John Kenneth Galbraith died yesterday. I spent several weeks earlier this year reading the Parker biography which I enjoyed (although it was surely a little prolix). He comes across as having been a surprisingly patrician character for someone who grew up in a small town in rural Canada – he enjoyed hugger-muggering with the powerful, and according to his biographer never once changed a nappy for any of his several children. But for all that, he was prepared to risk serious damage to his career in pursuit of truth, issuing, for example, a quite damning indictment of the Allied bombing of civilian targets in Japan when he was director of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey and might have been expected to toe the official line. He also showed himself entirely willing to break with political friends when he thought they were in the wrong. Whether he was a first rate economist or not (and he may very well have been; Brad DeLong for one has suggested that his contribution has been sorely under-rated), he was surely an absolutely first rate public intellectual, and genuinely witty to boot (Dan is fond of quoting his dictum that “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. “) Someone who will be missed.
(Incidentally, there is one rather peculiar claim in the NYT obituary: that
Mr. Galbraith argued that technology mandated long-term contracts to diminish high-stakes uncertainty. He said companies used advertising to induce consumers to buy things they had never dreamed they needed. Other economists, like Gary S. Becker and George J. Stigler, both Nobel Prize winners, countered with proofs showing that advertising is essentially informative rather than manipulative.
“Proofs showing” only works here for restricted notions of ‘proofs,’ and decidedly odd notions of ‘showing.’)