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Sunday, September 19, 2021


Okay. I figured I was going to have to explain my deliberately provocative remark.


The productivity of labor has been rising steadily for millennia, both as a consequence of the invention of laborsaving devices (such as the saw, the hammer, the shovel, the spinning Jenny, the power loom, the wheel, the cart, the automobile, locomotive, and so forth) and as a consequence of the increased skill of workers. But in the capitalist system that Friedman celebrates and thinks of as the apotheosis of human development, the lion’s share of the benefits of this increase in productivity goes to the legal owner of capital in the form of profit. So it is that although productivity in the United States has risen by 400% since the 1950s, working men and women – or at least those of them who can find jobs – still work 40 hours a week or more, many of them compelled to take several jobs simply to pay for a decent life.


Suppose an automobile production plant in which 1000 employees work is automated, so that more cars can be turned out with only 200 employees. Any rational capitalist will invest in the automated machinery, dramatically reduce the workforce, and pocket the increased profits, while the lucky 200 who get to keep their jobs are trained on the new machinery and continue to work 40 hours a week. An alternative way of responding to the automation would of course be to divide the workers into five shifts, each of which would work two weeks on and six weeks off (very much like the workload of professors at elite private universities, but never mind that.)


Friedman cannot really imagine a world organized to benefit the workers rather than the capitalists so he makes jokes. Obviously, the rational solution would be to hire all of the men whose labor would be required to dig using shovels, then invest in steam shovels, and reduce the number of hours each man is required to work by 80 or 90% while keeping their wages unchanged.


No, Milton Friedman was not stupid, at least as intelligence is ordinarily measured in our society. He was quite quick-witted.  Nor was he ignorant, at least he was not ignorant of the things one was required to know in order to become a professor of economics at a great private university. Quite the contrary. Was he cruel? I do not know. Did he have a dog? Was he nice to the dog?


F Lengyel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Another Anonymous said...

Unless Friedman was willing to endorse a program which paid people a living wage even if they were not working, but rather endorsing maximizing efficiency regardless how many people are put out of work and not paid a living wage, then Friedman’s proposal did evidence a cruel person, because unless those not working were paid a living wage, they would not be able to buy food and shelter for themselves and their families. There is no question that Darwinian economics, as embodied in Friedman’s view of Capitalism, is cruel. And this is so even if Friedman was very king to his dog - king to dogs, but cruel to humans.

David Zimmerman said...

Judging from this thread, and from others on this blog on the topic of how to organize the rhythm and pace of work in a humane industrial society, the "New Work Movement," championed by the late Frithjof Bergmann, actually turns out to have some real plausibility, and well worth a second look.

Ahmed Fares said...

the lion’s share of the benefits of this increase in productivity goes to the legal owner of capital in the form of profit

The benefits of an increase in productivity flow through to consumers. Take farming for example. Lots of productivity improvements and yet the farmers still struggle. Consumers get lower food prices.

Any rational capitalist will invest in the automated machinery, dramatically reduce the workforce, and pocket the increased profits

The excess profits are competed away. Take the example of barcode scanners. The first supermarket to introduce scanners uses the reduced labor costs to lower its prices and grab market share. The other supermarkets follow suit, and we the consumers end up with lower food prices.

If they don't do that, the increased profits will attract more capital into the supermarket business and the new competition will reduce prices that way. Either way, we get lower food prices.

marcel proust said...

My opinion is that overall, Friedman's net effect on the world was strongly negative (Chile is probably the most widely known evidence for that, but there are plenty of other strikes against him). However, it is worthwhile not to argue against a caricature of him. For instance, he is credited with developing the idea of a negative income tax to reduce poverty, and he opposed the major escapades of Bush père and fils in the Middle East, the latter in opposition to his wife.

Jerry Brown said...

There very well could be circumstances that make that particular country's labor intensive road building methods better for it than using a more capital intensive method- even if the capital intensive method reduced the amount of labor required to build the road. Perhaps that country could only acquire the big construction machines by importing them using scarce foreign currency reserves that it otherwise needed to use to import food or fuel or other necessities. And perhaps the country had plenty of idle labor that wanted to be employed but was not able to find employment otherwise. Why not use the resource they have in abundance in the most efficient way they can- as in using shovels rather than spoons, in order to avoid using resources they do not have enough of to begin with.

As usual, Friedman's little quip skips over these reasonable possibilities in order to make his ideological points. As he did many times throughout his life. Not a fan of him.

Another Anonymous said...

“The Queen’s Gambit” has won two Emmy awards, for Best Director in a Limited Series, and Outstanding Limited Series. Bravo!

“The Kominsky Method” came up short.

Jerry Fresia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerry Fresia said...

Blogger Jerry Fresia said...
"This, I reflected, is Friedman at his very best: stupid, ignorant, and cruel."

Indeed. And we may add that Friedman's thinking is also an example of an "absurd form of thought" that has "social value." To wit, as the professor explained in a post long ago:

"The form of thought whose absurdity he has just revealed has social validity both on the side of the capitalist and on the side of the worker. This mode of thought has social validity for the capitalist because only by conforming his thought and action to it can he function in a competitive marketplace and earn the going rate of return on his investment. If he makes the mistake of thinking of these commodities actually as useful objects made by the labor of real men and women and designed to satisfy human needs, he may become distracted by the reality of the factory or workplace and find himself lavishing more labor on a fabric than will be justified in the market by the price he can get for it. As I say in Moneybags, he will become like a tailor seduced by the feel of fine cloth between his fingers or like a whiskey priest drunk on sacramental wine.

"On the side of the workers, the necessity that they stifle their natural desires, instincts, and creative efforts in their labor in order to work steadily, efficiently, and in a fashion that produces an adequate profit for their employers will of course have a severely destructive effect on their human being. But in so far as they yield to that necessity and even embrace it, they will be sought after by employers, praised by their families as good workers, blessed by their priests, and even publicly celebrated as Stakhanovites. Thus the capitalist way of viewing productive labor, assumed without question by Ricardo or the other classical Political Economists, is a form of thought that has, in Marx’s felicitous phrase, 'social validity,' despite being absurd."

Another Anonymous said...

The news tonight reports that efforts by the Democrats to include immigration reform in their budget bill in order to protect the Dreamers, which they are attempting to pass via Senate reconciliation, and therefore requires that the proposed legislation have an overriding effect on the budget, has been given the kabosh by the Senate Parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, who has ruled that the immigration proposal does not sufficiently affect the budget in order to be adopted by a vote of 51 Senators, rather than 60.

Who the hell is the Senate Parliamentarian, that she can tell the entire Senate what they can and cannot legislate? Where in the Constitution is her position created? And guess what, Ms. MacDonough was appointed by the former Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid. in 2012. Democrats once more shooting themselves in the foot. Would a Senate Parliamentarian appointed by Mitch McConnell have been so punctilious about legislation which the Republicans wanted to ram through using reconciliation? Of course not.

aaall said...

AA this may interest you as the author was, until recently, a tenured law prof:

Democrats are in a normal political party in a deeply flawed system. Republicans who aren't cadres get primaried.

Another Anonymous said...


Interesting article. Thank you for the link.

Todd Gitlin said...

You're reminding me of a visit to Denmark c. 1996. We flew in to Copenhagen. The fellow who picked us up at the airport apologized for the sloppiness of the lounge. Sloppiness? To me it looked like JFK or LaGuardian on a so-so day, so what was he talking about? (I was polite.) He explained that there was a general strike underway. The trade union demand, nationally, was to expand the extant four weeks of paid vacation to six. Within a few days, there was a rally in the center of town--a half million strong. A few days after that, the unions settled for a compromise--FIVE weeks of paid vacation. I know that Denmark has subsequently retreated from social democracy in some respects (immigration, I think, one of them) but still, that high water mark was high.