Backstage

Lunch with John Galbraith

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 20 1999
Backstage

Lunch with John Galbraith

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 20 1999

Lunch with John Galbraith

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Backstage

When it comes to lunch with John Kenneth Galbraith, getting there isn’t half the fun. The house where he, his elegant wife of 62 years, Kitty, and their family have spent most summers since 1947 lies atop a hill at the end of a bumpy dirt road in southern Vermont. The nearest municipality is too small to show up on most maps—and once there, another 11 km of hairpin turns await. But in typical Galbraith fashion, written directions are precise, crisp, and conclude: “Do not anywhere lose courage: you didn’t really make a mistake.” Also typically, the lunch prepared by Kitty is perfectly laid out, highlighted by a salad of greens she picked on their 250-acre estate.

Galbraith will be 91 in October, and for the man who has known every Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, a hearing aid and cane for walking are now standard accompaniments. He says he has “slowed a bit” by his standards—but his output remains prodigious. Officially retired, he keeps an office at Harvard University, and lectures regularly. He writes three hours a day, and ponders ideas and phrases “when Fm walking, or after I go to bed at night, or waking up in the morning.”

After finishing Name-Dropping, his recently released, critically praised book of reminiscences, he has segued into a new project that dissects modern society in economic and philosophical terms. Galbraith says the book, to be called The Economics of Innocent Fraud, concerns “the sort of comfortable things that become belief because they advantage somebody.” The process, he says, starts with “the renaming of the system. There is so much in the history of capitalism, from Marx to the Rockefellers, that the name has a slightly evil sound.” So, he concludes, “we’ve shifted to a wholly meaningless designation called the market system,’ which is totally bland, and somehow gives the impression that consumers are the dominant force.”

That’s classic Galbraith: even speaking spontaneously, he makes his case in perfectly formed sentences, leavened with a dash of outrage, a measure of cynicism and a dusting of historical reference. Those aren’t traits shared by all in the farm community of Iona Station, Ont., where Galbraith grew up—and he remains aware how much one opportunity affected his life. As a graduate of the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph in 1931, he was pondering options when the University of Southern California offered a scholarship. Without that, he would likely have stayed in Canada. With it, the choice “lay between a lifetime of heavy, monotonous toil on an Ontario farm, or a leisurely academic existence.” It also meant choosing between being Canadian or American. In 1937, with dual citizenship not yet possible, Galbraith became an American.

Since then, he has seldom been far from the centres of American political debate and power. His Harvard link, where he first met the Kennedys, began in the mid-1930s. (John F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at his 90th birthday party.) Galbraith ran the American price-controls board in the Second World War, was adviser to presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956, and did the same for John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and George McGovern. He is less close to Bill Clinton, but gets along well enough that he has been to Little Rock, Ark., as a Clinton guest.

Through all, Galbraith has remained an unabashed liberal, an unrepentant believer in the idea that government deficits aren’t always bad, and an unrelenting critic of materialism. “The urge to consume,” he wrote in The Affluent Society in 1958, “is fathered by the value system, which emphasizes the ability of the society to produce. The more that is produced, the more that must be owned in order to maintain the proper prestige.” That theme runs through many of his 31 books. These days, with the American economy booming, Galbraith favours running a surplus rather than cutting taxes. Then, he would put money aside for “the day when there is unemployment, recession, and governments will need to borrow partly for welfare.” Macroeconomic policy, Galbraith insists, “must be seen in cyclical terms.”

The same can be said of Galbraith’s influence. At his peak in the 1960s, he was one of the leaders of mainstream economic thinking. In the 1980s, his ideas lost currency. In the past decade, in books like The Culture of Contentment and his forthcoming work, he has used his place in the Democratic party to prod it to rethink existing ideas and revisit old ones. In June, Galbraith gave what he calls “my best-received speech ever” at the London School of Economics. Later, the text of “The Unfinished Business of the Century” was reprinted in newspapers around the world. At times funny, pointed and poignant, it ended with a plea to battle what he calls mankind’s greatest challenges: the growing number of desperately poor people, and the need to eliminate nuclear weapons. We are, Galbraith said, “on the edge of a total end to civilized existence on the planet, perhaps of life itself.” Those aren’t happy thoughts, but Galbraith is often as blunt as he is eloquent. Similarly, after a two-hour discussion in his study, Galbraith rises abruptly and says: “That’s enough talking.” He has that book to finish writing—and as always, he remains just as interested in what still lies ahead as in reflecting on the well-travelled road behind.