Unmitigated Galbraith

On reviewers of his 40-plus books: Quoting the advice of his friend John Steinbeck: "Unless the reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard."

The Globe and Mail
February 19, 2005

Unmitigated Galbraith
A frail 96, Canadian-born Harvard economist has not softened his critique of 'the affluent society.' As SHAWN McCARTHY reports, a new biography argues his influence is highly underrated.
Shawn McCarthy

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — At the twilight of an extraordinary life that has spanned nearly a century and carried the farm boy from Iona Station, Ont., to fame as one of the towering economic thinkers of his time, John Kenneth Galbraith pondered his legacy for the briefest moment this week.

His work has centred on the effort to marry the dismal science of economics with social justice — from his days as a New Deal functionary in Depression-era Washington to his prolific writing career from a tenured perch at Harvard.

In an interview, the 96-year-old economist said he hopes to be remembered as a champion of an unabashed, unapologetic liberalism that values social cohesion and quality of life above the private pursuit of consumption.

"As regards the United States and all political entities, there should be a diminution in concern about economic well-being. I'm for a socially pain-free, decently egalitarian society," Mr. Galbraith said at his stately Victorian home just blocks from Harvard Square, where he has lived with his wife, Kitty, for 53 years.

The exception, he added dryly, has been the need for "continuous, heavy manual toil for Galbraith."

His philosophy seems almost quaint in 21st-century America, where U.S. President George W. Bush won re-election last fall after imposing the biggest tax cut in history (skewed heavily toward the rich) and is now proposing to gut Social Security, the hallmark of New Deal liberalism.

But in a new biography — John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics — Harvard economist Richard Parker seeks to restore Mr. Galbraith's reputation as one of the pre-eminent economists of the 20th century.

In contrast to prevailing currents, Mr. Galbraith refused to reduce economics to an amoral, mathematical exercise, and realized there were outcomes to be sought beyond the maximization of private gain, Mr. Parker said at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he lectures on public policy.

"The essence of the Galbraithian approach to economics is that you deal with issues as they arrive or as you anticipate their arrival on the scene," he said. "You don't proceed from an abstract, atemporal, ageographical model, but from what you see around you and what you can feel around you."

(Mr. Galbraith is a frank fan of the biography: "It's an admirable piece of work, read carefully by me in the hope that I'd deserve it.")

The Ontario native grew up on a farm in Elgin County and completed his undergraduate work at the Ontario Agriculture College in Guelph. He moved to the United States in 1933 to complete a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, and then joined Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal administration in Washington.

His reputation grew through the war years — when he served as deputy director of the Office of Price Administration — and the 1950s, when he began his prolific publishing career at Harvard.

But he achieved the height of his prominence and influence in the 1960s. After advising his one-time Harvard pupil, John F. Kennedy, in the successful 1960 election campaign, Mr. Galbraith was appointed U.S. ambassador to India. He was one of the few trusted JFK advisers who counselled against the growing involvement in Vietnam. And he saw two of his books reach the New York Times bestseller list: a novel, The Triumph, and his dissection of the corporatist, advertising-driven U.S. economy, The New Industrial State — which remained on the list for a year.

Though never quite out of the limelight, he has been out of fashion for 30 years now, since the OPEC-inspired oil price hikes sparked a period of stagflation — with high unemployment and high inflation — that discredited the Keynesian economics with which he was so closely identified.

Mainstream business economists dismiss him now, as they did then, as someone who offered no mathematical support for his theories, as a popularizer who strayed too far into the realm of politics.

Conservatives argue that he made no lasting contribution. "He certainly was a towering figure in his time, but his philosophy and his findings have not endured," said David Rosenberg, chief North America economist for Merrill Lynch and Co.

Mr. Galbraith has not won any Nobel Prizes in economics. And he did not inspire schools of followers in the manner of his own academic progenitor, the great British economist John Maynard Keynes, or his long-time rival, Milton Friedman, scion of the Chicago School (which preached free-market economics and insisted inflation control should be policy makers' primary goal).

In the biography, Mr. Parker insists that Mr. Galbraith's influence is nonetheless widely felt, whenever economists go beyond narrow, analytical problems to deal with "the fundamental questions that so many people had always hoped economics might answer."

He gives the example of 2004 Nobel Prize winner Amarya Sen, whose work in development economics, the Nobel citation said, "has restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems." Mr. Sen has credited Mr. Galbraith's 1958 classic, The Affluent Society, with inspiring his lifelong exploration of the relationship between the concentration of power and roadblocks to the achievement of human freedom.

The Affluent Society illustrated Mr. Galbraith's biting disdain for the Madison Avenue-driven consumer society that was emerging in post-war America.

At the heart of his criticism was the imbalance between the funding for public goods — clean water, clean air, safe cities — and the insatiable demand for consumer goods that have no relation to need.

He argued, in fact, that corporations create much of the consumer demand through endless advertising.

In one passage Mr. Parker quotes, Mr. Galbraith paints a vivid picture of a family "which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked car out for a tour [that] passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards and posts for wires that long since should have been put underground."

Mr. Galbraith asks: "Is this, indeed, the American genius?"

He moved further from the mainstream as he got older, or perhaps the mainstream moved further from him. He condemned "military Keynesianism" — in which U.S. government stimulated the economy with ever-growing defence budgets that squeezed out public needs.

In 1968, he threw his weight behind senator Eugene McCarthy, the most left-wing of Democrats and most adamant opponent to the war in Vietnam. In 1972, Mr. Galbraith backed senator George McGovern whom then-president Richard Nixon beat in a landslide.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he allied himself with feminism and the environmental movement, arguing always that democratic society requires countervailing powers.

In 1992, Mr. Galbraith published The Culture of Contentment, in which he excoriated American voters for blindly protecting their privilege at the expense of neglected social problems.

He also condemned the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton and the so-called New Democrats wing, which had moved further to the centre of the political spectrum in order to chase more conservative voters. His attacks are echoed in the current battles between party centrists and those who want to stand on liberal principles.

As liberal Democrats do today, Mr. Galbraith reminded readers of what Harry S Truman observed when the party was urged in the postwar era to water down its New Deal enthusiasms: "When there was a choice between true conservatives and those in pragmatic approximation thereto, the voters would always opt for the real thing."

During a visit to his home this week, Mr. Galbraith was recovering from a cold and breathing with the help of oxygen.

Long retired from academia, at 96, Mr. Galbraith is frail but perfectly lucid and no less sharp in his criticism of American policy.

"We're spending too much on the military and notably on a feckless venture in the Middle East [in Iraq]," he said. "And we are projecting far too great a deficit in our balance of payments," he added, predicting further decline in the U.S. dollar.

The economist said it would probably take a crisis for the government to respond to the twin threats of a huge budget deficit and growing indebtedness to foreigners. "People who are living in short-run comfort are not easily aroused," he said.

His downstairs study, which he rarely visits, is full of mementos from his time at the fulcrum of American power — photographs with Democratic presidents from Mr. Truman to Mr. Clinton, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000; miniature Moghul art, including an ivory Taj Mahal, from his time as Indian ambassador; signed cartoons depicting him in his various public incarnations, including one in which he is meeting with Keynes, the thinker who greatly influenced him in the late 1930s.

Mr. Galbraith shrugs off a question about what influence his Canadian upbringing may have had in shaping his political and economic outlook.

Yet his father, William Archibald Galbraith, was a devoted progressive who left the Liberal Party over conscription and was a member of the United Farmers of Ontario, which swept into power in 1919, as the new biography notes.

Archie Galbraith later was an ardent admirer of FDR, and often expressed his sorrow that Mr. Roosevelt was not born Canadian.

Mr. Galbraith — now 67 years an American citizen, a former U.S. ambassador and two-time recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom — does acknowledge that he is far more comfortable with the Canadian answer to the question that he regards as one of the most fundamental in political economy.

"I have a strong feeling that well-being — Canadian or American — is most strongly indicated by the balance between public achievement and private development," he said.

"The Canadian balance is better than that of the United States, and there shouldn't be any doubt on that point."

Shawn McCarthy is New York bureau chief of The Globe and Mail.

Galbraith at a glance
Born: Oct. 15, 1908, at Iona Station in Ontario's Elgin County.

Parents: William Archibald Galbraith and Sarah Catherine Kendall Galbraith.

Education: B.S., Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph, Ont. (1931); MS and PhD, University of California at Berkeley (1933 and 1934).

U.S. citizen: Since 1937, when he married Catherine (Kitty) Atwater. The couple have three sons.

Positions held: Administrator, Agricultural Adjustment Administration (1934); deputy director, Office of Price Administration (1941); an editor at Fortune magazine (1940s); speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaigns (1952 and 1956); ambassador to India (1961-63); professor, Harvard University (1948 to 1975).

Major books: American Capitalism (1952); The Great Crash (1955); The Affluent Society, (1958); The New Industrial State (1967); Economics and the Public Purpose (1973); The Age of Uncertainty (1977); The Anatomy of Power (1983); Culture of Contentment (1992).

Fiction: The Triumph (1968); A Tenured Professor (1990).

Honours: 45 honorary doctorate degrees; Presidential Medal of Freedom (twice); former president of the American Economic Association; former president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

— Shawn McCarthy

'Ignore the bastard'
John Kenneth Galbraith in conversation this week:

On his rural upbringing: "My mind on many matters still runs back to those early Ontario years, particularly to the farm and particularly to the hard work on the farm. I consider one of the fortunate parts of my life escape from the routines of early agriculture."

On staying in the United States after graduating: "I had a choice between Washington and Ottawa, and my hesitation was non-existent. I was personally invited by William Lyon Mackenzie King and the alternative was the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal. And I have no recollection of a problematical or passionate struggle over the choice."

On public policy: "I have a strong feeling that well-being — Canadian or American — is most strongly indicated by the balance between public achievement and private development. This is one of the things that unites us… . The Canadian balance between public service and private development is better than that of the United States and there shouldn't be any doubt on that point."

On twin deficits in the United States — the budget shortfall and its increasing indebtedness to foreigners: "That is going to come up for increasing concern and discussion. We are going to hear a lot more about the fall of the dollar. I'm astonished at how orthodox on occasion I can hear myself speak."

On reviewers of his 40-plus books: Quoting the advice of his friend John Steinbeck: "Unless the reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard."

On his youthful family's attachment to The Globe, a forerunner to The Globe and Mail: "I was born to the [Liberal] Globe, though not to the present title. We carefully avoided the [Conservative] Mail and Empire as being a hark back to an earlier time. But The Globe was our modern access to the world."

In response to his biographer's comment that the Scots of Southern Ontario ranked The Globe with the Bible: "No, the Bible didn't rank that high."

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