Local Vocal: The death of a false scholar

by Mickey Colbert

Milton Friedman, the so-called economist from the University of Chicago who earned a Nobel Prize, died in the year 2006. People are supposed to take the words of an economist just as they take the laws of physics or the periodic table of the elements of chemistry – as established eternal truths that should never be questioned.

I heard Milton Friedman speak one time on PBS and I realized at once that he was a phony. He said that labor unions had not contributed one thing to society or made the lives of working people better. Yeah, right. And rain and snow do not put nitrogen in the ground, make crops grow or irrigate the land.

Before we had labor unions, people were made to work 16 hours a day, there were no minimum wages; children were forced to work in factories, workers made to work in unsafe mines that often collapsed and killed them; and people had no health insurance, retirement insurance or worker’s compensation for accidents on the job. Labor unions brought all these things about, not only for mill and mine workers but for professional people as well.

One great “gem” of Milton Friedman’s philosophy is that corporations have no responsibility other than to make a profit for their owners. They have no responsibility to provide safe working conditions for employees or pay them a decent wage; they have no responsibility to protect the environment and not pollute the air and water; they have no responsibility not to put dangerous chemicals into peoples’ food and drinks. Friedman claimed that the “free market” would take care of everything. Of course, the “free market” has never taken care of anything – not in antiquity or in modern industrial society – that’s why society has had to make laws to regulate corporate offenses and punish corporate crime. In ancient Babylon, for instance, the Code of Hammurabi laid down rules of business conduct for people and groups engaging in trade and agriculture and economic activities of all types, and in modern society, government has had to make laws regulating railroads, trusts, economic pyramids, working conditions of employees, the selling of stocks and bonds and white collar crime.

Under Milton Friedman’s philosophy that corporations have no other responsibility than to make a profit for the owners, it is perfectly economically justifiable for Chinese farmers and merchants to ship, and for US companies to import, frozen catfish laden with banned antibiotics, dried apples preserved with cancer-causing chemicals, scallops and sardines coated with putrefying bacteria, mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides, and toxic Chinese cosmetics and counterfeit Chinese medicines into the United States. Why, if hundreds or thousands of people die from the poisoned Chinese food and products, the companies that imported them were just making a profit for the owners and the “free market” will take care of the bad guys, or so the argument goes.

Under Milton Friedman’s philosophy that corporations have no other responsibility than to make a profit for the owners, it was perfectly economically justifiable for George Bush’s personal friend Ken Lay to falsify Enron’s books and rob its stockholders out of millions of dollars, for corporate executives of Purdue Frederick Co. to falsely claim that OxyContin was less likely to cause withdrawal symptoms and less subject to abuse than competitive medications while making millions of dollars in the fraudulent claims; for officials at other companies to hide the fact that asbestos was dangerous; for Tyco’s financial director to pilfer more than $100 million in corporate bonuses and loans; for WorldCom chief Bernard Ebbers to hide $11 billion in WorldCom debt; for insurance companies ACE, American International Group, the Hartford and Munich American Risk Partners to bid rig, for Ford Motor Co. to put the Pinto car on the market when it knew the car was unsafe.

I recently read an article in the The Nation magazine about the death of Milton Friedman. The article told about his making a speech to a group of people and someone asked about poverty. Friedman said that there was no such thing as poverty in America. Someone in the audience yelled “bullshit.” Of course, Milton Friedman probably never saw a slum in America, homeless people living under bridges, unemployed people living with relatives, people under the poverty line, people with homes destroyed by storms and floods, or any other victims of disasters. All Milton Friedman ever saw was the affluent walls and offices of the University of Chicago, and the walls and offices had no pictures of poverty on them.

Of course, Milton Friedman has had his admirers like right-wing plutocrats William F. Buckley, Pat Buchanan, Michael Novak, Paul Harvey, George Will and other kindred souls who were born into wealth and who never had to depend on the “free market” to regulate their earnings or the size of their elaborate homes. They can enjoy their opulence without the so-called free market.

The writer lives in Sophia.