The gadfly professor
Kenneth O. Morgan
A Life for our Times John Kenneth Galbraith (Deutsch pp. 563, £7.50) John Kenneth Galbraith, so he concludes at the end of this highly enjoyable volume of reminiscence, has had a 'lifelong commitment to losing causes'. It is an unexpected verdict, perhaps another example of the author's talent for self-deprecating irony, perhaps a perverse reflection of his attachment to Cambridge (rather than to Oxford). England. If ever there has been a man of our times, a communicator extraordinary, it has surely been Galbraith. His gifts as an economist, through which one 'conventional wisdom' has been dethroned in order to make way for his own, have combined with a journalistic flair matured in editing the Fortune of Henry Luce and spiced with his own brand of black humour (who else would have combed the New York mortuary statistics for 1929 to see the precise impact of the Great Crash on the suicide rate?). These qualities have made Galbraith the outstanding best-selling American economist since Veblen, and the confidant of the great from FDR to LBJ. Phrases like 'countervailing power' and 'the affluent society' have long since entered our vocabulary, proof of the popular appeal of one economist who has made his science less than dismal.
Yet, on examining Galbraith's career, one can see what he means by 'losing causes'. For it is as a political activist as well as an economic theorist that he has most wished to be remembered. Here, for all the apparent dominance of the ethic of the New Deal new frontiersman from Harvard Yard in the years since 1945, the record is one of effort unrewarded. His first close political attachment was to Adlai Stevenson, an urbane but comprehensive loser in both 1952 and 1956. Galbraith then switched to Kennedy who did indeed win, narrowly, in 1960, and who, in an inspired appointment made Galbraith ambassador to India. But Dallas ended all that, and afterwards it has been a record of steady disappointment — with Johnson, with the defeats of Gene McCarthy and and always in the background the appalling holocaust of Vietnam against which Galbraith warned courageously as early as 1962. Even his economics are no longer fashionable, with long-term opponents like von Hayek and Friedman enjoying acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. In Reagan's America, Galbraith seems destined for the oblivion of Bryan, La Follette and all the liberal saints who for their labours rest.
Yet an analysis of his remarkable career puts this all into perspective. Every phase of Galbraith's public life underlines his enduring influence, for all the temporary political setbacks. He was born an iconoclast, and this outlook served him well from the time that he left the pastures of southern Ontario to move to Harvard as a student in the early Thirties. Here we get attractive vignettes of such local celebrities as Taussig and Schumpeter; but what is most arresting is the massive impact of Keynes's General Theory upon the academic world in 1936-7. Galbraith (shortly to go to King's to study under the master) became one of its most articulate representatives. He surely exaggerates the immediate effect of Keynesian economics upon the Roosevelt administration in the late Thirties; but during the wartime period Keynesian techniques of economic management acquired a new relevance. Indeed, the account of his time as director of price controls from 1941 is peculiarly fascinating, not least for the style of the Roosevelt years. Galbraith notes the 'Hemingway syndrome' which led Washington men to embrace a raffish life-style full of slow horses and fast women. It was evidently a world in which Galbraith, like that other 'sensual puritan', Aneurin Bevan. felt temperamentally as well as intellectually at home.
The charm of politics never ceased to beguile him thereafter. In 1945 he was involved with surveying the impact of total war upon the German and Japanese economies. Typically, he noted that the main effect of Allied bombing had been substantially to increase German wartime production. He remained close to politics in his subsequent period as editor of Fortune and then as a singularly public professor at Harvard from 1948. The involvement with Stevenson and with the liberal crusades of the Americans for Democratic Action led to Galbraith's shrewdly timed switch to Kennedy and then to a remarkably eventful phase as ambassador to India. He was at the centre of many crises here — Goa, the Ladakh war with China, confrontation with Ayub Khan. In each case, ambassador Galbraith emerged triumphant over the 'secular priesthood' of the State Department, of whom (particularly Dean Rusk) he has some unusually bitter things to say. The great exception was the growing involvement in Vietnam. It caused strain between him and Kennedy. The arrival of Lyndon Johnson — for all Galbraith's regard for his 'manipulative skills and his agrarian populism — finally ended the professor's affair with high politics. He left office in 1966 and devoted his energies thereafter to campaigning against the expanding war in south-east Asia. It had little immediate effect. The war dragged on, the holocaust of lives continued, the 'unyoung, unpoor and unblack' Americans brought Nixonland' to the White House. In the end, Galbraith was left as a high-and-dry old New Dealer, a self-proclaimed conservative who announced the Liberal Hour, a prophet disarmed, almost (save on BBC television) without honour.
This book is mainly an account of action rather than ideas. It is great fun to read; 'Galbraithian quotations may enliven many journalistic columns, but surely never Pseuds' Corner. It is studded with splendid portraits of the great from Speer to Nehru and many excellent jokes, often of the lavatorial variety and owing much to Lyndon Johnson's personal style of four-letter profanity. There is an entertaining account of a West Virginia Democrat explaining the precise moral to be drawn from Napoleon's famous victory at Waterloo. In Galbraith's Ambassador's Journal, the jokes are even better — witness the tale of Johnson uttering the 'Texas yell' to test the acoustics of the Taj Mahal, or the account of Duncan Sandys — 'he reminds Nehru of the kind of Englishman who put him in jail'. It is not an intellectual autobiography. There is no great discussion of the evolution of the author's economic ideas, or the writing of his celebrated works on American Capitalism, the Affluent Society or the New Industrial State. This is unfortunate, as Galbraith is unable to reply here to some of his critics, for instance those who have seen his theory of 'countervailing power' as little more than Adam Smith's 'hidden hand' in 20th-century guise, or those who claim that his benevolent account of US capitalism in 1952 ingored such basic factors as the role of defence spending in the economy then and later. Nor is it explained how the businessman's guide to the galaxy of 1952 changed into the advocate of federal production, investment and price controls a decade later. Yet, the logic and consistency of Galbraith's economic philosophy still comes through — his analysis of the dynamic in market forces that have prompted 'oligopoly' in the business world and his exposure of the consequent social and environmental costs, especially when reinforced by monetanst fiscal policies. The links he spells out, however briefly, between the viability of the large corporation and a monetarist approach is not only testimony. to his heritage of agrarian populism and fear of `bigness'. It is consonant with a lifetime of remarkable consistency devoted to a humane economic policy: On the whole, there is not much sense of a commitment to lost causes here. Nor does Galbraith, who does not usually err on the Side of false modesty, probably believe it either. This autobiography records a wholly admirable life, a crusade against crass monolithic convention. Galbraith is far from being the cloistered professor detached from the world outside — neither was Woodrow Wilson. This most elitist of gadflies has been, to appropriate Alan Taylor's term applied to the British context, the most creative of 'troublemakers'. Like his British counterparts, he has usually been proved right in the end. On international affairs, the Galbraith diagnosis, arguing against the rigidities of the Cold War, seeing the Communist world as monolithic, or plunging the United States into open-ended neo-colonialism as in Vietnam, has been confirmed again and again. In domestic economics, the catastrophic record of British and Israeli monetarists of late suggests that the credibility of the Keynesian critique, suitably refurbished for the very different kind of recession confronting us in the 1980s, will soon be vindicated anew. Perhaps, in the end, the best thing about Galbraith is less what he has done than what he has been — a symbol of earthy urbanity, of realistic liberalism, a Scotch-Canadian good deed in a naughty Anglo-Saxon world.