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Book - Two Lucky People Two Lucky People
Milton and Rose D. Friedman Memoirs

Chapter 4
pages 33-37

Reprinted from Two Lucky People
published by the University of Chicago Press,
copyright © 1998 by The University of Chicago.
All Rights Reserved


Together at Chicago, 1932–33

{Milton} It was in 1932, at the depths of the depression, that I graduated from Rutgers. By that time, thanks to Arthur Burns and Homer Jones, I was no longer set on an actuarial career. My horizons had widened. I applied for scholarships to a number of universities and was fortunate to receive two offers of tuition scholarships: one, from Brown, in applied mathematics; the other, from the Chicago Economics Department. Awards that paid more than tuition, fellowships, as they were called to distinguish them from tuition scholarships, were few and far between and hardly ever available for first-year graduate students. By this time, I had definitely transferred my primary allegiance to economics, so the choice was easy. Yet my having a choice is also a striking example of the importance of purely random events. Had Homer not chosen to spend a couple of years teaching at Rutgers, I would almost certainly not have gone to Chicago, but would have taken the Brown offer, and had a wholly different life and career.

In writing about the choice subsequently,1 I referred to some famous lines of Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/ And sorry I could not travel both/ . . . I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

As I wrote then, I cannot say I took the less traveled one, but the one I took determined the whole course of my life.

The reason I chose as I did was not only, perhaps not even primarily, the intellectual appeal of economics. Neither was it simply the influence of Homer and Arthur, though that was important. It was at least as much the times.. . . The United States was at the bottom of the deepest depression in its history before or since. The dominant problem of the times was economics. How to get out of the depression? How to reduce unemployment? What explained the paradox of great need on the one hand and unused resources on the other? Under the circumstances, becoming an economist seemed more relevant to the burning issues of the day than becoming an applied mathematician or an actuary.2

I drove west to Chicago in the fall of 1932 with a couple of college friends, one of whom, Eugene Weiss, had a car and was headed for medical school at Northwestern.3 It was an eye-opening experience. I had just turned twenty, and had never before been west of the Delaware River. The farther west we went, the friendlier and more hospitable the people. That trend, as I discovered when I traveled to Rose’s home in Portland for the first time eight years later, continued beyond Chicago all the way to the West Coast.

My first year in Chicago, 1932—33, was my most difficult year financially. I did find a job as a lunchtime waiter at a restaurant on Ellis Avenue that was run by an elderly widow. It was across the street from the public entrance to Stagg Field, the university’s football stadium, named for Amos Alonzo Stagg, the famous football coach. The spot is now marked by a sculpture by Henry Moore commemorating the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, which was achieved in a squash racquets court under the stadium. As it happens, I played squash racquets in that court as a student and remember it well. The atomic experiments weakened the stadium structure so much that it had to be torn down. The building that housed the restaurant was also torn down many years ago in the course of building the Research Institutes.

The restaurant was crowded only on days when there was a football game in the stadium. For the rest of the time, it barely made expenses. My pay was one meal a day and a small room above the restaurant. I did manage also to be taken on as a salesman on commission on Saturdays at an O’Connor and Goldberg shoe store. However, as the most recent hire, I was allowed to serve a customer only when all the other clerks were busy. When my commission totaled seventy five cents after a twelve-hour day, I quit. All other attempts to find a paying job were unsuccessful. That was the first year that I did not meet my expenses from my own resources. I had to rely on a loan from my family of three hundred dollars, if my memory serves me right, supplied mostly by Helen, my telegraph-operator sister. I paid her back the next year out of the fellowship I received from Columbia.

In 1932, as now, the Economics Department had the deserved reputation of being one of the best in the country. The two stars on the faculty, Jacob Viner and Frank Knight, were joined by other eminent economists—Henry Schultz, Paul Douglas, Henry Simons, Lloyd Mints, Harry A. Millis, John Nef. Each had his special strength and left a unique imprint on the students. Controversies among faculty members, mostly on an intellectual basis, helped to make the department an exciting place to study, preserved an atmosphere of a search for the truth, and developed the tradition that what mattered in intellectual discourse was only the cogency of an argument, not the diplomacy with which it was stated, or the seniority or professional standing of the person who stated it. Equally important, a brilliant group of graduate students from all over the world exposed me to a cosmopolitan and vibrant intellectual atmosphere of a kind that I had never dreamed existed.

{Rose} I had already experienced the intellectual atmosphere of the University of Chicago for two years as an undergraduate, more through contact with Aaron’s friends on and off the campus than with fellow students. So, as a graduate student, the big change for me was increased contact with my fellow students.

Jacob Viner and Frank Knight were brilliant men who could hardly have differed more from one another. They alternated in teaching the first-year course in economic theory. Viner had an incisive and organized mind, was rigorous and not given to suffering fools gladly. Knight was far less organized, given more to philosophical and even sophistical reasoning. The same course was very different when taught by Knight than when taught by Viner. Many students, I among them, took the course from both men and learned from each.

The course in which Milton and I met (Economics 301, Price and Distribution Theory) was taught that quarter by Jacob Viner. It was the basic price-theory course at Chicago, taken by nearly every graduate student. Viner was an extreme disciplinarian in the classroom. Some students found the course forbidding and lived in fear of the man and of his subject. I found the course stimulating but the man forbidding, in part because of the tales I had heard as an undergraduate about how tough he was. The gossip was that he failed at least a third of the class every year. And because Aaron was on the faculty, I was nervous about embarrassing him by not making the grade. Viner opened a new world for both Milton and me. He presented economic theory with verve and color, making it an exciting subject. In Viner’s hands, economic theory was a coherent set of tools, to be used with care and the utmost attention to logical rigor, but to be judged primarily by its usefulness in understanding and interpreting important economic events. He presented economics as, in Alfred Marshall’s words, “an engine of analysis.”

Though Viner had few peers for quickness of mind and tongue or ability to grasp new ideas or to spot and expose fallacies, he was less open to admitting error himself. There was a famous episode in which he instructed a draftsman (Y. K. Wong, who later became an eminent mathematician) to draw a graph for an article on “Cost Curves and Supply Curves” in a way that incorporated a mathematically impossible relation between two curves. Viner comments in a footnote that his stubborn draftsman “saw some objection to this procedure which I could not succeed in understanding. I could not persuade him to disregard his scruples as a craftsman and to follow my instructions, absurd though they might be.”4 That footnote made Mr. Wong’s reputation among economists because his economics, and not only his mathematics, was correct.

As a brash student in Viner’s class, Milton had a somewhat similar experience. In illustrating some economic proposition on the blackboard with a special example, Viner differentiated a function incorrectly. It was a clear mistake, yet for the rest of the class period he maintained that his mathematics was correct, while Milton as stubbornly asserted that it was not. After the class was over, and the rest of the students had left, Viner quickly admitted his error. That taught Milton a lesson—though one that he has often disregarded. In later years, we translated the lesson into a maxim for our children: if you make a mistake and refuse to admit it, you hurt yourself twice, once when you make the mistake and again when you refuse to admit it.

Frank H. Knight taught the History of Economic Thought our first year. He can best be described by quoting from a talk by George Stigler, a fellow student of ours, at the memorial service for him on May 24, 1972:

He was a lovable, indomitable, improbable man, but his powerful influence did not derive from his eccentricities or his charm.

One great source of his influence was the purity of his devotion to the pursuit of knowledge. Frank Knight transmitted, to a degree I have never seen equaled, a sense of unreserved commitment to the truth.

He had an unfailing suspicion of authority, which, if anything, he may have overtaught some of us. Yet somehow his unwillingness to bow to any authority except reason did not lead him to arrogance but rather to a special sort of humility; in particular, there was not the slightest element of condescension in his relations with us students. He listened at least as hopefully to a suggestion from one of us as to one from a famous scholar and in fact it was sometimes downright embarrassing to be accorded the respect with which he awaited our inadequate views.

I can attest personally to this respect, as I had the good fortune to serve as Frank Knight’s research assistant from 1934 to 1936. Knight also instilled in his students a sense of skepticism which became part of their thinking and work—and, unhappily, in so doing discouraged some of them from making the contribution that they might otherwise have made.

Frank Knight was intensely intellectual, holding particular views with great conviction, but this did not prevent his abandoning them with equally great conviction. I recall his starting class one day with a diatribe about how absurd a particular interpretation of some author was, expressing amazement that any intelligent person could ever have held it, only to add, “of course, that was my view until” a short time ago. His copy of David Ricardo’s Principles was literally unreadable because of the detailed handwritten notes on nearly every page, testifying to repeated rereadings.

Stories about Knight abound. He reacted to his early background in a fundamentalist religious family by becoming religiously antireligious in later years. His younger brother Bruce, who taught at Dartmouth College at a time when we had a second home not far away, once told us the following story. At a Baptist revival meeting, his father required Frank, then twelve or thirteen, and his three younger brothers to sign written pledges to Jesus. After the meeting, Frank collected his brothers, made a fire behind the barn, and induced them to join him in consigning the pledges to the flames, saying, according to Bruce decades later, “Pledges and promises made under duress are not binding.” That was the Frank Knight we knew so well.

A Catholic priest doing graduate work in economics registered for Knight’s course one quarter. His presence in clerical garb was doubtless an irritation to Knight. After two weeks or so in the course, the priest politely complained to the chairman of the department, “I registered for a course in the History of Economic Thought, not one in the misdeeds of the Catholic Church,” and asked for, and received, a refund of the fee he had paid for the course.

During our first few months at Chicago in the fall of 1932, Knight gave one or more tongue-in-cheek lectures on “The Case for Communism,” subtitled “Why I Am a Communist, by an Ex-Liberal.” As we were walking out of the lecture room, we heard one (real) communist student say to another, “Knight means well, but I am afraid we will have to shoot him along with the rest.” When asked some years later for permission to publish the lectures, Knight is said to have responded, “I wish I could unpublish them.”5

1. In my contribution to Lives Chapter Four of the Laureates: Seven Nobel Economists, ed. William Breit and Roger W. Spencer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), pp. 77-92.
2. Ibid., pp. 82—83.
3. We are still in touch with one another. He is now retired from medical practice.
4. Jacob Viner, “Cost Curves and Supply Curves,” Zeitschrifl fir Nationalökonomie 3 (1931): 23-46; reprinted in American Economic Association, Readings in Price Theory (Chicago: Richard D. Irwin, 1952), pp. 198-232, with a supplementary note in which Viner acknowledges his error.
5. Though never formally published, the lecture, according to a footnote in George I. Stigler, Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 23. is available in Warren J. Samuels, ed., Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Archival Supplement 2 (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1991).
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