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Galbraith Drops Names From Heights of History

July 07, 1999|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — One good thing about living long enough to become an institution: You get to write--or say--whatever you want.

In the case of John Kenneth Galbraith, the 90-year-old eminence grise of economists, this means pausing from a lifetime of serving up information about the wealth and poverty of nations. It means digressing from an intellectual diet of capitalism, class structure and comparative commerce. It means, at last, sitting in your big wood-paneled living room and "Name-Dropping."

That's the title the scholar and presidential advisor chose for his 31st book, a breezy collection of reminiscences of encounters with famous figures, from Franklin D. Roosevelt forward. This time, Galbraith explained, "I decided that I would write one purely to entertain."

With his freshly minted PhD from UC Berkeley, Galbraith arrived in Washington in 1934. The Great Depression and the ensuing restructuring planned by FDR had created a sellers' market for economists. For a young man from western Ontario, Canada, who knew something about finance, the nation's economy was a kind of paradise.

FDR Was 'Impatient'

Richard Nixon, a young attorney in the rubber-tire rationing section of the Office of Price Administration, prepared Galbraith's letters. "But I did not, as I recall, ever meet him." Franklin Roosevelt was "impatient with detail, certainly with technicality." His wife, Eleanor, "but for the accident of history and the prevailing constraints of gender, could have been president in her own right."

Harry S. Truman was "deeply conscious, perhaps overly conscious, of his meager formal preparation for the post he had so suddenly assumed." John F. Kennedy had harsh words for spin doctors: "I would like a few answers," he once declared in Galbraith's presence. "I don't need any instruction on how to evade."

In person, Galbraith can only name-drop so long. His hair is bright white, and without his hearing aids he is quite deaf. He remains a truly towering presence, almost 6-foot-7. Galbraith and his wife, Kitty, are the Harvard community's original power couple. An invitation to the annual commencement party in their garden is Cambridge's most coveted ticket.

In a room filled with objects from his days as ambassador to India, Galbraith lamented that "we have made ourselves into the most unequal society in terms of income in the world." A large community enjoys senior positions among the great corporations, he observed, "setting their own salaries, subject to the approval of directors that they have appointed."

'Entitled to Leisure'

As class disparity sharpens, work becomes tedious for the majority--and for a narrow financial power bloc, "that which they most enjoy." Money buys entitlement: "The wealthier you are, the more you are entitled to leisure," Galbraith said. "For anyone on welfare, leisure is a 'bad thing.' "

Certain unhappy truisms persist, said the author of "The Great Crash, 1929" and "The Affluent Society." Wealth is actually good for the poor. And the oldest tenet of agricultural theory: "If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows."

Galbraith said two dominant problems loom. One is "the number of people in the rich countries, particularly in the great cities, who are desperately poor." The second is an economic theory, capitalism, that was "invented on behalf of the rich."

But he doesn't view the dichotomy as unbridgeable. "I am fully persuaded that in a rich country like the United States, we can also provide a minimum income for the poor. We can afford it."

This is a topic--what can be afforded--that Galbraith knows intimately. As a Keynesian--an unrepentant but socially conscious capitalist--the skinny farm boy was considered an eccentric at Berkeley in the 1920s. His first teaching appointment took him to the university's Davis campus, then an agricultural backwater where he earned the princely annual salary of $1,800.

A year later, he received a telegram from Harvard, offering him $2,600 a year to join the faculty. He considered himself shrewd. He had heard that one way to advance yourself was to present an alternative offer. So he showed the telegram to his dean.

"Take it, Galbraith!" the dean thundered. "You're not worth that much to us."

But for his sojourns in Washington and India, Galbraith has been at Harvard ever since.

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