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The following is an article by Todd C. Ream published in The Journal Gazette on December 16, 2023

On the eastern edge of the University of Chicago campus stands Saieh Hall. Once the home of the Chicago Theological Seminary, the 150,000-square-foot facility now houses what has become one of the world’s leading centers of economic inquiry.

Support for such a claim exists immediately to the left of the main doors where one can find “The Chicago Economics Experience.” In the center of that darkened room stands a glass case holding the medallions and citations for two of the 32 University of Chicago faculty members, former faculty members and former students who have received the Nobel Prize.

While Milton Friedman may be the best known of the Nobel prize-winning economists comprising what came to be known as “The Chicago School,” no comprehensive biography of Friedman existed until now. Regardless of one’s previous background in economics, Jennifer Burns’ “Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative” fills this void for anyone eager to understand the details of Friedman’s life and how those details define how many of today’s economic — and even some underlying philosophical — debates are framed.

Friedman died on Nov. 16, 2006, at the age of 94. The 30 years he spent as a faculty member at the University of Chicago were not the only important years of his career. As Burns’s magisterial work notes, Friedman’s long and active life fills a complicated portrait of how the impact of the Great Depression fired his economic imagination in ways that eventually reached from the ivory tower to the Senate floor.

Burns, a historian at Stanford University and a fellow at the Hoover Institute, is well prepared to tell Friedman’s story. The craft of biography is not new to her; her first book was “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.” As a contributor to the rapidly expanding subfield of economic history, Burns has also written for periodicals such as the New York Times, the Financial Times and Bloomberg.

Friedman’s story needed to be told in such a fashion, and Burns proves an apt person to do so.

One strength of Burns’ work is the way she introduces readers previously unfamiliar with Friedman to his ideas including, for example, consumption function and the natural rate of unemployment. Despite her ability to tell Friedman’s story in compelling ways, readers need to know Burns’ story weighs in at almost 500 pages and 15 chronologically ordered chapters.

At its core, the Chicago School is not so much defined by commitments to economic theories but by the power of what the proper assessments of economic practices could tell us about society. As a result, empirically gathered data became critical to economists such as Friedman.

Burns thus notes that one of Friedman’s early studies that proved foundational to his understanding of consumption function involved tracking who in a household spent money and how much that person spent. While all too often overlooked at the time in terms of their value, Friedman found the source of the data he needed in the habits of homemakers.

While Friedman contributed to the acclaim the Chicago School garnered, Burns is also quick to note Friedman’s personality could prove polarizing and even alienating to some colleagues and students. Such a pattern was apparent in Friedman’s behavior even before he was appointed as a faculty member at Chicago.

While at the University of Wisconsin, for example, Burns writes, “Friedman’s blind spots were considerable. It was not simply that he was lobbing grenades. It was that he did so unaware.” Debates were often intense, and Friedman often did not realize the way some colleagues and students avoided him.

Burns’ story, however, also goes into detail in telling the story of the relationship Friedman shared with the one person he viewed as his equal — his wife, Rose.

As bright as her husband, Milton and Rose went on to co-author some of their most important works such as their 1980 title, “Free to Choose: A Personal Statement” — a work C-SPAN’s “America History TV” and the Library of Congress recently named one of the “Books that Shaped America.”

Burns borrows the title for her last chapter, “Two Lucky People,” from the title of the 1998 memoir Milton and Rose co-authored.

Burns’ work is at its best in portraying how Friedman goes from being a Nobel Prize-winning economist in academe to influencing economic policy. His years as an adviser to the Reagan administration may be ones no economist has managed to repeat at a comparable level.

Regardless of what one thinks of how Friedman’s ideas influenced what came to be known as “Reaganomics,” Burns notes those ideas are not frozen in the 1980s but continue to appear, for example, in how the Federal Reserve responded in 2020 to the economic challenges posed by COVID-19.

As we inch closer to the 2024 general election, Burns wisely invites us to respond to the question, “How then shall we remember Friedman?”

The answer to that question goes a long way, even 17 years after Friedman passed, to understanding how the details defining how many of today’s economic — and even some underlying philosophical — debates are framed.

We have about 10 months to consider Burns’ question, the story she offers in aid of an answer, and what influence it may have on how we vote. At almost 500 pages, however, we better get started.