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"An exemplary intellectual biography"

Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

A fittingly oversized life of the eminent economist, philosopher, writer, and diplomat.

John Kenneth Galbraith, now 96, has long been famed for his patrician bearing and PBS-friendly intellectual prowess. Yet, Parker (Kennedy School of Government/Harvard Univ.) writes, Galbraith grew up on an Ontario farm far from any cultural centers and had barely heard of most of the great economic philosophers until arriving at graduate school; thanks to his agricultural background, Galbraith may have been the only New Deal "alphabet agency" appointee capable of keeping up with the sometime farmer John Maynard Keynes on the best way to raise hogs. Yet his domain soon extended well beyond rural policy; as an advisor, informal or formal, to every Democratic president since FDR, Galbraith has been instrumental in shaping much domestic and foreign policy. He also served as JFK's ambassador to India and, Parker suggests, was in line to become ambassador to the Soviet Union when Kennedy was assassinated, after which he had a most celebrated falling out with Lyndon Johnson and emerged as one of the intellectual left's most powerful critics of the war in Vietnam. Though scorned by many more number-oriented economists--MIT's Paul Samuelson once dismissed him as "America's foremost economist for non-economists"--Galbraith has cast a giant shadow on just about every corner of American public life; he has also been catholic in his criticism, decrying the policies of Bill Clinton as well as those of Richard Nixon and now George W. Bush. Parker ably explores the development of Galbraith's thought, illuminating some fascinating questions as he does: Why, for instance, did business people once cry foul at government intervention but welcome "a business cycle moderated by 'business Keynesianism' "? How did guns come to coexist with butter, and butter with guns? Whatever happened to the notion of countervailing power, a term that Galbraith so nicely coined--as he did "the affluent society," "the conventional wisdom," and other useful handles?

Accessible, well-written approach to both Galbraith's life and the larger issues to which he has so effectively devoted his thought: an exemplary intellectual biography.

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