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If you like Milton Friedman's story, you might also like:
Gary Becker,
George H.W. Bush,
Paul H. Nitze,
John Sexton
and Lech Walesa

Milton Friedman's recommended reading: The Scarlet Plague

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Friedman Foundation

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Milton Friedman
Milton Friedman
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Milton Friedman Interview (page: 3 / 7)

Nobel Prize in Economics

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  Milton Friedman

The road to success is often a winding one. There are always setbacks along the way. Have you had setbacks along your life, and what did you learn from it?

Milton Friedman: I've been very fortunate. I've had setbacks, but I've had no really major traumatic setbacks.

I happened to graduate from college in 1932. I did a year of graduate work at Chicago from '32 to '33. And then again, this is pure accident, I got a fellowship at Columbia the next year, which was an enormous boon to me. I'd never seen so much money in my life. It was $1,500, of which $300 went for tuition. Out of the other $1,500 I paid back the debts I had accumulated the prior year. And at the end, I saw more Broadway shows that year than I ever had in my life, in one year because that was during the Depression, when you could go downtown, down to Gray's Bookstore on Broadway, and pick up a ticket to the best show in town for 50 cents, because they were being sold cut-rate. I had enough money left at the end of the year to finance a real summer's vacation, which I had never had before. I had usually worked in the summers, with a friend of mine up in Canada.

That was really pure luck. Why was it luck? It so happened there was a professor at the University of Chicago, Henry Schultz, a mathematical economist with whom I established a good relationship. He happened to have a good friend at Columbia, Harold Hotelling, who was also a mathematical economist, one of the great ones. Through Hotelling, he got me a fellowship at Columbia. The next year I went back to Chicago, worked for Henry Schultz as his research assistant, and then the New Deal came along, and while the New Deal was not good for the country in many ways, it was very good for me, because I was able to get a job in Washington at the National Resources Committee in Washington, doing work that I enjoyed very much. It was very much along the line of my own interstice and development. After that I was able to get a job at the National Bureau of Economic Research in New York.

People nowadays have the idea that when you get your Ph.D. degree, you go right straight through. You first study, and then you write your Ph.D., and then you get your Ph.D., and then you go out in the market. That's only because of the changed financial arrangements. In my time, very few people wrote their Ph.D. in residence. When they got their courses through, and were able to afford to get that paid, they went out and got a job and while they were working, on their own spare time, they wrote a dissertation. That was my case, except that I was lucky enough so that I got a job at a research institution, the National Bureau of Economic Research, to work with Simon Kuznets, who was a great economist. He also received a Nobel Prize in Economics before he died. Simon was doing a study on the incomes of independent professional people, and I was hired to assist him on it. That ended up as a book published jointly by him and me, part of which became my dissertation.

I've left out of course the most important event of that period, which was getting married! Perhaps the most traumatic event of that period of my life was the next year, 1940 to1941.

We went out to Wisconsin on a visiting arrangement for a year, the University of Wisconsin's Department of Economics. I got embroiled in the center of an internal dispute. It really was quite a storm. There was a conflict. There was a business school that was trying to take over the economics department, and there was a dean of the arts and sciences who was trying to improve what he thought was a mediocre economics department. He offered me a tenured position at Wisconsin and I accepted it. But then, all hell broke loose. The people of the business school and some of the people in the economics department started to complain about how this arrogant dean was trying to force me down their throats, and I was just this young brash man from New York, and he was offering me a higher salary. I think it was all of -- what was it -- $2,600 a year? I think that was it. Maybe it was $3,000. It was that order of magnitude. He was offering me that, and that was higher than they were paying somebody else. So anyway, as I say, the real thing that was happening was a dispute between the economics department and the school of business. But I became the center of it, and it also involved elements of anti-semitism. In Wisconsin, this was in 1940, when the war had started in Europe, but not here. Wisconsin, as you know, had a large German population and there were a number of people in the economics department who were very strong sympathizers with Germany. And as is not surprising, I was not, and I spoke it very openly, my belief that the United States ought to go to war on the side of the Allies. So at any rate, that got involved. When it got to that point, I quit. I asked the dean to withdraw my name from consideration and quit. Nonetheless, that was a very traumatic experience. I have since been involved in similar public disputes, but that was the earliest and the defining one, if I may say so, for me.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

How did that make you feel, the criticism of you personally and also the anti-semitism?

Milton Friedman: Well, I had been lucky. I had grown up in a small town in New Jersey, where there were about a hundred Jewish families, and I had never encountered any real anti-semitism. When I went to Columbia there were Jewish fellow graduate students who became friends of mine. I was very much impressed that they were much more sensitive to that issue than I was. Again, because of the accident of the small town that I grew up in, I never really felt any anti-semitism. As I say, I may have imposed things on myself because of my own religious beliefs, but I was never discriminated against that I could see in any way. I had that same experience in college. I never felt it at Chicago, I never felt it. The first time that I really became aware that this was a major problem was when I went to Columbia and met students who had grown up in New York, where a third of the population is Jewish, where this is a very serious and real issue. So I didn't regard anti-semitism as a key issue in the Wisconsin dispute, and it didn't really affect me. It just happened to be one of the aspects of it that was very unpleasant. For the rest, it was my introduction to academic politics, and it was very valuable to me.

You know, there are no politics that are as dirty as academic politics, and the reason is very simple. If you fight over very little, the only pleasure in it is in the fight, and not in what you get. It's really amazing. Consider any academic department, a department of anything. One of the members wins a lottery ticket for a million dollars. His fellow colleagues will come around, pat him on his back, tell him how lucky he is, and they will be envious, but there will be no malice it in. The same colleague, because he happens to get an offer from another university, or for whatever reason, gets a raise of $500 above the other people -- all hell breaks loose. There is malice, and "That's disgraceful! That's terrible! That's special treatment." That's academic politics. Because there is very little at stake. Therefore, people fight very hard about it when they fight about it. Academic politics can be as dirty as any politics in the world.

My introduction to that was the Wisconsin affair, and it taught me that I am going to stay clear of that kind of politics for the rest of my life. Fortunately, again just pure luck, I've never again been involved in anything of that nature.

Let me ask you about another area of fortune. Who has been the greatest influence on your personal life?

Milton Friedman Interview Photo
Milton Friedman: Undoubtedly, my parents to begin with, and undoubtedly, my wife, of course. We met at the University of Chicago as graduate students. She was studying economics, as I was. We both came to the same course. I mentioned earlier that there was one other course in my life that I thought had a similar influence as did Arthur Burns's course, and that was this particular course. It was the first one I took in my first quarter at the University of Chicago, a course in pure economic theory under Jacob Viner, a great teacher. Rose, my wife, and I were both in that same class. Professor Viner, in order to get to know his students, seated them alphabetically. Her name began with D, and mine with F, so we were seated next to one another. See how luck plays a role? That was our first meeting, and we were married six years later. We've been married for 52 years since then, and there is no question that she has had the greatest personal influence on my life.

She has been not only your mate, but your editor, your collaborator, your co-author.

Milton Friedman: Right, and the mother of my children. We've had a wonderful life, both of us, I think. My wife would say the same thing if you were interviewing her. We have no regrets about that aspect of our life at all.

Do you ever get bored with your work?

Milton Friedman: Well, I haven't yet! I hope I won't. I think economics is a very fascinating subject. But I'm sure that if I had become a mathematician, I would have found that an equally absorbing subject.

I don't really think I've ever gotten bored with my work. Now, of course, there are parts of it that you enjoy more than other parts. Some parts are a real drudgery, but you have to pay the drudgery. But the parts you really enjoy are the creative parts. What you pay for is when you (A) have to write it down -- but you do have to write it down -- and (B), when you edit and re-write and re-write and re-write. I think one of the defects in the work of most people is that they don't do enough re-writing and editing.

Going back over those ideas and refining them?

Milton Friedman: That's true, refine the ideas. Most important of all, making sure that they are stated correctly, exactly, and clearly.

Another experience that had a great influence on me involved a gentleman I've already mentioned, Wesley Mitchell. When I was working at the National Bureau of Economic Research with Simon Kuznets, we wrote jointly -- I did most of the writing I guess on this particular thing -- what was published as a bulletin about the preliminary results of our studies. We wrote a draft of it, and Mitchell, who was a director of research, and the head of the institution, read it. He came in and he said to me, he said, "You know, Simon came to this country as an adult." He was born in Russia, he was educated, schooled in Russia, and he came here about when he was 18 or 20. I've forgotten. But then he went to college in the United States. "So," he said, "there is some excuse for him not writing very good English. But you were born in this country, there is no excuse for you not writing well." And he gave me holy hell for the sloppiness with which I had written it. He said, "People always say, 'Oh, I know what I mean, but I can't express it.'" And he said to me, correctly, "If you can't express accurately what you mean, you don't know what you mean." I must say that episode has had a very big influence, a major influence on that aspect of my life. He was absolutely right.

He himself was a beautiful writer and speaker. If he spoke extemporaneously, the sentences would come out perfect. You'd start on a long sentence and think he wasn't going to finish properly, and he would. And it would be eloquent, good English. It's a rare gift. I've known very few other people who have it.

When you are editing and making those ideas clear, and making sure you are saying what you mean, what do you do to keep fresh? Do you have hobbies?

Milton Friedman Interview Photo
Milton Friedman: It's not only for those periods. My hobbies are very clear. I play tennis. I ski. That's not a full-time hobby obviously. That only happens sporadically. I didn't begin that until I was age 40. And I walk. Of course, those are the physical hobbies, because I think as you get older, you have to be more and more certain that you carry on the physical activities, a rather disciplined kind. Outside of that, I would say my major hobby has always been widespread reading. My wife is an avid gardener, and I occasionally serve as a laborer on her behalf. And I am kind of an amateur carpenter. I have a workshop and work with wood, and I build things and so on.

I would think that having spent your whole life working with ideas, that there would be some satisfaction in actually creating something you can hold in your hand and look at.

Milton Friedman: Oh, there is no doubt about that. There is a great deal of satisfaction in sitting on a couch which you made.

Have you made your own couch?

Milton Friedman: Yes. I've mentioned my wife's brother. We have always been close to him and he also has had a great influence on me. Aaron is now very old, he is ten years older than I am, but he is still fortunately alive. Aaron was really a very good cabinet maker. So he and I, and a third person in Chicago, together, tried to make a whole bunch of walnut couches. Lawn couches that are really beautiful objects and very comfortable, very nice. There is great satisfaction in sitting on them. I've made lots of other things on my own of course also, but I think you are right. You need something concrete to balance the abstract.

Your whole life has been spent in expressing abstract ideas, and in arguing actively on behalf of certain ideas.

Milton Friedman: That's right. Well, I've really had a schizophrenic kind of a life.

One part of my life has been purely -- what I would call relatively purely -- scientific, positive, non-ideological, concerned with trying to understand how the world works. And another part of my activity, which began fairly late, so far as my career is concerned, has been trying to influence public policy. That's been ideological, concerned not simply with abstract ideas, but also with values. It's a certain part of my life which has received more public attention. If you ask people about me, probably more people would know about that aspect of my life. But it has been sort of - you asked my hobby, that's sort of been a hobby of mine as it were, an avocation. My real vocation has been scientific economics, positive economics.

People get a great misconception about economics. They think, "What the devil! If there are two economists in the room, there are three ideas." That's wrong. On the great bulk of issues, most economists agree. But you don't talk about things you agree on. What gets into the press, what's newsworthy, are the disagreements, and not the agreements. Where are the disagreements? On those parts of the discipline that are least well developed and that you know least about. You find exactly the same thing in other disciplines. Here is physics. People think of it as a pure, hard, scientific discipline. But when it comes to issues where values enter in very much, such as, "Do you want to have SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative)?" for example, or not, you don't have the physicists speaking with a single voice. They are divided into camps and into groups. It's not different.

In all disciplines, whenever values enter in, something different happens. But if you stick to the scientific part of the discipline, there is an enormous amount of agreement among economists. I have often met young people who became very much interested in economics who have wanted to devote their life to promoting what they thought were the right policies, and I have always advised them, "Look, that is all right as an application, but don't do that as your vocation. You get to do something and earn your living on something that you enjoy doing, but which is non-ideological and non-policy oriented, and then do the rest as a sideline, because if you once start going along the other line, sooner or later, you're going to lose your sense of objectivity. You're going to become kind of a fanatic, a pure ideologue. You are not going to have this balance to it, which you want to have if you want to keep yourself an open minded person."

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