Milton Friedman: RIP
I was always astonished that Milton Friedman bothered with me. The man hadn't just won a Nobel Prize, he had more or less inspired a global revolution in what used to be called 'political economy'. Friedman's notion that "free minds and free markets" were a continuum was an enormously influential idea in the 1950s and 1960s, and not at all successful, in fact, for decades after. Friedman died Wednesday night, at 94: a thinker for the long haul.
I first got hold of him in the early 1990s, when I was writing for a magazine about what became the Web, and I tried to draw him out about the government auctioning off radio spectrum. (I argued the view that since the government didn't own it, it couldn't sell it.) He was thoroughly scornful, but the intoxicating thing was: he took the ideas seriously. I don't think he much cared that I was writing for a tiny circulation trade magazine, nor that I was a nobody; what he cared about was that I was asking him about an idea -- one that he cared about: political economy.
Having gotten the great man's email address (if it isn't speaking ill of the dead, he could not type), I corresponded with him now and again -- over immigration in general, over economics in Muslim countries. He was profoundly hopeful, particularly over the way Islam requires mutual risk for lenders as well as borrowers. I had a couple email exchanges with him nearly ten years ago over the H-1B program, which really impressed me.
At the time, IT employers were arguing that H-1B holders are a "minor league," in then ITAA President (and since defeated Senate candidate) Harris Miller's words - a try-before-you-buy approach, like Major League Baseball's farm teams. You can hear the same echoes now all over "comprehensive" immigration reform.
Most "immigration experts" represent interests, rather than principles: I won't name names, but it's not hard to find "studies" that are obviously written from selected, skewed "evidence", by folks who are simply bought and paid for.
I never had much in common politically with Milton Friedman. But he was a man who didn't represent "interests", he believed in what he believed. He told me then that the idea of the government stocking a farm system for the likes of Microsoft and Intel was bad economics, and he didn't care about its politics. "There is no doubt," he says, "that the [H-1B] program is a benefit to their employers, enabling them to get workers at a lower wage, and to that extent, it is a subsidy."
We need more of that kind of principled integrity in our debate over immigration, folks who see through the hallucination that a government supplied labor force is "letting the market work".
From a guy with liberal Democratic credentials: Milton Friedman, we will miss you.
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