American Consequences - September 2021


ome years ago – perhaps as punishment for some forgotten sins – the people of the little Vermont town where I lived elected me to the school board. I have no one to blame except myself. I was, if not young then, certainly much younger than I am now... And I was naive beyond my years. I believed I could make a difference and bring on (all together now) change.

And to... well, all sorts of other orthodoxies. My colleague and I got that in our interview. He was less infatuated than I. But then, he’d been to Harvard. For my part, sitting with Dr. Friedman (I don’t believe I ever called him anything else) and listening to him explain, say, the nature of “incentives,” was... well, it was enlightening. And bracing. Something millions of PBS viewers would experience a couple of years later. If I were compelled to distill those tutorials – which is how I thought of them – to a single word, that would be the one. “Incentives.” That word took on an almost holy aura in what might laughably be called my “philosophy of economics.” That was still true when I was sentenced to that stretch on the school board. When it came time to negotiate a new contract with our teachers, the other board members asked me to take the lead. (And I still don’t know how to thank them enough.) Full of myself and the spirit of Milton Friedman, I agreed... SPEAKING BUREAUCRATESE I didn’t need to study very much, or very hard, to see an opportunity to deploy what I thought of as the “right” incentives.

Unfortunately, I neglected to note that there were people who were fine with things the way they were. Our teachers and their union, to be precise. They might want more – money and time off, that is – but they didn’t want different . As for me, I was full of ideas. These days, I would call them “fantasies.” The ideas weren’t mine, in any true sense. You need to be smart and able to study policy with a fair amount of discipline to come up with new ideas in that realm. I was a freelance magazine writer, a profession which, when you look up “dilettante” in the dictionary, you will find in italics after the letters e.g . Still, even if these ideas were not mine, they were pretty compelling and came with a strong pedigree. Most – not to say all – of them had come to me through Milton Friedman. THE FRIEDMAN MODEL Not too many years earlier, I had conducted (with a colleague) the Playboy Interview with Dr. Friedman. Back then, the Playboy Interview was a thing. And Milton Friedman was considered... oh, extreme . And that was just about the worst thing you could say about anyone who was a competitor in the scrum of ideas. Friedman was a maverick and a heretic. Why, he was opposed to the minimum wage, of all things.


September 2021

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