Bio explores Galbraith's theories

March 19, 2005

This biography of John Kenneth Galbraith, America's best-known economist, tells the story of a lion of 20th-century liberalism and captures the intimate relationship of economics and politics.

Richard Parker's portrait of the dynamic Galbraith excels in both detail and scope. Meticulous in attention to the economic field, it also provides a sweeping, panoramic picture of the intense ideological tides that seethed beneath the surface of a turbulent century.

An unlikely public intellectual, Mr. Galbraith was a lanky 6-foot-8 with a bachelor's degree from an obscure cow college in Ontario when he stepped onto the Harvard University campus in 1934. Since then, the canny Canadian has been immersed in the great events that shaped the modern world.

Mr. Galbraith has been a major writer on economics and adviser to every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt. He has written more than 40 books, many of them best sellers, and well more than 1,000 articles, columns and op-ed pieces.

The young economist tried to help solve the farm problem for FDR's administration, and this began a lifetime of shifting back and forth between academia and government.

Mr. Galbraith disagreed with orthodoxy, which assumed that our economic system was self-correcting and that supply-and-demand forces would restore equilibrium and full employment. Mr. Galbraith considered such thinking a myth, that such a theory did not fit the real world.

With Mr. Galbraith's support, John Maynard Keynes' theory of stimulating demand by government spending flourished in the United States until the late 1960s.

A gifted writer, he aimed at a mainstream readership. His clear, epigrammatic style and his strong commitment to social justice made him the most widely read economist of his time.

The Affluent Society (1958) remains his major work. A social commentary on wealth and inequality in America, this classic is still in print. American Capitalism (1952) and The New Industrial State (1967) complete the trilogy.

"American politics has become increasingly polarized," says the retired Harvard professor, "around a conflict over income distribution." Free-market rhetoric is a cover story for misguided policy today, he believes.

This book will irritate or enrage some conservatives, will stroke the liberals, will be manna from heaven for political junkies and will serve as a guide to the evolution of economic theory during the last two-thirds of the 20th century.

Author Richard Parker, an Oxford economist, produces a brilliant work in the look backward at one of the towering intellectual figures of the last century.

At 96, Mr. Galbraith still answers questions and carries on "an unremitting guerrilla warfare for the public sector."

Freelance reviewer Robert Nash lives in Midland.

by Robert Nash, The Dallas Morning News