Today is J K Rowling’s 49th birthday and clearly the world is a better place because of it. I’ve tried to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and I have to say that I didn’t make it very far into it. Not really my kind of thing. It is, after all, written for grammar school children. What I find amazing is that a lot of adults like it. There is no accounting for taste. But I like the fact Rowling seems to be a decent person and even tried to publish a novel without getting massive sales based upon her name. So that’s all very nice. But since I don’t know much about her and don’t particularly want to know anything about her given I have a nice feeling about her and I don’t want to spoil it, I am not going to write about her for today’s birthday post.
Instead, I’m going to provide you with a slightly edited version of last year’s birthday post about probably the most pernicious academic of the twentieth century. That’s right, rather than write about the nice British lady, I am going to write about a nasty American man who symbolizes most of what is wrong with our shared country. A man who not only did great harm here, but also exported his pernicious ideology to other countries where countless were harmed, many dying many years before they would have. All of this happened because of ideas pushed by an ideological zealot.
On this day in 1912, the undoubtedly great economist Milton Friedman was born. The truth is, though, that being a good economist doesn’t mean you know anything about economics in the real world. The the Chicago School that he was so important in building shows that to this day. The people who have followed him tend to get lost in their models and mistake them for reality. I’ve seen it happen in my own field. And I think by the end, you could say the same thing about Friedman.
He was far more influential as a popularizer of libertarianism. That was especially true of the very disingenuous book he wrote with his wife, Free to Choose and then the PBS series Free to Choose. (It is amazing how much conservative propaganda the “liberal” PBS has pumped out over the years.) In this capacity, he 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. Of course, I figure if he were still alive, he’d be as crazy as they are. As he got older, his arguments became less grounded in economics and more like the thinking of a religious fanatic.
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; he claimed that if the Fed had just increased the money supply, all would have been well. That is exactly what the Fed has done since 2008 and you can see that it simply isn’t enough. 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—the very kinds of policies that Friedman was against.
I have long wondered 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. As it was, he was an adviser to Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Every time Friedman’s free market ideas failed to pan out, Friedman’s excuse was always, “It’s that the economy isn’t free enough!” This is, by the way, a common trick of libertarians and communists and, for that matter, any utopian thinker. There can never be the perfect system (whatever the ideologue might see it as), so there is never a way to disprove their theories. So if Friedman had still been alive in 2008, he probably would have been part of the chorus claiming that there was a crash because the deregulation didn’t go far enough.
The thing is that even though Milton Friedman was totally wrong about the main things he is now remembered for and even though he caused so much pain and suffering all over the world, he had a great life. And even in death, he is deified by modern conservatives, especially the libertarians. He considered himself an agnostic, which means that in his reality, there’s at least a reasonable chance that he is burning in hell. So there’s that.
Now that you’re dead, happy birthday Milton Friedman!