John Kenneth Galbraith: 1908-2006

More than a magnificent stylist

Evan Jones

John Kenneth Galbraith died on 29 April (born 15 October 1908), only a few years short of a century innings. And compus mentis almost right to the last.

Galbraith was a phenomenon in his own right, an author of prodigious output, an almost unparalleled stylist on matters economic, and a major public figure.

As an intellectual he was an extraordinary if flawed talent. He was a 'big picture' thinker, with telling grand generalisations, but also a little too glib at times. The glibness was manifest in Galbraith's rather crude periodisation of qualitative economic transformation. In his The New Industrial State, the essence of each historical period was to be found in the key locus of power which emanated from control of the scarce resource - in turn, control over land, capital and knowledge. In his 1993 The Anatomy of Power, power is exercised through the dominant medium - in turn, force, economic coercion/compensation, and psychological conditioning. There are good ideas here, but the two periodisations are not entirely consistent and the historical attribution is simplistic.

At his best, Galbraith had a capacity to capture an evolving big picture and infuse it with incisive contemporary detail (the latter talent being rarely recognised). Such a combination was displayed in his histories (The Great Crash, 1954; Money, 1975). More recently, the combination was displayed in a masterly analysis of the Savings and Loan debacle in the New York Review of Books, 18 January 1990. The destruction of the savings and loans sector (roughly equivalent to building societies, albeit coupled with government guaranteed deposits) represents the defining moment in the venality and stupidity of the deregulatory thrust in the US. Galbraith sums it up:

Not before in our history have so many strong influences united to produce so large a disaster … Bureaucratic inadequacy and incompetence, perverse ideology, money in large amounts for the political protection of flagrant rascality, public lack of interest, and (for a long while) neglect by the press and the triumph of a hands-off administration, which relieved the presidency of any serious responsibility for ostentatious larcency - all these were present. Only now is the result in its almost unbelievable magnitude forcing itself on the public consciousness. The scandal, to repeat, will stand as one of the most appalling such events in our civil history, and undoubtedly as the most expensive.