Canada's intellectual giant

February 19, 2005

Identifying myself as a Canadian to an unusually well-versed taxi driver in Florence while on sabbatical leave 10 years ago, I was asked what I thought about my fellow countryman, John Kenneth Galbraith. Given the limitations of my Italian, I gave a short answer: The famous economist was Canada's greatest contribution to civilizing American capitalism.

The long answer is to be found in the admirable biography, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, which explains in careful detail how a lanky, 6-foot 8-inch farm boy from southwestern Ontario came to Harvard University via Washington, D.C., and bestrode the post-Second World War era as its intellectual colossus.

From an inauspicious academic start at what was probably the worst postsecondary institution in the province, the Ontario Agricultural College, Ken Galbraith managed to win a scholarship to study agricultural economics at Berkeley.

The second fortuitous move came in 1934: a three-year lectureship in economics at Harvard University, where John Black, a major New Deal adviser in farm policy, proceeded to foster his career for the next crucial 15 years, when he became a leading exponent of activist government in Democratic Washington. Black invited Galbraith to co-author what became his first significant academic publication. He got him a research project to analyze FDR's Farm Credit Administration. He also helped Galbraith obtain a grant at Cambridge University to study the exciting economic theories being propounded there by John Maynard Keynes, got him a contract to review the New Deal's public works programs, and helped place him as economist for the American Farm Bureau.

With war looming, the now-leading spokesman in the Roosevelt administration was entrusted with locating the new factories needed to crank out tanks, planes and bombs. In 1941, he was appointed to administer price controls and rationing for the entire U.S. economy, an operation so successfully draconian that, after two years, he was forced out by the Republican right who denounced him as the herald of a communist revolution.

Then to Henry Luce's new magazine for big business, Fortune, where the undauntable champion of activist government explained to the magazine's readers how government policies could satisfy the public's needs, thereby saving capitalism and keeping them rich.

In 1944-45, Galbraith was in war-torn Europe documenting for the air force how the Allies' bombing campaign had left German war production largely intact, while incinerating unarmed civilians by the hundreds of thousands.

In Truman's Washington, he was made director of the Department of State's new Office of Economic Security Policy, but his voice of moderation became unacceptable to the now-triumphant military-industrial complex.
In 1948, the still-mentoring John Black brought his controversial proteg back to Harvard's economics department and waged a year-long battle to secure him a tenured professorship.Finally ensconced the next year in his own chair, at the age of 41, with extensive experience in public policy, political struggle and public advocacy, Galbraith was poised to launch the second phase of his brilliant career as global intellectual and adviser to Democratic presidents.

Of the dozens of books that he was to publish over the next half century, his trilogy on the emerging economic system turned Galbraith into Keynes's undisputed successor as an economist who could communicate iconoclastic but activist theories to the general public. With a lively style and mordant wit, he argued a case the authority of which came from an intimate knowledge of government and a professional's understanding of his economist colleagues' analytical failings.

American Capitalism (1952) presented a theory of countervailing power, arguing that trust-busting was futile, since corporate bigness was "countervailed" by other big interests, whether large retailers, consumer networks, labour unions or government itself.
The Affluent Society (1955) showed that U.S. capitalism had created a serious imbalance between private affluence and public penury.

The New Industrial State (1967) focused on the economy's "technostructure," made up by its giant corporations, which constituted a private-sector planned economy.

For Galbraith, economics had failed. With its pretension to be a hard science, and its obsession with mathematical modelling, it had lost touch with the real institutional factors that determined actual economic behaviour. "In making economics a nonpolitical subject," Galbraith wrote, "neoclassical theory destroys the relation of economics to the real world . . . it manipulates levers to which no machinery is attached."

Presiding from his Harvard chair did not mean living in an ivory tower. Installed with his family in a large red brick house in leafy Cambridge, Mass., he nourished friendships with scores of the great names of postwar United States: McGeorge Bundy, for instance, with whom he socialized, or historian Arthur Schlesinger, whose garden backed onto his own.

That his friends were mostly Democrats led him to campaign for Adlai Stevenson, offering his advice on economic policy. Then, Galbraith became a central member of the Kennedy brain trust, writing speeches for the presidential candidate, even acting as a floor manager at the 1960 convention where Kennedy won the nomination.

Returning as a central figure in Washington's corridors of power, Galbraith devoted himself to resisting the U.S. entry into the Vietnam war. In vain did he steal a top-secret report by Pentagon hawks from Walt Rostow's White House desk in order to present the president his strong, practical refutation to the case for engaging militarily in Southeast Asia. Although sent off as ambassador to India, he continued to dispatch memoranda direct to the Oval Office, making the case against armed intervention.

Although Lyndon Johnson sought his political advice, Galbraith broadened his resistance to the president's Vietnam policy, published another volume, How To Get Out of Vietnam, and ended up on the cover of Time magazine as the intellectual leader of the anti-war movement. His progressive beliefs were not restricted to high politics. In 1969, Galbraith supported the Harvard student body when it went on strike. His solidarity with feminism led him to endow a fund to help women students at Harvard who became pregnant.

Ronald Reagan's arrival in Washington only provoked Galbraith to redouble his efforts. In the 1980s, he published seven more books, reviewed many more, and received 663 references in The New York Times for attacking such perfidies as Reagan's Star Wars or Paul Volcker's conversion of the Federal Reserve Board to monetarism, the counter-Keynesian theory of his nemesis, Milton Friedman. Even in the 1990s, he produced several hundred articles, speeches and interviews, and five new books including his third novel, which was enthusiastically reviewed as his slyest satire yet.

At 670 pages of text, this biography is a long book. Those who do not want to engage with Richard Parker's detailed exposition of the finer points separating Galbraith from his fellow economists may find it too long. Those who expect to understand Galbraith the man will be disappointed as well. This is an authorized biography, and it reads as if the subject traded access to his voluminous files for an interdiction of any discussion of his private life. We do not even learn much about his family. When his six-year-old second son died from leukemia, Parker reports dryly, "husband and wife both displayed great dignity and compassion."

Globe and Mail readers may find an additional lacuna in this narrative, for, although Galbraith may have failed in his mission to civilize U.S. capitalism, he had far more success in the land of his birth.

Parker, a political economist himself at Harvard's Kennedy School, ably locates Galbraith's roots in the radical farmers' movement in turn-of-the-century Ontario, but he has nothing to say about his considerable influence in Canada. When, for instance, I was working with Christina McCall on our even longer biography of Pierre Trudeau, Galbraith told us the prime minister, who had already appropriated his notion of countervailing power, consulted him at great length on how to combat inflation. Trudeau's "superb response" took the form of introducing wage and price controls in 1975.

Richard Parker has produced a rich, well-written and fittingly large monument to this super-sized intellectual of the 20th century.

Stephen Clarkson professes political economy at the University of Toronto, where he directs a research program on the governance of North America.

Copyright 2005 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

by Stephen Clarkson, Globe and Mail