The Courage of Milton Friedman

 

The following two paragraphs are from a paper I am currently working on.

 

Milton Friedman wrote a Newsweek column many years ago that caused a firestorm of anger among his colleagues in the economics profession. Friedman’s argument was that, in general, the government is not going to do a good job of identifying the best and most productively innovative economists. In particular, he argued that economics funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF) had made the economics profession more mathematical than was appropriate.

Even his ‘Chicago’ colleagues, who were otherwise inclined to be sympathetic to his work, were appalled: Robert Lucas wrote against Friedman in the New York Times, and Zvi Griliches spoke against him before Congress. 

 

Not too long after Friedman’s article came out, I praised it during one of the sessions of a Liberty Fund colloquium held in California.  After the session, a very distinguished economist came up to me, and started talking about the Friedman article in a very irritated and animated manner.  He said that what Friedman wrote in the article, might be true, but he shouldn’t have written it in a public forum.[i]  He said that within the NSF, the physicists have always been opposed to funding economics, and that Friedman’s article gave the physicists just the ammunition they needed.  I remember distinctly that after this conversation, the distinguished economist got into his very large and very expensive car and drove off.  To the cynical, it may also be worth mentioning that this economist had received very substantial funding from the NSF.

I also remember mentioning to George Stigler my disappointment that Lucas had written contra Friedman, and Stigler gave me his cynical smile, and said that I should have expected that Lucas, and the rest of the profession, would defend NSF funding.


[i] Most of the conversation I remember in broad terms, but specifically, I remember he said something very close to:  ‘Friedman shouldn’t air the profession’s dirty laundry in public.’

 

The reference for the Friedman article, is: 

Friedman, Milton.  "An Open Letter on Grants."  Newsweek, May 18 1981, 99.

“A Triumph of Engaged Amateurism”

 

Steven Johnson has a great passage on the contribution of the amateur in The Ghost Map story (see below).

This is a theme that resonates.  In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson makes the case for amateurs in astronomy.  (Is it he, who points out that the root of the word "amateur" is to love?)

Stigler had an important early paper in which he discusses the professionalization of the economics profession.  He praises the results, but what he presents provides some grist for the mill of criticism too.  For example, the exit of the amateurs, reduced the applicability of the work, and turned research more toward internal puzzle-solving, and model-building.

The web is a leveler in science, as suggested in an NBER paper.  Maybe the result will be a resurgence of amateurism, and maybe that won’t be all bad.

 

(p. 202)  But Broad Street should be understood not just as the triumph of rogue science, but also, and just as important, as the triumph of a certain mode of engaged amateurism.  Snow himself was a kind of amateur.  He had no institutional role where cholera was concerned; his interest in the disease was closer to a hobby than a true vocation.  But Whitehead was an amateur par excellence.  He had no medical training, no background in public health.  His only credentials for solving the mystery behind London’s most devastating outbreak of disease were his open and probing mind and his intimate knowledge of the community. 

 

Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.

 

(Note:  A probably relevant, much praised book, that I have never gotten around to reading, is Martin J.S. Rudwick’s The Great Devonian Controversy:  The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists.)

 

George Stigler on Astrology

 

I remember George Stigler saying (I think in conversation with me, but maybe as an aside in a lecture), that at first he had been inclined to reject a paper for the JPE that empirically tested astrology.  His reason was that, while he liked what the authors were doing, he was not sure that what they were doing, most appropriately belonged in an economics journal.

But when the authors convinced him that they would not be able to publish it anywhere else, he changed his mind and published it.

The episode tells us something about Stigler, and something about scientific method.  About Stigler, the episode provides strong evidence of the importance that Stigler placed on evidence, relative to theory.

On scientific method, the episode can be taken as an illustration of Karl Popper’s distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification.  There are many sources of hypotheses (the context of discovery).  Famously, Kepler’s inspiration for the elliptical paths of planets, had a somewhat mystical source in the "perfect" solids.  But what makes a theory "scientific" is not its context of discovery, but its context of justification, viz., is the theory subjected to empirical test?

Hypotheses are not ruled out of science ab initio, but by being inconsistent with the evidence.  I agree with this view, which explains why I am a (passive) member of the Society for Scientific Exploration, which is devoted to the empirical testing of politically incorrect theories (such as UFOs, the Shroud of Turin, ESP, the Loch Ness Monster, etc.)

 

The JPE astrology article, accepted by Stigler as editor, was: 

Bennett, James T., and James R. Barth. "Astronomics: A New Approach to Economics?" Journal of Political Economy 81, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1973): 1473-75.

 

A more recent empirical test of an astrological hypothesis is:

Wong, Ka-Fu, and Linda Yung. "Do Dragons Have Better Fate?" Economic Inquiry 43, no. 3 (July 2005): 689-97.

 

For more on Popper’s views of science, consult:

Popper, Karl R. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1959.

 

Milton Friedman, Freedom’s Friend, RIP

 

A week or so ago my mother and I were sharing our disappointment at the firing of Donald Rumsfeld, who we both thought was a good man.  She told me that she had thought he would have made a good President.  I told her that she was in good company, because in his memoirs, Milton Friedman had expressed the same thought (p. 391).

We were in very good company while Milton Friedman was with us, and I feel a sense of loss, both personally, and for the broader world. 

By chance, I sat behind Milton Friedman, and his wife and son, at the Rockefeller Chapel memorial service to honor Milton Friedman’s good friend George Stigler.  I can’t remember if Friedman spoke it at the service, or wrote it later, but I remember him saying (or writing) that the world was a darker place without Stigler in it. 

And it is darker yet, without Friedman in it.  (It is reported that he died of heart failure sometime early this morning at the age of 94.)

My first memory of meeting Milton Friedman was in the early 1970s at Wabash College.  My Wabash professor, Ben Rogge, was a friend of Friedman’s.  They attended Mount Pelerin Society meetings together, and Rogge, along with his senior colleague John van Sickle, had invited Friedman to deliver a series of lectures at Wabash College, that became the basis of what remains Friedman’s meatiest defense of freedom:  Capitalism and Freedom.  (Free to Choose is better known, broader, and important, but Capitalism and Freedom is more densely packed with stimulating argument, and provocative new ideas.)

The members of the small, libertarian Van Sickle Club were gathered around Friedman in a lounge at Wabash, and I remember Rogge asking Friedman:  ‘If there was a button sitting in front of you, that would instantly abolish the Food and Drug Administration, would you push it?’  I remember Friedman smiling his incredibly delighted smile, and saying simply, with gusto:  "yes!"

I remember attending some meetings at the University of Chicago, I think the first History of Economics Society meetings, with Rogge in attendance.  (This was in my first couple of years as a Chicago graduate student, when I was mainly doing philosophy.)  Stigler invited Rogge up for a drink, and Rogge said said ‘sure’ as long as Diamond could come along.  (E.G. West, the Adam Smith biographer, was also there, I think at Rogge’s behest.)  The apartment had been Milton Friedman’s for many years.  In fact I think he had built the several story apartment building, because he wanted convenient, comfortable living quarters close to his Chicago office.  Friedman’s apartment occupied the top floor, and I vaguely recall, afforded a nice view of the campus. 

I lived for a year at International House, next to the Friedman apartment building.  I remember on Sunday morning’s seeing Friedman dash into International House to buy his copy of the Sunday New York Times.  ("Dash" is too strong, but he certainly moved with more vigor than I ever have on Sunday mornings.)

When Friedman left Chicago for the Hoover Institute in California, he sold, or sublet his apartment to Stigler, who apparently used it on evenings when he did not want to drive out to his modest home in the Chicago suburb of Flossmoor.

I was stunned to be in the presence of Stigler in Milton Friedman’s former abode.  (I seem to remember E.G. West seeming almost equally overwhelmed.)  I remember much of the time being spent with Stigler trying to convince Rogge to join him for golf the following day.  Rogge demurred because he was wanting to see, for the first time, I think, a newly born grandchild in the Chicago area.  (Family was extremely important to Rogge, both in theory, and in practice.)

I also remember Stigler asking Rogge about Rogge’s having convinced Friedman to give a speech at a fund-raiser at Wabash.  Stigler said something to the effect that this was the level of favor that he could not ask often of Friedman, and did the cause really justify it.  (I think one of Stigler’s sons had been a Wabash student while Rogge was Dean of Students at Wabash.)  Rogge seemed to appreciate Stigler’s point, but seemed to believe that solidifying Wabash’s endowment was a worthy enough cause.

(This, by the way, is ironic, since Rogge agreed with Adam Smith that endowments were apt to be used for purposes different from the donor’s intent.  In the founding of Liberty Fund, Rogge had tried to persuade Pierre Goodrich to have the Fund spend all of its funds in some modestly finite number of years.)

After I gradually made the switch from philosophy to economics, at Chicago, I got to know Stigler fairly well, but unfortunately did not know Friedman, personally, as well.

I remember attending a reception at Chicago in honor of Friedman’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1976.  (It was at that reception, that I first struck up a conversation with my good friend Luis Locay.)

I registered for Milton Friedman’s price theory class the final time he taught it, I think.  It was in a large, dark tiered classroom.  At the beginning of every class, Friedman would almost bounce into the classroom, bursting with pent-up energy.  I do not smile easily, or often, but I always smiled when I saw Friedman.  There was so much good-will, joy in life, enthusiasm for ideas. 

During one of these entrances, I noticed that Friedman, well into his 60s, was wearing the counter-culture-popular ‘earth shoes’; apparently he was out-front in footwear, as well as ideas.

One characteristic that came through in class, as well as in his public debates and interviews, was that he was focused on the ideas and not the personalities expressing them.  I remember seeing Friedman debating some union official on television.  He talked at one point about how he and the official had had to work hard in their youth.  Friedman seemed to like the union official; he just disagreed with some of his ideas, and wanted the union official and everyone else, to understand why.  By the end of the "debate", the union official had a warm, amused, expression on his face.

I remember once Friedman saying that more of us should speak out more often on more topics; that the bad consequences to us weren’t as bad as we supposed.  Probably he was right; though he had a lot working in his favor—his quick-wittedness, his good will, his sense of humor, and probably his being so short in physical stature—it was probably hard for anyone to feel threatened by him, so they were more apt to let down their guard and listen to what he had to say.

One of the unfair hardships of some of Friedman’s years at Chicago, was the constant harassment from a group of Marxist students called, I think, the Spartacus Youth League.  Whenever Friedman was scheduled to speak, they would disrupt the event, and try to prevent his speaking.

So when it was time to tape the discussion half-hours of each hour episode of the original "Free to Choose" series, the discussions were scheduled as invitation-only.  I was in the audience for two or three of the discussions.  (They were fine, but personally, I would have preferred another half hour of pure Friedman.)

 

As a poor graduate student, I counted myself extremely lucky to find an auto-repairman who was a wizard at finding creative ways to keep old cars running, at low repair cost.  He was a man of few words, put he kept the words he gave.

I ran into him and his wife in a little Lebanese restaurant that was run out of the secondary student union just down from I-House.  He invited me to sit with them, which I did.  I remember him telling me that they were gypsies, and him mentioning that people sometimes had the wrong idea about gypsies.  He told me that he had been rais
ed never to go into debt.  He told me how cheap White Castle hamburgers used to be.  When I told him that I was studying economics, he surprised me by saying that Milton Friedman had been a customer of his, and that he really liked Milton Friedman.

This gypsy was a simple, decent, hard-working fellow.  I don’t know, but I strongly guess that Friedman saw the good in this fellow, and treasured what he saw.  And the gypsy liked Milton Friedman back.

 

Whenever I saw Friedman interviewed on television, or read one of his letters, or op-ed pieces, in the Wall Street Journal, I would feel a bit more optimistic about freedom, and life.  A lot of people give up, at some point, but Friedman never did—he just kept on observing, and thinking, and speaking.  The last time I had any interaction with him was at the meetings of the Association of Private Enterprise Education (APEE) on April 4, 2005.  He was hooked up with the conference via video camera from an office in California.  He gave a brief presentation, and then spent quite some time answering questions.  (I recorded some of these in grainy, small video clips that can be viewed on my web site, or viewed on the web site of the APEE.)

I asked him a question about whether he agreed with Stigler in Stigler’s memoirs that Schumpeter had something important to say about competition.  I wasn’t as impressed by his answer to this question, as I was to some of his other answers.

I think that Schumpeter may be remembered as a crucial economist for our understanding of the process of capitalism:  innovative new products through creative destruction.  But if capitalist innovation prospers, part of the credit will belong to Milton Friedman.  

Friedman and Stigler were led into economics in part because of the challenge to capitalism posed by the Great Depression.  If depressions of that magnitude were an essential part of what capitalism was about, then a lot of people would prefer to have nothing to do with capitalism.  Schumpeter’s response basically was to say that every once in awhile, really bad depressions will happen as part of the process of capitalism, and we just have to suck it up, and live through them. 

One of Milton Friedman’s major contributions to economics, was to show that ill-advised government policies, such as a contraction of the money supply, were responsible for making the depression much deeper, and much longer than it needed to have been.  (See, e.g,  A Monetary History of the United States.)

In other words, he showed that Great Depressions are not an inescapable price we must pay if we choose to embrace the economic freedom, and the creative destruction, of capitalism.

 

When Friedman cleaned out his Chicago office to head for California, he left in the hallway for scavenging, extra copies of some of his books, and offprints of articles various academics had sent him.  So I have a Spanish copy of Capitalism and Freedom (even though I don’t read Spanish), and several offprints of articles from distinguished economists who sent "best wishes" to "Milton." 

After the office was cleared out, I remember sticking my head in, and looking around the empty office, one final time, for sentiment’s sake.  I was stunned to see a bright red, white and blue silk banner left hanging on the wall.  It was festooned with American flags, and said, in large letters:  "Buy American!" 

I felt anxious and confused:  was one of my heroes inconsistent on such a basic issue?  So I entered the office, and went over to the banner, and examined it more carefully.  It was then that I noticed, in small letters at the bottom of the banner:  "Made in Japan".

 

Some book references relevant to the discussion above:

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

Friedman, Milton, and Anna Jacobson Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, Nber Studies in Business Cycles. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Friedman, Milton, and Rose D. Friedman. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1980.

Stigler, George J. Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988.

West, E. G. Adam Smith: The Man and His Works: Arlington House, 1969.

 

 In vino veritas.  Photo from Tio Pepe Bodega, Jerez, Spain.  Photographer:  Dagny Diamond.

 

Continue reading “Milton Friedman, Freedom’s Friend, RIP”

Markets, Not Courts, Should Decide Intel Market Share

Intel executives, coming up on a pre-trial conference in a case that could decide their company’s fate, should be looking with envy and admiration at Tiger Woods, and wondering how to make their business more like his.

If golf followed the same path as other businesses, Tiger could expect to face a lawsuit contending that his dominance of professional golf is based on unfair competition.  And in fact,  a few years back Sergio Garcia whined that Tiger got better practice times, favorable treatment around the course, more protection against distracting fans — little things that could, Mr. Garcia intimated, explain Tiger’s edge.  Sportswriters responded swiftly, deriding Mr. Garcia for looking to blame others for his being outcompeted.  They understood that sports contests belong on the field, not in the media or the courts.

The same should be true of business.  Market-based economies thrive on competition.  The competitive economy doesn’t yield an infinite number of equally successful firms producing indistinguishable products, but lets winners and losers emerge from marketplace competition.  The (inevitably) temporary dominance of one product or one firm spurs others to compete harder.  Today, however, many businesses — especially American ones — find it easier to restrain a dominant competitor through the courts than to beat it in the market.

Take the case of Advanced Micro Devices and Intel, the dominant chipmaker for PCs and servers.  AMD for years played the role of Phil Mickelson to Intel Corporation’s Tiger Woods — the talented rival who keeps coming up short in head-to-head competition.  Last year, it decided to model Mr. Garcia rather than Mr. Mickelson, filing an antitrust action against Intel, charging it with a variety of unlawful actions.

. . .

AMD finds fault in Intel’s continued market dominance:  Because Intel has had 80% or more of the x86 chip processor market for many years it must be doing something illegal to keep rivals out.  Yet, George Stigler, among others, long ago debunked the significance of market share as a measure of competition.  Duopoly markets, like the market for large commercial aircraft, can be fiercely competitive.  Ask anyone working at Boeing or Airbus.

Moreover, markets can change rapidly, especially high-tech markets, often in ways unanticipated by antitrust suits.  Witness the changes in computing that caused the government’s antitrust case against IBM to implode.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

RON CASS.  "RULE OF LAW; Tigers by the Tail."  Wall Street Journal  (Sat., September 23, 2006):  A7.

 

Schumpeter Not Invited to Milton Friedman’s Dinner Party


FriedmanRoseMilton.jpg   Rose and Milton Friedman.  Source of image:  the online venison of the WSJ article cited below.

 

Milton Friedman is one of my heroes.  But my dinner party invitation list would include Hayek and Schumpeter in place of Marshall and Keynes.

 

If they were to throw a small dinner party . . . for Mr. Friedman’s favorite economists (dead or alive), who’d be invited?  . . . he reeled off this answer:  "Dead or alive, it’s clear that Adam Smith would be No. 1. Alfred Marshall would be No. 2. John Maynard Keynes would be No. 3. And George Stigler would be No. 4. George was one of our closest friends."  (Here, Mrs. Friedman, also an economist of distinction, noted sorrowfully that "it’s hard to believe that George is dead.")

 

For the full interview, see: 

TUNKU VARADARAJAN. "COMMENTARY: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Rose and Milton Friedman; The Romance of Economics." The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., July 22, 2006):  A10.