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PBS's Puff Piece on Milton Friedman

By Froma Harrop

Milton Friedman said some pretty wild things, but don't expect to hear them in a PBS documentary about him airing Jan. 29. "The Power of Choice" is more a sales job for a conservative, anti-government ideology than an honest look at the Nobel economist, who died recently. Leaving Friedman's more radical views on the cutting room floor was a politic move.

"The Power of Choice" spends much time paying tribute to Reaganomics -- the theory, not what Ronald Reagan actually did. You know that something is amiss when the narrator says with a straight face, "Reagan limits government spending ... and supports a monetary policy long advocated by Milton."

Richard Parker, a Harvard economist whose brief appearances are supposed to provide "balance," finds this and other elements of the film off-the-wall. Reagan limited government spending??!!

"The American government under Ronald Reagan consumed the highest percentage of GDP in history" except for three years during World War II, Parker points out. Parker wrote the definitive biography on Friedman's archrival, the Keynesian economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

Some of Milton's monetary prescriptions for fighting inflation were tried during the Reagan administration, then dumped after they helped push America into the worst recession since the Great Depression. (Friedman's monetarism, honed at the University of Chicago, held that controlling the money supply was the best way to cure inflation.) Friedman later backed away from his central theory, telling the Financial Times in 2003: "The use of quantity money as a target has not been a success. ... I'm not sure I would as of today push it as hard as I once did."

None of that gets into the documentary.

For dramatic contrast, the film portrays Friedman as a warm-hearted, freedom-loving son of poor immigrants, pitted against Galbraith, an elitist, micromanaging son of Harvard. That Galbraith was a small-town boy who studied agricultural economics and animal husbandry at Ontario Agricultural College does not get said.

Also unmentioned were parts of the Friedman philosophy that might not win over the folks back home. Friedman wanted to abolish Social Security and the national parks. And the conservative base might not warm to his libertarian calls for decriminalizing drugs -- an idea I happen to applaud -- and for legalizing prostitution.

Friedman went ballistic in the 1970s when he learned that his nemesis Galbraith was making a 13-part television series on economics. The show was called "The Age of Uncertainty."

As Parker tells the story, "Friedman flew to London and vitriolically denounced the series -- while it was still in production and without having seen it -- in front of a right-wing think tank." Panicked by an onslaught of angry Republicans, PBS accepted Friedman's demand that a conservative rejoinder be tacked onto every show.

"Ken made sure that Milton was not one of the 13 conservatives allowed to respond," Parker notes.

In 1980, Friedman and his wife, Rose, had their own 10-part series, "Free to Choose." Its producer made the new documentary.

Certain contradictions in the Friedman story can't be avoided. The man who railed against government programs attended Rutgers University on a scholarship, courtesy of New Jersey's taxpayers. He and Rose got through the Depression working federal jobs in Washington.

A superb mathematician, Friedman was widely revered as a technical economist. And he did good service shaking up economic and social dogma with fresh ideas. A rigorous discussion of them would have made the documentary more interesting.

Clearly, this is not scholarship but a political work. The Milton Friedman we see in "The Power of Choice" is a "mild-mannered professor" whose free-market conservatism created economic miracles on four continents. Nothing wrong with politically agenda-ed documentaries. PBS runs them all the time. But some honest labeling would have been appreciated.

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate

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