[Paleopsych] Book World: (Galbraith) Rational Exuberance

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Rational Exuberance

    Reviewed by Geoffrey Kabaservice
    Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page BW08

    His Life, His Politics, His Economics
    By Richard Parker. Farrar Straus Giroux. 820 pp. $35

    John Kenneth Galbraith, now in his 97th year, has had an expansive
    career. Arguably America's best-known economist, as well as a former
    government official, journalist, public intellectual, presidential
    confidante, ambassador, antiwar activist and even a successful
    novelist, the outsized Galbraith surely deserves a biography almost as
    long as the one Richard Parker has written.

    Readers whose patience will be tried by Parker's densely written
    820-page tome will nonetheless appreciate the clarity and insight he
    brings to this portrait of the outsider as insider. For Galbraith's
    main contribution to politics as well as economics was to be a gadfly
    in tweed, skeptical of all authority and any system of fixed thought.
    Anyone too heavily invested in preserving the "conventional wisdom" --
    a term he coined in his most famous work, The Affluent Society (1958)
    -- would feel the sting of his debunking, made more painful by the wit
    and elegance with which it was delivered. What's surprising in
    Parker's account is not that Galbraith had so many enemies across the
    ideological spectrum but that he was tolerated in high places for so

    Galbraith's outsider stance derived partly from his background. Born
    into unpromising circumstances in rural Ontario, indifferently
    educated at a local agricultural school that he described as "not only
    the cheapest but probably the worst college in the English-speaking
    world," he escaped a potential future as a hog grader by winning a
    graduate fellowship in economics at Berkeley and then an
    instructorship at Harvard. There he collided with rigidly conservative
    professors whose faith in the market was ultimately theological rather
    than (as they imagined) scientific, and which not even the trauma of
    the Depression could shake.

    Public service, in the New Deal and then as director of price control
    during World War II, gave Galbraith an understanding of real-world
    economic problems beyond that of most academics. Participation in the
    postwar U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, in which he determined that
    neither enemy morale nor production was impeded by Allied bombing of
    German and Japanese cities, provided an education in the lengths to
    which powerful figures will go to ensure that their assumptions remain
    undisturbed by inconvenient truths. Confrontations with red-baiting
    politicians brought notoriety, while a string of bestsellers (Parker
    calculates that Galbraith's books have sold more than 7 million
    copies) propelled him to fame. As a much-interviewed public
    commentator, he was part of a cultured and cosmopolitan group of
    action-minded thinkers who briefly made intellect seem glamorous.

    Harvard connections and experience as a speechwriter for Adlai
    Stevenson brought Galbraith into John F. Kennedy's inner circle and
    led to his appointment as ambassador to India in 1961. Despite his
    distance from Washington, he retained a direct connection to the
    president, who relished his spicily written cables; Galbraith once
    wrote to Kennedy that attempting to communicate through the State
    Department was "like trying to fornicate through a mattress."
    Galbraith was an early and prescient critic of U.S. involvement in
    Vietnam, and Parker argues persuasively that he moved Kennedy toward
    restraint in the Cold War as well as Keynesian economic policies at
    home. When Galbraith proved unable to moderate Lyndon B. Johnson's
    Vietnam adventurism, he metamorphosed into one of the most prominent
    "establishment" critics of the war.

    Much of this story has been told by Galbraith himself in his journals
    and autobiography -- and in prose like brandy, where Parker's is more
    like cold water. What makes Parker's biography valuable, however, is
    his ability to place Galbraith in a sweeping and comprehensive history
    of the evolution of economic thought, and to keep sight of his
    subject's continuing relevance to the present day.

    Parker, an economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, points
    out that Galbraith has been looked down upon (figuratively if not
    literally) by most members of the economics profession for the past
    half-century. Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson, for example, described
    him as "America's foremost economist for non-economists." This
    reaction reflects not only jealousy but also professional pique over
    Galbraith's skepticism toward the mathematical modeling and equations
    that have come to define modern economics. But Galbraith knew that
    reality was messier than the clean and well-lit universe of the
    theorists. He battled not only with "rational expectations"
    conservatives but also with guns-and-butter Keynesian liberals, whose
    policies fostered the public squalor alongside private affluence that
    persists to this day.

    Parker clearly means for Galbraith's example to inspire modern
    liberals. In 1953, when the energies of the New Deal had faded and
    Democrats were at nearly as low an ebb as they are today, Galbraith
    wrote to Stevenson to propose an initiative to "keep the Democratic
    Party intellectually alert and positive during these years in the
    wilderness." The subsequent success of Galbraith and his fellow
    thinkers in providing fresh ideas helped reinvigorate the party and
    led to a new era of liberal dominance.

    Whether today's Democratic Party has the courage to bring independent
    intellectuals of Galbraith's stripe into positions of power remains to
    be seen. But the dominant conservatives ought to ponder Galbraith's
    warning: "The threat to men of great dignity, privilege and pretense
    is not from the radicals they revile; it is from accepting their own

    Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of "The Guardians: Kingman
    Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment." He
    has taught history at Yale University and is a manager at the Advisory
    Board Company in Washington, D.C.

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