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"Always tell the truth. That way, you don't have to remember what you said."

Mark Twain


Introduction

John Kenneth Galbraith was probably the most famous as well as the tallest economist of the second half of the 20th century. Brian W. Sloboda (U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics) wrote the following introduction to the Galbraith book The Affluent Society:

John Kenneth Galbraith, one of America’s most prominent Keynesian and institutionalist economists, died in April 2006. Galbraith was a prolific author and scholar, and in his best-selling 1958 book, The Affluent Society, Galbraith described the condition of the United States after the Second World War. The motivation for this review is to honor his achievements and influence on modern economic thought. The motif of the Affluent Society was that the US was rich in private resources but poor in public ones because of a misplaced priority on increasing production in the private sector. Galbraith argued that industrial production was being devoted to satisfying trivial consumer needs, in part to maintain employment. Consequently, he recommended, the United States should shift resources from the private to the government sphere in order to increase mobility, improve schools, infrastructure, recreational resources, and social services as a means of providing a better quality of life instead of creating an abundance of consumer goods to satisfy mass consumption. Put succinctly, Galbraith believed that the affluent society would be balanced because giant corporations would control the markets while the unions would protect and provide job stability to workers. The main role of government would then be to regulate business cycles. The Affluent Society was one in a series of his works which comprised of American Capitalism (1952), The New Industrial State (1967), and Economics and the Public Purpose (1972), which offered a theoretical justification for government intervention and various proposals for implementing his ideas.

The Affluent Society asserts that classical economic theory was more relevant in the years when poverty was more widespread. Over time, America has moved from that state into an age of greater affluence, and the standard, neoclassical economic theory seems to fall short.

In the first part of the book, Galbraith discusses the influence of Social Darwinism and Marxism on people during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, he chronicles the evolution of economic thinking starting with the early belief that the average worker would always earn just enough to survive and perhaps raise a family. However, he contends that the issue of inequality in the distribution of wealth has drawn less attention over time. As America moved into the 20th century, Galbraith argued, production became a dominant theme in economic thought since people no longer viewed economic inequality as a major issue. Despite this paradigm shift from economic inequality to production, Galbraith asserted that the emphasis on production was irrational. More specifically, this new paradigm stressed that the private sector was best equipped to meet society’s wants and that the benefit from expanding government services was small.

Consumerism was a major theme in The Affluent Society. Galbraith contends that with the steady increase in wages in the United States, luxury items have become the new standard, replacing the basics of food and shelter. Targeted advertising has been responsible for creating both the increase in consumption and the purchase of more luxury goods. He states that contemporary economic theory does not take into account what he dubbed the ‘‘dependence effect” – i.e., that the ever-increasing desire for additional consumption is in a sense “manufactured” by advertising – of advertising and purchasing. Gailbraith contends that the massive growth in consumption has resulted in the steady increase of consumer debt from the 1920s to 1958. He warned that the accumulation of consumer debt is harmful to the economy, but the new paradigm believes that amassing consumer debt is acceptable if it brings high rates of production and consumption.

Since the Second World War, Galbraith believes that the supply side or the cost push element attributed to inflation, and more direct government intervention was needed to keep inflation under control without reducing employment. Economists during this time often disagreed on the cause of inflation and the best policy to combat it. Galbraith was influenced by Keynesian economics, especially in the application of government policy. By initiating government spending at the bottom of business cycles, policy-makers could stimulate the economy. On the other hand, government tax policy could also be used reduce the high excesses during periods of expansions as a means to reduce excess consumption.

Galbraith further addresses the role of monetary policy as conducted by the Federal Reserve System as a tool to control inflation. He strongly believes that the Federal Reserve’s method of raising interest rates does more to harm small businesses than it protects the consumer against inflation. Thus, contractionary monetary policy should be avoided. Galbraith contends that Americans mistakenly place too much emphasis on production in the private sector and often conclude that private sector production is the most important measure of the economy’s strength; he adds that the dominant thought places too little value on government services. As he sees it, there should be a balance between private and public expenditures. Because of this polarization, he coined the term ‘‘social balance’’ to describe an acceptable relationship between private and public expenditure. An affluent society is dependent on public goods such as law enforcement, education, sanitation, transportation, highways, and the transportation infrastructure. Galbraith dedicated an entire chapter in The Affluent Society to discussing the underinvestment in public education. Public education, he suggested, is a public expenditure that really represents an investment because it provides an educated and trained labor force for the private sector. Society, however, seems unable to recognize that public education is a worthwhile investment for promoting economic prosperity. Galbraith discussed the importance of investment in individuals, which is a precursor of the concept of human capital as espoused by Schultz (1961) and Becker (1962).

Galbraith placed a greater emphasis on sales taxes than income taxes because it achieves an improved social balance between private and public sector production. That is, increasing sales taxes would reduce consumption of goods and make those who consume pay more in taxes. This increase in sales taxes would provide greater funds at the state level, which would in turn allow government to provide the necessary public services such as education, health, and human service programs. He also advocated greater government spending as the most effective approach for reducing poverty.

The Affluent Society sparked a serious intellectual debate with its publication in 1958, and many of the themes are still relevant in today. In recent years, the national economy’s showing has been impressive: 4.7 percent unemployment rate, 5.3 percent growth of GDP, increases in productivity as well as improvements in other economic indicators. However, opinion polls have indicated that people are not satisfied with economic conditions, despite the positive statistics. These data indicate that people are amassing wealth and consuming goods, two effects that can lead to greater happiness and an improved quality of life. Increased happiness, however, is not flow from the growth of luxury goods and disposable income.

Each successive generation has faced somewhat different economic issues, driven by different circumstances. For the current generation, rapid advances in technology, economic globalization, the need for coexistence with rogue nations, corporate malfeasance of companies like Enron, and other events affect today’s economy. For some policymakers and intellectuals, the underlying themes of The Affluent Society could be applicable to the contemporary debate about how to improve the quality of life for all. In brief, the feeling that corporations were not always the most noble of institutions and a deepening dichotomy between the wealthy and less wealthy form the core beliefs of Galbraith and are still relevant today.

Galbraith's greatest appeal as an economist and a writer is the disdain he holds the economists as a profession. He was a merciless critic of ignorance and the status-quo... Galbraith is funny and deep simultaneously in best Mark Twain's tradition. You can learn a lot from him, he makes you see under the surface of things. And he obviously was a great economist.

Amartya Sen said the influence of John Kenneth Galbraith's book The Affluent Society is so pervasive as to be taken for granted: "It's like reading Hamlet and deciding it's full of quotations."

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[Mar 22, 2017] The essence of corporatism

"When the modern corporation acquires power over markets, power in the community, power over the state and power over belief, it is a political instrument, different in degree but not in kind from the state itself. To hold otherwise - to deny the political character of the modern corporation - is not merely to avoid the reality.

It is to disguise the reality. The victims of that disguise are those we instruct in error."

John Kenneth Galbraith

[Oct 08, 2015] “The sense of responsibility in the financial community for the community as a whole is not small. It is nearly nil.” John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash of 1929

[Aug 29, 2015] John Kenneth Galbraith on Writing, Inspiration, and Simplicity

"...A major contribution of JK Galbraith was the principle of countervailing power which did not depend on the niceties of detailed microeconomic analysis of market or government power. Galbraith paralleled the book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property by Berle and Means, 1932."
"..."In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language."

That's the acid test, the one that macro-types fail. Their mathiness and their rhetorical obfuscations damn them all - that kind of tripe doesn't work at all in front of a judge or a jury, but it's good as gold in academia and bureaucracy. Their miserable record of delivered failure doesn't help either.

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." (Einstein)"

From Tim Taylor:

John Kenneth Galbraith on Writing, Inspiration, and Simplicity: John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) was trained as an economist, but in books like The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967), his found his metier as a social critic. In these books and voluminous other writings, Galbraith didn't propose well-articulated economic theories, and carry out systematic empirical tests, but instead offered big-picture perspectives of the economy and society of his time. His policy advice was grindingly predictable: big and bigger doses of progressive liberalism, what he sometimes called "new socialism."

For a sense of how mainstream and Democratic-leaning economists of the time dismissed Galbraith's work, classic example is this scathing-and-smiling review of The New Industrial State by Robert Solow in the Fall 1967 issue of The Public Interest. Galbreath's response appears in the same issue. Connoisseurs of academic blood sports will enjoy the exchange.

Here, I come not to quarrel with Galbraith's economics, but to praise him as one of the finest writers on economics and social science topics it has ever been my pleasure to read. I take as my text his essay on "Writing, Typing, and Economics," which appeared in the March 1978 issue of The Atlantic and which I recently rediscovered. Here are some highlights:

"All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand — are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself. Their lesson is simple: It's a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments. Such is the horror of having to face the typewriter that you will spend all your time waiting. I am persuaded that most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next (a point which Trollope made), hangovers apart. The difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol, or imagination. The meaning is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the seeming result. It will be much the same. ..."
"My advice to those eager students in California would be, "Do not wait for the golden moment. It may well be worse." I would also warn against the flocking tendency of writers and its use as a cover for idleness. It helps greatly in the avoidance of work to be in the company of others who are also waiting for the golden moment. The best place to write is by yourself, because writing becomes an escape from the terrible boredom of your own personality. It's the reason that for years I've favored Switzerland, where I look at the telephone and yearn to hear it ring. ..."
"There may be inspired writers for whom the first draft is just right. But anyone who is not certifiably a Milton had better assume that the first draft is a very primitive thing. The reason is simple: Writing is difficult work. Ralph Paine, who managed Fortune in my time, used to say that anyone who said writing was easy was either a bad writer or an unregenerate liar. Thinking, as Voltaire avowed, is also a very tedious thing which men—or women—will do anything to avoid. So all first drafts are deeply flawed by the need to combine composition with thought. Each later draft is less demanding in this regard. Hence the writing can be better. There does come a time when revision is for the sake of change—when one has become so bored with the words that anything that is different looks better. But even then it may be better. ..."
"Next, I would want to tell my students of a point strongly pressed, if my memory serves, by Shaw. He once said that as he grew older, he became less and less interested in theory, more and more interested in information. The temptation in writing is just the reverse. Nothing is so hard to come by as a new and interesting fact. Nothing is so easy on the feet as a generalization. I now pick up magazines and leaf through them looking for articles that are rich with facts; I do not care much what they are. Richly evocative and deeply percipient theory I avoid. It leaves me cold unless I am the author of it. ..."
"In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language. Qualifications and refinements are numerous and of great technical complexity. These are important for separating the good students from the dolts. But in economics the refinements rarely, if ever, modify the essential and practical point. The writer who seeks to be intelligible needs to be right; he must be challenged if his argument leads to an erroneous conclusion and especially if it leads to the wrong action. But he can safely dismiss the charge that he has made the subject too easy. The truth is not difficult. Complexity and obscurity have professional value—they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.
"Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven't thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you do not understand. Clarity thus exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists, and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise, or incomplete thought. One can understand the resulting anger."
reason said...
I must say I enjoyed reading and listening to Galbraith, but if I am honest, I will also say that I didn't learn much from him.

His most important contribution is the sentence "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." That clings as true today, as it ever did, and should always be used as a guide towards an appropriate level of scepticism.

RogerFox said...

"In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language."

That's the acid test, the one that macro-types fail. Their mathiness and their rhetorical obfuscations damn them all - that kind of tripe doesn't work at all in front of a judge or a jury, but it's good as gold in academia and bureaucracy. Their miserable record of delivered failure doesn't help either.

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." (Einstein)

anne said...

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

Though the passage is attributed to Einstein, there is no evidence that the passage is by Einstein.

anne said...

http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20080522_196700909thenewindustrialstateorsonofaffluencerobertmsolow.pdf

1967

The New Industrial State or Son of Affluence
By ROBERT M. SOLOW

[ An absolutely shameful review, empty and mean-spirited and designed to be intimating for teachers or students who would otherwise teach or read Galbraith's "New Industrial State." Galbraith's work in my experience was routinely mocked and dismissed by teaching economists, a dismissal that was even reflected in unfair remarks made by Paul Krugman many years after this review by Solow. ]

anne -> anne...

http://www.pkarchive.org/cranks/GalbraithGoodSociety.html

September 1, 1996

Review of John Kenneth Galbraith's 'The Good Society: The Humane Agenda'
By Paul Krugman - Washington Monthly

To be both a liberal and a good economist you must have a certain sense of the tragic--that is, you must understand that not all goals can be attained, that life is a matter of painful tradeoffs. You must want to help the poor, but understand that welfare can encourage dependency. You must want to protect those who lose their jobs, but admit that generous unemployment benefits can raise the long-term rate of unemployment. You must be willing to tax the affluent to help those in need, but accept that too high a rate of taxation can discourage investment and innovation. To the free-market conservative, these are all arguments for government to do nothing, to accept whatever level of poverty and insecurity the market happens to produce. A serious liberal does not reply to such conservatives by denying that there are any trade-offs at all; he insists, rather, that some trade-offs are worth making, that helping the poor and protecting the unlucky may have costs but will ultimately make for a better society.

The revelation one gets from reading John Kenneth Galbraith's "The Good Society" is that Galbraith--who is one of the world's most celebrated intellectuals, and whom one would expect to have a deeper appreciation of the complexity of the human condition than a mere technical economist would--lacks this tragic sense. Galbraith's vision of the economy is one without shadows, in which what is good for social justice always turns out to have no unfavorable side effects. If this vision is typical of liberal intellectuals, the ineffectuality of the tribe is not an accident: It stems from a deep-seated unwillingness to face up to uncomfortable reality....

Second Best said...

A major contribution of JK Galbraith was the principle of countervailing power which did not depend on the niceties of detailed microeconomic analysis of market or government power. Galbraith paralleled the book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property by Berle and Means, 1932.

The essential point of Berle and Means was owners of private property as stockholders no longer controlled the means of production, taken over by the managers. A key contemporary marker of this effect is how CEO pay and control is completely immune from stockholder influence. It was the mother of the principal-agent problem but never caught on.

Countervailing power among the economic powers became the determinant focal point of economic outcomes. All of whatever free markets under capitalism were ever meant to be evolved accordingly.

At the highest level countervailing power meant government power versus private property power. Since private market power itself was systematically stripped from its owners as stockholders early on, and the managerial elite went on to confiscate government power as well, this undermined the fundamental notion of countervailing power itself.

The pinnacle of the elaborate systemic hoax of ownership of private property by the masses before it collapsed with the housing bubble and Great Recession, emerged under George W Bush as the ownership society.

By then not even the SCOTUS that appointed Bush was a countervailng power to the other branches of government, much less the private corporate and billionaire power at the apex of if all.

RC AKA Darryl, Ron -> Second Best...

Well said. You are correct. This is no joke.

anne said...

Galbraith didn't propose well-articulated economic theories, and carry out systematic empirical tests, but instead offered big-picture perspectives of the economy and society of his time. His policy advice was grindingly predictable: big and bigger doses of progressive liberalism, what he sometimes called "new socialism."

-- Tim Taylor

[ So much for Keynes. The disdain for and dismissal of actually liberal ideas by a range of economists is continually shocking, but evidently allows for no discussion. So we find the failing policy applications before and following the great recession, still essentially unchallenged. ]

rayward said...

Economists are insecure, occupying the uncertain territory between philosophy and science. Economists on the right have an incentive to make economics a science, with its mathematical certainty, because, well, there can't be certainty in economics, at least not in math, thereby confirming that markets should be left alone to do their magic. Economists on the left are, well, just insecure. Galbraith excepted.

RC AKA Darryl, Ron -> rayward...

In economics, the majority is always wrong.

John Kenneth Galbraith

RC AKA Darryl, Ron -> RC AKA Darryl, Ron...

http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/j/john_kenneth_galbraith.html

[JKG was a very funny guy of the ironic sort, the best sort in my book.]

RC AKA Darryl, Ron -> RC AKA Darryl, Ron...

Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.

John Kenneth Galbraith

RC AKA Darryl, Ron -> RC AKA Darryl, Ron...

Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.

John Kenneth Galbraith

RC AKA Darryl, Ron -> RC AKA Darryl, Ron...

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.

John Kenneth Galbraith

RC AKA Darryl, Ron -> RC AKA Darryl, Ron...

Politics is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

John Kenneth Galbraith

[Sep 22, 2014] Those Lazy Jobless

NYTimes.com

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest excuses in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." -- John Kenneth Galbraith

[Dec 13, 2013] Jesse's Café Américain

December 12, 2013

"This is what economics now does. It tells the young and susceptible (and also the old and vulnerable) that economic life has no content of power and politics because the Firm is safely subordinate to the market and the state, and for this reason it is safely at the command of the consumer and citizen.

Such an economics is not neutral. It is the influential and invaluable ally of those whose exercise of power depends on an acquiescent public. If the state is the executive committee of the great corporation and the planning system, it is partly because neoclassical economics is its instrument for neutralizing the suspicion that this is so.”

John Kenneth Galbraith, Power and the Useful Economist

[Aug 02, 2013] “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.” -- John Kenneth Galbraith ( sited from Obama Starting to Lose It Over Snowden « naked capitalism)

[Jul 02, 2011] There is something wonderful in seeing a wrong-headed majority assailed by truth. — John Kenneth Galbraith

Hat tip to The Big Picture

[Jun 01, 2011] We all agree that pessimism is a mark of superior intellect. — John Kenneth Galbraith

Hat tip to The Big Picture

[Feb 13, 2011] Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof. — John Kenneth Galbraith

Hat tip to The Big Picture

[Jun 05, 2010] Is The SEC Still Working For Wall Street « The Baseline Scenario

“Regulatory bodies, like the people who comprise them…mellow, and in old age…they become, with some exceptions, either an arm of the industry they are regulating or senile.”

John Kenneth Galbraith

[Sep 29, 2009] The Big Picture

Quote of the day

The salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself.

—John Kenneth Galbraith

[Apr 19, 2009] PrudentBear

Quote of the day

“Financial operations do not lend themselves to innovation. What is recurrently so described and celebrated is, without exception, a small variation on an established design . . . The world of finance hails the invention of the wheel over and over again, often in a slightly more unstable version.”

John Kenneth Galbraith, A Short History of Financial Euphoria

[Feb 5, 2009] The Big Picture

Quote of the day

There can be few fields of human endeavor in which history counts for so little as in the world of finance. Past experience, to the extent that it is part of memory at all, is dismissed as the primitive refuge of those who do not have the insight to appreciate the incredible wonders of the present."

-John Kenneth Galbraith

All Quotes

Creativity

  1. One of the greatest pieces of economic wisdom is to know what you do not know. "In ""The Speaker's Electronic Reference Collection,"" AApex Software, 1994."
  2. It is almost as important to know what is not serious as to know what is. "In ""The Speaker's Electronic Reference Collection,"" AApex Software, 1994."
  3. "Inventions that are not made, like babies that are not born, are not missed." "The Affluent Society," 1958."
  4. "Originality is something that is easily exaggerated, especially by authors contemplating their own work." "In ""Webster's Electronic Quotebase,"" ed. Keith Mohler, 1994."
  5. "If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error." "Money: Whence it Came, Where it Went."

Politics

  1. Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.
  2. There are times in politics when you must be on the right side and lose.
  3. Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

  4. I react to what is necessary. I would like to eschew any formula. There are some things where the government is absolutely inevitable, which we cannot get along without comprehensive state action. But there are many things -- producing consumer goods, producing a wide range of entertainment, producing a wide level of cultural activity — where the market system, which independent activity is also important, so I react pragmatically. Where the market works, I'm for that. Where the government is necessary, I'm for that. I'm deeply suspicious of somebody who says, "I'm in favor of privatization," or, "I'm deeply in favor of public ownership." I'm in favor of whatever works in the particular case. — John Kenneth Galbraith, interview with Brian Lamb, November 13, 1994

  5. "One of my greatest pleasures in my writing has come from the thought that perhaps my work might annoy someone of comfortably pretentious position. Then comes the realization that such people rarely read."

  6. Nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.
  7. You will find that the State is the kind of organization which, though it does big things badly, does small things badly, too.
  8. "Some things were never meant to be recycled.'" John Kenneth Galbraith bumper sticker with a picture of George Bush.
  9. Foreign policy is conducted for the convenience and enjoyment of people in Washington.
  10. All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.
  11. All successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door. The violence of revolutions is the violence of men who charge into a vacuum. — John Kenneth Galbraith
  12. The Senate has unlimited debate; in the House, debate is ruthlessly circumscribed. There is frequent discussion as to which technique most effectively frustrates democratic process. However, a more important antidote to American democracy is American gerontocracy. The positions of eminence and authority in Congress are allotted in accordance with length of service, regardless of quality. Superficial observers have long criticized the United States for making a fetish of youth. This is unfair. Uniquely among modern organs of public and private administration, its national legislature rewards senility.
  13. In the usual (though certainly not in every) public decision on economic policy, the choice is between courses that are almost equally good or equally bad. It is the narrowest decisions that are most ardently debated. If the world is lucky enough to enjoy peace, it may even one day make the discovery, to the horror of doctrinaire free-enterprisers and doctrinaire planners alike, that what is called capitalism and what is called socialism are both capable of working quite well.
  14. The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.
  15. The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.
  16. There is something wonderful in seeing a wrong-headed majority assailed by truth.
  17. When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are, by that act, inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, that any revolt will be against them. It's a remarkably shrewd and rather conservative arrangement when one thinks of it.
  18. 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.
  19. Going back to the most ancient times, national well-being, the national prestige depended on territory. The more territory a country had, the more income revenue there was, the more people there were to be mobilized for arms strength. So we had an enormous sense of territorial conflict and territorial integrity, and that was unquestionably a part of the cause of war, coupled with the fact that there was a disposition in that direction by the landed class, a disposition to think of territorial acquisition and territorial defense and to think of the peasantry as a superior form of livestock which could be used for arms purposes.

    In the old days, land was important as the giver of all things. That period is gone now. Technology and brainpower are all that matters and yet conflicts over land, specially one like on the India-China border, that yields nothing, continue. This is a burden of ancient history that we continue to carry. If tomorrow there is settlement on planet Mars, we will begin to worry if others are interested.
  20. There are few ironclad rules of diplomacy but to one there is no exception. When an official reports that talks were useful, it can safely be concluded that nothing was accomplished.
  21. You roll back the stones, and you find slithering things. That is the world of Richard Nixon.
    — Adlai Stevenson speech in Los Angeles, 1956, written by John Kenneth Galbraith
  22. Hitler also anticipated modern economic policy . . . by recognizing that a rapid approach to full employment was only possible if it was combined with wage and price controls. That a nation oppressed by economic fear would respond to Hitler as Americans did to F.D.R. is not surprising.
  23. Technology, under all circumstances, leads to planning; in its higher manifestations it may put the problems of planning beyond the reach of the industrial firm. Technological compulsions, and not ideology or political will, will require the firm to seek the help and protection of the state. – The new industrial state, p38

Wealth and power

  1. Wealth, in even the most improbable cases, manages to convey the aspect of intelligence.
  2. Wealth is not without its advantages, and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.
  3. The huge capacity to purchase submission that goes with any large sum of money, well, this we have. This is a power of which we should all be aware.
  4. "People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage."
  5. People who are in a fortunate position always attribute virtue to what makes them so happy.
  6. Money differs from an automobile or mistress in being equally important to those who have it and those who do not.
  7. Money is a singular thing. It ranks with love as man's greatest source of joy. And with death as his greatest source of anxiety. Over all history it has oppressed nearly all people in one of two ways: either it has been abundant and very unreliable, or reliable and very scarce.
  8. Of all classes the rich are the most noticed and the least studied.
  9. We now in the United States have more security guards for the rich than we have police services for the poor districts. If you're looking for personal security, far better to move to the suburbs than to pay taxes in New York.
  10. The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character building values of the privation of the poor.
  11. The traveler to the United States will do well to prepare himself for the class-consciousness of the natives. This differs from the already familiar English version in being more extreme and based more firmly on the conviction that the class to which the speaker belongs is inherently superior to all others.
  12. There's a certain part of the contented majority who love anybody who is worth a billion dollars.

Economics

  1. “Milton’s [Friedman’s] misfortune is that his policies have been tried.”
  2. Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.
  3. "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable."
  4. Economists forecast 'not because they know, but because they are asked'.
  5. On market crashes "inaction will be advocated in the present even though it means deep trouble in the future."
  6. In economics, hope and faith coexist with great scientific pretension and also a deep desire for respectability.
  7. In economics, the majority is always wrong.
  8. One of the greatest pieces of economic wisdom is to know what you do not know.
  9. "The study of money, above all other fields in economics, is one in which complexity is used to disguise the truth or to evade truth, not to reveal it."
  10. Few can believe that suffering, especially by others, is in vain. Anything that is disagreeable must surely have beneficial economic effects.
  11. Broadly speaking, [Keynesianism means] that the government has a specific responsibility for the behavior of the economy, that it doesn't work on its own autonomous course, but the government, when there's a recession, compensates by employment, by expansion of purchasing power, and in boom times corrects by being a restraining force. But it controls the great flow of demand into the economy, what since Keynesian times has been the flow of aggregate demand. That was the basic idea of Keynes so far as one can put it in a couple of sentences.
  12. Agriculture is one economic activity that does not obey the laws of demand and supply
  13. “Trickle-down theory - the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”
  14. "It is a well known and very important fact that America's founding fathers did not like taxation without representation. It is a lesser known and equally important fact that they did not much like taxation with representation." (From "Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went")
  15. The decisive weakness in neoclassical and neo-Keynesian economics is not the error in the assumptions by which it elides the problem of power. The capacity for erroneous belief is very great, especially where it coincides with convenience. Rather, in eliding power — in making economics a nonpolitical subject — neoclassical theory destroys its relation to the real world. In that world, power is decisive in what happens. And the problems of that world are increasing both in number and in the depth of their social affliction. In consequence, neoclassical and neo-Keynesian economics is relegating its players to the social sidelines where they either call no plays or use the wrong ones. To change the metaphor, they manipulate levers to which no machinery is attached. Power and the Useful Economist" (1973) (printed in Annals of an Abiding Liberal and The Essential Galbraith)
  16. Almost 60-odd years ago in Canada. I was studying agriculture, how to produce better chickens, better cattle, better horses — horses in those days — better fruit, better vegetables. This was in the early years of the Great Depression, and the thoughts crossed my mind that there wasn't a hell of a lot of use producing better crops and better livestock if you couldn't sell them, that the real problem of agriculture was not efficiency in production but the problem of whether you could make money after you produced the stuff. So I shifted from the technical side to, first, the study of agricultural economic issues and then on to economics itself. -- Interview with Brian Lamb, Booknotes, C-SPAN (1994-11-13) [3]
  17. Men will look back in amusement at the pretence that once caused people to refer to General Dynamics and North American Aviation and AT&T as private business. – The new industrial state, p386
  18. There can be few fields of human endeavor in which history counts for so little as in the world of finance. Past experience, to the extent that it is part of memory at all, is dismissed as the primitive refuge of those who do not have the insight to appreciate the incredible wonders of the present." -John Kenneth Galbraith

Corporations and Capitalism

  1. There is nothing that unfettered chief executives will not do to feather their own nests.
  2. Meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything.
  3. Meetings are a great trap. Soon you find yourself trying to get agreement and then the people who disagree come to think they have a right to be persuaded. However, they are indispensable when you don't want to do anything.
  4. In any great organization it is far, far safer to be wrong with the majority than to be right alone.
  5. The real accomplishment of modern science and technology consists in taking ordinary men, informing them narrowly and deeply and then, through appropriate organization, arranging to have their knowledge combined with that of other specialized but equally ordinary men. This dispenses with the need for genius. The resulting performance, though less inspiring, is far more predictable.
  6. The man who is admired for the ingenuity of his larceny is almost always rediscovering some earlier form of fraud. The basic forms are all known, have all been practiced. The manners of capitalism improve. The morals may not.
  7. The great dialectic in our time is not, as anciently and by some still supposed, between capital and labor; it is between economic enterprise and the state.
  8. Any consideration of the life and larger social existence of the modern corporate man begins and also largely ends with the effect of one all-embracing force. That is organization — the highly structured assemblage of men, and now some women, of which he is a part. It is to this, at the expense of family, friends, sex, recreation and sometimes health and effective control of alcoholic intake, that he is expected to devote his energies.
  9. There is an insistent tendency among serious social scientists to think of any institution which features rhymed and singing commercials, intense and lachrymose voices urging highly improbable enjoyment, caricatures of the human esophagus in normal and impaired operation, and which hints implausibly at opportunities for antiseptic seduction as inherently trivial. This is a great mistake. The industrial system is profoundly dependent on commercial television and could not exist in its present form without it.
  10. Let's begin with capitalism, a word that has gone largely out of fashion. The approved reference now is to the market system. This shift minimizes-indeed, deletes-the role of wealth in the economic and social system. And it sheds the adverse connotation going back to Marx. Instead of the owners of capital or their attendants in control, we have the admirably impersonal role of market forces. It would be hard to think of a change in terminology more in the interest of those to whom money accords power. They have now a functional anonymity.

    — John Kenneth Galbraith, "Free Market Fraud," Progressive Magazine article, January, 1999

Military

  1. During the course of the conversation, a senator asked Dr Radhakrishnan about the rumour then floating in Delhi that General B M Kaul, the architect of the 1962 military disaster, had been captured by the Chinese. Professor Galbraith, with obvious glee, recalled the Indian President's deadpan reply: 'Unfortunately, it is not true.'
  2. Professor Galbraith felt many conflicts were essentially a "recreational" activity of the professional military, bored by a long peace. "It [war] also helps employment."
  3. A nuclear war does not defend a country and it does not defend a system. I've put it the same way many times; not even the most accomplished ideologue will be able to tell the difference between the ashes of capitalism and the ashes of communism.
  4. Get the process of negotiation away from the small specialized group that some people have called the "nuclear theologians," who in effect said this is a complicated issue of seeing how little we can give away, how much we can extract from the other side; it's highly specialized. Only a few people can understand the nature of these weapons, the delivery systems, the targeting, the nature of the MIRV and the CRUISE, on down, and the MX. This kept the whole discussion to a very limited group of people who, in a way, had assumed responsibility for saying whether we should live or die.

Press

  1. The truth is not the average of right and wrong.
  2. "Inventive journalism is a great danger to mankind"
  3. It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled seas of thought. The Affluent Society (1958), ch. 11
  4. There's a certain part of the contented majority who love anybody who is worth a billion dollars.
  5. Among all the world's races, some obscure Bedouin tribes possibly apart, Americans are the most prone to misinformation. This is not the consequence of any special preference for mendacity, although at the higher levels of their public administration that tendency is impressive. It is rather that so much of what they themselves believe is wrong.
  6. Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue.
  7. Where humor is concerned there are no standards - no one can say what is good or bad, although you can be sure that everyone will.

Academics

  1. "One of my greatest pleasures in my writing has come from the thought that perhaps my work might annoy someone of comfortably pretentious position. Then comes the realization that such people rarely read."
  2. "Humility is not always compatible with truth."
  3. "It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled sea of thought."
  4. "If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error."
  5. Originality is something that is easily exaggerated, especially by authors contemplating their own work.
  6. Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.
  7. Man, at least when educated, is a pessimist. He believes it safer not to reflect on his achievements; Jove is known to strike such people down.
  8. Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue.
  9. We all agree that pessimism is a mark of superior intellect.
  10. Much literary criticism comes from people for whom extreme specialization is a cover for either grave cerebral inadequacy or terminal laziness, the latter being a much cherished aspect of academic freedom.
  11. Eisenhower had suggested Professor Milton Friedman, the guru of free markets. Professor Galbraith laughingly recalled his response to that: "That would be like asking the Pope for consultancy on birth control"
  12. Inventions that are not made, like babies that are not born, are not missed.

Non-classified

  1. Where humor is concerned there are no standards - no one can say what is good or bad, although you can be sure that everyone will.

  2. If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.
  3. It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled sea of thought.
  4. Where humor is concerned there are no standards - no one can say what is good or bad, although you can be sure that everyone will.
  5. "It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled sea of thought"
  6. It is almost as important to know what is not serious as to know what is.
  7. Among all the world's races, some obscure Bedouin tribes possibly apart, Americans are the most prone to misinformation. This is not the consequence of any special preference for mendacity, although at the higher levels of their public administration that tendency is impressive. It is rather that so much of what they themselves believe is wrong.
  8. By all but the pathologically romantic, it is now recognized that this is not the age of the small man.
  9. In all life one should comfort the afflicted, but verily, also, one should afflict the comfortable, and especially when they are comfortably, contentedly, even happily wrong.
  10. In the choice between changing one's mind and proving there's no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.
  11. In the first place I identify this [continuing poverty] with primitive agriculture, and two factors have been at work there. One is, of course, population growth. If you were a poor farmer in India, Pakistan, or in much of Africa, you would want as many sons as possible as your social security. They would keep you out of the hot sun and give you some form of subsistence in your old age. So, you have pressure for population growth that is, itself, the result of the extreme economic insecurity. This is something which hasn't been sufficiently emphasized.
  12. Increasingly in recent times we have come first to identify the remedy that is most agreeable, most convenient, most in accord with major pecuniary or political interest, the one that reflects our available faculty for action; then we move from the remedy so available or desired back to a cause to which that remedy is relevant.
  13. It would be foolish to suggest that government is a good custodian of aesthetic goals. But, there is no alternative to the state.
  14. The contented and economically comfortable have a very discriminating view of government. Nobody is ever indignant about bailing out failed banks and failed savings and loans associations. But when taxes must be paid for the lower middle class and poor, the government assumes an aspect of wickedness.
  15. The happiest time of anyone's life is just after the first divorce.
  16. There is certainly no absolute standard of beauty. That precisely is what makes its pursuit so interesting.
  17. There's a certain part of the contented majority who love anybody who is worth a billion dollars.
  18. Total physical and mental inertia are highly agreeable, much more so than we allow ourselves to imagine. A beach not only permits such inertia but enforces it, thus neatly eliminating all problems of guilt. It is now the only place in our overly active world that does.
  19. The critics were asking that we postpone consideration of the causes of poverty until no one was poor.
  20. "I remember seeing these great long legs wedged up against the seat in front of him, and there was Ken writing his next book. I said, 'Don't you find these international flights exhausting?' He turned to me and said, 'McGovern, it beats farming!'"
  21. You will find that the State is the kind of organization which, though it does big things badly, does small things badly, too.

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book review galbraith the essential galbraith

One doubtless unintended consequence of the Cold War was the furious intensification of a tendency to cast competing schools of economic thought as virtual faiths; quasi-religious dogma battling for the monetary soul of the world while real religion waned. Notwithstanding the corroding and eventual downfall of Marxism, the differing sects of liberal capitalism would informally come to blows on the editorial pages of newspapers and in fixed bouts (pun intended) known popularly as federal elections. It took the sobering events of September 11th to remind us of the continued relevance and profound, historical volatility of real religion.

In the economy wars of the previous half-century, the (Ontario-born but essentially American) economist John Kenneth Galbraith cut a figure equal parts Savonarola and Swift. To fiscal conservatives, Libertarians, and the fundamentalist fringe in places like the John Birch Society, Galbraith was definitely the former. But it's hard to reconcile their image of him - a mad Keynesian socialist championing big government and punitive taxation against business and the market - with the patrician Harvard professor who began his career in FDR's wartime Wage and Price Control Office.

Reading The Essential Galbraith, a new anthology that surveys his career, one tends to encounter the Swiftian Galbraith, a dry and decidedly unhysterical thinker armed with reserves of desiccating sarcasm. Occasionally, as in "The Unfinished Business of the Century", the lecture that closes the book, one finds the moralist behind the imperturbable facade, the Galbraith responsible for books like The Culture of Contentment and The Good Society. This would also be the Galbraith that, alone among the bright young men sent by Washington to interrogate Nazi armaments minister Albert Speer before the Nuremberg Trials, regarded the astutely contrite war criminal with barely concealed disgust. Speer might have miraculously increased production under withering Allied bombardment, but Galbraith still saw a man who performed this miracle through ruthless use of slave labour.

This moral Galbraith has been the one best served by the editing of this compilation. In the early chapters, which draw from the meat of his economic writing, Galbraith makes a strong case for the inadequacy of poorly-divined market forces at addressing the basic needs of society. In "The Nature of Social Balance", from 1958's widely-read The Affluent Society, Galbraith describes the dilemma of states and municipalities that, unable to underwrite their own loans and at the mercy of transfer payments from federal authorities who can, begin starving their citizens of decent public services out of a morbid, politically-induced fear of taxation. To those familiar with the abusive tango between Ontario and Toronto for the past half-decade or so, it's a chilling passage.

Perhaps his greatest gift to modern vocabulary is the term "conventional wisdom", an idea that Galbraith regards as essential when dealing with economists and those professing fiscal wisdom. In politics, and even (perhaps especially) business, where authorities are often poorly apprised of the positions they regard as gospel, the concept of conventional wisdom is a guiding light: "An understanding of our economic discourse requires an appreciation of one of its basic rules: men of high position are allowed, by a special act of grace, to accommodate their reasoning to the answer they need. Logic is only required in those of lesser rank."

In his essays on Adam Smith, Marx and Keynes, Galbraith acknowledges the sad truths that render economics "the dismal science": the fact of constant change in social and economic circumstance, the seductiveness of conventional wisdom, and the difficulty in reading both accurate statistics and the future clearly. It's perhaps because of this that Galbraith's reputation is stronger as a historian and popular essayist than as an economist. It was his caustic but confiding wit - along with some fantastic visuals - that drove the 1977 t.v. series "The Age of Uncertainty", a PBS/BBC/CBC co-production that greatly impressed me, even as a twelve-year old boy.

Despite the much-heralded "triumph of the market", there's remarkable choice, but little depth, in the panoply of books and magazines on business, management, money, investment and economy today. Alone among Galbraith's younger contemporaries, Princeton's Paul Krugman offers a broad, skeptical perspective on the world of money. Yet, in his book Peddling Prosperity, Krugman feels obliged to point out that Galbraith was never able to author an economic treatise as influential as Keynes or Milton Friedman. Even John F. Kennedy, while employing numerous academic economists in his administration, saw fit only to make Galbraith ambassador to India, a post Galbraith recalls as "an often undemanding occupation".

A few years ago, Krugman wrote a pollyanna-ish piece on Enron for Fortune magazine, doubtless under the influence of the bright "new economy" moment that seemed so promising before the Nasdaq crash - that, and the $50,000 fee that Enron paid him for a bit of consulting. It's come back to bite him now, of course, but it illustrates how "dismal scientists" can become a bit more optimistic under the influence of "market forces" that aren't often discussed in economic theory. Doubtless The Essential Galbraith has been edited to excise similar failures of prognostication.

This does not, however, diminish the pleasures of the best of Galbraith's writing. One essay, "The Proper Purpose of Economic Development", might be useful reading for opponents on both sides of the recent, enraged protests over globalization. If any recent economic skirmish has been so freighted with conventional wisdoms, long past any ability to discern priorities or truth, it has doubtless invoked globalization, that dismal palimpsest of fear and hopeless jargon.



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