Politics & Policy

Galbraith Up Close

His life, his politics, his economics.

Professor John Kenneth Galbraith leans back on his chaise longue and answers the question about the book: “I think it’s fine. I couldn’t have done it better if I had written it myself.” The reference is to John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, by Richard Parker. “Did you read it?”

“Yes.”

“The whole thing? I bet you didn’t.”

But his visitor had read it all, 800 pages, pronouncing it the most readable and instructive biography — certainly of the century.

Richard Parker is an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His political and economic dispositions are most quickly identified by noting that he was the co-founder of Mother Jones, a leftist monthly missal. As one might expect, the biography comprehensively endorses the life work of the most influential economist since Lord Keynes. If there isn’t a proper Galbraith legacy–as, for instance, there is a Milton Friedman legacy, or a Hayek legacy–at least there is this infinitely engaging memorial.

Galbraith, as every kindergartner knows, is a Canadian who grew up on the farm, took on agricultural economics, went to Berkeley for his doctorate, then to Washington, where he drank deep of the New Deal. He officiated over the wartime Office of Price Administration, which told 185 million people how much they could pay for a Tootsie Roll, and went on to Fortune magazine. Henry Luce is quoted as saying that he taught Galbraith how to write, and had regretted it ever since. This is not convincing–Galbraith was already, in 1944, an accomplished writer, as evidenced by quotations from him in this biography.

And on to Harvard (the right-wing trustees tried to keep him from getting in), where within a couple of decades he was widely acknowledged as the dominant figure on the cultural-economics scene, author of The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State.

He took time off to serve as ambassador to India, and stayed very close to John F. Kennedy, whom he had known as an undergraduate. A factor in the eminence of Galbraith is his utter willingness to assert himself and his views. It is entirely conceivable that if tomorrow he ran into Kofi Annan he’d lecture him on oil for food. His long and frequent letters to President Kennedy were insistent on several themes, notably the need to placate the Soviet Union, and to ease up on the whole Indochina scene. After JFK’s death, Galbraith simply proceeded with the business at hand, which was now the taming of Lyndon Johnson. In July, 1964, a letter to President Johnson began, “I assume the following to be true, much official crap to the contrary. 1) Vietnam is of no great intrinsic importance. Had it gone Communist after World War II we would be just as strong as now and would never waste a thought on it. 2) No question of high principle is involved. It is their rascals or ours.” An early enterprise in moral equivalence.

He had visited Vietnam and reported to Kennedy, making light of the threat of the Vietcong. “A comparatively well-equipped army with a quarter million men is facing a maximum of 15-18,000 lightly armed men. If this were equality, the United States would hardly be safe against the Sioux.” He interrupted his own memo: “(Incidentally, who is the man in your administration who decides what countries are strategic? I would like to have his name and address and ask him what is so important about this real estate in the Space Age.”)

* * *

So it went, for sixty years–knowing everybody, instructing everybody, this made tolerable by the humor, the style, and the penetrating intelligence.

The book is deeply and intimately informative. We see the divisions in the understanding of Keynesianism. And there are cameo scenes of salacious interest. Lyndon Johnson turns one day on the Army Chief of Staff: “Bomb, bomb, bomb. That’s all you know. Well, I want to know why there’s nothing else. You generals have all been educated at taxpayer’s expense, and you’re not giving me any ideas and any solutions for this damn little piss-ant country. I don’t need ten generals to come in here ten times and tell me to bomb. I want some solutions . . .”

The solution, in Vietnam, was the betrayal of an ally. And the war was won against the Soviet Union by taking measures Galbraith deplored. But that is all in the past, and now we read about it, and about the Economics Department at Harvard, and about the most interesting and engaging public intellectual of the age.

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