The Highest Form of Municipal Service

“Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.” So said renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith (right), but it was not the only witty and insightful thing he said, by a longshot. Ken, who lived in nearby Townshend and was an associate trustee of Marlboro College for 25 years, had a way of looking at the world through droll-colored glasses. This weekend Marlboro held a celebration of Galbraith’s life and legacy and illustrious, razor-sharp waggishness, and in particular he and his wife Kitty’s personal choice of reading matter. That’s because it was the official dedication of the Galbraith library, donated by Ken and Kitty’s three sons. I mean, we’re talking about 2,000 volumes including many by Galbraith himself and a comprehensive collection on India. Two of those sons, Peter and Jamie, were present and followed the dedication with a lively public symposium on foreign policy and economics.

“A man carrying ammunition for miles and miles through the jungle can’t carry appreciably more after reading the writings of Karl Marx,” said Peter (left), quoting Ken’s reflections on Vietnam, where he toured as an advisor to President Kennedy. Peter is the kind of guy you would want to chat with about weapons of mass destruction or the Taliban over a cup of chamomile tea. You know, a former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia and current Vermont State Senator, as well as a trustee of Marlboro—the pinnacle of any career—Peter shared his father’s same pragmatic realism regarding U.S. intervention and nation-building. From introducing a fresh chicken factory in Iraq, where people only buy chickens live or frozen, to building courthouses in Afghanistan, where there are precious few judges, his stories drove home the importance of setting foreign policy goals that are both relevant and achievable.

“I feel like a streetwalker who hears that her profession is not only legal, but is the highest form of municipal service,” said Jamie (right), quoting his quotable dad. This quip was in response to Nixon’s 1971 wage and price freeze, after years of Galbraith advocating the very same measure. James Galbraith is a professor of government at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas/Austin, and author of Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis. He spoke about the evolution of his father’s economic views and career, from Cambridge Keynesian economist to one of the architects of President Johnson’s “Great Society.” At every turn Ken challenged the “conventional wisdom” of economists, and he even coined that phrase in his book The Affluent Society. Both Jamie and Peter clearly shared their father’s honorable attribute of having “the guts to describe the world as it is, not as we wish it was.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *