Rational Exuberance

March 20, 2005

John Kenneth Galbraith, now in his 97th year, has had an expansive career. Arguably America's best-known economist, as well as a former government official, journalist, public intellectual, presidential confidante, ambassador, antiwar activist and even a successful novelist, the outsized Galbraith surely deserves a biography almost as long as the one Richard Parker has written.

Readers whose patience will be tried by Parker's densely written 820-page tome will nonetheless appreciate the clarity and insight he brings to this portrait of the outsider as insider. For Galbraith's main contribution to politics as well as economics was to be a gadfly in tweed, skeptical of all authority and any system of fixed thought. Anyone too heavily invested in preserving the "conventional wisdom" -- a term he coined in his most famous work, The Affluent Society (1958) -- would feel the sting of his debunking, made more painful by the wit and elegance with which it was delivered. What's surprising in Parker's account is not that Galbraith had so many enemies across the ideological spectrum but that he was tolerated in high places for so long.

Galbraith's outsider stance derived partly from his background. Born into unpromising circumstances in rural Ontario, indifferently educated at a local agricultural school that he described as "not only the cheapest but probably the worst college in the English-speaking world," he escaped a potential future as a hog grader by winning a graduate fellowship in economics at Berkeley and then an instructorship at Harvard. There he collided with rigidly conservative professors whose faith in the market was ultimately theological rather than (as they imagined) scientific, and which not even the trauma of the Depression could shake.

Public service, in the New Deal and then as director of price control during World War II, gave Galbraith an understanding of real-world economic problems beyond that of most academics. Participation in the postwar U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, in which he determined that neither enemy morale nor production was impeded by Allied bombing of German and Japanese cities, provided an education in the lengths to which powerful figures will go to ensure that their assumptions remain undisturbed by inconvenient truths. Confrontations with red-baiting politicians brought notoriety, while a string of bestsellers (Parker calculates that Galbraith's books have sold more than 7 million copies) propelled him to fame. As a much-interviewed public commentator, he was part of a cultured and cosmopolitan group of action-minded thinkers who briefly made intellect seem glamorous.

Harvard connections and experience as a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson brought Galbraith into John F. Kennedy's inner circle and led to his appointment as ambassador to India in 1961. Despite his distance from Washington, he retained a direct connection to the president, who relished his spicily written cables; Galbraith once wrote to Kennedy that attempting to communicate through the State Department was "like trying to fornicate through a mattress." Galbraith was an early and prescient critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and Parker argues persuasively that he moved Kennedy toward restraint in the Cold War as well as Keynesian economic policies at home. When Galbraith proved unable to moderate Lyndon B. Johnson's Vietnam adventurism, he metamorphosed into one of the most prominent "establishment" critics of the war.

Much of this story has been told by Galbraith himself in his journals and autobiography -- and in prose like brandy, where Parker's is more like cold water. What makes Parker's biography valuable, however, is his ability to place Galbraith in a sweeping and comprehensive history of the evolution of economic thought, and to keep sight of his subject's continuing relevance to the present day.

Parker, an economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, points out that Galbraith has been looked down upon (figuratively if not literally) by most members of the economics profession for the past half-century. Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson, for example, described him as "America's foremost economist for non-economists." This reaction reflects not only jealousy but also professional pique over Galbraith's skepticism toward the mathematical modeling and equations that have come to define modern economics. But Galbraith knew that reality was messier than the clean and well-lit universe of the theorists. He battled not only with "rational expectations" conservatives but also with guns-and-butter Keynesian liberals, whose policies fostered the public squalor alongside private affluence that persists to this day.

Parker clearly means for Galbraith's example to inspire modern liberals. In 1953, when the energies of the New Deal had faded and Democrats were at nearly as low an ebb as they are today, Galbraith wrote to Stevenson to propose an initiative to "keep the Democratic Party intellectually alert and positive during these years in the wilderness." The subsequent success of Galbraith and his fellow thinkers in providing fresh ideas helped reinvigorate the party and led to a new era of liberal dominance.

Whether today's Democratic Party has the courage to bring independent intellectuals of Galbraith's stripe into positions of power remains to be seen. But the dominant conservatives ought to ponder Galbraith's warning: "The threat to men of great dignity, privilege and pretense is not from the radicals they revile; it is from accepting their own myth."

Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of "The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment." He has taught history at Yale University and is a manager at the Advisory Board Company in Washington, D.C.

2005 The Washington Post Company

by Geoffrey Kabaservice, The Washington Post