800 pages add up to total look at economist

February 06, 2005

For celebrity economist John Kenneth Galbraith, monetary and fiscal policies cannot be reduced to numbers and equations.

Galbraith believes all economic decisions are enmeshed with messy politics and the best messy politics are of the liberal Democratic variety.

Of those on the other side of the political spectrum, Galbraith has them dismissed like this: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy -- that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

Such biting pronouncements are a biographer's dream. Still, writing a biography of a living person is daunting, especially when that person is turning 97, has held numerous important positions inside and outside government, written millions of words, sparked countless political and economic debates and accumulated supporters and detractors galore.

Galbraith was born during 1908 in a rural Canadian town. He found his way unexpectedly to the faculty of Harvard University in 1934.

Passionate about politics, hoping his economic theories could help reform-minded Democrats make the world a better place to live, the imposing Galbraith (6 feet 8 inches tall, with a mind that never stopped calculating) imposed himself onto the public consciousness through a torrent of written and spoken words.

Credit biographer Richard Parker for tackling Galbraith's controversial, complicated life in print. Parker, an economist affiliated with Harvard, won Galbraith's cooperation.

The book is massive. It tops 800 pages, including more than 100 pages of small-type source notes that help readers evaluate how Parker knows what he says he knows.

There's nothing sensational here, in substance or in style.

Parker tells the saga in a mostly traditional chronological manner and is not a memorable wordsmith. But Galbraith is such a forceful person, one who engages in such significant issues and mingles with so many famous men and women that Parker need not be inventive to make his subject's life interesting.

In addition to lucidly explaining the economic theories of Galbraith and his opponents, Parker includes lively chapters about his subject's ambassadorship to India, influence on President John F. Kennedy, leadership in organizing dissent against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, genesis of bestselling books ("The Affluent Society," to mention one), his family life filled with joys and sorrows and much more.

At times, the narrative threatens to overwhelm you because Parker decides to include yet another explication of a Galbraith tome, yet another debate with an angry economist opponent, yet another journey to accept an award or present a speech. The biography is sometimes hard going because the detail is so abundant, the disagreements over economic policy so technical. But the intellectual rewards for continuing to read justify the effort.

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by Steve Weinberg, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel