John Kenneth Galbraith has led an extraordinary life. The world's most famous living economist started teaching at Harvard when he was just 25 years old and has sold seven million copies of his four dozen books. One reviewer said Galbraith wrote "history that reads like a poem." During World War II, at age 32, he was named "tsar" of consumer-price controls in the United States, and he later advised three American presidents and served as ambassador to India. Now in his 90s, Galbraith is still active and has received 50 honorary degrees. All this was accomplished by a Canadian born in a tiny Ontario farming hamlet, whose major at an obscure agricultural college wasn't even economics but animal husbandry. Such an irony is typical of Galbraith's renowned iconoclasm, writes Richard Parker in his 820-page biography John Kenneth Galbraith.
Parker shows how Galbraith's irreverent views were shaped by the Depression, which helped turn him into a passionate advocate of Keynesian economics, the philosophy that inspired FDR's New Deal. Galbraith later became one of the architects of the expansion of federal social services after World War II. Because of his influence in successive administrations, readers get a fascinating fly-on-the-wall picture of debates and intrigue inside the White House during many of the major crises of the Cold War. Galbraith frequently played crucial behind-the-scenes roles that went beyond the duties of an economist: advising President Kennedy during the Cuba missile crisis, helping Lyndon Johnson write his first speech after Kennedy was assassinated, and opposing the Vietnam War, which became his most passionate cause. He later criticized the dismantling of government programs under Ronald Reagan and seemed to love clashing with conservative economists. Parker managed to sift through a mountain of material from Galbraith's long and lively years to distill an engaging narrative that, like Galbraith's own books, is easily accessible to non-economists. --Alex Roslin
From Publishers Weekly
Perhaps only an elephant of a book could cover the life and thinking of so influential a figure as John Kenneth Galbraith (b. 1908). But this one goes too far. While Parker, an economist, writes with fluency and expert knowledge, he thinks it essential to write short histories of everything Galbraith was involved in. And that was much, starting with New Deal Washington, then the post-WWII Strategic Bombing Survey, Harvard, JFK's administration and an ambassadorship to India—and, always, liberal Democratic politics. Through it all, Galbraith poured out torrents of never dull writings, of which The Affluent Society best embodies his combination of fresh thought, political acuity and polemical skill. He took on academic and political orthodoxies to transform the way informed people think about the economy, institutions and social justice. Despite its length, Parker's biography is a model of clarity on these matters. The author, who is altogether sympathetic to his subject, never shrinks from offering others' tough, and his own measured, judgments. Galbraith emerges as highly appealing, a man of sparkling wit liked by most of his intellectual opponents and deprecated chiefly by his hard-boiled fellow economists. While they'll long debate his contributions to economics, there's no denying, as this book makes indelibly clear, that Galbraith, has been one of the major American lives of the 20th century. (Feb.)
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