From his boyhood among the Scotch settlers of rural Elgin County, Ontario, through his graduate work in agricultural economics at the University of California and the University of Cambridge, England, to more than 40 years of involvement in education and in public and political service, John Kenneth Galbraith has honed a keen eye for the revealing incident, a sharp pen for capturing it on paper and an enduring commitment to a skeptical, liberal and humane approach to life. These asides on the public arena and its actors, drawn from his forthcoming memoir A Life in Our Times, are a sampler of the workings of the Galbraith mind.
The attractions of politics are manifold, one being its theater. Politicians play roles that are larger than life and not their own. At any moment they are giving a studied imitation of someone better or more interesting than they are themselves. Or they are enhancing their own public image. They read or hear that they are forthright, sincere, uncompromising, and so they feel obliged to seem. All this is an interesting thing to watch.
For a participant, politics is also psychologically therapeutic. Being combative, it is a solvent for aggression. One can say things about others to an appreciative audience which normally would be reserved for private comment. This improves personal behavior. Arthur Schlesinger's family noted that he was always unnaturally agreeable when writing speeches for Adlai Stevenson.
Finally, with all else in politics, there is the thought that one is helping change the world. And there is a helpful element of illusion here. You are always aware of your own efforts, much less so of the efforts of the many who similarly engage themselves. From this comes a pleasantly exaggerated sense of accomplishment. It is why political memoirs must always be read with caution.
The White House is an excellent address but an occupationally unhealthy place to work. While it may not be safe to attack the president, it is always safe to impugn his subordinates. In consequence, the walking wounded from service in the Executive offices -- Harry Vaughn, Sherman Adams, Walt Rostow, Bert Lance -- would fill a small hospital or, as in the case of the Nixon men, a medium-sized minimum security jail.
Of the Kennedy brothers, the one with whom I had the least ease of communication was Robert Kennedy. My distance from him grew out of our different capacities for political commitment. I have always tried for a measure of detachment. I've felt that one should hold some part of one's self in reserve, never be too completely sure of being right. Let belief always be tempered by discretion. None of this suited Robert Kennedy's mood; his commitment was complete. You were either for a cause or against it, either with the Kennedys or a leper. I was never regarded by Bobby as being as completely a Kennedy man as one should be.
I was also regarded with uncertainty by his wife Ethel, whose sense of absolutes was even greater than that of her husband. It extended notably to religion. At Kennedy gatherings at Hickory Hill in McLean, prayer was obligatory before meals, and once I had the feeling, quite possibly imagined, that Ethel Kennedy had caught me smiling. It was not, I yearned to explain, over the fact of our devotions. Rather, I was comtemplating God's surprise that so many lifelong heretics should suddenly become so devout from being in the house of the attorney general of the United States who was also the brother of the president.
An enduring reward from my year at Cambridge [1937-38] was friendship with Michal Kalecki, then in self-imposed exile from Poland. A small, often irritable, independent, intense man, Kalecki was the most innovative figure in economics I have known, not excluding Keynes. His specialty was to bring the obvious into view and cause one to wonder why it had not been noticed before. This ordinarily happened in conversation; only rarely did Kalecki get around to writing his discoveries down.
He did put into print the thought that the lower a man's income, the greater -- were he rational -- his aversion to risk. That is because the pain of loss is far greater for the poor man than for the rich, and the most cautious or conservative of all will be the peasant who lives at the margin of subsistence. If his gamble on something new turns out badly, he goes hungry, perhaps dies. A more affluent farmer, in contrast, risks only some income. Nothing more poignantly explains the reluctance of the poor villager to try some agricultural innovation. The age-old methods have proven themselves by the fact that he is still alive. New seed stock, tillage methods or crops have not so proven themselves and could fail.
In my years in India I often heard American agriculturalists inveighing against the unwillingness of the Indian farmer to accept American methods. Kalecki was always in my mind. If the innovation did not work out, the Indian farmer -- as he himself well knew -- would starve. The American, in contrast, would be safely home at Kansas State.
To bring monetary policy to bear against inflation, the Federal Reserve discourages the lending of money by the banks. This it accomplishes by raising interest rates and by increasing the bank's reserve requirements -- the cash they must hold in reserve -- so that they have less money to lend. That is all there is to the policy.
The effect of this action is very different as between small firms and large. House builders, other construction firms, smaller retailers, other small traders and, in appreciable measure, farmers depend for their operations on borrowed money, and they cannot, in the normal case, pass along the higher interest charges. Their prices, those of farmers being the extreme case, are determined by competition in the market.
The position of the large, strong corporation is almost exactly the reverse.
It finances its operations extensively from retained earnings. Having substantial control over its prices, it can pass the higher interest charges along to its customers. Or it will have "unliquidated monopoly profits" by which the higher interest can be absorbed. So when monetary policy is invoked against inflation, the primary effect is on the small man, not the large corporation. The approval of the policy by the rich and powerful is thus an accurate reflection of their own self-interest. The applause by those so favored that has long been accorded Professor Milton Friedman, its most distinguished advocate, has been greatly deserved. My case to this general effect, published in mid-1957, was challenged, but not, I believe, effectively rebutted. I count it as one of my less celebrated but most useful contributions to economics that I helped make clear the pecuniary nexus between an undue reliance on monetary policy and the people who so ardently approve its use.
The job of an American ambassador is to maintain civil communication with the government to which he is accredited and, to the extent that personality allows, to personify the majesty and dignity of the United States. No one should suppose that this is either intellectually or physically taxing.
In India during my time [1961-63] there were some 50 ambassadors. They were a spectacular example of what economists, following Joan Robinson of the University of Cambridge, call disguised unemployment. The ambassadors from Argentina or Brazil could not have had more than a day's serious work a month. The more deeply engaged diplomats from Scandinavaia, Holland, Belgium or Spain could discharge their essential duties in one day a week.
All set much store by the routine of official entertainments as did my American colleagues. These festivities were said to build goodwill, and much useful information was held to be exchanged under the impulse of food and alcohol. During my years in India I never learned anything at a cocktail party or dinner that I didn't already know or wouldn't soon have learned in the normal course of business. The emphasis that diplomats of all countries in all capitals accord to entertaining is the result of a conspiracy by which function is found in pleasant social intercourse and controlled inebriation.
In New Delhi I concentrated diligently on those matters which I could do better than members of my staff -- seeing Nehru (who doubled as minister for external affairs) and other senior government officials, responding to the occasional telegram that could be rendered into intelligible English and which raised a serious policy issue, making those social appearances at which only the ambassador would serve. The necessary tasks, I soon discovered, could be accomplished in around two hours of official work a day. I devoted the further hours to writing, reading and the study of Indian art.
The public lands of the United States exceed the combined areas of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Hungary and Albania. Where socialized ownership of land is concerned, only the U.S.S.R. and China can claim company with the United States.
On few matters are we so determinedly obscurantist as on attitudes toward migration. The practical evidence on its effects is overwhelming: West Germany, Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Miami and the Punjab in India have all had a large inflow of migrants since World War Ii. These are the economic success stories of this era. That such migrants, extensively selected by themselves for their initiative and by disaster for their strength, resource and ability to survive, should make a powerful contribution to economic development is hardly surprising.
Migrants want to come; employers are eager to have them. The economic development to which they contribute is desirable. But instead there is the perversity of the present attitudes: the governments of the receiving countries seek to prevent the influx, those of the supplying countries deplore the exodus. Fortunately the power of government in this matter is small so the movement continues.
In the late '50s, the Democrats' foreign policy discussions were true portents. At each meeting Dean Acheson, aided by Paul Nitze, who was by now a catatonic Cold Warrior and serving as Acheson's vice chairman and amanuensis, produced a paper attacking whatever John Foster Dulles had done in the preceding weeks. The attack was always for being too lenient toward communism and the Soviet Union. Herbert Lehman, Adlai Stevenson and Averell Harriman would then take exception with a view toward moderating the language. Harriman alone was abrupt: "You know, Dean," he said one day, "I don't agree with your declarations of war." Many, in fact, recognized the need for accomodation with the Soviets, but it was going too far to say this out loud.
Here, early and in miniature, were the fatal politics of Vietnam. It was not that the issue was debated and the wrong decision taken; it was rather that there was no debate. The old liberal fear of being thought soft on communism, the fear of being attacked by professional patriots and the knowledge of the political punishment that awaits any departure from the Establishment view (as manifested against Stevenson on the draft and the H-bomb) all united to eliminate discussion. Democracy has, as ever, its own forms of authoritarianism.
The vast ceremonials called national conventions are now a bloated corpse. Candidates, as we know, are selected in the primaries or in the local caucuses and state conventions. There cannot be two separate arrangements for performing the same task and so it is the preconvention selection that counts. It follows that by the time the delegates assemble, the candidate has been chosen. Or the choice has been narrowed to, at most, a couple of contenders, and it is hard to have much of a contest when two (or fewer) are in the running.
But now fraud enters. A semblance of life is breathed into the corpse by delegates who, having been elected or selected and traveled to the great event, wish to believe they are doing something. In this wish they are abetted by the press which is enjoying an expense-paid reunion and a carnival untaxing to the mind, and above all by television commentators whose livelihood is involved, as also their reputation for raising banality to an art form.
In the spring of 1967, Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Goodwin and I lunched together one day at Quo Vadis in New York. Goodwin had been, with Theodore Sorensen, the most effective of John F. Kennedy's speech writers. He had remained on with Johnson, to whose style, political energy and position on domestic issues he was greatly attracted. But in time he too came to realize that foreign policy and the war were dominating the scene. So he left the White House. It was of the war we talked. Schlesinger said this was the time of testing; in that last millisecond before the ultimate holocaust we should not be forced to remember that we had spent the summer on a beach. We agreed that we should devote ourselves for as long as might be necessary or useful to opposing the war.