(Thanks to Avedon Carol
, who is always up earlier than I, for spotting this)
John Kenneth Galbraith was a mighty oak of a man. He was one of those people who one was unreservedly proud to call a fellow American.
Leave aside his extraordinary intellect, because that was the least of the man. What was so impressive was his awareness of others, his quiet and undemonstrative empathy. Raised the son of a Canadian farmer, he was a self-made man, and ultimately a very prosperous and powerful man. And yet he did not imagine that his achievements made him better than others, nor did he forget those less well off than he. One of the best anecdotes in his obituary
has to do with his father speaking to a crowd. Since there was no other elevated location, he climbed a pile of manure, then apologized to his listeners for speaking from the Tory platform.
Even in death, he was undervalued, The New York Times using the occasion to diminish him, saying:other economists, even many of his fellow liberals, did not generally share his views on production and consumption, and he was not regarded by his peers as among the top-ranked theorists and scholars.
His peers were mere candles to Galbraith's sun. Their work will vanish and his endure. Consider to whom the pageblotters at The Times choose to compare him. Galbraith said companies used advertising to induce consumers to buy things they had never dreamed they needed. Other economists, like Gary S. Becker and George J. Stigler, both Nobel Prize winners, countered with proofs showing that advertising is essentially informative rather than manipulative.
Does anyone believe that Becker and Stigler proved this? Does anyone think that companies are paying good money to educate
people? Oh, yes, they tell you what features their products supposedly have that the competitors supposedly don't, and sometimes they aren't lying. So perhaps in the same sense that wood chips are "food," advertising is "information."
The New York Times misused a quote from Brad DeLong, saying Some suggested that Mr. Galbraith's liberalism crippled his influence.... J. Bradford DeLong wrote in Foreign Affairs that Mr. Galbraith's lifelong sermon of social democracy was destined to fail in a land of "rugged individualism." He compared Mr. Galbraith to Sisyphus, endlessly pushing the same rock up a hill that always turns out to be too steep.
But today, DeLong has the context, and once again we learn how full of ... the Tory platform the New York Times is: Parker has an explanation -- a relatively convincing one -- for the retreat of Galbraith's politics. The story behind it is the Democratic establishment's loss of nerve. Too many party intellectuals and politicians drink cocktails on Martha's Vineyard, in Parker's view, and too few spend time on the shop floor learning what issues are important to those sweeping up or manning an assembly line or tending the convenience-store cash register from midnight to six a.m. Thus, the mass base of the Democratic Party has withered, and without a mass base Democratic politicians listen too much to their rich contributors and turn into Eisenhower Republicans -- people who are interested above all in balancing the budget. ...
Parker also has an explanation -- also a relatively convincing one -- for the eclipse of Galbraith's economic thought. The story here is of the blindness of an academic establishment ... Economists, Parker believes, have sold their birthright for a tasteless pottage of mathematical models. As a result, they can say much about theory but little about reality. And they ignore Galbraith because he is a guilt-inducing reminder of how much broader and more relevant economics can be.
Galbraith was one of the few who foresaw how corrosive and damaging to US power and prestige its entry into Vietnam would be. Where was the New York Times? Stirring up the Cold War. Forty years later, Galbraith warned about Iraq. Where was The New York Times? Stirring up the War on Islam.
The obituary made a point of Galgraith's "arrogance." In reality, Galbraith joked about it, telling a self-deprecating anecdote involving JFK that he could have kept to himself had he really been
arrogant. The point is that those who are right almost all of the time have a right to crow now and again. Those who are wrong most of the time would be best not to call that arrogance.
The two things I think I can guarantee are that if there is a heaven, John Kenneth Galbraith is basking in the sunshine there. Also, that he won't be bothered by anyone from The New York Times.