Galbraith was Canada's Keynes

With his focus on how concentrated power distributes resources, Galbraith in his most famous book, The Affluent Society (which sold more than a million copies), described a world of private abundance and public squalor.

The Toronto Star
May 3, 2006

Galbraith was Canada's Keynes
Thomas S. Axworthy

Lovers of elegance in thought and eloquence in prose are grieving over the deaths of Jane Jacobs and John Kenneth Galbraith in the same week.

Towering figures in their intellectual disciplines, Galbraith and Jacobs were also committed activists who fought for their principles in the cockpit of politics. Each spoke truths to power. If power refused to respond, both Jacobs and Galbraith would work within and without the political system to achieve change.

Pierre Trudeau was a great admirer of Galbraith and Galbraith relished the fact that after the then-prime minister told the world that his economics were influenced by Galbraith's latest book, the stock market promptly fell.

Galbraith wrote that Trudeau was "the only political leader ever to acknowledge openly, perhaps recklessly, a commitment to my economic views." Perhaps for that reason Galbraith also wrote about Trudeau, that "on any list of the most influential and charming politicians on the American or Canadian political scene in our time, he would be at or near the top."

Galbraith was Canada's John Maynard Keynes: a world-class thinker, a dedicated public servant and a lover of art, gaiety and life.

Galbraith was an early Keynesian who won a scholarship to study under Keynes at the University of Cambridge in 1937. Alas, Keynes suffered a heart attack that year so, strictly speaking, Galbraith was never his student. But his subsequent career had much in common with that great Englishman.

Galbraith did not create a unified economic theory like Keynes, but his contribution to the world of ideas is large. For Galbraith, the Great Depression of the 1930s was seminal: In a 1936 paper on Monopoly, Power and Price Rigidity, Galbraith explored themes that he would write about throughout his career — the lack of true competition, the power of industrial producers, the impact of advertising and the need for innovative thinking, rather than old formulas.

On this latter point, Galbraith penned the phrase "conventional wisdom," and in his last book, The Economics of Innocent Fraud, (2004) he continued to be skeptical about conformity: "Reality is more obscured by social or habitual performance and personal or group pecuniary advantage in the economy and politics than in any other subject."

Never a technical economist, Galbraith challenged economic orthodoxy by focusing on the power of concentration rather than the invisible hand of the market.

The real issue, he believed, was whether government or consumers could be a counterveil to the power of the large corporation.

With his focus on how concentrated power distributes resources, Galbraith in his most famous book, The Affluent Society (which sold more than a million copies), described a world of private abundance and public squalor.

This is a debate that is still raging in Canada as the Harper Conservatives opt for individual tax cuts rather than investment in child care.

Galbraith implemented his theories by joining the wartime administration of Franklin Roosevelt and from the 1940s on, his career zigged and zagged between academic pursuits, politics and public service. He followed his own advice when he told the American Economic Association in his presidential address that "Economics does not become a part of political science, but politics does — and must — become part of economics."

Economics is sometimes referred to as "the dismal science," but Galbraith was anything but dismal. His conversation sparkled as did his writing.

The Galbraiths loved gaiety: He and his wife of 70 years, Kitty, turned their home in Cambridge, Mass. into a 20th-century version of a Parisian salon. Dinner parties had artists, politicians, students, intellectuals and entertainment celebrities. The room rocked with laughter as Galbraith told anecdote after anecdote and the conversation could swing from the merits of Indian art to the history of his hometown of Iona, Ont., to the latest gossip from Ottawa, New York or Washington, to the considerable demerits of George Bush, Jr.

Galbraith never forgot Canada or Canadians. When I arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1984 to begin teaching at the Kennedy School, the Galbraiths were the first to hold a party to welcome the newest Canadian to the Harvard yard.

Some months later, as my daughter Michelle, then 2, and I picnicked on chocolate, Galbraith ambled across the yard. Seeing my daughter, he came over to the little girl and from his great height of 6 feet 8, looked down and intoned, "Michelle, you have a very dirty face."

My daughter looked up and asked, "Who is that giant?"

A giant indeed.

Thomas S. Axworthy is chairman of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Queen's University, Kingston.

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