Google Translate

Monday, December 14, 2009

Prof. Galbraith, the visionary

The most loved American of Indians and in his death India lost a good friend

Prof. John Kenneth Galbraith
(1908 –2006)

Prof. John Kenneth Galbraith, an iconoclastic economist, a teacher, a diplomat, above all a visionary who empathized with mankind, died on April 29, at the ripe age of 97. He was a Keynesian and a protagonist of political liberalism and progressive politics of 20th century America. His faith in government’s ability to build a welfare state reflects in many of his speeches, in which he forcefully hailed the role of government planning as opposed to economic freedom. It is his articulations such as, “The market cannot reach forward to take great strides when these are called for…

To trust to the market is to take an unacceptable risk that nothing, or too little, will happen” that surprisingly made the lanky and angular at 6 feet and 8 inches, yet imposing personality of an American–JK Galbraith – a darling of many young and old Indians of 60s. It’s a different matter that today many may accuse India of having not taken that ‘risk’ of relying on market, and ending up as a “permit-licensequota- Raj”; but no one can deny the need for governments to create “safety-nets”, more so in today’s globalized economy.

Prof. Galbraith spent almost seven decades of public life – as a bureaucrat, a diplomat, or as an adviser to many presidents or fearlessly firing cannons at Washington from Harvard as its Professor. His passion for and understanding of political liberalism can well be gauged from what he said about Franklin D. Roosevelt: “A singular feature of Franklin D. Roosevelt was his pragmatic accommodation to whatever needed to be done. If you ever hear a politician say, “I’m going to adhere strictly to principle”, then you should take shelter because you know that you are going to suffer”. His longing to be free from dogmatic ideologies and doctrinaire politics while researching for answers to political and economical questions is well reflected in his statement: “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under Communism it is just the opposite”.

Prof. Galbraith, true to his iconoclastic nature averred that classical economic theory was true to the eras of ‘poverty’ but not to the present, when the economy has moved into an age of ‘affluence’ warranting a completely new economic theory. He argued: “if the individual’s wants are to be urgent they must be original with himself. They cannot be urgent if they must be contrived for him. And above all, they must not  be contrived by the process of production by which they are satisfied… one cannot defend production as satisfying wants if that production creates the wants.” Being disturbed by the widening gap between the richest and the poorest and fearing that it can one day threaten the very economic stability of a country, Prof. Galbraith desired that the state should invest in parks, transportation, education, and such other public amenities. He lamented the back seat taken by “education, literature or the arts” in measuring the “human advance” vis-à-vis “production of  automobiles including Sports Utility Vehicles.”

Prof. Galbraith abhorred war, for in his opinion it represents “the decisive human failure.” He argued against the Vietnam and Iraq wars. He said: “wars are a major threat to civilized existence and a corporate commitment to weapons procurement and use nurtures this threat.” His concern and empathy for mankind and his international vision are rightly reflected in what he wrote in the guardian two years before his death: “civilized life, as it is called is a great white tower celebrating human achievements, but at the top there is permanently a large black cloud. Human progress dominated by cruelty and death.”

It is, perhaps, to drive away that “black cloud” farther and farther, he wrote more than 48 books spanning across politics, economics, memoirs and novels. His writings, to quote the New York Times, are known for: “his customary clarity, eloquence, and humor” that “cuts to the heart of what economic stability means (and doesn’t mean) in today’s world and lays bare the hazards of complacency about economic inequality”. Here it would be educative for us to hear from him as to what writing means to him: “one extraordinary part of good writing is to avoid excess,… next is to be aware of the music, the symphony of words, and to make written expression acceptable to the ear. … Never to assume that your first draft is right… And it is only in the second and third and fourth drafts that you really escape the original pain and have the opportunity to get it right.… I do not put that note of spontaneity that my critics like into anything but the fifth draft.” That prodigious labor made him “one of the most gifted writers… tumbling the tribal gods of both left and right”.

Prof. Galbraith is considered a great epigraphist – a sample of which can run as: “money is a singular thing. It ranks with love as man’s greatest source of joy. And with death as his greatest source of anxiety. Over all history it has oppressed nearly all people in one of two ways: Either it has been abundant and very unreliable, or reliable and very scarce.” This epitomizes his belief that “there are no
propositions in economics that can’t be stated in clear, plain language. There just aren’t.”

His unusual world vision can be safely traced to his student days at University of California at Berkeley – “a hotbed of radicalism” – that awarded him Ph.D in Agricultural Economics, which, to quote him, shaped a “certain tendency to question the official wisdom” that he later termed “conventional wisdom”. Driven by a faith that “social science should be tested by its usefulness”, Prof. Galbraith pursued that stream of economic thought which Thorstein Veblen from Stanford labeled as “exoteric knowledge” – “knowledge related to practical application” – instead of the “esoteric knowledge” which is more concerned with “mathematical expressions, econometric niceties”, etc., that have a tendency “to leave the real world alone”.

His immense faith in the power of the conscientious individual to act against the tyranny of the corporate power made him less of an economist and more of a mixture of sociologist, political scientist and a far-sighted writer. This side of Galbraith has no doubt attracted criticism from the likes of Prof. Milton Friedman: Galbraith believes in the superiority of aristocracy and in its paternalistic authority, he proposes that consumer’s wants be decided by those with ‘higher minds’. Friedman asserts that many reformers are averse to a free market.

The great trilogy of widely read and highly influential books – American Capitalism that pointed out the loss of “perfectly competitive” model; The Affluent Society which contrasts the “affluence of the private sector with the squalor of public sector”; and The New Industrial State which accuses “The mature corporation” that enjoyed “the means for controlling the prices at which it sells as well as those at which it buys” – penned by him, brilliantly profiling the America of their time, are sure to keep the legacy of Prof. Galbraith alive for generations to come.

- GRK Murty


Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Recent Posts

Recent Posts Widget