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John Kenneth Galbraith

By Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Edmund Burke once made a famous prediction: “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophists, economists and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” A few years later, Thomas Carlyle abhorred economics as “the dismal science.” The profession of economics has done little since to disprove Carlyle and to refute Burke. But neither Burke nor Carlyle foresaw John Kenneth Galbraith.

Galbraith was the tallest economist in the world. That reinforced the boldness with which he attacked the establishment and its “conventional wisdom”—one of those crisp phrases that he bequeathed to the language. Salvation, Ken argued, lies in the subversion of the conventional wisdom by the encroachment of disquieting thought. “The emancipation of belief,” he wrote, “is the most formidable of the tasks of reform, the one on which all else depends.” He was the Republic’s most valuable subversive.

He turned first of all to his chosen discipline—economics. He was born in Iona Station, Ontario, Canada, on October 15, 1908, and he began as an agricultural economist, doing graduate work at Berkeley and teaching at Princeton and Harvard. His objective as an economist was to produce a vivid and accurate description of the mysterious workings of the economy. Two men greatly influenced him, neither of whom he was ever to meet—the American Thorstein Veblen and the English John Maynard Keynes—and his project was to merge institutionalism with fiscal policy. FDR swept Galbraith—along with forty-six out of forty-eight states—with hot New Deal emotions, and in September 1937 Ken became a United States citizen.

His skills were not confined to economics. He was a wit, diplomat, politician, bureaucrat, satirist, novelist, editor, journalist, art collector, man of the world—and he took disarming delight in each role. I met him first as a Washington official fighting inflation and fixing prices during the Second World War. We discovered that both of us were born on October 15, though nine years apart chronologically and thirteen inches apart in height. The convergence in thought—I do not remember a disagreement— is the only compelling argument for astrology I know.

His brilliant deployment of subversive weapons—irony, satire, laughter—did not always please the more sedate members of his profession, but it vastly pleased the rest of us. Ken used the whiplash phrase and the sardonic thrust for several purposes: to reconnect academic economists, walled off in sterile mathematical equations, with human and social reality; to rebuke the apostles of selfishness and greed; and to give the neglected, the insulted and the abused of our world a better break in life. He challenged the national conscience with a series of thoughtful books, provocative interviews, merry rejoinders, lethal wisecracks. The Bush presidency led Ken to muse aloud that it had caused him to think thoughts that he never thought himself capable of thinking. I said, “For example?” Ken replied, “I begin to long for Ronald Reagan.”

In 1966 Ken was the first economist elected to this august body. It was a tribute to the elegance of his literary style. From 1984 to 1987, rising though the ranks, he served as president of the Academy-Institute. Two noteworthy things bore his mark. He intensified the pressure to drop the Institute, a sort of waiting club; everyone is an Academician now. And he rescued this building at 633 West 155 Street. A move had begun to sell the building and buy a house in the East Side of Manhattan as more convenient and easy to access. Galbraith set his face against retreat, and the move rapidly collapsed.

Galbraith was never less than opinionated, and his opinions were often deflationary and sometimes devastating. He was the militant of the unconventional wisdom. How, in view of the elegant unmasking of pomposity, hypocrisy, and shame, can we account for the broad and indeed ecumenical range of his friends and fans—from tall to short, from left to right, from Bill Buckley to Arthur Schlesinger (and Ken more or less induced those last two characters to be fond of each other)?

Within this tall fellow bristling with opinions there resided a rare kindness of heart and generosity of spirit. In Mr. Dooley’s phrase, Ken not only afflicted the comfortable but comforted the afflicted. In a quiet way, without fanfare, he helped more people, promoted more noble causes, sustained more fragile spirits than any of us have known, giving of himself and his substance with grace and concern. Underneath his joy in combat, he was a do-gooder in the dark of the night. There is another reason why Ken was so generally loved: his wife of 69 years, Catherine Atwater. Kitty was an intrepid lady, having stood up to Ken for more than half a century. Together they created a welcoming household.

John Kenneth Galbraith has left us, and the sum of human valor, wit, irreverence, sympathy, compassion, courage, and unconventional wisdom has badly diminished when we need them most.

There is a first-rate biography by Richard Parker, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005).

Read by Ezra Laderman at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 4, 2007.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters