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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