Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Liberal Economist

John Kenneth Galbraith dead at 97. When I checked the internet for news I found more international coverage than US. wrote about how Galbraith held a mirror to society. The Guardian UK wrote about how British Chancellor Brown paid tribute to Galbraith. Top Google News results also included The Scotsman, New Zealand's National Business Review, and Britain's Times Online. Where's the love, America? I had to dig for the ABC News link that I posted first.

I think that I first read "The Affluent Society" when I was 13 and working my way through every book in the house. I've had a soft spot for Galbraith ever since. It wasn't only his progressive politics that attracted me (and have probably had a deeper impact than I've realized), but his wit that I loved. In tribute to Galbraith's deep but playful mind I'm posting some of his quotes.
“It is almost as important to know what is not serious as to know what is.”

On Economics
“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”
“Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.”
“In economics it is a far, far wiser thing to be right than to be consistent”
“In economics, the majority is always wrong.”
“Economics is a subject profoundly conducive to cliche, resonant with boredom. On few topics is an American audience so practiced in turning off its ears and minds. And none can say that the response is ill advised.”
“In economics, hope and faith coexist with great scientific pretension and also a deep desire for respectability.”

On Politics
“There is something wonderful in seeing a wrong-headed majority assailed by truth.”
“There are times in politics when you must be on the right side and lose.”
“Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”
“In all life one should comfort the afflicted, but verily, also, one should afflict the comfortable, and especially when they are comfortably, contentedly, even happily wrong.”
“Liberalism is, I think, resurgent. One reason is that more and more people are so painfully aware of the alternative.”
“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.”
“The contented and economically comfortable have a very discriminating view of government. Nobody is ever indignant about bailing out failed banks and failed savings and loans associations. But when taxes must be paid for the lower middle class and poor, the government assumes an aspect of wickedness.”
“If it is dangerous to suppose that government is always right, it will sooner or later be awkward for public administration if most people suppose that it is always wrong”
“The great dialectic in our time is not, as anciently and by some still supposed, between capital and labor; it is between economic enterprise and the state.”
“Nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.”
“You will find that the State is the kind of organization which, though it does big things badly, does small things badly, too.”
“Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.”

What is Wrong with People
“Meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything.”
“Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”
“There are few ironclad rules of diplomacy but to one there is no exception. When an official reports that talks were useful, it can safely be concluded that nothing was accomplished.”
“The process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled.”
“The salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself.”
“The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character building values of the privation of the poor.”
“In any great organization it is far, far safer to be wrong with the majority than to be right alone.”
“People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage”
“The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”

On Leadership
“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

“Power is not something that can be assumed or discarded at will like underwear.”
Hat tip to The Green Knight for breaking the news in my universe.


  1. Just to set things straight from the beginning, I am a libertarian. Now, I would like for you to consider this fact: Galbraith was THE person who set liberalism on its path to destruction. For proof, look at the quotations you included in your post. They drip with contempt. His books and speeches were wildly successful. And through them, he taught an entire generation of intellectuals to despise Joe Six-Pack. During the early part of his career, Galbraith taught the liberal-left democrats to snap their fingers and laugh at the average American. In the movie Hoffa, Nicholson tells the DiVeto character – “Never slight a man, he will never forget it.” Americans did not forget the slight -- the arrogant flouting of Galbraithian distain for the ordinary American on the part of Democrats everywhere. Our political system requires two equally strong contending parties. The effect of the demise of the Democratic Party on the Republican Party is evident every single day. This will not change until liberals come off their high horse and come to have faith in ordinary people. I don’t look for that any time soon. In fact, I believe that after the Democrats fail in ’08, the political contest will be between the Republicans (who have moved far to the left, almost to the point of espousing every single principle of the liberal creed) and the Libertarians. These two parties have, not just faith, but trust in the American people, and they express that faith in every kind of way.

  2. Thanks for coming by. If you really want to get wound up I guess you could check my side bar for the Liberal Values Index. I can see that you feel Galbraith tipped over into the intellectual effete.

    One thing that I begin to wonder from your posting is - do you consider yourself to be an average American? Do you think that you have faith in ordinary people?

    Because you have accidentally tipped your hand. By attacking my viewpoint rather than asking me about it you have revealed that either you a) do not consider me to be an average American and/or have faith in me as an ordinary person, or b) have no faith in the ability for average Americans to think through things and make their own decisions. Isn't that curious considering your point?

    You have no way to know this, but I am one of those people who fits everywhere and nowhere. I can hang out with "Joe Six-Pack" or debate with an intellectual - leaving both of them with the feeling that I don't quite fit in but I'm an ok person. I've seen first hand the generosity of a desperately poor woman in Mississippi and the miserliness of a wealthy man in D.C. Unlike you I don't think that there is such a thing as an ordinary American ("not exceptional in any way" WordNet). Everyone is unique. Everyone is extraordinary. My frustration usually comes from the fact that we can't all discuss things together and come to some truth among us. Life becomes soundbites, platforms, and cautiously guarded beliefs.

    I'm sorry that Galbraith and/or intellectual snarkiness is apparently a sore point for you. However, if you aren't open to accepting others and working with their beliefs then you have have become a victim of the arrogance you profess to despise.