Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Charismatic Economist Who Loved to Argue

Someone walked into our lunchroom yesterday at the University of Chicagoand announced that Milton Friedman had died. Mr. Friedman spent his intellectual life here, so I started asking people here about him and what they remembered. It became clear that despite retiring almost 30 years ago (and despite being only 5-foot-3), he still casts a long shadow.
To much of the world, he is known for his free market, antigovernment message and his influence on conservative leaders. But in an interview, Mr. Friedman once said that while his efforts to influence public policy had received more public attention, they had been more of an avocation. “My real vocation,” he said, “has been scientific economics.”
What struck me as I talked with my colleagues yesterday was how Mr. Friedman’s legacy among economists is in some ways similar but in some ways quite different from the public view. His manner of research, his personality, even the topics he studied spawned a great deal of the economics we know today — even among economists whose politics differ greatly from his. A striking number of topics he worked on, for example, ultimately developed into other people’s Nobel awards.
One of Mr. Friedman’s major impacts on economics was in establishing a basic worldview. Economics is not a game or an academic exercise, in that view. Economics is a powerful tool to understand how the world works. He used straightforward theory. He gathered data from anywhere he could get it. He wanted to see how well economics fitted the world. That view now holds sway throughout much of the profession.
Mr. Friedman loved to argue. They say he was the greatest debater in all of economics. As improbable as it sounds, given Mr. Friedman’s small frame and thick glasses, few who saw him would deny that he had an astounding amount of charisma. It probably explains why he was so successful on television. While being an academic powerhouse, he really could explain things clearly.
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Mr. Friedman brought his brashness and his love of debate to the University of Chicago and commenced the golden age for the most heralded center of economics. In his autobiographical statement for the Nobel in economic science, which he received in 1976, Mr. Friedman said that when he arrived in the 1930s, he encountered a “vibrant intellectual atmosphere of a kind that I had never dreamed existed.”
“I have never recovered.”
And we never recovered, either. Chicago remains a place with an intensity without precedent in the world of economics, where we seem to eat, drink and breathe economics, and Mr. Friedman’s personality has much to do with that. He always wanted to engage in a debate on something (or, according to his detractors, to make a pronouncement about something). Nowadays, much of the political edge to the research is gone — there are Democrats and Republicans on the faculty — but the intensity remains.
The funny thing about Mr. Friedman’s transition to iconic status is that it happened without his ever losing his bluntness. He wasn’t, necessarily, polite. Even at 93, he was out declaring that fixed exchange rates are price controls and so the euro is doomed. He really didn’t care if you liked what he said. That was true within economics just as much as it was in the policy arena.
Mr. Friedman was proof that a great economist could become famous for just talking about economics. But he wasn’t afraid to poke his nose in places where people said economists had no business being. He passed that attitude on to students like Gary S. Becker, who would win the Nobel in 1992, and in the wider profession, especially among a younger set of economists like Steven D. Levitt of “Freakonomics” fame.
Mr. Friedman’s legacy might mean laissez-faire politics to the outside world, but to economists — and especially Chicago economists — it is more about trying to understand how the world works and engaging in a debate about it.
When we heard the news at the University of Chicago that he had died, we actually stopped arguing and were quiet for a moment. It was a most extraordinary event for Chicago economists. Each of us seemed to contemplate Mr. Friedman’s legacy for ourselves. After that bit of calm, the argument resumed. It was, perhaps, just what the old man would have wanted.

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