Why I’m No Fan of John Kenneth Galbraith

My friend Brad DeLong has a warm review of Richard Parker's, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics in, of all places, Foreign Affairs.

It's clear Brad likes Galbraith's work, and up to a point I do too. But in my mind the work is inescapably tarred by my one meeting with the man, and ironically it has everything to do with foreign affairs.

In general I believe that the merits of a speaker should not reflect on the merits of his cause. While I think that's a good rule in politics, the exception in my mind is that one's conclusions about the carefulness (or fairness) of a person do entitle you to alter the presumptions of care or reasonableness that you bring to an appreciation of their academic writing.

My sole personal exposure to JKG was in about 1981, when he came to Yale for some reason and was enticed into a private meeting with the editorial board of the Yale Daily News. (It would have been either the year I was a copy editor, or the year I was News editor, I can't now recall.) As a somewhat liberal economics major, I was delighted at the prospect.

We met in the News's Board room, a room dominated by a long table. Galbraith gave a brief, lightweight, talk then said he was really there to answer questions.

In the course of the conversation, someone asked him what magazines and newspapers he read. JKG rattled off a fairly short list. “Don't you read The Economist” was the follow up question. “Oh, no,” said the great man, “too many articles about little countries you don't care about.”

[Had Galbraith said “too right-wing” I might have understood, although in those days I would have disagreed. Back then the Economist was much more interesting than that caricature. Today, alas, the Economist is a thin shadow of its former self. Its economic analysis is pedestrian, and its coverage of US politics is not just shallow, but utterly predictable by reading GOP talking points. And there isn't enough coverage any more about little countries that the New York Times doesn't care about. When, for example, was there last an article solely devoted to Albania? I may well not renew my subscription.]

It may be unfair of me, but Galbraith's patrician and disdainful lack of interest in international events and foreign countries seemed shocking then, and has cast a pall over my enjoyment of and sympathy towards his writing ever since.

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One Response to Why I’m No Fan of John Kenneth Galbraith

  1. washerdreyer says:

    I agree with all of your Economist criticisms, and yet it still seems that there is no one else who comes close to filling the niche for World coverage. Even at it’s current level, the only alternative way to get similar information would be to read 25 or so non-Economist websites. Or is there another alternative?

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