A Debt of Gratitude

I last saw Milton Friedman a few days shy of his 94th birthday, just a few months ago. I was interviewing Milton for my podcast series, EconTalk. I hadn’t seen him in over a year and I worried whether the finest economic communicator of our era would still be Milton Friedman or just a shadow of his former self.

I planned to talk to him about what I considered his greatest scholarly work, The Monetary History of the United States, and his first great work as a public intellectual, Capitalism, and Freedom. Both books were heretical in their day, and the ideas in both books, in varying degrees, have since become part of the mainstream.

When the Monetary History was published in 1963, the money supply was on the fringe of economic policy conversation, even when considering the causes of inflation. Today, the role of the money supply and central banks is front and center in creating economic stability and setting the stage for growth, and everyone, from central bankers to academics, agrees that inflation is everywhere and always, a monetary phenomenon.

The impact of Capitalism and Freedom is a little more complicated. Its defense of individual liberty and limited government is more intellectually acceptable than it was in 1962 when the book was first published. Many of the policy proposals in the book have been adopted (the volunteer army, educational vouchers, flexible exchange rates), while others that were once unimaginable are now taken seriously (privatized Social Security, eliminating farm subsidies).

I needn’t have worried about Milton’s faculties. His mind was clear and lucid and as relentlessly logical as ever. At 93, he wasn’t as quick as he was in his youth. But who can match that standard? I recently found an interview from 1975 on YouTube when he was in his prime. What a prime it was! Articulate, razor-sharp logic, and always a smile on his face even when his opponent fails to give him the benefit of the doubt as to his motives. What an inner fire he must have had to sustain him through all that ridicule and disdain with his sense of humor intact and his dignity unwavering.

We talked for about an hour-about his books, his ideas, the state of the world, and the prospects for liberty. At one point in our conversation, we talked about how a bad idea-the government’s championing of ethanol-is sustained by the political power of its prime beneficiary, Archer Daniels Midland. At first, neither of us could remember the company’s name. We stumbled for a few seconds and then he started laughing. He had an excuse, he explained-he was 93. But he thought it delightful that his interviewer, a lad of only 51, had the same difficulty.

We should all find that our biggest challenge after we’ve passed 90 is pulling the name of a company from our mental hard drives.

In the course of our discussion about the money supply and its role in creating the incredible economic performance of the last 25 years, Milton made a claim about the smoothness of the growth in the money supply over that time. A week or so later, I e-mailed him, asking him which measure of the money supply he had in mind. By then, he had celebrated his 94th birthday. He responded with an e-mail of explanation, attaching two spreadsheets with the data he thought most relevant. At 94, Milton was sending me spreadsheets. Unbelievable.

At the end of our time together, standing in the doorway of his San Francisco home, I thanked him for his time and then I paused. How many more chances would I have to see him in person down the road? So I thanked him again, this time for everything, for all that he had done for me and for all of us who saw him as a guide and mentor and for all of us whose lives had been touched by his ideas-the people in America and around the world who live under freedom, with all that that conveys and allows.

I felt a little foolish. The words were so inadequate. But now that he is gone, I’m glad to have at least said something to let him know how much he meant to us who toil in the vineyards he planted. We shall not look upon his like again.

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