Stupid ideas, and discredited economists keep rising from the dead.
Based on his book sales, John Kenneth Galbraith was probably the most read economist of the 20th century. From the publication of his first bestselling book The Great Crash in 1954 through the 1980s, the American left-liberal intelligentsia and media breathlessly anticipated and wildly celebrated the publication of each new book. Nonetheless, most technical economists, regardless of their political orientation, did not take his work seriously. By the 1990s Galbraith’s work had been thoroughly discredited among professional economists. Indeed, in his 1994 book, Peddling Prosperity, leftist economist Paul Krugman held up Galbraith as the prototype of a left-wing “policy entrepreneur” who, like his supply-sider counterparts on the Right, sought an audience among policymakers and the educated public, outside the cozy circle of academic economists.
In his book, Krugman ridiculed The New Industrial State, Galbraith’s magnum opus. He pointed out its wildly erroneous predictions regarding the evolution of the US economy toward greater dominations by giant corporations that were insulated from market forces . . . .
But discredited economists, much like disgraced politicians, never remain out of favor for long, especially after they have passed from the earthly scene. So it is that Galbraith’s reputation has been undergoing something of a rehabilitation in the past decade. Especially among those mainstream academic economists who are vaguely cognizant of the rapidly accumulating failures of their discipline in explaining economic reality, Galbraith is increasingly perceived as a misunderstood thinker whose insights were ahead of their time and whose work was too hastily dismissed.
For example, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen was positively elegiac in his appraisal of Galbraith, exclaiming that he “doesn’t get enough praise.” In an interview, Sen opined that Galbraith’s work would indeed endure and that his book The Affluent Society exemplified Galbraith’s “great insight.” . . .
Robert Frank is another economist with impeccable mainstream credentials who has a predilection for behavioral economics and a soft spot for Galbraith. He has argued that Galbraith’s position that the market economy systematically misallocates resources between private and public sectors “was right for the wrong reasons.” If only Galbraith’s training had been grounded in modern game theory, Frank contends, he would have been better able to defend himself against his academic critics.
Now there are probably various reasons for the burgeoning Galbraith lovefest among mainstream economists. But, I believe, the primary reason is the growing dissatisfaction within the economics profession with the transmogrification of economics into a hyper-mathematical, model-driven discipline that tells us exactly nothing about the real world, as the financial crisis has plainly revealed.
Compared to the arid and mechanistic “theorems” of modern economics, even Galbraith’s unsystematic and pedantic musings are a breath of fresh air, because at least they are expressed in English and make reference to real and meaningful phenomena. This is, of course, not an endorsement of Galbraith’s approach to economics or his various positions. Indeed far from it: rather it is an attempt to explain the unjustified accolades his work is beginning to receive from professional economists. . . .
Robbins did not think much of Galbraith’s mental acuity and dismissed him as a shill for New Deal policies, writing,
I knew Galbraith in the old days; he sat for some little time in my seminar. I must say I am not altogether surprised at what has happened; for I have always thought him a dull fellow, well intentioned enough, but a sort of pedant of New Deal economics — just the kind of man to upset the business community without himself bringing any startling administrative ability to offset the loss of that which he had antagonized.
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Meade was, therefore, in no sense a conservative or free-market economist and in fact could be classified as a Fabian socialist or social democrat in his policy leanings. Yet he viewed Galbraith in much the same light as Robbins. He wrote in a diary entry,
Later I dined with Galbraith and his wife at the Cosmos Club and then went on to their home in Georgetown to talk. He is the “relentless” type of radical, believes that Russia should be permitted to absorb Poland, the Balkans and the whole of Eastern Europe in order to spread the benefits of Communism, that the outlook for American politics is very black because even if the Roosevelt administration wins the next election the liberal New Dealers are now all a crowd of tired, cautious, conservative liberals etc. I think he may be a little embittered at the punishing experience at the OPA where there was a witch hunt against liberal College professors of which he was the main victim.
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In a review of books on inflation and the business cycle in the late 1970s, one of which included a book by Robert Heilbronner, Rothbard remarked,
Robert Heilbroner, like John Kenneth Galbraith, might be said to fall into the category of “popular economist”: that is, someone who knows virtually nothing about economics, yet manages to write a series of best sellers on the subject, read avidly and almost exclusively by noneconomists, who exclaim over the profundities therein.
Rothbard goes on to utilize Galbraith as a standard of economic ignorance, describing Heilbronner as “a lightweight, for he knows even less economics than Galbraith does and lacks the mordant wit (derived, if not cribbed, from Veblen) and the aristocratic life style of the famous opponent of affluence.”