Friedman’s long shadow
4 August 2017
Friedman’s long shadow
So here I am, in the northern reaches of chic, super-trendy Chicago. One block away is a street that could well be in Fitzroy, Melbourne. Predictably, it’s loaded with cafes, boutiques, juice bars, sushi trains, gyms, solariums and health food stores. It's here that you can get your turmeric coconut milk latte, quinoa porridge or organic English breakfast tea. The cafes are full of hipsters tapping away on their iPads or buried in their iPhones or laptops. The rents are sky high in this neck of the woods, but it's all worth it for the lifestyle. And the city council recognizes the area’s potential, beautifying its streets with ornamental gardens, wrought iron fences and hanging baskets. It's pretty as a picture, the very upside of north Chicago.
I was told that Chicago was a city of two halves, the rich and the poor, the black and the white, the hipsters and beggars, the secure and the homeless.
Yesterday I strayed into the south side of the city which, by all accounts, is the dangerous part, rivalled only by the western suburbs for gun violence and general mayhem.
I was told to be careful, to watch my back. I was advised much the same years ago when I lived in Brixton, London – another predominantly black area. Apparently, the injection of fear is the usual passport to poor areas, stamped firmly by the more affluent. I detest these warnings, even if the sad reality is that certain forms of violence may indeed be more prevalent in the poorer zones. The problem is that everyone gets labelled in these “violent areas” so that being black equates with violence. It's a troubling correlation because the poor in such neighbourhoods are the recipients of a lot of violence themselves. There's the most obvious sort of police violence, but there’s the violence inflicted when governments cut service: the violence of poverty and hunger. For most poor people, this sort of violence has been unremitting, and it's getting worse. Over the recent past we’ve witnessed the violence of low wages, debt, crappy housing, poor health services, derisory welfare and so forth. This is austerity violence, administered so that the rich can get richer. Maybe we should re-focus our collective attention on who exactly is doing violence to whom.
Meanwhile back in the city’s south, I set out to visit the University of Chicago, supposedly one of the great centres of learning in the US. As a young undergraduate student, I had read the works of Robert Parkes and others in the famed Chicago school of sociology. These were the great founders of urban sociology – zones of transition and all that, old hat now, but ground-breaking back then. So, it was with a sense of glee that I prowled the department’s corridors, peering at photo portraits of the nation’s most eminent social scientists, most of them pipe smoking professorial types. The gothic-gold embossed writing on the office doors spoke of another era well before today's more business oriented approach to university education. I miss aspects of that distant past. It's confession time. I was at the university for other ulterior motives.
I wanted to scowl at the office door of professor Milton Friedman, he of Capitalism and Freedom, and (unfortunately) one of the most influential economists of the post-war period.
I had planned to take a splinter of wood from the door and display it back in Australia – a trivial souvenir culled from one of the world’s most destructive academics. I chickened out, or rather, I could find no door to vandalize. Where the hell was his office? Try as I might, there was no sign of the hallowed space. The more I asked students and staff for its whereabouts, the more elusive it seemed to become. It was as if the ghost of this godfather of neoliberal economics had been deliberately exorcised. I was told by one academic that Professor Friedman moved office quite a few times. I was also informed by a post-graduate student from the Middle East – spot the irony! - that Professor Friedman once complained to the university authorities about the shadow cast by a sculptor outside one of his mysterious offices. Why? Because, apparently, the shadow looked too much like a hammer and sickle. I laughed out loud. Friedman, as you’re no doubt aware, loathed anything to do with communism.
While I failed as a ghostbuster, I did spot a sort of apparition loitering in a small commemorative museum on the ground floor of the department. It was here that Milton Friedman’s legacy was on full show, without a hint of criticism. Indeed, there was even footage of Alan Greenspan, the discredited former reserve bank chief, lauding Friedman’s contribution to economic theory, asserting that he had altered the course of modern civilization. On that point at least, Greenspan was probably right.
Despite the quiet embarrassment surrounding Friedman’s legacy, the campus bookshop continues to stock a few of his books. And no-one, it seemed, not the bookshop staff nor the many students I spoke to were prepared to openly criticize a man whose ideas have propped up over forty years of neoliberalism which, as Naomi Klein points out, is not so much an ideology as a rationalization for greed and inequality.
I was struck more than anything (because I’ve read his dreary books) by how utterly banal Friedman's assumptions were, and how easily they have been trashed by the likes of Klein, Chomsky and Stieglitz, among many others.
It certainly looked that way the following day as I trawled through various YouTube clips of the chirpy professor raging against the minimum wage and refusing to condemn corporate greed.
But intellectual rigour, or claims to empirical prowess, are hardly the point here: the Chicago boys, led by Friedman, provided the justification for the overthrow of democratically elected governments, encouraged the privatization of everything, and on the flip side, egged on the destruction of public services. The end result: grotesque levels of inequality, debt, poverty and ill health, and a shitload of public anger.
After walking out of the great sprawling campus, I took myself off to view Barack Obama’s former residence about a mile away. I say former because it looks like the ex-president has settled into his $8 million mansion in Washington D.C. Michelle hails from south Chicago so she may still harbour some affection for the house that she and then Senator Obama and the kids lived in. You can't see much of the place as it's shielded by enormous conifers. There are concrete barriers and fences all around, and warnings that secret service agents were in the vicinity.
They were pretty discrete because I didn't see a soul. Situated on a large corner block, the house seemed very exposed, and I wondered whether Barack would have minded the many cars parked outside his house each Saturday since it stood across the street from a very large synagogue.
Standing there I felt sad, not so much because Obama’s eloquence had been replaced by the boorishness of his successor, but rather because of the hopes dashed, the image tarnished, and the values never quite realized.
And then there were the drones, the military spending, the TPP, the failure to close Guantanamo, the bail out of the banks, the failure to prosecute CEOs, and the failure to compensate those who lost out in Main Street after the GFC.
Yes, we all got sucked in, but then again, we had no real idea of the determination of the GOP to resist even the most modest of Obama’s reforms. It turns out that Obama was more of an appeaser than the scourge of Wall Street, despite the occasional bluster.
Later, I went down memory lane via YouTube and gazed forlornly at Obama giving his jaw-up, high octane victory speech in Grant Park, in 2008.
Eight years down the track, the mobster billionaires got their way. Obama was gone, the neoliberal thugs were in. Any naïve idea of consensus building was well and truly trashed. The audacity of hope? It was always destined to fail. Obama remains in Washington close to the seat of power eyeing a rapidly unfolding calamity. How he must pine for his old life just around the corner from Chicago University, even in the long shadow of Milton Friedman.
For old time’s sake, I thought I'd pay a visit to Grant Park, but like Obama’s old home, it was surrounded by metal fences (for some kind of musical festival). So, I made my way into the heart of the city through bustling avenues toward the iconic architectural forms conjured up by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright et al. But wait, what was this to my left? An ugly, plate-glassed monstrosity straight out of Gotham City. On its front, five enormous letters bellowed out the name of America’s super brand anti-hero: TRUMP.
The building looks rather like an elongated hand, with the middle finger stretched skywards. Deliberate? Maybe. It did look a bit like a middle finger to all and sundry. So, in I went: no bag checks, no security whatever, up to the sixteenth floor where I strolled onto a huge deck overlooking the river and Lake Michigan. Impressive. Yet as I walked around I noticed that the place was bereft of human presence. “It's a bit slow” I observed to a bored looking waiter. “Yes” he replied. I was told by one of the porters that the occupancy rate had fallen since the election. A silent protest perhaps? But do you think Trump is worried? Not a chance. He's got his eye on a much bigger prize – the corporatisation of the USA.