Was Milton Friedman a Closet Keynesian?

Commenting on a supremely silly and embarrassingly uninformed (no, Ms. Shlaes, A Monetary History of the United States was not Friedman’s first great work, Essays in Positive Economics, Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money, A Theory of the Consumption Function, A Program for Monetary Stability, and Capitalism and Freedom were all published before A Monetary History of the US was published) column by Amity Shlaes, accusing Ben Bernanke of betraying the teachings of Milton Friedman, teachings that Bernanke had once promised would guide the Fed for ever more, Paul Krugman turned the tables and accused Friedman of having been a crypto-Keynesian.

The truth, although nobody on the right will ever admit it, is that Friedman was basically a Keynesian — or, if you like, a Hicksian. His framework was just IS-LM coupled with an assertion that the LM curve was close enough to vertical — and money demand sufficiently stable — that steady growth in the money supply would do the job of economic stabilization. These were empirical propositions, not basic differences in analysis; and if they turn out to be wrong (as they have), monetarism dissolves back into Keynesianism.

Krugman is being unkind, but he is at least partly right.  In his famous introduction to Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money, which he called “The Quantity Theory of Money:  A Restatement,” Friedman gave the game away when he called the quantity theory of money a theory of the demand for money, an almost shockingly absurd characterization of what anyone had ever thought the quantity theory of money was.  At best one might have said that the quantity theory of money was a non-theory of the demand for money, but Friedman somehow got it into his head that he could get away with repackaging the Cambridge theory of the demand for money — the basis on which Keynes built his theory of liquidity preference — and calling that theory the quantity theory of money, while ascribing it not to Cambridge, but to a largely imaginary oral tradition at the University of Chicago.  Friedman was eventually called on this bit of scholarly legerdemain by his old friend from graduate school at Chicago Don Patinkin, and, subsequently, in an increasingly vitriolic series of essays and lectures by his then Chicago colleague Harry Johnson.  Friedman never repeated his references to the Chicago oral tradition in his later writings about the quantity theory, e.g., his essay on the quantity theory of money in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.  But the simple fact is that Friedman was never able to set down a monetary or a macroeconomic model that wasn’t grounded in the conventional macroeconomics of his time.

Friedman was above all else a superb applied price theorist who wound up doing a lot of worthwhile empirical work and historical on monetary economics, but his knowledge of the history of monetary theory seems to have been pretty much confined to whatever he learned from his teacher Lloyd Mints’s book, A History of Banking Theory in Great Britain and the United States and probably from a classic book, Studies in the Theory of International Trade, by Jacob Viner, another one of Friedman’s teachers at Chicago  That’s why when Friedman finally published an article in two part in the Journal of Political Economy in the early 1970s entitled “A Theoretical Framework for Monetary Analysis,” the papers pretty much flopped, and are now almost completely forgotten (but see here).  Actually Friedman’s intellectual forbears were really W. C. Mitchell and Friedman’s teacher at Columbia Arthur Burns from whom Friedman was schooled in the atheoretical, empirical approach of the old NBER founded by Mitchell.

But Krugman is not totally right either.  Although Friedman obviously liked the idea that the LM-curve was vertical, and liked the idea that money demand is very stable even more, those ideas were not essential to his theoretical position.  (Whether the stability of the demand for money was essential to his position would depend on whether Friedman’s 3-percent growth rule for the money supply is central to his thought.  Although Friedman obviously loved the 3-percent rule, I don’t think that objectively it was really that important to his intellectual position, his sentimental attachment to it notwithstanding.)  What really mattered was the idea that, in the long run, money is neutral and the long-run Phillips Curve is vertical.  Given those assumptions, Friedman could argue that ensuring reasonable monetary stability would lead to better economic performance than discretionary monetary or fiscal policy.  But Friedman, as far as I know, never actually considered the possibility of a negative equilibrium real interest rate.  That’s why, when we look for guidance from Friedman about the current situation, we can’t be completely sure what he would have said.  His comments on Japan suggest that he would have indeed favored quantitative easing.  But inasmuch as he did not explicitly advocate inflation, supporters and opponents of QE can make a case that Friedman would have been on their side.  My own view is that the argument that Friedman would have supported QE is not one of the five or even ten strongest arguments that could be made on its behalf.

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38 Responses to “Was Milton Friedman a Closet Keynesian?”


  1. 1 Marcus Nunes March 16, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    David
    In your dismissive comment on Friedman´s Monetary Framework, you may have thrown the “baby out with the water”. In the second (and important) article “A nominal theory of nominal income”, Friedman sounds like a bona fide MM:
    When elaborating on the “correspondence of the monetary theory of nominal income with experience”, Friedman writes:
    “In particular, the approach provides an interpretation of the empirical generalization that high interest rates mean that money has been easy, in the sense of increasing rapidly and low rates, that money has been tight, in the sense of increasing slowly, rather than the reverse”.
    In the section “Short-Run Adjustment of Nominal Income”, Friedman says:
    “For monetary theory, the key question is the process of adjustment to a discrepancy between the nominal quantity of money demanded and the nominal quantity supplied… What, on this view, will cause the rate of change of nominal income to depart from its permanent value (that I interpret as the level trend path it has been following for a long time)? Anything (maybe a house price crash and ensuing financial sector problems) that produces a discrepancy between the nominal quantity of money demanded and the quantity supplied, or between the two rates of change of money demanded and money supplied”.
    The post from a couple of weeks back that touches on “nominal stability” is here:

    http://thefaintofheart.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/on-bernanke-paying-lip-service-to-nominal-stability/

  2. 2 Marcus Nunes March 16, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    OOps! That´s a “Monetary (not nominal) theory of nominal income”

  3. 3 W. Peden March 16, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    “What really mattered was the idea that in the long run money is neutral and the long-run Phillips Curve is vertical.”

    While those were the two positions that really defined monetarism as something other than a particular kind of Keynesianism with its own liquidity preference theory and while the increasingly aggressive debate from the mid-1960s was primarily about those two propositions, it would be extremely difficult for a New Keynesian to allow for such a characterisation. That’s because it would mean that (a) Friedman’s side won and (b) in the 1960s and 1970s the New Keynesians would be considered a bunch of wild men, living in caves and unable to understand fire, by the bulk of the economics profession, just like the monetarists were.

    We’ve ended up with an accepted historical narrative of macroeconomics which stands on about as firm a foundation as the attribution of the cost-push inflation theory to Keynes stood back in the era of Keynesian hegemony.

  4. 4 W. Peden March 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Marcus Nunes,

    I haven’t read those articles before, but I think I might have to do so after those quotes…

  5. 5 Wonks Anonymous March 16, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    I had heard that Friedman just treated velocity (the inverse of the demand for money) as a constant, even if he didn’t literally believe that, as a “good enough” approximation.

    “His comments on Japan suggest that he would have indeed favored quantitative easing. But inasmuch as he did not explicitly advocate inflation, supporters and opponents of QE can make a case that Friedman would have been on their side.”
    In his “Reviving Japan” he discusses what would happen if the Japanese adopted his solution: “Higher monetary growth will have the same effect as always. After a year or so, the economy will expand more rapidly; output will grow, and after another delay, inflation will increase moderately. A return to the conditions of the late 1980s would rejuvenate Japan and help shore up the rest of Asia.”
    Sounds like he’s calling for inflation, if not as an end in itself then as an inevitable outcome of the steps he recommends.

  6. 6 Mike Sax March 16, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    That Amity Shales would write something embarassingly uninformed is nothing new. I recognize it well from reading her hatchet job on FDR “FDR’s Folly.”

  7. 7 W. Peden March 16, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Wonks Anonymous,

    If he treated velocity as a constant, then it would be pretty weird for Friedman to both (a) think of the quantity theory of money as a theory of changes in the demand for money, (b) hold to a theory of the demand for money where it was determined by non-constant variables e.g. real income and interest rates, and (c) empirically investigate whether or not changes in velocity could be modelled using his theory of the demand for money.

    I suspect that the “Friedman regarded velocity as a constant” myth comes partly out of misunderstandings of the semantics of “stable and predictable” (day and night are stable and predictable, but not constant) and partly out of a bizarre belief that if velocity isn’t constant then the quantity of money must be an epiphenomenon.

  8. 8 W. Peden March 16, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    PS: “Sounds like he’s calling for inflation, if not as an end in itself then as an inevitable outcome of the steps he recommends.”

    Probably but not inevitable e.g. it’s possible that a permanent change in trend real output could coincide with the monetary stimulus.

    “Death is inevitable; taxes are only probable.”

  9. 9 Greg Ransom March 16, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    Helpful:

    Is Milton Friedman a Keynesian by Roger Garrison

    http://www.auburn.edu/~garriro/fm2friedman.htm

  10. 10 Marcus Nunes March 16, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    W. Peden
    Here I disagree with you. Thare are two “certainties” in life:
    1. If you were born, you will certainly die one day.
    2. Until you do die (and sometimes even after you´ve gone) you will pay taxes.

  11. 11 W. Peden March 16, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    Marcus Nunes,

    Taxation has only existed in a small fraction of the totality of human existence.

  12. 12 Marcus Nunes March 16, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    Agreed, but once instituted it will not go away. Incidentally, there must than be a positive correlation between taxes paid and lenght of life. Bottom line: Taxes are” good”.

  13. 13 Tas von Gleichen March 17, 2012 at 3:08 am

    I like to think that he would not have supported QE. The same goes for that he would not follow the Keynesian philosophy. Simply cause he believes in free markets without government intervention.

  14. 14 Bill March 17, 2012 at 5:33 am

    I would hope that Milton Friedman would not have supported “inflation” but rather supported 3% target for the growth path of nominal GDP. Given that nominal GDP fell below that growth path, he would have supported increasing base money enough to reach that path and decreasing it again if needed to keep nominal GDP from rising above that path.

  15. 15 W. Peden March 17, 2012 at 6:43 am

    Marcus Nunes,

    “Incidentally, there must than be a positive correlation between taxes paid and lenght of life.”

    True, although at the intra-national level that correlation will be driven by a third variable i.e. income.

    “Bottom line: Taxes are” good”.”

    It’s good that someone pays taxes. It’s also always good for the individual that they DON’T pay taxes. The happy medium, of course, is when there’s an efficient state that is limited to what it does optimally and consequently taxes can also be low.

    Tas von Gleichen,

    “I like to think that he would not have supported QE. The same goes for that he would not follow the Keynesian philosophy. Simply cause he believes in free markets without government intervention.”

    If the Fed had been bound by some nominal rule (an NGDP target or even a broad money aggregate k-percent rule) then far less QE would have been necessary, due to expectations effects. Bad monetary policy makes more intervention necessary, because once the central bank makes one mistake it has to act again to cover itself.

  16. 16 Marcus Nunes March 17, 2012 at 9:39 am

    W. Peden
    1. To have taxes you have to have income. So the more taxes, the more income, and the longer the life span. I agree with the efficiency aspect which would allow for lower taxes.
    2. You are right about MF NOT favoring QE. As Scott recently posted: “Monetary Policy should never be used to solve problems”

  17. 17 Luis H Arooyo March 17, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    An interesting and learning debate, but, David, your anti friedmanism amaze me a lot. Perhaps I am too old to change my mind, but I don’t think Friedman’s mistakes were so big. Reading you it seems as he was a mere propagandist with no original ideas.
    In any case I’m not completely friedmanite, because the velocity has not finally result so stable. I find some rigidities, and miss some idea about the inherente unstability of the financial “black box”.

  18. 18 David Glasner March 17, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    Marcus, Thanks for providing that very interesting excerpt from Friedman’s paper. The tone of my comments about Friedman was negative, as you and others have noted or complained about. I think that Friedman is overrated as a monetary economist. Almost everything worthwhile that he said, including the passage that you quoted, had been said earlier, and usually better, by others (very often Hawtrey, but not only Hawtrey). But Friedman acknowledged only the imaginary Chicago oral tradition. Now even though I believe that Friedman is overrated, I would never deny that he was a truly great economist who understood economics (price theory) at a very deep and profound level (almost as profoundly as Armen Alchian) and over and over again in his long career he showed tremendous insight in applying economic theory fruitfully in doing empirical research. But he contributed almost nothing to monetary theory. And on a personal level, despite his avowed libertarianism he was intolerant of opinions that he did not agree with. As Perry Mehrling documents in his wonderful biography of Fischer Black, Friedman more or less drove Black out of Chicago because Black dared to disagree with him about monetary theory. Black, of course, was right, and Friedman wrong. See pages 156-65.

    W. Peden, Not sure why accepting long run monetary neutrality and a vertical long-run Phillips Curve leads to conclusions a) and b). I do agree that the accepted historical narrative of macroeconomics is very far from accurate.

    Wonks Anonymous, I can’t imagine that any sane person ever literally believed that velocity was constant. But Friedman went to great (as unnecessary as they were implausible) lengths to argue that velocity was stable.

    Thanks for the “inflation will increase moderately” quotation. That makes it a bit harder, but not impossible, for anti-QE people to invoke Friedman’s authority for their position.

    Mike, I have read very little of what Amity Shlaes has written, and have not read anything that would suggest that further reading would be time well spent.

    W. Peden, In fact Friedman in the 1960s did argue that the evidence showed that the demand for money was interest inelastic and was very resistant to subsequent evidence that showed much greater interest-elasticity in the demand for money.

    Greg, Thanks for the link.

    Tas, The discussion we are having is mainly about Friedman’s monetary theory. On economic policy, he was against almost all forms of government intervention, but he did not view monetary policy as a form of government intervention in the economy if it was implanted in the appropriate way. What is appropriate of course is not always easy to identify.

    Bill, That sounds like a reasonable hypothesis.

    W. Peden, Good point about how bad policy leads to intervention.

    Luis, As I indicated in my earlier response to Marcus, I have deep reservations about Friedman’s work as a monetary economist and about the way he treated people with whom he disagreed. But I would never dispute that he was one of the greatest economists of the second half of the 20th century.

  19. 19 W. Peden March 18, 2012 at 2:19 am

    David Glasner,

    If Friedman ever thought that the demand for money was interest-rate inelastic, it was at most a RELATIVE interest-rate inelasticity (unless you want to argue that Friedman thought that it was interest-rate inelastic for a few years after 1959 and changed his mind, but that’s very uncharitable considering what he said later) since he was saying things like-

    “We [monetarists] insist that a far wider range of assets and INTEREST RATES be taken into account [in understanding the demand for money] – assets such as durable and semi-durable consumer goods, structures and other real property.” (Emphasis added.) (From “The Counter-Revolution in Monetary Theory.)

    By 1966 and his article “Interest Rates and the Demand for Money”, Friedman had explicitly rejected any suggestions he might have made the 1959 study of interest rates being irrelevant to the demand for money. In addition, a vertical LM curve monetarism with interest rate inelasticity is inconsistent with both the spirit and the letter of “The Quantity Theory of Money: A Restatement”. As Friedman put it when responding to Tobin’s criticisms (which assumed that Friedman was putting forward a vertical LM curve theory of money demand) –

    “Much of the rest of Tobin’s criticism of my article leaves me utterly baffled. We seem to be talking cross-purposes. I disagree far less with the substance of what he says than the views that he attributes to me — which repeatedly seem to me in clear and present conflict with what I have written.”

    Tobin’s (mis)interpretation of Friedman was characteristic of most Keynesians at the time and almost all of them since, including (of course) Krugman. The really important thing about Friedman’s theory, when one actually reads the original texts rather than relies on highly dubious sources like Tobin, is that it describes an economy with more than just money and bonds- an economy that arguably resembles real economies moreso than what he was opposing.

  20. 20 W. Peden March 18, 2012 at 2:24 am

    David Glasner,

    If we’re talking about my first (a) and (b), it implies (a) because on the key issue of the quantity theory of money vs. Keynesianism (long-run monetary neutrality) Friedman’s side has come out on top and it implies (b) because New Keynesians accept long-run money neutrality and a vertical Phillips Curve, so they would be in almost as much disrepute in the 1960s and 1970s as the monetarists were.

  21. 21 W. Peden March 18, 2012 at 7:52 am

    * Long-run money neutrality AND the long-run vertical Phillips Curve, although they’re essentially the same proposition except that the first deals with the relationship between of money & output and the second deals with the relationship between money & unemployment.

  22. 22 teageegeepea March 18, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    I’m not very familiar with Fischer Black’s work. Does Tyler Cowen gives an accurate summary?

  23. 23 David Glasner March 20, 2012 at 10:05 am

    W. Peden, Thanks for sharing that wonderful quote from Friedman about the broad range of assets relevant to the demand for money, apart from the interest rate on Treasuries. It actually echoes a statement he made in his 1956 introduction to Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money (“The Quantity Theory of Money: A Restatement”). The problem with that statement is that it is really more relevant to the factors relevant to understanding the determination of interest rates in general than in understanding the demand for money. The point is that the rate of interest is reflected in the valuation of all durable assets not just fixed income securities in which a rate of interest can be inferred from the value of the security. That is an enormously important and valid insight, but it has only limited relevance to the demand for money which obviously is more sensitive to close substitutes (e.g., short-term Treasuries) than to more distant substitutes (e.g., undeveloped land).

    At any rate, I don’t believe Friedman ever would have said that the demand for money was not a function of the rate of interest, but he eagerly sought and publicized any empirical evidence that the elasticity of demand was very low because it supported his policy proposals even though it was not strictly necessary to justify those proposals. Friedman was not inconsistent, but there was an element of opportunism in the way he handled the issue. Tobin like other Keynesian including Krugman just fell for his feint. It was a no lose proposition for Friedman.

    As for Monetarists being in disrepute in the 1960s and 1970s, you are probably thinking of the situation in Britain. Friedman was never in disrepute in America. He won the JB Clark award of the American Economic Association in the early 1950s, awarded every other year to the top American economist under 40. He introduced the idea of a natural rate of unemployment in his 1968 Presidential Address to the American Economic Association. He was always part of the establishment of the economics profession in the US.

    teageegeepea, Tyler is only addressing a very small part of Black’s work and not the part that I was referring to. Black was a very idiosyncratic economist, and I find much of his work difficult to understand, especially on a single reading. But it is worth making the effort to understand him. Read Mehrling’s book.

  24. 24 W. Peden March 20, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    I am almost entirely thinking of the situation in Britain, where the response to monetarism bordered on hysteria. In fact, at times it crossed into hysteria, partly because “monetarism” became a synonym for “Thatcherism”, largely due to the fact that most future Thatcherites like Keith Joseph (who actually influenced Thatcher more than she influenced him) were monetarists.

    There was also a more definite and more complete Keynesian revolution in Britain, such that non-Keynesians (like Dennis Robertson) were arguably bullied almost systematically by the Keynesians and in some quarters (particularly here in Cambridge) even the neo-classical synthesis was a step too far away from Keynes. Being a Keynesian meant that you were up-to-date, progressive and possessed of moral probity. As a result, monetarists ideas were greeted with the same good faith, scientific bonhomie and calm openess that Anglo-Saxon villagers had given to the Vikings.

    I agree that Friedman saw the utility of downplaying the importance of interest rates. I’d also add that, while he was generally good in recognising this in his technical articles, he was far more hesitant to mention them when addressing a popular audience. The main exception which I recall is an interview from the mid-to-late-1980s when he explained the change in the demand for M2 in the early 1980s as a result of changes in the return on holding deposits.

  25. 25 David Glasner March 24, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    W. Peden, Yes, I see. But my perspective is much different; I grew up recognizing Milton Friedman as one of the most famous economists in the US even before I learned anything about economics. That’ts why I was initially shocked to read you refer to Monetarists as being in disrepute in the 1960s and 1970s.

    I actually remember Keith Joseph quite well from reading about him in the mid 1970s when it was he who started to challenge the disastrous economic policies of Ted Heath within the Conservative Party. Enoch Powell had been doing so before that, but he was a nut, and had discredited himself with inflammatory racial rhetoric. It was only when Joseph made a series of politically damaging gaffes that he had to pass the baton to Mrs. Thatcher to actually challenge Heath for leadership of the Conservative party. Joseph was a much deeper thinker than Thatcher, but was not cut out to be the leader of a political party.

  26. 26 Benjamin Cole March 27, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Friedman explicitly advocated inflation for Japan. Read this:

    “INCREASE THE MONEY SUPPLY

    The surest road to a healthy economic recovery is to increase the rate of monetary growth, to shift from tight money to easier money, to a rate of monetary growth closer to that which prevailed in the golden 1980s but without again overdoing it. That would make much-needed financial and economic reforms far easier to achieve.

    Defenders of the Bank of Japan will say, “How? The bank has already cut its discount rate to 0.5 percent. What more can it do to increase the quantity of money?”

    The answer is straightforward: The Bank of Japan can buy government bonds on the open market, paying for them with either currency or deposits at the Bank of Japan, what economists call high-powered money. Most of the proceeds will end up in commercial banks, adding to their reserves and enabling them to expand their liabilities by loans and open market purchases. But whether they do so or not, the money supply will increase.

    There is no limit to the extent to which the Bank of Japan can increase the money supply if it wishes to do so. Higher monetary growth will have the same effect as always. After a year or so, the economy will expand more rapidly; output will grow, and after another delay, inflation will increase moderately. A return to the conditions of the late 1980s would rejuvenate Japan and help shore up the rest of Asia.”

    So, Friedman wants inflation to increase moderately. I agree with hm on this, for japan then and the USA now.

    Source: http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/6549

  27. 27 David Glasner March 27, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Benjamin, That looks pretty definitive to me. If so, I agree that there is very little basis to dispute that Friedman would have opposed supported QE in the US after 2008.

  28. 28 Benjamin Cole March 28, 2012 at 11:35 am

    David-

    No savvy.

    I think Friedman would have advocated for a lot of QE, until we had robust economic growth as long as inflation stayed below four percent or so (as measured by PCE).

    Did you read what Friedman wrote? He embraces aggressive QE until we see growth, and then moderate inflation. In the USA we have limp growth and almost no inflation.

  29. 29 David Glasner March 29, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Benjamin, I see why you were confused. I meant to say “supported” not “opposed.” I just corrected my reply to your quotation of what Friedman said.


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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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