MOST ECONOMISTS try hard to validate Thomas Caryle's description of economics as "the dismal science" by their rigorous commitment to turgid and pontifical prose. John Kenneth Galbraith stands out from his fellows, not merely because he is taller than anyone else in the world, but because he rejects that practice. Disdaining his profession's trade union rules, he insists obstinately on writing in the English language; not only can his books be read without translation but he eschews nonce words and neologism. Although several of his pithy phrases have found a place in the vernacular -- such as "the affluent society," "conventional wisdom," the "social balance" and "countervailing power" -- they are composed of recognizable English words.
What makes Galbraith an embarrassment to brother economists is that he writes with grace and style, abjures mystification and does not revere solemnity for its own sake. Nor does he cluter his books and articles with abstruse formulae composed of a random sampling of the alphabet or use those little arrows that conceal a lack of thought.
That Galbraith should be regarded as a controversial figure is for him a mark of success; all his life he has worked at it indefatigably. What most upsets his critics is his avidity for satirical laughter that undresses his opponents and reveals their infirmities. This distresses bashful colleagues who abhor intellectual nudity.
Sooner or later it was certain that Galbraith would write his memoirs; he has tried his hand at almost every other literary art form. He has written famous books on economics, novels, essays, reminiscenses of his Scottish compatriots in Canada, a diplomatic diary that defies the accepted tradition, newspaper columns, any number of book reviews, and 30 and 40 commencement speeches. Poetry is the only genre at which he has not tried his hand and, for all I know, he may be a secret versifier. Thus the inevitable memoirs, for which he is exceptionlly well equipped: he has done many things, been many places, known many people (including an impressive list of movers and shakers from John F. Kennedy to Jawaharlal Nehru) and recorded what he has seen with an observant eye for both achievements and human foibles. Most important, he employs his sense of the ridiculous to put things in their proper order of importance.
Galbraith first became a national figure when he administered price controls in Washington during the Second World War. He did his job well and faithfully, showing stern impartiality in outraging everyone touched by his edicts. Later, as the war was ending, he and I were co-directors of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey. At our continental headquarters in Bad Nauheim, he gathered together perhaps the most brilliant group of economists, historians, statisticians and political scientists ever assembled for a single project. Out of it all came the first critical assessment of the German war economy with a special focus on the economic effects of strategic bombing, which won him no favor with the Air Force. Thereafter, he repeated the study in Japan.
Exploiting an opportunity unique in our American system, he has repeatedly moved in and out of the public sector, not limiting his instruction to the unwashed natives but also educating presidents and (usually unsuccessful) presidential candidates. About his many adventures he has much to say in a book filled with anecdotes each carefully crafted to preserve the full effect of the punch line, and with obvious delight he tosses off such epigrams as, "Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable." As with all good memoirs his most interesting pages contain vignettes of the personalities he has encountered in the course of a varied and busy life. They are sketched with economy like a good line drawing, frank and vivid, and showing Galbraith's full appreciation of one of the major purposes for writing memoirs -- to praise one's friend and disparage one's enemies.
He reveals in this volume the conditions and agonies of parturition that resulted in the substantive books on which his intellectual reputation rests, such as The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State, and he thoughtfully provides a precis of their principal themes. It is the test of his impact on the age that several of those themes, though novel and fiercely resisted at the time, have now become part of today's conventional wisdom -- his emphasis on the qualitative aspects of life, his anticipation of our current preoccupation with the ecology, his concept of countervailing power.
This book is exactly what I would have expected of Galbraith's memoirs -- entertaining, mildly outrageous, informative, sparklingly written and -- despite all those adjectives -- replete with ideas.