A fascinating biography of John Kenneth Galbraith

February 20, 2005

Reviewers, this one included, tend to sharpen their knives when biographies pass 500 pages. The subject better have had one hell of a life, we grumble, ready to cut the overweight tome, the undisciplined author, even the subject, down to size.

Resembling its oversize protagonist--at 6-foot-8, John Kenneth Galbraith projected a towering presence--Richard Parker's rich, fascinating, authorized biography of the most famous economist since John Maynard Keynes tells a terrific story--actually dozens of them--and opens a compelling window on the course of 20th Century American liberalism.

Trained as an academic agricultural economist (he got his doctoral degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1934), Galbraith has written dozens of books and hundreds of articles about economics, politics and public policy, including the worldwide best sellers "American Capitalism" (1952), "The Affluent Society" (1958) and "New Industrial State" (1967), as well as an autobiography, a book on Indian art, a 1967 blueprint for withdrawing from Vietnam and several best-selling novels. He wrote and hosted a multiepisode PBS series, was deputy director of the Office of Price Administration during World War II, directed the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in Europe after the war, was an editor at Fortune magazine, campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson (1952 and 1956), campaigned and wrote speeches and policy papers for Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, chaired Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), was U.S. ambassador to India (1961 to 1963) and--oh yes--taught economics at Harvard University from 1948 to 1975.

An economist who teaches at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and writes for the general public as well as academia, Parker clearly admires Galbraith. Though he generally sides with his subject in economic and political matters, Parker possesses the rare ability to make conflicting economic theories and professional battles among economists comprehensible--even worth caring about--to laypeople. As a result, embedded within "John Kenneth Galbraith" is a highly readable history of 20th Century economics and government economic policy since the New Deal.

Parker explains why Galbraith has been so controversial among academic economists, and why Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson once described him as " 'America's foremost economist for non-economists.' " For most of the 20th Century, the dominant American academic economists have focused on developing, critiquing and promoting mathematical models of economic performance and economic behavior. In these models people always act rationally; businesses always seek to maximize profits, and markets perform as perfectly lubricated machinery. But Galbraith, baptized by his experience working in the Office of Price Administration during World War II (where he became known as America's "price czar"), saw that businesses, later large corporations, had no such trust in abstract models of the economy and therefore frequently sought to interfere with the allegedly natural workings of the market. Theoretical models rarely made room for the kind of political clout that business (or labor, to a lesser extent) routinely exercised over economic matters, or for the persistent influence of a society's reigning ideas, which Galbraith dubbed "the conventional wisdom" in "The Affluent Society."

So Galbraith not only criticized his colleagues directly for ignoring the messy world of people, policy and political power, he disparaged them implicitly by writing elegant, wry, thoroughly comprehensible prose directed not at his profession but at the general educated public. He "sought to define economics not as a scientific field," Parker says, but as Keynes had, "as an instrumental practice that was designed to achieve central moral and political ends and that was at its best when economists educated and persuaded the public."

It took time, but Galbraith eventually prevailed. Elected president of the American Economic Association for 1972, he organized major panels on the practical issues of inequality, poverty and race. It took 20 more years, but by the mid 1990s mathematical economics had run its course, and, according to Parker, "there are promising signs that at least some economists are finally once again taking up the 'institutional' and 'structural' questions at the core of Galbraith's work."

Born in 1908 on a farm in Ontario, Canada, Galbraith (who became an American citizen in 1937) remained forever shaped by his farmer-activist father's liberal political views. In fact, Galbraith came to symbolize American liberalism like few others of his time. He worked on every Democratic presidential campaign from Stevenson's first run in 1952 to George McGovern's in 1972. From 1953 to 1956 he helped convene, and wrote papers for, an informal, high-level Stevenson policy advisory group and was one of three main speechwriters during the 1956 campaign, "darting back to Cambridge to meet with classes."

Galbraith's closest friend in politics was Kennedy, whom he had known since JFK's undergraduate days at Harvard. By the late 1950s, the young U.S. senator from Massachusetts was relying increasingly on the older man's economic and political advice. Kennedy made him a floor manager during the 1960 Democratic National Convention, and they stayed in close touch during the campaign, JFK "peppering Galbraith with request[s] for short speeches, . . . advice on economic policy, ideas on strategy." Galbraith had fallen in love with India on an earlier visit, so when Kennedy was elected, he asked for, and received, the ambassadorship.

Never a doctrinaire Cold Warrior (unlike his fellow ADA member, New Frontiersman and close friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr.), Galbraith soon began to advise Kennedy to treat Southeast Asia with caution. By late 1961, Galbraith was arguing strenuously that U.S. military intervention there posed tremendous dangers. He kept up a steady stream of prescient memos, using his back-channel direct access to Kennedy, fighting a gradually losing battle against the weight of pro-interventionist administration opinion, offered by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Deputy Director of the National Security Council W.W. Rostow, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, retired Gen. Maxwell Taylor and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. (Galbraith was joined by Chester Bowles, George Ball and Averell Harriman). Nevertheless, Parker argues persuasively that Kennedy kept trying to get his advisers to consider alternatives to committing troops and that by the time of his famous June 10, 1963, American University "peace" speech, he was asking for plans for a U.S. withdrawal.

A consummate domestic politician, Lyndon Johnson felt less certain about foreign policy and relied heavily on Kennedy's hawkish staff. Galbraith, who had known Johnson since his New Deal days, counseled Johnson on economic matters and provided ideas for the War on Poverty, but he also tried hard to persuade Johnson "to step back from the abyss" of Vietnam. When Johnson made it plain he was no longer listening in 1966, Galbraith went public. He spoke "across the country, . . . gave more and more interviews and poured out more and more articles against the war, using his prominence to legitimize and expand dissent." New York Times columnist James Reston called him " 'the most articulate spokesman of the scattered Vietnam peace forces in America.' " Galbraith helped persuade Eugene McCarthy to run for president and was his floor leader at the ill-starred Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Parker's sections on Vietnam are the finest in this very fine, utterly absorbing book.

Galbraith has never lost his taste for politics. After Jimmy Carter turned down his offer to write speeches for the 1976 campaign (with a form letter), Galbraith retired to the political stands, but he re-emerged during Ronald Reagan's years as president as an eloquent, excoriating critic of Reagan's foreign and domestic policies. During the 1980s, in his 70s and early 80s, he published seven books selling more than 1.3 million copies; the following decade he published five more books.

Parker quotes Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen on why Galbraith's influence would endure. "The Affluent Society," Sen explained, " '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.' "

But there's more. At a time when academia celebrates a narrow professionalism and the current presidential administration uses fear as a tool of foreign and domestic policy, Galbraith's example of the unapologetic public intellectual offers inspiration for younger scholars. Forced out of Harvard in 1939 for taking a stand on a politically charged tenure case, Galbraith first went to work for FDR and then for Fortune. When he returned to Harvard, he was almost denied tenure by the university's Board of Overseers for his "New Deal record and Keynesian commitments," Parker writes. Galbraith survived the '50s Red scare, Richard Nixon's enemies lists and a huge FBI file. Although he will not, alas, be with us much longer, his legacy lives on, in (among others) economists like Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, passionate advocates with impeccable academic credentials who believe in democracy more than models, buck the conventional wisdom and speak hard truth to dissembling power.

Copyright  2005, Chicago Tribune.

by Warren Goldstein, Chicago Tribune