John Kenneth Galbraith

By: Mark Kingwell
October 15, 2012

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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  1. One of the great luminaries of North America. The best short tale he told was the time he served on FDR’s revue board in charge of regulating big business profits & having to listen to their reps pleading for exemptions. He would sit there listening calmly while rapidly twiddling the first two fingers of his right hand. Those bold enough to enquire about this were told a story of a party of ants that had found a tasty plle of bovine dung, which the ants rolled up into a moving ball rolling toward their anthill; upon seeing this lethal gift heading straight for her ,the ant queen rapidly waved her antennae to say”stop this bullshit!” We’ll never hear another story like that one in this century.

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