Friday, June 1, 2018

Remembering Galbraith's Economics and the Public Purpose

It seems that John K. Galbraith's Economics and the Public Purpose is something of a forgotten classic. Despite being the culmination of the prior two decades' of work, refining and drawing together the ideas he presented in earlier but still more commonly noted books like American Capitalism, The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State, and rounding out the trilogy begun and continued with the latter two titles; despite its being on the bestseller list for five months and its nomination for the 1974 National Book Award; the book appears to be less remembered, less often mentioned than those others.1

In fairness, Galbraith never got his due from his professional colleagues--his neoclassically-minded fellow economists refusing to regard his work as a meaningful contribution to the field. (As his own son James later explained, what such economists recognize as "economics" is essentially the surrounding of "simpleminded" ideas with clumsy algebra that the faithful applaud as "beautiful mathematics" and award Nobel Prizes for, and nothing else.)

It probably did not help that the book was not just analytical but prescriptive, laying out a program of comprehensive reform--not really more radical than what the West European welfare state had at its zenith, but all the same, rather further to the left than the U.S. had gone before, and plenty to make a Milton Friedman (and even a Paul Krugman?) foam at the mouth, the more so as he was not afraid of using the word "socialism" to describe his proposal.

Nor did it help that this last book came out just as Friedman and company were getting the upper hand in the debate, amid a sharp turn in economics toward neoclassicism, and in more politics, more generally to the right, that has continued down into our own day. Indeed, Galbraith's later work, while at times quite interesting (as is the case with The Culture of Contentment), in its diagnoses of the problem, and the steps that might be taken to correct it, was never so bold again. However one feels about his particular recommendations, that narrowing of the discussion, to which even a figure of his standing felt he had to accommodate himself, it seems hard to deny that this has been to our loss.

Considering all this I decided to repost here my reviews of the critical trilogy--The Affluent Society, The New Industrial State and Economics and the Public Purpose.

1. For something on the reception of the book, see Richard Parker's John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics.

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