One of the multiple pleasures of the works of Ambassador Galbraith is the power of their example to infect the reader with the fascinations of the self. To be caught in his sensual music is to find one’s mind chasing after one’s own achievements, which in my own case as in Charlus’s consist of little that is free from embarrassment except for our having both read all but one of the 144 novels of Honoré de Balzac. And oddly enough this almost solitary attainment brought me closer to a quarrel with Galbraith than we had ever come in the course of a skimpy but, on my side, much appreciated social relationship.
He had written that the sorrows of President Kennedy’s funeral had been unrelieved except for the moment when General de Gaulle had complimented him on their shared loftiness of physique. “We must,” the General had said, “be merciless to small men.”
When next we met, I wondered whether Galbraith had read The Deputy of Arles and taken proper note of Balzac’s notion that tall men suffer from those debilities of flesh and character he grouped into the mysterious but contemptible category of the lymphatic. To my surprise, the normal suavity and good nature of Galbraith’s countenance darkened alarmingly and I recognized that what had been only a bit of teasing, however clumsier than his own engagements with that perilous art, had been the cause of marked offense.
Might not the fabled assurance be a hard-bought commodity after all, and might not the height from which he looks down upon the rest of us shelter an adolescent still wounded by the taunts his weediness had brought him from his schoolmates? But it would have been like him to turn an oddity into a vanity and to be abraded by any hint that someone beside himself might think it an oddity. He has arrived at the tone of a great man; but the qualities of his greatness may well be the particular secrets the tone works so carefully to obscure.
He retains, as an instance, an ability to make enemies most surprising in someone so affable. His memoirs make the life sound like a smooth ascent to sunny uplands; and yet there are continual intimations of the stony path. It is curious that nearly every one of the honors you would think would fall effortlessly to his fame, let alone his distinction, seems instead to have been obtainable only after strenuous struggle.
When he returned to Harvard after a glistening public career in 1948, he was accepted with no higher rank than lecturer, an ambiguity of status cleared up only after the University of Illinois invited him to be chairman of its department of economics; and Harvard responded by voting him a full professorship. The departmental vote would have been unanimous if Gottfried Haberler, a conservative colleague, had not, upon returning from vacation, filed a formal written dissent that he would no doubt have volubly expressed at the meeting where the appointment was approved. Any enemy needs a high capital of dislike to cast a vote well after he knows that its only effect will be to inform its object of his feelings. Even afterward, Galbraith’s elevation so roiled the normal torpidity of the Harvard Board of Overseers that it might well have overruled the appointment if President James Conant had not threatened to resign.
Galbraith’s election as president of the American Economic Association in 1970 would appear to be a gesture both natural and inevitable for an organization that has well enough earned its dim celebrity to desire to light it up with the ornament of a resonant name; and yet his candidacy was vigorously opposed by Professor Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago.
It is unlikely that Professor Friedman would think the imputation that Galbraith is too much the hustler entirely suitable for lying upon his of all lips; and his own essays at hustling have been so amply rewarded as to acquit him of any suspicion of membership in the Party of Envy, the huge Third Force that Emerson overlooked when he divided our polity between a Party of Hope and a Party of Memory. The explanation has to be that Friedman was objecting on principle, the least frequent of all causes of friction in that academic society whose liveliest sound arises from the mutual scratching of backs. The point of the animus that Galbraith so uniquely inspires is that it originates in principle and springs not from his arrogance—is Friedman humble?—but from his perseverance in expressing rigidly held and abrasive opinions no matter where he sits. Carry him to the innermost bunkers penetrable by the Insider and he insists upon bringing the message of the Insider.
He spoiled an otherwise admirable record of lost electoral causes by early adherence to Senator Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign; and it might have been thought that his departure from his natural bent for the unacceptable would have earned him the chairmanship of Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers. Instead, after three weeks in conferences where nearly every other economist with the ear of the White House was advocating lower taxes and he was arguing for increased expenditures on the social budget, he went off to India and the president gave candid voice to his satisfaction at being relieved of an adviser who might otherwise “have me expounding a far too radical position.”
And then there are those frequent undertones of turbulence that the serene surface does so much to conceal—the recurring need for Seconal, and the periods of depression, the severest of them in the weeks after the Democrats yielded up their hegemony in the 1952 elections, and he understood that, for the first time since he was in his twenties, he could “no longer think of myself as part of a permanent government” and that Washington would now be “a closed, forbidden city.”
This dark, almost despairing reaction to internal exile evokes the memory of one’s surprise at hearing that the Harvard Crimson of the Sixties had described Galbraith’s course as “taught in harangues.” What could more gall and fret an already smooth young party than to arrive anticipating further instruction in suavity from one of its most refined incarnations and discover himself confronted instead by a serious and even irritable man?
It would be illuminating to hear him tell how he felt the day after Governor Reagan’s election proclaimed that the office of philosopher-king, most debilitated of constitutional monarchs, had passed to Milton Friedman and that Galbraith was likely to spend the rest of his active career, in Lytton Strachey’s image of the older Melbourne, as “a homesick voyager from a world that had disappeared.” The absence of reflection on this apparently final turn of affairs suggests that he felt no very great loss in the extinction of his official future. He had ceased to think himself part of any permanent government awhile before, having begun to withdraw in the quarrel with President Johnson over Vietnam and been meagerly encouraged to return by President Carter. He was now of the permanent opposition; and the puzzle is how anyone this contentious could have taken so long to get there.
There have been few other cases of a conspicuous career that has been pursued with so much disdain for the politic silences and sinuous evasions required of the careerist. It is more than curious, it is even endearing to come upon a personage who has so many of the airs of grace and can yet establish as his saving grace the abandonment of grace whenever the occasion seems to make its forfeiture worthwhile.
For he is at once the Puritan and the hedonist, the most epicurean skeleton who ever haunted a feast, the pleasure-partaker and the scourge of the mere pleasure-seeker. This duality may account for those seasons at Gstaad, where the abounding harvest of his industry and the unappeased grievance of a toilsome adolescence can jointly command their entire estate. There he is atop those platinum slopes, living in the style afforded by the riches he has labored to earn and enjoying almost as much the companion chance to indulge the requisite contempt for neighbors bored with the riches their grandfathers earned for them.
But then the young Galbraith took a powerful stamp from Thorstein Veblen and the lasting impression may best explain him. The Theory of the Leisure Class remains fresh to him after having grown stale to everyone else remotely as sophisticated as he is. As bible of the Party of Envy, it exerts its strongest appeal to college sophomores, who sluff it off as soon as they are enticed into the dream of being themselves envied. To cling to Veblen is ordinarily to give off unpleasant smells of that variety of rancor whose main foundation is the suspicion that you are being snubbed.
Galbraith was uniquely positioned to draw from Veblen a more useful inspiration than the usual self-regarding one. They had grown up in remarkably similar circumstances, being both sons of peasants removed from penury. Veblen was a Scandinavian surrounded by Anglo-Saxons who thought themselves his betters; and Galbraith was a Scotch Presbyterian in an Ontario where the affectations of aristocracy emanated from the Church of England. What seems to have attracted Galbraith to Veblen and to have kept him there so long was the contempt for rather than envy of presumed elites that this common origin bred in each:
In Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the last century, as I have elsewhere told, there was a moral and political cleavage between the rural Scotch and the prestigious Toryism of the English-oriented ruling class. The resulting attitudes were far from dead in my youth; they required one to be compulsively against any self-satisfied elite. One never joined, and one never overlooked any righteous opportunity to oppose or, if opportunity presented, to infuriate. No psychic disorder could be more useful. It forces one automatically to question the most pompously exchanged clichés of the corporate executive, the most confidently vacuous voices on military adventure and the most generally admired triteness on foreign policy. To me it has been valuable, I believe, on matters as diverse as the deeply sanctioned obsolescence of neoclassical economics and the greatly self-approving commitment in Vietnam.
Here is a confession of class bias as candid as it is winning. Galbraith like Veblen is more sociologist than economist, and he himself would probably not over-earnestly dispute the judgment of the British David Reisman, one of the more severe of his examiners, that his strictures on textbook economics form “not in essence the attack of an economist seeking to purify his subject but that of a social critic seeking to transform his society.”1
For Galbraith as for Veblen, the study of economics most appealed as a way of getting at something else, illumination by playful mockery in Veblen’s case perhaps, and social activism in Galbraith’s. The abstractions of economics never had much claim upon his affections. The topmost academic discipline of his early education was livestock-judging, and he swiftly discovered that this was a branch of inquiry whose standards of excellence “were so subjective” that the student passed or failed according to the degree that he fit his eye to the predilections of his instructor. To have taken his first steps toward the higher learning on the avenue of the science of livestock assessment seems to have made him a skeptic as a neophyte and kept him a doubter as an adept.
The turn from being tutored by the cattle judge to being taught by the economist was only an exchange of high priests and sacred mysteries: the hierarchs of either altar could be seen alike as pretenders to the measurement of caverns measureless to man. Whether or not his critics in the profession are just in imputing to him an inadequate dominion over its technical apparatus, a man who has written that “what is wholly mysterious in economics is not likely to be important”2 can hardly be taxed for not taking too passionate a hold on an apparatus that does not seem to him especially worth the grasp.
He appears in the first instance to have been drawn to economics, like so many apprentices, by the lure not of the craft but of the union card. At the outset of the Depression, he was a student of animal husbandry when it occurred to him that:
It was not worthwhile improving livestock if it could not be sold at a decent price. And virtually nothing could be so sold. I decided to transfer my interest to farm economics. I could there come to understand the real problem, and that understanding might also help me get a job.
He had thus early offered himself to the market as a useful rather than an ornamental commodity, and this preference may better explain his equivocal stature among academic economists than envy of his glamor could. Farm economics carries a faint redolence of the barnyard; and his origins there, though they do not debar someone risen from them from ending up being called a great mogul by Time magazine, somehow disqualify him for unclouded residence in the mandarin reaches of his profession. Galbraith indicated how conscious he is of the disputes upon his claim when he composed his presidential address to the AEA and called it with enduring defiance “Power and the Useful Economist.”
He would have a far smaller title to our attention if he had not been so steady in his commitment to the work of the world; and yet his experiences there can leave even the most admiring of his readers unsure that the useful economist can ever be a living presence in real affairs. Galbraith comes closest to one part of that problem when he mentions the fate of his State Department friend and colleague, John Carter Vincent, who “was detached from Chinese affairs where his knowledge led him to truths in conflict with needed belief.”
Still, most chapters in the history of debates over public policy end with the conquest of truth by needed belief. Man seems correctable only by events, and then only transiently, because the lesson of events is all too soon recorrected by inextinguishable myth. We would, for example, have trouble thinking of any chore of Galbraith’s with more potential use to official common sense than the work he did in 1945 on the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, which determined that German armaments production, far from being depleted, had increased throughout the Allied aerial offensives of the Second World War. Here was a useful truth, and needed belief so obliterated it that the illusion of the strategic bomber as irresistible weapon reigned for another generation.
The bomb tonnage in Korea was heavier than it had been in Germany and would be heavier still in Vietnam with no more practical result than any notice of the Strategic Bombing Survey would have led the authors of these malignant inanities to expect. The most lasting attention Galbraith gained for this distinct if ineffectual service to realism seems to have been the anger of Air Force loyalists, one of whom emerged from the uncooled embers of their quarrels four years later to be the most tenacious opponent on the Harvard Board of Overseers of his certification as a full professor.
But there are deeper, if less easily defined, reasons than the deafness of the official ear for some of us to be pessimistic about the concept of the useful economist. They have to do with what can only be described, with due apology for the lapse into the portentous, as the imponderability of human affairs. It is striking how many of the memories recalled by this most activist of philosophers sound like illustrations of the doctrine of Lord Melbourne, that most passive of statesmen. When Melbourne was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he was persuaded to Catholic Emancipation as one step toward appeasing its discontents. This measured conciliation was at once followed by worse tumults. “What all the wise men promised has not happened,” Melbourne commented, “and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.”
Galbraith’s stewardship of the Office of Price Administration in the Second World War was the most important domestic responsibility he would ever have; and his account of those years reminds us that very little anyone has ever said applies to the managerial experience more frequently than this observation of Melbourne’s.
Galbraith was not then as wise as he has since become, but he was wiser than pretty much everyone in his vicinity and especially wiser than Bernard Baruch, the sacred monster who had been President Wilson’s Mobilization Director in the First World War. Galbraith commenced his OPA stewardship certain that government could best forestall inflation by restricting consumer spending with higher taxes and tightened credit and by limiting price ceilings to commodities in critical shortage. Baruch insisted that nothing would avail except universal price control.
“All economists,” Galbraith recalls, “were horrified.” All economists belonged to the perennially constricted circle of the informed who realized that Baruch was in ways the damnedest of fools. Within six months, Galbraith had discovered that Baruch was right; selective controls were not working, and there was no remedy except to mandate a General Maximum Price Regulation. “What all the wise men said,” etc.
Universal price ceilings worked so well that the advocates of their reapplication have regularly bobbed up in every bout of inflation since. What is surprising is that Galbraith, the last of men to affect modesty, seems to credit the success of wartime price controls not so much to his own efforts as to the operations of natural forces in the society he had not taken into account. The Depression had left the country’s industrial capacity so underused that full protection could both supply the war and raise civilian living standards; and consumers so trusted the dollar that they were content to save their money for a postwar period when they would need it to sustain them in the expected depression or, in the unlikelihood of continual prosperity, could use it for purchases from the promised “flood of inexpensive and elegantly streamlined goods.”3
Those of us who are inattentive to the work of the social scientist have no better excuse for our sloth than his inability to predict events until after they have happened. In the best of cases he rides an unbridled horse. Galbraith is the best of cases: he prefers fact to theory, would rather examine a round world than imagine a flat one. There is then small cause for wonder that the adventures of an explorer even as keen and cool as this one should so frequently recall to mind the most dazzling of Hannah Arendt’s several recognitions, which was that we do not know what we are doing.
Shortly before the last Great War, when he was desperate to serve and at a loss for a more lively place to do it, Galbraith found himself working for Chester Davis, National Defense Advisory Commissioner for Agriculture.
The NDAC had been given power to clear all important contracts for defense facilities. Some forty-eight new chemical, explosives, ammunition and other ordnance plants were scheduled for immediate construction, and Davis feared that they would be concentrated in the already industrialized Northeast as was the industry in World War I. Better that they be scattered over the South, Southwest and West where they would draw on the excess labor of the farms, be a lodestone for other industry and encourage a more rationally distributed economic growth. It was the chance of a lifetime.
Galbraith moved with populist fervor to accomplish this transformation and thereby set in motion the historic force whose consequences now extend to his own expulsion from the official stage. The new distribution of defense industries began the rise of the Sun Belt, and those Reaganite enterprisers to whom Galbraith’s name is anathema are cursing their founding father.
But then Galbraith, of all men, has by now equipped himself to meet such ironies unsurprised; the best of the wisdom from which he has occasionally but not lately been distracted by hope is contained in the advice to accept defeat in South Vietnam that he was sending President Kennedy as early as March 1962: “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”
The boldness of his endeavor to find a system for analyzing an economy where circumstances change almost as rapidly as they can be defined justifies the failure of that attempt quite to satisfy either himself or us. Hayek and Von Mises owe the immutability of their economic principles to the luck that these principles exist in an uncluttered world where no one lives. But Galbraith engages the is or more properly as much of the is as makes itself visible to the sharpest eye, and, if he fails, it is because the is has so many imperceptible elements of the becoming.
Given this excuse, his work can, I think, be better appreciated as growth of a radical intelligence than as development of an analytic system. He has never been a detached observer but always a socially enlightened one; and the prevailing moods of enlightened observers have always played a larger part in his thought than entirely fits the scientist any scholar would prefer to think himself. This is more a strength than a weakness; but he who risks the open air must expect the winds to weather and toss about his doctrines.
His larger works may, with due allowance for the crudity of any such procedure, be summarized as reflections of the powerful—and not unrewarding—influence that mood exercises upon thought. The books that stake his claim to undiscovered lands can be seen as beginning in satisfaction with what he perceived to be the prevailing air about him and progressing to steadily more heartful resistance to what he recognized as what it really was.
The early stages of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations may have been the highest time of hope American liberals have known in this century; but the months following the reelection of President Truman were the last when they could recollect entire assurance. They regarded Mr. Truman’s victory as more President Roosevelt’s than his own and thus as the ratification of the economic order established by the New Deal. It was a cosmic order whose planets traveled in serene balance with one another.
The industrial corporation remained the largest of its planetary bodies but it was at least held to its orbit, its force contained by the newly powerful counterforces of the labor union, the consumer, the retail distributor, and a government alert to the broad public interest. Such was the economic universe Galbraith described in American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power (1952), and the conquests it celebrated were reversed in the very year of its publication by the triumph of the conquered in the election of President Eisenhower.
As the Fifties went on, Galbraith saw less and less reason for belief in the countervailing powers he had invoked as checks upon a corporate system whose gravitational pull seemed to him more and more to absorb them all, to make the union leader its junior partner, the consumer its willess plaything, and the government its servant, a servant so obedient as almost to suspend the public interest in deference to private desire. That recognition brought forth The Affluent Society and the course of Galbraith’s preachments ever since has been a protest against the private sector’s sovereignty and a search for some way to make real the balanced economy he may only have imagined thirty years ago. The cured utopian is to be admired as the cured sufferer is to be envied.
His memoir ends with a promise henceforth to cease to give trouble, to sit peaceably in the stands and watch others play the game of public life. He would like very much for us to see him now as a man who knew when to stop. It is an envoi that ought to leave us both charmed and dubious; he is too much a case blessed with the curse of the permanent itch to question and to quarrel. What is more, he knows a secret that has escaped too many other exemplars of the radical intelligence.
Nearly 150 years have passed since Marx wrote that the philosophers have only interpreted the world but the point now is to change it. Like all great statements this one has the germ of untruth. We have come to see that things unexplained have changed the world and the task now is to describe them. That is the business Galbraith has been about and his failures, if they are failures, are a pioneer’s scars. Everyone who enters the forest after him will learn how grateful he ought to be.
September 24, 1981