People: Scots of Windsor's Past
John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006):
"He strived to change the very texture of the national conversation about power and its nature in the modern world."
~ New York Times [30 April 2006]
Who ever could have guessed that one of the twentieth century's greatest minds would come out of the little Highland Scottish community in Colonel Talbot's Lake Erie settlement? John Kenneth Galbraith was born in Iona Station, a small rural community in Elgin County, Ontario, to Sarah Catherine Kendall and Archibald Galbraith, both children of Scottish immigrants. Sarah was a political activist for the United Farmers of Ontario, while Archie taught school and tended the family farm on Thomson Line. Galbraith spent his early childhood in the one-room schoolhouse on Willy's Side Road and began his illustrious career as a student at the Ontario Agricultural College, which was then affiliated of the University of Toronto. From there he went to Berkley, California, where he earned his doctorate in Agricultural Economics in 1934, and began a teaching career at Harvard University. In 1937 he naturalized to the United States and took a year-long fellowship at Cambridge University, where he studied under British economist John Maynard Keynes.
Galbraith had inherited liberal tendencies - and his acerbic wit - from his father, who was Dunwich Township's leading community Liberal. Once, at an auction sale, Archibald "mounted a large pile of manure to speak to the assembled crowd. He apologized with ill-concealed sincerity for speaking from the Tory platform." 1
One year after naturalizing to the United States, Galbraith began to work for the Roosevelt administration; during the war he was charged with keeping inflation in check as deputy head of the Office of Price Administration (colleagues dubbed him FDR's "price czar"). Although the job held little glamour, Galbraith wielded enormous influence over America's economy, joking later that the rest of his career had been downhill.
After being forced out of office in 1943 amid a congressional and business backlash, Galbraith took the position of editor at Fortune magazine, through which he popularized Keynesian economic ideas. However, he did not retire from political administration, and acted as an advisor to the post-war administrations of Germany and Japan, all while continuing to teach classes intermittently at Harvard, at which he was finally appointed full professor in 1949.
Galbraith spent the 1950s alternating between teaching at Harvard and advising governments. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed him US Ambassador to India; Galbraith's rapport with Kennedy was so strong that he regularly bypassed the State Department and sent his diplomatic cables directly to the President. Galbraith also earned the confidence of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and became an intimate economic advisor to his administration. He was also a harsh critic of Louis Mountbatten for the passive role the last Viceroy of British rule took in the bloody partition of India, Punjab, and Bengal.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy undertook diplomatic missions to India and Pakistan upon Galbraith's recommendation. He remained a friend and supporter of the Indian government long after leaving office, even hosting a luncheon for Indian students at Harvard every year on graduation day. The Indian government showed its gratitude for this friendship in 2001 by awarding Galbraith the Padma Vibhushan, the country's second-highest civilian award.
This was to be the last addition to Galbraith's extensive collection of prestigious awards. He had already collected two US Presidential Medals of Freedom, one in 1946 under the Truman administration, and one in 2000 under the Clinton administration, and had been made an Officer in the Order of Canada in 1997.
Galbraith married Catherine Atwater in 1937, whom he had met while she was a student at Radcliffe. They resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and enjoyed a summer home in Vermont. Of their four sons, Alan became a partner in the prominent D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly; Peter served as US Ambassador to Croatia and publishes on American foreign policy in the Balkans and Middle East; and James followed his father into academia, becoming a high-profile economist at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
By the time of his death in 2006, John Kenneth Galbraith had contributed dozens of liberal books and hundreds of articles and essays to economic and literary discussion. His first noted achievement, American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power (1952) critiques the idea that free market competition will act to society's full advantage. Big business, he argues, needs an equalizing force, such as trade unions, or activist governments, to keep it from steamrolling the consumer. This was followed with 1954's The Great Crash, 1929, a best-seller that argues that the great stock market crash that facilitated the Great Depression was precipitated by rampant stock market speculation, which decouples markets from reality. While Galbraith's ideas lost attention in the economic prosperity of the 1980s, recent economic disasters have bolstered public interest in his theories. His left-wing economic liberalism highlighted the premise of 1967's The New Industrial State, which argued that the United States was not a free-enterprise society but a plutocracy in which consumer "need" is artificially created and managed through advertising.
Galbraith's most enduring work, The Affluent Society, appeared in 1958 to great critical acclaim. The best-selling book outlined how post-war America was becoming wealthy in the private sector but poor in the public sector. He controversially critiqued the old assumption that continually-increasing material production is a sign of societal and economic health. Instead, he claimed that the artificial creation of consumer desire led to the public sector's poverty and contributed to an ever-increasing income disparity between the haves and the have-nots. In this work, Galbraith also coined the term "conventional wisdom," meaning those highly-conservative paradigms on which society's perceptions of reality are based. Radical for its time, it influenced the Johnson administration's War on Poverty and gave the public a new lens through which it could examine societal constructs.
Not limited to the nonfiction genre, Galbraith also made inroads in both fiction and memoir. The Scotch, his memoir about growing up in the Scottish settlement in Elgin County, is full of humorous anecdotes and peppered with colorful local characters. This, along with many more of Galbraith's works, is available in the Windsor Public Library.Visit the Windsor Public Library Online for a complete list of books by Galbraith available through the Library.
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