Professor Galbraith looks on

Posted: Oct 01, 2001 12:00 AM
He is the most famous economist alive, and -- to the regret of friends of liberty and prosperity -- the most influential. Nearing age 93, John Kenneth Galbraith is a little hard of hearing and greets his visitor with resignation. After all, what is shut out from his hearing is not all that important, inasmuch as he has had the last word on everything in the great span of years that took him from farmer's son in Ontario to Ph.D. at Berkeley, to journalism for Henry Luce, to his professorship at Harvard and king of the world in his profession.

"I have a new book for you."


"It is called 'The Essential Galbraith.'"

"Ah. Short book?"

He smiles defiantly from the armchair he is now confined to. "Not so short."

It is a collection of essays drawn from his huge lifework. He has written short editorial introductions to each one of them. About "The Valid Image of the Modern Economy," from the volume "Annals of an Abiding Liberal," he writes: "A more technical and in some respects more precise statement of this theme was in my presidential address to the American Economic Association in 1972. The latter, I am not quite alone in believing, is the best short account of my general economic position."

That is the year -- 1972 -- in which Galbraith scaled the heights of his profession, and the year in which he persuaded Sen. George McGovern to run for president of the United States. The two campaigns failed. George McGovern won two states, and the socialism of John Kenneth Galbraith ran into the real world that, with however many compromises, said, No thanks, and turned instead to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

At his old large house in Cambridge, where with his learned and beautiful wife he has lived lo these many years, he reflects on odd moments in his career, and on an unbumpy way to affluence. "Did you get paid well when you were a writer for Fortune magazine?" his visitor asked.

"Paid well! What was it, Kitty, $12,000 per year, correct?" She nods. "That was a fortune in 1936."

He went then to Harvard, where still in his 20s he drifted into a reception for university trustees. "One of them gave me a drink order," he laughed. He was there when President Roosevelt appeared at the ceremonies remarking the 300th anniversary of Harvard.

"Joe Kennedy -- he was the brightest of the Kennedys, brighter even than Jack. Young Joe knew that the great majority of Harvard graduates were in favor of Landon for president, and that their ideological loyalty prevailed over their judgment. So young Joe went around taking bets. He made enough money from Landon loyalists to buy an automobile!"

Did Galbraith's colleague Joseph Schumpeter also profit from journalism?

"No. He was always broke. And opinionated. You know, back then, anybody offered a job at Harvard was really summoned to Harvard -- nobody else could compete. Paul Samuelson's name came up for a professorship and Schumpeter vetoed him. I talked to Samuelson, and he said, 'You know, I wouldn't have minded Schumpeter's blackballing me because I'm a Jew.' Everybody knew that Schumpeter was an anti-Semite. 'He blackballed me because he knew I was smarter than he was.'"

Ah, prejudice. And look now, he said, at the religious people in the Mideast.

His visitor objected that religion was getting a bad rap. "You shouldn't condemn religion because people profane religion by invoking it to serve evil ends, right?"

He affected not to hear, and chatted about his early years. He was the eldest of four Galbraiths, and after draining the family resources to go to college, undertook to finance the education of the younger siblings, on his way to eminence. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who ruled over Canada for 15 years, superintending a drop in the Canadian dollar of 25 percent of its value, told the world that his economic policies were based on the work of John Kenneth Galbraith.

"Do you know, my book on the Great Crash sells more than all my other books combined? Whenever there is a blip in the market, people say, 'I wonder what Galbraith had to say about the Depression?'" He once told the visitor that he kept "The Great Crash" at his bedside, and when suffering from insomnia, reread a chapter or two, closing his eyes finally with blissful gratitude. "That son of a b-tch can really write!"

The old man is so self-confident he doesn't, in his latest book, even bother to list the titles of his other books. He deals that way with honorary degrees, stopping to list them in "Who's Who" after 20 or so. "My only rule in the matter is to have more honorary degrees than Arthur Schlesinger."

And his legacy? The introduction to one of his essays reads, "Thirty-five years after (the original essay) was written -- years that have included Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and now George W. Bush and Dick Cheney -- Adam Smith remains undiminished in the scholarly eye and, as here told, is by no means the exclusive possession of conservatives."

Nor is Galbraith venerated exclusively by liberals.