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The Age of Uncertainty

Nader Rahman

John Kenneth Galbraith died on 29 April, 2006 at the age of 97, his life and works were almost as gargantuan as the man himself. For a man who stood six feet eight inches tall it was difficult to avoid looking down on others, ironically not the best trait for an economist. He was anything but modest, his ego has been often compared to his size, for all that it was worth he was larger than life. Economist, teacher, writer, diplomat and Democrat, he was the ultimate liberal icon.

John Kenneth Galbraith

He was born and brought up in Ontario, Canada. He graduated from Ontario Agricultural College and then proceeded to Berkley where he completed his Masters and Ph.D in Economics. Following that he taught briefly at Harvard and went on a fellowship to Cambridge. It was there that he was heavily influenced by John Maynard Keynes. Keynes believed that the government should protect its citizens by actively intervening in economic affairs. It was from his time in England and exposure to Keynes that made Galbraith a lifelong opponent of those who advocated a laissez faire approach as the cure-all for society's ills. He came back and taught briefly at Princeton after which he served as deputy head of the Office of Price Administration during World War II. It gave him possibly the most powerful civilian role in wartime America. Galbraith became America's "price czar," charged with keeping inflation from crippling the war effort. This was the first in a number of influential posts he would hold, thereby also starting his political career. In 1946 President Truman awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, for his services during the war. After a brief spell as editor of Fortune, he went back to Harvard and taught there till 1975. President Clinton honoured him with his second Medal of Freedom in 2000, thus becoming one of only a handful of people who won the award twice.

Galbraith campaigned with Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, was an economic adviser to Senator John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential race, and from 1961 to 1963 also served as Kennedy's ambassador to India. He was one of the first people who foresaw and, in some ways, shaped India's economic dominance in Asia. As ambassador he became very friendly with Jawaharlal Nehru and extensively advised the Indian government. His fascination with India lasted his entire life, in fact he organised a lunch with all outgoing Indian graduates of Harvard, as well as writing a book on Indian art. He also helped set up one of the first computer science departments at the Institute of Indian Technology in Kanpur. Galbraith was even awarded the Padma Vibhushan India's second highest civilian honor.

Politically the 60s was a landmark decade for him. From being touted as the possible representative to the UN for America, he soon fell out with Kennedy's successor Lyndon B. Johnson and was chair of Americans for Democratic Action, an anti-war organisation. He next supported Senator Eugene McCarthy's failed bid for the presidency, helping to put his name in for nomination at the Democratic Convention in 1968. He was an early and continuing opponent of the Vietnam War. Galbraith was also made the president of the American Economic Association in 1972. As he grew older he turned down many different posts, but still held the position of Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard University till he died.

What made Galbraith great was his power to explain Economics to the layperson. Galbraith was well-known for the wit, candor, and elegant prose style displayed in his prolific writings, which include more than 30 books and over 1,000 articles, editorials, and reviews. He was one of the most widely read authors in the history of economics; among his 33 books was "The Affluent Society" (1958), one of those rare works that forces a nation to re-examine its values. He wrote fluidly, even on complex topics, and many of his compelling phrases among them "the affluent society," "conventional wisdom" and "countervailing power" became part of the language.

"The Affluent Society" (1958), argued that overproduction of consumer goods was harming the public sector and depriving Americans of such benefits as clean air, clean streets, good schools and support for the arts. The book was soon a bestseller, and it sparked an international debate. It was also criticised as were many of his economic theories because he failed to define some key terms. Apart from that, many of his theories never really got academic recognition, because of his lack of mathematical proof. To him economics was to be taught and understood, not necessarily proved through the use of arithmetic. This has been one of his major stumbling blocks, it has been said that because of the lack of mathematical proof to his economic models, he has never been given the Nobel Prize, although he was nominated in 2003.

He lamented what he believed was an excessive accumulation of private wealth at the expense of public needs, and he warned that an unfettered free market system and capitalism without regulation would fail to meet basic social demands. This was echoed in "The Affluent Society". "The New Industrial State" (1967), is an examination of the enormous power of corporations; and "Economics and the Public Purpose" (1973), is where he argues for a greatly expanded regulatory role for government. These three books were very loosely a trilogy based on his original hypothesis which was strongly influenced by Keynes.

He even penned a few novels. One of them "A Tenured Professor"(1990) was a bestseller. An earlier work of fiction of his was "The Triumph", it was a thinly veiled attack on the State Department. His countless works include the 13 part documentary "The Age of Uncertainty" which was then turned into another bestselling book. He was a prolific writer and wrote till the age of 95 when he brought out his last book "The Economics of Innocent Fraud". Other notable works include "The Nature of Mass Poverty" (1979), "The Anatomy of Power" (1983) and "Name Dropping" (1999).

After all said and done John Kenneth Galbraith was nothing less than an economic pop star. His views were radical and his theories seemed only to shock. He strived to change the very texture of national conversation about power and its nature in the modern world by explaining how the planning of giant corporations superseded market mechanisms. His sweeping ideas, might have gained even greater traction had he developed disciples willing and able to prove them with mathematical models. That was seemingly his greatest regret in life. He was the only man ever to have served under the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He was also the man who said "communicating through the State Department was like trying to have sexual intercourse through the blanket." He was a man of great wit and intellect, maybe in the end all he really lacked was "conventional wisdom". That may have made him a household name, rather than an economic heretic.

He was a person who saw two world wars, the great depression, the cold war, and America's rise to economic superstardom. The last hundred years have been possibly the most important in the history of human civilisation, and through this "age of uncertainty" he has contributed more to society that most people would have done in a few lifetimes. He will be remembered as the greatest liberal economist who, through his writings tried to change the way the world thought. Some might say he succeeded.


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