Re: [OPE-L] obit. reviews of J.K. Galbraith and Milton Friedman

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Fri Mar 02 2007 - 15:17:05 EST

     11 December 2006

      Galbraith's lessons in death
      Evan Jones, The University of Sydney

      American economist John Kenneth Galbraith died on 29 April 2006. An
extraordinary number of obituaries appeared in the press. Galbraith
was famous as possibly the most read economist in history (after
Marx, whose numbers were enhanced by compulsion?).

      Given the latter day indifference to Galbraith by mainstream
economists and disdain by 'free market' economists, the obituaries
in the prestigious New York Times (Noble & Martin 2006) and
Washington Post (Barnes 2006) were notable for their extended
coverage and non-committal tone.

      A few were generous regarding substance-for example, Michael Stewart
in the Guardian (2006) and Tim Colebatch in the Melbourne Age
(2006). So too the unattributed obituary in the London Times ('J.K.
Galbraith' 2006), whose author claimed:

        . his method was to sort out the wheat from the chaff of economic
history and theory, and to popularise what emerged without
lowering his intellectual standards. His contribution was to apply
fine judgment, experience and spirited writing to making the case
for an intelligently run mixed economy. In the process, he
produced devastating criticism of the ability of extreme market
forces-or "the invisible hand"-to deliver the goods promised by
the classical economists and their modern apostles, the
propagators of Reaganomics and Thatcherism.

      However, many critical obituaries appeared in the English language
financial and/or right-wing press. The Economist (2006) was
surprisingly generous, but ultimately dismissive-'less an economist
than a mixture of sociologist, political scientist and journalist'.
More representative obituaries, including those in The Australian
and the Australian Financial Review, went straight for the jugular.

                  What is the nature of the economic system that Galbraith
so consistently failed to capture?

      These pieces tell us more about the economics profession than they
do about Galbraith. They provide an indirect vehicle for
understanding the peculiar character of that profession. The
criticisms expose what is acceptable 'conventional wisdom' as
Galbraith himself would have called it. The reader can also discern
in these criticisms dishonesty and incoherence. Some claims are
wilful misinterpretations of Galbraith. There is even occasional
tacit agreement dressed up as disagreement. The criticisms are
specific, inconsistent and uniformly negative-in essence they argue
that 'it didn't happen this way; that's not how it was or it is'.

      Well how was it? What is the nature of the economic system that
Galbraith so consistently failed to capture? We aren't told. It is,
however, implied that the system is a thing of wonder, something to
be uncritically applauded rather than queried and improved, as was
Galbraith's wont. We are being asked to applaud something the
character of which remains conscientiously obscure.

      In what follows, I outline and evaluate the critics' distinct themes
in turn, and conclude with the broad implications of the criticisms.

      The presumed ephemerality of Keynesianism, exposing its innate lack
of substance:
          Galbraith was a Keynesian economist . but Keynesian theory lost
its gloss after the 1970s when oil prices jumped and inflation
jumped with them . (Stavro 2006).

      Keynes' macroeconomic theory was developed during 1930s Depression
Britain. The theory has flaws, but it also has merits of permanent
value. However, Keynesian theory doesn't stand or fall on the crude
version that went into the post-war textbooks. The political use,
neglect, and abuse of the theory after the war has to be understood
on its own terms. Neither the long boom after 1945 nor its demise in
the 1970s can be attributed to the use of policy instruments to
which the Keynesian label has been attached.

      Keynesianism has been derided by its detractors for two key
failings. First, Keynesianism has been damned for failing to explain
or to provide ready solutions for the stagflation of the early
1970s. As a conceptual structure based on macroeconomic aggregates,
Keynesianism is intrinsically restricted in explaining stagflation,
but so also is the macroeconomics-based paradigm of Monetarism that
was supposed to have provided both plausible explanation and policy
solution to stagflation.

      Second, Keynesianism is blamed for providing carte blanche for
dismantling the 'traditional' attachment to fiscal prudence. The
claim is erroneous. 'Supply-side' economics, on the Right side of
politics, has been an ideological force as least as significant as
Keynesianism in the real-world detraction from fiscal prudence-most
stridently displayed in the yawning budget deficits under the Reagan
and George W. Bush Administrations. The argument regarding 'fiscal
prudence' is more appropriately understood as camouflage for an
argument over the direction of public expenditure. This is
essentially a debate over welfare versus warfare-Keynesianism is a
scapegoat for those possessing an ideological preference against the
welfare state.

                  Keynesian theory doesn't stand or fall on the crude
version that went into the post-war textbooks.

      In any case, to criticise Keynesianism is to miss Galbraith's
critical detachment from crude Keynesianism, in theory and in
practice. Galbraith argued: 'The important, indeed decisive, failure
of the [post-War bipartisan] consensus [on economic and social
policy] has been in the macroeconomic management of the economy-its
failure to deal effectively with inflation and unemployment' (1981,
p. 34).

      Galbraith here criticises how monetary and fiscal policy have been
applied (especially in the post-boom 1970s), highlighting the
failure of the conventional theoretical and policy wisdom to
confront the implications of changing institutional structures and
the ascendancy of the corporate economy. Galbraith returned to the
theme in A History of Economics:

        Thus the fate of the Keynesian Revolution. Like so much in
economics, it was right for its time, and its nemesis was the
passage of time. The years have brought the political asymmetry
and the microeconomic dynamic and change of a highly organized
world with which Keynesianism cannot effectively contend (1991, p.

      By 'Keynesianism' Galbraith means the full complement of the
conventional wisdom of economists, whether in academia or in policy
posts-the unrelated duality of macroeconomic theory (whether bastard
Keynesian or orthodox) and Neoclassical microeconomic theory, a
combination conventionally known as 'the Neoclassical synthesis'.

      The Great Crash induced from within or without?
        Galbraith blamed the [1929] Slump on the greed and inherent flaws
of capitalism . [As noted by Professor Tim Congdon, a British
monetarist] "We now know that monetary mistakes by the Fed were
the real cause" (Evans-Pritchard 2006).

      P.P. McGuinness accuses Galbraith of a 'total lack of serious
analysis' of the 1930s Depression (2006). Yet Galbraith, as
agricultural economist, began his career documenting the profound
structural bifurcation of the Depression economy into monopoly and
competitive sectors. Spurious also is McGuinness' accusation that
'he never considered the role of protectionism, as exemplified in
the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act'. The Smoot-Hawley Act was passed in
June 1930. The summary of Smoot-Hawley on the website of the US
State Department claims rightly that 'The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was
more a consequence of the onset of the Great Depression than an
initial cause'.

      The monetarists, led by their Messiah Milton Friedman, insist that
the 1930s Depression was caused by the Federal Reserve system. What
started out as a 'normal' recession was purportedly driven downwards
by the authorities. Liquidity drained out of the economy after
mid-1930 and the 'Fed' raised the discount rate in August 1931,
driving more banks to the wall and cementing a downward spiral.

      In The Great Crash 1929 Galbraith was concerned to examine the
peculiar character of the 1920s American economy. He concluded that
structural and cultural features produced the crash. The dominant
cause was a pervasive 'get rich quick' culture, defended by senior
bankers and by responsible authorities confusing hope with
substance. The substance had fallen away, as the 1920s boom had
generated an imbalance of investment over consumption and an
imbalance of wealth and income. The fading substance highlighted an
enhanced institutional fragility-extended corporate ownership
structures of holding companies and investment trusts that demand
unending profits to fund debt repayment, speculative borrowing on
margin, and a banking system vulnerable to crisis.

                  The spirit of the age was embodied in the mid-decade
real estate boom in Florida.

      The spirit of the age was embodied in the mid-decade real estate
boom in Florida-an episode of corruption and hysteria writ large.
The world was introduced to one Charles Ponzi, whose name became
synonymous with practices intrinsically built for implosion. Alas,
the Florida boom and crash failed to dent a culture whose zenith in
1929 would bring more widespread trauma.

      Galbraith's explanation of the crash involved critical synthesis of
the literature on and empirics of the period-in retrospect
conventional and respectable, but at the time of publication nobody
else had ventured systematically into the territory.

      Unassailable corporate power, the consumer as pawn, and Galbraith's
'illiberal' liberalism:
        GM failed to "decree" the shape of automobiles in the 1980s and
continues to fail today, leading to huge losses of both money and
market share. It seems consumers, whom Galbraith regarded as
manipulable by Detroit and Madison Avenue, somehow didn't accept
GM's "decree." (Henderson 2006)

        Hayek conceded that most wants do not originate with the
individual; our innate wants, he wrote, "are probably confined to
food, shelter and sex." All other wants we learn from what we see
around us (Henderson 2006).

      The large incorporated business firm is the perennial lead actor in
Galbraith's myriad publications. From The New Industrial State
(1967) onwards, the corporate sector is a power centre without
equal. General Motors 'personified' the argument. The dominant
thrust of Galbraith's critics is directed to this domain-that the
claim of GM's transcendence of the market is a chimera. The
significant attraction after the 1980s of American consumers to
automobiles made by foreign producers is presumed to be the acid

      Two rejoinders are in order. First, the qualitative evolution of
economic systems highlights that grand generalisations are
necessarily period-specific. The character of the automobile market
after the mid-1970s may be instructive, but it does not vitiate
generalisations on its character before the mid-1970s.

      Second, Galbraith's generalisations regarding the unbridled power of
the corporate sector retain direct relevance to other segments of
the corporate sector-the military-industrial 'complex' (including
constructors), big oil (centred on Exxon Mobil), the
medical-insurance complex, big chemical, big tobacco, big retail
(Wal-Mart) and big finance. It is curious that Galbraith's critics
have not sought to juxtapose Galbraith's focus with current
developments that involve corporate actors writing the legislation
that governs their sector (medical-insurance), heading off
legislation or penalties that adversely effect their sector (oil,
chemical, tobacco, etc.), or channeling foreign policy with heinous
implications (weapons contractors and constructors).

      On the related issue of consumers as pawns, it is true that American
consumers belatedly exercised autonomy in electing to buy the
automobiles of foreign manufacturers (albeit a sub-sector of the
market remains subservient to the US auto giants' emphasis on sports
utility vehicles and the preposterous Hummer). Galbraith rightly
asked the rationale for the then vast sums spent by producers on
marketing (a question never satisfactorily addressed by mainstream
economists), but his analysis of consumer behaviour was ultimately
not very sophisticated. He conflated the specifics of consumer
purchases with the broader environment of a commodified culture.

                  Galbraith's analysis of consumer behaviour was
ultimately not very sophisticated.

      It is entirely appropriate for Galbraith to transcend the fairytale
abstraction of the Neoclassical consumer and to place consumer
behaviour in its social context-the only feasible basis for
analysis. Yet Galbraith's efforts are condemned not for their
superficiality (behoving the critic to elaborate) but from two
contradictory stances, that they are wrong and that they are
self-evident-the latter claim appropriated by Henderson from a
Hayekian proposition that bears little relation to the thrust of
Hayek's oeuvre.

      George Will (2006) claims that Galbraith's notion that consumers are
not their own masters is a reflection of Galbraith's illiberalism
and condescension towards the common people. This claim of elitist
paternalism amongst 'liberals' has been a common refrain on the
Right of US politics. The presumption is that Conservative
intellectuals (of which Will is an exemplar) bear a natural affinity
with 'the masses' existing in a state of nature-implying that, by
contrast, the liberal establishment speaks not for them but at them.

      Will blithely overlooks the gargantuan struggle for the mass mind
over the last century, involving a propaganda battle of some
magnitude. The period after 1945, the raw material for Galbraith's
generalisations, was characterised by an historically unprecedented
(outside of World War) domestic propaganda campaign oriented jointly
towards destroying New Deal programs and political culture,
restoring the public reputation of the business community, and
creating a climate of fear using the Soviet Union as the universal
bogeyman. Will's criticism of Galbraith relies on a mythical past.

      Private affluence, public squalor?
        . he pointed out the contrast between "private opulence and public
squalor", never noting that the more that was spent on public
institutions, the greater became the dissonance of public
opulence, as huge sums were spent on public buildings and
institutions, and private squalor, namely the middle-class
beneficiaries' reluctance to spend their own money on anything
other than private material goods (McGuinness 2006).

      McGuinness inverts Galbraith's thesis with a preposterous and
incoherent claim of 'public affluence, private squalor' that merits
only derision. The 'straightforward explanation' of Henderson (2006)
in terms of the tragedy of the commons ('no one owns the streets
and, therefore, no one has an incentive to take care of them')
provides merely a rude skeleton for which Galbraith's story provides

      Almost fifty years after the publication of The Affluent Society,
Galbraith's perhaps most famous epithet remains relevant. For
example, the decay of Detroit has been fuelled by racial and class
divides and deindustrialisation, but more than those dimensions is
necessary to explain the parlous current state of this once proud
city. The fate of New Orleans and displaced New Orleans residents in
the wake of the Katrina hurricane in August 2005, compounded by the
cynical indifference of federal authorities, presents a shocking
endorsement of Galbraith's dictum.

      Galbraith as central planner?
        Time has been less kind to some of his other books: The New
Industrial State, for example, a paean to economic planning by
government and large-scale corporations, written in 1967, became
outdated in the turbulent 1970s and 1980s (Flanders 2006).

      Were Galbraith's books 'a paean to economic planning', heralding
that 'free markets could not work and that planning for the public
and private sector was the best way to run a capitalist economy'?

                  Were Galbraith's books 'a paean to economic planning'?

      Galbraith's message was predominantly descriptive and evaluatory,
with a prescriptive component. His observations of the evolving
American economy led him to conclude that the capitalist economy
generates 'planning' from within. It is a natural outgrowth of the
desire of economic agents through their institutions for a modicum
of stability and of control. The capacity to effect such control is
naturally uneven. Thus there arises a hierarchy of power; thus there
also arises a push by those rendered more vulnerable by the control
structures of other institutions to construct 'countervailing'
structures of their own. Galbraith's prescriptive component was in
the general support of this latter tendency. The critics'
juxtaposition of 'market' versus 'plan' is an idealist myth.

      The sum total of the criticisms amounts to bits and pieces, but is
accompanied by a silence on essential considerations. The critics'
conceptual orientation remains elusive. What is the nature of the
system that they say Galbraith has consistently misunderstood?

      Economic thought in post-War America fostered disparate
developments, albeit hierarchically structured. Samuelson's
Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947) legitimised mathematisation
and its conceptual superstructure of constrained optimisation. One
strand oriented towards 'general equilibrium' theory thrust into
pure abstraction. Another strand continued with Marshallian-type
'lower level' Neoclassical theory, not least the University of
Chicago's George Stigler and Milton Friedman. Some adventurers were
building the foundations of game theory. A new generation of
econometricians was building empirical models on macroeconomic
theories, including the Keynesian Lawrence Klein and, wearing
another hat, the Monetarist Milton Friedman.

      Two fundamental ingredients of any socio-economic system were
consistently absent from these established strands-none of them
countenanced the phenomenon and structuring of power or of systemic
dynamism. The Austrian-born conservative Joseph Schumpeter published
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy in 1942, but the book's
idiosyncratic synthesis of big ideas went into relative obscurity.
The core of the profession's approach to power was encapsulated in
the University of Chicago's Arnold Harberger's claim that the
welfare losses from monopoly power in the United States were
insignificant, estimated to be of the order of 0.1 per cent of GNP
(Harberger 1954). By contrast, Chicago and like-minded economists
devoted substantial effort to claiming that American unions (having
achieved legitimisation belatedly belatedly in the 1935 Wagner Act)
had acquired monopoly power over the labour market. Apart from the
threat from worker collectivities, everything was seen to be in
perfect working order.

      Off centre stage 'industrial organisation' economists were
endeavouring to understand the structure and behaviour of American
industry, with greater attention to empirical detail and evolving
precedent in the courts in 'anti-trust' litigation. The
conceptualisation of these economists has been traditionally less
dogmatic than that at the discipline's core, but it has remained
constrained by the core's straight-jacketed conceptual imperatives.

      Also off centre stage was the evolving Institutionalist tradition,
of which Galbraith was part. A disparate sub-group were concerned
precisely with the evolution of the American business corporation
and in its broader context. Of particular relevance is a 1959
collection titled The Corporation in Modern Society (Mason 1959).
One might feasibly place its contributors on the Right side of
American Institutionalism. The book is concerned explicitly with the
power of the contemporary corporate sector. Its leitmotiv is the
prospect of harnessing the powerful corporate sector for the social
good, by the conscious institutionalisation of a 'soulful

      The book (and comparable literature) could be said to be a response
to the corporation's critics amongst 'progressive'
Institutionalists. However, it was also a response to a substantial
intrusion of Marxist thought theorising immanent systemic decay,
emanating from the Soviet Union itself but also from a handful of
American Marxists symbolised by Paul Sweezy, not least in his Theory
of Capitalist Development (1946), and Sweezy's associates at the
journal Monthly Review.

                  The attack on Galbraith highlights that he had broken
the unspoken rules on the consensus.

      Galbraith's preoccupations were compatible with those of the
industrial organisation grouping and of the various Institutionalist
strands. Indeed, by the early 1950s there was an active debate on
the meaning of competition and the prospects of enforcement. The
atmosphere is reflected in a multinational 1951 conference in France
under the aegis of the International Economics Association
(Chamberlin 1954).

      However, this significant debate remained on the periphery of the
economics discipline, in spite of its political significance. The
core of the discipline was constrained to abstract theory and to
high technique. Ironically, some well-known economists presided in
the empirically-based debate over competition and in the theoretical
heartland-in a sense, displaying a split-brain intellectual life.
With the exception of macroeconometric modeling, then showing
promise, the emphasis lay on various intellectual strands that were
essentially game-playing. The ensuing 50 years has witnessed a
reinforcement of this emphasis.

      The elevation to pre-eminence of an unholy but convenient alliance
of technical and ideological imperatives has produced a disciplinary
core in economics that is elaborate yet weightless. There has been
no consensus on a project to understand the economic system in the
large. On the contrary, there has been an implicit consensus that no
such project will be contemplated.

      The attack on Galbraith by his detractors highlights that he had
broken the unspoken rules on the consensus. The attack also
highlights how significant has been the ideological imperative in
the economic discipline's channeling of 'credible' academic
research. Criticism of the prevailing socio-economic system is
deemed unpalatable, and inhibition of criticism is enhanced by the
maintenance of a project that declines to identify and understand
the essential character of that system. The life's work of
Galbraith's contemporary, Milton Friedman, who died in November
2006, is a testament to that vacuum (Jones 2006).

      The central lesson in Galbraith's death is that respectable economic
opinion, rooted in academic economics, is essentially an ideological
project. Elegant technique, code-named 'rigour', is the white noise
that fills what would otherwise be a curious vacuum in the
journeyman's path to enlightenment.

      The lessons from Galbraith's life are captured by University of
California economist Brad DeLong (2005) in a review of a new
Galbraith biography: The biographer claims that Galbraith was an
embarrassment to economists because he demonstrated the potential
breadth and relevance of economics. For DeLong:

        Late-twentieth-century American economics centers on the use of
mathematical models to reach one of two conclusions: that the
market is already doing a good job, or that some imperfection is
causing "market failure" and correcting or counterbalancing the
imperfection will make everything okay. .

        Just what a "Galbraithian" economist would do, however, is not
clear. . He starts from the ground and works up: What are the
major forces and institutions in a given economy, and how do they
interact? A graduate student cannot be taught to follow in
Galbraith's footsteps. The only advice: Be supremely witty. Write
very well. Read very widely. And master a terrifying amount of
institutional detail.

      In the second half of this last cited paragraph DeLong wanders from
his own line of argument. He had earlier highlighted that:

        Galbraith propounded no such easily summarized doctrine. . His
work as an economist was a scattered but comprehensive attempt to
think through the consequences of the transition from a nation of
small farms and workshops to one of large factories and
superstores. In doing so, he took on many of the questions most
central to the new U.S. economic landscape.

      On DeLong's own articulation, a graduate student can readily 'be
taught to follow in Galbraith's footsteps'-s/he can be directed
principally to the question 'What are the major forces and
institutions in a given economy, and how do they interact?'

                  Galbraith's faults had nothing to do with 'lack of
rigour' at all.

      DeLong highlights the claustrophobic impact of the imperative for
simple stories (driven by the alliance of technique and market
ideology), but he also highlights that Galbraith's 'failure' is
integrally related to the particular ethos of American politics.

        [The American national] self-image is also a very powerful social
fact, and this more than anything else explains [Galbraith's]
waning influence on U.S. politics. It is not that the Democratic
establishment has lost its nerve or been seduced by law firms and
lobbyists; it is that the old Horatio Alger myth has proved
extraordinarily durable. At the beginning of the twenty-first
century, it has become clear who John Kenneth Galbraith really is:
Sisyphus, constantly pushing the boulder of social-democratic
enlightenment up the hill. But the hill, it turns out, is too
steep, and Galbraith not mighty enough.

      Here is the source of the poison that suffused the obituaries of
Galbraith in the financial and right wing press. Galbraith's faults
had nothing to do with 'lack of rigour' at all. Galbraith's fault
was that he had his eye on the essential character of modern
capitalism. Galbraith's analysis and prescriptions were pervasively
softer than that of his left-wing contemporaries, but Galbraith was
for long a figure in the Democratic Party establishment and had the
attention of the broad literate public. Galbraith was thus a figure
whose contribution had to be negated.

      Galbraith's lesson in death is that the successful reproduction of
the capitalist socio-economic system requires the perennial
obfuscation of how it works.

      Barnes, B. 2006, 'John Kenneth Galbraith; Popularized modern
economics', Washington Post, 1 May, p. B5 [Online], Available:
[2006, Dec 1].

      Chamberlin, E.H. (ed.) 1954, Monopoly and Competition and Their
Regulation, Macmillan, London.

      Colebatch, T. 2006, 'Economics has lost its lone ranger', The Age, 2
May, p. 13 [Online], Available:
[2006, Dec 1].

      DeLong, J. B. 2005, 'Sisyphus as social democrat', review of Richard
Parker, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His
Economics, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 3,
May/June, pp. 126-30 [Online], Available:
[2006, Dec 1].

      Evans-Pritchard, A. 2006, 'A prophet let down by history', The
Telegraph, 1 May, p. 3 [Online], Available:[2006, Dec 1].

      Flanders, S. 2006, 'Prolific polemicist who revealed the human face
of money and power', Financial Times, 1 May.

      Galbraith, J.K. 1955, The Great Crash 1929, Hamish Hamilton, London.

      Galbraith, J.K. 1958, The Affluent Society, Hamish Hamilton, London.

      Galbraith, J.K. 1967, The New Industrial State, Hamish Hamilton,

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of Books, vol. 27, nos. 21 & 22, 22 January, pp. 30-36.

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Present, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

      Harberger, A.C. 1954, 'Monopoly and resource allocation', American
Economic Review, vol. 44, no. 2, pp. 77-87.

      Henderson, D.R. 2006, 'The new industrial economist', Wall Street
Journal, 2 May, p. A16.

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Dec 1].

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      Jones, E. 2006, 'The charlatanry of Milton Friedman', Workers
Online, December, Available:
[2006, Dec 1].

      McGuinness, P.P. 2006, 'Galbraith a giant of style, not substance',
The Australian, 2 May, p. 12.

      Mason, E.S. (ed.) 1959, The Corporation in Modern Society, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

      Noble, H. &  Martin D. 2006, 'John Kenneth Galbraith, 97, dies;
Economist held a mirror to society', New York Times, 30 April, p. 38
[Online], Available:[2006, Dec 1].

      Samuelson, P.A. 1947, Foundations of Economic Analysis, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

      Schumpeter, J.A. 1942, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Harper &
Brothers, New York.

      Stavro, B. 2006, 'Critic of his country's materialism', Sydney
Morning Herald [reproduced from the Washington Post], 1 May, p. 26.

      Stewart, M. 2006, 'JK Galbraith', The Guardian, 1 May [Online],
[2006, Dec 1].

      Sweezy, P. 1946 [1942], The Theory of Capitalist Development, D.
Dobson, London.

      Will, G. 2006, 'Galbraith: Tall with shortcomings', Australian
Financial Review, 4 May, p. 63.

      Evan Jones  is an Honorary Research Associate in Political Economy
in the School of Economics and Political Science at The University
of Sydney. His research on industry policy has been published in
such journals as the Australian Economic History Review, the
Australian Journal of Public Administration, and the Journal of
Australian Political Economy.

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