The big names of the economics profession and the best business journalists have offered deserved praise to Milton Friedman, the great man of 20th-century economics who died last week at 94. I would like to add a footnote about his political shrewdness and his partner in a life that brightened so many others' experience.
I had two encounters with Milton Friedman, at an interval of more than 50 years. The first came when I was a student at the University of Chicago, where he was a young member of the economics faculty.
The department in which he taught had a split personality - left and right - and students were forced to struggle with the contradictions. In my case, I had no experience and no tools of analysis of my own, so it all just washed over me.
One year, I was being taught by Maynard Krueger, an avowed socialist who once ran for vice president on the Socialist Party ticket with Norman Thomas. Another year, the instructor was Abraham Harris, a protege of Friedman's. Krueger brought Thomas to class and Harris countered by having Friedman lecture us.
It was a great form of intellectual badminton, and I graduated with absolutely no idea who was right - and a strong aversion to dogmatism from either side.
But even the worst students (and I qualified in economics) get certain glimmerings of knowledge. So when Walter Heller came to Washington with presidents Kennedy and Johnson and started promoting new government programs, I recognized bits and pieces of what Krueger had taught us. And when Ronald Reagan brought the supply-siders to town, some of that Friedman-Harris doctrine emerged from memory.
In both cases, it was a comforting feeling in a strange realm called economic policy.
Fast forward now to the winter of 2005. I was recruited to give some talks about past presidents to passengers on a cruise ship in the South Pacific - a free ride in return for a few old stories. The second night after we joined in Auckland, New Zealand, I ran into an old friend, now working for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. The Friedmans were aboard, he said, and he could arrange a dinner.
Two nights later, my wife and I joined them, and the reminiscence of those Midway days began - and the laughter flowed. These were the two liveliest 90-somethings I'd ever met, and one story followed another.
At some point, he mentioned Social Security, and I asked what he thought of President Bush's effort - then under way - to introduce private accounts into the Social Security system.
"Ridiculous,'' he snorted. "He's tinkering around the edges. He should be trying to abolish Social Security and give people incentives to save for their retirement.''
Rose Friedman, who clearly was not in awe of her famous husband, said his judgment on the president seemed perhaps a little harsh, though she did not disagree with the prescription.
"You're a softy,'' he replied, with great affection.
Having watched them in action, I was especially delighted last week when one of the executive producers of a forthcoming PBS film biography of the Friedmans, titled "The Power of Choice,'' gave me an advance look. The film was completed - and shown to the Friedmans - just before his death.
The program captures the breadth of Friedman's influence - and the character of their almost seven decades of marriage - wonderfully well. It shows his free-market ideas at work from Estonia to Chile and even in communist China, which honored him and absorbed his lessons.
It does a particularly good job of establishing the roots of the "Chicago school'' of economics and locating Friedman in the context of the intellectual atmosphere that he breathed for 30 years on the Midway, before migrating to California and the Hoover Institution.
And it quotes some of the pungent observations I remember from our shipboard dinner. Of the many presidents who turned to him for advice, Richard Nixon "had the highest IQ, but it was not matched by his character,'' Friedman says in the film. Ronald Reagan was "not as intellectual, but he had high principles and he stuck to them.''
Not bad for a man who claimed he was not political. Rose Friedman, for one, knew better. And so did so many others whose lives were touched by this remarkable man.
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