May 2, 2017

Bookshelf: The letters of John Kenneth Galbraith

The Selected Letters of John Kenneth Galbraith
Edited by Richard P.F. Holt
Cambridge University Press

Sam Smith

John Kenneth Galbraith was a bit of everything: from economist to Harvard professor to author of four dozen books and more than a thousand articles to a member of the staff of every Democratic president from FDR to LBJ. Of course, living for 97 years helps to get all this done but Galbraith had the energy to make every day count for something. And while he was what was then called a liberal, the term had not yet lost its positive force in the wake of folk like Clinton and Obama. Thus he argued in the mid-1960s that we can easily afford n basic income for all and pointed out that this was “not so much more than we will spend during the next fiscal year to restore freedom, democracy and religious liberty, as these are defined by the experts, in Vietnam.”

The Cambridge University Press has now compiled another sign of Galbraith’s energy – over 600 pages of his letters written to everyone from the unknown to the overwhelmingly famous. While this seems like a lot of mail, rest assured that Galbraith does not waste words, use them in a tedious fashion, or without exceptional underlying perception. For example, in 1962 the then ambassador to India wrote President Kennedy about Vietnam:
1. We have a growing military commitment. This could expand step by step into a major, long drawn-out indecisive military involvement.

2. We are backing a weak and, on the record, ineffectual government and a leader as a politician may be beyond the point of no return.

3. There is consequent danger we shall replace the French as the colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did.
Again, that letter was written in April 1962.

Twenty years later he wrote Jimmy Carter who was working on his autobiography. Two suggestions that he had were
Absurdity should be cherished. Any President has encountered enough of it so he can choose from a rich offering. Do not fail to find amusement where there is any.

Do not spare yourself on mistakes. This lends creditability.

The letters of Galbraith provide wondrous relief from the language not only of our current president but of the capital city around him. If you can’t handle 600 pages as a coherent project, just rest the book next to your toilet and enjoy it for months to come.

Admission – Your editor’s fondness for Galbraith goes back some six decades, in part because my band played at the Galbraiths’ annual house party several times and for a Harvard student to be treated so well by a professor and his wife was a rare treat. On one occasion, another professor, during a band break, sat at my drums and cracked open the my snare skin. I was in the kitchen at the time talking to the Galbraith’s black cook who told me that another professor, the fierce Perry Miller, had just come in and greeted her with, “Hi, honey.” Said the cook, “I told him, Mr. Miller, you call your wife ‘honey’ but you sleep with your wife. You don’t sleep with me so don’t be calling me ‘honey.’” Having been terrified of Miller as a student, I came to regard the Galbraith’s cook as the bravest person I had met at Harvard.

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