The Friedman biodoc stunk

Thanks to work, I wasn’t able to make it over to the memorial service held in honor of Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago yesterday. So I was really looking forward to watching “The Power of Choice: The Life and Ideas of Milton Friedman” on PBS last night. The program started off with a tedious examination of life in post-Soviet Estonia that had the peculiar virtue of being almost entirely Milton-free, and it never got much better.

Perhaps I wasn’t the target audience for this picture, but I wanted to see old film of Friedman at his feisty best testifying in Congress, being interviewed on TV and lecturing around the world. I wanted to hear other economists talk about the impact Friedman’s scholarship had on their thinking, how it shaped economic policy, and how certain ideas such as ending drug prohibition or breaking up the government education monopoly seem to have hit roadblocks. There was very, very little of that. Instead, there was an overlong segment about the Chilean wine industry.

The filmmakers clearly were trying to ape the success of the “Free to Choose” series by illustrating Friedman’s impact in different areas of the world, but without Friedman there as our enthusiastic guide these segments came off looking like they were produced by the local chambers of commerce.

Moreover, the actual discussion of Friedman’s ideas was so spare that I defy anyone whose only knowledge of them was this documentary to tell me (1) what monetary theory is and (2) why untrammeled inflation is so dangerous to economic growth and human liberty.

On the personal level, there were a lot of interesting facets that were left unexplored. What impact did Milton’s poverty-stricken, son-of-immigrants childhood have on his worldview? How was he able to form such strong working relationships with women, both his wife Rose and Anna Schwartz, during an era of rampant sexism? How did Friedman balance the dual roles of economic scholar and advocate for freedom? How was he able to maintain such a friendly disposition toward his intellecutal opponents while advocating radical views?

The only Friedman book I’ve read is “Capitalism and Freedom,” so it’s not as though I’m an expert on his work and so bound to be disappointed by a TV documentary. The filmmakers had a whole hour and a half to cover this material, and they fell down on the job plain and simple. A real disappointment.

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)