There are those who lift your spirits, and those who keep you on your toes.
Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, who celebrated his 96th birthday Friday, has lifted the spirits of generations of politicians, officials, economists, students and general readers around the world. He has also kept them on their toes.
When I had lunch recently with him and his wife of 67 years, Catherine, in their house just outside the Harvard campus, autumn was beginning and the great man was in fighting form, despite still being in a wheelchair after a recent illness.
He was also struggling with various deaf-aids, but the spirit was, as always, indomitable.
I was carrying a copy of his latest book, The Economics Of Innocent Fraud, in which he attacks politicians and the media for colluding "in the myths of a benign `market' that big business always knows best, that minimal intervention stimulates the economy, that obscene pay gaps and unrestrained self-enrichment are an inevitable by-product of the system."
It is, as he remarked, his "smallest book, but has taken the longest amount of time."
He had been working on it when we last met two years ago, but he rewrote in between stays in hospital, after the fallout from the Enron crisis proved a dramatic illustration of his thesis that there is nothing that unfettered chief executives will not do to feather their own nests.
Before signing my copy, Galbraith drew my attention to the illustration on the cover.
"This is the roughest thing I've ever had on a book of mine," he said, "An executive briefcase scattering bombs!"
In a world where U.S. foreign policy in Iraq has been dictated by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others with strong corporate links, Galbraith, who has campaigned about the power of large corporations since The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967), is sticking to his guns, as it were.
Galbraith, following seminal British economist John Maynard Keynes, writes like a dream, and reading The Affluent Society was one of the factors that led a number of my generation to study economics.
As Catherine Galbraith offered a glass of sherry, the professor boomed: "I'm still partly crippled, but alcohol is still remedial."
Then, before I could ask a question, he sailed in.
"Let's start with a few problems I have. Is Blair in trouble?"
I said he ought to be, but it might be wishful thinking on my part, and reminded him of Lord Hailsham's dictum that the British political system is an "elective dictatorship."
Galbraith continued: "It's a strange political calculation of his to stay for so long in support of George Bush. Why did he do that?"
I said his bafflement was shared by many back in Britain.
In Galbraith's view, the French are more in tune with reality.
"Politics must take account not only of the position of the government but also of the forces behind it, and Blair does not have the support of the articulate in the U.S."
He added: "And that is the group which has always thought well of a certain allied relationship with Britain."
At this stage, I tried to move the conversation back to The Economics Of Innocent Fraud and get him to say something about Conrad Black, his fellow Canadian, with whom I recalled he had not been too enamoured on a previous occasion. But he would not be moved.
"Why has Britain been so tolerant of George Bush and his gang?"
He smiled, adding: "I always interview the reporter."
I did my best to answer this. He then said that perhaps it was partly because "a lot of things important to the U.S. do not have the same repercussions in Britain."
Warming to his theme, he said: "This is a crude government, and its crude misdirection of power in minor things has more direct impact domestically than abroad."
"One of the worst things — unimaginable in Britain — is the open character of legislation for the rich, particularly on taxation, and the open resistance to support for the poor.
"When income tax reductions" — he pauses and revises "reductions" to "slashes" — "were put into effect, they were combined with this warning: `Let's not open the way for a softer policy for the poor and the unemployed' — a softer policy that in Keynesian terms might have been a more important factor in alleviating the recession."
Many people enter their "anecdotage" at ages much younger than Galbraith's. Although he was happy to reminisce, he kept returning to the gravity of the American and world scene.
"We are seeing the disintegration of the American economic and wider world role, which could well continue after this election. I am talking about the passage of power to the Rumsfelds of the economic and political structure."
In his new book, Galbraith points out that, in the fiscal year 2003, "close to half the total of U.S. government discretionary expenditure (outlay not mandated for particular use, such as social security or service of the public debt) was used for military purposes — for defence, as more favourably it is called."
In one sense, as he acknowledges, little has changed since Dwight Eisenhower warned in the 1950s of a "military-industrial complex."
Galbraith gave a dire warning of what would happen if George W. Bush were re-elected:
"Under the thrust of power of present forces, including the money-making powers, there's going to be a continuing and disastrous decline" in America.
"The Rumsfelds and the Cheneys will still be there, and anyone with a grasp of world history should be here to report it."
He smiled and added: "Why don't you do that?"
The great man feels passionately.
"In all my 90-odd years, I've never had such a clear view of the future," he said, adding with a twinkle in his eye, "with still, of course, the possibility of being wrong."
But only the possibility.
"I have a feeling that not since the end of World War II have we had such a time when the role of wisdom, action and misunderstanding in the U.S. has such worldwide consequences."
With that, he was assisted into a chair that hoisted him up the stairs, as if on a domestic funicular railway, for his nap.
As he disappeared from sight he called out: "There's just one more thing."
His nurse brought down a bumper sticker with a picture of George W. Bush. The slogan: "Some things were never meant to be recycled."
© 2004 Toronto Star