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May 14, 2006

Wrong About So Much, For So Long

By Ezra

Andrew Sullivan thinks that John Kenneth Galbraith "was so wrong about so much for so long and with such disdain for the empirical refutation of his theories that he deserves little in retrospect but our pity." Meanwhile, Andrew thought the Iraq War a spectacular idea, but now isn't so sure; believed Bush a terrific choice for president in 2000, and then, disappointed by his pick's performance, endorsed Kerry; and figured the critics of the president were a domestic "fifth column," before he became one of them. Reaching back into time, he published Elizabeth McCaughey's takedown of the Clinton health care plan, widely regarded as one of the most dishonest and unfortunate pieces of journalism published in recent years. It was an article whose central premise was rendered a lie by the very first paragraph of the legislation. The magazine he edited later apologized. He also published an excerpt from Charles Murray's eugenicist tract The Bell Curve. The book was subsequently found to be riddled with factual and statistical errors.

Andrew Sullivan certainly has my pity.

Update: For more on Sullivan's wrongness, check here or here.

May 14, 2006 | Permalink


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Eh, I think you're better off ignoring him. He gets entirely too much attention.

Posted by: mwg | May 14, 2006 8:40:27 PM

Thank you,, Ezra. The point needs to be repeated, over and over again. "Sully's always wrong! (And then he changes his mind.)"

Posted by: Mad Professah | May 14, 2006 8:44:12 PM

Notice how nicely he positions Galbraith with straw-men bad guys:

Modern liberals' continued attachment to men like Galbraith, rather like their inability to concede that Alger Hiss or the Rosenbergs were Communist traitors and spies, is an impediment to a revived liberalism.

This isn't just guilt by association, it reveals Sully's mind as basically totalitarian: Do literally anything to eliminate a competitive viewpoint - even when the targeted man is already dead.

Sully has deep, deep problems. I could pity him if their were any signs of recognition on his part that he's playing on the dark side of human nature.

Contempt for him seems more appropriate.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 14, 2006 8:57:52 PM

Thanks for the link, I think. And what "empirical refutation of his theories"?

I guess it is a credit to Galbraith that some of those of Chicago school orthodoxy feel the need to try to discredit him now that he can't respond.

How pathetic.


Posted by: Emma Zahn | May 14, 2006 9:44:14 PM

You forgot to mention how eagle-eyed Andy got snowed by a serial fabricator, while he was "editing" TNR. If Sullivan didn't have the freakshow English Tory gay Catholic schtick, he would've faded away years ago.....

Posted by: sglover | May 14, 2006 9:49:03 PM

Other entries in the Silly Sully hit parade:

* His belief that Dubya is, deep down inside, totally cool with gay people and gay marriage, and that his retrograde social policies are pure political posturing.

* His effort to plow through assorted Catholic doctrinal texts to prove that the Church has a strong doctrinal basis for approving of gay marriage. IIRC, actual scholars of Catholic doctrine regarded his work as about as useful as my self-taught physics efforts to prove Stephen Hawking wrong.

* His TNR editorship included multiple front cover articles by Douglas Coupland and Camille Paglia, who once penned a multi-page treatise on how Hilary is, like, this completely frigid she-bitch - based entirely on conversations she had in her own mind.

* His weirdly solipsitic take on public health matters. He's responding well to AIDS treatment, so he writes articles about the end of the AIDS epidemic. He seems to get a buzz from consuming testosterone, so testosterone is therefore the miracle men's health drug of the future (actual controlled medical science shows otherwise).

* He had nothing but contempt for the "bear" subset of the gay community (tubby, bald, body hair) - until he reached middle age, lost his hair, and grew a pot belly. Now, bears are totally awesome!

* And of course the whole "Milky Loads" incident.

What a weird cat.

Posted by: FMguru | May 14, 2006 11:33:58 PM

How could I forget?

* Sully was a early and rabid proponent of the ludicrous "flypaper" justification of our Iraqi adventure. When someone pointed out how cynical and deadly that was for our troops, he declared himself unconcerned, as he pays his taxes and they're his "servants".

* His role (with M. Kaus) in the great 2002 effort to tar Paul Krugman's as a shrill, lunatic Bush-hater who was also a terrible economist - which at least gave us some pretty good laughs as he attempted to out-argue economics with Krugman. Man, wingnuts really hate people who are knowledgable in their fields, don't they?

Posted by: FMguru | May 14, 2006 11:47:41 PM

I think the appeal of Sullivan is based mainly on the fact that he's an unpredictable and unique mix of flavors. He's a gay Catholic semi-libertarian eugenics fan whose past positions have been all over the place. Wow, what's he going to say next? Doesn't matter that it's probably going to be wrong -- people want to watch and find out.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | May 15, 2006 12:58:43 AM

Neil - I think it also helps that Sully is actual a pretty skilled writer. He's certainly several notches above the typical heh-indeedy conservatarian warblogger. He also managed to climb to the near-top of the pyramid of American opinion writers (editor of TNR) at a young age, so he he's well connected and has a high profile. Finally, he has an undeniable knack for self-promotion. How many Gap ads has Kos appeared in?

Posted by: FMguru | May 15, 2006 1:05:33 AM

You do realize, Ezra, that your entire post is a tu quoque fallacy. Look it up. That is to say, Sullivan may have been wrong about many things. But that doesn't change the fact that Galbraith was wrong about the biggest issues that he discussed. (E.g., his determination that state ownership of industry was the wave of the future, or his pathetic and naive praise of Communism in 1984, which reminds one of Lindbergh's naive infatuation with Naziism).

Posted by: Thurmond | May 15, 2006 9:04:59 AM

So Galbraith was wrong about countervailing powers? Or the coming affluent society? Or the futility of the Vietnam War?

No, actually -- on the subjects that were his main focuses, he was often quite right.

Posted by: Ezra | May 15, 2006 9:54:14 AM

Galbraith had guys like Sully pegged dead to rights, when he wrote:

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

Posted by: Jimmm | May 15, 2006 10:10:57 AM

He wrote an entire book -- The New Industrial State -- praising socialist planning of industry. IMHO, writing a book on a subject = focusing on that subject.

Posted by: Thurmond | May 15, 2006 10:17:06 AM

maybe a little off-topic, but for a REAL "knock-someone-when he dies" column, did anyone read Georgw Will's despicable sneer at Galbrieth for being elitist? (this from the bowtied condescender himself!)

Posted by: MikeyC | May 15, 2006 10:19:43 AM

"OBITUARIES FOR the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith have recalled his elegant prose and laconic wit. There is more biographical material in those characteristics than in Galbraith’s achievements as a public intellectual.

Even a sympathetic biography published last year concluded with the notably understated encomium — from the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen — that Galbraith’s work “doesn’t get enough praise”. More typical is the judgment of Paul Krugman in the mid-1990s that Galbraith “has never been taken seriously by his academic colleagues, who regard him as more of a ‘media personality’ ”.

Some motifs of Galbraith’s work have entered popular consciousness. Galbraith wrote of private opulence amid public squalor, illustrating it with a memorable metaphor of a family that travels by extravagant private car to picnic by a polluted river.

Yet while arguing for increased public expenditure on welfare, Galbraith gave scant attention to the limits of that approach. His writings perpetuate a debilitating weakness of modern liberalism: a reluctance to acknowledge that resources are scarce. In Galbraith’s scheme, said Herbert Stein, the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers: “The American people were only asked whether they wanted cleaner air and water . . . The answers to such questions seemed obvious — but they were not the right questions.”

Galbraith was no prophet. He maintained that the importance of planning augured a convergence of economic systems in the communist East and capitalist West. When writing about the Soviet Union, which exemplified public squalor amid private penury, Galbraith was obtuse. In 1984 he wrote that the “Soviet system has made great economic progress in recent years . . . One can see it in the appearance of solid wellbeing of the people in the streets.” Of China, Galbraith ventured: “Dissidents are brought firmly into line . . . but one suspects with great politeness.” This was shortly after the Cultural Revolution, which was, historians record, not a genteel affair.

J. K. Galbraith lived long, productively and happily. His contentment as public servant and intellectual may be partly attributable to the fact that he was, at the end of his life, almost as politically innocent as he had been at the start of it."

----- Oliver Kamm

Posted by: Dustin | May 15, 2006 10:21:10 AM

And go read Brad DeLong's bio, or Parker's book. As the Industrial State was one of -- is it seventeen? -- books, I'm not terribly concerned that he got it wrong. He was voted the third most influential economist of the 20th century, and there's serious wonderment on why he never won a nobel prize. Did he get things wrong? Sure. But he got more right. It's funny -- I'm never unable to see, say, Hayek or Friedman's contribution because I find a couple of their conclusion's odious. But the lack of charitability the right has for its opponents is truly remarkable.

Posted by: Ezra | May 15, 2006 10:44:56 AM

If Friedman or Hayek had ever professed starry-eyed and naive praise for the Nazis -- who were quite a bit behind the Soviet Union in the number of people mass murdered -- then you'd be quite justified in complaining.

Posted by: Thurmond | May 15, 2006 11:09:17 AM

I didn't mean to slag him Ezra, just trying to play a bit of the Devil's advocate. I don't consider myself a person of the right and neither does the author of the piece I posted.

My personal appraisal of Galbraith, based on what limited amount of work I've red from him, is mostly charitable. Contrary to what the author of the piece stated, I think his greatest contributions were as a public intellectual. And while his Robeson-esque quotes about the Soviet Union and naivity about communist china in his later years may appear damning today, many bright people who were no apologists for totalitarianism were equally wrong about such things. Even Schlesinger, the epitome of the New Deal Anti-Communist liberal & a man I have great respect for, seemed to think the USSR was doing just fine based on a brief visit to Russia & guessing the people seemed well fed enough.

I don't think the idea that he wasn't taken seriously by his academic colleagues is especially true either, he was an academic's academic. The question is whether his more literary "economic sociology" has any relevance to how we understand economics today. Just among liberals & liberal economists specifically, the consensus on Galbraith (pre-Death) seem to range from "A great Intellectual & useful thinker, who's contributions to economics have not been appreciated" to "A charming man, who wrote with great prose & wit, but was ultimately quite misguided & of little relevance"

Brad DeLong seems to think that his contributions are under valued. I respect the heck out of Brad DeLong, he's a serious academic & he isn't in the business of flattery for it's own sake so I will defer to his wisdom on the matter. Whatever else can be said about Galbraith, the man is an army of (relevant) quotes & concise observations, who's truth is not depednent on whether they were checked on a spreadsheet or not.

Posted by: Dustin | May 15, 2006 11:22:57 AM

"I react to what is necessary. I would like to eschew any formula. There are some things where the government is absolutely inevitable, which we cannot get along without comprehensive state action. But there are many things -- producing consumer goods, producing a wide range of entertainment, producing a wide level of cultural activity — where the market system, which independent activity is also important, so I react pragmatically. Where the market works, I'm for that. Where the government is necessary, I'm for that. I'm deeply suspicious of somebody who says, "I'm in favor of privatization," or, "I'm deeply in favor of public ownership." I'm in favor of whatever works in the particular case." --- J.K. Galbraith

That's pretty much my entire economic philosophy in a nutshell.

Posted by: Dustin | May 15, 2006 11:23:59 AM

One more observation then I'll stop. I said something about Galbraith's literary "economic sociology." That sounds condescending, although not neccessarily untrue. But honestly, what were guys like Adam Smith & David Ricardo, even Hayek to a large degree but "economic sociologists?"

These guys weren't crunching CBO data, they were observing the world around them with their own eyes and then writing down their observations and developing theories. The "invisible hand" or "Comparative advantage" were developed with the same tools that Galbraith used in his thoeries about "Competing interests" or the stimulation of demand through advertising. Some of these observations were discarded but many were later validated by more empirical analysis from future intellectuals. So it's not surprising that many liberal or Democratic leaning economists, whether neo-liberal or Keynesian/Neo-Keynesian of some sort, who subscribe to certain Macroeconomic theories & who believe many of the same things Galbraith believed through their number crunching, would rightly bestow Galbraith with the credit.

Posted by: Dustin | May 15, 2006 11:47:15 AM


Great comments. "Whatever works" captures his philosophy brilliantly. Galbraith was spectacularly wrong in some cases, incredibly perceptive in others. But in all cases he tried to weigh the evidence. The biggest differrence between him and the free-market ideologues is he didn't just ignore the evidence.

If markets don't seem to work in health care - Galbraith actually seemed to notice, rather than just saying "that can't be" and proposing more free market "fixes".

Friedman got a lot of things wrong, as did Hayek. Nobody is really a monetarist anymore, and those European social democrats did not make Europe as dictatorship.

Posted by: Samuel Knight | May 15, 2006 1:30:33 PM

"He maintained that the importance of planning augured a convergence of economic systems in the communist East and capitalist West." If "communist East" extends as far as China, it seems to me that the Wal Mart/Commie China convergence proves his point.

Posted by: Cal Gal | May 15, 2006 5:50:05 PM

From an excerpt of some version of Beinart's "A Fighting Faith"

"During World War II, only one major liberal organization, the Union for Democratic Action (UDA), had banned communists from its ranks. At the Willard, members of the UDA met to expand and rename their organization. The attendees, who included Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, issued a press release that enumerated the new organization's principles. Announcing the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the statement declared, "[B]ecause the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere," America should support "democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over." That meant unceasing opposition to communism, an ideology "hostile to the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic has grown great.""

Which is to say, blow me, Thurmond. I'd want to see the rest of that article before I took your evaluation of it as evincing "starry-eyed and naive praise" for communism. In any case, he looks to be a hell of a lot better than your boy David Horowitz, who was apparently calling himself a "Marxist" in the '70s. (wiki)

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | May 15, 2006 7:06:25 PM

Let's not forget Ruth Shalit, another high point of Sully's career.

Posted by: hack | May 16, 2006 1:08:39 PM

And, Thurmond, since the Victorian British empire -- laissez-faire capitalist to its core -- murdered far more people than Hitler and Stalin put together, I think it's safe to say that "Friedman or Hayek" might be guilty of some "starry-eyed and naive praise" of their own.

Posted by: JO'N | May 17, 2006 8:38:17 AM

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