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The man who should have won the Nobel

D. Murali

John Kenneth Galbraith (October 15, 1908 to April 29, 2006). How should his epitaph read? `Economist who held a mirror to society,' as in the obit headline of www.nytimes.com?

Or, `By far the most famous economic thinker of his day,' as http://news.bbc.co.uk eulogised? Or, further, as the man who `popularised Modern Economics,' as www.washingtonpost.com chooses to remember him, instead of as `a renegade in modern economics', that http://cepa.newschool.edu labels him?

It's quite possible that Galbraith will variously be remembered as the Canadian who taught economics for long at Harvard, the US diplomat who served a stint in India, a towering iconoclast at 6 feet 8 inches, and so forth. So be it.

This is but a small attempt at touching base with a few of the many works of the giant in the field of economics.

"Galbraith has written 48 books — his latest, The Economics of Innocent Fraud, came out last year — that have sold more than 7.5 million copies and have been translated into nearly three dozen languages," states www.johnkennethgalbraith.com.

Popular trilogy

"He also has written more than 1,000 articles and essays for newspapers and magazines around the world over the past 70 years."

Wikipedia opines that his most famous works were "a popular trilogy of books on economics, American Capitalism (1952), The Affluent Society (1958), and The New Industrial State (1967)." In the foreword to American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power Galbraith fretted: "Not even the most unimaginative man can send a book to press in these days without wondering what the world will be like into which, after six months of gestation — three months less than a human but one month more than a goat — the helpless infant will be born."

Chapter 1, titled `The Insecurity of Illusion,' began on an interesting note, as you can preview on www.questia.com: "It is told that such are the aerodynamics and wing-loading of the bumblebee that, in principle, it cannot fly. It does, and the knowledge that it defies the august authority of Isaac Newton and Orville Wright must keep the bee in constant fear of a crack-up."

Galbraith likened the bumblebee's flight to the way the US Government was being run, "in defiance of the rules — rules that derive their ultimate authority from men of such Newtonian stature as Bentham, Ricardo and Adam Smith."

The Affluent Society is praised for its "accessible writing style, which makes complex economic concepts and arguments understandable to the popular reader," as www.enotes.com notes. In the book, he had asserted that economic theory should consider how advertising managed to artificially create `high rates of consumption to support high rates of production'.

Prescription for government

One learns from the summary on the site that Galbraith's prescription for the US Government was "a greater emphasis on sales tax over property tax; greater government expenditure on such public services as education and health care; and a national goal of expanding the `new class' of citizens able to pursue work they find inherently enjoyable."

The phrase `affluent society', coined by Galbraith was ironical, comments www.encyclopedia.com. Such a society is "rich in private resources but poor in public ones because of a misplaced priority on increasing production in the private sector," and the focus is on `trivial consumer needs, in part to maintain employment'. Are we heading to such a situation closer home?

In 1973, Galbraith wrote Economics and the Public Purpose, excerpts of which you can catch up with on http://lachlan.bluehaze.com.au. "Personal service has always been threatened by the more attractive labour opportunities provided by industrial development. It is also made more necessary by the wealth that such development provides," postulated a chapter titled `Consumption and the Concept of the Household'.

Galbraith was of the view that mankind has been trying to find ways to preserve it (personal service) or in finding surrogates for it or in devising substitutes.

Elusive Nobel

"The search for surrogates has led generally to women and the family. It has made use of a pervasive force in the shaping of social attitudes — one that has often been sensed but rarely described. A name for it is needed, and it may be called the Convenient Social Virtue." Importantly, the book discussed, among other issues, "the subservient role of women in the unrewarded management of ever-greater consumption, and the role of the technostructure in the large firm in influencing perceptions of sound economic policy aims," as http://en.wikipedia.org educates.

"Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists," is one of the many earthy quotes of Galbraith. Extremely human too, you can say of his works.

"Why Galbraith May Win the Nobel Prize in 2003?" postulated Mike Moffatt on http://economics.about.com, years ago. And the answer was: "He is simply the most famous living economist in the world who has not won one."

But the next statement was: "Why Galbraith May Not Win the Nobel Prize in 2003?" Because "his work is seen by many as being too mainstream, too political, and not academic enough in nature". Moffatt added wryly: "If Galbraith was going to win a Nobel Prize in Economics he probably would have been awarded it long ago." Returning to the epitaph dilemma. May it aptly be engraved thus, therefore: "The man who should have won a Nobel but... "

ZeroBase@TheHindu.co.in

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