A giant's passing: remembering John Kenneth Galbraith

One person's intellectual is another's worst nightmare. Which is why John Kenneth Galbraith's critics are slamming his ideas, while others grieve his recent passing.

One person's intellectual is another's worst nightmare, which is why John Kenneth Galbraith's critics are stabbing at his ideas, while others grieve his recent passing.

Galbraith, who hailed from Ontario farm country, was one of those towering individuals (both intellectually and otherwise: he stood six-foot-eight) that history likes to remember by three initials. Still, unlike FDR or JFK, copy editors still put periods in J.K.G., reflecting his status as a lesser heavyweight. But when the gadfly of conventional wisdom (a term Galbraith coined) wasn't introducing the masses to economics or teaching at Harvard, he was running the U.S. economy for FDR, or serving as JFK's ambassador to India.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, though, Galbraith did more damage than good in his 97 years. Nobody has called for a burning of The Affluent Society. But National Post writer Peter Foster insists his teachings should be forgotten.

These are natural reactions. After all, right-wing thinkers accept God, but they struggle with the idea that his creation should rely on something other than market forces. And Galbraith was a key figure in an earlier establishment, one that believed in Big Government. He blasted America for caring more about gross domestic product than filling potholes and poor stomachs. But he was no commie. In fact, he gave the ideal economic system little thought. “My whole concern,” he told Canadian Business two years ago, “is how to move in a benign and popular way from shortcomings we already have.”

Ironically, the world has lost the last great defender of Keynesianism at a time when the global financial system is facing a looming crisis (see page 35), one the International Monetary Fund insists needs to be addressed by big-thinking policy-makers, not day traders.

Whatever happens, critics are correct to claim Galbraith got some things wrong. The man himself predicted he'd be forgotten: “I'm prepared to concede certain durability to John Maynard Keynes, but I'm not prepared to concede any particular durability in reputation to anybody else. Including myself.” Not likely, big man.