Sisyphus as Social Democrat

If there were justice in the world, John Kenneth Galbraith would rank as the twentieth century's most influential American economist. He has published several books that are among the best analyses of modern U.S. history, played a key role in midcentury policymaking, and advised more presidents and senators than would seem possible in three lifetimes. Yet today, Galbraith's influence on economics is small, and his influence on U.S. politics is receding by the year.

In this lively and thoughtful biography, Richard Parker sets himself the task of explaining Galbraith's career: why it was so dazzling, and why its long-term impact has turned out to be so much less than expected. The result is not only the story of a smart, witty, and important man, but also a fascinating meditation on the rise and fall of twentieth-century American liberalism.

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

That Galbraith's career has been dazzling nobody can dispute. Professors of post-World War II American history can still do no better than to assign his books The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State to teach students how the midcentury U.S. economy came to dominate the world (and what should have been done to make it work better). Anyone wanting to learn about the beginning of the Great Depression should start with The Great Crash; there is no other history of the stock-market crash of 1929 that is as short and even half as worthwhile. During World War II, Galbraith helped run the Office of Price Administration, working to square the growth-inflation circle by pushing production far above economists' measures of potential output without sparking runaway price increases that would threaten the economic mobilization. And after the war, his work on the Defense Department's "United States Strategic Bombing Survey" made Washington rethink the efficacy of its standard war-fighting policy -- staying high in the sky and dropping lots of explosives on all kinds of people far below -- although perhaps the rethinking did not go far enough.

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