Where Mr. Galbraith is not easily excusable is in his search for disingenuousness in such as Charles Murray, a meticulous scholar of liberal background, whose "Losing Ground" is among the social landmarks of the postwar era. "In the mid 1980s," Galbraith writes, "the requisite doctrine needed by the culture of contentment to justify their policies became available. Dr. Charles A. Murray provided the nearly perfect prescription. ... Its essence was that the poor are impoverished and are kept in poverty by the public measures, particularly the welfare payments, that are meant to rescue them from their plight." Whatever qualifications Murray made, "the basic purpose of his argument would be served. The poor would be off the conscience of the comfortable, and, a point of greater importance, off the federal budget and tax system."
One needs to brush this aside and dwell on the private life of John Kenneth Galbraith. I know something of that life, and of the lengths to which he went in utter privacy to help those in need. He was a truly generous friend. The mighty engine of his intelligence could be marshaled to serve the needs of individual students, students manque, people who had a problem.
Two or three weeks ago he sent me a copy of a poll taken among academic economists. He was voted the third most influential economist of the 20th century, after Keynes and Schumpeter. I think that ranking tells us more about the economics profession than we have any grounds to celebrate, but that isn't the point I made in acknowledging his letter. I had just received a book about the new prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, in which National Review and its founder are cited as the primary influences in his own development as a conservative leader. But I did not mention this to Galbraith either. He was ailing, and this old adversary kept from him loose combative data that would have vexed him.
I was one of the speakers at his huge 85th birthday party. My talk was interrupted halfway through by the master of ceremonies. "Is there a doctor in the house?" The next day I sent Galbraith the text of my talk. He wrote back: "Dear Bill: That was a very pleasant talk you gave about me. If I had known it would be so, I would not have instructed my friend to pretend, in the middle of your speech, to need the attention of a doctor."
Forget the whole thing, the getting and spending, and the Nobel Prize nominations, and the economists' tributes. What cannot be forgotten by those exposed to them are the amiable, generous, witty interventions of this man, with his singular wife and three remarkable sons, and that is why there are among his friends those who weep that he is now gone.
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