- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 28, 2007

Recalling Friedman

Those wondering why the death of economist Milton Friedman, who died in November at the ripe old age of 94, made front page headlines in some quarters would do well to watch “The Power of Choice: The Life and Ideas of Milton Friedman,” a new PBS documentary airing tonight at 10 on Maryland Public Television’s Channel 22 and at 11 on WETA-Channel 26.

The 90-minute program is narrated by David Odgen Stiers (of “M*A*S*H” fame) and does an admirable job of explicating the life and influence of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Economics winner.

Mr. Friedman was born in New York City, the son of poor immigrants from Eastern Europe, but “The Power of Choice” begins in Estonia. The former Soviet republic, which has one of the strongest economies in Eastern Europe, instituted one of Mr. Friedman’s most controversial ideas — a 24 percent flat-rate income tax. All except the poorest pay this rate. It works exactly as Mr. Friedman predicted, we learn.

Not too many economists are so good at prophecies. If they were, they’d all be rich off the stock market.

Then again, not too many people might have predicted how Mr. Friedman would influence the world. One of his earliest jobs in Washington was at the Treasury Department, where the assignment was how to raise money for World War II. “The answer is a withholding tax, the first since the Civil War,” we hear. “Ironically, he will spend most of his life fighting to limit taxes and the size of government,” Mr. Stiers says in the narration.

The documentary also features Rose Friedman, Mr. Friedman’s wife of nearly 70 years. She would work alongside her husband, sharing a co-writing credit for the 1980 classic, “Free to Choose.” The best-selling book and its accompanying 10-part series on PBS introduced millions to free-market ideas.

“The Power of Choice” also features the views of such luminaries as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Nobel Laureate Gary Becker and the Friedmans’ son, David D. Friedman, who is a notable libertarian thinker in his own right.

What they aren’t as good at, though, is providing criticism. The documentary was made with the support of such groups as the John Templeton Foundation and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The result is a hagiography, albeit one that’s very well done. We do hear from one of Mr. Friedman’s most vociferous critics, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who says “Professor Friedman would blame everything from the First World War to the invasions of Genghis Khan on monetary policy.”

Still, with “The Power of Choice: The Life and Ideas of Milton Friedman,” there’s likely no better introduction to this man who helped change the world.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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