Born of Scottish descent in 1908 and raised in Canada, John Kenneth Galbraith rose to becoming an eminent economist, who garnered a name for himself for striding off the path of strict neoclassical economics onto a more holistic form which incorporated the social and political aspect of it. After having grown up on a farm he went on to get his Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Economics which was later followed by a doctorate degree from Berkeley in 1934. In 1938, he went on to Washington to work for New Deal, where he became the “price czar” whereby he presided over the Office of Price Administration during the wartime era. Following this he entered the realm of writing by joining Fortune Magazine, where he sought to disseminate much of Keynes’, his intellectual predecessor, work to a wider audience only to return to Harvard, much to the chagrin of the right wing trustees, in 1949.
One of the reasons for his fame in America as the most sought after economist is his candid take on America’s political scene and its capitalist structure, also a reason for why his writing is equally controversial. He penned many bestsellers broaching these social issues namely the possible dangers of deregulated markets, corporate greed and excessive spending on military all of which were deemed to be at that core of the American system. Among some of his prized works are “American Capitalism” (1952), “The Affluent Society” (1958) and “New Industrial State” (1967). His bone of contention with the foremost economists of the 20th century was their utter focus on theoretical economics that was ground firmly in mathematical models and relied on an idealized society of perfect competition. He also castigated this method as having no basis in reality since the rationality assumption in economics does away with any behavior that does not fit the model, making the market work like a well-oiled machine whereas the reality tends to be a lot messier. This is where Galbraith found his niche by pointing out the essential role politicking played in economics which thus rendered the theoretical framework impotent in explaining the complete working of markets. Another aspect considered as having a detrimental impact on economics was the reigning ideas of the society at large which he termed “conventional wisdom” and how this was regarded as instrumental in dictating the terms of trade.
Galbraith was one to challenge what he termed the “conventional wisdom” and he was not afraid to assert his opinion regarding different American policies at Kennedy’s time, whom he had known since his college days. He wrote copiously to him on matters regarding the need to placate the Soviet Union, America’s policy in Asia and the proportion of public expenditure on military. His tirade continued with Kennedy’s successors on managing America’s wealth and power which he referred to as the nation’s “private wealth and public squalor” and he openly denounced Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam war. Galbraith’s thought and vision eventually prevailed when he was elected president of the American Economic Association and he sought to organizing panel discussions on topics heretofore ignored like poverty, inequality and race. This was a departure from tradition of focusing on mathematical models and theoretical frameworks to one of putting in limelight pressing social concerns. It paved the way for answering institutional and structural questions of economics which were at the core of Galbraith’s theory. Galbraith is regarded as America’s Great Liberal Economist for he embodied a liberal creed of economics which the status quo at that time was devoid of.