J.K. Galbraith and the Forks in the Road

J.K. Galbraith and the Forks in the Road

J.K. Galbraith and the Forks in the Road

While John Kenneth Galbraith was good at pointing out the failures of the free enterprise system, he could never overcome the play-to-win mentality of American capitalism.


Galbraith died April 29, at 97. I once drove up to Vermont to interview him in his farmhouse there. It was dark out, and I drove uncertainly along a dirt road and up a driveway and knocked on the door, shouting, “Is this the home of Professor Galbraith?” “No,” came an angry shout from within. “It’s the home of Professor Hook.” Sidney Hook, the prototypical neocon, lived on the opposite side of the hill from the Keynesian progressive, Galbraith. By no means for the last time, I reflected how easy it is in America to take the wrong road, often without noticing, and end up 180 degrees from where you thought you were headed.

My Vermont trip took place in the mid-1970s, and it was still possible, though barely so, to imagine that there might be feasible radical options available around the next corner.

From Saigon on April 29, 1975, just before midnight, CIA station chief Tom Polgar had just sent his last secure communiqué to headquarters in Langley, saying, “It will take us about twenty minutes to destroy equipment…. It has been a long fight and we have lost. This experience, unique in the history of the United States, does not signal necessarily the demise of the United States as a world power….”

There was talk of a “peace dividend.” Optimistic souls wrote about a shift in budgetary priorities from the military-industrial to the social-industrial complex, with money pouring in to low-income housing and mass transit.

The usefulness of talking to Galbraith was that his career lent a cautionary perspective to such hopes. No decent agricultural economist in the Depression (such as Galbraith had been) could have anything other than radical instincts as regards the shackling of the predatory corporate impulse. It was men like Henry Wallace, from the farm belt, who urged whatever left contour the New Deal actually had.

But by 1938 the New Deal had run out of steam, the recovery turned sour and what actually bailed out America was the loom, and then the reality, of the Second World War. Galbraith, still in his 30s, became deputy administrator in charge of price controls for the Office of Price Administration.

As far back as the German script for 1914, war planning has mostly been the pragmatic backbone of socialist blueprints, and it was easy to imagine that minute supervision of the economy post-Pearl Harbor could flower into large-scale economic planning in war’s aftermath. But the reality was that the cost-plus-10-percenters were cleaning up on war contracts, and around the corner lay the corporate counterattack of the postwar years that gutted the Wagner Act with Taft-Hartley.

Ahead lay comfortable 1950s academic visions of “plural elites” or the “countervailing power” stand-off between business and labor theorized by Galbraith and already contradicted by the AFL-CIO’s postwar acceptance of its role as business’s junior partner at the feeding trough of a postwar boom underpinned by the permanent war economy ushered in by Harry Truman.

By the time I got to Oxford, in 1960, people had Galbraith’s 1958 The Affluent Society on their desks jacket-to-jacket with the works of such other moral critics of capitalist consumerism as Leavis, Hoggart and Williams. How we sneered at the tailfin, first drawn in the Chrysler studio by Cliff Voss in 1954 and launched in 1956 as emblem of the company’s “forward look.” The consumers had it right. Labor never was going to get any purchase on the commanding heights of the economy, so workers bought fun baroque cars on the installment plan instead.

Although, as with his hero Veblen, his drollery could get tedious, Galbraith had the virtue of irreverence, albeit within the stifling constraints of urbanity. Within the Keynesian tradition–I remember him snarling with graceless venom about Marx–he was good at pointing out that the free enterprise system, so-called, never has worked very well, the same way he established with the postwar bombing survey that saturating Germany with high explosives never put much of a dent in the German war effort. (To Galbraith’s survey America offered by way of reply the Strategic Air Command and Gen. Curtis LeMay’s triumphant boast that SAC could reduce the Soviet Union to “a smoking, radiating ruin at the end of two hours.”)

In the early 1960s came official identification, by a task force assembled by Bobby Kennedy, of “pockets of poverty” blighting the American landscape. By May 1964 Galbraith was writing LBJ’s launch speech for the Great Society. The price tag was ruthless escalation of the war in Vietnam. From 1961 to ’63 Galbraith served as US Ambassador in New Delhi. He got on well with Nehru and advised the Indian government on economic policy. But in India a fateful fork in the road had already been passed. The CIA had secretly given the Congress Party funds to thwart the Communists’ revolution in Kerala, started in 1957 and embodying many of Galbraith’s social and economic ideals.

Disclosing that secret funding in his memoir A Dangerous Place was a later US Ambassador to India, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In the late 1950s Galbraith offered his critique of capitalism’s public squalor, and in the late 1960s came Moynihan’s response: The poor generally and blacks specifically have only themselves to blame. Onward into “benign neglect.” That was a big fork in the road, and one from which America has never turned back.

At least Galbraith, in his 90s, could look back to a time when a reformer could not only body forth a social vision but tentatively identify the agencies whereby that vision could be put into practice. As I read The Nation‘s recent special issue on reforming the world’s economic arrangements, with fine contributions by Stiglitz, D’Arista, Galbraith’s son James and others, not once in all the essays was the question of agency raised or the Democratic Party alluded to. If there’s going to be a fork in the road, the question of agency had better be on the agenda. Galbraith understood that, though neither he nor his prose style could ever quite confront just how roughly American capitalism plays to win.

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