Mood Swings

A psychiatrist surveys the mind and the wider world

The psychiatric wisdom of John Kenneth Galbraith

What an economist teaches us about psychology.

I've been reading a lot of John Kenneth Galbraith recently. Galbraith, the economist and Kennedy confidante, died a few years ago at a ripe age, soon thereafter followed by his right-wing opponent and friend William Buckley. It seems to me that in the age of the talking heads, we have no one even approaching the stature of Galbraith or Buckley, on either left or right. So I went back to Galbraith's memoirs and essays and found myself wishing to turn the clock back 40 years to enjoy his company in person. Here we had an economist who was also an expert observer of human psychology, perhaps because, if one reads his memoirs carefully, he was treated psychiatrically himself for manic-depressive illness.


Here are some Galbraithian insights, some of which are paraphrased, mostly from his memoirs


On the no business meeting:  "Meetings are held because men seek companionship, or, at a minimum, wish to escape the tedium of solitary duties. They yearn for the prestige which accrues to the man who presides over meetings, and this leads them to convoke assemblages over which they can preside. Finally, there is the meeting which is called not because there is business to be done, but because it is necessary to create the impression that business is being done. Such meetings are more than a substitute for action. They are widely regarded as action...."

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On self-pride: 

"Nearly all of my colleagues and professional acquaintances, after conceding my affirmative qualifications, said that I had an unduly well-developed view of my own intellectual excellence....Years later when Newsweek wrote about me, JFK asked what I thought of it; I said I thought it was fine but I didn't see why they had to call me arrogant. I don't see why not, said the President, everybody else does."

"People in the world can be classified by the maximum length of time their thoughts are diverted from themselves."

On academics, politics, and truth:

"All academic disciplines have their feuds - intense conflicts much cherished by their participants and regularly combining differences in scholarly method or conclusion with deep personal dislike."


"With their salaries slipping, economics professors often seek outside income, and one obvious place of resort is the big corporation....Most sell out for a shockingly low sum, not being aware that a reputation can be sold only once or twice."


"Both scholarly and political life require criticism of others and invite attack or reprisal. Anyone who is initiating combat should, as a matter of elementary caution, gauge the extent and severity of the probable reaction and consider his defense. If attacked, he should promptly and strongly respond. This is vital. In the past it has been possible to attack academic people with impunity, for they are thought unlikely to react in a dangerous way. Their rule is to remain silent, ‘not to stir up the animals.' This is most unwise; a demonstrated capacity for reprisal serves valuably as a deterrent."  

"A professor is judged by his or her peers. These are omnipresent, always looking for scholarly competence and perception, or, more poignantly, their absence. So even a full professor...must always stand at attention....From this heightened sensitivity to scrutinizing peers comes a certain dulling of personality. No one can now afford to seem eccentric. Nor is the judgment above reproach. Professors considering and selecting others for promotion define excellence, perhaps inevitably, as that quality of mind and work that most resembles their own."


"The experience of being disastrously wrong is salutary; no economist should be denied it, and not many are. The best, most elegant and most applauded designs can fail, and greatly to your surprise if, in persuading others of their excellence, you have persuaded yourself."


"Scholarship in the social sciences is assessed by its depth and precision but also by the length of time it has required. A quickly completed job, regardless of quality, is bad. A five-year effort is good per se. A lifetime work, not quite finished at death, is superb."
'.

 

Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., M.P.H.,

is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. more...

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