from GDAE Leontief Prize Event - March 27, 2000
"Economics and Development in
the Twenty-first Century"
Remarks by Kenneth Galbraith on the occasion
of his receipt of the Leontief Prize
at Tufts University, on March 27, 2000
Development And Environment Institute presented
the Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers
of Economic Thought to John Kenneth Galbraith
and Amartya Sen. Katherine Galbraith accepted the
prize on behalf of her husband, who was not able
to be present, and Bill Moomaw, of the Fletcher
School, read remarks prepared by Professor Galbraith.
- I am properly appreciative of the miracles of
modern medicine. They have already extended my life
beyond the few weeks predicted in the absence of
heart surgery. But I continue to be largely immobilized
by a couple of bad subsequent falls. You will be
aware that I have farther to fall than most members
of this community.
not being able to receive in person an award named
for Wassily Leontief, my old friend and admired
colleague, and one of the great figures in world
economics. We may never see his like again.
And I particularly
miss joining Amartya Sen and you for this discussion
of the most important social problem of our time.
That is inequality, nationally and in the larger
world, and the reasons underlying it. These are
rooted partly in economics but even more in the
deeper deficiencies of human nature and behavior.
inequality in the United States and in some other
fortunate countries is the product of improved economic
well-being and the emphasis we place on it as the
principal measure of human achievement. As incomes
increase and more enjoy them, attention is increasingly
concentrated on the well-being of those so favored.
Looking at their own situation and improvement,
an increasing number are able to conclude that the
poverty-stricken, given the better motivation, could
do as well. Or they find their minds sited on the
enjoyment of their own well-being, and from this
two things follow. The political strength of the
poor and on behalf of services and income they greatly
need gives way to the political strength of the
fortunate middle class, and economists, or at least
one branch of the profession, comes in with approval
of the increased well-being and with arguments against
what might help the poor. This particularly prevents
any steps toward mitigating the increased inequality,
particularly by taxation. Tax initiatives for the
affluent are held by one articulate branch of the
economics profession to be very important for the
general well-being. An argument that I have sometimes
made that high marginal rates on the personal income
tax inspire effort to maintain after-tax income
has never been well received. Better is the response
to what I have called the 'horse and sparrow' theory
of income distribution and its taxation. If you
feed a horse enough oats, some will pass through
to the road for the sparrows.
perhaps the overall effect of increased well-being
is diminished concern for the poor.
controlling aspect of the poverty problem is the
ability to turn a blind eye to the personal misfortune
and disaster of others. We agree that hunger, lack
of shelter, lack of medical care and the other deprivations
of the poor would be equally painful if suffered
by oneself, but from this thought there is a uniform
escape. Millions in Africa, for example, are suffering
from such deprivation. We cannot doubt that these
suffer, as human beings similarly situated, we would
suffer. But we have a wonderful capacity to close
our minds to this. The pleasant and affluent life
allows us to dismiss the execrable suffering of
those not so favored.
This we do
both locally and comprehensively on the global scale.
Such are some of the thoughts that I would convey,
as I am sure, indeed, others will, were I with you
today. Again, my regret that that is not possible,
and my strong encouragement to the efforts of those