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Friday, June 5, 2015


The mention of Galbraith triggered some memories which I thought I would share, since I am an inveterate story teller.  John Kenneth Galbraith was an economist born in Canada during the First World War.  A brilliant man six feet seven inches tall who lived to be ninety-seven, Galbraith worked for several liberal Democratic presidents, served as Ambassador to India, and taught for almost his entire career at Harvard.  Despite his extremely important work on agricultural economics, income inequality, and the depredations of modern capitalism, he was looked down on by his colleagues because he did not construct irrelevant abstract mathematical models.

I met Galbraith only three times in my life.  The first time was in 1960 when he paid a visit to the Senior Common Room of Winthrop House at Harvard, of which I was a member.  He was witty, self-absorbed, and rather overpowering, since he loomed over the rest of us like Gulliver in Lilliput.  Galbraith had a mordant sense of humor [another way in which he distinguished himself from most of his colleagues in the Economics Department], and late in life authored a satirical book called The McClandress Dimension, which purported to be a scientific study of the length of time well-known individuals were capable of thinking about anything other than themselves.  Charles De Gaulle had the shortest McCandless factor.  Galbraith himself, as I recall, came in second.

The next time I met Galbraith was during the presidential campaign of 1980.  Galbraith was on the road speaking for Senator Ted Kennedy, who was challenging sitting president Jimmy Carter for the nomination.  [Ted Kennedy was my classmate at Harvard, but we never met, needless to say.  So, by the way, was another person I never met, John Updike.  It was quite a class.]  I was then reading every book I could lay my hands on that developed a modern mathematical reinterpretation of classical and Marxian political economy.  Two progressive economists, Harvey Gram and Vivian Charles Walsh, had just published Classical and Neo-Classical Theories of General Equilibrium, and I was slowly working my way through it.

What interested me about the work of Gram and Walsh was that they were attempting to develop geometric rather than algebraic models of the work of Ricardo and Marx.  I had become convinced that if the new interest in Marx was to establish a beachhead in mainstream American universities, a Marxian textbook would have to be written that was as intuitively clear and easy to read as Paul Samuelson's Economics.  The key to the readability of Samuelson was a series of little graphs showing two curved lines  [supply and demand, etc.].  Even the dumbest students could grasp that where the two curves intersected was somehow significant.  "If we can just translate the linear models of the neo-Marxists into that sort of visual display, we can conquer the world," I thought.  [It was a happier time.]

Well, in the late Spring of 1980, I flew to Ohio to give a talk at some college.  On the way home, I caught a US Airways or American flight [I don't recall which].  In those days, the airline configured the seating so that the first two rows, three seats across, faced one another with a table between on which one could put a book or a cup of coffee.  I boarded the flight, took one of those front row seats, and found myself sitting across the table catty-corner opposite Galbraith, who had crammed his long frame into the window seat.  He had been campaigning for Kennedy somewhere in Ohio.  Needless to say, he did not recognize me.   When we took off, I hauled out the Gram and Walsh book, laid it on the table, and continued my laborious reading of it.  Galbraith saw me, and without a word stretched his long arm across the table, took the book, and looked at it.  I said something inane about how I found it "interesting," and after flipping through the pages a bit, he handed it back, without a word.

The last time I saw him was five years later.  My first marriage had broken up, and I went to Vermont to see my sister, who was visiting a friend.  Galbraith had a summer home in the next town over -- Newfane [which then had a simply wonderful restaurant, where years earlier I had pheasant the night that Ted Kennedy ran off a bridge with Mary Jo Kopechne and ended both her life and his hopes for the presidency].  Galbraith knew our hosts and came over to visit.  He was introduced to me, and I reminded him that we had met.  "I am older," I said, "but you are just as tall."  He was not much interested.


Jerry Fresia said...

As usual, great stories. I actually had the opportunity to ride up in an elevator with him, at Harvard, in 1974. While I was summoning up some witty remark, the doors opened and he departed.

Do you follow his son's (James) economics? James, who is close to the Finance Minister of Greece, Varoufakis, is not unlike his father, politically.

Chris said...

James has also made some effort to confirm and popularize the work of Andrew Kliman.

Magpie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Magpie said...

Prof. Wolff,

A charming story, as usual.

I myself have stumbled upon our own celebrities, politicians, and the occasional member of the intelligentsia (never with influential economists, though) and I was often left rather unimpressed in several ways. The main exception that comes to mind is Tony Jones (an Australian TV journalist well-known for his often heated interviews with the powerful).

My impression of him, in the few moments we spoke: a real gentleman and a nice bloke. A really cool guy.



"James has also made some effort to confirm and popularize the work of Andrew Kliman."

Great! Can you provide any pointers, links, whatever?

Matt said...

In one of those "it's a small world" type moments, the Grand-Niece (I think) of John Galbraith is a colleague of Tobias's at Penn Law. (Her name is Jean, and she specializes on international law.)

classtruggle said...

Thanks for these bits. You have uncovered things that I did not know.

As for the discussion on socialism, I would be interested to know what you think about Venezuela. A Canadian economist from my university (Michael Lebowitz) [who, as an aside, I categorise as one of those Marxists who tries (unsuccessfully) to 'go beyond' Marx] has written on Latin America and is a former resident in Venezuela. From what I've read of Mike, it seems he's a big fan of self-management and an admirer of the Yugoslav version of socialism in its time, except that it was all contingent on Tito. Once he was gone, so was much of his project. But the idea of self-management is a great one to Mike, inspired by the early soviets of course. Anyway, the reason I bring him up is because like many others on the left, Mike is under the impression that socialism is actually existing in Venezuela. I don't think so. It seems to me that Venezuela, aside from being over romanticised (very much like the Zapatista), is trying hard to set up a kind of European welfare state which obviously is different from socialism. What do you all think? I hope at some point we can address (if we haven't already) the case of Venezuela in our discussion of socialism.