The BS column: John Kenneth Galbraith, novelist

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, May 2, 2006, the week Galbraith died)

“For some seventy years my working life has been concerned with economics, along with not infrequent departures to public and political service that had an economic aspect and one tour in journalism,” wrote the late John Kenneth Galbraith in one of his last works, The Economics of Innocent Fraud .

He was in his nineties, a long way from the days when he had been famous for his unabashed championship of liberal economics. Disciples still genuflected at his name, and in India, his ambassadorship was still remembered fondly, but he was often seen as a force from the past.

Better-informed minds than mine will be able to place Galbraith’s importance, who died this week at the age of 97, more accurately in the pages of history. For ordinary readers like me, Galbraith’s works were memorable because he was one of the first, and one of the few, economists who wrote for a general audience. The Affluent Society became a catchphrase; we have assimilated Galbraith’s thesis so thoroughly that we can barely remember how pathbreaking his insights were.

Perhaps it’s because he was such a comfortably prolific writer—Indophiles might remember in particular his book on Indian painting and his affable Introduction to India — that it’s easy to forget that Galbraith also wrote three novels. He is possibly the only economist to have had a novel reviewed by Gore Vidal in the New York Times Book Review !

This was in 1963; The McLandress Dimension came out under the name of Mark Epernay, a pseudonym Galbraith employed when he wrote spoof articles for Esquire . In his review, Vidal, who clearly enjoyed the book explained: “[This is] a ‘book’ consisting of seven magazine articles, each based on a single joke. For instance, the McLandress Coefficient ‘is the arithmetic mean or average of the intervals of time during which a subject’s thoughts remain centered on some substantive phenomenon other than his own personality.’ That’s all there is to it. We learn that Miss Elizabeth Taylor can think about something other than herself for three minutes (theater people have low coefficients). …At twenty-nine minutes, the President’s coefficient is relatively high. … Richard Nixon’s three seconds is unusually low. Professor Galbraith clocks himself in at one minute fifteen seconds which seems fair. But then what is one to make of: ‘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?’”
In 1968, Galbraith published The Triumph , which did well enough to land on several bestseller lists. The plot was nicely devious: the US government is secretly supporting the son of a Latin American dictator whose aim is to prevent the establishment of a democratic government in his country. It’s only when he succeeds, backed by the blessings of the US, that it’s revealed that the young dictator-in-the-wings is really a communist after all. Galbraith was no John Le Carre, and his characters remain unmemorable, but The Triumph had enough of his trademark asides to make you smile—especially if you’re reading it today, in the light of what we know about the Iraq war, East Timor and other areas of the world which have kept the Americans busy.
Economics and politics prevented the professor from returning to more literary pursuits until 1990, when he published A Tenured Professor –this still stands on its own merits as a darkly funny campus novel, to my mind. The novel’s protagonist, Professor Montgomery Marvin, is the inventor of the Index of Irrational Expectations, or IRAT. IRAT , which allows him to profit from the wrongheaded optimism of the market through comfortable statistical means. Marvin and his wife use their well-gotten gains for altruistic, liberal purposes, while Galbraith gets in his digs at everyone from the Wall Street raiders to Ronald Reagan to Camrbidge’s intellectuals: “No one has ever been known to repeat what he or she has heard at a party, only what he or she has said.”
It would be a pity to remember the economist and forget the novelist: how could we, living in Delhi, do without his Sociometric Institute, which assigned a “prestige horizon” to everyone that allowed for comfortable seating according to exact social rank at any sort of gathering whatsoever? Galbraith never explicitly said that he took his literary ambitions seriously, but he left a hint in the original author’s blurb for A Tenured Professor . It left out all his other credits—that impressive roll of publications, awards, the ambassadorship, the honorary professorships—and identified him only as John Kenneth Galbraith, author of two previous works of fiction.





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