Galbraith’s Rich Career: Epic in Scope, Still Timely

John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, by Richard Parker. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 820 pages, $35.

I’ve heard just about enough from the founding fathers. Over the last decade, many of the big publishing events in biography have involved appreciations and reappraisals of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, etc.-or the entire lot of them at once, as in Founding Brothers, Joseph Ellis’ group portrait in 2000. Yes, these are admirable figures, and most of the books about them have been very good-notably Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, published last year.

But the odd aspect of this Federal-era fascination is that it seems to depend so heavily on the indirect light these stories cast on our present predicament. Jefferson tells us something about the timeless complexities and hypocrisies of race relations. Washington tells us something about temperament and leadership. Franklin, about late-life energy and ingenuity. Hamilton, about the need for an industrial base. And so on for Madison and the rest.

Why not celebrate a biography that skips the indirection and explores themes that apply quite plainly to our times? Richard Parker’s long and detailed account of John Kenneth Galbraith’s life deserves acclaim and wide readership, because, among other virtues, it does just that. (This is the place to say that I know Mr. Parker just well enough that if I didn’t really admire the book, I would duck the opportunity to say anything about it in public.)

Mr. Galbraith is now 96 years old, and many decades past his moment of maximum visibility and influence. His public career began so long ago that his first important job for an American President came five years before the two most recent Presidents were born. (At 32, Mr. Galbraith became national price-control czar under Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were born within a few weeks of each other in 1946.) It’s been nearly 40 years since anti–Vietnam War activists in California mounted a Galbraith-for-President movement, before noticing that he’d been born in Canada. It’s been nearly 50 years since The Affluent Society spent month upon month on the national best-seller list, selling more than a million copies and, among its many other influences on American life, adding the phrase “the conventional wisdom” to the language.

Still, virtually every question that affects the politics of 2005 is connected to movements or controversies that Mr. Galbraith has joined or led since coming to the United States from Ontario Agricultural College in 1931. Corporate power; corporate honesty; the use and misuse of the military; the effects of globalized commerce; wealth and poverty within the nation and around the world; the relevance of economic theory to everyday choices for individuals and for governments-these are central issues for modern America, and have been for Mr. Galbraith throughout his professional life. So have others: preserving the environment; encouraging technological progress but measuring its impact; ensuring the independence of the academy and the rights of the individual; and a long list that soon makes you see why the book (done with Mr. Galbraith’s cooperation and full access to his records) has more than 800 pages and took Mr. Parker eight years to finish. Even when it comes to America’s options in dealing with Iraq, Iran and North Korea, Mr. Galbraith’s memos to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson about Vietnam-many of them published for the first time in this book-are surprisingly apt.

The book’s subtitle lays out three themes- Mr. Galbraith’s life, politics and economics-and Mr. Parker spends roughly equal time on each. The book is simultaneously a comprehensive account of Mr. Galbraith’s rise from hinterland farm boy to president of the American Economic Association and most popular lecturer at Harvard; a parallel history of the main political and military upheavals of his time; and a story of the struggle that mattered least to the general public but most within Mr. Galbraith’s own profession, the controversy over whether Mr. Galbraith was a “real” economist or simply a gifted (if conceited) prose stylist who’d happened to have won a tenured chair.

The stages and variety of Mr. Galbraith’s life experience have been rivaled in modern times only by Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s. After administering the nation’s price-control scheme early in World War II, Mr. Galbraith was fired under pressure from Congressional conservatives-but soon became a star writer for Henry Luce at Fortune. After the war, he was part of the influential Strategic Bombing Survey, only to get into bitter arguments with Air Force generals over the survey’s (accurate) finding that bombing had done very little to weaken the Nazi war machine. He returned to Harvard-and was the object of a bitter tenure fight, because of opposition from conservatives on the Board of Overseers. Finally, James Bryant Conant-then Harvard’s president, and no left-winger himself-made the appointment a test case for academic freedom. Unless the Board of Overseers accepted Mr. Galbraith, he himself would resign. Mr. Parker includes a wonderful letter written nearly a decade later by McGeorge Bundy, then dean of Harvard’s faculty, to Nathan Pusey, Conant’s successor as president, which stands for many similar judgments of the man. “I myself think that Ken Galbraith has one of the most imaginative and powerful minds in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” Bundy wrote: “I also think he shares this view. He is not a man distinguished by modesty, and in his map of the world its center is quite near himself. I wish these defects did not exist …. But intellectual distinction, energy, industry, and creative imagination are rare, and he has them all.

Meanwhile, in the 1950’s, Mr. Galbraith became a nationally celebrated author with American Capitalism and The Affluent Society. (Mr. Parker says that his distinctive arch, authoritative tone suddenly emerged after the central tragedy in his life, the death from leukemia of his second son, Douglas, just after he turned 7 in 1950.) He worked informally in Democratic politics, first for Adlai Stevenson and then for John F. Kennedy. After a publicized and successful stint as Kennedy’s ambassador to India, he returned in 1963 to Harvard and further decades of book writing, unofficial political involvement and increasing prominence.

Among the striking elements of this passage, as Mr. Parker presents it, were how often Mr. Galbraith ended up surrounded by extraordinary colleagues-and how many he retained as friends, despite deep political disagreements. For the Strategic Bombing Survey, he worked with George Ball and attracted a team of young economists who went on to renown. He was at Time Inc. just after the era of Dwight Macdonald and Archibald MacLeish. He disagreed with Henry Luce but charmed him. During the 1972 political conventions, the close friendship between Mr. Galbraith and his political opposite, William F. Buckley, was turned into shtick, as they did an early version of the odd-couple TV commentary that eventually gave us Mary Matalin and James Carville.

Mr. Parker says that away from the limelight, Mr. Galbraith took pains to remain on good terms with two men whose policies stood for everything he opposed: Milton Friedman, in economics, and Walt Rostow, in foreign policy. His friendship with Rostow survived even an episode in November 1961 when Mr. Galbraith lifted a classified memo from Rostow’s desk at the White House. The memo proposed the first significant U.S. troop commitment in Vietnam. Mr. Galbraith’s vehement rebuttal was part of a campaign that, Mr. Parker says, fed Kennedy’s apprehension about Vietnam. In one memo, Mr. Galbraith referred to a looming showdown over Berlin and said: “Although at times I have been rather troubled by Berlin, I have always had the feeling that it would be worked out. I have continued to worry far, far more about South Viet Nam. This is more complex, far less controllable, far more varied in the factors involved, far more susceptible to misunderstanding. And to make matters worse, I have no real confidence in the sophistication and political judgment of our people there.”

The book is laced with similarly prescient observations about a sound American strategy for dealing with the developing world.

Then there’s Mr. Galbraith’s role in economic theory. Just what should constitute “legitimate” or “rigorous” economic analysis has been Mr. Parker’s passion in his previous writings and his teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He goes deeper into this question than most lay readers will want to follow-although his thoroughness should give this book a long life in the academy, as with Robert Skidelsky’s classic biography of John Maynard Keynes. (Which at three thick volumes makes Mr. Parker look like Tacitus.)

The heart of the argument is this: As modern academic economics has become more “scientific,” with an ever-greater reliance on math and formulas, it has also strangely become more simplistic, as it assumes away the complications of the real world. Today’s “hard” economists would say that Mr. Galbraith’s emphasis on factors like human nature, imbalances of power or the persuasive effect of advertising and propaganda make him a soft-minded sociologist-almost a journalist! Mr. Parker’s purpose is to demonstrate that this same outlook makes Mr. Galbraith, like Thorstein Veblen before him, wise.

“For more than half a century Galbraith argued that the truly important economic issues must be evaluated through the lens of economics, politics, sociology, law, ideology, and history simultaneously,” he says, “and that economic analysis and prescription must always keep front and center both the factors of power and the narratives that societies use to tell their economic stories.”

Through his parsing of a lifetime’s work, Richard Parker makes a strong case that John Kenneth Galbraith has been foresighted-about the role of military spending in national policy, about the power of widespread but inaccurate public beliefs, about the gap between executives’ interests and shareholders’ or employees’, about the nature of bubbles and the permanence of greed-and right more often than wrong (mainly about the ability of major U.S. corporations to squash all competition).

This is a rewarding book, with as much drama as many accounts of the Republic’s early days-and a lot more relevance for what lies ahead.

James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, is the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (Vintage). Galbraith’s Rich Career: Epic in Scope, Still Timely