Galbraith's oversized shadow

By Richard Parker
Los Angeles Times

Sunday, May 07, 2006

'AS THIS IS written, American liberals have made scarcely a new proposal for reform in 20 years. It is not evident that they have had any important new ideas. Rather, they have had a file. Little is ever added. Platform making consists, in effect, in emptying out the drawers."

Can you guess the author of these words? Rush Limbaugh? Tom DeLay? Newt Gingrich? George Will? If you guessed any of these, you'd be wrong. The author is John Kenneth Galbraith.

"The state is the kind of organization which, though it does large things badly, does small things badly too."

Galbraith again.

"Free trade is preferable to the alternative."


When Galbraith died April 29 at age 97, it was front-page news worldwide  a fulsome tribute to what he'd achieved in life but surprising, actually, because his career in some ways peaked 40 years ago. The flood of obituaries and remembrances got the facts mostly right, but few came close to portraying well the man I knew. I'm his biographer, and I found myself wincing all too often when he was too-neatly described as "a liberal," "a Keynesian" or "an advocate for 'big government.' " A man, in short, of a time gone by.

Galbraith wasn't, in fact, any of those things  not, at least, in the way those words are used today. On the contrary, he'd carried on as many arguments in his time with liberals, Keynesians and big-government proponents as he had with their opponents.

He was  for all his elegant wit and stylish friends  a farm boy first. Reared in rural Canada, the alumnus of a one-room schoolhouse and a third-rate agricultural college, he'd toiled long hours as a boy at backbreaking labors. He was, no less important, a Scot, and like his ancestors, he was ever alert to oppression by the powerful, whether English lords, satanic mills or stale ideas. Independence of mind and spirit was what he admired foremost.

Unlike many liberals, he never viewed markets as an evil meant to be broken by government  but as the opportunity for invention, creativity and the fulfillment of essential human needs. Moreover, unlike many liberals, he actually admired big corporations for their ability to do things small firms found harder: basic research, economies of scale, innovation. Indeed, in some ways he admired fellow Scot Adam Smith as much as he did John Maynard Keynes  admiring them so much that he spent much of his life trying to rescue them from acolytes who'd misunderstood their genius.

Galbraith had few illusions about government. Appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the tender age of 32 as the nation's World War II "price czar," he'd seen close up not only the baleful influence of special interests  their lobbyists and legislators ever ready to do their bidding  but the frequently chaotic and venally incompetent mismanagement that defines bureaucracies in times of greatest challenge.

At war's end, as director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, he moreover got to see at close range not only the false claims made for military power (strategic bombing, it turned out, hadn't crippled German war production) but the gathering strength of what President Eisenhower would later call the military-industrial complex, and its ambitions in and for the postwar U.S. Walking in the empty death camps of Germany and the ashen streets of Hiroshima in 1945, he was seared by the savagery of war and the lies told in service to it  and never forgot.

Power was the subject that fascinated him, and it was the underlying topic of everything he wrote (in four dozen books that sold 7 million copies). He argued with mainstream Keynesians for years  not only with the academics because he thought their preoccupations with abstraction and mathematics crippled their ability to see the world as it is, but with Keynesian policymakers as well, for their arrogant confidence that government could, with the right models and computers, easily deliver a world of permanent full-employment output. The world was too complex, the need constantly to adapt to changing circumstance too great, the claims made on government and markets alike too challenging, to imagine anything so blackboard perfect.

Galbraith was never afraid of using power, either as an insider or outsider. When advisors to John F. Kennedy tried to persuade the president to go to war in Southeast Asia, Galbraith as early as the summer of 1961 virtually alone began warning Kennedy of the folly of this "foreign misadventure."

There were, he said, other ways to handle the challenge. (Galbraith's lasting contribution to JFK's inaugural address was this line: "We must never negotiate out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate.") Thanks to recently declassified papers I discovered while researching my Galbraith biography, I became convinced that Kennedy ultimately agreed with his ambassador and confidant. (In the spring of 1963, Kennedy ordered preparations to have 15,000 troops that he'd reluctantly dispatched withdrawn from Vietnam shortly after his anticipated reelection in 1964  and to make certain his intentions were understood, he said the first troops were to withdraw even earlier, in November 1963.)

When, in early 1965, it came time to break with Kennedy's successor  after months of private arguments with President Lyndon B. Johnson over expansion of the war but long before most of the country agreed  he declared his departure memorably. His letter to LBJ, outlining a strategy for withdrawal, began with these words: "Mr. President, despite much official crap to the contrary, we are going to lose in Vietnam."

Twenty years later, he was no less kind when it came to the dreams of the conservative Republican revolutionaries who'd come to power promising to overturn the liberal legacy. Even before the Federal Reserve Board launched its Friedmanite experiment in monetarism, he announced that it would fail, producing recession, not recovery. (He was right, and ever since, no Fed chairman has advocated anything but active management of the money supply.)

Careless deregulation of giant corporations and reckless lending by banks posed great risks as well, he warned, because financial markets would overheat, then crash, even as self-interested managers  who in truth controlled the corporations  lined their own pockets while emptying those of others. In 1987, six months before Wall Street suffered its worst drop since the Depression, he warned of an imminent crash. From 1996 on, he repeated the same warnings.

President Clinton admired Galbraith enough that shortly before he left office, he wrote with the idea that the two of them would write a book on the future of American government. Galbraith weighed the idea for a while but finally declined. He liked Clinton, he said, but Clinton hadn't learned a basic truth about politics. "As I told Harry Truman," Galbraith said, "what this country doesn't need is two Republican parties. One is more than enough."

I was with Galbraith when he died The last I saw of him, though, was lying in a simple coffin, barely large enough to contain this 6-foot, 8-inch man. On it, an attendant had affixed a label:

John Kenneth Galbraith.


It will always be for me the remembrance that got him right.