A woman who knew her worth

As far as Rose Friedman was concerned, public kudos did not matter that much.

She persisted in being a rose, no matter what.

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fundamentals

You could feel right away, in conversation with Rose Friedman—who died in August at 97—that this petite lady with the twinkling eyes and sweet smile was responding to every word. But as she kept interjecting her razor-sharp, yet ever so gentle objections to seemingly rigorous propositions, you were startled by the realization of what a giant intellect this unassuming lady possessed.

It is a tribute to her great economist husband Milton that he treated Rose as his intellectual equal, a true partner, even as he was sometimes discomfited with her insistence on questioning what seemed like self-evident truths. Rose never accepted any assertion, even Milton’s, as revealed truth. This constructive skepticism was no doubt her great contribution to the refinement of Milton’s ideas. Milton seemed to think so.

That Milton’s acceptance of Rose as his full partner was rather exceptional is a testimony to the fact that despite the great advances made in men’s attitudes toward women, women are still not fully recognized as equals (though different, thank God). Rose must have had a strong sense of self, and did not seem to pay much attention to how she was perceived by the public. She fully, if modestly, knew her worth.

USUALLY IT is opposites that attract. But in the case of this exceptional couple, it was the similarity. “Milton has grown up,” Rose related, “as I have, in a small town. He was not exposed to many things that other kids were exposed to. He was more intellectual than I, but not too much… that is what drew us together. We came from the same background and therefore our ideas were the same.”

When they were seated next to each other in an economics class (arranged by alphabetical order) their affinities blossomed into full love. “She is a wonderful person,” Milton said, “very warm and thoughtful, and very much concerned with other people’s welfare rather than with her own.”

This was surprising praise by a thinker who seems to have assumed that people act out of calculated self-interest.

Former secretary of state George Schultz pointed out in one of the last public celebrations of Milton Friedman’s birthday that in our era it was Milton whose ideas had the greatest beneficial impact on the wellbeing of humanity.

His indefatigable and effective advocacy of free markets, his fashioning of the instruments (floating exchange rates) that made free international trade easy, his discovery of the monetary origins of runaway inflation that made it possible to control this devastating plague (in Germany it spawned the rise of Nazism) his ability to convince leaders in American, Britain, China and India (and yes, even in Israel to an extent) that the market economy, despite its obvious imperfections (which, alas, afflict any system devised by homo sapiens), is by far the most successful economic system ever spontaneously evolved by mankind – helped transform the world.

Milton explained that not only is the free market the most powerful engine for the creation of wealth and wellbeing, its incessant innovation and encouragement of competition also resulted in the spreading of wealth and human welfare ever more widely, albeit not equally. Market economics has enabled billions of people, Milton reminded us, to overcome grinding scarcity and hopeless penury. It liberated them from the bondage of material and political slavery. It gave billions their first chance to participate in the pursuit of happiness and to start realizing what is human in mankind.

MILTON HAD a rare gift for translating complex economic issues involving sophisticated mathematical calculations into easily understood (though fiercely resisted) policy propositions. But he could not have made these propositions so widely known and understood without Rose, the co-author of their seminal work Free To Choose (the film series, and the book).

It was this collaboration that enabled their ideas to have a great impact. Milton fully shared the credit for this daring intellectual undertaking that has transformed the economic understanding of billions of people, helped elect Ronald Reagan and consequently brought such huge benefits to so many people, especially in less developed countries.

Gertrude Stein famously characterized “rose is a rose is a rose” uniquely, sublimely, poetically so. This particular Rose Friedman was more than the multi-leaved, many-hued and variously-scented outcropping of bounty that we name a rose. She was a rare amalgam of a quintessentially American optimism, of feminine grace and courage, and of Jewish loving-kindness. It was at the root of everything she did. It showed in her special concern for Israel, and in her affection for the Jewish people.

Perhaps this is why it was difficult to discern her great intellect. Indeed this may also be the case with another star in the firmament she shared with Milton, her outstandingly creative brother, Aaron Director, one of the greater economic innovators of our era that too few appreciated. They both lacked, it seems, a definable academic status that makes for easier recognition.

This did not have the slightest effect on Rose, as far as one could see. She persisted in being a rose, no matter what.

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