The dismal science has been taken for a joyful ride in a new television series here. An inspired collaboration between the BBC and John Kenneth Galbraith.
An idiosynchratic look at industrial society, the series' 13 hours range from Adam Smith and the Age of Reason to Henry Kissinger and the Age of Uncertainty.
All the wit and skill of Galbraith and the BBC's imaginative producers have been poured into this venture, 3 1/2 years in the making filmed in 19 countries, with a cast of hundreds of men, women and cardboard cutouts. The end product is a worthy successor to Bronowski's "Ascent of Man," Clark's "Civilization" and Cooke's America."
London viewers see the first installment Monday. The show is due in the U.S. on public service broadcasting in the early spring.
Galbraith, recently retired from Harvard, makes an urbane and surprisingly mellow guide to a broad and characteristically personal set of concerns about the modern world.He steers viewers through the rise of capitalism, money, Marx and communism, the multinational corporation, the city, underdeveloped lands and the Soviet and American military-industrial complexes.
The whole thing could have been dry as dust. Instead, it is unfailingly entertaining. The BBC's resourceful use of cutouts, actors, graphs and clever camera work turn abstract notions into concrete images.
Galbraith explains a market in the middle of flapping turkeys and chickens at a French country market. Adam Smith illustrated the productive advantages df the division of labor with a pin factory. The BBC offers 18th-century workers cutting, squeezing, sharpening and flattening iron to make the point unforgettable.
A pair of well-fed actors in tricorns and knee breeches wink and nod over the port. Smith's observation that "Two people of the same trade seldom meet together, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public" is brought to life.
The Rev. Malthus warns that food increases arithmetically but population geometrically, a disparity righted only by war or famine. An animated pictograph demonstrates the relationship. Better yet, a brooding and sardonic Galbraith looks over an Irish landscape and describes how Malthus was justified in the potato famine.
For once, the professor's cool is shaken and even now he is bitterly indignant over the British officials, wedded to simplistic free market notions, refusing the Irish aid. Galbraith's sermonette underscores the series' opening words from Keynes:
"A practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."
But Galbraith promises to explode myths "without too much solemnity" and he keeps his pledge for the most part. With his own creation, UGE (for Unified Global Enterprises), he examines the modern corporation. His prototype, with its catchy jingles and ads, grew up by selling tainted beef to the army in the Spanish-American war; sprinkled sawdust liberally in its sausages and breakfast foods for consumers; and then hooked a cola generation with a cocaine additive.
Thanks to "creative accounting," UGE swaps its paper for the paper of other firms, goes multinational and establishes a Paris headquarters because that is where the best food, more accesible women and the Crazy Horse Saloon can be found.
This irreverent treatment seems far more realistic than the bland and docile description that Galbraith offers of the "real life" Philips Corp., one of the four companies that dominate Holland.
Inevitably, Galbraith has persuaded the BBC, perhaps unwisely, to ride some of his own eccentric hobby horses. He treates viewers to a replay of his notion that corporations are really run by a "technostructure" of marketing specialists, house lawyers and economists, scientists and other work for a large corporation can believe that it is anything but a hierarchal structure with power narrowing at the top.
Galbraith, however, is much more convincing when he shatters the notion that the consumer is king, that corporations have no power to control their sales and prices.
Curiously, he fails to mention that most common piece of corporate persuasion, the simple bribe. But Galbraith is constantly rewriting himself --belief in countervailing power, the idea that big government, big labor and big business balance instead of reinforce each other. (So his first prolonged encounter with the BBC may be the prelude to a return bout, one that re-examines his faith that large corporations are somehow necessary.
Galbraith, who wrote as well as narrated the venture, calls the whole affair, "The Age of Uncertainty," an agreeable irony for a man who is rarely in doubt. He ends with a bull session at his Vermont farm. The high-powered guest list includes Jack Jones, Britain's most powerful union chief; former Premier Edward Heath; Shirley Williams, the education secretary; Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, and Kissinger.
Galbraith occupies a peculiar place in the world of professional economics. He has always been regarded as a somewhat vulgar journalist -- partly from envy -- and his theoretical contribution is slight. But his BBC series demonstrates what hundreds of thousands of readers already know, that he is one of the great teachers of the age.