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JK Galbraith held a mirror to society

Galbraith lived in Cambridge and at an ?unfarmed farm? near Newfane, Vt. His death was confirmed by his son J Alan Galbraith.

india Updated: May 01, 2006 12:25 IST

John Kenneth Galbraith, the iconoclastic economist, teacher and diplomat and an unapologetically liberal member of the political and academic establishment that he needled in prolific writings for more than half a century, died on Saturdayat a hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was 97.

Galbraith lived in Cambridge and at an “unfarmed farm” near Newfane, Vt. His death was confirmed by his son J Alan Galbraith.

Galbraith was one of the most widely read authors in the history of economics; among his 33 books was “The Affluent Society” (1958), one of those rare works that forces a nation to re-examine its values. He wrote fluidly, even on complex topics, and many of his compelling phrases — among them “the affluent society,” “conventional wisdom” and “countervailing power” — became part of the language.

An imposing presence, lanky and angular at 6 feet 8 inches tall, Galbraith was consulted frequently by national leaders, and he gave advice freely, though it may have been ignored as often as it was taken. Mr Galbraith clearly preferred taking issue with the conventional wisdom he distrusted.

He strived to change the very texture of the national conversation about power and its nature in the modern world by explaining how the planning of giant corporations superseded market mechanisms. His sweeping ideas, which might have gained even greater traction had he developed disciples willing and able to prove them with mathematical models, came to strike some as almost quaint in today’s harsh, interconnected world where corporations devour one another.

Robert Lekachman, a liberal economist who shared many of Galbraith’s views on an affluent society that they both thought not generous enough to its poor or sufficiently attendant to its public needs, once described the quality of his discourse as “witty, supple, eloquent, and edged with that sheen of malice which the fallen sons of Adam always find attractive when it is directed at targets other than themselves.” From the 1930's to the 1990's, Galbraith helped define the terms of the national political debate, influencing the direction of the Democratic Party and the thinking of its leaders.

He advised President John F Kennedy (often over lobster stew at the Locke-Ober restaurant in their beloved Boston).

Though he eventually broke with President Lyndon B Johnson over the war in Vietnam, he helped conceive Johnson's ‘Great Society’ program and wrote a major presidential address that outlined its purposes.

He drew on his experiences in government to write three satirical novels. One in 1968, “The Triumph,” a bestseller, was an assault on the State Department's slapstick attempts to assist a mythical banana republic, Puerto Santos. In 1990, he took on the Harvard economics department with “A Tenured Professor,” ridiculing, among others, a certain outspoken character who bore no small resemblance to himself. At his death Galbraith was the Paul M Warburg emeritus professor of economics at Harvard.

In 1960, he was appointed the US ambassador to India. He spent 27 months as ambassador and clashed with the State Department. He fought for increased American military and economic aid for India and act ed as a sort of informal adviser to the Indian government on economic policy. He was known by his staff as “the Great Mogul”. Galbraith published “Ambassador's Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years,” a book based on the diary he kept during his time in India. He also published “Indian Painting: The Scenes, Themes and Legends,” which he wrote with Mohinder Singh Randhawa. An avid champion of Indian art, he donated much of his collection to Harvard University Art Museums.

First Published: May 01, 2006 12:25 IST