Comments on the Milton Friedman Institute Protest letter

John Cochrane

July 12 2008

 

(A group of University of Chicago faculty wrote a petition to our President opposing the foundation of a Milton Friedman Institute to support economic research. The full letter is here. These are my personal comments on that letter. I do not speak for or represent the Institute, the faculty committee, the University, or anyone else.)

 

As usual, academics need to waste two paragraphs before getting to the point, which starts in the first bullet. To really enjoy this delicious prose you have to first read it all in one place.

 

• Many colleagues are distressed by the notoriety of the Chicago School of Economics, especially throughout much of the global south, where they have often to defend the University’s reputation in the face of its negative image. The effects of the neoliberal global order that has been put in place in recent decades, strongly buttressed by the Chicago School of Economics, have by no means been unequivocally positive. Many would argue that they have been negative for much of the world's population, leading to the weakening of a number of struggling local economies in the service of globalized capital, and many would question the substitution of monetization for democratization under the banner of “market democracy.” 

 

Yes, there are people left on the planet who write and think this way, and no, I’m not making this up. Let’s read this more closely and try to figure out what it means.

 

“Many colleagues are distressed by the notoriety of the Chicago School of Economics, especially throughout much of the global south, where they have often to defend the University’s reputation in the face of its negative image.”

 

If you’re wondering “what’s their objection?”, “how does a MFI hurt them?” you now have the answer.  Translated, “when we go to fashionable lefty cocktail parties in Venezuela, it’s embarrassing to admit who signs our paychecks.” Interestingly, the hundred people who signed this didn’t have the guts even to say “we,” referring to some nebulous “they” as the subject of the sentence.  Let’s read this literally: “We don’t really mind at all if there’s a MFI on campus, but some of our other colleagues, who are too shy to sign this letter, find it all too embarrassing to admit where they work.” If this is the reason for organizing a big protest perhaps someone has too much time on their hands.

 

 “Global south”

 

I’ll just pick on this one as a stand-in for all the jargon in this letter.  What does this oxymoron mean, and why do the letter writers use it?  We used to say what we meant, “poor countries. ” That became unfashionable, in part because poverty is sometimes a bit of your own doing and not a state of pure victimhood.  So, it became polite to call dysfunctional backwaters “developing.” That was already a lie (or at best highly wishful thinking) since the whole point is that they aren’t developing.  But now bien-pensant circles don’t want to endorse “development” as a worthwhile goal anymore.   “South” – well, nice places like Australia, New Zealand and Chile are there too (at least from a curiously North-American and European-centric perspective).  So now it’s called “global south,” which though rather poor as directions for actually getting anywhere, identifies the speaker as the caring sort of person who always uses the politically correct word.   

 

“The effects of the neoliberal global order that has been put in place in recent decades….”

 

Notice the interesting voice of the verb. Let’s call it the “accusatory passive.” “Has been put in place...” By who, I (or any decent writer) would want to know?  Unnamed dark forces are at work.

 

“Many would argue that they have been negative for much of the world's population... weakening … struggling local economies”

 

I can think of lots of words to describe what’s going on in, say, China and India, as well as what happened previously to countries that adopted the “neoliberal global order” like Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Billions of people are leading dramatically freer, healthier, longer and more prosperous lives than they were a generation ago.  “Weakening…struggling local economies” is just factually wrong about events on this planet.

 

Of course, we all face plenty of problems. I worry about environmental catastrophes, and their political, social and economic aftermath.  Many people are suffering, primarily in pockets of kleptocracy and anarchy.  Political oppression is still a fact of life in much too much of the world, and China in particular. Life’s pretty bleak about 5 blocks west of the University of Chicago. In my professional life, I worry about inflation, chaotic markets, and their possible death by regulation. There is a lot for thoughtful economists and social scientists to do. But honestly, do we really yearn to send a billion Chinese back to their “local economies,” trying to eke a meager living out of a quarter acre of rice paddy, under the iron grip of some local bureaucrat? I mean, the Mao caps and Che shirts are cool and all, but millions of people starved to death.

 

This is just the big lie theory at work. Say something often enough and people will start to believe it. It helps especially if what you say is vague and meaningless. Ok, I’ll try to be polite; a lie is deliberate and this is more like a willful disregard for the facts. Still, if you start with the premise that the last 40 or so years, including the fall of communism, and the opening of China and India are “negative for much of the world’s population,” you just don’t have any business being a social scientist. You don’t stand a chance of contributing something serious to the problems that we actually do face.  

 

the service of globalized capital..”

 

I was wondering who the subject of all these passive sentences is. Now I’m beginning to get the idea. This view has a particularly dark history. A hint: “Globalized capital” has names like Goldman and Sachs. 

 

many would question the substitution of monetization for democratization under the banner of `market democracy.’” 

 

What a doozy! What can this actually mean? Given the counterpoint “market democracy” (what we live in, I presume) I suspect “democratic” here means “democratic” as in “people’s democratic republic”, i.e. the government runs everything.  Monetization is democratization; it means things are accessible to anyone, not just the politically connected. That observation was, among many other things, Milton Friedman’s genius.

 

Once again, the awkward language and vague subjects are telling. “The substitution.” Who did this substitution? Maybe globalized capital, or the international banking conspiracy? Maybe it’s the trilateral commission.

  

The closing bullet point is fun as a reminder of how petty academic squabbles can be after we strip off all the big words, fancy pretentions and meaningless jargon.

 

 • In the interests of equity and balance, many of us feel that the University ought to reconsider contributing to the proposed Milton Friedman Institute, which will inevitably be a powerful magnet for scholars and donors who share a specific set of interests and values to the exclusion of others, whether this is openly acknowledged or not.

 

Translation:  we publicly charge the faculty committee who put this thing together, and promise a non-partisan non-directed research institute (me included), with lying through their teeth.  This sentence adds a – well let’s be polite and call it a “factual inaccuracy.” The whole point is not “University contribution.” The whole point is to try to get private donors who see the benefits of Milton Friedman’s legacy to support economics research here.   If the writers understood the first thing about money, that it is fungible, they might understand which side of their bread is buttered.

 

Still others believe that, given the influx of private contributions to the MFI, the University now has the opportunity to provide roughly equivalent resources for critical scholarly work that seeks out alternatives to recent economic, social, and political developments.  

 

Finally, we get to the point! We can get over our “distress” at admitting where we work, but what we want is to do some of our own “substitution of monetization for democratization.” And with none of the niceties about non-partisan, non-ideological, open-minded research in the Milton Friedman founding documents either – this money is reserved for people who can get the right answers and belong to the right clubs.  And we’re not planning to ask our sympathizers to pony up money either. Basically, we want the Friedman Institute money.  

 

Virtually all of us are distressed by the position the University has taken and by the process through which decisions have been made.

 

And we end with good old “process.”   When you can’t really complain on the merits, you can always gum up the works by complaining about “process.” Now you know why it takes so long for a university ever to do anything.

 

***

 

If it’s sad to see what 101 professionally distinguished minds at the University of Chicago think about free markets at all, it is to me sadder still how atrociously written this letter is. These people devote their lives to writing on social issues, and teaching freshmen (including mine) how to think and write clearly.  Yet it’s awful.

 

The letter starts with two paragraphs of meaningless throat-clearing. (“This is a question of the meaning of the University’s investments, in all senses.”  What in the world does that sentence actually mean?)  I learned to delete throat-clearing in the first day of Writing 101.  It’s all written in the passive, or with vague subjects.  “Many” should not be the subject of any sentence.  You should never write “has been put in place,” you should say who put something in place. You should take responsibility in your writing. Write “we,” not “many colleagues.”  The final paragraphs wander around without saying much of anything.  

 

The content of course is worse. There isn’t even an idea here, a concrete proposition about the human condition that one can disagree with, buttress or question with facts. It just slings a bunch of jargon, most of which has a real meaning opposite to the literal. “Global South,” “neoliberal global order,” “the service of globalized capital,” “substitution of monetization for democratization.” George Orwell would be proud.

 

I’m not a good writer. I admire great prose, and I attempt to fill the spaces between equations of my papers with comprehensible words. But even I can recognize atrocious prose when I see it.  Really, guys and gals, if a Freshman handed this in to one of your classes, could you possibly give any grade above C- and cover it with red ink?

 

I was quoted as saying “drivel,” and I meant it, not as an insult but as a technically correct description of a piece of prose. We can – and should – happily disagree on all sorts of matters of fact and interpretation, clearly stated, and openly discussed. But there’s nothing here to discuss, it’s just mush. The saddest aspect of this whole sorry affair is that 100 faculty at such a distinguished institution can sign their names – and with them their intellectual reputations and their sacred honor -- to such utter drivel.

 

***

 

Milton Friedman stood for freedom, social, political, and economic. He realized that they are inextricably linked. If the government controls your job or your business, dissent is impossible.  He championed economic freedom as much as a means to political freedom as for its own sake.  He favored, among other things, legalizing drugs, school choice, and volunteer army. To call him or his political legacy “right wing” is simply ignorant, and I mean that also as a technically accurate description rather than an insult.  

 

(Of course, Friedman also has a legacy in economics as possibly the best research economist of the 20th century, which is what the MFI will do and honor. The consumption function and the monetary foundations of inflation, are as important to 20th century economics as the discovery of DNA was to biology, quantum mechanics to physics or plate tectonics to geology.  But the letter-writers didn’t have anything to say about any of this, so neither will I, here. )   

 

So here’s my question: If you’re embarrassed by Milton Friedman’s legacy, if you worry that it will tarnish the University’s reputation, just what is it that you good-thinking guys and gals have against human freedom?