Tag Archives: The Dismal Science

The New Leader. 84.6 (November-December 2001): p2.

GEORGE P. BROCKWAY, who initiated the NL column called “The Dismal Science” and presided over it for almost two decades, died on October 5. He was 85 years old.George P Brockway

An imposing figure, Brockway tended to dress conservatively, although you could detect a bit of whimsy in his bow ties, soon confirmed by a quiet sense of humor. His voice was unexpectedly soft, but you also quickly recognized that he knew where he was coming from and where he wanted to go.

Brockway was born and brought up in Portland, Maine; his parents were rock-ribbed New England Republicans. During one of our periodic lunches with him, we wondered how a reputedly tough bargainer who had built one of the country’s major independent publishing houses came to have an unabashedly strong liberal commitment. While a student at Exeter, he explained, he was asked by the school magazine to take the Herbert Hoover side in an exchange on the 1932 Presidential election. Given his family’s politics, he eagerly accepted the assignment. “But after reading what I had written,” he said, “I realized I didn’t believe a damn word of it.”

At Williams College Brockway majored in English and was editor of the literary magazine. The teacher he felt had the greatest influence on his thinking, though, was a philosopher of history, John William Miller, who focused on the interrelation of man and nature. Since a sheepskin and a Phi Beta Kappa key did not automatically open the door to a job in 1936, Brockway spent a year at Yale on a graduate fellowship before joining McGraw-Hill as a trade book salesman.

In 1941 he signed on as William Warder[1] Norton’s assistant at the prestigious, growing W.W. Norton and Company. Besides selling books, in relatively short order he was editing prominent writers, developing the Norton Anthology series, and shrewdly buying up the backlists of other firms. By 1958 he was named president, and in 1976 he became chairman of the now wholly employee-owned company, structured to resist the advances of corporate raiders.

What Brockway did not anticipate was Reaganomics, whose highflying inflation and 21 per cent loan rates threatened Norton’s collapse. Despite discovering that he didn’t really have a friend at Chase Manhattan, he somehow managed to overcome the crisis. Then, on the train home one night, he decided he didn’t want to do what he was doing anymore and would retire at the end of 1983, at age 66. But first he set about carving out a second career. Thus the query we received from him asking if we would consider a regular column “on what used to be called political economy.” Familiar with his writing from several pieces he had done for us over the years, and pleased with two sample columns he submitted, we said yes.

“The Dismal Science” began its 20-year run in the NL of January 11, 1982. Brockway’s relaxed conversational style, and his daring to insist, for example, that an economic recovery with 6 or 8 or 10 per cent unemployment is not a recovery, instantly won him an appreciative audience. Even those infuriated by his central thesis–that “economics is a branch of ethics, not of natural science”–could not resist reading him. In these pages, of course, that will no longer be possible. But we would note that a thoroughly revised, handsome fourth edition of his second book, The End of Economic Man, has recently been issued. His two other books on the subject, Economists Can Be Bad for Your Health and Economics: What Went Wrong and Why and Some Things to Do About It, are also available.

We will miss his demystifying wisdom and his collaboration, but most of all we will miss George Pond Brockway’s friendship.


[1] Ed.:  In error The New Leader wrote “Walter Norton’s assistant.”  The name was William Warder Norton, or W.W. Norton


Dear Editor

‘Dismal’ Pleasures

George P. Brockway has been one of the most enjoyable writers in THE NEW LEADER lately. The installments of “The Dismal Science” demonstrate wit, erudition – not that I always agree with him – and a refreshing willingness to question the assumptions that lie behind the experts’ arguments.

Brockway’s appreciative comments on John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, were excellent. (“Rereading Galbraith,” NL, June 13). They reminded me of the wrangling that greeted the publication of The Affluent Society. Much of the controversy centered on Galbraith’s observations about advertising, about “the contriving of wants” in order to increase production.

Galbraith’s case is convincing, and yet even the people who agree with his conception of the role Madison Avenue plays in our economy continue to wrongly believe that consumer choices guide production. This myopia simply shows the need for more of the kind of illumination that is shed by Brockway’s columns.

Dayton, Ohio                                                                                                                  RONALD LAMBRETH

Originally published February 21, 1983

Between Issues

IT IS NOT uncommon for NEW LEADER writers who have something penetrating to say, and a gift for saying it well, to find themselves pursued by publishers bearing book contracts. The most energetic chase we were responsible for setting off, if memory does not deceive, occurred some two decades ago when we presented a piece by a young man who was then a Congressional fellow. The biographical note accompanying the article mentioned that it was adapted from a chapter of a book the author was working on, and no fewer than five major houses quickly expressed their interest. Viking won the prize – Ronald Steel’s The End of Alliance.

More typically, an individual publisher or senior editor will come upon a piece in the magazine that sparks an idea for fuller treatment. Early one morning, to cite a random example, an excited Alfred A. Knopf telephoned. He had been reading THE NEW LEADER at 3 A.M. as was his wont, he explained, when he came across an article that especially appealed to him and he wanted to talk to the writer about doing a book related to the subject. The piece was on Brazil; the author was John Mander, actually our man in London at the time who happened to be doing some traveling. Soon an agreement was reached that culminated in dinner at the Knopf “farm” in Purchase, New York, and Mander’s well received The Unrevolutionary Society: The Power of Latin American Conservatism.

Among other publishers who have kept a sharp eye on these pages over the years, one is Knopf’s neighbor in Purchase,

Roger W. Straus J r. of Farrar, Straus, Giroux. Another is George P. Brockway of W. W. Norton and Company. So we couldn’t resist a few thoughts on things coming full circle upon hearing the news that is the occasion for our comments here: Harper and Row has signed Brockway to do a book inspired by his column appearing in alternate issues of the NL, “The Dismal Science.”

As readers of this space know, Norton’s Chairman of the Board came to his present avocation out of frustration with inflation, high interest rates and Federal Reserve policy. That started his “reading everything I could get my hands on” in an area previously of little formal interest to him. His new preoccupation also resulted in a spate of pieces that drew unusual attention, and led-in the NL of January 11, 1982 – to the launching of the column that has consistently attracted even greater response.

An item in Publishers Weekly reports that Brockway’s book will be published under the Cornelia and Michael Bessie imprint, and continues: “Mike Bessie says the work is ‘intelligible economics’; the author says it’s ‘quirky and offbeat.'” We would say both are right, as Brockway’s thoughts on “Frictional Unemployment,” coming up in our next issue, will again demonstrate.

OUR COVER drawing of Michael Straight, whose new book happens to published by Norton, is by Claudia Fouse.

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