"Democracy's keeper"

January 18, 2005

JOHN KENNETH Galbraith coined the phrase "conventional wisdom," and again and again, across a lifetime, he has shown how to transcend it. I have just read an early copy of "John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics" by Richard Parker, and the story of this man's life and work, wonderfully rendered in this magnum opus, offers an antidote to the public ennui, economic cruelty, and government malfeasance that poison life in America today.

I have known Parker for years and have discussed his work with him often. Like many writers, I have had the benefit of professor Galbraith's encouragement and remain amazed to realize that we are friends. But in reading Richard's book, those intimate relationships fell away as I saw with a first full clarity the scope of Galbraith's significance.

As a member of the US Strategic Bombing Survey immediately after World War II, for example, the young economist was one of those charged with evaluating the effect of the Allied air campaigns against Germany and Japan. Against claims made for air power at the time (and against Pentagon assumptions that still privilege strategic bombing), Galbraith's team showed that neither enemy manufacturing capacity nor morale were significantly hampered by bombing.

Most unconventionally, the agency's report on the effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki concluded that "Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated." In 1945, Galbraith was left with a lifelong skepticism about bombing, which, alas, his country would not share.

Galbraith was John Kennedy's ambassador to India, and at a crucial point in 1962, to take another example, he drafted a blistering memo about incipient American involvement in Vietnam. The best argument that Kennedy might have pursued a different course in Vietnam is that, in Galbraith, he had a trusted adviser who argued against the folly of military intervention.

Galbraith's 1962 memo, in particular, remains a prophetic affirmation of the primacy of war prevention (aka diplomacy) over unfettered war preparation. If Galbraith's vision in the early 1960s had been enshrined in US foreign policy, America would not have been lost in the trek through the wilderness from which, despite the passage of a mythic 40 years, the nation has yet to emerge.

As an economist, Galbraith defined the structures of humane social and financial organization with more brilliance and influence than anyone else of his era. His savage critiques of greed, and government's capitulations to its captains, informed the nation again and again, both through his Democratic Party activism and through hugely popular books like "The Affluent Society" and "The New Industrial State."

At Harvard, he reinvented the role of scholar and teacher and became the beau ideal of the public intellectual. A man obsessed with details of what makes for efficient economic performance and equitable distribution of wealth, he never confused the making or accumulation of "goods" with the Good Society. For Galbraith, as Parker puts it, "what lay beyond the mere production and possession of things was always more important."

War and peace, economic justice, the future of democracy, global connectedness -- even the basic issue of whether human reason itself can stand against irrationality and superstition: All of these questions, on which Americans once seemed to approach consensus, today define unexpected borders of conflict.

The legacy of authentic American liberalism has been sullied by the reluctance of its heirs, especially in the Democratic Party, to proclaim its ongoing relevance to such crucial debates. Galbraith, beginning with his service in the New Deal and continuing through his public, academic, literary, and political life's work, is a creator of that legacy and remains even now its staunchest defender.

Parker casts one eye back across what he calls "the prodigious career of a single man." But Parker's other eye, more implicitly, takes in current transformations of market capitalism, culture-changing innovations of science and technology, and threats of world disorder before which even great democracies tremble.

Against accumulating fears, Parker lifts up a single life as an image of how intelligence, compassion, and commitment remain the essence of social hope. Somehow, we humans regularly undercut ourselves by imagining that such virtues are rare. In contrast, Parker not only finds them amply supplied in John Kenneth Galbraith, but reminds us of Galbraith's creed -- that the intelligence, compassion, and commitment of every person are what define democracy, and what keep justice at the center its work.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

by James Carroll, The Boston Globe