Magazine article The Spectator

Twogiants and Wizards

Magazine article The Spectator

Twogiants and Wizards

Article excerpt

J. K. GALBRAITH by Richard Parker Old Street Publishing, 14 Bowling Green Lane, London EC1R 0BD, Tel: 020 7253 3360, £25, pp. 820, ISBN 9781905847099 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

MILTON FRIEDMAN by Lanny Ebenstein Palgrave Macmillan, £16.99, pp. 272, ISBN 9781403976277 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

'Investigation favourable except conceited, egotistical and snobbish.' The outcome of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 1955 enquiry into John Kenneth Galbraith was eventually revealed to him under the USA's Freedom of Information Act. It added to his already immense store of anecdotes about the richness and variety of American public life.

The FBI was not quite right. Other economists resented Galbraith as if he were conceited, egotistical and snobbish, but his actual or alleged vanity was not the reason. Instead Galbraith's problem was that he was incapable of writing a dull paragraph. His active literary career spanned a period of over 70 years, starting with specialist papers on agricultural economics in the early 1930s and ending in 2005 with the preface to a collection (by other writers) on John Kenneth Galbraith and the Future of Economics.

Several works -- The Great Crash, The Affluent Society, The New Industrial State and the autobiographical A Life in Our Times -- individually sold hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies.

Altogether Galbraith's books have probably sold over ten million copies. No other economist comes close to this number or even half of it.

In the second half of the 20th century the propensity to write with clarity and wit about important issues of public policy became a handicap among professional economists. The favoured career path for top economists was to author articles of considerable mathematical complexity for the leading journals, in order to demonstrate technical prowess. Galbraith could not compete in this world and did not try.

The character of his work did not change: it remained readable, topical, elegant and often very funny. By the 1990s it was as improbable for a heavyweight academic economist to say that he admired Galbraith's work as for a senior British civil servant to confess to reading the Sun.

But if Galbraith's approach increasingly distanced him from economists in the universities his popular influence gave him access to the leading figures in American public life. Galbraith knew personally every American president from Roosevelt to Clinton. His politics were liberal, even 'left-wing' by American standards, and his party affiliation was consistently Democrat. A strong supporter of the New Deal in the 1930s, he adhered to such causes as the increased state provision of health care and reductions in defence spending until his death at the age of 97 in 2006.

So interwoven are the events of Galbraith's life with the development of left-liberal American politics that Richard Parker's biography -- first published in the United States in 2005 -- sometimes reads not just as a story about one person.

Instead it becomes the chronicle of a movement. Galbraith's heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was a key intellectual contributor to the production function of American politics. He advised Adlai Stevenson in two presidential election campaigns, John F. Kennedy in his election campaign and actual presidency, and similarly Lyndon Johnson in his election campaign and actual presidency. The three Democrat leaders were heavily dependent on Galbraith and a small group of associates, Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen in particular, for ideas and phrases. (Schlesinger and Galbraith were lifelong friends and neighbours. In Parker's words, the Schlesingers lived 'just across the back wall of the Galbraiths' property' in a suburb of Cambridge, Massachusetts. ) One episode is telling. At some point in mid-1965 Johnson could not find anyone in Washington to write two speeches. The president phoned Galbraith at his summer retreat in Vermont to ask for help. …

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