The Book of the Week is “A Life in Our Times, Memoirs” by John Kenneth Galbraith, published in 1981.
Born in 1908 in southern Ontario, Canada, the author grew up on a farm and ranch. One of four children, he was of Scottish extraction. In spring 1934, he got a high-paying job as an economist with the U.S. government’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration, having completed his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley. He wrote, “I was not a citizen, but it is not certain that one was even asked about such details in those civilized days.” However, he did have to verify with the Postmaster General that he was a Democrat.
Also in 1934, when the author became a professor at Harvard, he was appointed an admissions officer. He was told that all (very nearly all white male, at that time) applicants to the college who had attended the nation’s elite private boarding schools (Groton, St. Paul’s, St. Mark’s, Middlesex, Exeter and Andover) were automatically accepted. Students from other private schools were possibilities; public schools, less so, and Jews were subjected to a quota, regardless of their pedigree. Radcliffe College– Harvard’s female counterpart, had inferior offerings in all ways (housing, food, academics, etc.).
John Maynard Keynes helped originate a prominent school of thought in economics in the Depression era. He believed the country could deficit-spend its way out of a financial hole, and of course, military spending soared at the start of WWII. Government officials have one chance (there are no do-overs) in any given administration to try to foster or maintain a good economy and claim credit for doing so. The extremely complex United States economy is a topic area that is very propaganda-dependent.
However, human nature plays the biggest role in the wealth of a nation. The author propagandized that Americans who survived the Great Depression feared there would be another, so during and after WWII, they saved their money for a rainy day. Thus, one factor driving the economy might have been the behavioral economics of citizens, regardless of government policy.
In 1940, the author was a lobbyist for the Farm Bureau in Chicago, setting minimum prices for corn, cotton, wheat and other crops. He also had a hand in shaping policy at the National Defense Advisory Commission in Washington, D.C. “No one worried about the environmental effects; industry and jobs in those uncomplicated days [1930’s and 1940’s] were an absolute good.” In 1942, amid much governmental infighting over price controls on agricultural products, the Senate lied with statistics to minimize financial harm to farmers. There was also mandatory rationing of everyday consumer products.
The author eventually became an American citizen and a high government official, so he was able to gain access to a large amount of horse’s mouth archive-documentation, which he meticulously sifted through in writing this book.
In spring 1945, the author, fluent in German, interrogated Albert Speer– one of the first Nazis to shrewdly get legal immunity from punishment for snitching on his countrymen in naming names of war criminals. United States government officials were also trying to find out how much harm the Air Force did to the German economy and its war capabilities.
The answer was– not very much. The overall reason was that the Germans didn’t make war as well as they should’ve, so they lost the war more as a function of their weaknesses, not as a function of the Allies’ strengths. The author listed the major factors:
- America and England competently executed talent recruitment and deployment of both men and women in their very productive war mobilization efforts;
- The overconfident Germans allowed only men to help;
- The Germans put more effort into mobilizing their propaganda machine than their war machine after they initially stockpiled weaponry to kick off the war– they didn’t want their economy to slow down;
- The emotional impacts of the incidents at Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor spurred the Allies to action;
- The Germans again accelerated the making of war weaponry in 1944– too late; and
- The United States’ fighter bombers did disable some German oil and railroad installations, but not many ball-bearing and aircraft factories.
In spring 1961, the author was nominated as U.S. ambassador to India. A whopping 106 security-clearance informants gossiped about the author to the U.S. secret service to help him get the job. President JFK had just suffered the embarrassing Bay of Pigs fiasco.
When the author learned that the CIA had secret plans to send money and publish propaganda in newspapers and magazines in order to get voters to favor non-Communist candidates in India’s upcoming elections, he shared his concerns with the president and other top American officials. They listened, as they couldn’t afford to fail at any more adolescent-boy spy games, at least for the near future.
In the author’s day, aside from his having cozy contacts in high places, his friendliness and honesty with the press, and his writing well-argued, readable memos went a long way toward getting the government to act pursuant to his recommendations.
In 1967, the author published a book in which he wrote– inexplicably– that the motivations of captains of industry did not (!) include the pursuit of money but only “… the desire for peer approval, the identification with the goals of the organization, and the desire to adjust these toward one’s own.” He asserted that these motivations were common to socialist organizations, too. It must be remembered that the author was originally from Canada; he gave lectures on his ideas in Britain, and the book was sold in the USSR, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia and Germany.
Read the book to learn about the author’s additional dealings with India in connection with Pakistan and China; his prescient and depressing prognostications on Laos and Vietnam, to which the government failed to listen; his views on LBJ’s War on Poverty; and much more about how times have changed, and how they have stayed the same.