More than just an economist
a good economist.” His style had been honed in the Forties as editor of Fortune under the influence of Henry Luce, the conservative magazine magnate. “I taught Ken Galbraith to write,” Luce later told President Kennedy, “and I’ve sure regretted it.”
And Galbraith was much more than an economist, though his academic critics, no doubt jealous of his achievement, insisted that he was less than an economist, indeed not really an economist at all, but a populariser, and a populariser who often got things wrong. Galbraith was also a public intellectual and, as a left-liberal, an important influence on the Democratic party which in the Fifties and Sixties was still trading on the intellectual capital of the Roosevelt era, capital which, so Galbraith believed, was “running thin”. “It would be hard,” he told Adlai Stevenson, the failed Democratic presidential candidate in 1952, “at the moment to say what the Democratic Party is for.”
Galbraith was particularly close to President Kennedy, who made him Ambassador to India in 1961. Kennedy also asked him to report on American prospects in Vietnam. Galbraith was prescient, warning, before it became fashionable, against the deployment of American ground troops, and advocating disengagement. “Vietnam,” he insisted, “is of no great intrinsic importance. Had it gone Communist after World War Two we would be just as strong as now and we would never waste a thought on it. No question of high principle is involved. It is their rascals or ours.”
Kennedy was untroubled by Galbraith’s various shows of dissidence. Indeed, he seems to have welcomed it. “Politically,” the president said, “it is always better to have you on the other side.”
These letters, therefore, should have been fascinating. But they are curiously disappointing. Part of the reason for this is that the editor has not performed his task of selection very effectively. Galbraith was a compulsive letterwriter over seven decades and his archive contains about 40,000 letters and memoranda. But too many of the letters in this volume are trivial, recording family holidays, greetings to friends, the acceptance of academic appointments, or invitations to visit. What, for example, are we to make of this to the Master of Winthrop House, Harvard, in which the great economist approaches a Pooterish level of triviality?
There are also too many ephemeral letters to newspapers and drafts of presidential speeches – valuable no doubt in their day, but very much of their time.
The meat of the letters lies in Galbraith’s ideas on public policy. The central theme of the book that made his reputation, The Affluent Society, was that the emphasis on private consumption by the conservative regimes of Eisenhower in America and Macmillan in Britain was promoting “bigger and better tail fins on cars” at the expense of public services such as health, education and protection of the environment. Private affluence was being combined with public squalor. To put things right, government intervention was needed. Galbraith was an unrepentant statist; indeed, the leitmotif of his economics was distrust of the market. Inadequacies in the public services could be remedied by more government spending, while inflation was to be cured by wage and price controls. Galbraith’s ideas influenced president Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, but as Ronald Reagan was later ruefully but not unjustly to comment, “We declared war on poverty – but poverty won.”
Galbraith saw himself as a Keynesian, but his real intellectual ancestor was the iconoclast Thorstein Veblen, who introduced into economics the idea of “conspicuous consumption”, consumption that was artificially stimulated by advertising. Interestingly, Galbraith regards Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class as one of the three books that “are indispensable in economics”, alongside Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Keynes’s General Theory. And, like Veblen, Galbraith too often substituted ridicule of his opponents and sarcasm for argument, by alleging that market economists were simply rationalising the needs of the rich and powerful.
He was out of sympathy with the movement away from the activist liberalism of the New Deal, which had come to be seen, by the Eighties, as tax and spend liberalism. President Clinton’s New Democrats understood that the economics appropriate to an industrial society based on mass production and class divisions were no longer relevant in a world of globalisation in which the
The letters of J K Galbraith, a famed wit and a political big beast, should have been brilliant, says Vernon Bogdanor ‘I taught Galbraith to write,’ said his old boss, ‘and I’ve sure regretted it’
‘The bestselling economist in history – after Karl Marx’: John Kenneth Galbraith in Toronto, 1976