First I read the book. Then I read the reviews. The early verdict was unanimous. It’s a good read if perhaps too long and its judgments a tad too partisan, but it is a book that will stay on the shelves for years to come. Of course, it helped that most of the reviewers were all part of the great army of liberals that dominate the uni- versities and mainstream papers and journals and thus shared in author Robert Parker’s enthusiasm for his sub- ject. It took a while before I found more balanced reviews, including one by Galbraith’s long-time friend and sparring partner, William Buckley, who agreed that it was a good read ”œabout the most interesting and engaging public intellectual of the age.” Others were more critical, including The Economist (”œMr Parker…is an unabashed Galbraith devotee, an open admirer of his subject’s intellectual contributions, who is also more than a little intoxicated with the glamour of Mr Galbraith’s life”) and the National Review (”œParker is a partisan of his sub- ject, and much of the book feels like a vindication, rather than a description, of Galbraith’s work and arguments”).
I found myself in the latter camp. Parker has crafted an important, but flawed book, that in the final analysis does less justice to Galbraith than would have been done by someone prepared to take a more objective approach and thus reach a more balanced assessment. Galbraith is to economics what Bishop John Shelby Spong is to theology (author of, inter alia, A New Christianity for a New World). Both have relished the notoriety that comes with being contrary, but both also find it hard to accept that their fel- low specialists have failed to embrace their contrarian views. Parker’s biography seeks to make the case that those who will not embrace Galbraith as the greatest living economist of his time have got it wrong. The acolytes will agree. The rest of us will just have to agree to disagree. Galbraith has written some of the most entertaining, always readable, and some- times insightful books on the workings of the modern industrial economy, but his legacy is not of the same order as Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, or Friedrich von Hayek.
Canada has produced its share of globally recognized economists, from Jacob Viner and Harry Johnson to John Helliwell and Richard Lipsey, but none more so than Galbraith. Even in the United States, no economist has been more widely read or enjoys wider name recognition than this expatriate Canadian. Politicians in particular read him, if only to seek justification for their views. I well remember Brian Mulroney asking me to find some good quotes from Galbraith to sprinkle in a speech defending the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. I found one that we were able to weave into the speech: ”œI was brought up in southwestern Ontario where we were taught that Canadian patriotism should not with- stand anything more than a five dollar wage differential. Anything more, and you went to Detroit.
Those Canadian origins, of course, have ensured that Canadians have paid attention to this famous expatriate, tak- ing great pride in his humble origins on a farm near Iona Station in southwestern Ontario. Humble though his origins were, it is not a word that one associates with Galbraith today. Having shaken the dust of rural Ontario from his feet and learned all he could about animal hus- bandry at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Galbraith embarked at age 22 for Berkeley to study agricul- tural economics, and never looked back. Parker captures well the storied career that took him from Berkeley, to Harvard, to Washington, back to Harvard, to Princeton, to Washington again, to New York to join the staff at Henry Luce’s Fortune Magazine, and finally, at the age of 40, back to Harvard to take his place as a full member of the economics facul- ty at America’s premier university.
During this twenty-year trajectory, Galbraith developed the intellectual capital that would be the basis of the tor- rent of 42 books that followed. Parker deftly draws out the impact that the cur- rent of events and ideas had on Galbraith, particularly his early training as an agri- cultural economist at a time when the collapse of world agricultural markets wreaked havoc on farmers around the world, his experience in Washington as a young official in the New Deal and later in war-related assignments, his pilgrimage to Europe to learn from Keynes and other liberal economists, and his success in cap- turing difficult economic issues in lan- guage that would appeal to a broader audience. By the time Galbraith was fully settled at Harvard, he had developed deep, progressive, convictions about the need for economics to ”œserve a public pur- pose,” and about the intimate interaction of economics, politics, and institutions. While an enthusiast of Keynesian eco- nomics, he had his own take on how gov- ernments could best address problems of poverty, the abuse of economic power, income disparity, the provision of public goods, and other public policy issues.
These ideas were worked out in a series of four books that form the heart of his contribution to economic thinking, starting with American Capitalism (1952), followed by The Affluent Society (1958), The New Industrial State (1967), and Economics and the Public Purpose (1973). Each enjoyed months on the best-seller list, with The Affluent Society selling over a million copies and still in print today. Each was well reviewed in the public press, although his fellow economists dismissed them as insufficiently rigorous in their analysis and not well grounded in empirical evi- dence. They also resented his ability to write, successfully, for a wider audience, and his disdain for the growing penchant among the new generation for abstruse modeling and mathematical rigour.
During this period, he also devel- oped contacts and friendships with some of the most influential political figures of the day and a taste for being part of the making of public policy. As a result, Galbraith spent the next twen- ty years combining his profession as a popular member of the Harvard faculty and a widely read author with his vocation for advising the liberal wing of the Democratic party, writing speeches for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, joining the Kennedy administration as ambassador to India and becoming an intimate of the young president, whom he had tutored as an undergraduate. With access to recently released papers, Parker is able to demonstrate the exten- sive role Galbraith played in advising Kennedy and, to a lesser extent, Lyndon Johnson, on a wide range of political and policy matters.
His vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, however, gradually drove a wedge between Galbraith and senior members of the Kennedy/ Johnson administration and by the end of the administration, he was firmly identified with figures like Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern and of increasingly marginal influence in Washington.
The years since have been as produc- tive, but in many ways not as satisfying. While still regarded as a lion of the pro- gressive wing of the Democratic Party, Galbraith found his views not much in vogue in either Washington or the acad- emy, even though the public kept buying his books, editors of journals and news- papers proved eager to publish his stream of articles, and universities and other forums could not get enough of him as a speaker. In many ways, Parker portrays Galbraith as in danger of becoming an angry old man, saved only by his sardon- ic wit and taste for the celebrity life. In truth, much of what he wrote and said continued to inform and amuse, if per- haps not always influence, a wide audi- ence. He added to that audience by writing not one, not two, but three witty accounts of his life, several novels, a number of semi-popular histories of eco- nomic thought, as well as hosting a cele- brated TV series for the BBC and shown in the United States on PBS.
Today, at age 96, he is still writing, working on his 43rd book, still available for interviews, still answering letters from all and sundry, and still con- tributing op eds. His work ethic remains formidable, his appeal to the wider public undiminished.
Parker’s biography does full justice to Galbraith’s career during his formative and prime years. The first 450 pages are engaging and capture exceptionally well the interaction between ideas and events, their influence on Galbraith, and his role in them. It is in this first half that Parker is at his best in placing Galbraith and his work into context. The principal weakness of the book is less in evidence here, but once we reach the Nixon administration when Galbraith is no longer a major player in the public life of the United States, these weaknesses multiply and the book becomes tedious. In the first half, I was prepared to forgive Parker’s editor for not insisting that he cut down on explaining in too much detail the background for every event that touched Galbraith’s life. By page 450, however, this lack of editing had become annoying, and it took a meas- ure of discipline to finish the book. My annoyance was further fueled by the prolix explanations of the ins and outs of controversies that may excite profes- sional economists but leave most read- ers cold. Galbraith himself is blessed with the skill to sidestep this problem; his biographer is not. It also does not help that Parker wants us to know that on all these points, Galbraith was right and his critics were wrong. I have the sneaking suspicion that there may be one or two points on which others may have had the better of the argument.
Missing from the 669 densely packed pages of text and 120 pages of notes is Galbraith the person. Indeed, we gain more insight into the personal side of Galbraith from his own autobiographical material than from this authorized biography. We can only assume that Galbraith’s full cooperation with the author came with the price of leaving the personal side alone. His wife, children, and personal staff make a few cameo appearances, but it is a remark- ably flat portrait of the man that emerges from this biography. I think the reader deserved more and would happi- ly have sacrificed the overly long explo- rations of the background to everything from the S&L loan scandal to the demise of the Bretton Woods exchange rate sys- tem. In these long asides, Parker seems more interested in getting a lot of things off his own chest than in illuminating the life, politics, and economics of John Kenneth Galbraith, the thread of which at times appears lost in the torrent of circumstantial detail.
In the final analysis, the book does a disservice to the important contribution Galbraith made to our understanding of the political economy of the United States in the 20th century by dwelling ad nauseam on a stylized liberal critique of US economic and political developments over the past forty years. Much of that reads like a diatribe taken from the pages of Mother Jones, of which Parker was co- founding editor. If Mother Jones is your cup of tea, this book is for you. For the rest of us, we’re better off re-reading some of Galbraith’s own books and looking for another author to give us a tour d’horizon of the intellectual life of the 20th century.