David R. Henderson  

Richard Parker on John Kenneth Galbraith

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I'm on vacation at my cottage in Minaki, Ontario and, because the weather until recently has not been up to par, I'm doing more reading than usual. The book I'm currently working my way through is John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, by Richard Parker. I didn't expect to like it much because I'm, to put it mildly, not a fan of Galbraith's economics. But I like it a lot.

As you might expect, what I didn't like, in most cases, were the parts on economics. Parker, himself an "Oxford-trained economist" (according to the book jacket) is a too uncritical fan of Galbraith's economic views. But you don't have to agree with Galbraith to find many of the parts on economics interesting. I especially liked how, in the 1930s, he was trying hard to figure out why the Great Depression happened and why recovery was so slow.

Moreover, there's so much more to the book than the economics. In May 2006, the day after Galbraith died, I was asked by the Wall Street Journal to do an op/ed about him that day. I did, and I stand by it. But in the process of researching him, I came across some interesting passages in Galbraith's autobiography, A Life in Our Times, that made me want to know more. When I read the book thoroughly and then read his short book, How to Control the Military, I became somewhat of a fan, enough of one that I asked Sheldon Richman, then editor of The Freeman, if I could do a longer piece for The Freeman than I had done for the Journal. It was to be, I told Sheldon, a critical look in the original sense of that word: I would both criticize Galbraith when I disagreed and praise him when I agreed.

There was much to praise, mainly about his views on foreign policy and on conscription. Here's a long excerpt from the "praise" section of my Freeman article:

What else is impressive about Galbraith? He brought an independent mind to some of the biggest issues of the twentieth century, those involving war and peace. For all his refusal to look at evidence, Galbraith did some of his most important work on the effect of Allied bombing of Germany during World War II. As a director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey he went to Germany immediately after the European war and headed a team to do an overall economic assessment of the German mobilization and the effect of the bombing on that mobilization. Galbraith's team included economists Burton H. Klein, who made his reputation with his work on that team, Nicholas (later Lord) Kaldor, E.F. Schumacher (later author of Small Is Beautiful), Tibor Scitovsky, and Edward Dennison.
What they found was devastating. Galbraith wrote wittily, "Nothing in World War II air operations was subject to such assault as open agricultural land." Successful attacks on war-production plants were much rarer. Whereas in 1940, 1941, and 1942, average monthly production of Panzer vehicles was 136, 316, and 516, respectively, in 1943 (when the bombing had begun in earnest) and 1944, monthly Panzer production was up to 1,005 and 1,583, respectively. They found similar results for airplane production. Galbraith's boss, George Ball (later undersecretary of state under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson), found something equally disturbing about the firebombing of cities. The RAF's bombing of central Hamburg, for example, destroyed many lives and many businesses in the central city--restaurants, cabarets, department stores, banks, and more. What were the newly unemployed waiters, bank clerks, and entertainers to do? That's right: seek jobs in the war plants on the edge of the cities "to get the ration cards that the Nazis thoughtfully distributed to workers there."
Moreover, the effect of the bombing was to shift control of production from the incompetent Goering and the Luftwaffe to the far-more-competent evil genius, Albert Speer. In other words, the incredible destruction that the British and air forces wreaked on Germany, with the high loss of human life, didn't even have the intended effect of slowing Germany 's war-production machine. Galbraith had to fight hard to have his report published without it being rewritten to hide the essential points. "I defended it," he wrote, "with a maximum of arrogance and a minimum of tact."

I'm finding myself, while reading Parker's book, again appreciating Galbraith's courage and persistence in trying to talk President John F. Kennedy out of getting into Vietnam. Galbraith obviously failed, but his arguments were compelling and essentially right.

So I've decided to, over the next week or so, post a few blog posts about Parker's book. Most of them will be criticisms of Galbraith's economics; some will be appreciations of Galbraith's courage and wit.

My first post, though, will not be about the book per se. Instead, it will be about an interaction I had with him at the American Economic Association meetings in New York City in, I believe, January 1989. It's an interaction in which I came out looking bad and got to see the twinkle in his eye as I walked into a trap that I had set for myself.

Stay tuned.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (5 to date)
DougT writes:

“There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit.”
― Ronald Reagan

Bruce Bartlett writes:

Whatever one thinks about Galbraith's economics, he was a first rate writer and political commentator. He wrote often for popular publications on subjects other than economics and was very well plugged into the Democratic Party. Those interested in the history of the 1960s and 1970s will profit from reading Galbraith regardless of their point of view.

mike davis writes:

I share your admiration for Galbraith’s opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese War in much the same way I admire Keynes for his opposition to The Treaty of Versailles. But thinking about the lives of both men raises a really interesting set of issues.

Read A Life in Our Times and you see Galbraith as part of the crew trying to plan the economy during WWII. Then he goes to post-war Europe, and experiences what can only be called a Hayekian epiphany—the world is complicated, information is diffused and consequences are unintended. This is the JKG who in the ‘60’s tried to talk Kennedy out of committing to Vietnam. And, of course, history has proved him right. At about the same time, though, he’s working on The New Industrial State and becoming the #1 cheerleader for simple-minded Keynesianism.

Why did he believe in power of the state and planning in one case but not the other?
Why didn’t he even see the contradiction and feel the need to explain himself?

Clearly not because he was stupid or cowardly.

I wonder if what this really shows us is the power of the culture in which all of us operate. Cambridge and Bloomsbury provided a wonderful bubble for those who lived there. Galbraith could go down to Washington and harangue the Kennedy’s, knowing that he could return to the succor of the faculty lounge. That is a very good thing--every kid needs a place of their own. The tradeoff, though, is that these intellectual bubbles often don’t challenge inconsistencies of the sort we see in Galbraith’s life.

Libertarians have their own bubbles and within those circles there is at least as much self-reverence as was the case in Galbraith’s world. An open and sympathetic discussion of the intellectual life of guys like JKG and JMK will help better understand the culture that shapes our own ideas.

I look forward to the future posts.

Unlearningecon writes:
Why did he believe in power of the state and planning in one case but not the other?

He saw it - and unions - as a 'countervailing power' to the power of corporations. So it was a case of a second best mentality.

LT Phillips writes:

I, too, enjoyed the Parker book (though it could have been pruned). If memory serves, Galbraith taught the first course at Harvard on economic development (early 1950s). His missives to JFK when he was the U.S. Ambassador to India were prescient about the political situation in Southeast Asia and the looming disaster in Vietnam.

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