Wednesday, May 03, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith and William F. Buckley: How A Literate Lion Say Goodbye

John Kenneth Galbraith is dead. A seminal figure in American economic thought throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, Galbraith was best known by most Americans as a top advisor to President John F. Kennedy and later served as his Ambassador to India. A rabid Keynesian, Galbraith would come to be largely criticized by the "Chicago School of Economics" theorist in the 80's and 90's. His liberal, big spending, social welfare laden vision of America would be discredited by the works of Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Richard Posner among others. Nevertheless, his work and teachings inspired John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert and Eugene McCarthy, as well as countless other post New Deal Democrat thinkers (and sadly still ladens that political party's thought process.)

I met Galbraith twice during my time at Tufts University in the mid 70's and early 80's. Both times, he was a well spoken professor and I was an undergraduate. The first meeting was when he attended a party in Cambridge that I too was invited to. I was introduced by my host, and we engaged in a bit of small talk, mostly his asking about friends of his at Tufts. Our second meeting was in a small restaurant in the North End of Boston. Our tables adjoined one and other. I reintroduced myself, and we again spoke of mutual acquaintances. Our conversation then turned toward other plans I had for my education and then toward politics. Galbraith was a liberal. I was strongly supporting the soon to be President Ronald Reagan, seeming anathema to Galbraith. Our conversation however was among the most fascinating and stimulating of my life. Galbraith was as truly engaged with me, a lowly undergrad, as he was if he were speaking with a president. Moreover, he treated me with respect and dignity, though I have no doubt he could have ravaged my economic theories had he wanted to. The point was had he done so, it would have ended the debate, quite clearly the opposite of what he wanted. He was neither pompass or condesending. Respect for others ideas in the marketplace was a practice of John Kenneth Galbraith.

I was reminded of these times so long ago, when I read the obituary written by Galbriath adversary and friend William F. Buckley. Buckley was another of my heroes in the 70's and he remains someone I greatly admire even today (although I wish he would take a much harder look at the neo-cons he supports, and return more toward his libertarian roots.) In reading the obituary, one learns both the concept of academic and adversarial friendship, and respect for another great mind. The obituary is not maudlin. It certainly takes on the late professor and does not mince words. It is neither however a personal attack nor is it a piece filled with platitudes driven by the old saw that it is bad form to speak ill of the dead.

Instead, it is erudite prose. It both sums up Buckley's negative opinion of the theories of the late Galbraith and yet mourns the loss of a friend, an adversary, and a colleague. I can't help but think it also is a bit of a cry for a lion gone to rest, by another equally powerful lion of a bygone era.

There once was a genteel passion in politics. Politics and it's close sister rhetoric was practiced by people who engaged in it with an understanding that decisions and opinions defined philosophies not individuals. A political position in opposite of yours did not require a personal vendetta. It rarely, if ever became an appeal to base instinct. In fact name-calling and foul language were looked upon as beneath the writer. To engage in such "garbage argument" told the listener/reader that the speaker's position held little weight.

I could learn more about the mysteries of the English language by reading one of Buckley's columns than I could in a year of English courses taught by most college professors today. But that I could say the same of a column by Ann Coulter,or Al Frankin...

I commend William F. Buckley's obituary of John Kenneth Galbraith to you. I recommend you read it with a dictionary at hand. I ask that you remember its quality, for I fear writing like that of Buckley's, or for that matter Galbraith, is a fading art form.
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