Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Tenured Professor - John Kenneth Galbraith

I've been recently struggling to figure out what is the relevance of John Kenneth Galbraith today. Galbraith reached the highest point of his career with The New Industrial State, and afterwards he repeated himself, albeit elegantly and gently.  His economic ideas have become mantras for the American left and he preferred written arguments over econometric analyses, which goes against mainstream academic economics. While Galbraith is a required reading for the economic historian, it is hard to find a place for him in today's economic debate.

A Tenured Professor, a satyric novel written in the mid 80s, is probably Galbraith's only book that offers something refreshing to today's readers. And this is not because Galbraith writes something that you can't find in any of his other books. If you take literature away, A Tenured Professor presents Galbraith's arguments of all life: critiques against multinationals, consumerism, over-specialization in academia, lobbies, the rational expectations theory, the mainstream left, the Republican Party, the SEC, college students, Ivy League universities, and so on. You can find all that in The New Industrial State, written in the late sixties, or even in The Affluent Society, written in 1957. (One can argue how smart is a person who says the same things over and over for more than 30 years, but that's another discussion).

The reason why A Tenured Professor offers something good for today's readers is its sense of humor and its constant and relentless irony. Humor is usually the first weapon used in autocratic regimes, and probably the most effective one in democracy.The target of irony or mockery is damned if he replies and damned if he doesn't.

There is no single page in A Tenured Professor that doesn't a critique to something, but with humor and reducing everything to the absurd. This is probably more effective than Galbraith's usually bilious critiques: it's well known that honey is more effective than vinegar.

Galbraith wrote this book after being accomplishing everything any American economist dreams of: academic and popular success, involvement in high-level policy making, commercial success. Galbraith could afford writing this book only at that point in his life, once he had nothing to lose because he had succeeded at everything. The main character of A Tenured Professor is actually a professor who would like to get involved in politics actively but only does it once he succeeds as an academic and as a businessman. In a way, the book is a satire of Galbraith himself. And mocking oneself is simply a masterpiece in itself.

The book is also a mockery of himself.

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