Pernicious Milton Friedman

Milton FriedmanBaroque sculptor Alessandro Algardi was born on this day in 1598. Cuban composer Ignacio Cervantes was born in 1847. You can get an idea of the kind of stuff he wrote by listening to his Adios a Cuba. French modernist Jean Dubuffet was born in 1901.

Actor Michael Biehn is 57 today. Wesley Snipes is 51. And J. K. Rowling is 48.

The day, however, belongs to a man I’m none too fond of, Milton Friedman who was born on this day in 1912. There’s no doubt that he was a great economist. But he was far more influential as a popularizer of libertarianism. And in that capacity, he has pushed the thinking on the right to such an extent that now they would consider him a socialist who wants to steal everyone’s money via the Federal Reserve and its money printing.

The other thing about him is that the 2008 economic crisis showed that he was wrong about his greatest claim to fame. He supposedly showed that the Federal Reserve caused the Great Depression; if it had just increased the money supply all would have been well. That is exactly what has happened since 2008 and it hasn’t made two shits of difference. The only reason we aren’t in the same place as we were in the 1930s is because of automatic fiscal stimulus in the form of Social Security and Unemployment.

I also wonder about what Friedman would have said if he had lived to see the crisis of 2008. It is certainly the case that most of the people who followed in his footsteps came up with clever ways to justify themselves. I feel fairly certain that Friedman would have used his own remarkable mind to justify his old thinking rather than to adjust it.

Last year, I wrote about an interview in Jamie Johnson’s pathetic documentary The One Percent:

The film contains a number of interesting interviews. The best is with economist Milton Friedman. There were two aspects of it worth note. First, Friedman shows very clearly that his economic ideas are nothing more than religious faith. He argues that progressive taxation is socialism. This goes along with his work with Augusto Pinochet in Chile. As all of Friedman’s “free market” proposals failed, the reason was never the ideas themselves. It was always that the country wasn’t free market enough. This is a typically libertarian view that we saw very often after the financial collapse of 2008: the problem wasn’t deregulation, it was that there was still some regulation that was stopping the markets from working perfectly.

The second notable part of the interview gets to the heart of the problem with the whole film. Johnson really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. His arguments come down to nothing more than, “Don’t you think that maybe the rich are too rich?” Friedman pointed out that while the rich may have gotten much more wealthy over the last 30 years, the poor have at least seen some improvement in their standard of living. Johnson countered anemically that the gains should have been more equally shared. Why? He doesn’t seem to have an answer. The truth is that many of the poor have seen their standard of living decrease. But the more important point is not that the poor are better off, it is how much better the poor would be doing if, for example, we still had strong unions in this country. To Friedman it is just a given that if the rich got less there would be no innovation, no productivity growth. But Johnson could not counter him on this because he didn’t understand what he was talking about.

Anyway, despite having a pernicious effect on the whole of humanity, happy birthday Milton Friendman!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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