J. K. Galbraith and me

John Kenneth Galbraith died yesterday, age 97. I don’t want to debate the merits of his ideas, merely to mention his significance for me. Back in the spring of 1966 I was 15 years old, coming up on my GCE “O [Ordinary] Level” examinations, and trying to decide which three subjects to specialize in for 6th form. (Sixth form covered two years – “lower sixth” and “upper sixth” – and culminated in “A [Advanced] Level” examinations, and possibly even “S [Special] Levels”.) Mathematics was an obvious choice, but what else? Both classics and science appealed.
And then I came across a copy of J. K. Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, read it from cover to cover, and was seized with the economist’s world-view. I learned of Galbraith’s influence on American politics, especially the Kennedy administration, and I was intrigued by the idea of an academic discipline with a real political impact. (1966 was the first year that I really became politically aware, and even active.) I read more, including two journals in the school library (the Economist, which is still going strong, and the Statist, which disappeared a few years later), and bits of Lipsey‘s Positive Economics. I was hooked. Inspired by J. K. Galbraith, I would study economics. And I did so, right up to the end of my first year at Essex University, when computer science drove out everything else.
And what about my third “A Level” subject? I annoyed my classics master by deciding against Latin, and eventually settled on geography. (Thinking back, I’m not sure why; I remember liking the fact that it was the only really interdisciplinary syllabus.) However when I got back to school in September, I ran into a problem: the timetable couldn’t accomodate the combination of maths, economics and geography. Reluctantly I replaced geography with physics, which turned out to be mostly applied maths. There were still some scheduling issues – all but two of those who took maths and physics were also taking chemistry, and the science teachers occasionally traded lab slots – but it all worked out OK.