John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

“There is certainly no absolute standard of beauty. That precisely is what makes its pursuit so interesting.”

“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.”

“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

“We all agree that pessimism is a mark of superior intellect.”

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

“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.”

“More die in the United States of too much food than of too little.”

“We are becoming the servants in thought, as in action, of the machine we have created to serve us.”

“Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.”

“It is not necessary to advertise food to hungry people, fuel to cold people, or houses to the homeless.”

“The process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled.”

“There are few ironclad rules of diplomacy but to one there is no exception. When an official reports that talks were useful, it can safely be concluded that nothing was accomplished.”

“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.”

“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.”

“In economics it is a far, far wiser thing to be right than to be consistent.”

“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.”

“Liberalism is, I think, resurgent. One reason is that more and more people are so painfully aware of the alternative.”

“One can relish the varied idiocy of human action during a panic to the full, for, while it is a time of great tragedy, nothing is being lost but money”

“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.”

“In economics, the majority is always wrong.”

“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.”

“The salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself.”

“In central banking as in diplomacy, style, conservative tailoring, and an easy association with the affluent count greatly and results far much less.”

“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.”

“Economics is a subject profoundly conducive to cliche, resonant with boredom. On few topics is an American audience so practiced in turning off its ears and minds. And none can say that the response is ill advised.”

“Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue.”

“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.”

“Commencement oratory must eschew anything that smacks of partisan politics, political preference, sex, religion or unduly firm opinion. Nonetheless, there must be a speech: Speeches in our culture are the vacuum that fills a vacuum.”

“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.”

“There are times in politics when you must be on the right side and lose.”

“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.”

“Few things are more tempting to a writer than to repeat, admiringly, what he has said before.”

“Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”

“It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled seas of thought.”

“Money differs from an automobile or mistress in being equally important to those who have it and those who do not.”

“If we were not in Vietnam, all that part of the world would be enjoying the obscurity it so richly deserves”

“It is a commonplace of modern technology that problems have solutions before there is knowledge of how they are to be solved.”

“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.”

“If it is dangerous to suppose that government is always right, it will sooner or later be awkward for public administration if most people suppose that it is always wrong.”

“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.”

“The happiest time in any man’s life is just after the first divorce.”

“Power is not something that can be assumed or discarded at will like underwear.”

“A bad book is the worse that it cannot repent. It has not been the devil’s policy to keep the masses of mankind in ignorance; but finding that they will read, he is doing all in his power to poison their books.”

“People who are in a fortunate position always attribute virtue to what makes them so happy.”

“The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character building values of the privation of the poor.”

“The commencement speech is not, I think, a wholly satisfactory manifestation of our culture.”

“Several times I concluded that there was too much detail; always I returned to continue and enjoy the book.”

“The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”

“Among all the world’s races … Americans are the most prone to misinformation. This is not a consequence of any special preference for mendacity…. It is rather that so much of what they themselves believe is wrong.”

“In any great organization it is far, far safer to be wrong with the majority than to be right alone.”

“People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”

“Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an adman to tell them what they wanted.”

“Inflation does not lubricate trade but by rescuing traders from their errors of optimism or stupidity.”

“One of the best ways of avoiding necessary and even urgent tasks is to seem to be busily employed on things that are already done.”

“Wisdom itself is often an abstraction associated not with fact or reality but with the man who asserts it and the manner of its assertion.”

“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.”

“There is something wonderful in seeing a wrong-headed majority assailed by truth.”

“Nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.”

“The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.”

“War remains the decisive human failure.”

“An 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 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.”

“Wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding.”

“There must be, most of all, an effective safety net of individual and family support for those who live on the lower edges of the system.”

“The total alteration in underlying circumstances has not been squarely faced, As a result, we are guided, in part, by ideas that are relevant to another world. … We do many things that are unnecessary, some that are unwise, and a few that are insane.”

“It is almost as important to know what is not serious as to know what is.”

“Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.”

“In the choice between changing ones mind and proving there’s no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.”

“If wrinkles must be written upon our brows, let them not be written upon the heart. The spirit should never grow old.”

“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.”

“All successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.”

“Few can believe that suffering, especially by others, is in vain. Anything that is disagreeable must surely have beneficial economic effects.”

“By all but the pathologically romantic, it is now recognized that this is not the age of the small man.”

“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.”

“When people are the least sure, they are often the most dogmatic.”

“The individual serves the industrial system not by supplying it with savings and the resulting capital; he serves it by consuming its products.”

“Production only fills a void that it has itself created.”

“Wealth is not without its advantages, and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.”

“Wealth, in even the most improbable cases, manages to convey the aspect of intelligence.”

“One of the greatest pieces of economic wisdom is to know what you do not know.”

“We are on the edge of a total end to civilized existence
on this planet, perhaps the end of life itself.”

“Inventions that are not made, like babies that are not born, are not missed.”

“Originality is something that is easily exaggerated, especially by authors contemplating their own work.”

“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.”

“Of all classes the rich are the most noticed and the least studied.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“It would be foolish to suggest that government is a good custodian of aesthetic goals. But, there is no alternative to the state.”

“In economics, hope and faith coexist with great scientific pretension and also a deep desire for respectability.”

“In the United States, though power corrupts, the expectation of power paralyzes.”

“Talk of revolution is one of avoiding reality.”

“There’s a certain part of the contented majority who love anybody who is worth a billion dollars.”

“A person buying ordinary products in a supermarket is in touch with his deepest emotions.”

“Anyone who says he won’t resign four times, will.”

“We have escapist fiction, so why not escapist biography?”

“You will find that the State is the kind of organization which, though it does big things badly, does small things badly, too.”

“If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.”

“Humor is richly rewarding to the person who employs it. It has some value in gaining and holding attention, but it has no persuasive value at all.”


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