The people's economist
John Kenneth Galbraith, enemy of inequality, left a lasting legacy of economic thought and social commentary.
By Jon Gertner, FORTUNE

(FORTUNE Magazine) - One of the last in-depth interviews John Kenneth Galbraith ever did was with a reporter - actually, with me - for MONEY magazine, FORTUNE's sister publication, just a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

We met in his home in Cambridge, Mass., in an upstairs study, on a stifling late-summer day. His wife, Catherine, brought us glasses of ice water as Galbraith folded his 6-foot 8-inch frame into a padded armchair. A basket of prescription-drug vials had been placed nearby. At 92, Galbraith still spoke clearly. But with pauses. Frequent pauses.

John Kenneth Galbraith
John Kenneth Galbraith

Walking back from his house to Harvard Square, I wasn't sure how well the interview had turned out. He'd answered all my questions, sure - on everything from the economic impact of terrorism to his years as an ambassador to India to his early days, from 1943 to 1948, as an editor and writer at this magazine. (There were apparently some very good parties.) But there were so many interruptions in his responses. So many pauses.

Then I listened to the tape. I heard long sentences, curlicues of speech that spiraled and turned with elegance and wit, only to make a point at the last possible instant - just like his writing. The pauses briefly interrupted his rhetoric but not his arguments. And as usual, those arguments had a strong moral component.

It has been pointed out since Galbraith's death in April at age 97 that he was never viewed as an economist's economist. On the shortlist of the last century's most influential thinkers - John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, Paul Samuelson, and Gary Becker, among others - he doesn't hold a place. Yet this misses the point: Galbraith is on a different shortlist.

His most durable insights were in the realm of social commentary, informed by an understanding of market behavior, global history, and his own service in government. That's what made Galbraith worth reading. He was proven wrong by some colleagues on his interpretation of various economic phenomena.

But he was right to call attention to the power of the modern corporation, the gaps between rich and poor, and the risks inherent in a market system unchecked by the hand of government. And his message was rendered all the more effective by his deft writing style and dry wit.

"It is sometimes said that the economist has a special obligation to make himself understood because his subject is of such great and popular importance," he wrote in a defense of economists as writers, published in the December 1962 issue of FORTUNE. "By this rule the nuclear physicist would have to speak in monosyllables."

Galbraith was steadfast in his liberalism and a frequent critic of our corporate culture. Yet he also called attention to the great achievements of American business in the 20th century. Never in his wildest moments of optimism, he told me, did he envision the kind of economic growth the U.S. enjoyed in the years after World War II.

Moreover, to be an enemy of inequality, as Galbraith certainly was, is not to be an enemy of wealth. He followed the stock market with keen enthusiasm every day into his 90s. He had a grand Victorian pile in Cambridge and a gentleman's farm in Vermont, and he took ski vacations in Switzerland.

"Wealth is not without its advantages, and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive," began his most famous book, "The Affluent Society."

His point was never that wealth was bad. His point was that poverty in a country of unimaginable riches was something that should trouble us. I asked that day about his greatest hope for America. "My greatest hope would be for a more equitably rewarded people," he replied. Then he paused again and quickly added, "From the bottom up."

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