Remembering Milton Friedman

by | November 17, 2006

by Richard Stern

I didn't know Milton Friedman well but yesterday, reading of his death, I felt that special grief which means the loss of another part of one's life. Death, like a novelist, assembles the contacts and associations one has had with the dead person and then makes some sense out of what had been more or less incidental encounters. To my surprise, my assemblage is fairly large, much too large to recount in this post. In addition to these encounters, there are many stories heard from colleagues and friends, even close friends who were Milton's colleagues, friends, students, and collaborators. As for shared beliefs or points of view, my own were far from many of his, but I modified some of them in his direction far more than he modified his because of any which I articulated in or out of print. Indeed, I don't know that he'd read anything of mine except some remarks printed in newspapers and a few letters to him. So, in October, 1976 when he and another U. of Chicago faculty member, Saul Bellow, won Nobel Prizes, some remarks of mine about Jews reinvigorating American notions of individuality were quoted in the Chicago Tribune, Friedman sent me a letter "across campus" asking whether I thought he should give his acceptance talk in Yiddish. A year or so later, I encountered him in the elevator of Steinhenge, the highrise on Dorchester where he and Bellow both lived. He was in shirt sleeves and standing by a hamper of dirty laundry he was taking to the cellar. I asked him about some downward turn the economy had taken. His response: "How do you feel?" I was carrying the manuscript of "Humboldt's Gift," Bellow's great, then not quite finished novel. I held it up and said, "I feel fine," and, waving the manuscript, "I'm looking forward to reading this." "There, you see," he said, the intimation being that high level production and consumption were going on, no room here for pessimism. At his 90th birthday party at a Chicago hotel, I heard George Shultz say that of all the people he'd known, he believed that Milton was the most influential, and then, after listing the occasions when Milton's economic predictions had flown in the face of events, sang

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