Galbraith v. the Supply-Siders

Richard Parker, who directs the program on economics and journalism at the Kennedy School, has written a meticulous, meaty, and colorful authorized biography of a liberal icon, the Warburg professor of economics emeritus -- John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30). A sample:


It's safe to say that virtually everything about "Reagonomics" and the Reagan Revolution appalled Ken Galbraith....

Four months after Reagan took office, congressional Democrats were wringing their hands over how to react to his tax- and budget-cut proposals, but Galbraith wasn't. In the New York Times Magazine that spring he labelled the new Reagan era as what he saw it to be: the modern resurrection of the nineteenth century's Gilded Age. "The Uses and Excuses for Affluence" opened with the description of a lavish ball organized in 1897 in New York City. At a cost of $400,000 (roughly $4 million in 1980s terms), Mrs. Bradley Martin had had the Waldorf Hotel ballroom transformed into a replica of Versailles and invited several hundred guests to attend in period costume. In the midst of a severe economic recession, her ostentatious display itself was mind-boggling, but was outdone by the hostess's apparently sincere explanation for it: Somehow she had learned that the poor of New York were facing great distress that winter and her thought was that a grand party's exuberant display of enjoyment of life might somehow, if properly reported, lessen the burdens of those who heard about it -- and might also helpfully give direct employment to the legion of cooks, florists, waiters, carriage drivers, and dish washers retained for the occasion.

John Kenneth Galbraith
1987 photograph by Jane Reed / Harvard News Office

Supply-side economics was born that night, Galbraith dead-panned, and he compared Mrs. Bradley's ball to Reagan's economic agenda and worldview. This was Galbraith at his witty and polemical best, drawing out historical precedents, deftly deflating the pretensions of the well-to-do and the vacuousness of their defenders....

Reagan supporters quickly returned fire....Robert Nisbet, a onetime left-liberal sociologist turned neoconservative,...lambasted Galbraith in Commentary...: "More than anyone else I can think of John Kenneth Galbraith is the nearly perfect exemplar of American liberalism. No one comes close to Galbraith in the exquisite fit of his mind and its limitations to the essential theme and the varied idols of the liberal cause in our times." To begin with, Galbraith "was not and never will be noted as an economist"....It wasn't enough that Galbraith was intellectually inferior and a partial Marxist; he was, Nisbet added, a terrible writer, too....

The fact was, Nisbet decided, Galbraith suffered from the clinical psychopathology of "cognitive dissonance...a phenomenon characteristic for example of pre-millenarian religious groups," the woolly, wild-eyed sort that predict the imminent end of the world, then, when faced with its continued existence, simply advance the date rather than question their faith. The consequence of his preaching was that "through tracts like Galbraith's The Affluent Society the expectations [of Americans] multiplied and grew grander, ever harder to gratify," resulting in "social and moral chaos, reflected in the exponentially rising number of security guards, security dogs, alarm systems, and, of course, handguns."

..."Accused of many things in my life," Galbraith recalled with a smile, "I do not ever remember thinking myself responsible for social and moral chaos or an increase in handgun sales."

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