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Sunday, April 30, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith ... 1908-2006

One of the few remaining giants of economics died last night, having lived a long and fruitful life. John Kenneth Galbraith was a school unto himself. His analysis of the post-war industrial corporate United States lifted a veil for many of us.

Galbraith was of a generation when economists mattered, and when economies worked in the creation of a broad middle class. Like the great John Maynard Keynes, Galbraith took an active role in government, particularly under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He was Kennedy's ambassador to India, where he provided immense and timely service.

It was a time when economists who grew from the Great Depression spoke directly and forcefully and insightfully. They were a cut above today's crop, among the best minds of their generation. Now we have market followers holding the coats of politicians and ideologues or calling down from academic minarets in half intelligible jargon that at its best applied to another time or circumstance.

The Nobel Prize in economics is made forever superfluous for never having been awarded to this man. The half-baked Rational Expectations theorists, the unimportant historians, the wrong mathematicians, and the Monetarist hacks have all received the Prize, but Galbraith never did. Undoubtedly this is because the Prize is awarded by a committee from the Swedish central bank, not as others by a Nobel committee, and thus is subject to the rectal myopia of bankers. But since it is only awarded to the living, it has now lost its last opportunity for relevance.

It was not only his theory and analysis, but Galbraith's wonderful writing style and the gravity and scope of his mind, which placed things in appropriate scale and weight and inexorably clarified his subject.

He was a liberal from his heart and from his mind, a man who knew economics as cooperation, not competition, as a building of society, not a scramble for the top. A wonderful, humorous, wise man.

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