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Seeing the details as well as the big picture

Sunday, March 13th, 2005

  In the last half-century, John Kenneth Galbraith has been the most famous and widely read economist in the world.

  An engaging writer and dryly quotable source, he published dozens of books and countless articles, served as adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and regularly blasted subsequent Republican administrations.

  He made several iterations of Nixon's Enemies List and was repeatedly investigated by the FBI, whose agents in 1955 found him "favorable except conceited, egotistical and snobbish" (which delighted him when he learned of it later).

  Galbraith served on a postwar commission that studied strategic bombing of Germany (and concluded that despite its tremendous moral cost, it had had little or no effect on the Nazi war machine -- much to our military's embarrassment), had a successful two-year stint as ambassador to India, was an early and vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, and published three novels.

  Richard Parker's "John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics" is the first substantial biography of this 6-foot-8, Canadian-born Harvard professor who refused to hide in academia. Parker -- as co-founding editor and publisher of Mother Jones magazine, consultant and fund-raiser for Democratic candidates and Greenpeace, and finally Harvard professor of economics and public policy himself -- is uniquely situated to draw a richly sympathetic portrait.

  Galbraith is not an inherently interesting man, nor do his life and theories present an especially compelling read. What makes Parker's biography worthwhile is its mosaic of the many worlds through which Galbraith moved: It offers an excellent review of recent political and economic history, though the slant is decidedly liberal.

  It's good to be reminded that different political parties have repeatedly been thought dead (the Democrats in 1955 and 1985, Republicans in 1941 and 1965), only to rise again, and that the nation handled dire economic crises (inflation in 1971, the first oil crisis in 1973, the Depression itself), if uneasily and temporarily.

  Galbraith forecast the failure of Republican economic policies, the growth of corporate management that is unresponsive to shareholders and manipulates demand, and repeatedly scolded his profession for its increasing worship of complex mathematical modeling that ignores huge chunks of political and economic reality -- such as burgeoning military budgets or the public good -- to make the numbers work.

  He saw the details as well as the big picture and practiced what he preached. Galbraith froze his own Harvard salary after his books began to sell and turned back the surplus to his department. He gave his longtime housekeeper a condo upon her retirement, directed a percentage of his books' royalties to his assistant and editor, and set up an anonymous fund to assist students who found themselves unexpectedly pregnant.

  Parker seems to want to reach a broader, general audience, but his explanations of economic theory will leave lay readers lost. One would do well to keep a complete idiot's guide to economics by one's elbow while reading this book.

  Not terribly lively but solid, "John Kenneth Galbraith" offers plenty of consolation for the mournful blue-stater who chooses to scale it, and food for thought about where we might (and should) be headed.

David Loftus recently reviewed "Splendid Solution" by Jeffrey Kluger for The Oregonian.
  ©2005The Oregonian

by David Loftus
The Oregonian