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A Tenured Professor Hardcover – February 21, 1990
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From Publishers Weekly
Twenty years have elapsed since the celebrated Harvard economist's last novel ( The Triumph ) but this succinct parable for our times, a rare comedy of point and precision, is well worth the wait. Harvard professor Montgomery Marvin, a clever, mild-mannered economist whose Ph.D thesis examined arcane aspects of refrigerator pricing, devises an approach to economics that he calls the Index of Irrational Expectations, based on the all-too-apparent notion that there is no limit to human folly when greed is the driving force. Buying stocks of irrationally inflated companies short, selling while the price is still high and replacing them cheap when the inevitable decline comes, Marvin and wife Marjie soon amass a fortune. Liberals at heart, they spend the money by endowing peace professorships at military schools and establishing countervailing PACs--money to support candidates for office opposing those helped by wealthy lobbyists. Only when they buy a major arms manufacturer and turn its efforts to peaceful purposes does the sacred defense establishment turn on them. This rueful tale is embellished with countless delightful asides on matters as various as Harvard academic manners and the proper behavior before Congressional committees.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Can a tenured professor of economics at Harvard, creator of a stock forecasting model, put his vast yields toward liberal causes without upsetting the prevailing political-economic system? Montgomery Marvin develops the Index of Irrational Expectations (IRAT) after studying the euphoria which accompanies investment, and with his activist wife Marjie he puts IRAT earnings to such uses as labeling products based on their makers' number of women executives; establishing chairs in peace studies at the military academies; and setting up PRCs (Political Rectitude Committees). In his first novel in 22 years, Galbraith shows that as a novelist, he is a fine economist. His language tends to be pretentious and his tone pedantic, with hints of condescension amid occasional wit and convoluted sentences which slow the pace. But he fits his scenario deftly into the present scene, providing a modern fable of some interest. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/89.
- Michele Leber, Fairfax Cty. P.L., Va.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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I suppose the start of this book is rather clunking, but never mind that. I was quite prepared to give it 5-star rating even if it had been just a tract thinly disguised as a novel, but in fact I think you may find that it gets better, just as a novel, as it goes along. The main characters develop genuine personalities, more than they do in the novels of even such a recognised practitioner of the genre `novel' as Arthur C Clarke. Like Clarke, Galbraith is out to teach as least as much as to entertain, and not unexpectedly we find the same awesome historical examples of dewy-eyed folly in both the Short History and the slightly longer work of fiction, about 200 pages of it. The tulip mania in 17th century Europe is related again, and so is the South Sea Bubble in the 18th. What Galbraith does not say this time round is something I shall say for him, namely that the power of irrational herd optimism was strong enough to overwhelm even the brains of Isaac Newton and the business acumen of George Frederick Handel, a supereminent genius mainly in another field certainly, but also his own hard-bitten impresario. Both were casualties of the ludicrous South Sea Bubble.
Just as the character-depiction improves, at the same time the style relaxes and we start to find the incomparable Galbraith wit again. I loved the account of Harvard social gatherings, whose participants never report anything anyone else said, only their own immortal dicta. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences are described as being widely viewed as the intellectual core of this great university, not least by the said Faculty; and the members of the Faculty of Law mention the grave ancients adorning the walls with a reverence only slightly greater than they accord themselves. We all know the style, and most of us love it. However the real sting is reserved for the conservative congressmen who are among Galbraith's familiar targets, joined on this occasion by the Securities and Exchange Commission. It's a pity Professor Galbraith did not live, in his 98 years, to read Harry Markopolos on the topic of this stately parade of dunces, but I recommend any readers of this notice to do just that.
Where ordinary satire shades off into outright travesty I'm not sure. Surely - I fervently hope - lack of due American optimism could not be a matter for official investigation, but the sheer rubbish spouted by self-serving patriots is well familiar to me from a lifetime of visiting the USA. In passing I might mention that Drs Thomas Balogh and Nicholas Kaldor, Hungarian economists recruited by the 1960's Labour Government in Britain, were actually nicknamed Buda and Pest, and the traitor misprinted as Blount was actually Blunt. In a book published in 1990 it's interesting to see the topic of short selling mentioned as an innovation, and while I have no idea whether investing in future market losses could really achieve the results depicted in the story, the idea seems little or not at all more fanciful than some of the outré instruments we have beheld recently.
Positive thinking, optimism and the rest of it are rubbished in this most entertaining short novel in the way they have been asking for and deserve. They are false gods, but powerful ones. All the way from the tulip mania to Black Monday we are left in no doubt that even if we think it unwise to defy them at least we should know better than to believe in them. Now, of course, in the short interval since Galbraith died, we have have had perhaps the most awe-inspiring demonstration yet of what they are able to make us perpetrate in the way of economic self-destruction. Galbraith, you should be living at this hour, but you came close enough, and you know how to tell the story, two books' worth of it.
Galbraith himself, aside from being a Professor Emeritus of economics at Harvard, has a great deal of familiarity with the country's political landscape, having been, among other things, a former US Ambassador to India. His familiarity with Washington politics in both parties comes through with striking clarity. At times he need only to refer to a Senator or Congressman obliquely for me to know exactly who he speaks of. Economically, as well, the book sparkles with a cynicism and perpetual questioning of whether or not economic interests control political ones. Even his academic knowledge is impressive - it's obviously that he is both very fond and somewhat sardonic of Harvard at the same time - but it is not so much a book about academics as it is about the direction of our country.
If it struggles anywhere, this book struggles with it's own style. Galbraith is obviously highly intelligent and an accomplished economist. He is not, however, first a novelist. This becomes apparent when he has to push the plot along from time to time in with forced dialogue or grope for it within his satirical meanderings. However, he has enough experience with the novel as a form that it never grinds to a halt.
In spite of it's form - or maybe because of it, this book does have an important comment to make about the interplay between politics and economics in the United States today. He does so so effectively, in fact, that you worry where satire leaves off and cynical reality begins. I found myself reading this book hoping for the former and worrying over the latter. I would recommend anyone with an interest in modern history or the process of government-running to read this and judge for themselves.