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John Kenneth Galbraith
: Forbes, 5/25/92, Vol. 149 Issue 11, p140, 1p, 1c
Sowell, T.
JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH is not only one of the celebrated names of our times, his writings are themselves one of the revealing symptoms of these times. His latest book, The Culture of Contentment (Houghton Mifflin, .95), is guaranteed a market simply because of his name on the cover. Yet the track record of his ideas is far from matching the sales records of his books.
In his most famous book, The Affluent Society, Professor Galbraith argued that Americans had reached such a level of general prosperity as to make questions of income distribution politically moot. Almost immediately there began more than three decades of the most intense preoccupation with income distribution in the history of the republic.
Galbraith also argued that large commercial and industrial firms have become immune to the discipline of the marketplace. Since then, such once familiar names as W.T. Grant and Pan Am have disappeared from the economic scene, U.S. Steel and General Motors have shriveled in size and Chrysler and Lockheed were saved from extinction only by government bailouts.
Human beings have been mistaken as long as there have been human beings. What is unique about our times is the ability of prophets to retain their honors in the face of the repeated failures of their prophecies. Paul Ehrlich, the Worldwatch Institute and others come to mind, but Galbraith is the clearest, biggest and longest-lasting example.
The trouble with Galbraith is not simply that events have not cooperated with his predictions. His whole approach invites that result.
It so happens that I was a student in Galbraith's course that led to publication of The Affluent Society. Speaking to a packed auditorium, Professor Galbraith gave a brilliant opening lecture, followed by thunderous applause. As the term went on, he kept on giving brilliant opening lectures, but the applause died away.
Students who expected to see the discussion get beyond the glittering surface became increasingly restless when it did not. Attendance fell off sharply, and some who came to class walked out in the middle of Galbraith's lectures.
In some other time and place, Galbraith's writings might have given superficiality a bad name, as his lectures did. But he was made for the age in which he lives. Brilliant opening lectures are more than adequate for sound-bites on television or quotable quotes for news magazines. If their themes mesh with the social vision of the intelligentsia -- and they do -- then all the prerequisites have been met.
Like so many of his other books, Galbraith's The Culture of Contentment is a series of brilliant opening lectures on paper. Those who expect the analysis to get deeper as it goes along will be doomed to disappointment, while those who are contented with well-turned phrases will get their .95 worth.
The Culture of Contentment is proof that verbal sophistication and intellectual simplemindedness can peacefully coexist between the covers of the same book. Galbraith's thesis is that ``the fortunate and the favored'' or ``the socially contented,'' and their assorted sympathizers and lackeys in politics, the judiciary and the media, have foisted upon the nation a set of ideas and policies which have led to our current (and future) economic and social tragedies.
Among these tragedies, according to Galbraith, are the huge federal deficits brought on by the Reagan tax cuts for the benefit of ``the contented.'' However elegantly phrased, this is one of the most demonstrably wrong conclusions that ever defied evidence.
Despite reduced tax rates, the Reagan Administration collected hundreds of billions of dollars more in annual tax revenues than the Carter Administration, or any other previous administration. Congress simply spent even more than that.
For journalists to confuse tax rates and tax revenues is perhaps excusable, but for a professional economist like Galbraith to do so is something else. The same is true of Galbraith's claim of a ``trickle-down theory'' behind the Reagan policies. Anyone can search diligently through all the writings of all the leading economists of the past two centuries without finding any such theory. It is a political straw man.
Another political chestnut verbally repackaged by Galbraith is that our fiscal problems are also due to excessive military spending, brought on by ``anti-Communist paranoia.'' In short, the policies that won the Cold War and ended the nuclear threat were all wrong.
In recent years, Galbraith has turned his considerable literary talents toward fiction writing -- or perhaps he has just begun labeling his writings more accurately. His latest book definitely belongs in the fiction section.

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