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Personal Information

When we interviewed Milton Friedman [see Snowdon and Vane, 1997b] he

commented that he had experienced three reactions to many of his views, to

quote: ‘the first reaction is that it’s all a bunch of nonsense, the second

reaction is that there is something to it and the third reaction is that it gets

embedded in the theory and nobody talks about it anymore’. How well does

this parallel with new and controversial ideas you have fought to get accepted?

A little bit. But you know Milton is like Keynes. He goes directly to the

public, to the voters, with ideas. The reactions he is talking about are the

reactions of non-economists, of politicians, of a huge range of people, to the

changes in policies he is advocating. My career hasn’t really taken that form.

My influence has been very much more inside the profession and for that

matter on a technical subset of the profession. In so far as I have had any

influence on the larger world you can’t really identify it because my influence

is contained with the influence of many others. How do you tell my influence

from Tom Sargent’s influence? Nobody other than professional economists

would even have heard of me. No one in the US Congress is going to say ‘I

favour Lucas’s policy’. The reply would be, ‘who is Lucas?’! [laughter].

Turning to the award of the Nobel Prize. When we interviewed James Tobin in

1993 and asked him how he felt about being awarded the Prize his reaction

was somewhat defensive along the lines that he didn’t ask for it; the Swedish

Academy gave it to him. In correspondence we asked Milton Friedman a

similar question and he acknowledged that it was extremely rewarding. He

also told us that he first learned of the award from a reporter who stuck a

microphone in his face when he was in a parking lot in Detroit. We were

wondering what importance you attach to having been awarded the Nobel


Oh, it was a tremendous thing for me. I don’t know what else I can say. I

don’t know what Jim could possibly have had in mind. He was certainly

pleased when it happened and he certainly merited the award. Reporters will

ask you, and this annoys me too after a while, ‘what did you do to deserve

this prize?’ They should look up what the Swedish Academy said on the

Internet. I don’t want to have to defend it. If that is what Jim meant, then I

have been through the same thing and I am just as irritated by it as he is.

What issues or areas are you currently working on?

I’m thinking about monetary policy again, actually. In particular all central

banks now want to talk about the interest rate as being the immediate variable

they manipulate. I don’t get it and yet their record on controlling inflation is

pretty good. Talking in terms of interest rate targets as opposed to monetary

targets seems to me just the wrong way to think about it, but if so, why does it

work so well?

Finally, is there any question that you would have liked to have been asked in

this interview?

I don’t know [laughter]. Your questions are interesting to me. You guys are

economists and it’s a lot more fun being interviewed by an economist than

being interviewed by a journalist who is completely ignorant of economics