My Friendly Fights with Milton Friedman, Part II

When my book Economics on Trial (1991) was published, I prepared an advertisement with the headline: “Japan and Germany Win World War III,” followed by these words: “Their formula multiplies wealth so rapidly that they will achieve their goal of world domination by the year 2000.” In the ad, I referenced the sound economic model that had transformed war-torn Germany and Japan into economic powerhouses and strengthened their stock markets in one generation. The principles were high savings rates, low taxes on capital and investment, low inflation, balanced budgets, and free markets.

I sent a copy of my ad to Friedman, and he took no time debunking it. “This prediction is a bunch of nonsense,” he scribbled over the ad copy. “I will not live long enough to see it falsified, but you will. In the year 2000, the U.S. standard of living will be higher than the Japanese.” He was, of course, proven right.

Friedman’s anger flared again in the late 1990s, when we gathered in Vancouver for a Mont Pelerin Society meeting. Milton and Rose Friedman were in charge of the conference program. Its title was “Can Creeping Socialism Be Stopped?” In one of the breakout sessions I asked Friedman about his easy-money solution to Japan’s economic problems. I held up an article he published in The Wall Street Journal, “Rx for Japan,” in which he advocated a massive printing of yen to jumpstart the Japanese economy, while ignoring such free-market solutions as cutting taxes, deregulating, or opening up the Japanese economy. “Isn’t printing more money another example of creeping socialism?” I asked. He was not amused, and noted that, historically, increasing the money supply has stimulated economic recovery, and that fast monetary growth was necessary, given Japan’s fragile condition. I countered, “Ah, so there is a free lunch, after all, Dr. Friedman?” “A free disaster!” he interjected with high emotion. Afterward, Professor Jim Gwartney came up to me and said, “You attacked God today!” Indeed. Yet even free-market icons can make mistakes.

A year later, Milton and Rose were invited to speak at the New Orleans Gold Conference, an annual gathering of hard-money investors. After Milton spoke, he took questions from the audience. I tempted him with the question, “Who’s the better economist, Ludwig von Mises or John Maynard Keynes?” I knew Milton would answer straight; he didn’t care what gold bugs thought. “Keynes,” he proclaimed to a shocked audience. When asked who was the greatest economist ever, he didn’t say Adam Smith, but settled on Alfred Marshall, the British economist who invented supply and demand curves.

Rose dissented. I had never seen her disagree with her husband in public, but she stood up and said that Marshall was infamous for treating his wife poorly and refusing to support her professional career as an economist. In all my private meetings with the Friedmans, Rose was always graciously reserved and seldom if ever argued with her husband. I had heard a rumor that she differed with Milton on Austrian capital theory, and one time I asked her if this was true. She simply smiled and winked.

My most embarrassing moment with the Friedmans came later that evening when I invited them to dinner at the best restaurant in New Orleans, Commander’s Palace, along with two friends, Gary North and Van Simmons. After we ordered and exchanged greetings, Milton turned to me and asked in a serious tone, “Mark, why are gold bugs so passionate about gold?” It was a perfect opportunity to talk about the importance of “honest money,” a theme that Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and other Austrian economists have taught for years. I pulled out of my jacket pocket a large oversized $20 banknote, a “gold certificate” issued in the 1920s. Together we read the words spelled out on it: “This certifies that there has been deposited in the Treasury of the United States of America TWENTY DOLLARS IN GOLD COIN payable to the bearer on demand.” I then explained, “Milton, we’re passionate about gold because under the gold standard, there’s a contract between the government and its citizens. For every gold certificate issued, the government had to back it up with a $20 gold coin. Under a genuine gold standard, the Treasury can’t just print up money to pay their bills. It’s honest money.”

All along, I felt that Friedman was simply playing along, since after all, he was the world’s foremost monetary historian. I went on, “So, what kind of contract exists today between the government and its citizens? Milton, do you have a $20 bill?” He reached into his pocket and handed over a $20 bill. “See, the contract has completely disappeared. Now it only says ‘Federal Reserve Note.’ And the Fed doesn’t even pay interest!” I paused and said, “Milton, this $20 bill isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.” And I tore it up! I ripped Milton Friedman’s $20 Federal Reserve Note into a half-dozen pieces.

Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. He turned to me and said angrily, “Mark, you had no right to destroy my property!” Rose chimed in, “Yes, Mark, you shouldn’t have done that. That was Milton’s private property.” Gary North and Van Simmons stared in horror and didn’t say a word. Milton’s voice rose, and other dinner guests looked over at us and could see emotions rising. At this point, I was worried. My relationship with the Friedmans seemed to be ending that very night. Finally, I said, “Well, I suppose you want your money back?”

They assented heartily. So I reached into my pocket and pulled out a $20 St. Gaudens Double Eagle gold coin, handed it to Milton, and said, “Okay, here’s your $20!”

He looked startled and stared at the coin. I thought he would be pleased, but I was wrong. Suddenly, he handed it back to me. “I don’t want it!”

I gulped, struggling for words. “But Milton, it’s a gift. Here, take it. It’s a $20 gold coin, worth a lot more than a $20 Federal Reserve Note.”

“No,” he repeated emphatically. “I don’t want it.”

After an agonizingly pregnant pause, I finally figured out a solution. Setting the coin aside, I reached into my pocket, pulled out a fresh new $20 paper note, and handed it to him. “There, okay, will this help?”

He calmed down and took the $20 bill. Gathering up some courage, I brought out the gold coin again. “Look,” I said, as I handed it over to him, “look at the date.” He examined the coin again. “Oh, 1912 — my birth year!” He laughed haltingly. Rose looked on and smiled.

I explained that the entire evening was a set-up, an opportunity for me to give him a St. Gaudens Double Eagle gold coin minted in the year he was born. The coin was in a PCGS certificated plastic container with the words, “To the Golden Milton Friedman.” I told Milton and Rose that my friend across the table, Van Simmons, was a coin dealer and had gone to great lengths to find a 1912 Double Eagle, which was rare. Van added that it had been shipped overnight from Switzerland and had arrived only an hour before dinner. I think that only then did the Friedmans recognize what was going on. The next morning they came up and thanked me for the coin and my gesture of appreciation.

Throughout the evening Gary North — a well-known economic historian and gold bug — said nothing. But in the morning, he came up to me at the conference and said something profound. “Mark, I’ve thought all night about what happened at dinner at Commander’s Palace. You and I have an ideology of gold. And Milton has an ideology of paper money. Mark, last night you attacked his ideology!”

Milton and I never discussed the coin incident again. (I keep his torn-up $20 bill in my wallet as a keepsake.) We met on many other occasions, but I shall never forget our last lunch together in San Francisco. There for the Money Show, I took the opportunity to call him. We met at his favorite Italian restaurant, the North Beach. For the past few years he had walked with a cane and traveled only on cruises or in private jets. At age 94, he had weak legs, a serious heart condition (after two open heart surgeries in the 1980s), and was losing his eyesight. Yet his mind was still sharp.

We discussed the latest Nobel laureates in economics. “We’re running out of good names,” he said. I showed him a Photoshopped picture I had created of him standing next to the 6 foot 10 inch John Kenneth Galbraith, the premier Keynesian and welfare statist of the 20th century. Galbraith towered over the diminutive Friedman. Beneath the picture* was a funny line from economist George Stigler: “All great economists are tall. There are two exceptions: John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman.” Milton was so pleased with the photo and caption that he sent it to all his friends.

As we left, I asked him, “Do you think you’ll live to be 100?” He answered quickly, “I hope not!” But he was almost always upbeat about life, even to the end. He was not a religious man, but he expressed interest in religious topics near the end of his life. His favorite poem was Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” which ends, “ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” He discovered both in a full and complete life. I consider it a privilege and honor that I knew him.


Mark Skousen
Whiskey & Gunpowder