When the economist, author and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith died on Saturday at the age of 97, we lost a public intellectual of rare stature. Galbraith, who stood at 6 feet 8 inches, was a primary architect of FDR's new deal, an advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Truman, and the author of more than 33 books, including "The Affluent Society" (1958), a central text of American liberalism and one of the Modern Library's 100 Best nonfiction books of the 20th century. He was a forceful and unapologetic liberal from a time before the word came to be seen (by some) as a source of embarrassment.
Galbraith rarely gave interviews, but in March of 2002 (six months to the day after Sept. 11), he sat down (48:37, Real Audio) with Tom Ashbrook of WBUR Boston's "On Point" to discuss the new economy, the income gap, and the war on terror. His carefully moderated language is a welcome relief from cable news shouting matches and talk radio pandering. Here is Galbraith on Enron: "I had for years taught about corporations but I was never prepared for anything quite so ridiculous, quite so fantastic."
On economic booms old and new: "Good times are [one of] the great, great sources of false attitudes. The persuasion that comes from doing well is one of the great facts of human nature."
On the distribution of wealth: "I don't think we should ever lose sight of the fact that the good economy is one that has a generally equitable reward for all of its participants."
On Sept. 11: "I don't think this was the first step in any major similar disaster. I think it was the extraordinary effort of a relatively small criminal class."
On military spending: "The real danger is that we use international crises as a stimulant for our own economy. I want to see our economy ... respond to welfare, to a kindness, a humane need, not to sending soldiers into battle or, nowadays, sending airplanes to bomb innocent people."
And on our hope for the future: "We must see that the relationship between peace and human survival has never been closer."
-- Ira Boudway