When JK Galbraith met JM Keynes

Illustration by Edward Sorel Text by Nancy Caldwell Sorel Next week: Frederic Chopin and George Sand

Nancy Caldwell Sorel
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:43

Somewhat to his surprise, John Kenneth Galbraith - a young man from rural Canada with a PhD in economics - found himself in Washington, in charge of price controls for the entire United States. The job of "price czar" was a thankless one, but it commanded a degree of power from which, he would later say, the rest of his life was all downhill. One busy day in the late spring of 1942, his secretary announced that a "Mr Kines" wanted to see him. The name stirred no recognition, and Galbraith told her to put him off. The secretary persisted: "I have the feeling that Mr Kines somehow expects you to see him." Realisation dawned: "Kines" was "Kanes" - that is, Keynes. Galbraith felt, he said, like a parish priest who has the pope in his outer office.

John Maynard Keynes was the guru of the new economics. Galbraith and other young enthusiasts heralded his concept of state responsibility for economic management, even to the extent of deficit spending, as revolutionary (American businessmen said heretical), and appointed themselves his disciples. Galbraith had gone to Cambridge intending to study under him, but Keynes was recovering from a heart attack and did not teach that year.

Now he had materialised in Galbraith's office, quite without fanfare. Keynes came right to the point, which was hogs and corn - or as he termed it, pigs and fodder. He had brought along "A Memorandum on the Pig/Pig Fodder Ratio", and he was anxious to talk about the very important matter of how to price corn in relation to pigs to avoid wasted grain but still ensure an adequate supply of pork. Keynes was ever the pragmatist. As the bursar of King's College, he regularly oversaw the farming of college land, studied the finer points of livestock and attended pig sales, and he had even tried breeding.

Any semblance of work was abandoned that day. Later, there would be discussion of a more arcane nature, but Galbraith never forgot that on this first occasion he and Keynes met not as the young price czar and the most influential economist of the century, but as an ex-farmboy and his much-admired mentor, who just happened to run a pig farm on the side

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments