Saturday, January 27, 2007

Krugman on Milton Friedman's free marketeering

[From The New York Review Of Books article, Who Was Milton Friedman?, by Paul Krugman.]

Consider first the macroeconomic performance of the US economy. We have data on the real income—that is, income adjusted for inflation—of American families from 1947 to 2005. During the first half of that fifty-eight-year stretch, from 1947 to 1976, Milton Friedman was a voice crying in the wilderness, his ideas ignored by policymakers. But the economy, for all the inefficiencies he decried, delivered dramatic improvements in the standard of living of most Americans: median real income more than doubled. By contrast, the period since 1976 has been one of increasing acceptance of Friedman's ideas; although there remained plenty of government intervention for him to complain about, there was no question that free-market policies became much more widespread. Yet gains in living standards hav been far less robust than they were during the previous period: median real income was only about 23 percent higher in 2005 than in 1976

Part of the reason the second postwar generation didn't do as well as the first was a slower overall rate of economic growth—a fact that may come as a surprise to those who assume that the trend toward free markets has yielded big economic dividends. But another important reason for the lag in most families' living standards was a spectacular increase in economic inequality: during the first postwar generation income growth was broadly spread across the population, but since the late 1970s median income, the income of the typical family, has risen only about a third as fast as average income, which includes the soaring incomes of a small minority at the top.

This raises an interesting point. Milton Friedman often assured audiences that no special institutions, like minimum wages and unions, were needed to ensure that workers would share in the benefits of economic growth. In 1976 he told Newsweek readers that tales of the evil done by the robber barons were pure myth:

"There is probably no other period in history, in this or any other country, in which the ordinary man had as large an increase in his standard of living as in the period between the Civil War and the First World War, when unrestrained individualism was most rugged."

(What about the remarkable thirty-year stretch after World War II, which encompassed much of Friedman's own career?) Yet in the decades that followed that pronouncement, as the minimum wage was allowed to fall behind inflation and unions largely disappeared as an important factor in the private sector, working Americans saw their fortunes lag behind growth in the economy as a whole. Was Friedman too sanguine about the generosity of the invisible hand?

To be fair, there are many factors affecting both economic growth and the distribution of income, so we can't blame Friedmanite policies for all disappointments. Still, given the common assumption that the turn toward free-market policies did great things for the US economy and the living standards of ordinary Americans, it's striking how little support one can find for that proposition in the data.