John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard professor who won worldwide renown as a liberal economist, backstage politician and witty chronicler of affluent society, died Saturday night, his son said. He was 97.
Galbraith died of natural causes at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, where he was admitted nearly two weeks ago, Alan Galbraith said.
During a long career, the Canadian-born economist served as adviser to Democratic presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, and was John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to India.
“He had a wonderful and full life,” his son said.
Galbraith, who was outspoken in his support of government action to solve social problems, became a large figure on the American scene in the decades after World War II.
An unabashed liberal
He was one of America’s best-known liberals, and he never shied away from the label.
“There is no hope for liberals if they seek only to imitate conservatives, and no function either,” Galbraith wrote in a 1992 article in Modern Maturity, a publication of the American Association of Retired Persons.
One of his most influential books, “The Affluent Society,” was published in 1958.
It argued that the American economy was producing individual wealth but hasn’t adequately addressed public needs such as schools and highways. U.S. economists and politicians were still using the assumptions of the world of the past, where scarcity and poverty were near-universal, he said.
“The total alteration in underlying circumstances has not been squarely faced,” he wrote. “As a result, we are guided, in part, by ideas that are relevant to another world. ... We do many things that are unnecessary, some that are unwise, and a few that are insane.”
Prolific writer, theorist
In 1999, a panel of judges organized by the Modern Library, a book publisher, picked “The Affluent Society” as No. 46 on its list of the century’s 100 best English-language works of nonfiction.
“He’s an amazingly imaginative and creative and hardworking person,” fellow economist and longtime friend Paul Samuelson said in 1994. “There’s no day that goes by that he doesn’t write every morning, and it adds up to a lot.”
Galbraith also was known for his theories on countervailing forces in the economy, where groups such as labor unions were needed to strike a political and social balance.
Richard Neustadt, a Harvard colleague who also served as an aide to presidents Kennedy and Truman, said Galbraith demonstrated how “you have to empower people directly before they could fight for themselves.”
Galbraith, greeted by the Great Depression when he graduated from college, also had “much more confidence in the ability to work out of economic difficulties and do so with the help of government,” Neustadt said.
Galbraith’s prose won admiration at the very top. When he was ambassador to India, Kennedy enjoyed his writing so much that he insisted on seeing all Galbraith’s cables, “whether they were directed at the president or not,” Neustadt said.
After his retirement from Harvard in 1975, Galbraith gained fresh recognition as host of the British-made television series, “The Age of Uncertainty.” His book under the same title was a best seller, as was “Almost Everyone’s Guide to Economics.”
Among his other books were “The Great Crash,” 1955, and “The Culture of Contentment,” 1992. He returned to the theme of the crash of 1929 in a January 1987 Atlantic Monthly article that correctly predicted that year’s market plunge by citing the parallels of the two eras.
In 1988, he and Soviet economist Stanislav Menshikov wrote “Capitalism, Communism and Coexistence: From the Bitter Past to a Better Prospect.” The book is a compilation of discussions conducted at Galbraith’s summer home in Townsend, Vt., about socialism and capitalism. His 1996 book, “The Good Society,” outlined his blueprint for enriching America economically and socially, while his 1999 book, “Name-Dropping: From FDR On,” was a lighthearted look at his encounters with everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt onward.
“It is not usual for a man past his 90th birthday to write a book that is as fresh and lively as the work of a 30-year-old. But John Kenneth Galbraith is not a usual man, and he has done it,” The New York Times wrote about “Name-Dropping.”
At home in the world
Globe-trotting was a favorite activity of Galbraith, who spent time touring India during his tenure as ambassador. He wrote a factual account of his India years as well as a novel, “The Triumph,” concerning what he called “an uncontrollably funny institution,” the U.S. State Department.
From Cambridge to Tokyo, the 6-foot, 7-inch Galbraith was an avid reciter of dry limericks and pungent, outrageous humor, often at the expense of American society.
Noting that by the law of aerodynamics, the bumblebee in principle cannot fly, Galbraith once remarked, “If all this be true, life among bumblebees must bear a remarkable resemblance to life in the United States.”
He was an ardent worker, often hibernating for several months at his summer home in the Vermont mountains to do nothing but write. His secretary in his Harvard office would warn those trying to contact him — “on penalty of death” — to call him only between noon and 1 p.m., when he took his lunch break.
Galbraith was born Oct. 15, 1908, in Iona Station, Ontario, Canada.
After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1931, Galbraith moved to the United States where he earned his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California. He taught at Harvard from 1934 to 1939 and at Princeton University from 1939 to 1942, then worked in the federal Office of Price Administration during the war years.
Galbraith returned to Harvard in 1948, remaining active on the faculty until his retirement.
He was the recipient of the Medal of Freedom, awarded by Truman in 1946, and another one from President Clinton in 2000. The professor also served as president for a term of the American Economic Association.
Galbraith was married in 1937 to Catherine Atwater. They had three sons, Alan, Peter and James.