Citizen Ken

Is there no end to the variety of Professor J.K. Galbraith? A superb diplomatist, a masterful populariser of economics, a humble philosopher who has walked with pundits yet kept his common touch, Professor Galbraith now allows us a glimpse of yet another aspect of his protean genius. In the spirit of Voltaire’s proposition that “true comedy is the speaking picture of the follies and foibles of a nation,” the professor, mysteriously disguised as “Mark Epernay,” has just published The McLandress Dimension, a “book” consisting of seven magazine articles, each based on a single joke. For instance, the McLandress Coefficient “is the arithmetic mean or average of the intervals of time during which a subject’s thoughts remain centered on some substantive phenomenon other than his own personality.” That’s all there is to it. We learn that Miss Elizabeth Taylor can think about something other than herself for three minutes (theater people have low coefficients). Politicians also tend to be low. At twenty-nine minutes, the President’s coefficient is relatively high. Senator Javits at four minutes is about par. Richard Nixon’s three seconds is unusually low. Professor Galbraith clocks himself in at one minute fifteen seconds which seems fair. But then what is one to make of: “both Mr. Arthur Miller and Mr. Tennessee Williams have a rating of thirty-five minutes. Mr. Gore Vidal, by contrast, has a rating of twelve and a half minutes?” I find this…one finds this odd.

The game amuses for a page or two. Then it palls because to make this sort of thing work one must either have considerable powers of invention or a style so perfectly aphoristic that each judgment sounds like the Earl of Rochester on a good day. Unfortunately, Professor Galbraith has little power of invention, while his prose, although lucid, lacks the bite of the true satirist. One wearies of his jokes even more rapidly than one did of those made by his two immediate predecessors, Stephen Potter and the author of Parkinson’s Law. The professor rings no unexpected changes. He continually forces his wit and wit, forced, is a poor thing. Only occasionally does he hit the right not. When he does, the result is remarkably satisfying, particularly when he explains why the people at a court (London or Washington) tend to have low ratings because “association with the great leads, evidently, to reflection less on the great associate than on the association. So thought returns to self.” This is first-rate, and rare.

The second piece describes “The McLandress Solution,” a system whereby national leaders can be given safe answers to great questions. He also demonstrates how the conventional wisdom tends to be internally contradictory. “The United States has a highly dynamic economy. However, the rate of growth is not satisfactory.” Or: “In dealing with the Berlin problem we always stand ready to negotiate. However, we must recognize that any concessions will be taken by the Soviets as a sign of weakness.” The true statesman will sidestep not only the contradiction but the issue in favor of some responsible if tangential goal. We are given a fine example of this in a report made by the Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund: “Industry and labor should continue to seek out new production and construction methods to reduce costs and increase production as a positive approach against inflation.”

The American Sociometric Peerage” concerns who’s really who in the United States and how celebrity is achieved. “The Fully Automated Foreign Policy” is just that: a machine takes over the State Department Since our foreign policy is entirely predictable a machine can easily do the work of the thousands who now grind out foreign policy. In the course of this laborious piece Professor Galbraith observes that “the truly sophisticated man argues not for the wisdom or even the prudence of a foreign policy but for its continuity. Few things more clearly mark the amateur in diplomacy than his inability to see that even the change from the wrong policy to the right policy involves the admission of previous error and hence is damaging to national prestige.” Reading this, one wishes that our former Ambassador to India would cut the elowning and tell us of his own adventures as diplomat, in precisely this sharp vein.

The Confidence Machine” (ways of reassuring business men about government) is dull. “Allston Wheat’s Crusade” is a good little joke. A Right Winger sets out to prove that team sports are a tool of the Communist conspiracy since they tend to diminish the individual while glorifying the group. At one point the author nicely parodies the Bircher prose-style: “America is a country of team sports. We must see these sports for what they are. They are brainwashing stations for individualism. They are training schools for collectivism, socialism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism.” “The Takeover” concerns the end of capitalism when one man takes over the economic life of the United States. This piece seems to have been written in great haste.

With this mild oat sown, it is to be hoped that Professor Galbraith will now bury “Mark Epernay” and become himself again In his curious way, he is a national asset. As economic apostle to the middlebrows, he has no equal (and almost no competition). He writes a graceful prose. He has a sharp eye for the folly of others. He would make a splendid memoirist for he betrays that edgy self-love which adds true passion to those diaries that best illuminate the political scene. A journal-ist in the purest sense—Professor Galbraith could easily become another Harold Ickes, if not Saint Simon, earning for himself in the sinister Mark Epernay’s phrase, a lasting “Maximum Prestige Horizon.”