Memories of Milton Friedman

By David L. Brown

In the Spring of 1969 — gosh, could that actually be 37 years ago! — I had the rare pleasure of spending a half hour in conversation with the great economist Milton Friedman in his office on the University of Chicago campus. Friedman, who died yesterday in San Francisco, was known as the leading proponent of monetary and price theory that drove the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions. He won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1976.

I was able to share a bit of time with this famous man as a result of having an assignment to photograph him for a magazine. (I don’t even remember the name of the publication, but at that time I was covering Chicago for McGraw Hill World News as a freelance.) My memory of Friedman has lingered all these years because I found him to be a warm and human personality. It took only a few moments to shoot a roll or two of Tri-X with my Leica rangefinder cameras, but then instead of dismissing me, Dr. Friedman invited me to sit down for a chat. Thus my half hour of conversation with this already-famous man.

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Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman

I had recently returned from a trip to Europe, and we discussed current events on the Continent and in particular (surprise!) the monetary news concerning the German Mark, Swiss Franc, and British Pound. Friendly and warm, Friedman appeared to treat me almost as an equal, listening politely to my (no doubt simplistic) comments and responding with patience and apparent interest. It was a fine feeling to have engaged in conversation one-on-one with this renowned economist.

The memory of that encounter stirred back to life in the filing cabinets of my brain this morning when I learned of his death at 94. Unfortunately, the U.S. press did not seem particularly interested in this news, preferring to report at length about the passing of some football coach and the latest about O.J. Simpson. However, this evening I found an obituary on the web site of the Times of London (here) that bears quoting:

Although the quantum change in economic debates towards neoclassical, anti- Keynesian assumptions was not solely his achievement — Friedrich Hayek and Robert Lucas were also among a group who influenced the shift over several decades — it was Friedman who by 1980 supplanted Keynes as the world’s most influential economist.

He became better known than his peers less because of his academic contribution (which was certainly substantial) than from his promotion by right-wing political lobbyists as a credible pundit to validate their cause. With postwar Keynesianism (recommending expansionary policy to maintain full employment) discredited by economic crisis, a neo-classical alternative (warning that governments could do little to boost economic fortune) had become easier to advance.

But it needed a non-political, intellectual champion. This role Friedman amply filled. The chance to challenge Keynesianism had been evident from the mid-1960s, when simultaneously rising inflation and unemployment were countering previously held assumptions that a trade-off existed between the two negative indicators. Friedman emphasised research also being undertaken by his fellow economist, Edmund Phelps, and claimed that the commonly held inflation/unemployment trade-off was in the long run false.

Friedman was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution from 1977 until his death. He was also the Paul Snowden Russell Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1946 to 1976, and a member of the research staff of the National Bureau of Economic Research from 1937 to 1981.

According to his biography on the Hoover Institution web site (here), Friedman “was widely regarded as the leader of the Chicago School of monetary economics, which stresses the importance of the quantity of money as an instrument of government policy and as a determinant of business cycles and inflation.”

I offer my regards in memory of a great man who was willing to share a moment of conversation with a young man those many years ago. His kindness and warmth are fondly remembered.

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