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…

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