Who was Milton Friedman and what did he say about Social Security Reform? (Part 6) (Friedman v. Bill Clinton Part A)

Milton Friedman congratulated by President Ronald Reagan. © 2008 Free To Choose Media, courtesy of the Power of Choice press kit

Only government can take perfectly good paper, cover it with perfectly good ink and make the combination worthless.
Milton Friedman


Milton Friedman – The Social Security Myth  

Milton Friedman (Милтон Фридман) Photo: Steven N. S. Cheung

In this series I want to both look  closely at who Milton Friedman was and what his views were about Social Security reform. Here is the fifth portion of an autobiography from Nobelprize.org:

In 1977, when I reached the age of 65, I retired from teaching at the University of Chicago. At the invitation of Glenn Campbell, Director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, I shifted my scholarly work to Hoover where I remain a Senior Research Fellow. We moved to San Francisco, purchasing an apartment in a high-rise apartment building in which we still reside. The transition of my scholarly activities from Chicago to California was greatly eased by the willingness of Gloria Valentine, my assistant at Chicago, to accompany us west. She remains my indispensable assistant.

Hoover has provided excellent facilities for scholarly work. It enabled me to remain productive and an active member of a lively scholarly community.

Initially we continued to spend spring and summer quarters at Capitaf, our second home in Vermont. However, we soon came to appreciate the inconvenience of maintaining homes a continent apart and began to look in California for a replacement for Capitaf. In 1979, we purchased a house on the ocean in Sea Ranch, a lovely community 110 miles north of San Francisco. In 1981, we disposed of Capitaf and began to spend about half the year at Sea Ranch at intervals of a week or so, spread throughout the year, rather than in one solid block. It proved a fine locale for scholarly work. The Internet plus an assistant at Hoover more than made up for the absence of a library near at hand.

After more than two wonderful decades at Sea Ranch, we sold our house to simplify our lives. We now have one home, our apartment in San Francisco.

To return to the 1970s, not long after we arrived in California, Bob Chitester persuaded us to join him in producing a major television program presenting my economic and social philosophy. The resulting effort, spread over three years, proved the most exciting adventure of our lives. The end result was Free to Choose, ten one-hour programs, each consisting of a half-hour documentary and a half-hour discussion. The first of the ten programs appeared on PBS (Public Broadcasting System) in January 1980. Since then, the series has been shown in many foreign countries.

When we agreed to undertake the project, little did Rose and I realize what was involved in producing a major TV series. As a first step, I gave a series of fifteen lectures over a period of nine months at a wide variety of locations. The lectures and question-and-answer sessions were all videotaped to provide the producers with a basis for planning the programs.

The filming began in March 1978 and continued for the next eight months at locations in the United States and around the world, including Hong Kong, Japan, India, Greece, Germany, and the United Kingdom – in the process generating more than six miles of video and audiotape.

Three months after the end of filming, we returned to London to view the documentaries that Michael Latham, our wonderful producer, and his associates had created from that tape and to dub the voice-overs. Another six months passed before we gathered again in Chicago where we filmed the discussion sessions – one of the most stressful weeks I have ever experienced.

One distinguishing feature of the series was that there was no written script. I talked extemporaneously from notes. When we returned to Capitaf from London with the transcripts of the final documentaries, we set to work to convert them to a book to appear simultaneously with the TV program. The book, Free to Choose (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980) was the bestseller nonfiction book of 1980 and continues to sell well. It has been translated into more than fourteen foreign languages.

Investing Social Security funds in the stock market would be a fine idea, wouldn’t it? President Clinton thinks so. Nobel laureate and Hoover fellow Milton Friedman thinks not.

President Clinton has proposed that a quarter of the funds set aside for Social Security be invested in the stock market—a truly radical plan.

Margaret Thatcher reversed Britain’s drift to socialism by selling off government-owned enterprises. President Clinton now proposes that the U.S. government do precisely the opposite: buy private equities, thereby becoming a part owner of U.S. enterprises.

I have often speculated that an ingenious way for a socialist to achieve his objective in the United States would be to persuade Congress, in the name of fiscal responsibility, to (1) fully fund obligations under Social Security and (2) invest the accumulating reserves in the private capital market by purchasing equity interests in domestic corporations.

Congress has never adopted a policy of fully funding Social Security, but neither has it adopted a strict pay-as-you-go policy. As is Congress’s wont, it has chosen the middle of the road, where cars can hit you from both directions. It has collected more in current taxes than were needed to pay current benefits yet not enough more to equal the future liability that it was incurring. The excess revenue has been spent in the ordinary course of government business.

The trust fund was created to preserve the fiction that Social Security is insurance. The so-called trust fund is actually a massive sleight of hand.

To preserve the fiction that Social Security is insurance, however, federal government interest-bearing bonds of a corresponding amount have been deposited in a so-called trust fund. That is, one branch of the government, the Treasury, has given an interest-bearing IOU to another branch, the Social Security Administration. Each year thereafter, the Treasury gives the Social Security Administration additional IOUs to cover the interest due. The only way that the Treasury can redeem its debt to the Social Security Administration is to borrow the money from the public, run a surplus in its other activities, or have the Federal Reserve print the money—the same alternatives that would be open to it to pay Social Security benefits if there were no trust fund. But the accounting sleight of hand of a bogus trust fund is counted on to conceal this fact from a gullible public.

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