john kenneth galbraith Quotes

John Kenneth Galbraith Quotes

Birth Date: 1908-10-15 (Thursday, October 15th, 1908)
Date of Death: 2006-04-29 (Saturday, April 29th, 2006)

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    • In the usual (though certainly not in every) public decision on economic policy, the choice is between courses that are almost equally good or equally bad. It is the narrowest decisions that are most ardently debated. If the world is lucky enough to enjoy peace, it may even one day make the discovery, to the horror of doctrinaire free-enterprisers and doctrinaire planners alike, that what is called capitalism and what is called socialism are both capable of working quite well.
    • But now, as throughout history, financial capacity and political perspicacity are inversely correlated.
    • In the autumn of 1929 the mightiest of Americans were, for a brief time, revealed as human beings.
    • Men have been swindled by other men on many occasions. The autumn of 1929 was, perhaps, the first occasion when men succeeded on a large scale in swindling themselves.
    • You roll back the stones, and you find slithering things. That is the world of Richard Nixon.
    • Wealth is not without its advantages, and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.
    • It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled seas of thought.
    • In a community where public services have failed to keep abreast of private consumption things are very different. Here, in an atmosphere of private opulence and public squalor, the private goods have full sway.
    • There is certainly no absolute standard of beauty. That precisely is what makes its pursuit so interesting.
    • Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.
    • Total physical and mental inertia are highly agreeable, much more so than we allow ourselves to imagine. A beach not only permits such inertia but enforces it, thus neatly eliminating all problems of guilt. It is now the only place in our overly active world that does.
    • Clearly the most unfortunate people are those who must do the same thing over and over again, every minute, or perhaps twenty to the minute. They deserve the shortest hours and the highest pay.
    • People are the common denominator of progress. So, paucis verbis, no improvement is possible with unimproved people, and advance is certain when people are liberated and educated. It would be wrong to dismiss the importance of roads, railroads, power plants, mills, and the other familiar furniture of economic development. At some stages of development - the stage that India and Pakistan have reached, for example - they are central to the strategy of development. But we are coming to realize, I think, that there is a certain sterility in economic monuments that stand alone in a sea of illiteracy. Conquest of illiteracy comes first.
    • By all but the pathologically romantic, it is now recognized that this is not the age of the small man.
    • There is an insistent tendency among serious social scientists to think of any institution which features rhymed and singing commercials, intense and lachrymose voices urging highly improbable enjoyment, caricatures of the human esophagus in normal and impaired operation, and which hints implausibly at opportunities for antiseptic seduction as inherently trivial. This is a great mistake. The industrial system is profoundly dependent on commercial television and could not exist in its present form without it.
    • The real accomplishment of modern science and technology consists in taking ordinary men, informing them narrowly and deeply and then, through appropriate organization, arranging to have their knowledge combined with that of other specialized but equally ordinary men. This dispenses with the need for genius. The resulting performance, though less inspiring, is far more predictable.
    • In economics, hope and faith coexist with great scientific pretension and also a deep desire for respectability.
    • Among all the world's races, some obscure Bedouin tribes possibly apart, Americans are the most prone to misinformation. This is not the consequence of any special preference for mendacity, although at the higher levels of their public administration that tendency is impressive. It is rather that so much of what they themselves believe is wrong.
    • The Senate has unlimited debate; in the House, debate is ruthlessly circumscribed. There is frequent discussion as to which technique most effectively frustrates democratic process. However, a more important antidote to American democracy is American gerontocracy. The positions of eminence and authority in Congress are allotted in accordance with length of service, regardless of quality. Superficial observers have long criticized the United States for making a fetish of youth. This is unfair. Uniquely among modern organs of public and private administration, its national legislature rewards senility.
    • In the United States, though power corrupts, the expectation of power paralyzes.
    • The traveler to the United States will do well, however, to prepare himself for the class-consciousness of the natives. This differs from the already familiar English version in being more extreme and based more firmly on the conviction that the class to which the speaker belongs is inherently superior to all others.
    • Once the visitor was told rather repetitively that this city was the melting pot; never before in history had so many people of such varied languages, customs, colors and culinary habits lived so amicably together. Although New York remains peaceful by most standards, this self-congratulation is now less often heard, since it was discovered some years ago that racial harmony depended unduly on the willingness of the blacks (and latterly the Puerto Ricans) to do for the other races the meanest jobs at the lowest wages and then to return to live by themselves in the worst slums.
    • Let there be no question: economics, so long as it is thus taught, becomes, however unconsciously, a part of the arrangement by which the citizen or student is kept from seeing how he or she is, or will be, governed.
    • The decisive weakness in neoclassical and neo-Keynesian economics is not the error in the assumptions by which it elides the problem of power. The capacity for erroneous belief is very great, especially where it coincides with convenience. Rather, in eliding power - in making economics a nonpolitical subject - neoclassical theory destroys its relation to the real world. In that world, power is decisive in what happens. And the problems of that world are increasing both in number and in the depth of their social affliction. In consequence, neoclassical and neo-Keynesian economics is relegating its players to the social sidelines where they either call no plays or use the wrong ones. To change the metaphor, they manipulate levers to which no machinery is attached.
    • This is what economics now does. It tells the young and susceptible (and also the old and vulnerable) that economic life has no content of power and politics because the firm is safely subordinate to the market and the state and for this reason it is safely at the command of the consumer and citizen. Such an economics is not neutral. It is the influential and invaluable ally of those whose exercise of power depends on an acquiescent public. If the state is the executive committee of the great corporation and the planning system, it is partly because neoclassical economics is its instrument for neutralizing the suspicion that this is so.
    • If all else fails immortality can always be assured by adequate error.
    • The process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled.
    • Of all classes the rich are the most noticed and the least studied.
    • The man who is admired for the ingenuity of his larceny is almost always rediscovering some earlier form of fraud. The basic forms are all known, have all been practiced. The manners of capitalism improve. The morals may not.
    • All successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door. The violence of revolutions is the violence of men who charge into a vacuum.
    • Money is a singular thing. It ranks with love as man's greatest source of joy. And with death as his greatest source of anxiety. Over all history it has oppressed nearly all people in one of two ways: either it has been abundant and very unreliable, or reliable and very scarce.
    • Few can believe that suffering, especially by others, is in vain. Anything that is disagreeable must surely have beneficial economic effects.
    • The Metropolis should have been aborted long before it became New York, London or Tokyo.
    • When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are, by that act, inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, that any revolt will be against them. It's a remarkably shrewd and rather conservative arrangement when one thinks of it.
    • Man, at least when educated, is a pessimist. He believes it safer not to reflect on his achievements; Jove is known to strike such people down.
    • All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.
    • The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.
    • Much literary criticism comes from people for whom extreme specialization is a cover for either grave cerebral inadequacy or terminal laziness, the latter being a much cherished aspect of academic freedom.
    • Wealth, in even the most improbable cases, manages to convey the aspect of intelligence.
    • Any consideration of the life and larger social existence of the modern corporate man... begins and also largely ends with the effect of one all-embracing force. That is organization - the highly structured assemblage of men, and now some women, of which he is a part. It is to this, at the expense of family, friends, sex, recreation and sometimes health and effective control of alcoholic intake, that he is expected to devote his energies.
    • Increasingly in recent times we have come first to identify the remedy that is most agreeable, most convenient, most in accord with major pecuniary or political interest, the one that reflects our available faculty for action; then we move from the remedy so available or desired back to a cause to which that remedy is relevant.
    • A nuclear war does not defend a country and it does not defend a system. I've put it the same way many times; not even the most accomplished ideologue will be able to tell the difference between the ashes of capitalism and the ashes of communism.
    • Get the process of negotiation away from the small specialized group that some people have called the 'nuclear theologians,' who in effect said this is a complicated issue of seeing how little we can give away, how much we can extract from the other side; it's highly specialized. Only a few people can understand the nature of these weapons, the delivery systems, the targeting, the nature of the MIRV and the CRUISE, on down, and the MX. This kept the whole discussion to a very limited group of people who, in a way, had assumed responsibility for saying whether we should live or die.
    • The huge capacity to purchase submission that goes with any large sum of money, well, this we have. This is a power of which we should all be aware.
    • Both we and the Soviets face the common threat of nuclear destruction and there is no likelihood that either capitalism or communism will survive a nuclear war.
    • In any great organization it is far, far safer to be wrong with the majority than to be right alone.
    • In all life one should comfort the afflicted, but verily, also, one should afflict the comfortable, and especially when they are comfortably, contentedly, even happily wrong.
    • There is something wonderful in seeing a wrong-headed majority assailed by truth.
    • In the first place I identify this ['the equilibrium of poverty'] with primitive agriculture, and two factors have been at work there. One is, of course, population growth. If you were a poor farmer in India, Pakistan, or in much of Africa, you would want as many sons as possible as your social security. They would keep you out of the hot sun and give you some form of subsistence in your old age. So, you have pressure for population growth that is, itself, the result of the extreme economic insecurity. This is something which hasn't been sufficiently emphasized.
    • One must always have in mind one simple fact - there is no literate population in the world that is poor, and there is no illiterate population that is anything but poor.
    • We can safely abandon the doctrine of the eighties, namely that the rich were not working because they had too little money, the poor because they had much.
    • The great dialectic in our time is not, as anciently and by some still supposed, between capital and labor; it is between economic enterprise and the state.
    • People who are in a fortunate position always attribute virtue to what makes them so happy.
    • There's a certain part of the contented majority who love anybody who is worth a billion dollars.
    • The contented and economically comfortable have a very discriminating view of government. Nobody is ever indignant about bailing out failed banks and failed savings and loans associations... But when taxes must be paid for the lower middle class and poor, the government assumes an aspect of wickedness.
    • We now in the United States have more security guards for the rich than we have police services for the poor districts. If you're looking for personal security, far better to move to the suburbs than to pay taxes in New York.
    • Almost 60-odd years ago in Canada. I was studying agriculture, how to produce better chickens, better cattle, better horses - horses in those days - better fruit, better vegetables. This was in the early years of the Great Depression, and the thoughts crossed my mind that there wasn't a hell of a lot of use producing better crops and better livestock if you couldn't sell them, that the real problem of agriculture was not efficiency in production but the problem of whether you could make money after you produced the stuff. So I shifted from the technical side to, first, the study of agricultural economic issues and then on to economics itself.
    • Broadly speaking, [Keynesianism means] that the government has a specific responsibility for the behavior of the economy, that it doesn't work on its own autonomous course, but the government, when there's a recession, compensates by employment, by expansion of purchasing power, and in boom times corrects by being a restraining force. But it controls the great flow of demand into the economy, what since Keynesian times has been the flow of aggregate demand. That was the basic idea of Keynes so far as one can put it in a couple of sentences.
    • Going back to the most ancient times, national well-being, the national prestige depended on territory. The more territory a country had, the more income revenue there was, the more people there were to be mobilized for arms strength. So we had an enormous sense of territorial conflict and territorial integrity, and that was unquestionably a part of the cause of war, coupled with the fact that there was a disposition in that direction by the landed class, a disposition to think of territorial acquisition and territorial defense and to think of the peasantry as a superior form of livestock which could be used for arms purposes.
    • I react to what is necessary. I would like to eschew any formula. There are some things where the government is absolutely inevitable, which we cannot get along without comprehensive state action. But there are many things - producing consumer goods, producing a wide range of entertainment, producing a wide level of cultural activity - where the market system, which independent activity is also important, so I react pragmatically. Where the market works, I'm for that. Where the government is necessary, I'm for that. I'm deeply suspicious of somebody who says, 'I'm in favor of privatization,' or, 'I'm deeply in favor of public ownership.' I'm in favor of whatever works in the particular case.
    • I write with two things in mind. I want to be right with my fellow economists. After all, I've made my life as a professional economist, so I'm careful that my economics is as it should be. But I have long felt that there's no economic proposition that can't be stated in clear, accessible language. So I try to be right with my fellow economists, but I try to have an audience of any interested, intelligent person.
    • It is my guiding confession that I believe the greatest error in economics is in seeing the economy as a stable, immutable structure.
    • Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue.
    • When you see reference to a new paradigm you should always, under all circumstances, take cover. Because ever since the great tulipmania in 1637, speculation has always been covered by a new paradigm. There was never a paradigm so new and so wonderful as the one that covered John Law and the South Sea Bubble - until the day of disaster.
    • Let's begin with capitalism, a word that has gone largely out of fashion. The approved reference now is to the market system. This shift minimizes - indeed, deletes - the role of wealth in the economic and social system. And it sheds the adverse connotation going back to Marx. Instead of the owners of capital or their attendants in control, we have the admirably impersonal role of market forces. It would be hard to think of a change in terminology more in the interest of those to whom money accords power. They have now a functional anonymity.
    • Hitler also anticipated modern economic policy . . . by recognizing that a rapid approach to full employment was only possible if it was combined with wage and price controls. That a nation oppressed by economic fear would respond to Hitler as Americans did to F.D.R. is not surprising.
    • Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.
    • Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.
    • In economics, the majority is always wrong.
    • It would be foolish to suggest that government is a good custodian of aesthetic goals. But, there is no alternative to the state.
    • Meetings are a great trap. Soon you find yourself trying to get agreement and then the people who disagree come to think they have a right to be persuaded. However, they are indispensable when you don't want to do anything.
    • Money differs from an automobile or mistress in being equally important to those who have it and those who do not.
    • Nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.
    • One of the greatest pieces of economic wisdom is to know what you do not know.
    • The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character building values of the privation of the poor.
    • The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.
    • The happiest time of anyone's life is just after the first divorce.
    • The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
    • There are times in politics when you must be on the right side and lose.
    • Trickle-down theory - the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.
    • Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.
    • We all agree that pessimism is a mark of superior intellect.
    • Where humor is concerned there are no standards - no one can say what is good or bad, although you can be sure that everyone will.
    • You will find that the State is the kind of organization which, though it does big things badly, does small things badly, too.
    • The truth is not the average of right and wrong.
    • john kenneth galbraith

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