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Intellectual Journey: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom; Conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, 3/27/86 by Harry Kreisler

This interview is part of the Institute's "Conversations with History" series, and uses Internet technology to share with the public Berkeley's distinction as a global forum for ideas.

I'm Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Welcome to a conversation with UC Berkeley's 1986 Alumnus of the Year, John Kenneth Galbraith: Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics in 1934; Professor of Economics at Harvard for more than fifty years; writer and author of more than 20 books, including The New Industrial State and The Affluent Society, and one novel, The Triumph; price czar during World War II; Project Director in the strategic bombing studies after World War II; editor at Fortune magazine; advisor to President Kennedy; U.S. Ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration; a leader in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War; past president of the American Economics Association.

  1. Background ... Berkeley education ... graduate education in economics ... contribution to the study of economics
  2. The Art of Good Writing ... influence of Henry Luce ... rules of good writing ... writing with humor ... writing in the social sciences ... fiction versus nonfiction
  3. U.S.'s Third World Policy during the Cold War ... states want autonomy ... U.S. politicians' fear of being soft on communism ... why we should have stayed out of Vietnam
  4. Political Leadership ... comparing Kennedy and Reagan ... comparing Kennedy and Johnson ... Roosevelt's inspiration of loyalty in followers ... Roosevelt's pragmatism ... Adlai Stevenson
  5. Intellectuals in Government
  6. Political Parties and the National Agenda
  7. Galbraith's Intellectual Legacy

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John Kenneth Galbraith Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Intellectual Journey: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom; Conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, 3/27/86 by Harry Kreisler

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Professor Galbraith, welcome back to Berkeley.

It's very nice to be back.

What are your fondest memories of the campus, when you were here in the '30s?

There would be no doubt about that. My fondest memories are of the surroundings, the ambiance. As I'm saying in my speech this evening, it's always assumed that academic study must be under depraved conditions, otherwise it has no real effect.

My memory of Berkeley in those years is of the supreme beauty of this setting, but also of a range of professors who were enormously close to the students and who also had a kind of built-in dissidence, a will to be inconvenient, a desire to afflict the comfortable, which I think had a certain and, I hope, good effect on a whole generation of graduate students in economics, and on students generally.

What would you say is Berkeley's most distinctive contribution in shaping the style and the ideas of John Kenneth Galbraith?

I would hope that it was a certain tendency to question the official wisdom, what I later called the "conventional wisdom," one of the few phrases for which I can, rightly or wrongly, take some responsibility.

Are you saying that Berkeley was a hotbed of radicalism in those days? Or was it more that it left you with an inquiring mind?

I would hope it was both. I was here during the years of the Great Depression, when nobody could say that the economic system was working with great precision and great compassionate effect. And there was certainly a strong, possibly romantic, movement to the left during those times. I looked on this with some jealousy as a matter of fact, and would like to have joined it. But I was in Agricultural Economics and I was fresh from studying agriculture so I had a sense that I was not the right material for this highly sophisticated movement. Also, as I've said many times, secretly I was enjoying the system. And, while I never admitted that to any of my colleagues, I think this kept me on perhaps an unfortunate avenue of respectability. On the other hand, no one could be at Berkeley in those years and be just a passive recipient of that "conventional wisdom."

When you were here as a student, you did a lot of field work in agriculture. I recall reading that you would go out and check on the status of various products.

No, that's not quite true. I was a research assistant on the Giannini Foundation, and we were expected to earn our pay which, in my case, was $720 a year -- $60 a month. And I earned my pay as an assistant to a very genial man by the name of Edwin Voorhies. I earned my pay by joining with him in a statewide study of the beekeeping industry. I think I can honestly say that I am the author of the polar work on beekeeping in California. I hope nobody in our audience will take that as a commercial.

We pride ourselves on not having commercials so that's good! In your autobiography, A Life in Our Time, you wrote that "Agricultural economics left me with a strong feeling that social science should be tested by its usefulness."

Well there was at that time and still, two streams of economic thought. There was what Thorstein Veblen, who quite a few years before I came to Berkeley was at Stanford, called "exoteric knowledge," which is knowledge related to practical application as, for example, the greater prosperity of the beekeepers. That was certainly exoteric. Then, Veblen identified a more prestigious line of work in the social sciences, and other sciences, which he called, "esoteric," which prided itself on having no practical use of any kind, totally remote from anything having to do with what we would now call "policy and economics" -- public policy. And I always felt that although the prestige still lies with esoteric activities in a university, probably the exoteric are more useful.

Is that why you spent much of your writing time working on problems of power in economics?

Partly yes.

There are two things that people pursue in life, not wholly unrelated. One is money and the other is power. And we see this and take it for granted. The attraction of power we take for granted in politics, in your field, where people spend tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and now millions of dollars in order to have positions in Washington or Sacramento or wherever, where they have power. But in economics, classical and neoclassical economics, that has no particular role. The thrust there is for pecuniary return, for money. And I have always felt, and still feel very strongly, that that denies in the economic world a very large part of the motivation. People want to be head of General Motors, or General Electric, or General Mills, or another of the other, shall we say, "generals" -- they want those jobs certainly for the income that is returned. But the income is itself a measure of the prestige and power, authority, that goes with achieving those positions. And so I have tried in some of my writing, how successfully I don't know, to bring power back into a role in economic motivation. I gave an address some years ago which has been quite widely reproduced, my presidential address of the American Economics Association, I called "Power and the Useful Economist." One is not useful in economics unless one brings the thrust for power into appreciation, consideration.

If one were to attempt to characterize your work, it's really political economy. And what I want to ask you is why isn't there a political economy tradition in our great universities?

Well, I wouldn't be so hard as that. There is. Perhaps it's weaker now than it once was, but at places like Wisconsin, the University of Texas, to a substantial extent at certain times at Harvard, and here at Berkeley, there was a strong tradition of people who were concerned with the political side of the subject. And indeed, that had the implication of a concern for power. I tried to bring power into more theoretical terms than some of them did. So I wouldn't be so harsh as to say that this wasn't part of the American tradition. It's much more a part of the American tradition, I should think, than of the British tradition.

Was there a waning in recent times with the exception of your work?

This one of the dangers of age, that you, to some extent, look down and see homogeneity among younger people where, when you're younger, you look up and see enormous diversity among older people. It's one of the dangers of listening too carefully to anyone of my age. But, having said that and having admitted the likelihood of being wrong, I do think that the last 20 years have brought a strong shift back to what I've called the "esoteric aspects" of economics -- to mathematical expressions in economics, econometric niceties, and a tendency to leave the real world alone. It's something that in Cambridge we call the "Belmont Syndrome." Belmont is an extremely comfortable suburb adjoining Cambridge, and the "Belmont Syndrome" is a desire to move from a peaceful, happy life in Belmont to a peaceful, happy life at Harvard, from life to computer and back again, without any disturbance from Ronald Reagan.

I see!

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© Copyright 1996, Regents of the University of California