He advised President Lyndon Johnson when he set out to create the Great Society in the 1960s. He was also an informal adviser to Indian economic planners, helping PC Mahalanobis shape the second five-year plan with the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in the 1950s, says the Hindustan Times.
The Great Society is no longer seen as an unmixed blessing by economists and conservatives who question welfarism. Five-year plans have been discredited.
John Kenneth Galbraith’s ideas have lost favour and his influence has waned, but the Canadian-born American economist, Harvard professor, writer and diplomat who advised Democratic presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton remains one of the world’s most famous economists, says the Ottawa Citizen. It calls him an "unrepentant liberal" and it’s absolutely right.
Galbraith was an economist with a heart whose primary concern was people and the reason we work — for security and well-being. That is why he believed in a welfare state which is now criticised as Big Government. Government has a duty to prime the pump and follow an economic policy that helps the people, he believed. Now that is criticised as state intervention. But why else have a government?
Galbraith was also appointed US ambassador to India when John Kennedy became president in 1961. I am surprised to find not a single article on him in The Telegraph, Calcutta (Kolkata) three days after his death on April 29 at the age of 97 at a hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A search of the Times of India also drew a complete blank. That’s a shame. Galbraith’s influence may have waned, but how can the ideal of a welfare state be wrong? Don’t governments everywhere say they want to help the disadvantaged?
In his best-known book, The Affluent Society (1958), he depicted a consumer culture gone wild, rich in goods but poor in social services. He argued that America had become so obsessed with overproducing consumer goods that it had increased the perils of both inflation and recession by creating an artificial demand for frivolous or useless products, by encouraging overextension of consumer credit and by emphasising the private sector at the expense of the public sector, says the New York Times. Today, of course, few people have anything to good to say about the public sector anywhere in the world, and the US economy is strong, the last US recession was years and years ago. But consumerism has led to globalisation and job insecurity. Galbraith was at least half right.
The Financial Times writes:
"Liberal activists who believed, with Galbraith, that economies neither could nor should be left to an invisible hand lost almost every major political battle of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet while the triumph of free-market economics took his ideas further from the political mainstream, they did not make them irrelevant.
Indeed, many of the dangers of untrammelled markets he had described in the 1950s and 1960s, not least the coexistence of "private opulence and public squalor", seem rather more obvious in George W. Bush’s America than they had been in Eisenhower’s or Kennedy’s. The return of an income distribution that looks increasingly similar to that of a century ago must make his work increasingly relevant."
Galbraith and India
India in particular owes a debt to him. He spent 27 months as ambassador. And, says the New York Times:
"When India became embroiled in a border war with China in the Himalayas in 1962, Ambassador Galbraith effectively took charge of both the American military and diplomatic response during what was a brief but potentially explosive crisis. He saw to it that India received restrained American help and took it on himself to announce that the United States recognised India’s disputed northern borders."
The US aid was not seen as an unmixed blessing. And after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, relations became strained again as India accused the US rightly of favouring Pakistan. But India sided with Russia, so I guess both sides were to blame. Washington at least sent some eminent men as ambassadors to India — Galbraith, Chester Bowles, Daniel Patrick Moynihan — and India returned the favour.
An amusing controversy broke out while Galbraith was ambassador in India. He was presented with a cat when he visited the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. He named it Ahmedabad, but later began to call it Ahmed, sparking protests not just in India, but also in Pakistan. He then decided to call it Gujarat. I don’t know if the people of Gujarat protested then. Some Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party activists protested when they heard President Bush’s cat is called India. They thought that was insulting India.