On Native Ground
THE ENDURING INTELLIGENCE OF JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In the present madness, where reason has been forgotten and self-righteous wingnuts rule, it never hurts to be reminded that there was a time when intelligent people were welcomed into government service.
John Kenneth Galbraith frequently said that he wanted to be "a useful economist." He spent as much time in politics and in government service as he did in academia. In his work in a variety of roles for every Democratic president from Roosevelt to Clinton, he learned the sharp difference between economic theory and the political and social realities that often altered those theories.
That simple observation - that things in the real world never work out as neatly as they do in textbooks - is ignored by the current people in Washington. But only an economist who did not wish to hide in an academic cloister would know this.
Richard Parker, who heads the economics and journalism program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, took on the task of interpreting and putting into context Galbraith's extraordinary life and times in the just published biography, "John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics."
More than a biography of the most widely read economist of all time and as one of the great public intellectuals of the past century, Parker's book is a solid, well-researched overview of the political and economic history of the Twentieth Century.
Galbraith has written 48 books - his latest, "The Economics of Innocent Fraud," came out last year - that have sold more than 7.5 million copies and have been translated into nearly three dozen languages. He also has written more than 1,000 articles and essays for newspapers and magazines around the world over the past 70 years.
In the trilogy that stands as his greatest economics writing - "American Capitalism" (1952) "The Affluent Society" (1958) and "The New Industrial State" (1967), Galbraith liberated economics from its impenetrable prose. Like his role model, the English economist John Maynard Keynes, Galbraith recognized that economic and political power always trumped economic theory and that it was more important to write for the general public than one's peers.
"One has to recognize that Keynes wrote "The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money" with as few mathematical formulas and models as Galbraith did," Parker told me in a recent interview. "And Keynes wrote more than 500 articles for newspapers and magazines in his lifetime. In a democratic society, to mask the understanding of essential problems in a language that's impenetrable is damaging to democracy."
Galbraith was never well liked by his peers, who thought of him more as a popularizer than an innovator. Economist and Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson dismissed Galbraith as "America's foremost economist for non-economists."
When another Nobel laureate, George J. Stigler of the University of Chicago, lamented that it "was shocking that more Americans have read 'The Affluent Society' than 'The Wealth of Nations,'" Adam Smith's seminal book on economics, Galbraith's response was that "Professor Stigler's sorrow may not be that so many read Galbraith and so few read Smith but that hardly anyone reads Stigler at all."
That exchange was in keeping with the reputation Galbraith had for supreme self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. But Parker feels that part of Galbraith's personality has been overemphasized.
"I think some of the arrogance comes out of what he called 'the aroma of manure' that he thought hung over him," Parker said. "He grew up on a farm and didn't have a silver spoon background."
It was a improbable journey from a small farming town in southern Ontario to teaching economics at Harvard, writing best sellers and having the sort of proximity to power that few people in academia ever get to have. Galbraith was "price czar" for the Office of Price Administration during World War II, ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration and an important advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on many economic and political matters.
"He has been close to power and came away skeptical of it," said Parker. "He always cautioned to maintain a skeptical view toward the conventional wisdom. He may have been a lifelong Democrat, but he was unafraid to be critical of those in power."
A good example of this was Galbraith's early recognition that American involvement in Vietnam would be a disaster. In October 1961, he wrote the following in a letter to President Kennedy as he was considering substantially increasing the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam:
"Although at times I have been rather troubled by Berlin [the Berlin Wall had just been built], I have always had the feeling that it would be worked out. I have continued to worry far, far more about South Viet Nam. This is far more complex, far less controllable, far more varied in the factors involved, far more susceptible to misunderstanding. And to make matters worse, I have no real confidence in the sophistication and political judgment of our people there."
We know what happened instead. President Kennedy put more faith in the judgment of others and, that fall, green-lighted the start of an open-ended U.S. military commitment in Southeast Asia.
With the rise of conservatism, Galbraith has fallen out of favor, both politically and in the field of economics. Economics is now based more on mathematical models than upon the study of politics, history, human behavior and power. Galbraith has been replaced in the economic pantheon by the monetarists and supply siders such as the University of Chicago's Milton Friedman.
"Within a certain circle, it's fashionable to say that Galbraith's time has passed and liberalism is over," said Parker. "What you have in modern mathematically-oriented economics is a theory that assumes humans are rational and markets are good. However, you have to ask if that strategy has yielded a robust understanding of the economy that has made things better."
Parker sides with Galbraith on this question. Galbraith, unlike Friedman and his disciples, never believed in the primacy of the market. He also never believed in rigid formulas or theories to explain economic behavior. Galbraith was an unabashedly liberal thinker who was firm in his convictions when it came to the need to civilize American capitalism.
The Friedman ideal of small government, low taxes and minimal outside interference in the economy that currently guides those in power in Washington hasn't come close to delivering a strong economy and prosperity for all. When people start to realize that, we may see a return to the Galbraithian view that markets never operate rationally and that the only protection against the harsh uncertainties of an unregulated market is a robust public sector.
Although the apex of his political and economic influence was in the four decades from 1932 to 1972, Parker argues that the last three decades of his life have been just as important. "He has been a shrewd judge of where we are headed economically and in retrospect, he has been right far more often than he's been wrong," said Parker.
In the March 14 issue of The Nation, William Greider wrote that the time is ripe for a Galbraith revival. "When the right's rigid ideology falters and breaks down, sooner perhaps than people imagine, Americans will need an explanation for what went wrong," wrote Greider. "They can read Galbraith."
Parker said he hoped his book can play a role in such a revival. "I care less about royalties and sales and more about sparking a public discussion about Galbraith and his generation of liberalism," he said.
The book ends with the words of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who has said he got interested in Galbraith's brand of economics reading "American Capitalism" as a young college student in Calcutta nearly five decades ago. Sen said Galbraith's work will endure, and called "The Affluent Society" an example of Galbraith's "great insight," which "has become so much a part of our understanding of contemporary capitalism that we forget where it began. It's like reading 'Hamlet' and deciding it's full of quotations. You realize where they came from."
While Galbraith is slowing down and nearing the end of an impossibly full and rich life, his ideas will resonate for years to come. Those who have an appreciation for common sense and a preference for reality over wishful thinking will keep turning to Galbraith.< Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.