John Kenneth Galbraith was as much of an American success story with his Canadian-style economics as Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Michael J. Fox are with their Canadian humour.
But Galbraith, who died last week, lived such a charmed life - teaching at Harvard, advising several U.S. presidents (and skewering more), writing 33 books, organizing against the Vietnam War, getting prime minister Pierre Trudeau labelled a Communist for some of his Galbraith-inspired musings on his 1970s wage and price controls, afflicting the comfortable with a book written in his 95th year - that it's no easy matter explaining his Canadian farm boy roots.
Galbraith was born in 1908, the same year the first Model T - the first mass-produced anything - came on the market. Almost as unimaginable, he was born into a humble but politically active farm family in southern Ontario at a time when Canadian farmers were on the cutting edge of social and political radicalism.
Those who worked the land led the way on women's right to vote, international peace and disarmament, and the need for public ownership and government spending to stimulate the economy, and much more.
Reform-minded farmer politicians had already been elected en masse to the Ontario government during the 1890s and would form the province's farmer-labour government of the 1920s. In a still later blaze of Saskatchewan glory, they would back Tommy Douglas and medicare during the 1940s and 50s. They showed a political feistiness hard to think possible in today's dour Tory countryside.
Strange but true, Canadian radicalism is unusual in the world by virtue of its strong early roots in militantly radical farm protest. This is one reason why the CCF, forerunner of today's NDP, stood for the Co-operative Commonwealth, nothing so bland as social democracy, and nothing so weak-kneed as what most Americans call Galbraith: a liberal.
Aside from the short distance that popular memory travels, the task of tracking Galbraith's Canadian farm roots is complicated by his treacherous sarcasm and joy at dissing the establishment, traits few Canadians have any familiarity with.
Galbraith writes dotingly in his autobiography, The Scotch, about the neighbours he grew up with in Iona Station near Lake Erie. But when he received an honorary doctorate from the London School of Economics in 1990, he recalled the monotonous toil of his boyhood farm chores.
And he toasted one of the achievements of the 20th century - the general escape from what Marx called the idiocy of rural life. He also dissed the agricultural university at Guelph, which did not meet Harvard standards when Galbraith, a respected member of the university's stock and meat judging team, graduated from the animal husbandry program there in 1931.
Galbraith's biographer doesn't make finding his Canadian roots any easier. Though Richard Parker, author of John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, has written an outstanding study, he brings to the task little more than a typical American's understanding of Canada.
At one point, for instance, Parker speculates on where Galbraith's fam-ously mordant sense of humour came from. Was it from Britain's Oscar Wilde or America's Mark Twain?, Parker wonders. How about thinking the unthinkable, eh? Could it have come from the land of Stephen Leacock, Canada's most famous economist and humourist, in the years when Galbraith was growing up?
In 1920, when Galbraith was entering his teen years, Leacock wrote The Unsolved Riddle Of Social Justice, an economist's call for fairness that set the bar fairly high for Galbraith.
Biographer Parker is likewise amazed at the casually un-American way Galbraith linked economics with political power. The long-standing norm in the U.S. is that economics is a hard science, every bit as mathematical as physics. The laws governing the market and huge corporations are as far removed from political power as the laws governing gravity, the liturgy goes.
Someone from a less narcissistic nation might have noted that Canadian universities commonly had departments of political economy, not economics, until the 1950s Cold War.
And anyone fortunate enough to have read Canadian farm periodicals of the 1910s and 20s (yes, I confess) would know that "political economy" rolled off the tongue of garden-variety business analysts of the time.
"The crisis of overproduction" was a commonplace of radical Canadian farm and labour thought throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when Galbraith studied farm economics.
The argument was that capitalist efficiency produced more than could ever be consumed by reasonable people. And since the poor had no money to buy anything, workers lost their jobs unless government stepped in and financed public works for the public good.
In his most famous book, The Affluent Society, written in 1958, Galbraith did a biting and brilliant job of linking private wealth and public squalor. A decade before modern environmen-talism, he named the inability of conventional wisdom (his phrase) to get beyond the obsession with growth and start dealing with the coming crisis of managing abundance.
It takes nothing away from Galbraith to say that such thoughts were the everyday unconventional wisdom of the Canadian farm and labour movements of his youth.
Almost 50 years after his prophecy, a planet suffocating in garbage, pollution, junk food and obesity needs to rediscover what Galbraith knew by second nature from growing up in a farm community.