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TREADING THE AGE OF UNCERTAINTY is a little bit like taking a stroll through your old home town with your grandfather: you don't expect to see or hear anything startling, but his attendance to 'long-ignored detail with the personal, insider's touch almost makes the thing worthwhile. Grandpa Galbraith has been around for a long time; The Age of Uncertainty breaks no new ground in his own intellectual development. And you probably know much of the stuff he talks about already: Smith on the division of labor, Keynes on the role of government economic intervention, Khruschev on peaceful co-existence. But as the author never tires of pointing out, Galbraith had had at least a distant acquaintance with most of the outstanding figures in economics and politics for the last half-century. As he wanders in his own order through the annals of intellectual and social history, picking out topics as they take him, (not as they occurred) and pointing out unnoticed tidbits and reminiscing, Galbraith subjects friends and foes alike to a thoughtful examination, one that only an old pro could sustain.
The book grows from a television series Galbraith filmed for the BBC along the lines of J. Bronowski's Ascent of Man. In the series, Galbraith jaunts around the world to various spots of particular import in his study, strolling along the countryside of Marx's youth and surveying the barren wastes of Death Valley (which he offers as an example of the New York-Philadelphia corridor after World War III). As a substitute--a good one--for the varied film clips that bring his series to life, The Age of Uncertainty is studded with more than a hundred photographs and etchings of famous economists revolutionaries, Tibetan palaces, and myriad other unpredictable items.
AS A RESULT of BBC's liberality and Galbraith's acknowledged position as elder philosopher and general social critic, Galbraith has considerable latitude in his choice of subject matter. The Book's start threatens to rehash the anecdotal biographic ramblings of Robert Heilbroner's The Wordly Philosophers, so familiar to Ec 10 veterans; the careful reader will learn of the romantic lives of thinkers from Marx to Veblen. By the close of the work Galbraith has looked at the problem of overpopulation the plight of the city, the multinational corporation, the normally UGE (the H is silent amythical, but representative corporate monster, and the prospects for world peace.
Galbraith talks about a lot, but he is at his best when he talks about John Maynard Keynes and the Great Depression. Keynes is one of the few economists who is not subjected to a sound drubbing by Galbraith. This is perhaps so because in Keynes Galbraith saw many of the qualities on which he prides himself: Keynes was an anti-establishment intellectual who thought himself rather important, an iconoclast without being a revolutionary. It is even fair to say that Galbraith revered Keynes, who provided the former with what remains today as the substance of his economic philosophy. When Keynes paid a visit to Galbraith, then director of the U.S. price control board, during World War II, "It was as though St. Peter had dropped in on some parish priest."
The Great Depression provides the ideal jumping-off point for Galbraith's presentation of Keynesianism; this was the thinker's finest hour. In one of the best of the book's many historical foreshadowings, Galbraith describes Keynes's lonely stand in opposition to the reparations clauses of the treaty ending World War I. Keynes, with the clanvoyance that earned him a fortune speculating on foreign currencies, foresaw precisely how Europe would try to exact more reparations from Germany than the defeated nation could afford to pay, an impossibility that would lead to Germany's depressed hyper-inflation, and to Hitler. Keynes lambasted the parties to the peace: Wilson, "the blind and deaf Don Quixote" and Lloyd George, a "goat-footed bard." In response, the English establishment ostracized Keynes, criticising him not for his economics but for holding to an opinion that caused rejoicing to the nation's enemies. By the end of his chapter, Galbraith has sculpted a martyr image for Keynes, a rare act for the otherwise cynical professor.
Galbraith's sappy praise for Keynes stands out all the more when contrasted with the light in which the author places almost every other thinker, businessman, and institution that crosses his path: dim. Wht saves The Age of Uncertainty from being a history text is the personal touch. Tour-guide Galbraith knows the landscape well, but so well that he can't resist editorializing about each sight. Few are spared as Galbraith talks about the Pentagon ("Were [the Crusades] under the auspices of the Pentagon, it would still be heard that, in the Holy Land, there was light at the end of the tunnel"); conferences of revolutionaries ("By occuring, they persuade the participants, and often others, that something is happening when nothing is happening or can happen."); the Bay of Pigs ("not since Joshua's trumpets at Jericho had there been a military operation in which there was so little rational expectation of success"); on Lenin's Imperialism ("Not even a committed discuvpe could think it an impressive document, although many have risen to the challange"); and the old Democratic Party ("semi-literates from the rural South and semi-criminals from the urban North").
Everyone, except the high priest of modern economics, Keynes, emerges sopping wet from their confrontations with Galbraith. So the question arises, just what are Galbraith's political persuasions? Cutting through all of Galbraith's sarcasm we find a fuzzy picture. On the crest of his wave of assault on the modern corporation Galbraith comes off as quite the socialist. To control the giant corporation, the author proposes a group of public auditors to replace the traditional board of directors, a la Nader; he even goes on to suggest that the government buy out each company's stockholders and have the dividends accrue to the public. Yet at another point Galbraith changes horses and suggests that "land is tilled well only by men and women who are encouraged by high prices and dissuaded by low prices, who reap the rewards of their toil, suffer the penalties of their own sloth...."
The lone area where Galbraith feels sure he is on sound ideological ground is when he asserts the universality of bourgeois, materialist values, resulting in the convergence of capitalist, communist, and developing nations towards one social and economic model. From the Coca-Cola bottling plant in the Soviet Union to socialized health care in Britain, in the growth of the massive production plant in capitalist and socialist nations, and in the uniformity of architectural styles in Moscow and New York, Galbraith finds convergence of culture. He takes heart in the development, presumably because of its implications for peaceful co-existence between the super powers. (Huntington and Brzezinski found it heartening 15 years ago, but have since gone on to more depressing theories.)
UN FORTUNATELY, CONVERGENCE IS one thing The Age of Uncertainty does not have. Besides expressing (frequently) his extreme dislike for nuclear war, Galbraith does little to synthesize his stray editorial comments. The book amounts to a diary of sorts, a wry personal narrative on economic thought and modern politics. Admittedly, Galbraith has the boldness and ability to step out of chronological sequence and tie together ideas and people in ways that make the process a little more understandable. But take the cover (glossy and liberally sprinkled with gold and silver) and the price ($15.95; to rise to $17.95 after the television series opens in the U.S. this week) seriously: this book belongs on the living room table, not on the shelf of a serious student of economics or of Galbraith's thought.
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