Milton Friedman’s biography (part 1) (Interview by Charlie Rose of Milton Friedman part 2)

Milton Friedman was the best. I had the chance to correspond with him and he was a complete gentleman.


Milton FriedmanI was born July 31, 1912, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the fourth and last child and first son of Sarah Ethel (Landau) and Jeno Saul Friedman. My parents were born in Carpatho-Ruthenia (then a province of Austria-Hungary; later, part of inter-war Czechoslovakia, and, currently, of the Soviet Union). They emigrated to the U.S. in their teens, meeting in New York. When I was a year old, my parents moved to Rahway, N.J., a small town about 20 miles from New York City. There, my mother ran a small retail “dry goods” store, while my father engaged in a succession of mostly unsuccessful “jobbing” ventures. The family income was small and highly uncertain; financial crisis was a constant companion. Yet there was always enough to eat, and the family atmosphere was warm and supportive.

Along with my sisters, I attended public elementary and secondary schools, graduating from Rahway High School in 1928, just before my 16th birthday. My father died during my senior year in high school, leaving my mother plus two older sisters to support the family. Nonetheless, it was taken for granted that I would attend college, though, also, that I would have to finance myself.

I was awarded a competitive scholarship to Rutgers University (then a relatively small and predominantly private university receiving limited financial assistance from the State of New Jersey, mostly in the form of such scholarship awards). I was graduated from Rutgers in 1932, financing the rest of my college expenses by the usual mixture of waiting on tables, clerking in a retail store, occasional entrepreneurial ventures, and summer earnings. Initially, I specialized in mathematics, intending to become an actuary, and went so far as to take actuarial examinations, passing several but also failing several. Shortly, however, I became interested in economics, and eventually ended with the equivalent of a major in both fields.

In economics, I had the good fortune to be exposed to two remarkable men: Arthur F. Burns, then teaching at Rutgers while completing his doctoral dissertation for Columbia; and Homer Jones, teaching between spells of graduate work at the University of Chicago. Arthur Burns shaped my understanding of economic research, introduced me to the highest scientific standards, and became a guiding influence on my subsequent career. Homer Jones introduced me to rigorous economic theory, made economics exciting and relevant, and encouraged me to go on to graduate work. On his recommendation, the Chicago Economics Department offered me a tuition scholarship. As it happened, I was also offered a scholarship by Brown University in Applied Mathematics, but, by that time, I had definitely transferred my primary allegiance to economics. Arthur Burns and Homer Jones remain today among my closest and most valued friends.

Though 1932-33, my first year at Chicago, was, financially, my most difficult year; intellectually, it opened new worlds. Jacob Viner, Frank Knight, Henry Schultz, Lloyd Mints, Henry Simons and, equally important, a brilliant group of graduate students from all over the world exposed me to a cosmopolitan and vibrant intellectual atmosphere of a kind that I had never dreamed existed. I have never recovered.

Personally, the most important event of that year was meeting a shy, withdrawn, lovely, and extremely bright fellow economics student, Rose Director. We were married six years later, when our depression fears of where our livelihood would come from had been dissipated, and, in the words of the fairy tale, have lived happily ever after. Rose has been an active partner in all my professional work since that time.

Thanks to Henry Schultz’s friendship with Harold Hotelling, I was offered an attractive fellowship at Columbia for the next year. The year at Columbia widened my horizons still further. Harold Hotelling did for mathematical statistics what Jacob Viner had done for economic theory: revealed it to be an integrated logical whole, not a set of cook-book recipes. He also introduced me to rigorous mathematical economics. Wesley C. Mitchell, John M. Clark and others exposed me to an institutional and empirical approach and a view of economic theory that differed sharply from the Chicago view. Here, too, an exceptional group of fellow students were the most effective teachers.

After the year at Columbia, I returned to Chicago, spending a year as research assistant to Henry Schultz who was then completing his classic, The Theory and Measurement of Demand. Equally important, I formed a lifelong friendship with two fellow students, George J. Stigler and W. Allen Wallis.

Allen went first to New Deal Washington. Largely through his efforts, I followed in the summer of 1935, working at the National Resources Committee on the design of a large consumer budget study then under way. This was one of the two principal components of my later Theory of the Consumption Function.

The other came from my next job – at the National Bureau of Economic Research, where I went in the fall of 1937 to assist Simon Kuznets in his studies of professional income. The end result was our jointly published Incomes from Independent Professional Practice, which also served as my doctoral dissertation at Columbia. That book was finished by 1940, but its publication was delayed until after the war because of controversy among some Bureau directors about our conclusion that the medical profession’s monopoly powers had raised substantially the incomes of physicians relative to that of dentists. More important, scientifically, that book introduced the concepts of permanent and transitory income.

The catalyst in combining my earlier consumption work with the income analysis in professional incomes into the permanent income hypothesis was a series of fireside conversations at our summer cottage in New Hampshire with my wife and two of our friends, Dorothy S. Brady and Margaret Reid, all of whom were at the time working on consumption.

I spent 1941 to 1943 at the U.S. Treasury Department, working on wartime tax policy, and 1943-45 at Columbia University in a group headed by Harold Hotelling and W. Allen Wallis, working as a mathematical statistician on problems of weapon design, military tactics, and metallurgical experiments. My capacity as a mathematical statistician undoubtedly reached its zenith on V. E. Day, 1945.

In 1945, I joined George Stigler at the University of Minnesota, from which he had been on leave. After one year there, I accepted an offer from the University of Chicago to teach economic theory, a position opened up by Jacob Viner’s departure for Princeton. Chicago has been my intellectual home ever since. At about the same time, Arthur Burns, then director of research at the National Bureau, persuaded me to rejoin the Bureau’s staff and take responsibility for their study of the role of money in the business cycle.

The combination of Chicago and the Bureau has been highly productive. At Chicago, I established a “Workshop in Money and Banking”. which has enabled our monetary studies to be a cumulative body of work to which many have contributed, rather than a one-man project. I have been fortunate in its participants, who include, I am proud to say, a large fraction of all the leading contributors to the revival in monetary studies that has been such a striking development in our science in the past two decades. At the Bureau, I was supported by Anna J. Schwartz, who brought an economic historian’s skill, and an incredible capacity for painstaking attention to detail, to supplement my theoretical propensities. Our work on monetary history and statistics has been enriched and supplemented by both the empirical studies and the theoretical developments that have grown out of the Chicago Workshop.

In the fall of 1950, I spent a quarter in Paris as a consultant to the U.S. governmental agency administering the Marshall Plan. My major assignment was to study the Schuman Plan, the precursor of the common market. This was the origin of my interest in floating exchange rates, since I concluded that a common market would inevitably founder without floating exchange rates. My essay, The Case for Flexible Exchange Rates, was one product.

During the academic year 1953-54, I was a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge University. Because my liberal policy views were “extreme” by any Cambridge standards, I was acceptable to, and able greatly to profit from, both groups into which Cambridge economics was tragically and very deeply divided: D.H. Robertson and the “anti-Keynesians”; Joan Robinson, Richard Kahn and the Keynesian majority.

Beginning in the early 1960s, I was increasingly drawn into the public arena, serving in 1964 as an economic adviser to Senator Goldwater in his unsuccessful quest for the presidency, and, in 1968, as one of a committee of economic advisers during Richard Nixon’s successful quest. In 1966, I began to write a triweekly column on current affairs for Newsweek magazine, alternating with Paul Samuelson and Henry Wallich. However, these public activities have remained a minor avocation – I have consistently refused offers of full-time positions in Washington. My primary interest continues to be my scientific work.

In 1977, I retire from active teaching at the University of Chicago, though retaining a link with the Department and its research activities. Thereafter, I shall continue to spend spring and summer months at our second home in Vermont, where I have ready access to the library at Dartmouth College – and autumn and winter months as a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover lnstitution of Stanford University.

From Nobel Lectures, Economics 1969-1980, Editor Assar Lindbeck, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1976

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