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John Kenneth Galbraith dead at 97

Liberal economist and activist, John Kenneth Galbraith, died Saturday night in Boston at the age of 97. The liberal PhD in Economics and author of more than a dozen books on sociology, economics, and relevant history has his obituary from the Associated Press listed below. However, the story does not fully pay tribute to his liberal credentials in life, so I've taken some time to pay respects and hopefully inspire Indymedia readers who are unfamiliar with his work to read some of his books.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard professor who won worldwide renown as a liberal economist, backstage politician and witty chronicler of affluent society, died Saturday night, his son said. He was 97.

Galbraith died of natural causes at Mount Auburn Hospital, where he was admitted nearly two weeks ago, Alan Galbraith said.

During a long career, the Canadian-born economist served as adviser to Democratic presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to
Bill Clinton, and was John F. Kennedy's ambassador to India.

"He had a wonderful and full life," his son said.

Galbraith, who was outspoken in his support of government action to solve social problems, became a large figure on the American scene in the decades after World War II.

He was one of America's best-known liberals, and he never shied away from the label.

"There is no hope for liberals if they seek only to imitate conservatives, and no function either," Galbraith wrote in a 1992 article in Modern Maturity, a publication of the American Association of Retired Persons.

One of his most influential books, "The Affluent Society," was published in 1958.

It argued that the American economy was producing individual wealth but hasn't adequately addressed public needs such as schools and highways. U.S. economists and politicians were still using the assumptions of the world of the past, where scarcity and poverty were near-universal, he said.

What the AP article does not say is that Galbraith also worked closely with the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. He was in charge of price controls during WWII, under FDR, and played an essential role in the reconstruction of Germany after the war. He was present at Nuremburg and interviewed Albert Speer and other key Nazi figures in the interrogations that took place prior to the war crimes tribunals. He also campaigned fiercely on behalf of Adlai Stevenson to prevent Richard Nixon, a man whom he maintained a war of words with in the press, from being elected. In his various essays, Galbraith regards the rise of the Nixon administration as a dangerous precedent in American politics. That view can hardly be argued since it was the Nixon White House that gave rise to the careers of Dick Cheney, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, etc. He voluntarily withdrew from the heady membership of the Council on Foreign Relations and frequently made fun of its membership in essays like "The Global Strategic Mind" in which he stated that if the earth someday should die in a nuclear inferno, it will no doubt be the result of "the global strategic mind that is drawn inexorably to any map..."

Galbraith himself regarded his most important work to be "The New Industrial State" in 1967, which argued about the increasing need for regulation of corporate power, saying that large corporations are essentially oligopolies that seek to work against laissez-faire market forces by restricting competition and taking power away from consumers. He also described the "farce" of shareholder power to check corporate officers. The books is so out-of-date at this point that it's current relevance is one of historical curiosity and personal vindication for liberal economists, who can find present day examples of Galbraith's assertions in CEO salary, corporate scandals like Enron, and unchecked super corporations like Chevron-Texaco and Citibank.

More interesting historical contributions from Galbraith are those books that were written on past events in economics, such as "The Great Crash (of 1929)" which today remains THE essential literature on the topic as it goes into the events of the roaring 20s that led up to the crash. The book remains a must for anybody with money in the stock market or concern about a housing bubble, as it describes perfectly a psychology of greed that is evident today. Another book, "Economics In Perspective: A Critical History," makes for a fascinating read and objective introduction to the subject of modern economics in this day and age.

Galbraith did not shy away from social commentary either, with books such as "The Nature of Mass Poverty" and "The Voice of the Poor." In his essays he would write that the risk that some recipients of welfare would abuse the system was a given, but no different and less costly than rich people who abuse the system through tax-evasion and government corruption. He decried a society in which "the poor must be made to work" for subsistence in an era of economic abundance. A UC Berkeley schooled professor who would end his career as Professor Emeritus at Harvard, he was profoundly influenced by the works of Thorstein Veblen, and his works were as much a critique of American bourgeoisie in the 20th Century as Veblen's was of the 19th Century "leisure class." Galbraith also took interest in, as suggested by the title of his book, "The Culture of Contentment", how middle class America had been lulled into a state of political apathy by the late 1980s.

The last category of Galbraith's significant contributions in print pertains to politics as it interacts with economics. "The Anatomy of Power" is as essential and understanding to modern state-craft as Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince" was to monarchy in the 14th Century. This book is a must-read for all activists seeking to understand how to manage resource and rhetoric for their cause.

Galbraith's legacy as one of the intellectuals behind the scenes of many New Deal programs and as a highly influential champion for the rights of the lower classes in society should be an inspiration to progressives everywhere.