Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Reading John Kenneth Galbraith: Two Reviews

Over the years many an economist has taken a rather snide attitude toward John Kenneth Galbraith, as unsurprising as it has been unfair. Accessibility and popularity, two qualities Galbraith's writing possesses in abundance, tend to excite intellectual snobbery - and the latter, jealousy as well. The trend in scholarship being toward ever more minute specialization (as an outsider to the field I, for one, am constantly astonished by the smallness of the ideas which so often win Nobel Prizes in this area), Galbraith's inquiries ranged widely, and took on the largest economic questions of the day, a fact by itself enough to make the conventional disdainful. There is, unquestionably, his heterodoxy (sufficient to make him the "archrival" of Milton Friedman), and the fact that he expressed his heresies in language as pointed as it was lucid, doubtless to the rage of many an adherent to tradition. (The piety that technological innovation remains the purview of lone inventors was, in his view, "drivel.")

This is not to say that Galbraith's works are without their limitations. Quite the contrary, he was prone to overrate the power of ideas and of purely psychological rewards, and to underrate the power of vested interests and the prospects of material gain. Looking back, he certainly seems to have been far too optimistic about the robustness of the midcentury liberal consensus, and the country's prospects for moving past assumptions already outmoded in the Gilded Age. Nonetheless, his books did make real and lasting contributions to thought on the subject, his theories about such matters as countervailing power, the imbalance between private and public wealth in advanced societies, and the role of the technostructure in economic life, all very useful in any attempt to understand the economics of not just the twentieth century, but the twenty-first as well.

Now on this blog: reviews of what are arguably his two most important books, The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967).

Review: Twenty-Three Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, by Ha-Joon Chang
Review: In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, is the Key to Future Prosperity, by Eamonn Fingleton
Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy, by Joseph Stiglitz
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes
The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, by Thorstein Veblen

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