J.K. Galbraith's Towering Spirit

By Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Edmund Burke once made a famous prediction. "The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophists, economists and calculators has succeeded and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever." Some years later Thomas Carlyle disdained economists as professors "of the dismal science." The profession has indeed done little since to disprove Carlyle and to refute Burke. But neither Burke nor Carlyle foresaw John Kenneth Galbraith.

In the first place, Galbraith was the tallest economist in the world. That reinforced the boldness with which he confronted the establishment and its "conventional wisdom." Salvation, Galbraith argued, lies in the subversion of the conventional wisdom by the gradual encroachment of disquieting thought. "The emancipation of belief," he writes, "is the most formidable of the tasks of reform, the one on which all else depends." He was the republic's most valuable subversive.

His skills were not confined to economics. He was a diplomat, politician, bureaucrat, satirist, novelist, journalist, art collector, and man of the world and wit, and he took disarming delight in each role. I met him as a Washington bureaucrat during World War II. We discovered that both of us were born on Oct. 15, nine years apart, and we became grown men who were, in height, 13 inches apart. The convergence of thought -- I do not remember a disagreement -- is the only compelling argument for astrology that I know.

His brilliant deployment of subversive weapons -- irony, satire, laughter -- did not always please the more sedate members of his profession. But it vastly pleased the rest of us. Ken used the whiplash phrase and the sardonic thrust for several purposes: to reconnect academic economics, walled off in mathematical equations, with human and social reality; to rebuke the apostles of selfishness and greed; and to give the neglected, the abused and the insulted of our world a better break in life.

He challenged the national conscience with a series of thoughtful books, provocative interviews, merry rejoinders and lethal wisecracks. The Bush presidency led Ken to muse aloud that it had caused him to think thoughts that he never thought himself capable of thinking. I asked, "For example?" Ken replied, "I begin to long for Ronald Reagan."

Galbraith was never less than opinionated, and his opinions were often deflationary and sometimes devastating. He was the master of the unconventional wisdom. How, in view of his elegant unmasking of pomposity, hypocrisy and shame, can we account for the broad and indeed ecumenical range of his friends and fans -- stretching from left to right; from tall to short; from Bill Buckley to Arthur Schlesinger (and Ken more or less induced the last two characters to be fond of each other)?

Within this tall fellow bristling with opinions there resided a rare kindness of heart and generosity of spirit. In Mr. Dooley's phrase, Ken not only afflicted the comfortable but comforted the afflicted. In a quiet way, without fanfare, he helped more people, promoted more noble causes, sustained more fragile spirits than almost any of us have known, giving of himself and his substance with grace and concern. Underneath his joy in combat, he was a do-gooder in the dark of night. There is another reason why Ken was so generally loved -- his wife of 69 years, Catherine Atwater. Kitty was an intrepid lady, having stood up to Ken for more than half a century. Together they created a welcoming household.

John Kenneth Galbraith has left us, and the sum of human valor, wit, irreverence, sympathy, compassion and courage has badly diminished when we need them most.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is a writer and historian.

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