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Who Was Milton Friedman?

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Everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of the paper,” wrote MIT’s Robert Solow in 1966. For decades, Milton Friedman’s public image and fame were defined largely by his pronouncements on monetary policy and his creation of the doctrine known as monetarism. It’s somewhat surprising to realize, then, that monetarism is now widely regarded as a failure, and that some of the things Friedman said about “money” and monetary policy—unlike what he said about consumption and inflation—appear to have been misleading, and perhaps deliberately so.

To understand what monetarism was all about, the first thing you need to know is that the word “money” doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Economese that it does in plain English. When economists talk of the money supply, they don’t mean wealth in the usual sense. They mean only those forms of wealth that can be used more or less directly to buy things. Currency—pieces of green paper with pictures of dead presidents on them—is money, and so are bank deposits on which you can write checks. But stocks, bonds, and real estate aren’t money, because they have to be converted into cash or bank deposits before they can be used to make purchases.

If the money supply consisted solely of currency, it would be under the direct control of the government—or, more precisely, the Federal Reserve, a monetary agency that, like its counterpart “central banks” in many other countries, is institutionally somewhat separate from the government proper. The fact that the money supply also includes bank deposits makes reality more complicated. The central bank has direct control only over the “monetary base”—the sum of currency in circulation, the currency banks hold in their vaults, and the deposits banks hold at the Federal Reserve—but not the deposits people have made in banks. Under normal circumstances, however, the Federal Reserve’s direct control over the monetary base is enough to give it effective control of the overall money supply as well.

Before Keynes, economists considered the money supply a primary tool of economic management. But Keynes argued that under depression conditions, when interest rates are very low, changes in the money supply have little effect on the economy. The logic went like this: when interest rates are 4 or 5 percent, nobody wants to sit on idle cash. But in a situation like that of 1935, when the interest rate on three-month Treasury bills was only 0.14 percent, there is very little incentive to take the risk of putting money to work. The central bank may try to spur the economy by printing large quantities of additional currency; but if the interest rate is already very low the additional cash is likely to languish in bank vaults or under mattresses. Thus Keynes argued that monetary policy, a change in the money supply to manage the economy, would be ineffective. And that’s why Keynes and his followers believed that fiscal policy—in particular, an increase in government spending—was necessary to get countries out of the Great Depression.

Why does this matter? Monetary policy is a highly technocratic, mostly apolitical form of government intervention in the economy. If the Fed decides to increase the money supply, all it does is purchase some government bonds from private banks, paying for the bonds by crediting the banks’ reserve accounts—in effect, all the Fed has to do is print some more monetary base. By contrast, fiscal policy involves the government much more deeply in the economy, often in a value-laden way: if politicians decide to use public works to promote employment, they need to decide what to build and where. Economists with a free-market bent, then, tend to want to believe that monetary policy is all that’s needed; those with a desire to see a more active government tend to believe that fiscal policy is essential.

Economic thinking after the triumph of the Keynesian revolution—as reflected, say, in the early editions of Paul Samuelson’s classic textbook*—gave priority to fiscal policy, while monetary policy was relegated to the sidelines. As Friedman said in his 1967 address to the American Economic Association:

The wide acceptance of [Keynesian] views in the economics profession meant that for some two decades monetary policy was believed by all but a few reactionary souls to have been rendered obsolete by new economic knowledge. Money did not matter.

Although this may have been an exaggeration, monetary policy was held in relatively low regard through the 1940s and 1950s. Friedman, however, crusaded for the proposition that money did too matter, culminating in the 1963 publication of A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960, with Anna Schwartz.

Although A Monetary History is a vast work of extraordinary scholarship, covering a century of monetary developments, its most influential and controversial discussion concerned the Great Depression. Friedman and Schwartz claimed to have refuted Keynes’s pessimism about the effectiveness of monetary policy in depression conditions. “The contraction” of the economy, they declared, “is in fact a tragic testimonial to the importance of monetary forces.”

But what did they mean by that? From the beginning, the Friedman-Schwartz position seemed a bit slippery. And over time Friedman’s presentation of the story grew cruder, not subtler, and eventually began to seem—there’s no other way to say this—intellectually dishonest.

In interpreting the origins of the Depression, the distinction between the monetary base (currency plus bank reserves), which the Fed controls directly, and the money supply (currency plus bank deposits) is crucial. The monetary base went up during the early years of the Great Depression, rising from an average of $6.05 billion in 1929 to an average of $7.02 billion in 1933. But the money supply fell sharply, from $26.6 billion to $19.9 billion. This divergence mainly reflected the fallout from the wave of bank failures in 1930–1931: as the public lost faith in banks, people began holding their wealth in cash rather than bank deposits, and those banks that survived began keeping large quantities of cash on hand rather than lending it out, to avert the danger of a bank run. The result was much less lending, and hence much less spending, than there would have been if the public had continued to deposit cash into banks, and banks had continued to lend deposits out to businesses. And since a collapse of spending was the proximate cause of the Depression, the sudden desire of both individuals and banks to hold more cash undoubtedly made the slump worse.

Friedman and Schwartz claimed that the fall in the money supply turned what might have been an ordinary recession into a catastrophic depression, itself an arguable point. But even if we grant that point for the sake of argument, one has to ask whether the Federal Reserve, which after all did increase the monetary base, can be said to have caused the fall in the overall money supply. At least initially, Friedman and Schwartz didn’t say that. What they said instead was that the Fed could have prevented the fall in the money supply, in particular by riding to the rescue of the failing banks during the crisis of 1930–1931. If the Fed had rushed to lend money to banks in trouble, the wave of bank failures might have been prevented, which in turn might have avoided both the public’s decision to hold cash rather than bank deposits, and the preference of the surviving banks for stashing deposits in their vaults rather than lending the funds out. And this, in turn, might have staved off the worst of the Depression.

An analogy may be helpful here. Suppose that a flu epidemic breaks out, and later analysis suggests that appropriate action by the Centers for Disease Control could have contained the epidemic. It would be fair to blame government officials for failing to take appropriate action. But it would be quite a stretch to say that the government caused the epidemic, or to use the CDC’s failure as a demonstration of the superiority of free markets over big government.

Yet many economists, and even more lay readers, have taken Friedman and Schwartz’s account to mean that the Federal Reserve actually caused the Great Depression—that the Depression is in some sense a demonstration of the evils of an excessively interventionist government. And in later years, as I’ve said, Friedman’s assertions grew cruder, as if to feed this misperception. In his 1967 presidential address he declared that “the US monetary authorities followed highly deflationary policies,” and that the money supply fell “because the Federal Reserve System forced or permitted a sharp reduction in the monetary base, because it failed to exercise the responsibilities assigned to it”—an odd assertion given that the monetary base, as we’ve seen, actually rose as the money supply was falling. (Friedman may have been referring to a couple of episodes along the way in which the monetary base fell modestly for brief periods, but even so his statement was highly misleading at best.)

By 1976 Friedman was telling readers of Newsweek that “the elementary truth is that the Great Depression was produced by government mismanagement,” a statement that his readers surely took to mean that the Depression wouldn’t have happened if only the government had kept out of the way—when in fact what Friedman and Schwartz claimed was that the government should have been more active, not less.

Why did historical disputes about the role of monetary policy in the 1930s matter so much in the 1960s? Partly because they fed into Friedman’s broader anti-government agenda, of which more below. But the more direct application was to Friedman’s advocacy of monetarism. According to this doctrine, the Federal Reserve should keep the money supply growing at a steady, low rate, say 3 percent a year—and not deviate from this target, no matter what is happening in the economy. The idea was to put monetary policy on autopilot, removing any discretion on the part of government officials.

Friedman’s case for monetarism was part economic, part political. Steady growth in the money supply, he argued, would lead to a reasonably stable economy. He never claimed that following his rule would eliminate all recessions, but he did argue that the wiggles in the economy’s growth path would be small enough to be tolerable—hence the assertion that the Great Depression wouldn’t have happened if the Fed had been following a monetarist rule. And along with this qualified faith in the stability of the economy under a monetary rule went Friedman’s unqualified contempt for the ability of Federal Reserve officials to do better if given discretion. Exhibit A for the Fed’s unreliability was the onset of the Great Depression, but Friedman could point to many other examples of policy gone wrong. “A monetary rule,” he wrote in 1972, “would insulate monetary policy both from arbitrary power of a small group of men not subject to control by the electorate and from the short-run pressures of partisan politics.”

  1. *

    See Paul A. Samuelson, Economics: The Original 1948 Edition (McGraw-Hill, 1997).

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