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Steve Mariotti

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My Week With Milton Friedman, Part 1

Posted: 09/04/2012 11:34 am

It was April 1975 and I was filled with excitement and pride, as a newly minted 22-year-old graduate of the University of Michigan's business school. I felt that my research on trade cycle theory methodology was going to change the world. When two well-known economists, Paul McCracken and Gardner Ackley -- each of whom had chaired the Council of Economic Advisers -- spoke highly of me and my work, it was heady stuff. I thought that I was "on my way."

My knowledge of theoretical economics and strong interest in business led me to the Mount Pelerin Society (an elite group for economists). My great desire was to attend one of their conferences. As it happened, there was one coming up, in August, and it was to be held at Hillsdale College in Michigan, not much more than a hundred miles south of my home town of Flint. I began a letter-writing and phone campaign to Professor George Roche of Hillsdale. With my confidence at an all-time high, I sent drafts of numerous research papers to Professor Roche, and also to the world-renowned Milton Friedman, Mount Pelerin's most famous member.

These were largely ignored. Frustrated and discouraged, I turned to entrepreneurial endeavors in Flint, selling Avon products door to door, and using the opening of showing cosmetics to also offer home fire alarm equipment. After work, I kept up my letter writing to Hillsdale, asking for any kind of position at the upcoming conference.

One of my letters was to Professor Friedman himself. My enclosed paper, the first-ever statistical test of Friedrich Hayek's business cycle theory, espoused a different viewpoint from Professor Friedman's theory of monetarism. I was clearly expecting words of approval at my boldness, and a ticket of admission to the conference. My request was to work for him as his assistant.

Several weeks later, Professor Friedman sent the paper back to me with a note written at the top of the first page: "Interesting/good paper. As you have done, methodology should be empirical, but not based on the a priori reasoning of the priesthood of praxeology. Solid A. I do not need an assistant right now. Keep up good work."

To my surprise, Professor Roche's assistant called the same day I got the letter: "We would like you to come and be a liaison with our Hillsdale students for the Mount Pelerin conference. You'll be an intern, stay in a dorm, help clean up. We will cover your expenses."

I was in!

In a follow-up note, Friedman wrote: "I would enjoy meeting you at Hillsdale." (He told me later that he had called Professor Roche on my behalf.) Until the few weeks to the conference, books about microeconomics, business cycle theory, and statistics became my best friends. I needed to refine my knowledge and be ready, in case my chance to contribute finally came! A month later I was part of the team, picking up Mount Pelerin members, the top economists in the world, as they landed in Detroit, en route to Hillsdale.

I first saw Dr. Friedman in the lobby of the main building of the college and immediately began to relate my theories in person. He listened politely while I went on and on about my research on the lengthening of the production structure, and how it could be measured through statistics, and how interest rates were informational signals to entrepreneurs telling them to start new businesses, or not. At some point, Professor Friedman laughed in his characteristic good-natured way, shrugged, and simply began to talk over me, ignoring my poor manners.

My first intern assignment was to be an assistant cook. Since my culinary skills were non-existent, I talked my way into a dorm-cleanup role, but kept out of sight during staff intern meetings. I openly exploited my lowly station at the conference to network with the conference members and, not surprisingly, this did not go over well with the other interns. However, I also happily performed my cleanup duties.

Read Part 2 here.

 
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