Why is there no Milton Friedman today?

by on May 21, 2013 at 2:53 pm in Economics, History | Permalink

You will find this question discussed in a symposium at Econ Journal Watch, co-sponsored by the Mercatus Center.  Contributors include Richard Epstein, David R. Henderson, Richard Posner, Daniel Houser, James K. Galbraith, Sam Peltzman, and Robert Solow, among other notables.  My own contribution you will find here, I start with these points:

If I approach this question from a more general angle of cultural history, I find the diminution of superstars in particular areas not very surprising. As early as the 18th century, David Hume (1742, 135-137) and other writers in the Scottish tradition suggested that, in a given field, the presence of superstars eventually would diminish (Cowen 1998, 75-76). New creators would do tweaks at the margin, but once the fundamental contributions have been made superstars decline in their relative luster.

In the world of popular music I find that no creators in the last twenty-five years have attained the iconic status of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, or Michael Jackson. At the same time, it is quite plausible to believe there are as many or more good songs on the radio today as back then. American artists seem to have peaked in enduring iconic value with Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, mostly dating from the 1960s. In technical economics, I see a peak with Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow and some of the core developments in game theory. Since then there are fewer iconic figures being generated in this area of research, even though there are plenty of accomplished papers being published.

The claim is not that progress stops, but rather its most visible and most iconic manifestations in particular individuals seem to have peak periods followed by declines in any such manifestation.

jonathan May 21, 2013 at 3:10 pm

The analogy to music could be inappropriate. Artists such as Elvis and the Beatles came of age in an era when information distribution channels were few and thus more easily controlled. It was possible, for a time, for clever marketing teams to leverage these few media outlets and create megastars. The concentration of media thus led to a more homogenized aesthetic, which could more easily be exploited “at scale”. With the advent of cable, satellite, and then internet channels, fragmentation of distribution led to more consumer choice and thus fragmentation in consumer tastes. Consider the myriad genres of music that exist today — old media models simply could not support small fanbases around obscure genres, new media models can.

I’m not sure that this same media-centric, MacLuhan-esque analysis applies as well to economics, but would be curious if/how it might.

Mark Thorson May 21, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Why weren’t there classical music composers of the stature of Mozart and Bach in the 20th and 21st centuries? Did they become megastars because of distribution channels that were swept away in the 19th century?

Thor May 21, 2013 at 5:27 pm

My neighbour’s son “invented” a catapult (more accurately: added a modification, but never mind). He did so in 2012. In 1000 BCE, he’d be a pioneering military genius. In 2012, he’s a kid with too much time on his hands.

MC May 21, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Sounds like just the right amount of time on his hands to me.

juan aninat May 21, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Why some one as a “site”? Cultural History? Please.

bob May 21, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Along those lines why are all the classical music composers 19th century germans? Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Haydn, Wagner, etc… Maybe we only get superstars in fleeting periods of cultural genius, and our culture kind of sucks right now.

Dismalist May 21, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Easy: Competition among States! Warfare was expensive, even for Prussia, so the States competed along cheap lines: Prove you had the best musical taste by hiring the best musicians.

Long live Tiebout!

Mark Thorson May 21, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Bach died in the middle of the 18th century, and you left out Brahms, Liszt, Schumann, and if you include German Jews, Mendelssohn. It does look like something was happening that made 19th-century Germany a hotbed of Romantic-era music. Perhaps there was a government support program?

Mark Thorson May 21, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Oops! Liszt was Hungarian.

Dismalist May 21, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Mid 19th century Germany was a hotbed of everything. No unitary state!

Norman Pfyster May 21, 2013 at 9:31 pm

And Mendelssohn was Lutheran.

Larry Siegel May 22, 2013 at 1:20 am

Mendelssohn was Jewish by descent. Apparently, it was helpful in 19th century Germany to be “Lutheran.” We have no idea what religious beliefs he held privately.

The musical explosion in Germany between 1710 (the early years of Bach’s career) and 1850 or 1875 has no parallel anywhere in the history of music anywhere in the world. Was there something going on? Of course. I don’t know what it was.

de Broglie May 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Liszt was German by descent if we are going to count Mendelssohn as Jewish.

Larry Siegel May 22, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Yes, he was.

Benny Lava May 21, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Stature is relative. Much of the lionizing of Mozart and Bach was postmortem. Perhaps one day people will lionize 20th century artists like Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos, etc. Of maybe the geniuses went to play Jazz or something. As for the 21st century I will quote Zhou Enlai. It is too soon to tell.

Or maybe the aristocracy and Church were really great at artist fostering and art patronage?

Sigivald May 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm

That’s more or less what I was thinking – it’s not so much that “superstar” is some Property that one has or does not have in and of onself; it’s that, musically, “superstar” depends on other people calling you one.

And when there’s so much more variation in what you can do, and what’s out there, and there’s far less (or no) Anointed Starmaker System to do so, well…

(In 1968, it’s quite possible that Rolling Stone [Magazine] could make someone a “superstar” even if they were only Quite Good.

In 2013, I’m not sure that “superstar” is even a thing one can be in the same way.

However, this applies to music in ways it does not to other endeavors; I’m not sure that music is like a science, in that I’m not sure there are “core discoveries” of any meaningful nature that are then Merely Refined by the followers.

There’s no low-hanging fruit in musical innovation, is the thesis I’m groping after, I think… it may well be that there is less room over time for “superstars” in the sciences.

But on the other hand, it’s hard to say! What did people think about the future possibilities in Physics before Einstein, and then the Quantum boys? If they thought it was all fundamentally understood and all that was left was details, well… they were completely wrong, eh?)

Morgan Warstler May 21, 2013 at 3:11 pm

There is only one answer:

Because Scott Sumner doesn’t feel comfortable yet ALSO arguing the points that made Friedman publicly famous.

What I want to know is why Tyler / Alex won’t come out and support my Uncle Milty plan to save America:

http://www.morganwarstler.com/post/44789487956/guaranteed-income-choose-your-boss-the-market-based

I mean they could at least try and hit it with a stick… If anyone can explain this bit to me, I’ll be immensely grateful.

Alexei Sadeski May 22, 2013 at 12:45 am

Business / tech.

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates.

londenio May 21, 2013 at 3:14 pm

So which fields have superstars today? Or is that a question that can only be answered after the onset of the decline?

ben May 21, 2013 at 3:22 pm

I was wondering the same thing. Chefs/fine dining jump to mind. Web developers. Mixed martial artists?

Mike H May 21, 2013 at 3:47 pm

If you define “superstar” as someone having exerted an extraordinary amount of influences in the real world then I’d say Norman Borlaug was the superstar of modern agriculture. Although he died in 2009.

His Green revolution is often credited as having saved a billion lives in India and other developing nations. Although conservative estimation usually puts the number around 250-300 millions.

http://www.scienceheroes.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=68&Itemid=116

PK May 22, 2013 at 11:04 am

The last 25 years? Probably sports. As a Boston Homer I can make the case for Belichick/Brady, and you know I’m being honest when I flip to basketball and say Kobe and Lebron. Truth is, talent in sports has gotten exponentially better, so the average player in any league is better than a generation ago. If the theory holds, soon people will be so good that the stars just won’t stick out as much.

Floccina May 22, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Basketball: LeBron
Blogging: Tyler

setecq May 21, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Very troublesome premises. I’d argue that there’s been no Beatles etc not because they discovered some last major musical achievements but because 1. the current arbeiters of Culture came of age at the time of the Beatles’ prominence and 2. the fracturing of popular culture, from the move from few networks to the myriad cable and satellite ones, then to the internet, and the attendant ability of the individual to pursue their own tastes. Critical consensus isn’t going to happen the way it once did. Critics concerned with the world of metal aren’t going to laud the now classics of hip-hop, for example.

Seems like a recapitulation of the recent and troubled Brooks column.

ac May 21, 2013 at 6:19 pm

See also: Nirvana, Jay-Z, etc. Tyler is just showing his age?

Go kings go! May 21, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Right? Next he’ll be complaining about the way kids dress these days.
Before making such sweeping generalities one should take Charles Murray’s bubble test. Having said that, the general point might stand without music as evidence.

Norman Pfyster May 21, 2013 at 10:07 pm

I think a lot of weight is being carried by the term “iconic.” I suspected that many of the biggest-selling artists in the last 25 years were country; apparently, four of the top ten are country artists, with Garth Brooks heading up sales of all artists. (Incidentally, Eminem was the biggest-selling hip-hop artist.) No matter how popular and robust such music may be, no cultural critics worth their salt are going to make icons out of country musicians.

Continuing the theme, the biggest-selling contemporary artist I spotted was Taylor Swift, right ahead of Rhianna.

Larry Siegel May 22, 2013 at 1:09 am

>no cultural critics worth their salt are going to make icons out of country musicians.

Not even Willie Nelson?

Mike in Qingdao May 22, 2013 at 5:51 am

Johnny Cash?

Norman Pfyster May 22, 2013 at 8:52 am

Willie Nelson was on my mind when I wrote that comment as a possible counter-example, but I would still have a hard time holding him out as an icon. A great musician, though.

tt May 22, 2013 at 9:31 am

“You were always on my mind…” oops wiki tells me thats an Elvis written song

Larry Siegel May 22, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Elvis didn’t write his own material. It was written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James, and Wayne Carson.

Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams seem to me to be cultural icons and perhaps the first people that non-Americans think of – other than perhaps classic jazz – when they think of great American music.

john personna May 21, 2013 at 3:28 pm

sooo many will hate this, but the truth might be that the times demand a Krugman instead.

Tyler Cowen May 21, 2013 at 3:40 pm

I discuss exactly that point in the piece, there is something to what you say.

john personna May 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Caught skimming the text by the professor! Ouch.

Brian Donohue May 21, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Nonsense. When Friedman wrote Capitalism and Freedom, the economics profession was in a very bad way. What Friedman did, within the citadel of academia, just to get a foot in the door for a non-left-wing ideology, is extraordinary.

From an historical standpoint, the battle is only half-over, with Krugman fighting, and losing, a rearguard defense of the dominant ideology during his whole career. No comparison whatsoever.

john personna May 21, 2013 at 5:09 pm

I self-identify as a moderate (and independent) and strive to maintain a balanced perspective. Sometimes the weight of public opinion moves more quickly than I do, as the “pendulum” metaphor, first in one direction, and then the other. I sense that you are arguing from an assumption of a particular truth, rather than from a standpoint of population dynamics. In that later context, I think Friedman had good ideas, but he was also selected by the times, and what was then a rotation to a market centered view. In my humble opinion that pendulum swing hit its maximum somewhere around 2005, when people were talking about privatizing Social Security and so on. Now you may still think such privatization is “right” but step back and look at it as a population problem. Most people don’t feel that way. We know that because such extreme proposals are now only attracting minorities of supporters. The polls show majority support for ideas center-and-left (as we now describe them). And so Krugman is selected to match the turn.

lxm May 21, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Brian says “…the economics profession was in a very bad way….”

As far as I can see, it’s even worse today.

Who ever heard of an academic discipline that fights along partisan political lines? How can that be an academic discipline? Well, I don’t think it is. I think the economic profession needs to rethink its entire basis for existing. And until it does so, until it discovers it’s Uncle Milty for the 21st century, it will continue to just be blowing smoke. Rest assured the new Uncle Milty will be neither a lefty or a righty. He will be the first economist.

choncan May 22, 2013 at 1:09 am

bless you, john personna.

Brian Donohue May 22, 2013 at 9:40 am

“Who ever heard of an academic discipline that fights along partisan political lines?”

Well yeah, for 50+ years, the left-wing “Standard Social Science Model” held unchallenged sway. I am sorry to report that such comfortable and lame hegemony is no longer with us.

bdbd May 22, 2013 at 1:50 pm

[Friedman] “was also selected by the times” — no, he was selected by Newsweek.

Seth May 22, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Friedman changed minds. Krugman doesn’t. Friedman encouraged folks to think. Krugman polarizes.
Friedman earned his Nobel for achievements related to the very things he encouraged folks to think about. Krugman uses his as cover to discuss other things.

bdbd May 22, 2013 at 1:55 pm
Dan May 21, 2013 at 3:30 pm

I think Tyler misses some music superstars, both prematurely deceased (Nirvana, Biggie, Tupac and his hologram) and coasting in the second half of their career (Jay-Z), though I suppose the fact that they all were involved in sub genres that barely existed 25 years ago could be seen as supportive of his argument that superstars are made during periods in which fundamental contributions are made.

Tyler Cowen May 21, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Nirvana is great, but basically two albums, no more, plus a few more songs.

Rahul May 22, 2013 at 12:37 am

“Why is there no Friedman today?” One reason, because we are looking today and not in 2050!

Don’t megastars often need the passage of time to really shine? Was Friedman as iconic in his productive peak as he is regarded now? Perhaps, in a few decades Economists will look upon someone from 2000 as visionary. Only time will tell.

Norman Pfyster May 22, 2013 at 9:01 am

In the reverse, has the iconic value of the three artist he mentioned really endured? Next to a giant like Picasso, they look rather…marginal.

Millian May 21, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Paul Krugman satisfies many of the requirements, bar the classical liberalism.

If the political position is the vital part of the question, it’s hard to be notably brilliant as a political participant while defending the status quo, and the status quo today is much more similar to the politics of Friedman than was the status quo of the American economy in the post-war generation.

cassander May 21, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Only in a few ways, not most. Compared to, say, 1960, government spending on social services is dramatically higher, military spending dramatically lower, the federal government is more involved in education, housing, environmental legislation, and almost every other aspect of our lives. That monetary policy has moved to the right is hardly compensation for all that.

david May 21, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Nixon froze prices and wages. Does the end of all that count for nothing?

Hadur May 21, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Didn’t Posner write an entire book about this subject a few years ago? Something about the death of the public intellectual. He ended up blaming market forces for causing scholars to specialize, reducing their general appeal. Sounds very similar.

Joe Smith May 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Statistical artifact. The first entrants into a field will pick the low hanging fruit. Combine that with the effect that as the field grows and you are drawing from a larger pool, it becomes less and less likely that one individual will stand out from the others.

I would count Terence Tao as a living superstar in mathematics.

In physics, to find a superstar, you have to go back to Feynman.

Finch May 21, 2013 at 4:20 pm

> In physics, to find a superstar, you have to go back to Feynman.

People argue about Ed Witten. But it’s going to be hard to be considered a superstar in future history when it seems like your life’s work turned out to be a blind ally. That may turn out to be a problem for a generation of physicists; I’m not in a position to judge, but clearly people are nervous.

albert magnus May 21, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Steven Weinberg is a superstar and is still around. Witten is a good example of someone of genius-caliber who came along at the wrong time, though I guess his work could be validated at some point.

Josh May 21, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Stephen Hawking is definitely a superstar. He is commonly known as ‘the smartest person on the planet.’

albert magnus May 21, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Hawking is famous, but Weinberg is a much more accomplished physicist who contributed to multiple subject areas.

Murray Gell-Mann should be up there, too. Frank Wilczek probably up there, too.

Tyle May 21, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Other examples: Michael Jordan in basketball. J.K. Rowling in popular fiction. Richard Dawkins in popular atheism/science. Usain Bolt in athletics.

GiT May 21, 2013 at 3:53 pm

It seems like “iconic status” and something like, say, ‘revolutionary contribution’ are being conflated here.

Abe Froman May 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Epstein: “Friedman wrote at a time when the field was smaller, specialization was limited, and technical and empirical work relatively undeveloped. Against that background, his lucid prose and emphatic judgments gained him influence that is not likely to be replicated in a more mature and variegated field.”

+

Tyler: “In addition to overlapping with the fall of communism, Friedman’s peak academic influence coincided with a period when the world moved to floating exchange rates, which he advocated and even helped design, and coincided with when the United States experienced stagflation, which he had predicted.”

= BINGO!!!

Paul May 21, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Why is there no Milton Friedman (or Hayek or Keynes or Samuelson) today? It’s like asking why there is no Churchill today. The cold war is over. Debating over Medicare reform or balancing the budget can never rise to the level of debating the fate of civilization.

kharris May 21, 2013 at 4:03 pm

As a cultural curiosity, stardom may be of interest, but we should not be misled. We were poorer, culturally, in the days of Top 40 radio. The fact that we have a thousand new bands and hundreds of thousands of performances available has its drawbacks, but it is surely a richer situation than letting Ed Sullivan decide who we swoon for.

We were poorer, medically, in the days of Salk, but somebody as famous today as he was in his day.

Were we poorer, in terms of economic knowledge, in the days of Friedman? Krugman says no, but because the freshwater guys have neglected to learn what Friedman knew, and the chattering classes have been led to believe what the freshwater guys tell them. That is not the result of a lack of economic stars, as far as I can tell, so it’s not the absence of a Friedman that troubles us.

Are the social sciences more like philosophy than like music? Are we stuck speculating rather than knowing, when it comes to the social sciences? Or do we let politics leak into social science so readily that we have been unable to learn what could be learned? Bernanke seems to have been willing to unlearn at least parts of the neo-liberal agenda when called upon by events to do so, but most of the squawking tribe of what passes for public intellectuals these days seems pretty much glued to their priors. Would Friedman have smack his department into shape if he were with us today? Maybe not. He certainly spent a good bit of time doing politics when there was still plenty of economics to do. If he would not, what’s the big deal about not having a Friedman around?

kharris May 21, 2013 at 4:07 pm

“…name somebody today…” as famous as Salk. Left out a word there. Sorry.

MFFA May 21, 2013 at 4:06 pm

The analogy with music is wrong. We have bigger stars now than the Beatles. The “best” example is Justin Bieber. I can understand why the Beatles generation prefers to ignore him, as this thought is really horrible and depressing. I’m out to listen to some queen now to cheer me up and forget about it

Josh May 21, 2013 at 6:36 pm

I don’t think Bieber will ever come close to selling as many albums as the Beatles did. The Beatles reached a larger and more varied audience than many music superstars do today.

Urso May 21, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Only because “selling albums” is no longer a relevant metric.

William McGreevey May 21, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Is it just a coincidence that in naming two superstar technical economists, Kenneth Arrow and Paul Samuelson, you are naming two uncles of Lawrence Summers?

Ashok Rao May 21, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Doesn’t the coincidence run in the other way? That is, it’s coincidental that LS is the nephew of two star economists. It seems kind of odd to think about two star economists in terms of a mutual relation.

Ashok Rao May 21, 2013 at 4:16 pm

I do think it should be noted that Albert Michelson (who famously showed that light doesn’t travel via ether) said “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.”

Or that Lord Kelvin thought “the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

Many scholars try telling us “the end of [discipline] history” is neigh. That said, there seems to be something more… wholesome?… about economics as it was. Dani Rodrik puts it best noting that econ isn’t an extension of math, but too one of history, politics, and philosophy. Something that seems to be lost? (Is this the end of “worldly philosophers”).

The Internet also possibly fundamentally changes the idea of celebrity. I’m actually not *too* sure about this. R-R are infinitely more famous today than they would have been years ago because of mass communication. But is Krugman more “popular” than Keynes? Maybe in the sense that we’re a more reading society? I don’t know.

Tyle May 21, 2013 at 5:37 pm

I don’t think it effects your main point, but Kelvin and Michelson weren’t entirely wrong.

At least in physics (perhaps less so in some other fields), we really can say with very high confidence that within a particular set of circumstances – which includes everyday life, except maybe gravity, and unless you work at the LHC – that we now understand things essentially perfectly, i.e. to 10+ sig figs.

Ashok Rao May 21, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Would you not accept, give or take a bit, Einstein (and Feynman, perhaps, among more educated people…) is the icon of science in a way that nobody else is? Of brilliance, accomplishment, discovery?

Sure, it’s not as relevant as classical mechanics, but I don’t think Michelson was right, our very understanding of the world has changed so profoundly..

Rahul May 22, 2013 at 12:32 am

Relativity or QM haven’t “supplanted” classical Physics. They have modified and extended it to domains not explored before.

Josh May 21, 2013 at 6:40 pm

They weren’t entirely wrong only in a very technical sense. Much of the modern technology we use relies on quantum mechanics. Future discoveries in physics may only apply in particularly odd circumstances, but may still completely change what we are able to do and how we live our lives. Perhaps understanding black holes better will allow us to travel through time.

tt May 21, 2013 at 10:48 pm

really? whats the weather going to be tomorow?

agm May 22, 2013 at 1:54 am

Quantum theory, relativity, statistical mechanics – no, they were entirely wrong. Full stop.

agm May 22, 2013 at 1:58 am

To wit, the GPS system, computers, many other things are entirely beyond classical physics. For example, leakage current in semiconductors as spatial dimensions shrink becomes a problem because of tunneling; tunneling, however, cannot happen classically.

Hazel Meade May 21, 2013 at 4:17 pm

I think the age of icons was really more a phenomenon attributable to the early era of television and radio. Television and radio made mass broadcasting of information possible for the first time, and changed the dynamics of information distribution dramatically in a way that gave rise to these huge cultural phenomena of concepts/personalities/issue suddenly reaching a mass audience silmultaneously. Moreover, when television was new, there were few channels, just as there were fewer movie studios and recording sudios. It was a young industry and a few heavyweights dominated it. Thus, a few channels would broadcast the same information repeatedly to mass audiences. EVERYONE would be listening to The Beatles at the same time, for instance. So when The Beatles got popular, they didn’t just get popular within a niche market that only a few people cared about, they got popular everywhere simultaneously. The same thing goes for all sorts of celebrities and even intellectual trends. One person decides that socialism is cool, and this idea gets broadcast over one of the three network channels that everyone is watching and the idea tends to dominate everywhere.

Today, while we have viral video phenomenon, it works a bit differently. There are lots and lots of TV channels, a smaller percentage of the population is watching truly “mass” media, so it’s harder for a phenomenon to propagate. The viral phenomenon is participatory, it relies on people to forward the link to others. And information soon gets swamped out by other information. There’s a million blogs to follow, many tweets, many stories, many sources. It’s hard for any one website to dominate enough to get a critical mass of people thinking or taling about the same person or idea simultaneously to create the “stardom” phenom.

Anon May 21, 2013 at 4:37 pm

The Posner contribution is interesting. Like much of his recent writings, it seems full of irrelevant sidebars used to signal that he now has center-left politics and is wary of markets.

yang May 21, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Music superstars tend to be the ones who first mastered, artistically, new musical technology.

New music tech allows for new sounds.

Paul May 21, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Isn’t this sort of what Kuhn was talking about in Structure of Scientific Revolutions? First comes the ground breaking work which establishes a new underlying model for understanding a field, after which there follows a period of “normal” science where incremental progress is made. After a certain point, the science develops a crisis. Then, some ground breaking work establishes a new underlying model… and the process starts all over again.

Perhaps we’re just in a period of normal science? The 20th century saw many, many disruptions both technologically and socially; many of the untenable offshoots (like totalitarianism) have largely been weeded out, and we’re now in a period of normal science until we’ve followed the current trends to their logical conclusions at which point the new superstars will define the next phase.

Thor May 21, 2013 at 5:22 pm

I was on a ferry in Wash. State not long ago and I met a woman off to hear an important contemporary thinker specializing in an arcane field I knew/know nothing about: environmentalism and spirituality. (Crystals may also have been involved.) Apparently this genius guru is … I dunno, the Kant of our time (reconciling various areas in his field).

Point being, this guy’s a hero to thousands, and because he’s working way outside of normal science (in the occult), we normal types will have had no idea that a profound intellectual giant walked among us. In fact, I might have tossed a buck into his hat on the street.

Lee A. Arnold May 21, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Music is very different. Great melodists have tended to come in styles, after large gaps in time. Mozart-Beethoven-Schubert, then jump decades to Tin Pan Alley (Berlin-Gershwin-Porter-Kern), then jump a few more decades to Beatles-Bacharach. Not to say there aren’t nice things in between times, but people with this “hit quotient” tend to be rare.

thomas jones May 21, 2013 at 4:55 pm

I’ve long had a theory that each time a new domain is established (in this case, economic theory, in the other case, pop music), you are bound to fairly early on attract artists who are both creative and ground-breaking, and who quickly test the limits of the domain. As time then passes, that same domain is less likely to attract the same level of talent, and even to the extent it does, the creative space is now well mapped out. So perhaps today young creatives start a web company rather than a pop group (or that may not be a good point, the rest still holds IMO).

An example par excellence is Opera. The word makes most of us think of a handful of artists who did there work nearly 200 years ago. The ‘problem’ of Opera was to some extent solved, and so there is neither the attraction to talent, nor the opportunity to excel, and so we keep on performing the classics – La Boheme, La Traviata, Carmen, etc.

Thor May 21, 2013 at 5:24 pm

There’s a typo Tyler. The sentence:

American artists seem to have peaked in enduring iconic value with Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, mostly dating from the 1960s.

should read:

… enduring ironic value with Andy Warhol … etc

Larry Siegel May 22, 2013 at 1:14 am

Very cute and, to my mind, very much correct. American visual art has never been exceptional; no American artist has risen to the level of a second-rank French impressionist painter such as Pisarro or Sisley. We’re musicians, novelists, poets, actors, essayists.

jonathan May 22, 2013 at 4:17 am

some might say you paint too broad a brushstroke here ;)

Larry Siegel May 22, 2013 at 7:55 pm

I guess I didn’t think to say “this is just my opinion.”

Shane M May 21, 2013 at 5:29 pm

The shape of this discussion parallels principles of biological evolution. Any opportunity will be quickly filled with first movers, and then the progression toward a slower more steady state will ensue – until “something” happens and the system gets significantly destabilized again creating space for something new.

Shane M May 21, 2013 at 5:30 pm

and I should have added that I think there will be more superstar economists.

dirk May 21, 2013 at 5:36 pm

“it is quite plausible to believe there are as many or more good songs on the radio today as back then”

It is plausible to believe that but you would be wrong.

Rafael Guthmann May 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Just wait for the next paradigm shift. Economics reached it’s current basic form in the 1950′s, with the contributions of von Neuman, Arrow, Friedman, etc. The modern paradigm is still the same over the past half century. If there is a new paradigm shift, there will be another Milton Friedman.

Given that economics is also a social science which is embedded in society and influenced by historical factors, Milton Friedman, other US superstars (either born in the US or that made much of their careers in the US) and the modern paradigm in economics can be understood also as the product of the US victory in WW2 and the Pax Americana that followed. Since the basic geopolitical structure of the world is mostly unchanged for the past 60-70 years (the fall of the Soviet Union was the most important historical change but it was still rather small if compared to the historical change brought by WW2), there isn’t any tendency for radical changes in the paradigm in economics.

If, for instance, WW3 happens in the next few decades and, let’s say, China becomes the new hegemonic power, maybe the next Milton Friedman would appear and he would have a name like Wen.

Thor May 21, 2013 at 7:41 pm

“Milton Wen” — not at all implausible.

Claudia May 21, 2013 at 5:50 pm

from Robert Solow’s contribution http://econjwatch.org/articles/why-is-there-no-milton-friedman-today-RS?ref=section-archive:

“…I’m glad there is no Milton Friedman anywhere on the political-economy spectrum today. I think that Milton Friedmans are bad for economics and bad for society. Fruitless debates with talented (near-)extremists waste a lot of everyone’s time that could have been spent more constructively, either in research or in arguing about policy issues in a more pragmatic way.”

I should note that the first part of Solow’s essay reads similar to Cowen’s, especially the moment in time part. The second part departs ‘a bit.’ Solow’s comment struck me as quite bold and narrow minded (and I am no huge fan of Friedman). In an interview, I heard Volcker talk about reining in inflation as Fed Chairman. After a first step that the markets interpreted as half-hearted and ignored, Volcker knew they needed something big and dramatic to shake off the entrenched inflation expectations and adverse momentum. He specifically mentioned Friedman talking about monetarism every day, every hour as an approach they turned to.

Sometimes we need to push the boundaries and I feel better knowing there is someone sharp hanging out there to supply those ideas…and they talk to the center. Pragmatic economists are often not terribly good at conceiving (or selling) of the unconventional. A robust, wide-ranging debate takes more time and can be annoying, but it keeps the conventional honest and keeps the unconventional in the loop. Maybe Solow’s right the costs outweigh the benefits, but I find that hard to believe.

Go Kings, Go! May 21, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Solow sounds like a lot of the Clintonistas speaking of Obama in 2008 (or many GOPers speaking of Rand Paul now). Who cares about big things, we need to focus on the mundane legislative process, horse-trading and campaigning.

Steve Sailer May 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm

To empirically examine these kinds of questions, you should turn first to Charles Murray’s 2003 book “Human Accomplishment.” The book was largely ignored when it came to punish Murray for “The Bell Curve,” but it is a wonderful resource for anybody who wants to ask questions about patterns of eminence in the arts and sciences.

Here’s my interview with Murray on “Human Accomplishment:”

http://www.isteve.com/2003_QA_with_Charles_Murray_on_Human_Accomplishment.htm

bob May 21, 2013 at 6:57 pm

What about the stupidification of mass culture? The people who are interested in intellectual discussion are now fragmented, and everyone else is no longer interested in faking it. Professional sports is less about athleticism and more about entertainment along the lines of the world wrestling federation, political commentary is jerry-springerized. It fits that Krugman’s our man, we’re a nation of idiots.

Steve Sailer May 21, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Krugman’s cultural obsessions (Asimov’s “Foundation” and 70s Classic Rock) are pretty funny.

Dismalist May 21, 2013 at 8:05 pm

Sam Pelzman’s article was best. Richard Epstein’s was interesting.

Dave May 21, 2013 at 8:16 pm

The mix of person and technology is important, too. Einstein came of age when the Newtonian rules where seen to be breaking down. The Beatles, the Stones, etc came of age not long after the birth of the electric guitar.

albert magnus May 21, 2013 at 11:19 pm

Being a post-doc directly after the Michelson-Morley experiment was good timing, certainly.

wiki May 22, 2013 at 3:52 am

The marketability of the person is relevant as well. Consider how easy it was to make Einstein’s image distinctive for the public at large. This is also true for Feynman. Bohr, Pauling, Von Neumann, less so.

To have a person as prominent and revolutionary within the profession as Friedman who was also a public figure and who was blessed to come at a time that wanted to hear his message is unusual in the best of times. (In contrast, Krugman’s scientific contributions — whatever you think of his political views — are not nearly as impressive. Few economists would list Krugman as one of the top ten of the last forty years. Moreover he advocates policies in areas for which he has no special expertise. Krugman is not a leading macroeconomist).

Conversely, other leading figures of note are either not interested in the policy debate or are unsuitable for the marketing that leads to iconic status. This is as true in physics as in economics. So Stephen Hawking is widely recognized by the public but not felt by physicists to have been as outstanding as Feynman, Gell Mann, or Weinberg were.

JLV May 21, 2013 at 8:47 pm

I mean, Beyonce’s not on some Beatles-type fame, but she’s clearly as much of an icon as Dylan, right?

Steve May 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Lebron James.

Neal May 21, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Knowledge and understanding progress hyperbolically; many fields branch from single small buds. Those researchers who work on the lucky bud become famous in all of the fields which branch from it. Those researchers who work on unlucky buds are forgotten to time. Consider who overshadows Friedman: Smith, Ricardo, Keynes; the founders of those fields in which Friedman worked, and many other fields besides. We do not have a Friedman right now because those such as Friedman can only be identified in hindsight.

This is distinct from Friedman’s role as a political spokesman.

dirk May 22, 2013 at 3:32 am

I’m a huge music fan. I love all sorts of music. All sorts. I have spent a lot of time trying to discover new music that is good. New music isn’t good. It fucking sucks. It is fucking soulless fucking uninspired passionless fucking plastic crap. The new shit is a bunch of fucking passionless faggots making music that sounds like it was made by passionless faggots. There is absolutely no comparison between the music that is made today and the Beatles and The Stones and Dylan. Don’t fucking kid yourself. Yeah, sure, fags may love it, but fags are a small sample of the population.

Herb Levy May 22, 2013 at 7:44 am

“The Beatles, the Stones, etc came of age not long after the birth of the electric guitar.”

Thirty years is several generations in pop culture.

Ignim Brites May 22, 2013 at 9:34 am

Paul Samuelson — superstar? Don’t think so.

Andrew Stewart May 22, 2013 at 10:14 am

Somewhere, Someone Very Important at the NYTimes is shaking his monitor, crying “WHAT ABOUT MEEEEEEEEEEEEE?!?!””

X May 22, 2013 at 10:27 am

Declining marginal utility of work.

PK May 22, 2013 at 11:44 am

Music is a good analogy – but TV might be better. Remember there were only three networks? I figure that when there were only resources to broadcast three networks, people paid more attention to… those three networks. I can name more Economists today than Economists who started their careers in the 30s and 40s… perhaps because there are more resources dedicated to minting and promoting Economists than there were 3 (or 4) generations ago. I can also name more TV channels today, even if I don’t watch them.

Anyway, in Academic disciplines, I think you’re mainly right. The living exceptions proving the rule are probably Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. Others would put Michio Kaku and Jane Goodall in there. (If you want to be snarky, everyone knows Bill Nye – and he had a TV Show just like Friedman!)

I don’t like the 25 year music cutoff, but it does let Garth Brooks limbo under the pole – his first album was released in 1989 (Counterpoint: it was Rob Sheffield who first argued that nature abhorring vacuums substituted Brooks for Bruce Springsteen in popular opinion). Pearl Jam (1990) just barely makes it in there. 60 Million albums worldwide, still touring, and that controversial #1 American Band from USA Today makes my case for them stronger than GB. It screens out Metallica, a band which would have way more controversy in your “Heavy Metal Degree” comment section. It also screens out U2 and Tom Petty (c’mon – he founded the Traveling Wilburys!). Oh, and Madonna – 250+ million albums worldwide (1982). (By the way, Mariah Carey roughly matches the Stones in sales. I may be biased but I’d leave her out too.)

Anyway, the 25 year number. I don’t really like it, since it would take 25 years or so to decide if a band is worthy of “Super-Stardom”. And good as Pearl Jam is, the Nirvana/Pearl Jam argument will never match Beatles/Stones. Too many new ways to consume music, and buying albums is rare when you’ve got mp3s. The golden age is over, but who knows? Any apologists for Taylor Swift or Rihanna?

Troy Camplin May 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Here’s my two cents worth on the topic, for what it’s worth:

http://zatavu.blogspot.com/2013/05/why-is-there-no-milton-friedman-today.html

I note that the reasons there was one and there is not one are the same reasons there will be another one in the future.

Zach May 22, 2013 at 3:26 pm

The Beatles benefited from a convolution of several factors. They had three extremely talented musicians with compatible personalities, who all peaked at the same time, and who benefited from interacting with each other. They stepped into a field which was evolving very rapidly, a few years before it really took off. Advances in broadcasting and mass marketing meant that established players could reach huge numbers of people, right at a time when huge numbers of young people were reaching the age where they cared about music and had money to spend.

Also, they had the underrated advantage of not having the freaking Beatles to compete with, the way every subsequent band has.

Zach May 22, 2013 at 3:34 pm

For the specific question of why there are no Friedmans today, one possible explanation:

Nobody but Krugman can be today’s Friedman, because they’re not famous enough. Krugman can’t be today’s Friedman, because he sounds and behaves like a vile little man.

RPC May 23, 2013 at 9:49 am

What about U2?

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