Campus & Community

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith dies at 97

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Harvard icon was former ambassador to India, professor, and author

John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard University, noted economist and author, former ambassador to India, and former presidential adviser, died April 29, 2006, at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was 97.

Influenced by British economist John Maynard Keynes, who believed government should protect citizens by actively intervening in economic affairs, Galbraith was a lifelong opponent of those who advocated a laissez faire approach as the cure-all for society’s ills.

He also resisted the transformation of economics into an increasingly scientific discipline based on numbers, formulas, and abstract models. His emphasis on other factors such as politics, power dynamics, and the dictates of human nature caused some colleagues to dismiss his work as unsubstantiated by hard evidence, while others celebrated his prescience and wisdom and his ability to cross intellectual boundaries.

“John Kenneth Galbraith was a towering figure in every sense of the word,” said Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers. “His ideas were some of the most important economic and political contributions of the second half of the 20th century. A Harvard icon, we will not see his like again.”

A best-selling author who continued to produce new works into his 80s and 90s, Galbraith was well-known for the wit, candor, and elegant prose style displayed in his prolific writings, which include more than 30 books and over 1,000 articles, editorials, and reviews.

Galbraith’s best-known works include “The Great Crash” (1955), an analysis of the causes of the economic collapse of 1929; “The Affluent Society” (1958), which argues that our consumer-driven economy favors individual wants over improvements that could benefit the public welfare; “The New Industrial State” (1967), an examination of the enormous power of corporations; and “Economics and the Public Purpose” (1973), in which he argues for a greatly expanded regulatory role for government.

His many works include two best-selling novels, “The Triumph” (1968) and “A Tenured Professor” (1990). Galbraith also wrote about Indian art, modern urban planning and design, civil rights, and American foreign policy. He was editor of Fortune from 1943 to 1948 and wrote for both economic journals and popular periodicals, including The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine.

His most recent book was “The Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth for Our Time” (2004), a cogent and witty essay on the current state of the U.S. economy, arguing that a conspicuous gap exists between conventional wisdom and reality regarding governmental versus corporate power.

A lifelong Democrat, Galbraith was active on the nation’s political as well as its academic scene. In addition to his support of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Galbraith organized and oversaw price controls during World War II as deputy administrator in the Office of Price Administration. In 1945, he served as director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which assessed the economic damage done by Allied bombs dropped on Germany. In 1946, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Truman for his activities in support of the war effort.

Galbraith campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and was an economic adviser to John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential race. President Kennedy appointed him ambassador to India, where he served from 1961 to 1963. Galbraith supported Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid and seconded McCarthy’s nomination at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He received a second Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 2000.

Galbraith was born Oct. 15, 1908, in Iona Station, Ontario. He earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Toronto in 1931, a master of science in 1933, and doctorate in 1934, both from the University of California. From 1934 to 1939, he was an instructor and tutor at Harvard. He became a U.S. citizen in 1937.

Galbraith taught at the University of California and at Princeton before returning to Harvard in 1948 as a lecturer in economics. He was promoted to professor in 1949 and in 1959 became the Warburg Professor of Economics. A popular lecturer, he was known for his mordant humor and his rare ability to captivate both experts and laypersons. He retired from Harvard in 1975.

Galbraith received dozens of honorary degrees from universities around the world, including Harvard, Oxford, the University of Paris, Moscow State University, and the University of Toronto.

A longtime resident of Cambridge, Mass., he leaves his wife, Catherine “Kitty” Atwater Galbraith, and three sons, Alan, Peter, and James.