JK Galbraith RIP
In this column a month ago the new Italian premier Romano Prodi was described "as uninspiring as only an economics professor can be." Readers may have taken this to imply that economics professors were, ex officio, boring. That this is not so was overwhelmingly and energetically demonstrated until his death on Saturday at the age of 97 by the continuing presence of John Kenneth Galbraith, professor of economics at Harvard for more than 25 years and emeritus professor thereafter.
Not that Professor Galbraith exonerated his calling. "Economics," he wrote "is a subject profoundly conducive to cliche, resonant with boredom." Yet Galbraith was the living refutation of that. Consistently in his lectures and writings he put great themes into the language, themes which lit up the study of economics for those who had never been taught it. The most compelling of these, which even a cursory daily look displays, was the co-existence of private affluence with public squalor.
A second, no less abundantly evident in this age of "must have", was the manufacture by producers of desires which consumers then dutifully come to believe are real needs. A third was the convenient view, so entrenched in the 1980s, that while the rich ought to be given more to make them work harder, giving more to the worst-off would only make them work less. Hypocrisy will sleep more sweetly tonight for the knowledge that Galbraith is no longer around to look down from his very great height and skewer it.
Yesterday's obituary is also an excellent introduction to the man who popularised that damning phrase, 'the conventional wisdom'.
His contribution to our understanding of the contemporary world was substantial. The degree of hostility he aroused was eloquent testimony to the uncomfortable nature of the truths he told, and kept on telling, about the workings of advanced industrial economies. He was not alone in believing that his intellectual stature matched his physical one. The world will be the poorer for his passing.
In the same paper, Oliver James is quick to annoint a successor: Avner Offer, professor of economic history at Oxford University and author of the recent The Challenge of Affluence. I've not had a chance to read that yet, but the Economist's sniffy review suggests that it's irritating the conventional wisdom in the right way:
The book fails to convince, however, both in its challenge to mainstream economics and in its interpretation of the historical evidence. Choices may multiply with the growth of affluence, but there is nothing new in the tension between impatience and prudence. Behavioural economics is now helping to explain the common tendency to procrastinate over decisions such as joining retirement-saving plans that would be in individuals' long-term interest. However, this body of work is best understood as a set of exceptions that modifies but leaves intact the canonical model of rational choice...