John Kenneth Galbraith spanned literally a century. Even when I interviewed him at his Harvard home more than six years ago, he was old and frail and lying in bed, recovering at the age of ninety-one from a fall that had broken his leg. (He joked that if it weren’t for the mishap he would have been with Bill Clinton, who was then visiting India.) He was slightly hard of hearing, and I had to repeat myself a few times. He also exhibited the impatience that sometimes comes with advanced old age, being a bit abrupt in his behavior. Clearly, his best days were behind him, although he was working on a new book that late in life.
But what a unique position he occupied during his long and varied career as an economist, adviser, diplomat, administrator, and so many other things.
For me, Galbraith’s distinctiveness manifested itself especially in three ways.
First, he straddled the insider/outsider divide in an amazing fashion, being rivaled in this regard perhaps only by Gore Vidal and Lewis Lapham. He was a close friend of the Kennedys, a staffer and counselor to FDR and Johnson, and an adviser to presidential candidates from Adlai Stevenson to George McGovern. But he never let this moderate his criticism of the socioeconomic structure at the top of which these people were perched. He was one of the very few who felt equally at home with America’s power elite and with The Progressive. (He was on the magazine’s editorial advisory board and wrote for us a number of times.)
Fittingly, JFK gave Galbraith a piece that Kennedy had written for The Progressive on India as a backgrounder when he appointed him ambassador to the country. He used to send the office delightful notes indicating how big a fan he was of The Progressive. (He confided to me during our interview that he invariably read “No Comment” and Molly Ivins’s column first in each issue.)
Yet, his analyses of corporate misconduct and U.S. foreign policy never seemed to affect his friendship with the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and (horror of horrors) William F. Buckley.
Second, Galbraith was one of the few economists—past or present—to expose the perniciousness of corporate power. Corporations are like the proverbial elephants in the living room—academic economists like to pretend that they don’t exist. Economics professors most often contend themselves with building abstract theoretical models, with the result that almost the only mainstream literature available on corporate structure is business school-type tripe. Galbraith brought the critique of the corporate entity out into the open, and since it came from a man of his stature, it could not be ignored.
For all of his other contributions to the field of economics—ranging from “countervailing power” to “public squalor,” concepts he discussed in his interview with me —his most valuable work is in this regard. Third, he was exceptional among economists in that he could write—and actually do it with lucidity and humor. Here is a sample of his witticisms:
“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
“The salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself.”
“Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.”
No other economist since Thorstein Veblen that I can think of has come close to matching his writing style and flair not even Gunnar Myrdal and Joseph Stiglitz, other members of the select club of economists whose work can be appreciated by laypeople. It was Galbraith’s ability to reach out to a larger audience that made him the target of derision among his colleagues, who accused him of lacking intellectual rigor and of oversimplification. In other words, they blamed him for the crime of actually being read and understood by regular folks. Galbraith, who had consciously chosen the path of clear writing over abstruse musings after his first book, selling a huge number of his books in the process, didn’t care.
“I made up my mind that I would never again place myself at the mercy of the technical economists who had the enormous power to ignore what I had written,” he said. “I set out to involve a larger community.”
Galbraith never suffered the ignominy of completely fading away into obscurity, in spite of his longevity. His fame was so enduring that Clinton reportedly wanted to co-author a book with him after leaving office. Galbraith was fortunate enough to have a highly praised, meticulously researched biography by Richard Parker published just last year, and this brought him further back into the limelight.
The New York Times obituary on May 1 contained some criticism of his work, even though it acknowledged his eminence. The most unwitting praise in the piece came in the following sentence: “His sweeping ideas, which might have gained even greater traction had he developed disciples willing and able to prove them with mathematical models, came to strike some as almost quaint in today's harsh, interconnected world where corporations devour one another for breakfast.”
The fact that this Darwinian situation is accepted as a given, instead of being challenged, shows how much we’ll miss the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith. It was a privilege meeting someone of his stature and his accomplishments.