Harvard Economist and Political Adviser John Galbraith Dies After Dispensing Decades of Wisdom
By BRANDIE M. JEFFERSON Associated Press Writer
BOSTON - In the 1950s, John Kenneth Galbraith cautioned that corporations were becoming too powerful. In the 1960s he warned President Kennedy about the dangers of unilateral military action abroad.
He continually criticized conservative administrations' fiscal policies. He tried to bring environmental issues into the limelight.
"He was a half of a century ahead of his time," said his biographer, Richard Parker.
Galbraith, a Harvard economist and behind-the-scenes political adviser to Democratic presidents, died late Saturday of natural causes, his son said. He was 97.
His influence remained relevant long after his 1958 work "The Affluent Society" argued that the American economy produced individual wealth but did not adequately address public needs such as schools.
British Finance Minister Gordon Brown said Galbraith advised him and others in recent years with insights into the modern age.
"Even in recent years in his 90s he was never slow to give me and others advice and he will be remembered for his erudition, his wit and eloquence, and particularly for his economic insights into our age," Brown said.
The Canadian-born economist and unabashed liberal served as adviser to Democratic presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton and was John F. Kennedy's ambassador to India.
Galbraith, who was outspoken in his support of government intervention in social and economic problems, became a larger figure on the American political scene after World War II.
Sen. Edward Kennedy lauded Galbraith's "profound commitment to social justice."
"I know how much President Kennedy admired his genius, valued his friendship and loved his extraordinary wit, and so did I," the Massachusetts Democrat said. "Our affluent society is a fairer and more just society today because of Ken, and no one who knew him will ever forget him."
Although an economist, his impact reached far beyond economic circles. He thought across disciplines, Benjamin Freeman, a Harvard economics professor and friend of Galbraith's said, "Not just in the field (of economics), but broadening the discourse to encompass the world at large."
It was this integration of different topics that gave Galbraith unique foresight about politics and economics in America, said Parker, who wrote "John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics."
A review of Parker's biography in the March edition of the Journal of Economic Literature argued that, although Galbraith was the "best known" economist in the 50s and 60s, "he was not then, and will never be, regarded as a great economist by economists, because he produced no theories, which is what great economists are supposed to do," wrote University of Warwick economist Robert Skidelsky. He described Galbraith as an "eminent public figure moralist, controversialist, stylist, wit who happened to profess economics."
But former Harvard President Derek Bok said Galbraith was distinct from other economists because he wrote for a general audience, something that critics have cited as a weak spot.
"He used his wit ... very tellingly to make points about society," Bok said Sunday. "He was not one to express anger. But he was an expert in using his wit to attack (people he disagreed with) by making people laugh."
One of those people was economist Arthur Laffer, most famous for the Laffer curve, a tool he uses to support a supply-side economics model that suggests, in some situations, tax-cuts can pay for themselves.
During debates, Laffer and Galbraith were often pitted against each other; Galbraith the far-left liberal and Laffer the ambassador of "Reaganomics."
"He was witty, he was charming, he had a turn of phrase that was unbelievable," Laffer said.
Galbraith took jabs at Laffer's trickle-down theory, describing it thus: "If you feed the horse enough oats, the sparrow will survive on the highway."
But, Laffer said, they had endless fun and invigorating debates.
"The world is not just made up of people who turn out to be right," he said. "It is the debate that's critical... It is the debate that moves the world forward. And there is no one better to debate than John Kenneth Galbraith."
After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1931, Galbraith moved to the U.S. where he earned his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California. He taught at Harvard from 1934 to 1939 and at Princeton University from 1939 to 1942.
Galbraith returned to Harvard in 1948, remaining active on the faculty until his retirement in 1975.
"The Affluent Society," published in 1958, became one of Galbraith's most influential and praised works. In 1999 a panel of judges assembled by the Modern Library, a publishing house, listed the book as No. 46 on its list of the century's 100 best English-language works of nonfiction.
Galbraith was married in 1937 to Catherine Atwater. They had three sons, Alan, Peter and James.
Services have not yet been scheduled.
"His mind was wonderful, right up until the end," Alan Galbraith said. "He had a wonderful and full life."