A birthday bash for the ages: U of C celebrates Friedman centennial

Two panels discussed the famous economist’s accomplishments and theories.

By Janey Lee

Students, faculty, and alumni gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman (A.M. ’33), who would have turned 100 this past July, in the Charles M. Harper Center on Friday night.

The event consisted of two panels, one on Friedman’s accomplishments in public policy and his views of the role of government, and one on his views of monetary policy and the macroeconomy. Among the three notable economists on each panel were Professor James Heckman, 2000 Nobel laureate, and Carnegie Mellon Professor Allen Meltzer, best known for his contributions in the documentation and applications of monetary policy.

The first set of panelists lauded Friedman’s insistence on revising theories to fit data, as opposed to arbitrarily fitting data into theories. Such theories were to be simple and concise, not muddled with nuances or exceptions.

“[Friedman] talks about two different stages but he really doesn’t like the distinction between creating a hypothesis and testing it because for him it was an inductive process,” said panelist and Chair of the Becker Friedman Institute Board of Overseers Edward Lazear. “It was doing this cycle of knowledge and I think that’s the important thing.”

Moreover, the panelists praised his steadfast confidence that the same few principles of economics could be used to answer broader questions both in academics and  in policy. “It’s the same guy speaking the same language no matter what you read,” said panelist Kevin Murphy, an economics professor at Booth and the Law School.

The second panel delved into the technicalities of Friedman’s theories, utilizing examples from current events like the 2008 housing crisis and the Federal Reserve’s recently implemented measures of quantitative easing.

The panels were followed by a celebratory dinner, during which fellow economist Gary Becker (Ph.D. ’55) delivered a glowing testimonial of his experiences with Friedman as a student, colleague, and close friend, describing Friedman as a “truth missionary” and an “ingenious inventor.”

The event was organized by the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, formed in June 2011 in collaboration with the U of C Department of Economics, the Booth School of Business, and the Law School.