Thursday, June 1, 2006

‘A Life in Our Times’

‘A Life in Our Times’
By Narendra Luther

I was a student of economics and topped the university in as an honours graduate. But by the time I did that, I developed a phobia for the creeping dominance of mathematics in economics. I therefore shifted gear and went on to political science to do my post –graduation. But later when I was selected as a British Council scholar to do a course in industrial management in Leeds, I was again confronted with the monster of mathematics in Operations Research. When I mentioned my difficulty to my tutor, he said math was simply a short hand. I could achieve the same result by long hand. That was consoling but like Alice in wonderland, I had to run faster to remain at par with my colleagues in the international group. In the flexible system of a western university, I was permitted to cross the hard terrain by giving two lectures on public administration!

Economics made easy

I mention this by way of background to how I came to study some one in economics who brought no mathematics into it. It was John Kenneth Galbraith who died recently at 97. I had kept up my reading of economics selectively even after getting a secure job and amongst the economists I came to admire were Keynes, Rostow and Galbraith. They helped me to appreciate ‘the economic system as a complex interaction of people and organizations whose actions cannot simply be understood through highly rational and mathematical models of the economy.’ Galbraith was able to communicate complex ideas in a compelling way to laymen

Here I intend to pay my tribute to Galbraith whose autobiography published in 1981 provides the title of this article.

Galbraith was born in Canada in 1908 but educated at Berkeley in the US and taught economies at Harvard. Politically he belonged to the Democrat Party of the United States. During the Second World War, he served in the in the Office of Price Administration and wrote a book on his experiences in controlling inflation. He also did a stint in the Fortune magazine. Out of that experience came the term ‘technostructure’ – the group of specialist managers who take the real decisions in organizations including governments. President. Kennedy, for whom he served as a speechwriter, appointed him ambassador to India where he served for two years from 1961. Here he developed a good rapport with Nehru who was then the prime minister. In his autobiography he deals with the situation and people in India.

Demolisher of myths

He challenged the traditional dictum that consumer is the king. The hapless consumer is manipulated and exploited by the firms through the medium of advertising. He also declared that the big firms were not at the mercy of competition; they gang up and control government. He had an elegant and provocative style marked by wit and sarcasm. He could not only take but also make a dig against himself and lampoon his subject: ‘Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists’. Further, ‘the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.’

I never took him as an economist but as a jesting philosopher. He was the first to question the use of GDP as a measure of economic progress. The concepts of ‘quality of life’ and ‘Human Development Index’, which are now used by all agencies including the UN, owe their origin to his questioning the traditional methodology. He coined some of the other terms, which are today part of the current terminology of public discourse, like ‘the affluent society’, and ‘countervailing power’. He followed the tradition of Thorstein Veblen when he talked of ‘private affluence and public squalour’. I believe it was out of that challenge that the current concern for ecology grew.

Men and chairs

My favourite passage comes from his book The New Industrial State. How perceptively he divides human beings in to two categories:

‘Clearly some individuals do add luster to organization. The accomplishments of the great physician are his own, not those of the hospital where he serves. The achieve­ments of the poet are his own, not those of the institution where he is currently the artist in residence. Similarly the opera singer or actor and, though not always, the great scientist.

Men are, in fact, either sustained by organization or sustain organization. They are either esteemed because­ of organization or the organization is esteemed because of them. The individual is himself rarely a sound judge of these matters. Those who are esteemed because of organization almost invariably attribute the acclaim to their own personality. ­

But there is an infallible test. That is to observe what happens to the individual when he leaves the organization or retires. The great physician is not greatly diminished by being separated from his hospital. Nor, except as regards regular salary, is the poet when he leaves the university. Nor is the competent newspaperman when he moves on. Nor the great scientist nor the entertainer. They sustained, were not sustained by, the organization to which they belonged.

By contrast the politician when he is defeated, the ambassador when he retires, the university president when he becomes emeritus and the peacetime general who fails to become a corporation president face total obscurity. They were sustained by organization; on losing its support they pass permanently into the shadows. To some who have naturally assumed that their eminence was their own the shock is very severe. Others sense their situation. Nothing explains the primordial vigor with which politicians fight for office and seek retain it to senility and beyond. Between being in and out of political office the difference is not slight. lt is total. "

I endeavoured to belong to the fist category.

Besides his best selling books on Economics, Galbraith wrote two novels, a book of satirical sketches, and a study of Indian painting. In 1977 he presented the BBC television series based on his book The Age of Uncertainty which deals with the evolution of economic thought since Adam Smith,

The laughing philosopher

His Memoirs is gripping because of his candour, humour and anecdotes. Ambassadors, he observed, have barely work for an hour a week if they represent important countries. Their cocktail parties, ostensibly a means for gathering intelligence and information, rarely serve that objective.

The Memoirs contains eight maxims for success in working in government. He admits candidly that he revised all his draft five times – the Memoirs underwent six revisions! ‘My spelling is often impressionistic; my punctuation is erratic; so more rarely is my syntax; my memory though generally good, is subject to lapse… my sense of taste is fallible; and so too is my impression of what is or is not clear’. His editor, Andrea Williams rescued him. He spent three to four hours daily on his current book in addition to the time reading and thinking on the subject.

Galbraith gave many like me me instruction and illumination when he seemed to be only entertaining. I salute him.

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