John Kenneth Galbraith
By: Mark Kingwell | Categories: HiLo Heroes

He was very tall. Yes, the Canadian-born American economist JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH (1908–2006) presented an imposing six-foot-eight figure to deploy his massive erudition and quick wit. The large head, the face distinguished in youth, growing craggy with age, added to an effect of incipient gigantism. He was a tough, Scottish-rooted farm boy from southern Ontario, and looked it; but grad school at Berkeley, followed by a junior position at Harvard, polished his ideas and set him on the path of influence. Galbraith’s Keynesian proclivities and ties to the Democratic party — he served under Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson — made him an easy target for true-believer supply-siders and academics who resented his position as a public intellectual. But Dorothy Parker was right: writing well is the best revenge. Among Galbraith’s dozens of bestselling books, The Affluent Society (1958) remains deathless, a tour de force of elegant social analysis. Its Veblenesque tartness, everywhere underwritten by a sincere commitment to a better world, capture the special JKG voice. “To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man in his oldest and most grievous misfortune,” he notes there. “But to fail to see that we have solved it and to fail to proceed thence to the next task, would be fully as tragic.” The next task? Social justice, of course. What else?

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Italo Calvino and P.G. Wodehouse.

READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).

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Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.