Naomi Klein, a journalist known for her criticism of free-market economics, said she thought it was “tremendously courageous to take on the legacy of Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago” during her lecture Wednesday night at the International House.
She was referring to her own event as well as to a major political football on campus these days: the proposed Milton Friedman Institute that gained widespread publicity when over a hundred University professors signed a petition against the project, arguing that the name of the Institute suggests bias toward Friedman’s free-market views.
Klein began her speech benignly enough, relating an anecdote about frustrations with people who drive inefficient cars. Then came the zinger: “The Milton Friedman Institute is going to be the academic equivalent of a big yellow Hummer parked in the middle of your beautiful campus: a two hundred million dollar dinosaur gone extinct before the paint is dry,” she said.
Even before Klein assumed the podium, the controversy over the Friedman Institute had taken center stage. Divinity School Professor Bruce Lincoln, one of the original opponents of the Institute, brought the issue to the fore in his introductory speech.
“I want to thank all of you and all those beyond this room who share our concerns about the influence of Milton Friedman, Chicago School Economics, neoliberalism, crony capitalism, and the Milton Friedman Institute,” he said.
Lincoln, who helped form the Committee for Open Research on Economy and Society (CORES) to protest the Institute, did not hesitate to criticize the seven professors serving on the Institute’s faculty committee. They all declined an invitation to debate Klein at the event, he told the audience.
“Some were out of town, some were disinterested, some don’t think, some thought it was beneath their dignity to speak with a journalist,” he said. “Beyond the seven, we asked another half dozen, to the same results. So this is the debate that didn’t happen. You can infer the silence on the other side of that debate to mean whatever it is you think it means.”
Klein, who waived her normal speaking fee to attend an event she viewed as important, made it clear what she thought it indicated: “I have to say the unwillingness to debate tonight and, as I understand it, the unwillingness to debate with opponents in general—not just me, a lowly journalist, but other academics—doesn’t bode well for this claim that the Institute will in fact be open to a diversity of ideas and not stick with that that doctrinaire, narrow version of the world.”
Eric Posner, a professor on the Friedman Institute committee, confirmed that he declined the invitation because he is spending the quarter at New York University.
Professor James Heckman, also on the committee for the Friedman Institute, also confirmed that he declined a forum with Klein.
“I said to Bruce that I favored full freedom of speech here and at Chicago, but that Klein is a polemicist and not a serious scholar. She replaces discourse with shrieking and unsubstantiated allegations,” he said.
He added that he is “more than happy to defend my views in an academic forum.”
Another invitee cited disinterest.
“I just didn’t think it would be an interesting thing to do,” said economics professor Robert E. Lucas, Jr. “I didn’t want to read the book. I didn’t hear anything that favorable about it and there are a lot of books out there.”
He was not impressed by Klein’s credentials.
“In the case of Naomi Klein, I don’t know anything about her,” he said. “She’s written a book critical of Milton Friedman—so have dozens of other people. I don’t see why I have to spend a day of my life doing that.”
GSB Professor and Institute committee member John Cochrane also declined. He said that if the event was aimed to debate whether or not the University should have a Milton Friedman Insitute, “I don’t see why a journalist brought in from the outside who has written a very contentious book about Milton Friedman” would be helpful to the discussion.
“I would be delighted to debate Milton Friedman’s contribution to economics,” he added. “But somehow I don’t seem to think that’s what she was going to talk about.”
The other members of the committee could not be reached before the time of print.
Despite the wishes of its hosts, including CORES, the Center for Gender Studies, and Platypus, a campus Marxist group, the evening did not turn into much of a debate. Klein sketched out her view that the current economic crisis makes a major case against free-market economics.
“The crash on Wall Street, I believe, should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian communism,” she said.
The question-and-answer period did not yield conservative opposition, either. Oddly, Klein’s most outspoken critic fell to her left. A student who said he was with “a Trotskyist group on campus” shouted into the microphone that Klein “completely let the Democrats off the hook” and called for “a socialist revolution.” The comments drew cheers and jeers from the audience, including a shout of “It doesn’t work, buddy!”
Lincoln said he was somewhat disappointed not to hear more dissent. “I always think dialogues are better than monologues, but I was really pleased with the event in general,” he said.
When the final questioner called Klein “inspiring,” even the speaker acknowledged the lack of challenges from the crowd.
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate that soft ball.”