his insights, quite wrongly) of separability, both of which concepts affect the work of thousands of economists and hundreds of millions of people across the world.

OK, Terence and all the rest may have looked small from Gstaad where JKG may have lived on his book profits, but Galbraith did not even begin to try to see the merit of these great and good men; he sneered without the redeeming style of a Gibbon.

I still feel glad that I enjoyed The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State while I was a student. But ultimately and curiously JKG's greatest talent was one that is supposed to be peculiarly Irish, though it is not in fact: JKG had the gift of the gab; of course he had other gifts too.

Many apologies for length. I'd be interested in BD's comments and all others.


Posted by: Barry Murphy at January 21, 2005 06:29 PM

Barry -- I've heard that remark of Galbraith's, which sounds like a classic WASPy wag thing to say, but I don't know the cite. But to the list of Irish economists one could get expansive and add Hamilton, whose mathematics many economists are still using. In further expansiveness for your 19th century list, you could count the pioneering land tax economist Henry Carey, Philadelphia born of Irish parents.

Posted by: P O'Neill at January 21, 2005 06:54 PM

[comment spam]

Posted by: at January 21, 2005 10:56 PM

Never have I read a single negative comment about Ireland, of which Galbraith was most fond. Galbraith as the Kennedys went to Ireland repeatedly and as my parents can attest was much cared for.

Posted by: anne at January 22, 2005 06:24 AM

I boarded with the Galbraiths and love them (all). They are generous and funny. Lots of memories, not excluding a mandatory pre-Thanksgiving dinner walk... around the entirety of Walden Pond, trying to keep up with Ken's long, rapid strides.

Posted by: PW at January 22, 2005 06:43 AM

I have to say I think that the "not an economist" critique is politically loaded. Nobody (but nobody) says that Hernando de Soto's book is "not economics", but to me, it's a rewrite of Galbraith's "The Nature of Mass Poverty", plus a load of confusing stuff about property rights.

Posted by: dsquared at January 22, 2005 07:05 AM

JKG wrote a wonderful account of growing up before WWI in the vicinity of St. Thomas, Ontario: It is called "The Scotch." It is a treat.

Posted by: sm at January 22, 2005 08:45 AM

Be skeptical..and be skeptical when dealing with an anonymous accusation. And if you've already know and have spoken with one person who was with him at Harvard, your sample size is already as large as mine...that said....

Call him a political economist, call him an institutionalist, but what he does is not in this day and age economics. Economics has become much more technical and has left him.

What does it matter that he wants to pretend that classic Keynesianism is alive and well? It doesn't make his writing any less eloquent, but I think it matters when you are writing about current economic policy and deny the Fed has an impact on the economy (as I believe he says in "innocent fraud") or you write about the economic profession and claim there is general agreement among economists that there are long run tradeoffs between inflation and employment (as I believe he says in Good Society).

Posted by: cb at January 22, 2005 02:12 PM

"Call him a political economist, call him an institutionalist, but what he does is not in this day and age economics. Economics has become much more technical and has left him."

Oh my, then I suggest that Economics must find dear JKG once again and rather quickly :) Economics has not left Smith and Ricardo and Mill and Keynes and Kindleberger, Heilbroner and Galbraith.... There is ever so much room for broad humane thinkers; thinkers who have magic pens. I love these thinkers.

Posted by: anne at January 22, 2005 04:41 PM

So Galbraith does not qualify as a formal economist. BFD. Do you geniuses know the esteem in which you are properly held? Comparative advantage is a cool thought, but what have you folks done for us lately? I'll take Galbraith over you fickle second-rate couldn't-be-mathematicians any day. The good doctor and host excluded, of course.

Posted by: Gerard MacDonell at January 23, 2005 02:31 PM

"Not an economist?" How can anyone accuse a former President of the American Economics Association of not being an economist? Now he is not a neoclassical economist--that we can agree on. However, to deride the entire school of Institutional Economics as being "not economics" is an affront just the same to Nobel Prize winning economists Myrdal (Institutional Economist), Hayek (Austrian Economist), and Vickrey (Post-Keynesian Economist) simply because they weren't part of the orthodoxy.

Posted by: Carolyn Mingmei Wu at January 23, 2005 07:50 PM

I'll bite.

What Galbraith does was economics at one time. Myrdal/Hayek won the Nobel Prize 30 years ago for work done 70 years ago. The field is not the same now. Partly because of shortcomings discovered in the orthodoxy in the 70's, partly because of resources available to economists, which made the field more scientific -- and certainly less eloquent and less aware of the history of thought. To the chagrin of many. But you probably already know this.

There are institutionalist economists, but they, too, have changed with the times. Mancur Olson, for example, was not too important to try to test his hypotheses.

While Vickry won recently (and may also have been AEA President), he was recognized for his important work as part of the orthodoxy. His Post-Keynesian work was not material to his winning the Nobel.

This is not to say that there is not a great deal of value in eloquence about economic issues.

Posted by: cb at January 24, 2005 09:15 AM

I don't know. If instituional economics is not economics, then where do you put Coase (Nobel Prize 1991)? Or for that matter, if you don't use mathematics, you're not an economist, then where would you put Armen Alchian?

And Andrei Shleifer is giving a series of lectures on the instituional origin of economies in LSE. Is it not an economic lecture then?

And the field of economics hasn't got more scientific, it has gotten more mathematically abstract, and that's not the same as scientific.

Posted by: weco at January 24, 2005 03:32 PM

Just to point out that even if Galbraith had been hit by a bus in 1948 and died before writing any of his major books, his work on the Strategic Bombing Survey would still have qualified him as a pretty important economist.

[very true]

Posted by: dsquared at January 25, 2005 01:09 AM

[comment spam]

Posted by: at January 31, 2005 06:53 PM

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Posted by: at February 3, 2005 12:13 PM

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