The Frality of Judgment

By John Geddes

Monday, January 31, 2005

IN 1950, John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife, Kitty, bought a large red-brick house just off the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Mass. Their home ever since, it remains precisely as one would imagine the redoubt of a great public intellectual. Off the spacious central hall is an oak-panelled, book-lined living room. Galbraith, 96, prefers these days that a visitor climb the wide staircase to see him in a second-floor study. There's a landing that Richard Parker describes in his new biography of the economist as "amply lit" by its huge stained-glass window. Not on this rainy January afternoon, however. The house seems full of shadows. But Galbraith, though he is hard of hearing and his six-foot, eight-inch frame is stooped, is in fine spirits, his trenchant wit intact. He puts down his copy of the current issue of The New Yorker to talk for an hour with Maclean's Ottawa Editor John Geddes.

How do you like Richard Parker's new biography of you?

You couldn't have had a better person taking on your work in life. It's a great job of research and a good job of writing. Through no design of my own I fell into the right hands.

Canadian readers will be interested in his account of your early years in rural Ontario. Parker emphasizes how your father, a strong Liberal and, for a time, a United Farmers of Ontario activist, must have influenced you.

My father had a very strong influence on me, no doubt about that. He was a major figure in that part of Ontario, both politically and as a farmer. He was a rich source of education and he had a skilled expression in good English. That was very much a part of my early life. He liked politics. Late in life he said, "It has always been the sorrow of my life that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not born a Canadian."

You worked in FDR's administration during both the Depression and the Second World War. Is there a perspective you gained in those years that we should be attentive to now?

There's no question that my generation in economics and politics was powerfully made by the two world wars and their aftermaths, and particularly by the Great Depression. The education in economic misfortune at that time was very strong. The intensity of economic awareness has diminished. In those days in the United States you could not have elected George Bush.

I take it you mean the current president.

I mean the junior Bush -- Bush Senior had the considerable advantage of having no program at all.

Were you taken aback by President Bush's recent re-election?

My sensitivity has been dulled. After all, I began life in the United States with Herbert Hoover.

Can you offer any thoughts on this president and his policies?

One thing that I would not emphasize is George Bush's peculiar form of eloquence. On his positions and the state of the economy over which he presides, there are two dominant factors: a hopeless war in the Middle East and a much clearer commitment to corporate affluence.

I haven't talked with anybody for weeks who is in support of the war. The dominance of the corporate rich is a related factor, as far as military expenditure is concerned. And he is moving on an unsupportable position in domestic policy, the two notable cases being taxation and distribution of income, and, most incredible, [reforming] social security.

In his chapters on your role in JFK's administration, Parker draws attention to your efforts as Kennedy's ambassador to India to persuade him not to be drawn into full-scale war in Vietnam. How do you remember that?

I was closely involved. I had an early adverse view of the Vietnam exercise, which became very strong in my mind from both being in India and being sent to Saigon. This was further complicated by my being acquainted with military and civilian war-makers and the discovery of their incompetence, the frailty of their judgment.

Had Kennedy lived, do you believe he would have withdrawn from Vietnam?

He had that fully in mind. The question was bringing the government along with him. The secretary of state, the secretary of defence and the whole military establishment had the idea that when you have a war that takes over all else, you don't question it. Question a military exercise and that's against patriotic duty. I'm not sure that it was entirely helpful that I was a Canadian.

Generations have been drawn to your superb prose, but some economists seem to think that means you are not a serious member of their profession. Does that bother you?

While I was still in the Ontario Agricultural College, I was editor of a student paper called the OACIS, and that exercise was the result of my early conviction that, more than mathematics and statistics, it was the quality of one's writing that won one an audience and influence. I never departed from that belief. The writing -- about which I'm hearing from you favourable comment of almost adequate proportion -- I have counted as important as the economics itself.

Copyright 2005 Rodgers Publishing Ltd.