More than just an economist

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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

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