Mamet Was Opened to Friedman, Hayek, and Sowell by a Guy Who “Wasn’t Strident or Arrogant”

I often wonder what sort of person, making what sort of argument, is most able to convince those who start out disagreeing. My mentors Ben Rogge and Deirdre McCloskey exemplify the attitude that impressed David Mamet in the passage quoted below. (On the other hand, Murray Rothbard, Karl Marx, and Ayn Rand convinced a lot of people, and each of them could sometimes be strident. I wonder still.)

(p. A11) . . . I received a galley copy of the playwright David Mamet’s “Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of Free Lunch,” published Tuesday. The book is a collection of essays written over the past two years on an array of cultural and political topics: pandemic zealotry, Donald Trump, terrorism, California’s punitive tax code, Christianity and Judaism, Broadway and the movies. The essays are by turns witty, insightful, affecting and cryptic. What struck me most about the book, though, was how superbly out of place its author must be in the eminent environs of his chosen industry.

. . .

Mr. Mamet announced a turn to the political right in a 2008 essay for the Village Voice, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal,’ ” but he was a black sheep long before then. His 1992 play “Oleanna,” for instance, features a male academic whose life and career are ruined by a calculating female student’s spurious accusation of sexual harassment.

Was there a moment when he decided to break ranks altogether? “I met a guy at my synagogue here maybe 20 years ago,” he says. “He was talking about Milton Friedman and [Friedrich] Hayek and Thomas Sowell. It didn’t make any sense to me, but I was impressed by his attitude. He wasn’t strident or arrogant. It was that guy’s attitude that impressed me.”

The man lent Mr. Mamet some books by these authors. “I said to him, ‘Good, I’ll read them. But,’ I said, ‘when my friends come over, I’ll have to hide them.’ He said: ‘I don’t.’ And that changed my life. What was I saying? Did I really think I had to hide books from my friends? How sick was I? It was a Road to Damascus moment.”

. . .

Woke signaling, blind compliance with public-health authoritarianism, deference to theater critics and tyrannical city officials—Mr. Mamet doesn’t play along. I’m reminded of the line spoken by Richard Roma, the aggressive and highly successful real-estate salesman in “Glengarry Glen Ross” played by Al Pacino in the 1992 film adaptation. “I subscribe to the law of contrary public opinion,” Roma says. “If everyone thinks one thing, then I say bet the other way.”

For the full interview, see:

Barton Swaim, interviewer. “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; A Defiant Scribe in the Age of Conformity.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 9, 2022): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 8, 2022, and has the title “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Opinion: David Mamet Is a Defiant Scribe in the Age of Conformity.”)

Mamet’s recent book, mentioned in the interview above, is:

Mamet, David. Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch. New York: Broadside Books, 2022.

Rogge and Friedman on Bread and Freedom

At the start and end of the movie above, you can hear the voice and thoughts of my Wabash College mentor Ben Rogge. His interview of Milton Friedman at the end is especially wonderful if you are a libertarian fan of Rogge and Friedman. I believe Rogge had an important hand in the production of this movie, as he did in a couple of movies from Liberty Fund. I think he also advised Milton Friedman on his famous “Free to Choose” television series. Rogge was a libertarian intellectual entrepreneur, who encouraged and enabled many now-more-famous libertarians to think, write, and speak. Whether he is remembered or forgotten, Rogge made a difference.

The movie is based on the book of the same title:

Brown, Susan Love, Karl Keating, David Mellinger, Patrea Post, Stuart Smith, and Catriona Tudor. The Incredible Bread Machine. San Diego: World Research, Inc., 1975.

(Note: the book is based on a poem by R.W. Grant that had the title “Tom Smith and His Incredible Bread Machine.” I believe, but have not confirmed my memory, that a version of Grant’s poem appears in the book by Love et al.)

University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman Center Now Run by “Former Obama Staffers Who Cheer” . . . “Moves Toward Socialism”

(p. A15) Colleges’ ideological turn leftward has become sharper. At my own institution, a center dedicated to Milton Friedman is now run by former Obama staffers who cheer on the Biden administration’s moves toward socialism.

These policies reward professors and administrators who can then raise the price of their services. It’s basic economics that subsidizing demand increases the price of the product. Tuition rising as loan subsidies expand is no different. It isn’t a coincidence that education and health care, the industries in which government subsidies are most pervasive, took the highest price increases over the past 15 years—3.7% and 3.1% a year, compared with the 1.8% average across industries.

For the full commentary, see:

Tomas J. Philipson. “College Subsidies Are a Feedback Loop for Bigger Government.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 11, 2021): A15.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 10, 2021, and has the title “College Subsidies Are a Feedback Loop for Bigger Government.”)

Milton Friedman Will Be Vindicated on China

I was lucky to be able to take Milton Friedman’s Price Theory graduate course the last time he taught a full version of it. (I think he taught an abbreviated version a year or two later.) He was, and remains, one of my heroes. He predicted that China’s move to the market would also lead it to more political freedom. I suspect that he will still turn out to be correct, but with a longer delay than he or I thought likely. A dynamic economy depends on innovative entrepreneurship and innovative entrepreneurship depends on freedom of thought and speech. Xi is systematically destroying freedom of thought and speech in China; the house of cards will fall and Milton will be vindicated in the end.

(p. A15) “I predict that China will move increasingly toward political freedom if it continues its successful move to economic freedom.”

So spoke Milton Friedman in 2003. It seemed a good idea at the time, especially after the transformations of the dictatorships in Taiwan and South Korea into messy but functioning democracies.

. . .

Under Mr. Xi, Beijing has carried out genocide against China’s Uyghur minority, threatened Taiwan with invasion, shut down a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, covered up the origins of Covid-19, and so on. Even so, China’s economy continues to boom—it grew more than 18% in the first quarter from a year earlier—and Friedman now looks to have gotten it colossally wrong about capitalism and freedom.

For the full commentary, see:

William McGurn. “Milton Friedman Wrong About China?” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, June 29, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 28, 2021, and has the title “Was Milton Friedman Wrong About China?”)

To Force Gaffney to Retire at Age 65, They Only Let Him Teach Intro Courses; So He Taught Intro Courses Until Age 89

(p. B11) Professor Gaffney died at 96 on July 16 at Loma Linda University Medical Center, not far from the University of California, Riverside, where he taught economics for 37 years.  . . .

Taxing land is less intrusive than taxing income or estates, Professor Gaffney taught, drawing on Henry George’s influential 1879 book, “Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry Into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want With Increase of Wealth: The Remedy,” reportedly the best-selling popular book in America in the 1890s.

. . .

The idea that land creates a natural economic surplus that can be taxed with minimal economic damage has drawn supporters from across the political spectrum.

Winston Churchill declared in 1910 that the “land monopoly is not the only monopoly, but it is by far the greatest of monopolies — it is a perpetual monopoly, and it is the mother of all other forms of monopoly.”

The economist Milton Friedman, another conservative, called the land-value tax “the least bad tax.”

And Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and Labour Party leader, urged a land-only tax as a “fairer and more rational system of property taxation.”

The idea has never been widely embraced by lawmakers, though. Only about 20 communities in Pennsylvania impose a version of the land-value tax concept. It has also been applied in parts of Australia and Taiwan.

. . .

Mason Gaffney enrolled at Harvard University in 1941. Drafted in 1944, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Army Air Forces and served in radio communications in New Guinea and the Philippines until 1946.

Returning to civilian life, he transferred to Reed College in Oregon to complete his bachelor’s degree, unhappy that his professors at Harvard knew little of Henry George’s work. He then moved to the University of California, Berkeley, to get his doctorate.

. . .

He started teaching at the University of California, Riverside, in 1976. He once said in an interview that as he was about to turn 65 he was pressured to retire. He refused, he said, and was told he had to teach Econ 101.

“I was delighted,” he said. “I got a chance to indoctrinate students about economic theories so they weren’t stunted by the standard neoclassical texts.”

He retired in 2013, at 89.

For the full obituary, see:

David Cay Johnston. “Mason Gaffney, 96, Economics Professor Who Argued for Taxing Only Land, Not Buildings.” The New York Times (Thursday, July 30, 2020): B11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date July 26, and has the title “Mason Gaffney, Who Argued for Taxing Only Land, Dies at 96.”)

The influential book by Henry George mentioned above is:

George, Henry. Progress and Poverty. 5th ed. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881.

“Publicly Held Companies Will Play the Political Game”

(p. A11) Mr. Chitester was probably the only PBS or NPR station manager who didn’t believe public radio and television should receive subsidies from American taxpayers. But he had a skill in short supply among the pro-capitalist intellectual class: He knew how to popularize free-market ideas, which many thought couldn’t be done on television.

He confesses that he isn’t sure he’d even heard of Friedman when Wallis put the two in touch. But Mr. Chitester says he devoured Friedman’s 1962 book, “Capitalism and Freedom,” and went to meet Milton and his wife, fellow economist and collaborator, Rose, at their San Francisco apartment.

An hour into the conversation, Mr. Chitester brought up a section in the book where Friedman talks about the responsibility of business—also the theme of Friedman’s famous 1970 New York Times essay, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” Mr. Chitester described his dilemma: “I said to Milton, based on your philosophy, I shouldn’t be asking companies for money, and if they take your advice, they’re not going to give me any.”

“Bob, don’t worry about it,” Friedman reassured him. “Businessmen don’t like me anyway.” The economist elaborated. “He said private owners—those who own their own companies—they will be sympathetic. But corporations and publicly held companies will play the political game.” In other word, they’d be shy about supporting such a project lest it hurt them when seeking government funding.

. . .

. . . [Chitester] offers two suggestions for those dreaming about doing what he did.

“First,” he says, “you have to be a storyteller. Think of the people that have had meteoric rises to celebrity. They’ve been excellent storytellers. Free-market preachers if you will.”

. . .

. . . [second] to hopefully get people to think at least initially that I’m a nice person,” he says. “Because if they don’t think I’m a nice person, there’s nothing on the face of the earth I can do that will likely persuade them to listen to what I have to say.”

For the full interview, see:

William McGurn, interviewer. “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; The Man Who Made Milton Friedman a Star.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Oct 31, 2020): A11.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed words, added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date Oct. 30, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

The Friedman book mentioned in the passage quoted above is:

Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Leo Szilard Was “Ever-Resourceful”

I remember Milton Friedman, in an aside during his price theory class at Chicago, telling us that Leo Szilard used to walk up to him as he walked across campus, and articulately raise some issue in economics. Friedman was clearly impressed with the range of Szilard’s mind. My thought was ‘what’s the big deal about this guy Leo Szilard?’ Since then I have learned that he indeed was a big deal, at least for fans of the survival of Western civilization.

(p. 12) Fatefully, the Fermis sailed from Italy the same week that two Berlin radiochemists discovered nuclear fission.

That discovery was totally unexpected. In spring 1939, working at Columbia with the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, Fermi set out to answer a crucial question about it. Uranium atoms release a burst of energy when they fission, enough per atom to make a grain of sand visibly jump. But what then? Was there a way to combine those individual fissions, to turn a small burst into a mighty roar?

Szilard, ever-resourceful, acquired hundreds of pounds of black, greasy uranium-oxide powder from a Canadian mining corporation. Fermi and his students packed the powder into pipe-like tin cans and arranged them equally spaced in a circle within a large tank of water mixed with powdered manganese. At the center of the arrangement they placed a neutron source.

Neutrons from the source, slowed down by the water, would penetrate the uranium atoms in the cans and induce fissions. If the fissioning atoms released more neutrons, those “secondary” neutrons would irradiate the manganese. Measuring the radioactivity induced in the manganese would tell Fermi if the fissions were multiplying. If so, then a chain reaction might be possible, one bombarding neutron splitting a uranium atom and releasing two neutrons, those two splitting two other uranium atoms and releasing four, the four releasing eight, and so on in a geometric progression that could potentially produce vast amounts of energy for power — or for an atomic bomb. The experiment worked.

For the full review, see:

Richard Rhodes. “Quantifying the World.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, January 28, 2018): 12.

(Note: italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 24, 2018, and has the title “A Remarkable Man Among Remarkable Men and Women.”)

The book under review is:

Schwartz, David N. The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Fauci Criticizes Russia for Allowing Citizens to Take Covid-19 Vaccine After Passing Phase 2 Safety Trials

Milton Friedman thought that, at the very least, the FDA should allow Americans the freedom to choose to take drugs or vaccines after their safety has been established (basically meaning after passing the Phase 2 safety trials). Isn’t it strange that in the FDA’s United States, citizens may not do so, but in Putin’s authoritarian Russia, citizens are allowed that choice?

(p. A4) In a panel discussion, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infections disease expert, criticized Russia’s rushed clearance of a coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine, called Sputnik V, was approved without evidence that Phase 3 clinical trials had been completed, an essential part of the development pipeline to prove a product is safe and effective in people.

. . .

Dr. Fauci called attention to the many other coronavirus vaccines vying for eventual clearance, including several that are in Phase 3 trials in the United States. The process for testing vaccines can last months and usually involves thousands of people.

“So if we wanted to take the chance of hurting a lot of people or giving them something that doesn’t work, we could start doing this, you know, next week if we wanted to,” Dr. Fauci said. “But that’s not the way this works.”

For the full story, see:

Barron, James. “Coronavirus Update.” The New York Times (Thursday, August 11, 2020): A4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated August 14, 2020, and has the title “U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Reflects Sun Belt Outbreaks.” Where there are slight differences in wording between the versions in the passages quoted, the online version appears above. The online version does not list an author. I cite James Barron, who is listed as the author in the print version.)

Outspoken Admirer of Friedman and Hayek Disappears in Communist China

(p. A19) The disappearance of Mr. Ren, a longtime critic of the Chinese government, adds to fears that China is sliding backward and abandoning the reforms that saved it from extreme poverty and international isolation. Mr. Ren was no radical — he was a decades-long loyal Communist Party member, the former leader of a state-run company and a friend to some of China’s most powerful politicians. He emerged in what now seems a distant time, from the 1980s to the period before Mr. Xi became top leader, when the party brooked no challenge to its rule but allowed some individuals to question some of its choices.

Mr. Ren’s fate remains unclear. But if he was punished for his writing, it suggests China’s leadership won’t tolerate criticism no matter how justified it might be.

. . .

He was influenced by free-market economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. He believed government control needed to be checked.

“State power in any country is greedy, so it needs to be subject to public supervision,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Otherwise, the power will be abused and everybody will suffer from it.”

. . .

In 2011, near the peak of China’s openness to new ideas, Mr. Ren, an avid reader, started a book club. It drew China’s top entrepreneurs, intellectuals and government officials. Books included Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” The events became so popular that people had to apply through a lottery system to join. Some people flew to Beijing from all over the country to attend.

Mr. Ren said his goal was to help China’s young generation develop independent thinking so it would not follow the orders of authority slavishly. The government said no to some topics and speakers, but left it largely alone.

By early 2016, he had nearly 38 million followers on Weibo. But party attitudes toward expression were changing.

That same year, Mr. Xi declared that all Chinese news media had to serve the party. No Chinese leader since Mao Zedong had made that obligation so explicit. Mr. Ren shot back on Weibo, writing that the news media should serve the people, not the party, or the people would suffer.

Retribution was swift. His Weibo account was deleted. His party membership was suspended for a year. His passport was taken away. Members of his family weren’t allowed to leave the country. He faced constant investigations and interrogations.

. . .

Then came the coronavirus outbreak. When doctors working with the disease tried to publicly warn China about the outbreak, they were threatened by government officials. For Mr. Ren, friends said, this confirmed his argument that a media that serves the party couldn’t serve the people.

“Without a media representing the interests of the people by publishing the actual facts,” he wrote in the essay that circulated this year, “people’s lives are being ravaged by both the virus and the major illness of the system.”

He shared the essay with a few friends. Three days after his 69th birthday, he disappeared. His assistant and his son have disappeared, too.

For the full commentary, see:

Li Yuan. “THE NEW NEW WORLD; A Longtime Party Insider Vanishes, in a Blow to China’s Future.” The New York Times (Wednesday, April 1, 2020): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated April 2, 2020, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; A Loyal Chinese Critic Vanishes, in a Blow to the Nation’s Future.”)