Oration | Address to Convocation
John Kenneth Galbraith is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard University. He is internationally known for his development of Keynesian and post-Keynesian economics, the economics of the modern large firm, as well as for his writing and his active involvement in American politics.
Born in Iona Station, Ontario, Dr. Galbraith became an American citizen in 1937. He earned his BS degree from the University of Toronto (Ontario Agricultural College) in 1931, and an MS (1933) and a PhD (1934) from the University of California, and taught at both California and Princeton before joining Harvard permanently in 1948. He retired in 1975.
Dr. Galbraith has had a distinguished career in American and international politics. A Democrat, Dr. Galbraith served as President John F. Kennedy's ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dr. Galbraith served as the deputy administrator in the Office of Price Administration in the early 1940s, where he organized and administered the wartime system of price controls.
Dr. Galbraith, known for his lucid, persuasive writing style, has published many books and articles, including the The Affluent Society (1958), The New Industrial State (1967) and Economics and the Public Purpose (1973), among many others. Most recently, Dr. Galbraith has published A Journey Through Economic Time (1994) and The Good Society (1996), Letters to Kennedy (1998) and Name-Dropping: From F.D.R. On (1999).
Dr. Galbraith has been president of the American Economic Association, a fellow of Trinity College at Cambridge (of which he is now an honorary Fellow), a visiting fellow at All Souls College at Oxford, and an honorary professor at the University of Geneva's Graduate Institute of Advanced International Studies. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From 1984 to 1987 he was president of the combined American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Dr. Galbraith will be awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree.
Oration honouring John Kenneth Galbraith
Shane O'Dea, public orator
It is important, in choosing candidates for honorary degrees, to find persons of distinction from all fields and all disciplines. In the person before you we have a candidate from a field we do not usually recognize. We have before us a most distinguished folklorist. It may be found unusual to categorize John Kenneth Galbraith under this head and certainly he has not, at least consciously, claimed such learning for himself. However, if one looks at his works and at his reputation, it will be apparent how apt is this appellation.
Consider first his novels: subtly-plotted entertainments wearing the velvet of craft over the steel punch of purpose. In them he gives us a remarkably deft picture of a fascinating but little studied social group, the Harvard academics. His portraits of their rites, their manners and their machinations will be a resource for future studies of the folk customs of this exotic New England tribe.
But his greatest folkloric contribution has been in economics. Now this statement must not be taken as the judgement of a simple orator. No, it is a judgement based on great authority, based on the views of Milton Friedman and of his disciple, Margaret Thatcher. They would have us believe, had they spoken on the matter with any directness, that the economic exercises of Dr. Galbraith are little better means by which to govern our lives than the skipping rhymes of schoolchildren.
A downmarket proponent of this same view, the Ottawa Citizen, described him as “a knave ... who writes glib, witty, foolish popularizations of left-wing economics.”
Why such venom? Because John Kenneth Galbraith is one who has relentlessly, inexorably attacked the mythology of monetarism, the deep beliefs of the contented: that the economy grows on tax reductions, on interest rate decrease and on low levels of inflation. Galbraith is one who has proposed that we look at the long-term effect of our policies, at durable strategies for development, and has always been a proponent of a progressive income tax which allows for an equitable redistribution of income. This has, for an equally long time, been opposed by the rich who contend that they need that income to create wealth and assert that the poor, were it distributed to them, would only use it to evade work. Galbraith has punctured this self-serving argument with what has to be one of the sharpest pieces of antithesis in the history of political economy. This view, he says, is based on the “improbable case that the rich are not working because they have too little income, the poor because they have too much.”
He has also made clear the emptiness of the boast that, unlike glacially-stratified Britain, America is a classless society. In Britain, title, speech and education all define social standing. In America no such clarity exists. This allows the rich to act as if the poor are not a class, just a group of criminally-inclined malcontents who, by race and culture, are unwilling to enter the mainstream of American life. The rich become, by extension, a new version of the elect of Puritan times; the poor, the damned. Such attacks amuse as much as they enlighten but they should not be seen as the goal of Galbraith's work. His goal is re-perception and change and his books direct us through self-examination to action as good citizens responsible not just for our own but for all. We have only to look at his earlier and very influential
works, The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State, to see how constant has been this theme.
But, Mr. Chancellor, we do need to be careful about taking too seriously a man who, when told to direct his memos to President Kennedy through the State Department, refused because he found that mode of communication a bit like “fornicating through a mattress”; a man who, wishing to encourage his government to focus their foreign policy a little better, recommended that they select each year “one clear and comprehensible strategic threat, stay with it, and leave all the other little chaps alone” and suggested for 1982 that the threat be Saint Pierre. Mr. Chancellor, as in your person we accept that wisdom might be masked by wit, so can we in the case of this graduand who has been president of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and of the American Economics Association; a man whom Smallwood once asked to be our president. I present to you, Mr. Chancellor, for the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa, a man who has throughout his lifetime married the wit of Jonathan Swift with the clarity of John Stuart Mill and made us all the richer, John Kenneth Galbraith.
I begin with a word on my pleasure in being here for this most agreeable occasion and for the history we all celebrate. This, for me, as in any return to Canada, is a homecoming. I take pleasure in my many years of life in the Great Republic; I have no less pleasure in my Canadian origins and education.
Nor have I ever seen why one should be identified with a single country; Dr. Johnson, no less, warned against too protuberant a patriotism — the last resort of the scoundrel. I affirm my affection and support for both of the lands that have made good my life. I appreciate especially my early Canadian agricultural education. For half a century and rather more I have been the only member of the Harvard University faculty with a first degree in animal husbandry. How exceptional and favoured one can be.
I have, let me also say, a special regard for Newfoundland. All North Americans respect the terrain that first, or nearly first, brought the world to this favoured continent. It was, no doubt, the mild misfortune of Newfoundland that there was a deeper, more fertile soil further west and south. Perhaps a more gracious climate. But the pioneer role of this territory is not in doubt. Nor can one doubt that it was here that travel by air from Europe first began. That, at a slightly later stage, was strong in my life. During World War II and the years after, I had a recurrent, sometimes, I must say, slightly gruelling, association with that great flight field at Gander. Then I had a long and close association with the most notable figure in Newfoundland history and one vital in that of Canada as well. That was Joseph Robert Smallwood. Joey Smallwood, one of the most diversely alert and interesting political leaders of this century and a central figure in the anniversary celebrations of these days. Joey Smallwood was several times in touch with me in Cambridge, called me here to St. John's on one or two occasions for meetings, was one of the most interesting (and I must say unpredictable) political figures of his time. I now tell of something which until this moment is still unknown. He once pressed me hard and seriously to return to the land of my birth as head of this university. Under the arrangement that would be proposed I would retain a part-time commitment to Harvard. Not without difficulty I persuaded him that this would not be good for this university, would be unacceptable at Harvard and possibly questionable for Galbraith. Had I accepted, there would have been one certain and sad result: I would not today be receiving an honorary degree.
I turn to some larger matters which in these last months of the millennium, subject always to the question of whether it ends numerically with 9 or 0, have been much on my mind. My thought concerns the unfinished business of the hundred years now nearly over. These are matters which I venture to ask you all to consider.
First, we should not be in doubt as to the accomplishments of the centuries past. Life in the fortunate world has become more enjoyable, of that there is no question. There is no longer a mass struggle against hunger and climate. Work, a word highly flexible to use, as I will later say, has become, on the whole, less onerous and better paid. We have seen in the fortunate countries better communication, easier travel and more years of health, all bringing more enjoyment of life and longer life. As I've said on a previous occasion, were I giving this address a century back it would be from the next world. And even some of you would be hearing it there.
Especially celebrated has been the increase in economic well-being in the fortunate countries. The annual rise in gross domestic product, as my economically aware audience will know, is our basic measure of human progress. With interruptions it has been generally favourable. I do not deny or regret the rewards of economic well-being, but I would urge that it is not, as too many, including to many economists, assume, the final measure of human achievement. There are other and greater measures of success. One I especially emphasize here in Newfoundland. This we accept is not a terrain greatly favoured as to soil, natural resources or, perhaps, location. But these are not basis sources for achievement and certainly not to those assembled here today. And as we look back over history, it is talent, not product, that we celebrate. As I recently have had occasion to suggest, Shakespeare came to us from a country with a very low gross domestic product. Florence in its great days of the Renaissance was far behind St. John's in economic well-being, behind perhaps even that of the lesser communities up the coast. The great scientists of the past had a very limited economic base.
Let this be the lesson today: the primary interest lies in people. So also the wise investment. Advantage and opportunity in the arts, in science, in medicine and health care can be as great here in Newfoundland as anywhere in the world. They do not depend on fertile soil, other natural resources or a favouring ocean. Some individuals so qualified will find their future elsewhere in Canada. Or, speaking as a dubious example, in the United States. That is not to be condemned; it is the individual's achievement and enjoyment of life, not his or her location, that is the true test. These have no provincial or national borders. For those to whom I am privileged to speak today, the world is yours.
I turn to another matter: There remains in that larger world, as here, the still urgent problem of those caught by adverse situations or circumstance, in contrast with the bright prospect of those I address today. In the United States amidst great well-being there are still the poverty-stricken masses of the great cities, the diminishing but still numerous rural poor. There is a similar if lesser affliction here in Canada, including the province where I speak. We live in a time of increasing inequality of the rich getting vastly richer, of the poor remaining poor.
The needed response is clear. We in the fortunate countries, as part of our national responsibility, must secure to everyone a decent minimum income. We talk much of liberty and democracy. Nothing so limits liberty as a total absence of money. A secure minimum income we can afford; let it be one of the rights of modern affluent life. Let acceptance of this be, as it is not now the case with such support, without denigration or condemnation of the recipients. Let it be for a fortunate country a basic human right. Let us accept that some so favoured will not work. For the rich, resort to leisure is accepted, even applauded. So even in the academic world. (I've often told how regularly I am stopped and asked if, as a professor, I am not working too hard.) Let us be equally acquiescent as regards the poor.
I repeat: We are of affluent national entities. Let it be one of the marks of our civilization that, without adverse comment or thought, we give comforting support to those not blessed by our general good fortune.
It is quite possible that, economically speaking, we may be less fortunate in the future than in the recent past. Capitalism, which is now in escape from Marx and its own adverse history, called the market system, has never been stable in its performance, not over the last several centuries. There has been a history of mindless boom and painful bust. So perhaps still. A secure income and expenditure by the less fortunate is a small but useful stabilizing force.
I have one final plea, made urgent by recent action or inaction below the border. That concerns one truly dangerous legacy of the last hundred years and particularly of the last 50 years. We now live with the threat, the possibility, of a total end to civilized existence on the planet. Available are the nuclear weapons which could accomplish precisely this. And there is the insane commitment to keeping and protecting these weapons, even though we fully realize the threat. When India and Pakistan last year exploded nuclear weaponry, we in the United States reacted adversely. They had the natural reply:“What about your great atomic arsenal?”
Thus the greatest unfinished business of the century now ending is the need to eliminate this weaponry in all countries, and needless to say, my own. Nuclear weapons need only to fall into the hands of mentally vulnerable politicians to bring a nuclear exchange, which, to repeat, could be the end of civilized existence and, quite possibly, of all existence. This weaponry and its threat is the most truly dominant legacy of the present century. The most urgent task now and of the new century is to abolish the threat of Armageddon, something on which there has been solemn comment over the centuries and which is now a reality. Let all be heard on this vital issue. If President Clinton can advise on the status of Quebec, you surely are allowed to speak on a test-ban treaty.
I end on this grim note. But here, as on other matters, I hope that, with intelligence, sanity and thus survival will prevail. That is my wish for today, along with a matter of slightly questionable practical effect, my blessing to you all.
Honorary Degree Recipients: Fall Convocation 1999
James H. Rogers
John Kenneth Galbraith
David Christian Ward
Donald Frederick Cook