Today is Milton Friedman’s 100th birthday. It is one of the great privileges of my life to have known him some, and to have spent some time with him in San Francisco back in the 1990s. Driving with him up and down the hills of San Francisco was not for the faint of heart. All of his rational calculations of risk seemed to go out the window when he was behind the wheel of his Lexus. And one of my cherished possessions is the very kind note Milton sent to tell me how much he enjoyed the first volume of my Age of Reagan books, where he makes several appearances.
In the 1960s, Friedman famously explained that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” If the government spends a dollar, that dollar has to come from producers and workers in the private economy. There is no magical “multiplier effect” by taking from productive Peter and giving to unproductive Paul. As obvious as that insight seems, it keeps being put to the test. Obamanomics may be the most expensive failed experiment in free-lunch economics in American history.
Equally illogical is the superstition that government can create prosperity by having Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke print more dollars. In the very short term, Friedman proved, excess money fools people with an illusion of prosperity. But the market quickly catches on, and there is no boost in output, just higher prices.
I might (but might not) quarrel slightly with Steve’ second paragraph here, as it seems velocity—one of the key terms of Friedman’s basic equation of monetarism (MV=PQ) fell sharply during the recession and may still be off, though it is hard for the layman to tell. We visited this subject once before, and it brings vividly to mind a dinner I once enjoyed with Milton and the president of a regional Fed bank in the early 1990s in San Francisco, and I was immediately in way over my head as they argued the virtues and defects of the M1, M2, and M3 measures of the money supply. Even among monetarist economists, there are serious and honest differences in evaluating the economy and prescribing the right monetary course. (Though one thing Milton was absolutely against was the gold standard. I learned that in my very first conversation with him way back in the 1980s.)
Easier to grasp is Milton’s piercing of the pretentions of things like Obama’s stimulus. My all time favorite Milton story involves the time he was motoring in Europe, and noticed a large group of men digging in a field with shovels. Milton asked someone why they didn’t use a steam shovel or earth mover, and was told that digging with shovels was an employment measure, and if they used an earth mover it would put people out of work. To which Milton naturally followed up: “Then why don’t you give them spoons?”
There are lots of good videos of Milton on YouTube, many of them drawn from his fabulous “Free to Choose” television series. But my favorite for today is this very short smackdown of Phil Donahue on the subject of “greed.” Enjoy! (UPDATE: A faithful correspondent reminds me about the Milton Friedman Choir, singing about the corporation, so I’ve added this one, too.)