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Exoteric and Useful Economics

“He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.” “What must be kept in mind in assessing our work in retrospect is that we were pragmatists, and extremely policy conscious.” These quotable quotes from Shakespeare and Laughlin Currie respectively, certainly hold good for John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006).

John Kenneth Galbraith (JKG) was a public intellectual cum heterodox political economist par excellence, always immersed in the day’s controversies and frequently engaged in partisan politics or government service. As an economist, administrator, campaign adviser, political activist, diplomat, journalist, and professor, and much more, he had few equals. In doing all these things, he self-defined himself as an unbeatable epitome of exoteric and useful economics permeated with unparalleled, mordant wit and humour.

JKG was endowed with versatile intellect, intense work ethic and passionate commitment to progressive modern liberalism. Throughout his career, he had emphasized first on reform in the US (his home) to return the economy to full employment, and to expand programmes for education, health, housing, urban development, environmental protection, income and gender equality, and civil rights; and, second, on negotiation and diplomacy abroad to reduce tension in the world, advance disarmament, and pursue sustainable economic development with emphasis on quality of life—a vision of a sustainable and humane social economy governed by the population’s genuine needs for self-actualisation. He had also urged resistance to the political demands of special, vested interests, especially in terms of his analysis of the nature and function of the great corporations that dominated the economic landscape.

JKG was well-known for his strident criticism of useless conventional economics and its conservative economic policy. He professed heterodox political economy, especially by way of Post-Keynesianism. His insistence on inclusion of a normative element in political economy is certainly kindred to the insistence upon the ethical context of economic action among the social and socio-economists. Political economy as he practised it was clearly the examination of power and culture in the economic process.

He was among the world’s most famous economists in the second half of the 20th century, and his fame owed much to his penning numerous best-selling books at a time when professional regard was based mostly on publishing articles in prestigious journals. Such articles were very esoteric and intended to be read by disciplinary, even sub-disciplinary, cognoscenti and not the general intelligentsia. Hence JKG was considered not to be an economist at all by many in the economics profession!

All the same, throughout his career, JKG made clear his conception of useful economics in his refusal to separate political and economic analysis, his willingness to promote values and priorities that he considered more important, and his effort to communicate in clear and graceful English prose. Clearly, JKG kept alive a literate and topical approach to economics. His political economic analysis was not expressed in elegant mathematical terms but rather in accessible if very sophisticated English. He considered the economic process to be complex, value-laden, and ever changing and insisted that professional economists misstep, mislead, and miseducate when they reduce their subject to uncontroversial puzzles with equilibrium outcomes, no matter how elegantly contrived. His subject matter was invariably comprised of the leading topics of the day. He was not searching for the ultimate and eternal economic laws or verities but for the temporal and tentative answers to the questions of everyday, contemporary experience. For him, the economy was comprehensible only in ‘context of public policies and programs’. In short, he made every effort to make his political economy accessible and pertinent to the concerned citizenry of democratic capitalism. His economics was, thus, exoteric, and it gained only a grudging respect, if at all, from the mainstream economics profession in its most esoteric age.

JKG was well aware that economists who concern themselves with related disciplines, such as sociology and anthropology, are similarly regarded within the economics profession’s status system. The obvious exceptions to this rule are mathematics and statistics, which provide the tools (or language) for economists, who believe the only bias they contribute is that of rigour in logic and testing empirical correspondence. But to the contrary, JKG was convinced that the highly formal methodology of economics not only constrains its ability to attend effectively to matters of policy, but that it also proscribes economic analysis in another way. Anyone who focuses on change suffers in terms of professional prestige, since ‘the first steps to bring institutional changes within the framework of economic analysis are invariably tentative, oral rather than mathematical and lacking the elegance’ of conventional economics. Given its staunch dedication to the formality of hard science, the discipline is systematically diverted ‘from accommodation to underlying social and institutional change’. Thus, a serious problem of selection bias comes to play: there develops a ‘habit of mind which simply excludes the mathematically inconvenient factors from consideration’. JKG was convinced that economists systematically excluded from consideration the social problems that vex the public, and that this severely maligned their usefulness to democratic discourse. Indeed he came to believe that their principal efficacy was to obscure, however inadvertently, the exercise of power by organized economic agents like the corporate and financial interest groups.

Like there is the alarming underinvestment in public goods and services in most parts of the world, there is now shortage of the cadre of progressive public intellectuals such as JKG. Most academic social scientists are often reluctant to speak out on the public interest for fear of running afoul of powerful interests. There is plethora of non-public, or even anti-public intellectuals, and intellectuals who easily sell out to corporate interests.

The real bothersome question, therefore, is whether there could conceivably be enough public intellectuals grounded in heterodox political economy to countervail the voice of the crowd that money can buy.

By Annavajhula J.C. Bose, PhDDepartment of Economics, SRCC
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