Milton Friedman, Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution and Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences grades the achievements of the Clinton administration and evaluates the programs the President proposed in his 1999 State of the Union address.

Recorded on Wednesday, February 10, 1999

To view the full transcript of this episode, read below

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: The State of the Union, or more precisely, The State of the Union According to the Nobel Prize Winning Economist, Milton Friedman. Every year the President of the United States travels from the White House to the House of Representatives to deliver a major televised address, the State of the Union Address. The President outlines for the American people the accomplishments of his administration to date, the challenges the nation still faces, and his programs for meeting those challenges. Now, by the time the President delivers his address, it will have been worked on for many days by the President himself and by a large team of speech-writers. There will have been draft after draft after draft, mark-ups, cross-outs, corrections of all kinds. Yet, when we finally see the address, when we watch the President seem to speak all but flawlessly for thirty, forty minutes or more, delivering a speech that must be many pages in length, we never see him refer to a single sheet of paper. The trick: a machine called a Teleprompter that projects the text of the speech onto a plate of glass in such a way that the President, and he alone, can see it. A trick with mirrors. An illusion. Milton Friedman, perhaps the most influential economist of the last half century, believes that when Bill Clinton gave his own most recent State of the Union Address, the Teleprompter wasn't the only illusion the speech involved.

ROBINSON Milton Friedman, we are in the sixth year of the Clinton Administration, the nation is at peace, the economy is booming, the federal government has gone from a budget deficit of 290 billion dollars in 1992, the year Bill Clinton was elected, to a surplus of at least 76 billion dollars for this year. Don't you want to give Bill Clinton an A?

FRIEDMAN (laughs) No, I want to give the economy an A.

ROBINSON Give the economy an A. How much credit does he deserve?

FRIEDMAN Well, there's only one way in which I believe he deserves some credit. Because you have a Democrat in the White House and Republicans control the Congress, it's hard to get any laws passed, and that's been a great advantage. The source of our prosperity in my opinion dates back to Mr. Reagan's reductions in tax rates...


FRIEDMAN ...1982, and deregulation during the Reagan Administration, also go down to the 1986 Tax Act which eliminated a lot of interventions, unfortunately which have been creeping back in. And that unleashed a private enterprise boom which we're still benefitting from.

ROBINSON We're not in the sixth year of the Clinton expansion, we're in the seventeenth year of the Reagan boom.

FRIEDMAN Exactly. The Reagan— I won't call it a boom, because it really hasn't been a boom, it's been a very good, healthy expansion.

ROBINSON Steady, sustainable...

FRIEDMAN It's a boom in the stock market, but so far as the economy is concerned the average rate of growth is not out of line with what it's been in the past many times.

ROBINSON It's in line with historical standards.

FRIEDMAN The long-term rate of growth since the Civil War, for example, is in the order of about three to four percent a year, of which one percent is population growth, one-and-a-half to two percent per capita growth, and we're in about that same range. But it's been a notable period for other things. It's been a notable period because we've had this expansion at the same time that inflation has been brought down and relatively stable, and for that the credit belongs to the Federal Reserve under the leadership of Alan Greenspan. I think Alan Greenspan deserves more credit for that than anything else.

ROBINSON More credit than he's being given, or more credit than Bill Clinton's being given.

FRIEDMAN No, no— oh, Bill Clinton deserves no credit for that. That's entirely a result of the Fed and its behavior. The Fed has done a lot of bad things in the past, so I'm delighted to be able to give it credit for one good thing, and it's done very well under Alan Greenspan.

ROBINSON Does the so-to-speak extra-constitutionality of the Fed disturb you?

FRIEDMAN Yes. I have always been in favor of abolishing the Fed, primarily from a political point of view.

ROBINSON And how would you handle the currency, how would you then manage the currency without the Fed?

FRIEDMAN My favorite proposal is to have a fixed amount of what's called high-powered money and just keep it there.

ROBINSON Just keep the money supply static?

FRIEDMAN Not the money supply. High-powered money...

ROBINSON Which is...

FRIEDMAN ...the currency plus the reserves in the banking system that are now deposits in the Fed, under my system you would convert to currency.

ROBINSON So you would eliminate the policy functions of the Fed, but you might keep a few of their statisticians around to keep tabs on the money supply... but that's a relatively technical and modest...

FRIEDMAN Well, no, you don't even have to do that. You just have to keep somebody around to make sure that you replace the worn-out notes and keep the stock quantity of money, in the narrow sense of currency, essentially unchanged, or if you want, growing at three percent a year. But some purely mechanical regime. Given that you do have a Fed, it makes a great deal of difference how it performs. I believe that the inflation that we had in the '70s was primarily the responsibility of the Fed. I believe that the Great Depression of the '30s was primarily the responsibility of the Fed. So I'm not... it has in the past done a great deal of harm, but as it happens in this last eight years or so it's been very good and has brought about...

ROBINSON Just the last eight years, or would you give high marks to Volcker as well, Greenspan's predecessor?

FRIEDMAN That's an interesting case, because you have to give the credit there really to Reagan. There's no other President who would have stood by while the Fed followed the policy it did. If you remember— you don't remember that period but if you go back...

ROBINSON I do actually, I had just started at the White House in those days...

FRIEDMAN ...if you go back to that period, stopping the inflation that was raging which reached double-digit levels at the end of the '70s and early '80s required stepping on the brakes hard and produced a recession. And if you remember, Reagan's popular ranking went way down in...

ROBINSON Down into the thirties.

FRIEDMAN ...thirties, right. No other President would have stood by and said to the Fed, keep doing what you're doing, you're doing the right thing. But Reagan did do that. And that's what enabled Volcker to do what Volcker did.

ROBINSON Back to the present to find out what Milton Friedman thinks of President Clinton's legislative goals for the rest of his term.


ROBINSON Let me ask you to apply your thinking to the principle points of Bill Clinton's program for the remaining couple of years in office. The President's program is intended— we'll take old folks first— to, I quote now, "Address the challenge of a senior boom by using the budget surplus to help save Social Security."

FRIEDMAN Well, the proposal, if you look at it in detail, is a complete fake.

ROBINSON A complete fake?

FRIEDMAN Absolutely.

ROBINSON He wants to take sixty percent— a little more than sixty percent of budget surplus over the next fifteen years...

FRIEDMAN Where does that come from? He's counting that twice. That comes from the proceeds of the payroll taxes that are now in, which, in principle, though not in practice, are supposed to be used for Social Security, but which have indeed been financing every regular event. If he doesn't do a thing about the surplus, that would still end up in bonds in the hands of the Social Security so-called Trust Fund.

ROBINSON You say he's guilty of a little bit of a flim-flam game with the books.

FRIEDMAN Absolutely.

ROBINSON Within forty-eight hours of that State of the Union Address in which he made this proposal, Alan Greenspan, whom you have just praised, endorsed the proposal— in general terms, not specific terms, but he endorsed the proposal— and the Republicans in Congress said yep, that's a good idea, sign us up for that too. How is it that he's able to get everybody to go for what you call a flim-flam game?

FRIEDMAN Look, do you need to ask that question now after six years of Clinton? How he's been able to get one flim-flam game after another. How he's been able to bamboozle the people into thinking that he deserves higher ratings because he lies. Clinton is a superb politician who has a most extraordinary capacity to exude sincerity. He's an incredible phenomenon. I think he's a genius. But go back to the Social Security program. The first thing to be said is that all this nonsense about saving something for Social Security is pure fiction. It's wrong to think that what people are paying into Social Security, what people are paying in the form of wage taxes, is what they're paying for their own security. [

ROBINSON That's nonsense.] There is no relationship whatsoever. We have a system under which you have a set of taxes for Social Security— named for Social Security, but it doesn't matter, they're payroll taxes, terrible taxes, regressive taxes. Nobody... you could not get a legislature to vote such a tax on its own. Can you imagine proposing a tax that would impose — let's say sixteen percent tax— on all wages from the first dollar up to the maximum and nothing beyond that. Can you imagine voting that? Similarly, the other side of the picture is that we have made a series of commitments to people like me— I receive Social Security payments...

ROBINSON Oh so, it's my payroll tax that goes to...

FRIEDMAN Absolutely. Absolutely. It's not only your payroll tax, it's your income tax, it's whatever taxes you pay. I get them. And if you think you're going to get 'em, you're kidding yourself.

ROBINSON It is a fundamental deceit hoisted upon the American people and sustained for lo these six decades.

FRIEDMAN Absolutely. If you read the Social Security brochures, they say this is a system under which you are putting aside money now for your retirement.

ROBINSON And that's nonsense.

FRIEDMAN That is utterly fake. But let's suppose it were true...

ROBINSON All-right.

FRIEDMAN ...for a moment. Why is it that it's appropriate for government to come and tell me what fraction of my income I should save for my old age? If that's okay, why can't it come in and tell me exactly what fraction of my income I have to spend for food, what fraction for housing, what fraction for clothing. Let me show you the absurdity of this.

ROBINSON All-right.

FRIEDMAN Consider a young man of thirty-five who has AIDS for whom the expected length of life is ten years at the most maybe. Maybe there'll be a cure. But his expected length of life is not very long. Is it really intelligent for him to put aside fifteen percent of his income for retirement at age sixty-five?

ROBINSON It's outrageous.

FRIEDMAN It's outrageous.

ROBINSON Outrageous.

FRIEDMAN Exactly. The only word you can give to it. And in my opinion, the whole Social Security system is an outrage.

ROBINSON If Social Security is ‘an outrage,' what would Milton Friedman do about it? A Bonding Experience

ROBINSON How would you get rid of it?

FRIEDMAN Very simply. Here I am, I'm entire to a certain number of payments in the future. Have the government give me a bond equal to the current present value of— expected value of what I'm entitled to. You have already accumulated some rights. And so have the government give you a bond which will be due when you're sixty-five which will be the present value of what you've already accumulated under the law. And then close the whole thing up.

ROBINSON And just close the books.

FRIEDMAN Everybody gets what he's entitled to— what he's been promised. The unfunded debt under Social Security is funded, it's made open and above-board. There's not a penny of transition cost, and everybody is... In my world, the payroll tax would be abolished, would be eliminated. It's the worst tax we have on the books. And everybody would be free to do what he wanted about his own retirement.


FRIEDMAN And on the whole he would do very well. Now undoubtedly, people who argue against that say, well what are you going to do about these people who are so careless and so unprudent that they don't accumulate anything for retirement. That's a general problem. What do you do about people who are poor, whether for their own fault or not for their own fault? You and I and society in general is not willing to see 'em starve to death.


FRIEDMAN Well, I have always been in favor of having a program under which (a negative income tax) under which you will have some income minimum you will provide for people whether they are indigent because they're wastrels or whether they're indigent because they're in bad health...

ROBINSON Even if it's their own fault, they don't starve.

FRIEDMAN The problem is, it's always seemed to me absurd that you make a hundred percent of the people do something in order to make sure that one or two percent of the people don't behave badly.

ROBINSON Milton, that negative income tax proposal actually started to go someplace, if I remember my history correctly, that actually started to go someplace during the Nixon years, didn't it? Didn't Cap Weinberger...

FRIEDMAN Yes, it did... No, Moynihan, Pat Moynihan...

ROBINSON Moynihan. And what happened to it? Why did it die?

FRIEDMAN Because the public pressure was converted into a program that I testified against. It's what happens in Washington all the time.

ROBINSON Right, right, okay.

ROBINSON Next question. What would Milton Friedman do with the mounting budget surplus?


ROBINSON We've got seventy-nine, eighty billion dollars more coming in this year than the government...

FRIEDMAN I am in favor of reducing taxes under any circumstances, for any excuse, with any reason whatsoever because that's the only way you're ever going to get effective control over government spending. Sooner or later [

ROBINSON Choke off the supply.] if you don't reduce taxes to get rid of that surplus, it's going to be spent. The rule from not only the last few years, hundreds of years, is that governments will spend whatever the tax system will raise plus as much more as they can get away with.

ROBINSON The Republicans are calling for a ten percent...

FRIEDMAN It's not enough.

ROBINSON ...cut. Not enough. What is... Now Dan Quayle, who's running for President— this is the most extreme- extreme may be the wrong word but this is the most dramatic proposal I'm aware of that's on the table anywhere at the moment— he's called for a thirty percent cut. Is that enough?

FRIEDMAN I don't know. I would cut it as much as you can get away with.

ROBINSON So you'd run the numbers and give back virtually all the surplus.

FRIEDMAN What do you mean give back? Not take.

ROBINSON Excuse me. It's not take. You'd lower taxes...

FRIEDMAN You know, this idea of giving back, which is a word you use, assumes...

ROBINSON I take back my words, but go ahead and ram them down my throat.

FRIEDMAN assumes that every individual is a property of the government and that all of the income that you earn is really the government's, and it decides how much you can keep and how much it gets. I've always said, it treats people as if they were running around with an IBM card on their back which says 'do not mutilate, punch, or disturb.'

ROBINSON Right. You've got more money coming in at the moment than is going out.

FRIEDMAN You ought to reduce taxes by enough to generate...

ROBINSON You don't want to pay down the debt.

FRIEDMAN Oh no. No, I want to generate a deficit because I want pressure on to get the government to spend less.

ROBINSON You like a federal deficit.

FRIEDMAN No, I don't like a federal deficit, but I like lower government spending.

ROBINSON All-right. President Clinton has another proposal for using that surplus, and he calls them USA accounts. He's proposing to use about eleven percent of the surplus over the next fifteen years or so to establish, I quote now from his speech, "universal savings accounts, USA accounts, to give all Americans the means to save," again quotation here, "with extra help for the least able to save." Details to follow. You like that idea?

FRIEDMAN No, I think it's a terrible idea. You know, the idea is saying, I'm going to take your money, but then I'll give it back to you if you do with it what I tell you to do. Is that a way you have a free society of free, self-reliant individuals who are responsible for themselves? It's a terrible...

ROBINSON Do you even agree with the premise that the savings rate is too low in this country?

FRIEDMAN I don't agree with that premise. What is the right savings rate?

ROBINSON Well, gee, you're the Nobel Prize winner, I thought you'd be able to clue me in.

FRIEDMAN The right savings rate... In a world in which you did not have distortions, in which you did not have government stepping in and distorting the rate at which people save or not, the right saving rate is whatever all the people of the community simply want to save. How much you want to save, how much I want to save. Why shouldn't people be free to save what they want?

ROBINSON Let's move to a more theoretical question. Why do we end up with so many stupid government programs when we're supposed to be so smart in our own private affairs?


ROBINSON How is it, you credit great intelligence, shrewdness, on the part of individuals when they're spending their own money and managing their own property in the marketplace, how can we all be so dumb when we give up being players in the marketplace and become citizens participating in the political process? We get hoodwinked by Clinton, we go for this crazy sham of Social Security, how can we be so dumb?

FRIEDMAN Because it's always so attractive to be able to do good at somebody else's expense. That the real problem of our government. Government is a way by which every individual believes he can live at the expense of everybody else. That's— I'm just repeating what Bastiat said two centuries ago, more than two centuries ago. You know, the thing that people don't really understand is that free societies of the kind we've been lucky enough to experience for the last hundred-hundred and fifty years are a very rare exception in human history. Most people, most of history, and at any one time, most people at any one time, have lived in tyranny and misery. And it's only for a brief period, and why? It is precisely because once you get some government program in— may have been a very good idea, it's always proposed for good reasons— once it gets in, it becomes a special privilege of a small group which has an enormously strong interest to maintain it, and you do not have any comparable group that has the interest to get rid of it. And therefore, the hardest thing in the world is to get rid of any government program, however badly it works. In fact, try to name any government programs that have been eliminated.

ROBINSON The draft. Well, that's not a...

FRIEDMAN Yes, the draft is an example, it's one of the rare examples of a program that has been eliminated. One of the others was Postal Savings. It used to be that the postal system had a savings system which became very popular as a result of the Great Depression. But it disappeared. Why? Because by accident when they set it up, they limited the interest they could pay on postal savings to two percent, and when the market rate got higher than that, all the money was taken out of postal savings and postal savings came to an end. But aside from that, can you name programs that have been eliminated because they failed? And so how will we set a limit on government, and keep it coming back, and the only thing I can see on the horizon that offers a real chance are term-limits.

ROBINSON Term limits?

FRIEDMAN Right now, being a politician is a lifetime career. Being a Congressman is a lifetime career.

ROBINSON Do we have any evidence in the states where term-limits apply that it has worked as you would like to see it work? Term-limits have been in effect here in California for about a decade now... They may have been enacted a decade ago, so they've been in effect for perhaps six years...

FRIEDMAN It's a little early. We don't really have any very good... However, it so happened, I had occasion to have a conversation the other day with a former Governor of Virginia: Allen, George Allen.

ROBINSON Who, everybody says he's going to be running for the Senate. Against Chuck Robb.

FRIEDMAN Yes, that's what he intends to do.

ROBINSON He intends to do. All-right.

FRIEDMAN However, he had, Virginia has a one-term four-year term for the Governor. And he said, you know, he said, if we had had a two-year term, if we had had the situation in most states, that you can run for a second term, I would have spent the third and fourth year of my term working for re-election. I would never have been able to get done what I got done. It was the first real hands-on testimonial I've seen to a term-limit. It's not a good idea for being a legislator to be a lifetime profession. The founders of our country had the idea of legislation as a part-time activity. It is in many states today. But at the federal government level, it's a full-time profession. And that is very unhealthy because the legislature— it's not a criticism of the individual— but any human being in that position, he's going to sit in committee meetings, and day after day he's going to hear arguments, good arguments, worthy arguments for new programs. He's going to get very few arguments for getting rid of programs. And the evidence is clear: the longer people are in Congress, the more willing they are to vote government spending.

ROBINSON The polls all show the American people are very concerned about our public schools. What does Milton Friedman think of President Clinton's proposals to improve those public schools? Hire Learning

ROBINSON President Clinton on public schools. According to the White House fact sheet, he wants to, I quote, "raise standards and increase accountability in public schools (I've got to take a deep breath to get through this) through proposals to end social promotion, bring high-quality teachers into the classroom, intervene in failing schools, provide school report cards to parents, strengthen our commitment to smaller class-sizes, and boost our efforts for school modernization." What grade do you give that proposal?



FRIEDMAN What does it mean? It means more government control of schools. What do we really need in schools? We need competition. What we have is a monopoly, and like every monopoly, it's producing a low-quality product at a very high cost. The way to improve that is to have competition, to make it possible for parents to have a choice of the schools their children attend. All high-income people have that choice now. They can choose their residence for a place with good schools, or they can send their children to private schools, pay twice for schooling: once in taxes and once in tuition. But the lower income classes can't.

ROBINSON They're stuck. Milton, didn't public schools used to work?

FRIEDMAN Yes. When I graduated from high-school in 1928, there were 150,000 school districts in this country. Today, there are 15,000 and the population is twice as great. In the early day, you had local control of schools, and there was effective competition between a large number of local areas. But school districts got consolidated. They got run not by local people but by the professional educators. And most important of all, in the 1960s you began to have the emergence of teachers' unions taking control of the schools. And since 1960, since the teachers' unions started emerging, you have had on the whole a rather steady decline in the quality of schooling. If you want to improve automobiles, do you have government step in and tell people what brakes to put on, and so on, or do you rely on the fact that General Motors is going to try to beat Ford, is going to try to beat Toyota? Competition is the most effective way to improve quality, whether in computers, in automobiles, in suits, or in schooling.

ROBINSON Let me ask you to close, if I may, with a prediction. It's 2009, ten years from today. Is the government of the United States bigger, or smaller?


ROBINSON Your ideas are winning?

FRIEDMAN No. The Internet is going to make it harder and harder to collect taxes.

ROBINSON How come?

FRIEDMAN Because you'll be able to evade taxes, you'll be able to do your deals in the Cayman Islands.

ROBINSON So the Internet...

FRIEDMAN At the moment I see the Internet as the most likely source of the smaller government.

ROBINSON But in your mind it really will have an effect. That's not speculative...

FRIEDMAN No, no, no. I believe it will and I believe it's having it now.

ROBINSON I see. Okay. Milton Friedman— Bill Clinton I hope you're taking notes, we'll send a tape of this to the White House— Milton Friedman, thank you very much.

FRIEDMAN That's all-right. I assure you they won't look at it. Thank you.

ROBINSON Doctor Friedman believes the government should be smaller and that it will become so. Maybe some future President will preside over such a small government that he can shrink up the State of the Union Address enough to get rid of the Teleprompter and deliver the speech from memory. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

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