John Kenneth Galbraith is one of the most influential economists of the twentieth century. His more than forty books bridge the gap between academic economic theorists and the common reader, with witty, insightful, and accessible bestsellers such as American Capitalism (1952), The Affluent Society (1958), and The New Industrial State (1967). He is credited with having coined key phrases now in common parlance, most notably, ‘‘conventional wisdom.’’ His works include memoirs, novels, and art history books as well as the economic treatises for which he has made his name. Galbraith is a liberal who, in addition to writing and teaching, has played an active role in American politics. He has held various government posts and worked as a speech writer for United States Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as well as presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson, Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern.
Galbraith was born on October 15, 1908, on a farm in Iona Station, Ontario, Canada. His parents were Catherine (Kendall) Galbraith and William Archibald Galbraith (a farmer and politician). Galbraith graduated from the Ontario Agricultural College of the University of Toronto in 1931, with a bachelor’s degree in animal husbandry. He received a master of arts and a doctorate in economics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1934. From 1934–1939, he was an instructor at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. During this period, in 1937, he became a naturalized American citizen and married Catherine Atwater, with whom he had four children. From 1939–1942, he worked as an assistant professor of economics at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. From 1941–1946, during World War II and the post-war years, Galbraith occupied a variety of United States government posts, including the National Defense Advisory Commission, the Office of Price Administration, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, and the Office of Economic Security Policy. He also served on the editorial board of Fortune magazine from 1943–1948. After the war years, Galbraith resumed his academic career teaching as a lecturer at Harvard University from 1948–1949 and as professor of economics at Harvard from 1949–1975. During the 1960s, he also held various government posts—a key advisor to President John F. Kennedy and a United States Ambassador to India from 1961–1963. From 1967–1968, he served as national chairman of Americans for Democratic Action. From 1970–1971, he was a visiting fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge University, in Cambridge, England. He served as president of the American Economic Association in 1972. In 1975, he became professor emeritus at Harvard University. He and his wife lived intermittently throughout the year in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Newfane, Vermont; and Gstaad, Switzerland. Galbraith died on April 29, 2006, in Cambridge, Massachussetts.
Biography (Magill's Literary Annual 2006)
John Kenneth Galbraith is a monumental figure. Nearly seven feet tall, he served in major offices in the administrations of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. He was a tireless campaigner for Democratic presidential candidates and an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Born in 1908, Galbraith received international attention for his editorials and comments on the economic difficulties of the United States in late 2001. During his long life, the Harvard University professor produced a long series of influential books, including such widely known, best-selling works as American Capitalism (1952), The Affluent Society (1958), and The New Industrial State (1967). A worthy biography of Galbraith must also contain a political history of the United States from the Depression to the twenty-first century and a summary of modern economic theory and practice. With John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, Richard Parker has produced a worthy biography.
The political economist and representative of the U.S. East Coast intellectual elite did not receive his education in political economy and grew up far from the East Coast and centers of intellectual life. Galbraith, in fact, was not even born in the United States, but in Canada, on a farm in Ontario. There, as Parker points out, the future Harvard professor did have early exposure to his lifelong liberalism. Galbraith’s father was active in Canada’s Liberal Party, breaking with it over the party’s support for the military draft of Canadians into the trenches of World War I.
The later world-renowned academic began his own academic career studying animal husbandry at the Ontario Agricultural College. A fellowship enabled him to take up graduate study in agricultural economics at the University of California at Berkeley. While his doctorate was in agricultural economics, Galbraith took advantage of his time at Berkeley to study economics more broadly. One of his early influences there came from the writings of Thorstein Veblen, some of whose thoughts would later resonate in The Affluent Society.
In the fall of 1934, the semester after receiving his Ph.D., Galbraith managed to get a one-year job as a junior researcher in agricultural economics at Harvard. This tenuous foothold at America’s oldest and most prestigious university put Galbraith in contact with Professor John D. Black, an agricultural economist who arranged for Galbraith to stay on at Harvard after the single year. For the rest of his career, as Parker shows, Galbraith’s ascent owed as much to his gift for making influential friends who recognized his abilities as to the abilities themselves.
While at Harvard, Galbraith began writing on the agricultural economics of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the young scholar took a summer job with the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration. At this time, also, Galbraith became familiar with the work of John Maynard Keynes, whose General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936) revolutionized economic thinking and became the most important influence on Galbraith’s own views of economics.
A fellowship to study for a year in Cambridge confirmed Galbraith’s commitment to Keynesian economics, although Keynes himself was unavailable due to illness. For the rest of his life, Parker maintains, Galbraith would take Keynes as a model. In addition to following the British economist’s economic ideas, Galbraith pursued the older man’s commitment to public service and political engagement. Even in writing for a wide, nonacademic readership, Galbraith echoed Keynes.
In his discussion of Keynes and the role of Keynes in Galbraith’s work, Parker displays an impressive ability to explain complex economic theories for general readers, without oversimplification. Parts of the biography offer a good introduction to economic ideas, although it is an introduction that is clearly on Galbraith’s side in all controversies. Whether describing the Keynesian analysis of advanced market societies or contrasting Keynesian accounts with classical microeconomics or the later monetarist, New Classical, and rational expectations schools of economics, Parker leaves no doubt that he thinks of the...
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