Sunday, April 30, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith died yesterday. Here are the reports from the Washington Post and the New York Times. You can find a summary of Galbraith's economics here.

I have long been a fan of Galbraith as a person, even though I disagree with almost all of his conclusions as an economist. Galbraith marched to his own drummer and did not feel compelled to follow the dictates of his profession. A prolific writer, he tried to reach a broad audience, rather than aiming only for the narrow club of economists. And he did it spectacularly well. I recall reading when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s that Galbraith was the economist with the highest name recognition among the general public.

I assigned his most famous book, The Affluent Society, in a freshman seminar at Harvard about five years ago. The students enjoyed it. Even though the book was about half a century old, it did not feel dated, which is quite a feat. (In the new edition of my Principles text, I have a new passage on Galbraith and Hayek, which I previewed in this post.)

I once asked Galbraith the secret to his success as a popular writer. He told me that he revises extensively and puts his books through many drafts. Around the fifth draft, he manages to work in the touch of spontaneity that everyone likes.

When I became chairman of the CEA in 2003, Galbraith wrote me a kind note congratulating me on the job. He said he had some role in the creation of the Council, which was established as part of the Employment Act of 1946, and this was what he had in mind--Harvard professors taking leave from the Ivory Tower to advise the President. He added, wryly, that he had hoped it would be a President of a different party.

For students who want to learn more about this great man, I recommend his memoir A Life in Our Times.