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Blending Economic Ideas With the Persuasive Power of Journalism

September 01, 2006

It is a well known bit of John Kenneth Galbraith lore that his path to becoming a towering public intellectual began at Ontario Agricultural College (OAC), which he once described as "not only the cheapest but probably the worst college in the English-speaking world."

Richard Parker's monumental new biography doesn't dwell unduly on Galbraith's five years at OAC, but moves ahead briskly to the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, and an astonishing lifetime of influencing and observing American economics and politics. Journalists, however, might pause for a moment on learning about Galbraith's editorial policy at the OAC campus newspaper he helped found, The OACIS. Parker recounts how Galbraith has variously reminisced that his aim was to "give maximum offense to the faculty" and to keep "well on the side of safety."

So which was it? Parker doesn't attempt to resolve the contradiction. Read on, though, and the unresolved question of whether Galbraith set out to defy authority or soothe it takes on greater significance. He emerges as at once a consummate insider and an intellectual maverick. Nowhere is this apparent paradox more striking than in Galbraith's five-year stint at Henry Luce's Fortune magazine, a key formative period when his early interest in journalism intersected with his growing confidence as an economist.

In a series of important articles he wrote or oversaw at Fortune from 1943-48, Galbraith interpreted John Maynard Keynes for the magazine's affluent readership. Touting Keynesian-style government intervention to skeptical businessmen, not least of which was Luce himself, proved to be a delicate task. The ideas themselves seemed bound to give offense; the trick was to present them in a way that stayed on the side of safety.

As Parker shows, those Fortune articles-in sharp contrast to the anti-Keynesian slant adopted at the time by The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and Forbes-prepared the ground for Washington's post-Second World War economic policy. So while we think of Galbraith as having influenced popular understanding of economics mainly through his 1958 book, "The Affluent Society," and his other bestsellers, there can be no doubt that his earlier experience in Luce's shop hammered home lasting lessons about how writing persuasively for a big audience could amplify a thinker's impact.

Galbraith had come from a family and a rural culture in which what the newspaper said mattered a great deal. He was born into the farming community around little Iona Corners in Ontario, Canada. The Toronto Globe was known there as "the Bible" to the local Scots-Canadians, the Galbraith family prominent among them, who shared its support for the Liberal Party and generally progressive bent. (When I interviewed him early this year, Galbraith also made a point of mentioning that the first magazine he remembers seeing as a boy was Maclean's, my Toronto-based home publication.)

His first foray out into the world was to nearby OAC, where he majored in animal husbandry, helped launch that school paper, and did freelance writing for two small southwestern Ontario papers. In 1931, he won a research scholarship in agricultural economics at the University of California at Berkeley and left Canada behind for good. He then went to Harvard and from there to a job in farm policy in Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. He was an early convert to Keynes's theories about government economic management.

By the time Roosevelt was assembling the bureaucracy he would need to run a wartime economy, Galbraith was a natural recruit; he landed in the Office of Price Administration (OPA). With characteristic wit, Galbraith later described the creation of the OPA as even more controversial than instituting the draft, since "the draft involved only the life and liberty of the subject. Price control involved money and property and thus had to be taken more seriously."

Seriously, indeed. In 1943, the system of price controls and rationing that Galbraith had helped create came under sustained attack by conservative congressmen and editorialists. Parker contends the OPA worked remarkably well. Still, Galbraith was finally fired, a big enough story to make Page One of The Washington Post. In one of the biography's more dramatic episodes, Galbraith, just 34, collapses on his living room floor from the stress-a glimpse at the fragile side of a man whose public persona would come to be defined by a sardonic self-assurance.

Galbraith and Journalism
His salvation came at the unlikely hands of Henry Robinson Luce, founder of Time, Inc., and sworn enemy of the New Deal and Roosevelt. What did Luce see in Galbraith? The same thing he saw in the many liberal journalists he employed despite his conservative bent-brains and talent. Just as important was what Galbraith evidently saw in Luce's publishing empire-scope and opportunity.

While Galbraith has suggested that his move to journalism was almost a matter of chance, Parker has mined the Time, Inc. archives to uncover a more elaborate, two-way courtship. Ed Lockett, of Time's Washington bureau, talked to Galbraith "innumerable times" about joining Fortune. Galbraith turned down three overtures while working at the OPA. When he suddenly found himself unemployed, he hit up Fortune's editor, Ralph "Del" Paine, to see if the offer still stood.

Paine wouldn't regret his decision to take on the promising out-of-work economist. Luce had a grand vision for American world leadership after the war, and he had become convinced that Keynesianism would need to be part of the policy mix. Galbraith would bring that message to the readers who mattered. His first big piece on the transition to peace was published in January 1944. It was a triumph. Parker is at his perceptive best describing the article's inner workings. "Carefully avoiding any mention of Keynes by name," he writes, "Galbraith established why big business itself should want a Keynesian-style activist government." By May 1944, Fortune's readers were ready for what Parker calls a "stunningly flattering" article on Keynes, written by John Davenport, a conservative editor, but overseen by Galbraith.

This pivotal phase of Galbraith's life is also a key chapter in the history of American journalism in the last century. The biography goes on to engrossingly survey Galbraith's life as a Harvard professor, presidential adviser, and household-name author, but his link to the news media commands our attention in its own right. His superbly accessible writing has always threatened to overshadow his economic insights. These two elements of Galbraith's gift, though, are finally inseparable.

For anyone who values journalistic independence, but also strives to produce the sort of journalism that can influence the powerful, Parker shows how Galbraith performed that balancing trick as well as it has been done. No wonder he became such a fast friend of the Nieman Foundation. But as a student reporter, way back when, was he out to shock his teachers in animal husbandry or placate them? By the evidence of what came after, one can only guess that he managed to do both.

John Geddes, a 2003 Nieman Fellow, is Ottawa bureau chief for Maclean's.

by John Geddes, Nieman Reports