Monday, August 03, 2009


Milton Friedman died on November 16th 2006. July 31st remarks his birthday and an opportunity to reflect his profound legacy of economic thinking and ideas promoting individual liberty.

I first came across Friedman's ideas through one of his first research papers, Income from Independent Professional Service (link), coauthored with Simon Kuznets, wherein Friedman and Kuznets showed how shortage of physicians emerges from restrained labor supply and upward wage pressures. Together with Kuznets, Friedman applied statistical models to the analysis of income from professional services. The empirical results indicated that the regulation of professional services raises general income level for existing practitioners while, at the same time, reduces incentives for market entrants by raising fixed entry costs and compliance cost.

The paper was written in 1945 when orthodox Keynesian economic policies took a full-fledged march. Friedman's strong analytical rigour successfully challenged Keynesian economic establishment of that time. In Theory of the Consumption Function, Friedman showed how Keynesian theory of consumption fails to capture long-run behavior of households. In General Theory, Keynes postulated that household's consumption is determined by autonomous consumption and consumption induced by income. Since Keynes assumed that consumption is a linear function of income, higher income is ought to result in higher savings. Later on, Simon Kuznets showed that Keynesian consumption function suffers from empirical incosistencies. Even though it had been seemingly accurate in short-run cross-section data, it failed to predict household income pattern in time-series data over the long run. If Keynesian assumption was held true, the savings-to-income ratio would grow over time. On the contrary, the ratio remained constant over time in spite of relatively large income changes. Keynesian theory of consumption was further shook by new theories of consumption. Franco Modigliani, Nobel Laureate in Economics from 1985, challanged Keynesian consumption theory by introducing life-cycle hypothesis, showing how savings-to-income ratio changes over the entire lifetime, depending on household's life stage. Franco Modigliani and Richard Brumberg proposed the life-cycle income hypothesis with a more realistic assumption. He tested the following equation: C = aW + cY where a is marginal propensity to consume wealth (W), and c is marginal propensity to consume income (Y). The empirical results for the United States estimated the marginal propensity to consume from disposable income (c) at 0.7 and marginal prospensity to consume from wealth (a) at 0.06. The estimates were used to examine household consumption patterns. Thus, over the lifespan, as household's income went up by 1 percent, consumption expenditures wemt up by about 0.7 percent on average. Meanwhile, as household's wealth increased by 1 percent, the consumption expenditures grew by 0.6 percent on average.

The research by Modigliani and Brumberg in 1957 and Kuznets paved way for Friedman's Permanent Income Hypothesis. In a proposed hypothesis, Friedman argued againist Keynesian consumption theory. Its major inability is the weakness of prediction and the inconsistency in consumption patterns between short-run and long-run results. Contrary to Keynes, Friedman argued that disposable income arises from permanent and transitory income. Permanent income held by household was defined as household's preference for a stable consumption over the long run. Friedman showed that consumer's choices are made not by transitory income but by permanent income expectations. Thus, transitory changes in income have little effect on consumption behavior. The empirical assessment of permanent income hypothesis showed that households with lower income tend to have higher marginal propensity to consume. Friedman concluded that consumer's spending is not affected by static expectations but rather by real wealth such as physical assets and human capital assets. These determine consumer's earning ability and enable consumers to forecast their lifetime income.

When Friedman received a Nobel prize in economics back in 1976, the Nobel Commission entitled the award for "...his achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of complexity of stabilization policies..." Back in 1963, Friedman and Schwarz wrote the Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960 where they examined the monetary trends in the United States since the end of the civil war.

Through an extensive empirical observation of money supply, monetary policy and business cycles they showed that monetary intervention by the Federal Reserve System, which was established in 1913, in an attempt to stabilize the short-term cyclical shock in the financial market resulted in the worst economic depression in world history. Fed's intervention reduced the broad money supply, destroying the depository base. The intervention led to the banking panic. Lending operations were disabled and the banking system suddenly went insolvent. When Federal Reserve cut the money supply by one-third in 1929, the ordinary recession turned into the depression in the light of deflationary shock. As the leading voice of the monetarist school, Friedman showed that inflation is a monetary phenomena resulting excessive growth of money supply relative to output growth.

Friedman's empirical research on monetary trends over time led to important conclusions. The most notable conclusions were that (1) short-run changes in money supply affect output while (2) long-run changes in money supply affect price level. Friedman's empirical work on monetary economics dropped the Keynesian myth of inflation caused by oil price increases or upward wage pressures. Friedman suggested that Fed should increase the quantity of money by a rate, ranging from 3 to 5 percent, determined in advanced. In a debate with Walter Heller, the chairman of Council of Economic Advisers to President Kennedy, Friedman argued that fiscal policy is an inefficient demand management tool in stabilizing economic fluctuations.

Milton Friedman was also a leading and indispensable libertarian voice throughout the world. Back in 1962, he published Capitalism and Freedom. The book spread the ideas of economic and individual liberty around the world. Friedman wrote that economic freedom is a neccesary condition for individual and political freedom. The ideas of ending all currency controls, removing barriers to trade, drastically cutting government spending, privatizing social security, introducing school vouchers and ending progressive income tax structure, spurred the creation of liberal freedom movements around the world.

As one of the rarest voices around the world, Friedman proposed the negative income tax as an alternative to progressive income taxes. As the wealthy take advantage of various loopholes, exemptions and tax breaks, progressive income tax does not achieve its purpose but, contrary to expectations, it further increases the income inequality. The basic idea behind the negative income tax is that general allowance would be raised to guarantee the minimum income level while the income above basic exemption would be taxed at the flat rate. The books written by Milton Friedman truly revolutionized the world. Free to Choose, coauthored with Rose Friedman, introduced free-market ideas to the general public by popularizing cases for limited government, the rule of law, and various way to end government monopolies.

Friedman's ideas reached the arena of public policy in many countries. Although heavily criticized by the left-wing intellectuals, Friedman visited Chile and delivered a lecture in Santiago on economic freedom. He advocated deregulation, privatization and the case for floating exchange rate. Due to the decision of Chilean Ministry of Finance, the exchange rate was fixed to the U.S dollar as a cure to heel rampant inflation. Since the Central Bank of Chile hadn't reduce the money supply, dollar-denominated foreign loans deteriorated Chilean trade balance. The decision to fix the exchange rate in the absence of accomodative monetary policy, imports were inflated. Because exchange rate was not floating, the elimination of fixed exchange rate and a disinflationary policy of the central bank unavoidably resulted in a two-year recession.

However, nothing could be further from the truth than then assertion that free-market reforms destabilized Chilean economy. Output contraction is a natural consequence of disinflationary policy, following the reduction of money supply. After exchange rate controls were eliminated, and after the launch of the privatization of state-owned companies and the social security, deregulation and free trade, starting in 1985, Chilean economy grew at the robust rate. Industrial production increased and the unemployment went down. In the long run, Chile's GDP per capita has been the highest in the region with a vibrant economy facing stable institutions and an enviable Friedman's ideas influenced many leaders around the world.

His ideas inspired Margaret Thatcher to undertake the course of free-market reforms. Prior to the launch of fiscal and monetary policy reforms, the British economy was recognized as the sick man of Western Europe, facing high annual rates of inflation and unsuccessful Keynesian economic policy attempt to cure the ailing economy by boosting aggregate demand through government deficits. After Lady Thatcher slashed marginal tax rates, introduced deregulation, liberalized labor market and proposed the privatization of state-owned industries, the British economy thrived with economic growth rates reaching historic highs.

Milton Friedman left a wealthy legacy of free-market thinking and efforts to promote individual liberty, free economy and political freedom. The financial crisis of 2008/2009 that spurred the economic recession intiated the beginning of heavy government intervention. The pursuit of ideas in favor of individual liberty and economic freedom is the best weapon againist the growth of government and the welfare state. With an iron will of the classical liberal, he successfully battled the failures of the welfare state and government intervention. He surely is one of the greatest economists and thinkers of the time.

1 comment:

Luka Fanlok said...

From me too.