August 23, 2014 07:39 UTC

People in America

John Kenneth Galbraith, 1908-2006: He Influenced Economic Thought for Many Years

American economist John Kenneth Galbraith's most famous book was about the increasing division between rich and poor in modern industrial societies.
American economist John Kenneth Galbraith's most famous book was about the increasing division between rich and poor in modern industrial societies.

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STEVE EMBER: I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.  Economics is a field based on mathematics.  Yet it cannot provide answers to every problem.  Some people question whether economics is a science at all.

For many years, possibly the loudest critic was himself an economist, John Kenneth Galbraith.

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STEVE EMBER: John Kenneth Galbraith was an economist, liberal thinker, author, professor, presidential advisor and ambassador.  He. stood over two meters tall.  He was excellent at arguing positions and making complex ideas understandable.  These two qualities made Mister Galbraith a powerful personality able to influence people at the highest levels of government.

He was also a productive writer and an effective critic of many popular ideas of his time.  For some, he was an easy person to dislike.  He was very sure of himself and his arguments.  Yet, he clearly influenced the economic ideas of many people, including politicians and presidents.

Mister Galbraith published his most famous book, "The Affluent Society," in nineteen fifty-eight.
Mister Galbraith published his most famous book, "The Affluent Society," in nineteen fifty-eight.

BARBARA KLEIN: John Kenneth Galbraith was born on a farm near Iona Station, Canada in nineteen-oh-eight.  It was a long way from the East Coast of the United States and the political power centers he would come to influence.  He learned about politics from his father, William Archibald Galbraith, who was a farmer.  He also served in many local government positions and was a community leader. John once said that his mother, Sarah Catherine Kendall Galbraith, wanted him to be a farmer also. But she died when he was fourteen.

STEVE EMBER: Young John first studied agriculture at Ontario Agricultural College.  But he soon found economics more interesting.  His studies led him to the University of California at Berkeley.  He got a doctorate degree in agricultural economics in nineteen thirty-four.

In his early years, Mister Galbraith was greatly influenced by the economist Thorstein Veblen and his book, "The Theory of the Leisure Class." Mister Veblen argued that people gathered wealth for the purpose of "conspicuous consumption."  He meant that people earned money to spend on valuable things to gain respect in society.

Mister Galbraith said he was also deeply affected by the economic disaster that was expanding around him and across the country: The Great Depression.

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The Great Depression severely affected the American economy and society.  At the height of the Depression, at least one in five Americans did not have a job.

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BARBARA KLEIN: Mister Galbraith became an instructor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In nineteen thirty-seven, he became an American citizen.  He married Catherine Atwater, the daughter of a New York lawyer.  They later had four sons.

That year, Mister Galbraith also went to England to study under the most influential economist of the twentieth century.  John Maynard Keynes was teaching at Cambridge University at the time.

He had published the "General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money" the year before. Mister Keynes argued that deep economic crises required strong measures by the government.  He said large public works projects and government price controls were needed to increase employment during economic downturns.

STEVE EMBER: In nineteen thirty-nine, John Kenneth Galbraith began working for the government.  He joined the National Defense Advisory Committee in Washington.  He later was in charge of controlling prices for the Office of Price Administration.

John Kenneth Galbraith was awarded the insignia of honorary Officer of the Order of Canada.
John Kenneth Galbraith was awarded the insignia of honorary Officer of the Order of Canada.

Mister Galbraith held the powerful position of top price controller in the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  In nineteen forty-three, however, he was forced to resign from the job.  Later, he would say that he had been ousted by the politics of price control.

The same year, Mister Galbraith started writing for Fortune magazine, which was owned by noted conservative Henry Luce.  Mister Galbraith developed into a highly skilled writer.  Even his strongest critic praised his writing ability, even if they did not agree with what he wrote.

BARBARA KLEIN:  Near the end of World War Two, Mister Galbraith took part in the Strategic Bombing survey.  The study was meant to measure the effectiveness of the American bombing campaign against Germany.  He angered many people by saying that the bombing had done little to halt the German war effort.  He found the Germans had simply moved industrial operations to new places after the bombing.

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STEVE EMBER: In nineteen fifty-eight, Mister Galbraith published his most famous book,"The Affluent Society."  He argued that while private individuals in America were becoming wealthier, public institutions were growing poor. He criticized the American culture that he said was rich in goods but poor in social services.

Mister Galbraith also used the term "conventional wisdom" in the book.  This term describes an idea that everyone accepts as true, but is not closely considered or examined.

"The Affluent Society" created a lot of discussion at the time. Critics said the book forced the nation to reexamine its values.  It is still considered an excellent example of reasoning and writing.

BARBARA KLEIN: Mister Galbraith was also involved in politics, which was unusual for an economist.  He wrote speeches for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson during two campaigns in the nineteen fifties.  Mister Galbraith later became a trusted adviser to President John F. Kennedy.

President Kennedy appointed him ambassador to India in nineteen sixty-one.  Thirty years later, Mister Galbraith received India's second-highest civilian honor for his work to strengthen ties between India and the United States.

STEVE EMBER: The years working for the Kennedy Administration were happy times. But on November twenty-second, nineteen sixty-three, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson took office after the tragedy.  Mister Galbraith had good relations with the new president and became an adviser.  But that lasted only until the war in Vietnam became the biggest issue in the United States.  Mister Galbraith opposed the involvement of the United States in the war. He spoke about that time.

John Kenneth Galbraith with his wife, Kitty.
John Kenneth Galbraith with his wife, Kitty.

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: "I liked Lyndon Johnson very much.  And I respected him as a man who combined intelligence with a will to action--a wonderful combination.  And so breaking with him in the mid to late sixties on the issue of Vietnam was something I regretted very much."

Public opposition to the war in Vietnam caused President Johnson not to seek another term in office.  The issue of the war caused Mister Galbraith to become active in politics again. He supported the anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.

He even nominated Mister McCarthy at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, Illinois, in nineteen sixty-eight.  Mister Galbraith would later say: "I was more strongly moved by the need for opposition to Vietnam than any other major issue of my lifetime."

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BARBARA KLEIN: In the years after the Vietnam War, Ken Galbraith put his energy into writing.  He debated conservative thinkers such as his friend William F. Buckley, Junior.  And he continued to advise Democratic Presidents.

In nineteen ninety-six, his book "The Good Society" was published. It was an update of his book "The Affluent Society."  He wrote that his earlier concerns had worsened. The United States had become even more a place for the wealthy, or a "democracy of the fortunate."

In all, he wrote more than thirty books during his career. In two thousand, President Bill Clinton recognized Mister Galbraith's service by awarding him the Medal of Freedom.

STEVE EMBER: John Kenneth Galbraith died in two thousand six at the age of ninety-seven.  William F. Buckley said his friend was more interested in the social and ethical questions related to economics.  Mister Galbraith's books lack the mathematical and statistical research found in most works on economics. Yet they remain excellent examples of thinking about social responsibility and ethics.

One of his most famous criticisms of his profession was this: "Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists."

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BARBARA KLEIN: This program was written and produced by Mario Ritter. You can download this program and others from our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember.  Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.

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