John Kenneth Galbraith brought wit and sharp humor to the study of economics. Long after he retired from teaching, Mr. Galbraith, who died Saturday at the age of 97, would be brought back to the Harvard campus each year to Harvard to give one lecture to the freshman economics class. His annual lecture was easily the most popular of the class; Mr. Galbraith would look down magisterially from his 80 inches of height and describe his theories of economics in much the same tone that Moses might have employed to read the ten commandments to the Israelites. He slipped in a zinger every two or three minutes, in well-polished periodic sentences, and the students responded with laughter and applause instead of the notorious Harvard hiss.
The lecture for the following session was in those days given by the head professor for the class, Otto Eckstein, who would politely tell the students to study Mr. Galbraith's speaking style, but to pay no attention to the old fellow's economic theories.
I was once part of a small group that had lunch with Professor Galbraith, to hear him talk about writing. One of his many elegant periodic sentences stuck with me. He was talking about the use of alcohol to stimulate the writer: "Nothing so instills confidence in the writer as a generous application of scotch," he said, following up after a two-beat pause with, "And nothing is as disastrous to the final product."
Mr. Galbaith's best-known books of the 40 or so he wrote were The Affluent Society (1958), in which he introduced, or at any rate claimed for his own, the phrase "conventional wisdom" and argued that any economic study of modern America must take into account the influence of advertising on consumer choices, and The New Industrial State (1967), his analysis and to some degree his celebration of how large corporations planned and operated. One of his minor works deserves a moment of attention. It's a short book called "The McLandress Dimension," which he wrote under the pseudonym of "Mark Epernay." It purports to describe six breakthroughs in behavioral science by a (fictitious) Professor Herschel McLandress, including McLandress's discovery of the McLandress Coefficient, the average time that a person goes without thinking of himself or herself, which (he wrote) reflects the intensity of the person's identification with his own personality. "Theater people have uniformly low McL-C's -- the representatives of Broadway and Hollywood are nearly always in the minute range. Writers and playwrghts, though with many exceptions, have higher coefficients than actors and actresses. * * * Both Mr. Arthur Miller and Mr. Tennessee Williams have a rating of thirty-five minutes. Mr. Gore Vidal, by contrast, has a rating of twelve and a half minutes. Among actors and actresses, Mr. Danny Kaye is something of a theatrical phenomenon with a McL-C of fifty-five minutes. * * * At the other extreme, Mr. Mort Sahl has a rating of four minutes and Miss Elizabeth Taylor of three."
A bit later, talking about politicians and statesmen, he wrote: "[Charles de Gaulle] has the surprisingly high rating (for a political leader) of seven hours thirty minutes. Dr. McLandress * * * suggests that in de Gaulle's case the rating is misleading. The subject's thoughts are constantly on France and France has, in a sense, become the surrogate of his own personality. Thus, when he thinks of France, he thinks of himself and vice versa. Recalculated, de Gaulle turns out to have a McL-C of one minute, thirty seconds."
A few pages later, Mr. Galbraith demurely put himself in his book: "Reflecting, according to Dr. McLandress, the natural concern of the judge with the problems of other people, the highest McL-C in the Federal Government was that of Chief Justice Earl Warren at four hours, thirty minutes. The lowest was that of Professor J.K. Galbraith, the then American Ambassador to India, at one minute, fifteen seconds. Noting the natural tendency of people to think that a diplomat's attention should be centered on his country rather than himself, Dr. McLandress warns once more against hasty conclusions. As instanced by General de Gaulle, there is an omnipresent tendency for people in important public office to confuse the two, and the tendency in the case of non-career diplomats is especially marked."
Mr. Galbraith was a theoretician and not a mathematical economist. The economics papers of today are filled with equations, unlike the body of Mr. Galbraith's work, and his style -- discussing ideas instead of analyzing data sets -- is now out of academic fashion. Allowing that large parts of Mr. Galbraith's work turned out to be wrong, or quickly became outdated, he nevertheless argued his ideas with such style and intelligence that even the bad ones could give rise to something worthwhile. And on that note, I believe I'll lift a glass of scotch and drink to his memory.