John Kenneth Galbraith's Domestic Blind Spot (Review of John Kenneth Galbraith's Name Dropping)

by Tony Palmeri

June 2, 2001

Of all the audiences I have had the pleasure to speak to, the UW Oshkosh "Learning in Retirement" (LIR) group is by far the most enjoyable. Mrs. Jean Nelson, Mr. Dick Branigan, and Mr. Doug Freshner --LIR organizers--have created an outstanding program for senior citizens. Several times I have interacted with a group of 30-50 seniors and been able to share my views about political campaigns, political rhetoric, history, and other topics.

Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to be presented with a gift from the group as a token of appreciation for my talks. The gift was a copy of John Kenneth Galbraith's (1999) Name Dropping: From FDR On (Boston: Houghton Mifflin). Galbraith, a Canadian born economist, was one of the New Deal intellectuals brought into government by President Roosevelt. Though he has written more than 30 books, Galbraith (born in 1908)) is probably best know for The Affluent Society (1958), a critique of wealth disparity in the United States that became (along with Michael Harrington's The Other America) a work that some believe had a major influence on the policies of the JFK and LBJ New Frontier/Great Society programs. Always a supporter of Democratic administrations and candidates (he served as JFK's ambassador to India), Galbraith lost some of his "insider" influence in 1968 when he broke with LBJ over Vietnam and actively supported Eugene McCarthy's bid for the presidency. Future Democratic administrations (i.e. Carter and Clinton) certainly were warm to Galbraith, but did not provide him with the level of access he enjoyed earlier in his career.

Galbraith's Name Dropping is a must read for 20th century American history junkies. The personal insights offered about some of the most influential public figures of the last 70 years (FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Speer, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Jawaharlal Nehru, LBJ, Chester Bowles, George Ball, Averell Harriman) are priceless. Galbraith engagingly brings out the personalities of each figure, sometimes with clever comparisons like this one:

" . . . the Truman political personality had its own very special appeal. Roosevelt, as I've earlier observed, saw himself as the overseer of the great national estate, a landlord who assumed responsibility for his tenants. Truman, in contrast, saw himself of the tenantry; he was the kind of person the people knew. The popular reference was to Harry Truman, not to President Truman or the President . . . Truman was in one other way in contrast with Roosevelt. In politics and public statement, F.D.R. always left himself room for later decision; it was often far from clear what he intended to do. Truman invited no such question, left no such doubt. He was routinely described as 'plainspoken'; this was a widely welcomed change." (pp. 71-72).

In addition Galbraith, who some pundits believe invented the phrase "conventional wisdom," upsets such wisdom in this book. For example, the conventional wisdom about why J.F.K. chose his brother Bobby's arch-enemy Lyndon Johnson as his running mate is that L.B.J. would deliver the big state of Texas and other parts of the South in the 1960 election. But Galbraith reveals here that in a private conversation Kennedy ticked off to him three reasons for his choice:

"First, I had the feeling that Lyndon takes more of the Catholic flavor off me than anyone else. A Sourthern Protestant."

"Second, he obviously helps me in the South."

"Third, it wouldn't be worthwhile being President if Lyndon were the Majority Leader." (p. 112).

The third reason, if Kennedy meant it without any irony, indicates that Lyndon Johnson may very well have been the most powerful elected official in America during the Eisenhower years (1952-1960). Galbraith says that " . . . under Dwight D. Eisenhower the social programs of the New Deal--Social Security, unemployment compensation, public housing, the diverse welfare initiatives--were fully accepted." (p. 82). Accepted, no doubt in large part not because of Ike's great fondness for such programs, but because of L.B.J's iron grip on the Senate majority Democrats and some Republicans. Tom Daschle can only dream of wielding such power.

The other major piece of conventional wisdom upset by Galbraith in this book concerns the views of foreign policy bureaucrats during the Vietnam War. Conventional wisdom holds that Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were surrounded by "yes men" who believed in the Vietnam policy as strongly as their respective Commander(s) in Chief. According to Galbraith, however, his three "closest friends" who were Chester Bowles (Dean Rusk's Under Secretary of State in the Kennedy Administration), George Ball (Under Secretary in charge of economic affairs for Kennedy and Johnson), and Averell Harriman (Johnson's chief negotiator for the US vs. the North Vietnamese in Paris) had great reservations about the War. We learn in Name Dropping that Bowles was run out of government service even before the Vietnam War broke out in full force because he was considered by the established bureaucrats as not being sufficiently anti-Communist. We learn that Ball publicly supported the Vietnam war, but argued extensively in private with Kennedy and Johnson that the US should withdraw. Harriman " . . told me of his opposition to the Washington hard line, but, nonetheless, he went along." (p. 169). Earlier in the book Galbraith describes Hitler's architect Albert Speer as being subordinate to leaders who were " . . . an incredible collection of often deranged incompetents." (p. 62). Might this not also be an apt description of the State and Defense Department bureaucracies who continued the Vietnam bombing campaign long after it became clear that the enemy was not going to surrender and long after it became clear that the major toll was being born by civilians? Were not the recently revealed civilian atrocities committed 32 years ago by former Senator Bob Kerrey the result at least in part of his being victimized by deranged incompetents on "our side?"

Galbraith does not go as far as to accuse America's foreign policy gurus of treachery. But he does understand the reasons why foreign policy decisions frequently go awry. To wit: "All three [i.e. Bowles, Ball, and Harriman], as did I, came afoul of a major feature of our foreign policy. That is its institutional rigidity, which holds it firmly on course even when it is visibly wrong . . . Nothing better describes the making of American foreign policy since World War II than its controlling rigidity in face of original error or needed adjustment." (pp. 159-161). For contemptorary proof of what Galbraith is saying, one need not look any further than the failed Cuba policy that has survived nine presidential administrations; the Iraq sanctions policy that kills thousands of children each month; or the fact that the "School of the Americas" in Florida remains open even though the federal government now even admits that brutal dictators have been trained there with American taxpayer dollars.

Galbraith does not attempt to extend his analysis of foreign policy to domestic matters. That is why I have titled this review "John Kenneth Galbraith's Domestic Blind Spot." The Institutions controlling the American Domestic Economy are now every bit as rigid as their foreign policy counterparts. Major decision makers in the American economy--on Wall St., at the Federal Reserve, in corporate boardrooms, and in the government bureaucracy--pursue monetary policies that are actually quite narrow in scope; these decision makers are as closed to dissent as their foreign policy counterparts. Award winning journalist William Greider's description of Mr. Greenspan's Federal Reserve, for example, shows how resistant is that institution to any meaningful alternative economic policy options. Greider, in a review of Bob Woodward's Maestro (a celebration of Fed Chair Alan Greenspan), argues that Woodward presents the conventional description of the Fed: "The central bank is described as an island of disinterested technocratic expertise--sober thinkers who are surrounded by the federal government's messy, sometimes barbarous political swamp. The Fed, it is said, must be cloistered from the usual pressures--the accountability and openness required of elected government--so Fed governors are free to focus on the long-term consequences. Thus, the core conceit sustaining this institution is the claim that good government requires the absence of politics--a high-minded notion inherited from the Progressive Era, which created the Fed in 1913."

But the actual Fed is something quite different: "In reality, with few exceptions over nine decades, the governors all come from the same club--banking and finance, with a sprinkling of academic economists who share the same values and operating assumptions. When staff economists graduate from the Fed, they go on to very lucrative careers in the same fields. I am not questioning personal integrity or intelligence, but the insularity that allows them to evade the deeper implications of their work. (emphasis added by Tony Palmeri). They argue endlessly over what the numbers mean, but remain elegantly oblivious to brutal class conflicts inherent in their decisions. They vigorously espouse competing theories but do not in fact regard every element of economic life as equal in status. When farmers or homeowners tap out on their debts, they forfeit homes or farms and the Fed regards their liquidation as a natural event of market economics. When major banks and brokerages face the same fate, the Fed comes to their rescue, in the name of defending 'the soundness of the system.'" Greider's complete review of Woodward's book can be found in the Nation Magazine of January 1, 2001.

The rigidity of America's economic planners has consequences for civil liberties, as Matt Rothschild recently explained to an audience in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Increasingly, opposition to the "new" global economy is being treated with the same kind of police-state, repressive tactics found in the United States throughout much of the early industrial revolution and found in much of the third world today. Moreover, the "free trade" mantra of the last two decades means that the rigid foreign policy bureaucrats now work closer than ever with domestic economic planners, a development that produces bipartisan support for corporate sponsored institutions and policies such as the WTO, IMF, NAFTA, GATT, and so on.

That Galbraith does not recognize that American economy policy is subject to the same constraints as our foreign policy is surprising in that the major economic reform that he stands for has never been given a fair hearing. That reform is Galbraith's belief, stated in many of his works, that wealthy countries like the United States ought to be able to provide a guaranteed annual income above the poverty level to all citizens. The bureaucrats and establishment bankers/financiers in charge of the American economy are as resistant to and rigid in their oppositition to even discussing such a reform as the State Department bureaucrats were to discussing withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1960s.

Someday another famous writer will "name-drop" and tell us of his or her experiences with today's leaders. Let us hope the future famous writer will be able to say that today's leaders broke away from the rigid constraints on policy inherited from the past and instead acted out of a conviction that a concern for justice and human rights ought always be at the core of domestic and foreign policy.

Tony Palmeri welcomes your feedback

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