No heir to Galbraith in sight
By Carol Goar
Friday, March 4th, 2005
Looking out from his lectern at Harvard University, Richard Parker sees row upon row of young thoroughbreds. His students are talented, attentive and groomed to succeed.
"They're a remarkably non-dissenting group," the Oxford-trained economist said. "I sometimes feel like I'm teaching in the '50s. Perhaps their sons and daughters will show some rebelliousness, but they don't."
Parker was in Toronto to promote his critically acclaimed book, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. But he welcomed the chance to step outside the bounds of his 787-page biography and talk about life at Harvard, the state of economics, Canadian values and American politics.
The 58-year-old author knows Canada well, partly because of his extensive research into the first 23 years of Galbraith's life and partly because of his wide circle of friends and former students in this country.
He can't imagine an economist like Galbraith – original, instinctively liberal, unafraid to advocate government intervention in the marketplace – coming from any place but Canada. "Being raised in a Liberal family during the Laurier years, he imbibed the kind of optimism and generosity that characterized Canada at its very best," Parker said.
But he also thinks Galbraith was a product of 20th century America. The 96-year-old economist rose to prominence at a time when the White House was open to new ideas, campuses were alive with intellectual ferment and economics was about grand visions, not niggling details.
Today, Parker says, all that seems like a distant memory. Governments bow to market forces. Management consultants are the reigning economic gurus. And Harvard's brightest students go on to become investment bankers.
"I hope to God it won't take another Great Depression to bring about change."
That is one of the reasons why he decided to write about Galbraith's lifework. At a time when America's standard of living has stalled, its government is running up massive deficits and its military spending has crossed the $400 billion (U.S.) mark, Parker wanted to offer readers "an antidote to the dominant assumptions of the age."
He also wanted to pay tribute – it is an authorized biography – to the man he considers the world's greatest living economist.
When Parker embarked on the project in 1996, he figured he'd have the book wrapped up in three years. "That was hubris of the first order," he said.
Galbraith gave him access to a mountain of personal papers, along with his 48 books, 1,100 articles and the hundreds of speeches and memos he wrote for John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson and other leading Democratic politicians.
Parker also recorded 240 hours of interviews with his subject and spoke to 70 of Galbraith's peers, contemporaries and critics.
He finally handed the last chapter of his manuscript to his editor in July. The book, he realized, had become an economic and political history of the United States from the 1930s to the present, using Galbraith's life and theories as the spine.
But it was also the story of a gangly farm kid who grew up in the tiny hamlet of Iona Station (just west of St. Thomas and north of Lake Erie), studied animal husbandry in Guelph and went on to become one of the most influential figures in America.
Parker had to think hard when asked if there was anyone on the contemporary scene capable of carrying on Galbraith's legacy.
He rattled off the names of several well-known economists – Paul Krugman, who writes for the New York Times; Jeffrey Sachs, who heads the United Nations' Millennium Project, and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz – but admitted that none has Galbraith's stature or vision.
Then he settled on an unlikely candidate. "You know, I think the cultural equivalent today would be (Irish rock star) Bono," he said. "When I look at the causes a 30-year-old Galbraith would be drawn to today, he is the one speaking out."
Parker is not sure his buttoned-down students at Harvard are listening.
He doesn't entirely blame them. Their baby boomer parents, who embraced the liberal idealism of the '60s, turned out to be as materialistic as any other generation. Today's young up-and-comers see no percentage in changing the world.
The author's best hope is that somewhere in China or India there is a young economist – a Galbraith in the making – who will put passion and purpose back in the dismal science.