Return to opening page


John Kenneth Galbraith

Portrait of the economist JK GalbraithJohn Kenneth Galbraith, OC , Ph.D , LL.D (October 15, 1908 – April 29, 2006) was one of the most influential American economists of the twentieth-century. He was a Keynesian and an institutionalist, a leading proponent of political liberalism and progressive values with a gift for writing accessible, popular books on economic topics.

The Canadian-born author of four dozen books and over one thousand articles taught at Harvard University from 1934 to 1939, and then returned to the school in 1948. His book, The Affluent Society (1958), which became a bestseller, outlines how post-World War II America was becoming wealthy in the private sector but remained poor in the public sector, lacking social and physical infrastructure, and perpetuating income disparities.

Galbraith served in the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. In 1961, Kennedy appointed him ambassador to India, where he served until 1963.

Although he was a former president of the American Economic Association, Galbraith was considered an iconoclast by many economists because he valued non-technical political economy as opposed to relying primarily on mathematical modeling. His work included several books on economic topics (some of which were bestsellers in the late 1950s and during the 1960s).

His memoirs, A Life in Our Times (1983) revived interest in his thought, his life and times long after his retirement from academic life and occasional publication throughout his retirement kept his name somewhat current; publication in 2004 of a biography, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics by his friend and fellow economist Richard Parker, renewed widespread interest in his career and his ideas.

Galbraith is one of the few who were two-time recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, having received one from President Truman in 1946 and another from President Clinton in 2000.


See also


Galbraith was born in Iona Station, Ontario and was raised in Dutton. He went on to earn his B.Sc degree from the Ontario Agricultural College (then affiliated with the University of Toronto, and now the University of Guelph) in 1931, and then received an MA (1933) and Ph.D in Economics (1934) from the University of California at Berkeley. He became a tutor at Harvard University in 1934 before moving to become a fellow at Cambridge University,England in 1937. In the same year, he became a United States citizen at a time when neither the USA nor Canada contemplated dual citizenship, but he was honoured by his native country to his life's end and frequently adverted to his Canadian origins. From 1939 to 1940, he taught at Princeton University.

During World War II, Galbraith was America's "price czar," charged with keeping inflation from crippling the war effort. He served as deputy head of the Office of Price Administration. At the end of the war, he was asked to carry out a survey of US and allied strategic bombing, and concluded the costs outweighed the anticipated benefits and did not shorten the war. After the war, he became an adviser to post-war administrations in Germany and Japan. Galbraith served as editor of Fortune magazine from 1943 until 1948. In 1949, Galbraith was appointed professor of economics at Harvard University.

During his time as an adviser to President John F. Kennedy, he was appointed as U.S. ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963. There he became an intimate of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister, extensively advised the Indian government on economic matters; he harshly criticised Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British rule, as to Mountbatten's passive role in the partition of India in 1947 and the bloody partition of the Punjab and Bengal. While in India, he helped establish one of the first computer science departments, at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. In 1972 he served as president of the American Economic Association. In 1997 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 2000 he was awarded his second U. S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

On September 17, 1937, Galbraith married Catherine Atwater, whom he met while she was a Radcliffe student. They had four sons; their second son, Douglas, died in childhood of leukaemia. They resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had a summer home in Newfane, Vermont. Galbraith was one of the last living former advisers to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Galbraith, 97, died at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts of natural causes after a two week stay in the hospital.

Galbraith's son James K. Galbraith is a prominent progressive economist; his son Peter W. Galbraith has been a U.S. diplomat and is a widely published commentator on American foreign policy particularly in the Balkans and the Middle East.


In American Capitalism: The concept of countervailing power published in 1952, Galbraith outlined how the American economy in the future would be managed by a triumvirate of big business, big labour, and an activist government. He contrasted this with the previous pre-depression era where big business had relatively free rein over the economy.
In his most famous work, The Affluent Society (1958), which became a bestseller, Galbraith outlined how post-World War II America was becoming wealthy in the private sector but remained poor in the public sector, lacking social and physical infrastructure, and perpetuating income disparities.

He also critiqued the assumption that continually increasing material production is a sign of economic and societal health. Because of this Galbraith is sometimes considered one of the first post-materialists. In this book, he coined the phrase "conventional wisdom."

The Affluent Society contributed (likely to a significant degree given that Galbraith had the ear of President Kennedy) to the "war on poverty," the government spending policy first brought on by the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson.

In The New Industrial State (1967), Galbraith argues that very few industries in the United States fit the model of perfect competition. A third related work was Economics and the Public Purpose (1973), in which he expanded on these themes by discussing, among other issues, the subservient role of women in the unrewarded management of ever-greater consumption, and the role of the technostructure in the large firm in influencing perceptions of sound economic policy aims.

In A Short History of Financial Euphoria (1990), he traces financial bubbles through several centuries, and cautions that what currently seems to be "the next great thing" may not be that great and may have quite irrational factors promoting it. A common factor in financial bubbles is easy access to borrowed money for speculation.

Many of Galbraith's best known works are controversial to many economists, particularly to those of the classical liberal, or Austrian schools who disagree with many of his assertions.
He was an important figure in 20th-century institutional economics, and provides perhaps the exemplar institutionalist perspective on Economic Power.

Galbraith cherished The New Industrial State and The Affluent Society as his two best.


"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."

"If you feed enough oats to the horse, some will pass through to feed the sparrows." - in relation to trickle-down economics

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

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

"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."

"If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error."

"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."

(Having been asked how he managed to write so much) "I wake up early, have a good breakfast, and begin."

"Humility is not always compatible with truth."

"People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage."

"Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable."

See also

John Maynard Keynes
Say’s Law
Adam Smith - 1723 – 1790
Keynesian economics
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith