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Economist's life worth a read Galbraith engaged in worlds of politics, public discourse

Monday, February 28th, 2005

Once upon a time, America had a celebrity economist -- John Kenneth Galbraith

He hung out with the Kennedys, appeared on the front page of The New York Times, responded to letters from the public and fielded calls from reporters and editors at Harper's, The Atlantic, The New Republic and (now defunct) The Saturday Review.

He was a best-selling author, a public intellectual and an economic adviser to every Democratic president from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Galbraith is still a celebrity but, at age 96, he leads a quieter life.

As befits a luminary, he now has an authorized biography, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, by Richard Parker, who has published widely on economics and public policy, and directs Harvard's program on economics and journalism. Parker is also a co-founder of Mother Jones, which might scare away some conservatives if his subject doesn't do so first.

A book about any other economist -- authorized or not -- might be a snoozer, but Parker works diligently to keep us awake and aware.

We meet him in the late summer of 1934, as he sails on the S.S. Acadia from Baltimore to Boston, where he has accepted a teaching post at Harvard. Galbraith, 25, is fresh from a summer job in Washington, D.C., where he worked for one of Roosevelt's New Deal agencies, newly created to help America recover from the Great Depression. The experience was a baptism by fire.

Parker flashes back to Galbraith's farm boy childhood in Ontario; his family's roots in Scotland; his father's standing as a respected liberal; and Galbraith's undergraduate studies at an agricultural school he later described to Time magazine as "probably the worst college in the English-speaking world." He majored in animal husbandry. Then he left the world of hog-grading to pursue a graduate degree at Berkeley. On the trip, his friend's Oakland sedan threw a rod in Iowa, and Galbraith spent much of the $500 he had earmarked for living expenses during his first year.

Unfortunately, when Parker gets down to the business of Galbraith's career, the book loses some of its wonderful atmosphere. He fights to keep that from happening, and Galbraith's colorful work history helps.

World War II work

Driven to be "a useful economist," Galbraith engaged himself in the messy world of politics and in public discourse. Central to his beliefs are that economics and politics cannot be separated, nor should economists and those who decide public policy.

As a "price czar" for America, he was charged with keeping prices from spiraling out of control during World War II. As a civilian chief of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, he concluded that the Allied air campaign in Germany had not been effective -- a report that the U.S. military ignored. He worked for the State Department as part of the effort to rebuild Germany and Japan, but left after seven months because he felt "cut off from any meaningful decision making." Galbraith served as U.S. ambassador to India; was a close friend and adviser to JFK; helped design Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty; and was influential in many presidential campaigns.

Outside government, Galbraith was a rabble-rousing journalist at Fortune, introducing the ideas of John Maynard Keynes to a wide audience. At Harvard, his liberal theories caused clashes; he created an uproar when he sided with students protesting the Vietnam War.

Parker's book is more than a chronicle of Galbraith's life; it's a history of American politics and policy from FDR through George W. Bush. It especially illustrates the slow death of New Deal liberalism at the hands of big business. The turning point of that story comes during the Nixon administration.

Every good plot has a villain, and Richard Nixon makes a delicious one. We hear him on tape, pounding his desk and ordering Treasury Secretary John Connally to "destroy" Galbraith, who had accused his administration of mishandling the economy.

Then the author catalogs how the Nixon administration "shifted the world into an unstable global economy" and "began a financial roller-coaster ride of inflation and recession, feckless monetary policies, financial market bubbles, commodity market collapses, and heedless lending practices followed by financial collapse -- a manic ride that repeated itself over and over again for three decades."

Writing life

Galbraith wrote four dozen books, not only economic tomes, but fiction and memoir. His writing style was accessible and witty and avoided calculus, algebra and regression analysis. This raised the ire of "blackboard" economists but won him a large public following. Among his most influential books were American Capitalism (1952), The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967).

Galbraith argued that government should take an active role in the market, exercising its power to stimulate the economy when necessary through deficit spending on new investment and social programs.

Tax cuts and interest rate adjustments, he said, are clumsy tools that invite unpredictable results. He wrote about issues of inequality and poverty and power imbalance as no economist had before him.

He believes a society should be measured by the strength of its social and cultural programs. He is troubled by the growth of military spending at the expense of education and social reform.

Galbraith allowed that business concentration was a natural evolution in capitalism, but he introduced the concept of countervailing power -- that the forces of big labor and an activist government could keep big business in check. To his chagrin, he watched these countervailing powers weaken. As big business got stronger and government became supportive, even protective of it, he observed that true market forces applied only to small and midsize businesses.

In-depth explanations

Parker discusses Galbraith's books in fine theoretical detail, which often makes for eat-your-vegetables reading. And he writes as though his readers know little about political events in the 20th century, painstakingly recounting nearly every economic and political occurrence during Galbraith's life. Many readers, especially younger ones, will find this extremely helpful at times. But those with a solid grounding in recent American history will be irked.

To be fair, 20th-century history and how Galbraith fits into it are critical to the biography. In many ways, this is the very point of the book. Galbraith's story is the story of national and world political and economic events.

Even the most liberal readers will grow tired of how prescient Galbraith seems through Parker's eyes. Time after time, he tells us that Galbraith wasn't surprised by this or that policy outcome and that things turned out just as he predicted. But Parker keeps the book balanced by devoting plenty of pages to Galbraith's opponents and their responses to his work.

Two sections of photographs greatly enhance the biography and make the economist more human. There's Galbraith sitting astride a parked motorcycle in Paris; wearing a kilt and ice skates; looking pensive with Gloria Steinem; escorting Jacqueline Kennedy at a state dinner.

Parker's immediate contribution is a biography that will make readers more economically and politically aware. Parker hopes Galbraith's story will help us "understand something larger about where we are all now going."

And where exactly is that?

Copyright 2005 Gannett Company, Inc.  

by Lyn Millner
USA Today