Milton Friedman, one of my heroes, died today at 94. He is one of the few popular economists who was also an academic giant. When I teach economics, it’s amazing how often his name comes up. We were lucky to have him live so long. His memoir, co-authored with his wife Rose, was a joy to read. He’s done so much, I don’t have time to summarize his accomplishments. I’ll just say thank you.
Addendum: Austan Goolsbee explains one of the reasons Friedman was so influential to economics.
What struck me as I talked with my colleagues yesterday was how Mr. Friedman’s legacy among economists is in some ways similar but in some ways quite different from the public view. His manner of research, his personality, even the topics he studied spawned a great deal of the economics we know today — even among economists whose politics differ greatly from his. A striking number of topics he worked on, for example, ultimately developed into other people’s Nobel awards.
One of Mr. Friedman’s major impacts on economics was in establishing a basic worldview. Economics is not a game or an academic exercise, in that view. Economics is a powerful tool to understand how the world works. He used straightforward theory. He gathered data from anywhere he could get it. He wanted to see how well economics fitted the world. That view now holds sway throughout much of the profession.
Mr. Friedman was proof that a great economist could become famous for just talking about economics. But he wasn’t afraid to poke his nose in places where people said economists had no business being. He passed that attitude on to students like Gary S. Becker, who would win the Nobel in 1992, and in the wider profession, especially among a younger set of economists like Steven D. Levitt of “Freakonomics” fame.
Mr. Friedman’s legacy might mean laissez-faire politics to the outside world, but to economists — and especially Chicago economists — it is more about trying to understand how the world works and engaging in a debate about it.