Monday, July 31, 2006

July 31

Free-market mystic Milton Friedman, guru of Thatcherism and Reaganism and all of its assorted ills, turns 94 today. Although Friedman is often cited as a "Nobel Prize winner," there is in fact no such thing for economists. Friedman is actually the recipient of a quite distinct honor, the Bank of Sweden Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel -- an award that is something of an employee-of-the-month trophy for monetarists. Although Friedman claimed some years ago that "my central theme in public advocacy has been the promotion of human freedom," his economic theories led him to support some of the most brutal economic and social transformations of the late 20th century. In particular, Friedman's "neoliberal" perspectives were adopted by the Chilean military junta that overthrew the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in 1973. While Friedman claimed not to have endorsed the coup or Augusto Pinochet's subsequent and abominable rule, in 1975 he made a pilgrimage to Chile and delivered a series of lectures endorsing precisely the sorts of economic "reforms" that Pinochet's Friedmanesque advisers -- the so-called "Chicago Boys" -- had undertaken, including the abolition of the minimum wage, the suspension of labor union rights, the privatization of the state pension system and its industrial base (with the exception of the copper mines, which funded the regime's grotesque military apparatus). Chile's economic fate under the Pinochet, described by Friedman as "miraculous," was catastrophic from 1973 through the mid-1980s, as the national debt soared, income disparities widened, industrial growth slowed to a crawl, and unemployment reached as high as 43%. Meantime, spending on health care crumbled, as cases of hepatitis, diabetes and typhus rippled across the country. Santiago assumed an ignominious position as one of the most polluted cities in the world, as the free market evidently demanded it must.

In May 2002, President George W. Bush honored Milton Friedman at a brief ceremony in the Eisenhower Office Building, where the aged economist was toasted for using "a brilliant mind to advance a moral vision: the vision of a society where men and women are free, free to choose, but where government is not as free to override their decisions." The president then cited Chile and the "Chicago Boys" as exemplars of Friedman's ideas at work in the world.