A Friend of the Left

John Kenneth Galbraith, 1908-2006

Arthur MacEwan

This article is from the May/June 2006 issue of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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This article is from the May/June 2006 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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When John Kenneth Galbraith died on April 29, Dollars & Sense, radical economists, and the left more generally lost a friend. Because he was long a member in good standing of the "Liberal Establishment," many on the left may not have viewed him as a friend. Also, although his writings were highly critical of both the operation of the U.S. economy and the dominant trends in the economics profession, Galbraith did not indict capitalism as a system. He was a "liberal reformer," not a "radical" economist.

Yet he was our friend in very clear and important ways. For Dollars & Sense, he gave us his support from the outset. When we were starting the magazine in the 1970s, he encouraged us, donated to the magazine, held a fund-raiser at his home, and gave us statements of support to use in our promotional mailings.

For me and for other young radical faculty members in the Harvard Department of Economics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was one of our few supporters among the senior faculty. It was not simply that Ken supported us in a formal way, when, for example, Sam Bowles came up for tenure or when there was a move to fire Herb Gintis and me for our roles in the 1969 Harvard strike. That formal support was important—indeed, it may have saved Herb's and my jobs (though Sam was denied tenure). But Ken's support went far beyond his role in these formal decisions. He invited us to speak to his class. He made sure radical perspectives were included in the American Economics Association sessions in the year (1969) he was in charge of the agenda for the meetings. And for me, and I assume for others, he wrote many letters of recommendation.

Ken's support for us was all the more valuable because he could have easily ignored us. Engaged as he was in national and international affairs, affairs of much greater moment than the political turmoil within the Harvard Department of Economics, he could easily have ignored the conflicts surrounding "the radicals." No one would have faulted him, certainly not us, had he simply paid no attention. But he did pay attention.

As the years have passed and the center of gravity among economists has moved to the right, Galbraith's economic analysis has appeared to be more and more of the left. A half century after publication of The Affluent Society, probably his most famous book, one cannot help but be struck by the focus on poverty and inequality that foreshadows many left concerns of later years. Perhaps most prescient was his focus on the lack of "social balance," the profound gap that existed between the country's private wealth and public squalor. With today's rising gap between the rich and the poor and the associated cut-backs of government social services, this gap, this lack of "social balance," is even more acute today than when The Affluent Society first appeared in 1958. Now, however, much of Galbraith's analysis might be applied on a wider scale, and perhaps it is time for the sequel: The Affluent Global Society.

Although his works have had a profound influence on how people think about economic life, Galbraith was virtually written off by the economics profession. Academic economists have given little heed to his ideas in recent decades, dismissing him as a "social critic" or "just a sociologist" and claiming that he was "not really an economist."

Such statements were utter nonsense. Galbraith made important contributions in many traditional areas of economics, ranging from his work on the history of the Great Depression and his writings on war-time price controls to his contributions on macroeconomics and economic development. His principal "sin," however, was to connect economic analysis to larger issues of social and political power. This put him outside the bounds of accepted discourse in the economics profession.

But his "sins" were even greater than an emphasis on power. In addition, Galbraith located many of our social problems-from poverty and inequality to environmental destruction-in the way markets work when unregulated by public authority. Today, as most economists genuflect at the altar of "free markets," Galbraith's ideas make him a heretic of the first order!

While those of us on the left found things to criticize in Ken Galbraith's many books, with hindsight most of those things seem quite trivial. What is clear is that in his ideas and in his actions, he was our friend. We will miss him.

Arthur MacEwan, a founder of Dollars & Sense, teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston.