For over 40 years, In These Times has published incisive reporting and analysis on one of the defining issues of our time: the crisis of inequality. Our new book, The Age of Inequality: Corporate America’s War on Working People, brings together In These Times’ best writing on the topic from leading thinkers and journalists. In this selection, originally published in 2009, Bernie Sanders writes about the intellectual failures, and simultaneous political success, of the “Chicago School’s” greatest avatar, Milton Friedman.
“THE FAILED PROPHET” (2009)
THE LATE MILTON FRIEDMAN WAS A PROVOCATIVE TEACHER AT MY ALMA MATER, THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO. He got his students involved with their studies. He was a gifted writer and communicator. And he received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to economics.
But Friedman was more than an academic. He was an advocate for, and popularizer of, a radical right-wing economic ideology.
In today’s political and social reality, the University of Chicago’s establishment of a $200 million Milton Friedman Institute (in the building that until now has housed the renowned Chicago Theological Seminary) will not be perceived as simply a sign of appreciation for a prominent former faculty member. Instead, by founding such an institution, the university signals that it is aligning itself with a reactionary political program supported by the wealthiest, greediest, and most powerful people and institutions in this country. Friedman’s ideology caused enormous damage to the American middle class and to working families here and around the world. It is not an ideology that a great institution like the University of Chicago should be seeking to advance.
Those who defend the Milton Friedman Institute will assure us that it will encourage a free and open exchange of ideas. That may very well be true. But if the goal of the institute is simply to do nonideological research, there are a lot of names that one could come up with other than that of the most polemical and ideological economist of his time.
My suspicions only deepen when I read on the University of Chicago website that donors who contribute more than $1 million to the project will have a special relationship with the institute as members of a Milton Friedman Society and will be expected to facilitate the institution’s “connections to leaders in business and government.”
I work in Washington, D.C., and I know about the power that big money has over process. When the insurance companies and the drug companies and the oil companies and the banks and the military-industrial complex make contributions to political campaigns, we usually know exactly what it is they want in return.
The timing of this project is a little ironic. Friedman earned his bread by denouncing government at virtually every turn. He, like his acolyte, former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, believed that a largely unregulated free market constituted the most superior form of economic organization imaginable. Well, the tune of the right-wing free marketeers has changed a bit in the last few months.
My colleagues in the Senate and I are now picking up the pieces of a banking system brought to the edge of collapse by this theory of deregulation and by the insatiable greed of a small number of wealthy financiers playing in the market and engaging in incredibly risky—if not illegal—behavior.
In the rush to bail out Wall Street, we saw President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the people in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable—folks who loved Friedman’s ideas and who, no doubt, would be prepared to financially support a Milton Friedman Institute—reverse their longstanding rhetorical opposition to government intervention.
Instead, they demanded that we come to the rescue of the financial firms that had lined up in front of Congress for their emergency welfare checks.
For years, all of these people, including the president of the United States, have been telling us that government should not be involved in ensuring health care for all Americans as a right of citizenship. (“What a terrible idea!”) They have been telling us that the government should not be involved in making quality education affordable to all people; that the government should not be empowered to ensure that we reverse greenhouse gas emissions; that the government should not regulate pollution that contaminates our air and water and land; and that the government should not provide a strong safety net for our children, for our seniors, or for the disabled.
Well, it turns out that when the shoe is pinching their foot, they have become the strongest believers in government intervention—especially if working people and the middle class are bailing them out.
But the issue here is not just economic policy. It goes deeper than that. It touches on the core of who we are as a society and as a people. Are we as human beings supposed to turn around and not see the suffering that so many of our brothers and sisters are experiencing? Are we content to be living in a nation where, thanks in part to the Friedmanite ideology, the richest 1 percent owns more than the bottom 90 percent and the top one-tenth percent owns more than the bottom 50 percent?
With all due respect to the late Milton Friedman, his economic program is nothing more than a wish list for the greediest, the most monied interests in our society. At the same time that this ideology is supported by the rich and powerful—except when they’re lining up in Washington for their welfare checks—this same ideology is almost unanimously opposed by working families and middle-class people across this country.
What would some of the items on Friedman’s wish list be? First of all, the Friedmanites would be supportive of the concept of a culture of greed. They want people making billions of dollars on the covers of Time and Newsweek because these people are supposed to be our national heroes. We are not supposed to recognize a teacher who makes $40,000 a year opening up the minds of young people. We are not supposed to recognize a childcare worker who makes $18,000 a year giving poor children an opportunity to grow intellectually and emotionally. Those jobs are not considered important work.
But if you’re a billionaire on Wall Street creating exotic financial instruments that end up being worth nothing, you are considered a hero. The fact that this culture of greed has permeated our political culture means that corporate CEOs can now earn more than 400 times what their workers earn without fearing a political backlash.
Now we have a case study for what happens when the ideology of Milton Friedman becomes the operating ideology of the government. Under Bush, the median family income has declined by thousands of dollars. Millions of Americans have entered the ranks of the poor. Some 7 million have lost their health insurance. Some 3 million have lost their pensions. And the gap between the very rich and everybody else has grown much wider.
Our country is due for a transformation. We have endured years of right-wing ideology, and we are eager to move in a different direction. I believe that we will see a major reordering of social and economic priorities and that this last general election represented a repudiation of right-wing economic arguments.
In the Bush era—a period in which some of Friedman’s greatest admirers managed the U.S. economy—the top 400 families in this country saw their wealth increase by $670 billion.
Yet we have children in this country who have no health care, children who are undernourished, and children who sleep out on the streets. From an economic perspective, from a moral perspective, and from a philosophical perspective, the ideology of Milton Friedman is dead wrong.