|Conversations with History: John Kenneth Galbraith
April 27, 1986. I'm Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Welcome to a conversation with UC Berkeley's 1986 Alumnus of the Year, John Kenneth Galbraith: Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics in 1934; Professor of Economics at Harvard for more than fifty years; writer and author of more than 20 books, including The New Industrial State and The Affluent Society, and one novel, The Triumph; price czar during World War II; Project Director in the strategic bombing studies after World War II; editor at Fortune magazine; advisor to President Kennedy; U.S. Ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration; a leader in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War; past president of the American Economics Association.
Professor Galbraith, welcome back to Berkeley.
It's very nice to be back.
What are your fondest memories of the campus, when you were here in the '30s?
There would be no doubt about that. My fondest memories are of the surroundings, the ambiance. As I'm saying in my speech this evening, it's always assumed that academic study must be under depraved conditions, otherwise it has no real effect. My memory of Berkeley in those years is of the supreme beauty of this setting, but also of a range of professors who were enormously close to the students and who also had a kind of built-in dissidence, a will to be inconvenient, a desire to afflict the comfortable, which I think had a certain and, I hope, good effect on a whole generation of graduate students in economics, and on students generally.
What would you say is Berkeley's most distinctive contribution in shaping the style and the ideas of John Kenneth Galbraith?
I would hope that it was a certain tendency to question the official wisdom, what I later called the "conventional wisdom," one of the few phrases for which I can, rightly or wrongly, take some responsibility.
Are you saying that Berkeley was a hotbed of radicalism in those days? Or was it more that it left you with an inquiring mind?
I would hope it was both. I was here during the years of the Great Depression, when nobody could say that the economic system was working with great precision and great compassionate effect. And there was certainly a strong, possibly romantic, movement to the left during those times. I looked on this with some jealousy as a matter of fact, and would like to have joined it. But I was in Agricultural Economics and I was fresh from studying agriculture so I had a sense that I was not the right material for this highly sophisticated movement. Also, as I've said many times, secretly I was enjoying the system. And, while I never admitted that to any of my colleagues, I think this kept me on perhaps an unfortunate avenue of respectability. On the other hand, no one could be at Berkeley in those years and be just a passive recipient of that "conventional wisdom."
When you were here as a student, you did a lot of field work in agriculture. I recall reading that you would go out and check on the status of various products.
No, that's not quite true. I was a research assistant on the Giannini Foundation, and we were expected to earn our pay which, in my case, was $720 a year -- $60 a month. And I earned my pay as an assistant to a very genial man by the name of Edwin Voorhies. I earned my pay by joining with him in a statewide study of the beekeeping industry. I think I can honestly say that I am the author of the polar work on beekeeping in California. I hope nobody in our audience will take that as a commercial.
We pride ourselves on not having commercials so that's good! In your autobiography, A Life in Our Time, you wrote that "Agricultural economics left me with a strong feeling that social science should be tested by its usefulness."
Well there was at that time and still, two streams of economic thought. There was what Thorstein Veblen, who quite a few years before I came to Berkeley was at Stanford, called "exoteric knowledge," which is knowledge related to practical application as, for example, the greater prosperity of the beekeepers. That was certainly exoteric. Then, Veblen identified a more prestigious line of work in the social sciences, and other sciences, which he called, "esoteric," which prided itself on having no practical use of any kind, totally remote from anything having to do with what we would now call "policy and economics" -- public policy. And I always felt that although the prestige still lies with esoteric activities in a university, probably the exoteric are more useful.
Is that why you spent much of your writing time working on problems of power in economics?
Partly yes. There are two things that people pursue in life, not wholly unrelated. One is money and the other is power. And we see this and take it for granted. The attraction of power we take for granted in politics, in your field, where people spend tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and now millions of dollars in order to have positions in Washington or Sacramento or wherever, where they have power. But in economics, classical and neoclassical economics, that has no particular role. The thrust there is for pecuniary return, for money. And I have always felt, and still feel very strongly, that that denies in the economic world a very large part of the motivation. People want to be head of General Motors, or General Electric, or General Mills, or another of the other, shall we say, "generals" -- they want those jobs certainly for the income that is returned. But the income is itself a measure of the prestige and power, authority, that goes with achieving those positions. And so I have tried in some of my writing, how successfully I don't know, to bring power back into a role in economic motivation. I gave an address some years ago which has been quite widely reproduced, my presidential address of the American Economics Association, I called "Power and the Useful Economist." One is not useful in economics unless one brings the thrust for power into appreciation, consideration.
If one were to attempt to characterize your work, it's really political economy. And what I want to ask you is why isn't there a political economy tradition in our great universities?
Well, I wouldn't be so hard as that. There is. Perhaps it's weaker now than it once was, but at places like Wisconsin, the University of Texas, to a substantial extent at certain times at Harvard, and here at Berkeley, there was a strong tradition of people who were concerned with the political side of the subject. And indeed, that had the implication of a concern for power. I tried to bring power into more theoretical terms than some of them did. So I wouldn't be so harsh as to say that this wasn't part of the American tradition. It's much more a part of the American tradition, I should think, than of the British tradition.
Was there a waning in recent times with the exception of your work?
This one of the dangers of age, that you, to some extent, look down and see homogeneity among younger people where, when you're younger, you look up and see enormous diversity among older people. It's one of the dangers of listening too carefully to anyone of my age. But, having said that and having admitted the likelihood of being wrong, I do think that the last 20 years have brought a strong shift back to what I've called the "esoteric aspects" of economics -- to mathematical expressions in economics, econometric niceties, and a tendency to leave the real world alone. It's something that in Cambridge we call the "Belmont Syndrome." Belmont is an extremely comfortable suburb adjoining Cambridge, and the "Belmont Syndrome" is a desire to move from a peaceful, happy life in Belmont to a peaceful, happy life at Harvard, from life to computer and back again, without any disturbance from Ronald Reagan.
The Art of Good Writing
When one looks at the corpus of your work, it's quite clear that good writing -- lucid, clear, precise -- is very important to your various vocations that you have held. In a way, you were primarily a writer. I wanted to ask you first, what do you think it takes to be a good writer?
I hope you are right; that's certainly been part of my aim in life. It certainly took service under a good editor at one time.
I was an editor of Fortune under Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Inc., who was one of the most ruthless editors that I have ever known, that anyone has ever known. Henry could look over a sheet of copy and say, "This can go, and this can go, and this can go," and you would be left with eight to ten lines which said everything that you had said in twenty lines before. And I can still, to this day, not write a page without the feeling that Henry Luce is looking over my shoulder and saying, "That can go."
One extraordinary part of good writing is to avoid excess, which many writers do not understand. The next thing, which of course is obvious, is to be aware of the music, the symphony of words, and to make written expression acceptable to the ear. How successfully and how one does that, I don't know. But certainly it is something that has always been a concern of mine. I worked on it very hard in one of my first widely read books, The Great Crash of 1929, and I was enormously pleased when it was so reviewed. The Great Crash is an ambiguous title, I must say, one should always watch titles. I saw this many times. I looked once to see if a copy was in the LaGuardia Airport bookstore in New York and the lady there said, "That's not a title you could sell in an airport."
The third thing is never to assume that your first draft is right. The first draft, when you're writing, involves the terrible problem of thought combined with the terrible problem of composition. And it is only in the second and third and fourth drafts that you really escape that original pain and have the opportunity to get it right. Again, I'm repeating myself; I've said many times that I do not put that note of spontaneity that my critics like into anything but the fifth draft. It may have a slightly artificial sound as a consequence of that.
The final thing, in economics, is to have one great truth always in mind. That is, that there are no propositions in economics that can't be stated in clear, plain language. There just aren't.
In an essay that you wrote about writing, on the occasion of turning down, a visiting position in Rhetoric here at Berkeley, you commented on the use of humor. I am going to read to you what you said and ask you how it applies to Galbraith. You wrote, "Recognize the grave risk in a resort to humor. Avoid humor; nothing so undermines a point as its association with a wisecrack."
Well, this was an ironical comment.
There's no question that in all writing humor is a very delicate instrument. It fades over into obviousness, absurdity, very quickly. And you'll always use it at risk. Secondly, there is no form of irony in the world that won't be taken seriously. I once wrote a piece of which I was at the time very proud (I maybe shouldn't go back and read it again), arguing somewhat ironically that socialism in the United States was the result of organized sports. It takes people at a vulnerable age and makes teamwork, more than individual work, the thing. It subjects people to the authority of the team captain or the coach, and as I say, this is at an age where people are vulnerable. And therefore, team sports are the breeding grounds for socialism and must be watched very carefully. And I had an organization in the piece -- this ran in Harper's -- called "the CIA": the Congress for Individualist Athletics. It was written under a pseudonym because I was then an ambassador, I couldn't write under my own name. One day the postman struggled into my room at Harvard with a pile of letters this thick that had been sent on from Harper's from people who, well, they fell into three classes:
- people who wanted to know whether it was real or not;
- people who wanted to join; and
- people who demanded that I exclude baseball from the list because baseball is not, as they said, a "socialist" sport: when you're up at bat, you're on your own.
Well, it's an example of the dangers of using irony. Under the best of circumstances, many people are going to take it seriously. But in any case, that's a rather long answer to a short question. Those would be the four principles, if anybody can remember them, that I would urge on a writer. Probably the two that should be most widely urged are to go over the drafts endlessly, and to have a good editor.
You were somewhat critical of writing in the social sciences. Is that a fair statement?
Oh sure. A lot of the writing in the social sciences is bad writing, is unnecessarily obscure. A lot of it is designed to give the impression that the individual so writing has a level of sophistication which separates him from the masses, and possibly separates him from his colleagues. And quite a bit of it is just unnecessarily verbose.
Writing is a way to get at truth. You wrote a novel, The Triumph, about our foreign policy. Why did you do that? Do you think it gave you a vehicle to say things you couldn't otherwise say?
I wrote a couple of novels and I must say, looking back, I would say the time when I was writing those novels was, perhaps, the happiest of my life. (One of them was not a novel, but an O. Henry type of thing which took a lot of related adventures of an individual by the name of Herschel McClanders and put them together.) You move into a world of your own creation. You live in that world. And you can also make a point in a novel, you can make a point in fiction, you have the availability of truth in fiction that you do not have in the real world. The Triumph was a novel; thanks to President Reagan it has just been re-issued, it was a novel about Central America, a country vaguely like Haiti -- some aspects of Haiti, some aspects of the Dominican Republic, some aspects of Nicaragua (more of Nicaragua than any of the other two). An old dictator like Somoza or Trujillo has reached the end of the road, and a middle-of-the-road social democratic government comes into power. And this arouses the alarm of the State Department because there is a minister of education who is suspected of being a communist. This is something like our present fears that Nicaragua is going to export its communism to Texas -- a very great fear. The new government is denied aid, denied assistance, denied recognition; the ambassador is recalled. And then finally that government falls and things look up. They bring back the old dictator's son, who is a student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He is installed in office. He's given aid, he's given military support. He calls to his support a lot of young officers and it develops that this bastard has become a communist at the University of Michigan! And, as I say, there is a certain relevance of this story such that President Reagan, not entirely to my delight, has caused the publisher to re-issue the novel after some fifteen, sixteen years. I couldn't be more pleased. Well, I couldn't be pleased with the circumstance that brings it about.
U.S.'s Third World Policy during the Cold War
In the early '70s you wrote an article on foreign policy. You called our policy in the Third World "the great disaster area of U.S. foreign policy." What is your assessment today? Are we riding tall in the saddle, as Reagan would like us to feel?
Oh no, no. But, we have a development which has not been fully understood, which I'm writing on a little at the moment, which was not part of the predictable behavior of this administration but is, in some degree, a consequence of it. Going back to my State Department days and before, the one thing of which I've always been persuaded is that the strongest political force in the world, in the Third World, is the desire to be independent. No matter how disastrous independence may be, nobody wants to go back to colonial subordination. Look at Uganda, nobody can possibly say that this has been a happy country in these last 20 years. It was certainly more peaceful, and almost certainly more prosperous when it was a British colony. But amidst all those disasters, you never hear anybody suggesting that it go back under colonial guidance -- not that anybody, I think, would want it.
This desire for, this pressure for independence is something to which both the Soviet Union and ourselves are subject. It cost the Soviet Union its relationship with China; the North African countries (Egypt, Algeria) divorced themselves from their association with the Russians. Its a terrible problem for the Russians in Eastern Europe, not to mention Afghanistan. And similarly, there is the great desire of countries on our side of the Iron Curtain to assert their independence of American influence, to show that they are not pawns of American policy. In these last years (if I might continue this lecture for a minute -- it used to be said that a Harvard professor can't make any point in less than 55 minutes), what have we seen? We have seen dictators, or military dictatorships, go out of power in Argentina, in Brazil, Guatemala, and now in these last days in Haiti and the Philippines. Previously an authoritarian government went out of business in Iran. And why did they go out? Why has there been this great resurgence of democracy under Ronald Reagan? It's not been one of the consequences of President Reagan's policies.
There is, naturally, in all countries a resentment of dictatorship. But added to that has been the fact that we had our arms partly around some of these people. Vice President Bush cited Marcos, you will remember, as one of the great paragons of democracy. Similarly, we found some possibilities for human rights development under Duvalier in Haiti, surely one of the greatest discoveries of all time. Similarly in Latin America. So what happened? Why was it that we had this sudden series of disasters for dictators? It is because we united, in those countries, the dislike for dictatorship with the fear of some degree of subordination to the United States from the fact that we had our arms partly around these people and it was a disaster for all of them. What we did was unite the adverse reactions to dictatorships with the fear of subordination to the United States with also some fear of the Reagan administration itself. All those forces came together.
So we have the paradox that an administration which was sympathetic to the dictators turned out to be the greatest supporter of democracy. Now I don't want to get into politics on this program and suggest that's any reason for voting for Ronald Reagan. But that's, I think, one of the evident historical paradoxes of these last years. And I think, oddly enough, there's some sense of this in Washington, because you notice some tendency in these last days to detach from Pinochet. Or maybe he has recognized that support from the United States is the last thing he needs to stay in power in Chile.
In the context of what you are saying, are we witnessing a diminishment of this inordinate fear of communism? In Washington you mean?
I don't think so. I think that the basic situation of the United States is unchanged. Conservatives in Washington fear communism, liberals in Washington fear being caught soft on communism, and I don't think that's changed.
One gets the sense today that the liberals still have a fear of losing a domino on their watch. To quote from your autobiography, talking about President Kennedy and referring to the Bay of Pigs and the acceptance of neutral Laos, Kennedy said, "You have to realize that I can only afford so many defeats in one year." Electoral loss is a real fear for liberal democratic politicians when they confront the Third World, when they confront communism.
Oh no question about it, and I wouldn't, for a moment, be happy about it.
I knew the Far East probably somewhat better than my colleagues in the Kennedy administration, and I would never have supported the idea of a communist Indochina or a communist Vietnam. I don't think communism is relevant to that stage of economic development. But I was strongly persuaded that this was not something that was within the reach of our power, and that we could mire ourselves there in an impossible situation, because extending our information to that country was an impossible task. So my basic argument in those days was that Vietnam and Indochina must be returned to the obscurity on the world's scene for which God intended them. That they were not of great social, political, economic, or strategic importance to the United States. In taking that position, I was somewhat successful in avoiding the label of being pro-communist. I always argued that it takes a very precise Washington observer to tell the difference between a communist jungle and a capitalist jungle -- both are irrelevant to the jungles of Vietnam.
I would like to talk about leadership. How would you compare Reagan to John F. Kennedy? Some of the rhetoric is the same. Some of the presentability via the media is the same. But there are differences. What are they?
The fact that they both are very accomplished masters of television and the importance of television as an instrument of communication, as an instrument of persuasion, including those ghastly commercials, is one of the great, and in some ways devastating, facts of our time.
The difference is that Kennedy had an instinct for the reality. He stayed with the reality, or tried to. He felt obliged to. President Reagan is our first president out of our greatest theatrical tradition, which is Hollywood. And for President Reagan, there is both the script and the reality, and it is the script that he uses. He doesn't feel confined by the reality. He looks at the speech as a script, and then [Press Secretary] Larry Speaks comes along after he has dealt with the script on television or on radio and corrects him, and says, "This is what the reality is." We are a theatrically minded people. We prefer the script, it's always more pleasant than the reality. And the president is a master of the script. If I were the president, I would keep Speaks quiet. I would say to Speaks, "Look, if you're going to a play, if you're in the theater, you don't have to get up after every act and say, 'This is what Macbeth was really like.'"
So all the administration lacks is rock music and they could really be on MTV all day.
I don't think you want to go quite that far but I do say that President Reagan is an accomplished master of the script and doesn't worry, in the manner of somebody out of the theatrical tradition, he isn't appalled when the script improves on the reality.
Because the reality could be cut like a script, like the film on the cutting-room floor.
Well, that's right, but I think President Kennedy stayed more closely with the reality. Those of us who were variously associated with him hoped he would.
He was a Renaissance man really, I mean, witty and intelligent, and he actually read books.
Oh yes, yes indeed. He read books right through the Presidency. I remember going in to see him one day when I was back from India. He handed me a book by John Masters on the revolution in Burma, and he said, "You know, this is the best thing that's been written about that." My goodness, I hadn't been even close to any other books on the more obscure history of economic dissent in Burma. And I carried it along with me on my airplane ride back to India so that I would know as much about that part of the world as the President.
Was Kennedy too cautious a politician?
He was too cautious, there's no question. I don't know if too cautious is the word or not, but he was very cautious and, I've said this many times, I think it's a cliché, John F. Kennedy always used less power than he had, in dealing with the Congress and dealing with the public. And Lyndon Johnson, in contrast, with a better understanding of power, always used slightly more than he had. Slightly more, including some of the tragic part of his history on Vietnam. If Lyndon Johnson had not had this terrible incubus of Vietnam, he would be remembered as one of the great social innovating presidents of our time, more so than Kennedy.
Of your generation, who do you think was the greatest political leader that liberalism had?
Oh Roosevelt, no question about it.
And what distinguishes him? What stands out in your mind?
What stands out in my mind is that those of us who were young in the Roosevelt administration, and most everybody in that administration was young, had a sense of fealty, a sense of loyalty which was beyond sense, and maybe too great. I, in those days, along with everybody else, had ideas until Roosevelt had spoken. And then I automatically accepted his. Through the whole structure of New Deal Washington, including the war years, the greatest mark of pride was to be a Roosevelt man. But this was, in turn, related to the fact that the president had great flexibility of accommodation to the disaster and despair of the Depression years.
This was a terrible time, a perilous time in the history of the republic, and a singular feature of Franklin D. Roosevelt was his pragmatic accommodation to whatever needed to be done. If you ever hear a politician say, "I'm going to adhere strictly to principle," then you should take shelter because you know that you are going to suffer. In contrast, Roosevelt was, in his time, the supreme pragmatist. One other thing too, which is of present relevance: he used radio with the same skill that Ronald Reagan uses television. He was a master of that medium of communication.
What about Stevenson?
Adlai Stevenson was one of the most lovable figures one ever encountered in politics. So, we loved him, our wives loved him -- my wife loved him. He was caught in the circumstances of the time, including the fact that he was up against, as we now recognize, one of the ablest politicians of our time, Dwight D. Eisenhower. And he was particularly caught by, what I mentioned before, the fear of liberals of being thought soft on communism. So Dwight D. Eisenhower could say, in the 1952 campaign, "I will go to Korea," where Stevenson, by contrast, said, "The problem originates in Moscow and that's where we can't do anything about it." So Ike brought to an end a very unpopular war in Korea -- I almost said Vietnam. He brought to an end a very unpopular war in Korea on the very sound principle that a bad peace, which that undoubtedly was, is better than a bad war. Eisenhower also had the capacity for being wonderfully clear when he wanted to be, as when he gave that really magnificent speech on the military-industrial complex, of which we've been celebrating the 25th anniversary this last January.
Intellectuals in Government
Your comment about writing speeches suggests another problem that I want to probe -- academics in government. When are they most useful in government? How are they usefully deployed?
Oh, I don't think there is any special role. Lawyers, professors, businessmen, I believe that one of the strengths of American democracy is that we draw liberally from all professions, from all sources. I wouldn't assign any special role to academics. I don't like that word "academics" incidentally, they're academic people.
But when one thinks about the Roosevelt era, one thinks of all of these scholars and social scientists going to Washington and one has a greater sense of the success of the effort than one did, for example, during the Kennedy period, the whole group as opposed to one or another individual.
Well, there were academic people that came in with Eisenhower. My next-door neighbor and longtime friend, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was closely associated, of all people, with Richard Nixon. And there were others. I would be reluctant to single out the New Deal as a particularly strong example of academic participation. There was a great deal of academic participation, but there was a great deal of participation of lawyers, George Wall came in from the law, Adlai Stevenson came in from the law, Harry Hopkins came in from the New York State apparatus, and so forth. What was unique, what was original in that period, was an addressing of the economic problem. A strong attack on the economic problem, the NRA, the AAA, the various work agencies and so forth. And these naturally attracted economists to Washington. And this was particularly true of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which was run by economists. But that was a consequence of an administration that was first addressing in a major way an economic problem.
Political Parties and the National Agenda
What has happened to the liberal agenda? It wasn't completed. Will it return when this current phase passes?
Well, I think that if it returns, it will return not as a consequence of its own agenda, but as a consequence of some of the flaws that are evident in President Reagan's economics. This autumn, as we talk, there's going to be a substantial revolt against Mr. Reagan's congressmen and senators in the Farm Belt. And if we had, as might be possible, some considerably adverse effects from this euphoria that we are now engaged in debt creation, in stock market speculation, this would have the same prescient effect for the Democrats as President Coolidge and President Hoover. You must remember that in 1932 and 1933, when Roosevelt won and came to power, a striking feature of the Democrats was that they had no agenda. That was all created after Roosevelt came to Washington, or almost all of it.
Are there any analogies with the present period and the period of the Great Crash that you described in your book?
This is something that I've been talking about in recent times. Analogies should not be easily drawn. I would say there are two things that are parallel that we should worry about. One is now, as in the late '20s, the impression (and this is a very subtle but a very important point) that somehow or another if everything is left to the market, the laissez-faire, if the government keeps its hands off, there is a God-given tendency for things to work out. Laissez-faire, laissez-passer, this is a ruling fact and is above and beyond government, a theological commitment to doing nothing, on the assumption that the economy can not fail -- a neo-classical idea that has classical roots going back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo. That is one thing. Out of this, I would worry most about the way in which debt is being created, not so much the public debt (that probably is manageable), but the way in which we are creating a debt to other countries which, if withdrawn, could have a devastating effect some time on the dollar. The way in which we are amassing the debts of private corporations in this takeover movement which could have a very depressant effect if we had some downturn in economic activity. The same thing is now true in agriculture. And the effect of the debt structure which we already see as regards the Latin American loans. All of this could one day lead to, as I say, a loss of confidence in the dollar, a rush to withdraw funds from the United States. That is the picture which would worry me most about the policies of the present administration. And this would be the situation that would save the Democrats, not any original mental exercise that produces an alternative. That isn't going to happen. I've been a Democrat all my life and I think I can honestly say that the collegial efforts of the Democratic Party at wisdom to create great and wise courses of action is not appreciably higher than that of the Republicans.
Galbraith's Intellectual Legacy
One final question. What would you like, in your work, to be most remembered for? What contribution, either to ideas or to action, would you like to be remembered for?
Well, that's an appropriate question for an economist of mature years. I have to confess to my age when you ask me that question. I suppose that I would, in economics, most like to be remembered -- and most plausibly will be remembered -- for bringing emphasis to an economic structure in which the characteristic organization is the great corporation rather than the competitive enterprise and of seeing economic life as a bipolar phenomenon, by which I mean, seeing it as a structure, on the one hand, of a few hundred great corporations, and seeing it, on the other hand, as the residual structure of agriculture, small business, the services. And arguing that the controlling economic behavior in the two parts is by no means the same. It has to be examined separately. I would hope that there might be some minor effect from that.
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