Ignorance, stupidity, in great affairs of state is not something that is commonly cited. A certain political and historical correctlness requires us to assign some measure of purpose, of rationality, even where, all to obviously, it does not exist. Nonetheless one cannot look with detachment on the Great War (and also its aftermath) without thought as to the mental insularity and defectiveness of those involved and responsible.
Thus wrote John Kenneth Galbraith in his 1994 book A Journey Through Economic Time.
He passed away yesterday at the age of 97. Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1908, he has been one of the keenest observers of the 20th century. A profile the Guardian did in April 2002 called him the last of the old-style liberals. I will leave the Guardian profile to fill in the details. Also see the reviews of the book John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics for a fairly comprehensive picture of who the man was. For my bit, I will mention two things I share with Galbraith. First, his love for India. He was US President Kennedy’s ambassador to India in the early 1960s, a job he took because of his love of India and for which he turned down the position of being JFK’s chief economic advisor. Second, he received his PhD in economics from the same college as I did at the University of California at Berkeley. I walked the same halls and my doctoral thesis at the Giannini Foundation Library sits a few feet away from Galbraith’s doctoral thesis.
Among the great contemporary economists, I admire Galbraith the most. Something about what he stood for, resonates very powerfully within me. Some years ago I was paid the greatest complement I have ever received. I was discussing various prominent economists with Prof Irma Adelman at UC Berkeley. She, by the way, is one of the world’s great development economists. And I don’t say this just because she was one of my thesis advisors. Anyway, the conversation was long enough that I came around to asking her what how she would size me up. Without a pause she answered, “I think you are an old-style liberal, just like JK Galbraith.” A kindred spirit really and that is why I admire his writings so much.
With Galbraith’s passing, one era very fecund era of American economics has come to a close. He loved the subject of economics and was one of the clearest thinkers in the field. He criticized the study and practice of economics also.
“But, at best, change in economics has been reluctant and reluctantly accepted. Those who benefit from the status quo resist change, as do economists who have a vested interest in what has always been taught and believed. These are matters to which I will return.
“Further, it must be said, much past writing on the history of economic ideas has been aggressively dull. There are a significant number of learned men and women who hold that any successful effort to make ideas lively, intelligible and interesting is a manifestation of deficient scholarship. This is the fortress behind which the minimally coherent regularly find refuge.
“The foregoing paragraphs will suggest my purpose in this history. I seek to see economics as a reflection of the world in which specific economic ideas have developed .. . . ” [Source: "Economics in Perspective: A Critical History" (1987)]
John Kenneth, goodbye, farewell, and thanks for all the wisdom that you found and conveyed.