Brad DeLong is once again trumpeting the career of John Kenneth Galbraith. Yesterday he posted a link to a Washington Post article (Friends Who Fit Together Smartly: Galbraith and Schlesinger, Like-Minded Neighbors) examining the connection between Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger. The article also provides further details on Galbraith’s life and work, and asks whether any current economist can match his intellectual stature. This is a difficult question to address. In sports stars of the past tend to look better than present day performers, simply because people remember the triumphs and minimize a past player’s missteps.
One of the many triumphs of Galbraith was his ability to write for a general audience. This is a skill that is not emphasized in graduate school and not often rewarded in academia. Yet if economists cannot communicate with people outside of our field, what is the value in our research? Let me make a very strong statement: What we do matters only to the extent that it matters to the 6 billion non-economists living on the planet. Galbraith could communicate his ideas to non-economists, hence he was able to make his ideas matter. Today we have writers like Paul Krugman and Steve Levitt following in the giant footsteps of Galbraith. Will today’s writers ever be thought of as highly as Galbraith? My guess is fifty years from now people will be asking: Why can’t today’s economists be more like Krugman or Levitt?