The life and times of America's most celebrated economist, assessing his lessons-and warnings-for us today
John Kenneth Galbraith's books -- among them The Affluent Society and American Capitalism -- are famous for good reason. Written by a scholar renowned for energetic political engagement and irrepressible wit, they are models of provocative good sense that warn prophetically of the dangers of deregulated markets, war in Asia, corporate greed, and stock-market bubbles. Galbraith's work has also deeply-and controversially-influenced his own profession, and in Richard Parker's hands his biography becomes a vital reinterpretation of American economics and public policy.
Born and raised on a small Canadian farm, Galbraith began teaching at Harvard during the Depression. He was FDR's "price czar" during the war and then a senior editor of Fortune before returning to Harvard and to fame as a bestselling writer. Parker shows how, from his early championing of Keynes to his acerbic analysis of America's "private wealth and public squalor," Galbraith regularly challenged prevailing theories and policies. And his account of Galbraith's remarkable friendship with John F. Kennedy, whom he served as a close advisor while ambassador to India, is especially relevant for its analysis of the intense, dynamic debates that economists and politicians can have over how America should manage its wealth and power. This masterful chronicle gives color, depth, and meaning to the record of an extraordinary life.
Perhaps only an elephant of a book could cover the life and thinking of so influential a figure as John Kenneth Galbraith (b. 1908). But this one goes too far. While Parker, an economist, writes with fluency and expert knowledge, he thinks it essential to write short histories of everything Galbraith was involved in. And that was much, starting with New Deal Washington, then the post-WWII Strategic Bombing Survey, Harvard, JFK's administration and an ambassadorship to India and, always, liberal Democratic politics. Through it all, Galbraith poured out torrents of never dull writings, of which The Affluent Society best embodies his combination of fresh thought, political acuity and polemical skill. He took on academic and political orthodoxies to transform the way informed people think about the economy, institutions and social justice. Despite its length, Parker's biography is a model of clarity on these matters. The author, who is altogether sympathetic to his subject, never shrinks from offering others' tough, and his own measured, judgments. Galbraith emerges as highly appealing, a man of sparkling wit liked by most of his intellectual opponents and deprecated chiefly by his hard-boiled fellow economists. While they'll long debate his contributions to economics, there's no denying, as this book makes indelibly clear, that Galbraith, has been one of the major American lives of the 20th century.