A wicked joke attributed to George Stigler goes: “All great economists are tall — the only exceptions are Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith.” The diminutive Friedman grows ever larger. The NBA-sized Galbraith is a fading figure: He is survived by his trademark phrase, “the conventional wisdom,” and some remember that there was a book called The Affluent Society, others that he served as ambassador to India and as the butt of many jokes made by the founder of this magazine. William F. Buckley Jr. was mistaken to have described him as “the most influential U.S. intellectual of the 20th century,” but then he was generous to his friends, among whom Galbraith was a cherished one. Galbraith did not end his career as a public intellectual impressively, descending into self-caricature when he sniffed to WFB that “there is not one member of the faculty of Harvard University who is pro-Bush” and presented that demonstrably untrue datum as though it were a devastating argument, apparently having forgotten his friend’s endlessly quoted declaration that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty.
Galbraith has suffered ignominies, among them being dismissed as a “media personality” and “celebrity economist” by Paul Krugman, a media personality and celebrity economist. I suspect that there is an element of sibling rivalry in Krugman’s viciousness. Galbraith was treated by the best people as the intellectual heir to John Maynard Keynes, and Krugman — Nobel laureate, recipient of the John Bates Clark medal — does hack work for the New York Times while Robert Reich plays an economist on television. The memory of Keynes’s authority must be a wistful thing for 21st-century economists, inasmuch as none of them has as much command over public affairs as do a half dozen leering buffoons on television.