Friday, December 18, 2009


Speaking of Galbraith A Personal Portrait by Peggy Lamson was more enjoyable than I had expected perhaps because it contained very little economics. It is sprinkled with the author's (wry) observations (I believe she was a neighbor) such as:

1. Galbraith was on his way to Berkeley via Cleveland with a "young man" who "has never acquired a name either with any conversations with Ken or in any of his written recollections". (pg. 26) ... "At least he is on the record ... about his relationship with a bizarre young woman [in Berkeley] with an aversion to wearing clothes ... Miss X - Ken claims to have forgotten her name - left Berkeley before he did. This encounter, mythical or not, took place during the year that Ken, after having studied two years at Berkeley ..." (pg. 30)

2. "In many ways Harvard was inevitable for Ken, although he likes to claim that if all things had been equal he would have preferred to remain at Berkeley. In fact, sometimes listening to him one might think that Harvard was some mere way station on the road to glory ....

But as he loves to tell it, he looked up from his desk in the library one day in the spring of 1934 - his third year in California - and saw a Western Union messenger holding a telegram containing the offer of an instructorship at Harvard ...

"I had not the slightest intention of accepting it, for I was totally happy in California," Ken insists, and then goes on with feigned innocence to explain that since he had heard that the way to win advancement in academia was to brandish offers from other universities, he let it be known at Berkeley that Harvard was "after" him. The astute dean of the School of Agriculture, however, took that information in his stride and let it be known right back that he had best take the Harvard offer, since he probably wasn't worth that much money[$2,400 vs. $1,800 he was earning at the time] to Berkeley anyway.

... He had to go to Harvard, or so the legend goes. What isn't revealed in any version of this fanciful tale is just how Harvard happened to make a job offer in the first place. Did it come completely out of the blue? Probably not. Jobs in academic institutions ... are usually obtained by the careful cultivation of those in a position to offer them. In this case it was Professor John D. Black [a professor of agricultural economics at Harvard].

But how was John D. made aware that ... across the continent was thevery man he was seeking ...? Certainly Ken, never one to be shy, was not loath to bring himself to Professor Black's attention. But at that point in his career he'd barely had time to establish an ... reputation.

... John D. Black heard about Galbraith in January 1933. Ken ... applied to the Royal Society of Canada for a fellowship they were sponsoring at Harvard. ... Harvard Tolley, head of the Giannini Foundation [who provided the scholarship for Ken to study at Berkeley] wrote personally to Black ... as did other professors ... yet Ken did not get the fellowship.

Today he insists he has no memory whatsoever of the entire episode. He dismisses copies of both Tolley's letter to Black and his actual fellowship application with an airy "If it had been important I certainly would have remembered it."

At the end of 1933 Ken went back east ... Afterward he went on to ... the annual meeting of the American Economic Association ... Ken doesn't recall meeting John D. at the time but in view of his selective memory about this entire sequence of events, this is hardly surprising."
(pages 32-34)

What I did not know:
1. He was Canadian.
2. Majored in animal husbandry in what is now Guelph University.

My personal reflection:
1. Was extremely impressed as undergraduate after reading the Great Crash, 1929. He wrote extremely well.

2. Mentioned this to my undergraduate professor and he commented to the effect - "Ah Galbraith, the price control guy."

3. Over the years I got the impression that is pretty much summarized as follows:

... his writings always run counter to a strong major current - mathematical economics, for example. Other economists have claimed that, besides, Ken's own ideas are never quite as original as he seeks to make them appear, and that his scholarship is often deficient or haphazard - his conclusions are asserted ... He is also considered a showman, a self aggrandizing personality, a journalist, a popularizer, and for all these reasons, as the anti-Galbraith segment likes to say, "He is not an economist!" (pg 139)

Ironically, in the Wikipedia entry:
Paul Krugman, the influential, Nobel Prize–winning Princeton University professor and New York Times op-ed columnist, has denigrated Galbraith's stature as an economist. In Peddling Prosperity: Economic Sense and Nonsense in an Age of Diminished Expectations, he calls Galbraith a "policy entrepreneur" – an economist who writes solely for the public, as opposed to one who writes for other professors, and who therefore makes unwarranted diagnoses and offers over-simplistic answers to complex economic problems. He asserts that Galbraith was never taken seriously by fellow academics, who viewed him as more of a "media personality". For example, Krugman believes that Galbraith's work The New Industrial State is not considered to be "real economic theory", and that Economics in Perspective is "remarkably ill-informed".[36] However, acknowledging the alleged damage caused by the George W. Bush administration, Krugman now says of his polemics in the 1990s, “I was wrong obviously. If I’d understood where politics would be now, it would have been quite different.”[37]

4. Met him once in his 30 Francis Ave home in Cambridge back in 1990. I was there with a friend who was at Harvard at the time. The occasion was the award of best graduate teacher won by Greg Mankiw. I got the sense of his arrogance that is written about in the book but he did not really dominate the entire evening, graciously letting Mankiw have his limelight. The home was like a museum - a homage to India - with an Indian servant. It may well have been
Sheela Karintikal - as described in pages 102-103 of the book.

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