Title to being America's favorite economist is bestowed without dissent on Alan Greenspan if only because many Americans can't name another one.
His reconfirmation by the Senate last week was as close as this republic comes to a coronation. The acclaim laid at his feet is so general as to suggest that economics, particularly Greenspan's brand of conservative Republican economics, has become a settled science and is no longer the inferior cousin of physics and literature.
This is ironic enough, given that the body of literature generated by Greenspan, notably his maddening hours of repeated congressional testimony, is monumental in its purpose to confuse people about the intentions of the Federal Reserve and to preserve its secrets. It is the more so because having presided over the longest economic boom in history, Greenspan's admirers have the luxury of not being reminded how often he has been wrong, most notably in his contention that low unemployment would necessarily ignite inflation.
That is why it's so refreshing to discover that one of the most provocative and eloquent voices in 21st Century economics is coming from the son of one of the most provocative and eloquent economists of the 20th. It belongs to James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas, who delivered a scalding indictment of the condition of the profession in a recent issue of The American Prospect.
``So what is modern economics about?` asked Galbraith. ``It seems to be mainly about itself.'' He describes the recent annual meeting of the 20,000-member American Economic Association as a gathering ``to celebrate the importance of its members, their presence in high public positions, their influence in foreign lands and the winning of the Nobel Prize.''
What provoked this outburst from a man whose own father, John Kenneth Galbraith, served a term as the association's president in 1972?
It is an alarming tendency among his own generation of economists who have ``joined together into a kind of politburo for correct economic thinking. As a general rule -- as one might expect from a gentleman's club -- this has placed them on the wrong side of every important policy issue.''
One of Galbraith's chief complaints is the profession's failure to admit or explain the error of monetarism, a buzzword for conservatives in the 1980s and now ``completely and silently abandoned.'' He also attacks the once widely held theory that full employment was impossible without inflation, pointing to the phenomenon of simultaneously declining unemployment and inflation rates in the 1990s.
He takes a shot at the once-fashionable view that higher minimum wages cause unemployment, a view that many economists prefer simply to forget because evidence of recent years tended to prove otherwise.
Galbraith argues not for more-liberal economics but more-open economics, that is, fewer economists less concerned with being right than with being heard in the right places. What a comfort it is to know that the son of the man who gave the terms ``affluent society'' and ``conventional wisdom'' to the language has fallen so close to the paternal tree.