I’ve been told on a couple of occasions by anthropologist friends who work in Chile that I should avoid mentioning the fact that I’m at the University of Chicago when I’m doing field work there. So its with some interest that I’ve been catching up on the latest saga in my home turf. After the last year of protests, meetings and mud slinging over the under funding of graduate students in the Humanities and Social Sciences, we were all rather dismayed to discover that although the good ol’ powers that be can’t afford to give us health care, they can afford to build a whopping great big new centre for the economists. Because those guys are in such a precarious position they need a little extra cash.

Aside from being pissed off at the unfairness of it, though, there are some more fundamental objections to the new centre. There are other departments at the UoC that have great reputations, but all of us carry this collective milestone round our neck that threatens to disrupt and discredit us at any moment: the reputation of the Chicago School of Economics. That the new centre will be actively continuing the work, as well as baring the name, of Milton Friedman has been a bit of a kick in the teeth. Having seen the new president, Robert Zimmer, slip and slide his way through the “negotiations” with the graduate students, however, I suspect he will be equally dismissive and arrogant on this issue. Anyway, there is a lot of info about it here, and a petition doing the rounds which I am coping below.

Chances that this will all be sorted before I start my field work in Chile? Low.

Chances I will be pretending I’m a student at UIC? I’d say they’re pretty high.

For one or more of the following reasons, we, the undersigned, oppose establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute (MFI) in the form that has been proposed (To sign, please go to http://www.stat.uchicago.edu/~amit/MFI/).

1. The scale of the University’s investment in the MFI seems disproportionate to other endeavors in the Social Sciences and Humanities. This is not a center like any other, but threatens to be a flagship that will define the way our University is perceived by the public at large. It is not credible to claim that the MFI bears Mr. Friedman’s name only in recognition of his technical accomplishments as an economist.[1] Rather, it will be widely understood that his political positions are also being celebrated and contributors will expect the MFI to champion, advance, and refine them.

2. In May 2007, the President appointed an ad hoc committee with the broad charge of creating “a major new institute at the University on economics and society.”[2] However, the committee, five of whose seven members teach in the economics department, proposed instead an institute whose stated goal is to provide vast resources to the economics department to improve its competitive position relative to its rivals in the field.[3] The committee’s report ignores approaches to the interdisciplinary theme of “economics and society” that originate in disciplines other than economics or that diverge from the particular approaches of the Chicago School. We welcome the President’s initial interdisciplinary vision, but want it realized in its full breadth.

3. We know of no other unit of the University whose research findings are as predetermined as this one’s apparently are, given the MFI’s stated intention to follow Friedman’s lead in advocating market solutions to policy questions, while regarding the state, NGOs, and all non-market actors with distinct suspicion.[4] Presumably then, to take one example, the question of whether to privatize Social Security would be moot; the only reasonable question is how.

4. The proposal ignores the many critiques of Friedman’s views that have been offered and the problems, including state terror, crony capitalism, declining life expectancy, food shortages, etc., that have arisen where he and his disciples implemented those views (Chile, Argentina, the post-Soviet republics, e.g.). We acknowledge that Friedman’s ideas have been influential, but are uneasy at the prospect of their constituting a new orthodoxy that will define the Institute for years to come. Ongoing critical interrogation of all theories ought be an essential part of this, like any other part of the University.

5. The level of donor/corporate control over this Institute seems unprecedented in University history or policy. It has been announced that donors of $1 million or more will become lifetime members of the Milton Friedman Society, “a highly selective group of contributors who will have special access to the people and work of the Institute.”[5] Establishment of a club where the wealthy gain privileged academic participation does not strike us as consistent with the principles of this, or of any self-respecting University.

6. Such arrangements also suggest increased privatization of the University and the cultivation of a symbiosis between scholars whose theories produce profits for a set of donors who then reinvest in those theories. This seems to us less a “free market of ideas,” than a cartel designed to promote certain academic products at the expense of others that might be intellectually — or morally — superior, but promise less return on investment. The analogy of research sponsored by drug and tobacco companies is not exact, but is too close for comfort.

7. The proposal makes clear that the MFI will engage issues of policy and not limit itself to matters of academic theory.[6] We are troubled by the prospect that it could come to play a role similar to that of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, or think tanks that lack the legitimating imprimatur of great universities.

8. Among the more worrisome details embedded in the proposal is the idea that beyond providing funds for visiting faculty, post-doctoral researchers, and graduate fellows, the MFI will also use its assets to recruit and mentor undergraduates.[7] Given other aspects of the MFI’s mission and profile, we are alarmed at the possibility of selection on ideological grounds and the cultivation of activist cadres, trained at Chicago and networked via the Milton Friedman Society.

Given the serious nature of these concerns, we welcome President Zimmer’s decision to convene the University Senate this fall as a venue for open debate on plans for the MFI. We intend to raise these issues in principled fashion and to propose substantial changes, as we passionately hope — for the University’s sake — that the MFI does not come into being as it is currently envisioned.

[1] Consider the following thought experiment. Would the Economics Department or the University imagine it could raise $200 million by founding a George Stigler Institute? George Stigler was a long-time colleague of Friedman’s in the Economics Department, was also an unambiguous supporter of pure laissez-faire economics and, like Friedman, was a truly distinguished scholar who won a Nobel Prize. But because he limited his publications to scholarly venues, rather than supplementing his scholarship with a free-market ideological crusade, his name would have considerably less value. The additional value of the Friedman name derives from his role as public champion of the free-market doctrines whose adoption in the United States and elsewhere has vastly increased the earnings of the very wealthy. Presumably, it is the latter who will be the prime contributors to (and investors in) the MFI.
[2] A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” submitted by the ad hoc Committee chaired by Lars Peter Hansen, p. 1, available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/pdf/mfi.final.pdf.
[3] Ibid., see esp. pp. 3-4.
[4] Ibid., p. 2: “Following Friedman’s lead, the design and evaluation of economic policy requires analyses that respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services. As Friedman and others continually demonstrated, design of public policy without regard to market alternatives has adverse social consequences. The intellectual focus of the institute would reflect the traditions of the Chicago School and typify some of Milton Friedman’s most interesting academic work, including… his advocacy for market alternatives to ill conceived policy initiatives.”
[5] “Milton Friedman Society,” available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/society.shtml. What kinds of access and influence members will have is not made explicit, but those schooled on Friedman’s dictum “There is no free lunch” may be expected to anticipate some commensurate return on their money.
[6] The concern for “policy” appears on every page of the proposal, as in the programmatic recommendation “to create one of the world’s most vital and visible institutes for economic research and policy analysis and evaluation” (“A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” p. 1, emphasis added).
[7] “A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” p. 7.

the subsistence-based economy of the Tarapaca valley in the North of Chile

Farming in the desert: the subsistence-based economy of the Tarapaca valley in the North of Chile