John Kenneth Galbraith was born in Iona Station, Ontario, Canada, on 15th October, 1908. He graduated with a BSc from Ontario Agricultural College (now part of the University of Guelph) in 1931. He took a MA in 1932 from the University of California at Berkeley and two years later a PhD in economics.
Galbraith was a disciple of John Maynard Keynes and a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In 1941 Galbraith was placed in charge of price control in the United States. In April, 1942, general price controls were introduced by Roosevelt's government. As a result, during the rest of the war, the inflation rate was two per cent a year, unemployment was virtually nonexistent and output rose by almost a third.
Galbraith also worked for the US Strategic Bombing Survey. Along with other economists such as, Nicholas Kaldor, Paul Sweezy and E. F. Schumacher, Galbraith had to assess the damage done to the German war economy by the allied bombing. He discovered that factories were back to full production within weeks of them being destroyed. Galbraith concluded that the bombing cost the United States far more output than it cost Germany.
After the Second World War Galbraith argued that the government should introduce a prices and incomes policy. He believed that this policy would result in full employment with a reasonable degree of price stability.
In his first book, American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power (1952), exposed the myth that competition between different firms in an industry prevented monopolistic exploitation. This was followed by The Great Crash (1955), an account of the 1929 Wall Street Crash.
In The Affluent Society (1958) Galbraith exposed the idea of "consumer sovereignty". He argued that large corporations invested large sums in the design, planning and manufacturing of a new product. To make sure that the product sold, they had to create a want for it. In other words, "wants are created by those who satisfy them". Galbraith also argued that the government should make large investments in education and transport infrastructure by using funds from general taxation.
Galbraith worked as an adviser to President John F. Kennedy who originally planned to appoint him as Secretary of the Treasury. After pressure from Phil Graham and Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy gave the job to C. Douglas Dillon. In 1961 Galbraith was appointed U.S. ambassador to India. He held the post until the assassination of Kennedy in 1963.
In his next book, The New Industrial State (1967) Galbraith continued his attack on the capitalist system. He argued that in advanced industrial economies it is the managerial and other experts of the large corporations who really run the system, "subordinating the activities of the state to their own goals of corporate growth and personal self-esteem".
Galbraith remained active in politics and worked as an adviser to politicians on the left of the political spectrum. He once said that: "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." He was also critical of communist governments: "under capitalism, man exploits man. Under Communism, it's just the opposite."
In 1990 Galbraith published A Short History of Financial Euphoria. The book looked at economic crashes from the tulip mania in Holland in the 1630s to the Wall Street collapse in October, 1987. Other cases include arrival of gold in Louisiana, the advent of joint-stock companies, real estate in Florida, and the economic activities under Ronald Reagan.
Galbraith published The Culture of Contentment in 1992. He pointed out that around 50% of Americans take little interest in politics. As they rarely vote, they are ignored by politicians. The two major political parties in the United States therefore concentrate on those who do vote (the "better off classes"). This group tend to demand that taxes are kept low and that they are used on programmes that help the contented classes themselves. As a result, only a small percentage of government revenues are spent on helping the underclass or repairing America's crumbling infrastructure.
Other books by Galbraith include Ambassador's Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years (1969), Age of Uncertainty (1977), A Life in Our Times (1982), Almost Everyone's Guide to Economics (1990), The History of Economics (1991), Nature of Mass Poverty (1993), The Triumph (1994), The Good Society: The Humane Agenda (1996) The Anatomy of Power (1996), The Essential Galbraith (2001)
John Kenneth Galbraith died on 29th April, 2006.