The Stories of Freedom, the Inspiration of Milton and Rose Friedman, & the Art and Poetry of Bob Chitester, Documentarian
Bob Chitester is the founder of Free to Choose and the man who brought Milton Friedman and free-market economics into living rooms across the globe. After 50 years of television experience, Bob examines the relationship between the philosophy of liberty and the capacity for creativity, reflects on his career and friendship with Milton and Rose Friedman, and explains how good storytelling can impact society's future.
Watch the episode and read the transcript of this interview below.
Vale: Good morning. Good afternoon, or good evening, depending on where you are in the world and when you’re listening, my name is Vale Sloane and welcome to this very special episode of The AtlasNexus podcast. I'm delighted to be joined by our special guest today Bob Chitester. Bob’s the founder and executive chairman of the board for the Free to Choose Network, a global entertainment company that produces thought provoking materials and distributes them worldwide. Notably in 1977, Bob collaborated with the Nobel Laureate winning Economist Milton Friedman and his wife Rose to create the seminal show Free to Choose. This PBS television series drew in millions of viewers and spawned an international best-selling book based on the series with sales also in the millions. Bob has more than 50 years of experience in television management and program expertise. We are absolutely delighted to have him here. Thanks for joining us Bob.
Bob: I'm delighted to be here. It's a pleasure to talk to you Vale and to share thoughts with you and all the people in the Atlas network.
Vale: Well we definitely have a global listener base thanks to our Network and I know that they are going to be delighted to hear your thoughts because we're touching on where we are going in terms of Storytelling and how we get these ideas out there. I'd love to know your thoughts about having been at the cutting edge of video and really maintaining that edge for your decades-long career. What do you think the trajectory of the video medium is, and what the future is going to look like? Where are we going in terms of being able to communicate in this way?
Bob: Well, I think first of all, let me say what I think is certain. And what I think is certain is that storytelling and entertainment will always be the guidestar. That one of the challenges that I faced in doing Free to Choose was to overcome and, I wasn't necessarily totally successful in this regard, to overcome the fence that television is a media for entertainment solely. That television is not where people go for intellectual, whatever, explorations and and, therefore, trying to communicate ideas via mass media was not thought of as an effective approach and many many people said they were of the opinion that Free to Choose would fail categorically. Now, had Milton Friedman not been a talented communicator, there is there a distinct possibility that it could have failed. Because it succeeded because of Milton's ability to entertain and to communicate to people in ways that they can relate to their personal experiences. And that's why storytelling is so important. And then also, it was interesting, Milton agreed to do the project. At least based on what he said when he agreed, I think later when he saw the results of what we did, I think he had a different sense of the whole project. But initially had a sense that it would be successful if it helped sell a lot of books. And he didn't mean that in the sense of getting royalties or things like that. He did it because he felt that the way you change peoples minds is you get them read and study and think about the ideas. And he didn't feel the television, and this is again when we initially started to talk about doing the project and he agreed to do it, his position was that television was a serial. The way he put it was you're going to watch a one hour show one night and you'll come to this conclusion and then a night later you watch another TV show and it'll be just the opposite and you won't have any basis for effectively judging and coming to any conclusion yourself. That you can only do that if you have a book and where you can really think about study it. Now we succeeded in the 400,000 hardback copies were sold the very first year that it was the best selling non-fiction book of 1980. So we succeeded in meeting Milton’s test. But as I indicated, 10 years later Milton would have been much more open to the idea of the impact of the television itself. I’ll give you one example.
Bob: Following Free to Choose, and I think it was maybe in 1981 or 82, Queen Elizabeth and Philip were on a worldwide tour in the Royal yacht and they came to San Francisco. And the Friedmans were among those who were invited to a reception with the queen and Prince Philip. And when they were going through the reception line, there was the formality of someone introducing the Friedmans to the queen and Prince Philip. And Prince Philip responded “oh yes of course, I know you. I’ve seen you on the telly.”
Vale: (laughing) That’s fantastic.
Bob: (laughing) He didn't say I read your book. And the point is he probably didn't and wouldn't as did millions of others, but they got the message because when Milton was able to take them all over the world and show them stories of people that had either benefited from free market capitalism or had been suffering because they weren't able to take advantage of what a free society offers. That really resonated with people. One other story about the impact, Milton and I were flying somewhere, I don’t know where it was, and it was after the show had been on the air for a while. And we're sitting there in our seats and a pilot comes walking back down through the airplane, stops, and says to Milton, “Dr. Friedman, I am delighted to meet you. I wanted you to know that I watch the series. I'm watching it. It’s fabulous, and I thank you for doing it.” So it had an enormous impact without question.
Vale: That's incredible. I mean that kind of resonance as you've described the accessibility of these ideas, based on obviously a very important very popular book, but knowing that he could get in the hands of so many people from Prince Philip to Pilots is it in through the visual medium is something that has clearly stood the test of time.
Bob: now one quick correction, Vale. The book was written after the TV show.
Vale: Yes, Yes.
Bob: What happened, What they did was, we finished the show in around April-May of 79. And then they took the transcripts of the programs and the Friedmens went to their home in capitoff, in Vermont and over the next 3-4 months, they turned the transcripts into chapters, the 10 chapters in the book. They got that to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, by I think it was September, October and January, and as of January the books were in book stores all over the United States as the show went on the air in the middle of January. So it's important to know that because Peter Beotteke, apparently well-known Australian economist, he praises Free to Choose and actually gives it higher points than Capitalism and Freedom. That's a little unusual because Capitalism and Freedom is more intellectually complicated or complex book. It puts forth ideas in a more scholarly way, and Beotteke’s point is that Free to Choose was much more accessible. That because it was based on the TV scripts, which by Nature were spontaneous and extemporaneous, it was much easier for people to read and gain from. And it certainly sold a lot, millions without question all over the world.
Vale: Definitely. I know it’s a testament to its popularity in the accessibility we have discussed even jumping on YouTube and being able to pull up Clips of Free to Choose. It's quite timeless I have to say. You see Milton is describing The sent challenges where decades later you can relate to them. Just sitting here in my apartment in Washington DC, it's incredible to see the timelessness of it.
Bob: Yeah. Obviously the program suffers as do any programs 40 years later in terms of styles fashion, you know, the cars are different things like that. But nonetheless, the program still resonates. I am trying to remember who sponsored this, but there was activity and in Slovenia, that I was invited to make a presentation at. And I arrive there, and this was about 5 years ago. And I arrived there and came into the room where the presentations were being made out of during a break. I come in and I was talking to someone, maybe Tom Palmer or someone that I knew, and as I was talking, out of the corner of my eye I caught this young man coming at us. Almost running across the room. And as soon as he could he interjected himself into our conversation and he said Bob Chitester. Oh my, am I glad you're here. I'm from Serbia and I came to this event because I wanted to meet you because I had discovered Free to Choose about a year ago and it totally changed my way of thinking, and now I'm very keen on trying to do what I can to help Serbia become a much more classical liberal society.
Vale: Wow. How does that make you feel getting that kind of response?
Bob: It obviously makes me feel very, very good in the sense that I feel an obligation to the friedmans. They changed my life in a fundamental way, and not just in a career sense. In a sense of pulling me into serious intellectual exploration, in a way that I had only toyed with previously. And pointing out the fact that for example, as a television producer, your greatest asset is information and broad information and much of the fun of being in the media business is the creative challenge of transferring serious intellectual scholarship into some form that the average person can absorb and understand. And so as a result of that for me it was just an exciting change of life. As I tell people I had one person who is an academic snob, who would not accept my statement that I had taken one course in economics as an undergraduate. I skipped the bachelor's degree in economics. I skipped the Master's Degree. I skip the PHD and I went directly to a postdoctoral and my postdoctoral was 28 years of rather frequent discussions and debates and arguments with Nobel laureates. Not only Milton Friedman, but George Stigler and on and on and on.
Bob: So they changed my life in that sense. It threw me into a deeper exploration of the ideas, which I had kind of an intuitive relationship with.
Vale: Yes, well your exploration, this deeper exploration of the ideas and your leadership of the Free to Choose network has allowed so many people around the world to engage with these ideas as well. Which begs the question I think Bob, how have you seen the Liberty Movement change over your years of involvement and evolve as these ideas become more widespread, debated and engaged with?
Bob: Well, it's a commentary on how the media has changed. But it's also a commentary about the need for, if you would like the Freedom Movement, to more enthusiastically embrace this fundamental approach of Storytelling in an entertaining way. And I look at for example the amount of money that's being spent by various groups In the freedom, what I call the Freedom Movement. And I 've never done a careful analysis of it, but just from casual observation, it's pretty obvious that there is a percentage of the funding that is being raised and used in the Freedom Movement that is going to mass media storytelling and whatever is tiny. It is still an orphan child in a way; the fact that there's no more recent free to choose. Now is part of that reflection of changes in the media, but nonetheless, Commanding Heights is the only thing that I'm aware of that was a serious effort at examining the same kinds of questions that Free to Choose did in the 40 years since Free to Choose was created. Now that suggests to me that, boy, there's still a lack of understanding of how important engaging in that arena is to our ultimate success.
Vale: That's an important bit of homework for us I think Bob ,making sure that is a movement, we gotta take it more. Seriously.
Bob: I think so , let me give you an example. We did a program called India Awakes. As a result of that I did, I got a little bit more focused on India and its role in its history Etc. Well that led me to conclude, that the 21st century will be essentially determined by what happens in India. And I was rather gratified to find out Dan Hannon agrees with that assessment. And I think if you look at it just from a common-sense point of view, you look at it from a population size and compare China and India. Johan Norberg, whom we've done a number of programs with, described the difference between India and China this way. He pointed out, and I dont have the exact dates that he did this, but sometime in the 90s, he made a visit to both countries. And Johans’ favorite thing in life is to buy a copy of The Economist magazine and go to a Starbucks, sit in the corner and read it and maybe write a column or something. And he said the interesting thing was that in the mid-90s, I couldn't do that in either China or India. In India The Economist was readily available, but there were no Starbucks. The reason being that India’s governmental regulations that separate were such that it didn't make sense for Starbucks to go there and do business. On the other hand in China there were Starbucks all over the place. But boy, oh boy, you could not find a copy of The Economist magazine anywhere. And then Johan points out that maybe ten years later he did the same thing again. He went to both countries and in India, he could go to a Starbucks and buy The Economist and read it. China, no, no way. And of course that, and by the way, that illustrates the power of Storytelling. No, Johan could have just simply said, you know well in China, you know that they censor everything and so you don't have access to real information. In India, you do. India of course is a basket case in terms of its economic policies, and so forth. He's communicating the same thing by either of those approaches. But which is the one people are going to remember more?
Vale: You raise a good point.
Bob: By him personalizing it, by him making it a story, he then kind of sticks that in your head. That you remember that, I mean I remember it. I remember that story very well because every time I tell it to somebody I think, “wow” it really tells you the whole thing, it gives you the whole message as to what's the difference between China and India. And it’s why I feel India is so critical to the future. Now, how does that relate to your question about going forward? I am saddened to say I will never see this happen, but I hope it does. I was unsuccessful in my efforts to try to raise funds and get a commitment to do an on-going series on India. That would give the American public a better sense of how important India is and as they think in terms of US foreign policy, they have better information in which to judge whether or not the United States should align itself with India in any way. Or, and of course, from my point of view, the goal would be that we in the United States would focus on India as a place that we wanted to help them reform to the degree that we could their economic approaches. So that India could become the same kind of financial bandwidth that China is. And once that happens you then have a counterweight to China. And in any case, and hopefully that counterweight would be enough, that eventually rule of law would come into existence in China. And Milton admitted that he had made a mistake. He thought that if you had economic freedom, you would eventually move to personal and political freedom, but he then had to concede that he had forgotten rule of law. And without rule of law, you can't make that transition because if you have a situation where people rule not law, where whatever Jinping decides decides tomorrow is going to be the law, then he sets the law and that he's above the Law as are all his cronies. Then you cannot have that, that transition won't happen because they will intervene and stop the Natural Evolution toward personal and political Freedom which courses what's happened.
Vale: Yes, I mean I suppose it's that classic distinction between rule of law and rule by law, while you have a situation just because something is quote-unquote legal does not make it moral or right. And I know that's what so many of our partners around the world struggle against that kind of rule by fiat and understanding people driven governance.
Bob: That's right.
Vale: Economic freedom is critically important and making sure that message is heard, is certainly something from what you've described Bob, I think we need to do a better job of movement.
Bob: Well, good question. I think I certainly agree with you. As well as some other things, but in any case rather than me taking us off in who knows what area...
Vale: That’s what we’re here for.
Bob: I’ll return to you and let you take us in whatever direction you want to take us.
Vale: By all means, I'm loving I'm loving our chat Bob. I'd really like to go to your roots career-wise and talk about how you got involved in media and entertainment because you have a decade standing career in that sector is not a main fate and I think it would be really interesting to hear how you got your start even before Free to Choose hit the airways.
Bob: Well, I got my start and some interesting ways. My life has been dictated by happenstance and certainly has not been a planned career life. And to take it back to the roots. I was raised in a small town, Coudersport Pennsylvania, which is which is in Northern Pennsylvania about halfway between Erie and Scranton and I can remember the Allegheny River start somewhere near Coudersport and I can remember standing on the bridge looking at the water running under the bridge Allegheny river is very small in Coudersport. But yet I was dreaming of being an officer in the Navy And I tried to get into Annapolis that didn't work. I then discovered this thing called the Naval Reserve officer training Corps, which at that time was the only service that actually gave you a healthy scholarship and I did succeed in getting that and I and I was given a list of 52 colleges and universities to pick from including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, whatever I chose the University of Michigan and I went there as an engineering student, because I did very well in mass in chemistry and whatever high school. But what I discovered quickly was that I did well in those subjects because I could figure out the answer without understanding the process and I failed the first algebra blue book in college miserably and immediately transferred to the Literature Science and Arts College. And took up radio and television. And I did that because I wanted to be the next Bing Crosby, I have a fairly good voice and sing in the Michigan Glee Club. But I thought well, heaven sakes, I’ll go into radio and TV because that’s where I'll probably be performing if I'm successful. I mean weird kinds of ways for deciding things. I graduated and I immediately went to work because I was married by that time, I had a child and immediately went to work and a high school and in Michigan. And that was the first of many examples of situations where I've always been the boss. Because I went into high school and I was the only one who had a background in radio and television media and the job was to set up a closed circuit television system the Ford Foundation had put up some money for an experimental thing. So I did that then went back to Michigan and got a masters degree because I thought well if I'm going to work in the educational area that degrees are probably going to be important. And the next job I got was at a college in Pennsylvania doing the same thing. And again, I was the only one that knew anything so effectively I was my own boss. I dealt with as the superintendent of schools in Michigan. I dealt with the president of the college in Pennsylvania. And then the president pointed me at an activity that was being developed to create a public television station in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the bottom line was that I got involved in that. And when it came time for them to hire a general manager I said well I'm going to apply and they said “oh well if that's the case, you got the job”.
Vale: Not bad!
Bob: So I was handed the job of general manager of a public TV station which didn't exist. So I had to go raise the money and push to build it. So that's how my career just kind of bumped along. Now I’m the head of a public TV station and in the course of the 16 years I ran it I went through a change in my self understanding and ultimately became aware that I was what people might label is libertarian classical liberal whatever and it wasn't because I studied it wasn't because I read Atlas Shrug. It was because I simply was born as somebody who instinctively felt That a meritocracy was the only kind of organization that made any sense to me. That rewards are what were given out based on achievement. That if you had something to offer that was of use to society you would end up getting rewarded, you'd make a living. Obviously making a living was important to me because at this point I think we had three children by then. So I started to understand what these ideas were. And then along comes John Kenneth Galbraith and does a TV series called the Age of Uncertainty based on a book that he had written. And that troubled me and I have business people ask me, why are you broadcasting that why don't you have something on free market capitalism and free enterprise? And I really felt the same way. I felt the public television needed to have that. And through again happenstance, happened to meet Alan Wallace, Chancellor of the University of Rochester, no idea at all, I don't think I would have recognized who Milton Friedman was at that point in time. But I did get to be friends with Alan and he was then chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I was running this public TV station. He was very surprised to find out that there was a head of a public TV station but agreed with him and then it turns out Alan was, along with George Stigler, the closest friends Milton had in the world. And when I made it clear to Allen that I was frustrated that there wasn't a response to Galbraith and that I was thinking about trying to develop it, he said “well I want to tell you that I think this guy Milton Friedman is the person you ought to approach to do it”. And then at a meeting in Allen office about a week after the Nobel Prize was announced by Milton Friedman in the 1970s. Allen calls Milton and tells him that I'm sitting there and that I have an idea and then Alan urged Milton to meet with me and Milton instantly at grade and in January of 77. I showed up at Milton’s apartment in San Francisco and proceeded to persuade he and Rose to go ahead.
Vale: And the rest is history, eh?
Bob: That’s right.
Vale: Were you expecting, or was Milton expecting as well and Rose the, the kind of runaway success than Free to Choose experienced? Of course when you go into a project you want it to be successful you want it to be seen, but that level of viewership and worldwide residents. Was that something you would have a hunch might happen, or was it just Beyond expectations?
Bob: Well, the results were beyond expectations, I don’t think there’s any question about that.I made the point earlier about Milton's selling books was important. Well, I think at the end of the day Milton and Rose came to understand how unbelievably successful the TV series was as well as the book. That it was the combination of the two that were, it just took off in a way that could not, we could not have predicted the level of success. I think, I don't know, had purposely and specifically thought about what we would judge to be a measure of success? I think it would have been a lot less than what happened.
Vale: Well no complaints there then. I actually did my homework prior to our discussion and watched a few of your old speeches. And I love the story called about how Milton and Roses’ phone was ringing off the hook and Milton letter box filled with letters because of just people wanting to get in touch with the man on the TV blowing their minds about the power of these ideas.
Bob: That's right. Well also, people were calling Milton from around the world wanting him to invest their money.
Vale: Wow, well there ya go! But I guess, not a bad idea to get a full call Milton Nobel Prize winner.
Bob: They assumed that hey, he knew something about economics and that he would be a pretty wise advisor there in terms of how to build up the value of your estate. And of course, they were right in their assumption but it was because Milton was very very good at investing as well as. In other words, he was a terribly well-rounded person. On the Donahue show, you may recall, it was one of those times when Donahue said “well if you're so smart Dr. Friedman, how come you're not rich?” and Milton's answer was, “I am!”
Vale: (Laughing) Not a bad Answer!
Bob: And I don't think there's any question that the net worth of Nobel Economist Milton was very very high. He was very high up on that. He was I think it was called a general partner and Oppenheimer Capital and he was just a smart guy period, who could analyze things and so he was fairly successful with his investments.
Vale: I understand from really just some of my reading, I can only imagine what it was like having the personal relationship and Rose was of course a real powerhouse as well, and a real partner to him.
Bob: Oh my, let me show you a mug.
Vale: Love it, excellent mug. And for our listeners we have Milton and Rose smiling away on Bob's mug.
Bob: Yup, and you see their holding some film there.
Bob: That was a photo taken at an editing shop in London, England. But it also represents, I like to show it to you because it represents how close Milton and Rose were. I have never in my life experienced any couple that had anything approaching the kind of compatibility of that relationship between Milton and Rose. It was just unbelievable how well they got along. How much they build on each other's strengths. They helped each other. They just, first of all, Rose was a successful scholar. She never went beyond the master's degree, but she did as a masters degree student wrote a paper that to the best of my knowledge is still considered a useful piece of economic new development of ideas, in economics. So she was very very intelligent and smart but what made their relationship really work was their fondness for each other and their ability to debate and argue and discuss every tiny little thing that would come along, but to do so in a way that was friendly and cordial. An understanding that each of them had something to contribute. The TV series by the way was essentially non-scripted. And every night as they were traveling around the world with the crew, every night Milton and Rose would got together with the producer Mike and the three of them would talk about what they were going to record the next day.
Bob: And then Milton would go out, they’d go out with the crew and he would record extemporaneously everything that you see on the screen. Whenever he is on camera, in Free to Choose, what you're hearing is Milton Friedman unscripted.
Vale: It’s incredible when you think about it, the articulate way he phrases these ideas. It’s so natural just watching it. To think that, I mean, I suppose that's where the power of it being unscripted comes because of having a conversation with you really.
Bob: Absolutely, absolutely. And it gets back to storytelling it gets back to the power of, the power of art in a way. I am going to read you a poem. And this is a poem that I did not read about Milton the Rose, at least I'm not sure, because it's a poem by Ted Kooser, a contemporary poet. And at the time I met them I read poetry often at dinners that we had together with people. But I think I only discovered this poem, well, I think I've only discovered this poem since Milton died. But I want to share it with you because I think it gets at the storytelling. It gets at how do you get ideas to stay in somebody's mind?
Bob: It’s called A Box of Pastels.
Bob: I once held on my knees a simple wooden box in which a rainbow by Dusty and broken. It was a set of pastels that had years before belonged to the painter Mary Cassatt, And all of the colors she used in her work lay open before me. Those hues she most used, the peaches and pinks were worn down to the stubs, while the cool colors Violet ultramarine- had been set, scarcely touched, to one side. She’d had little patience with darkness, and her heart held only a measure of shadow. I touched the warm dust of those colors, with her tools, and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.
Vale: Wow, it’s beautiful. It's almost tactile. You can just imagine you can feel the words, the images.
Bob: Right, exactly and it's hard to forget that. I have people come up to me that I haven't seen in years and say, “Bob read the Box of Pastels poem for me.”
Vale: Thank you for sharing it with us.
Bob: They remember that. And I use the poem for a different reason, for another reason. I'll share it and then I'll point out that, Ted Kooser would have found it difficult to write poetry if he lived in a society where he had where it was questionable whether he was going to have something to eat at night. That for us to flourish beyond the necessities. For us as humans to indulge in the creativity that we’re capable of. We have to have discretionary income.
Bob: Somebody has to create the prosperity. So that there are benefactors who then are willing to support Ted Kooser. Now whether those benefactors are institutions of the state, far less desirable alternatives or whether they are private industry or whether they are private individuals or whether they are The Medicis in Florence. You have to have some part of society in this creating the wealth. So I say that because many many people are very engaged with the arts. They love the arts etcetera etcetera, but they claim that they despise free-market capitalism. And I say well then, well, okay. What alternative is you and do the Soviet Union thing and you can have them support the arts. And by the way, have you checked out any of that Soviet art?
Vale: I have seen some real doozies of the Soviet art. That’s for sure Bob.
Bob: Right. Is that what you'd like to have?
Vale: I wouldn't hang it in my living room that's for sure.
Bob: Andy Warhol likely would not have done very well with the powers-that-be. So people don’t understand the totality of what free market capitalism means in every sense. And well, I just we've done what we can and again its storytelling. It's giving examples. Alan Wallace wrote a book. I think it was called the Over-governed Society. He also wrote a book on statistics, which I believe is still used, the textbook. But in there he made a point. He said if we were ever to have broad acceptance of free market capitalism, we must somehow or other be able to respond to the media report that shows video of a mother and two children and their belongings on the street where they've been evicted from an apartment. That, the average person looks at that and says that shouldn’t happen and then they'll think about it. They say well that's just because of the greedy landlord whose only interest is in making profit and doesn't care about people. And of course Adam Smith answered that question, in terms of the Invisible Hand and the fact that it's of course everybody wants to do better for themselves. And the beauty of the market and a free Society is you allow the market to solve those problems ultimately. Now no system is perfect. So you will still end up with occasionally the mother and children being evicted. But you can't allow that to tempt you into accepting the concept that somehow or other a socialistic communistic society will do better. The proof is so obvious that it can't and it wont. And you sell your soul to the devil if you go down that road. But that's very very hard to get across because Walter Williams points out, he said, you know where all are raised in a communist society. In a family. What’s a family? A family is essentially a unit in which, ideally obviously all of us, we’re all in families, and we all know the downsides and well Uncle Charlies coming. Well, okay, well that's too-we’ll tolerate uncle Charlie whatever. But families aren’t perfect. But families are at their heart based on the sense that we're in this together. We're going to help each other. And that's basically the underlying kind of philosophy of socialism. Well it works in the family? Why because everybody knows everybody. They know that daughter Susie is a slacker and she doesn’t do her jobs. She doesn’t help out around the house. So you accommodate that, you make adjustments in terms of how you deal with the individuals. But you’re doing it within the,you don't want her to suffer. But how you avoid her suffering is so critical. That you have to somehow have her understand, her suffering will be resolved by her own efforts and not by something you give her.
Vale: Absolutely, and this is such a powerful point, Bob, in terms of the nexus of Storytelling and the emotional resonance of freedom. Books of books; drama, art, theater, as you so eloquently described obviously move the world. And you only have to look at some of the great Greek playwrights; Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus to think about how vocative and thousands of years later we're still able to grasp the messages that they tell us.
Vale: And to that extent Bob, I'd love to know your thoughts on how do we tap into the importance of drama, theater, poetry, cinema, and video to involve the human soul; whilst also illustrating the emotional residence of freedom, how we do that effectively?
Bob: Well, the answer is cultivate those creative minds that have already come to understand free market capitalism and understand its values. And unfortunately, we've missed the boat in so many ways and that we've allowed, Don't know quite how to describe this, that we've allowed the left essentially to dominate the media. There is a sense that if you're an artist, you, well artists, by their nature, like the idea of socialism because they, they need patrons.
Bob: And we have the endowment for the Humanities, the endowment for the Arts both of which you and I would agree ought not to exist. Because they’re government sources of support for the Arts. On the other hand, can you in a free society avoid people voting for that kind of activity? The people who love the Arts say “what the heck? Why should I have to put up all the money for Lincoln Center when I can get everybody in the United States to help out?” And in fact, you end up with those organizations in which you have the poor subsidizing Rich.
Vale: Yes, very true.
Bob: But people don’t understand that, they’re unaware of that, they don’t think about that.
Vale: I think it's an important warning call you posed about us not giving up on the Arts. Rather, it sounds to me like us as art lovers but also freedom lovers need to be full throated in our engagement with both and our celebrations of both and be patrons of the Arts, consume art and discuss art and it’s nexus with what it means to be free.
Bob: Let me put this in very fundamental terms. Over the past 20 years, I've seen a significant increase in the number of Freedom groups that feel they need to be involved with media; social media Etc. Now, I don't understand social media. I mean, I'm not a native there. I'm an immigrant. So for me, it's a learning curve. For you and others, it's just part of your life. It's been that from the beginning. But what you end up with then is a lot of people doing a lot of media things. That's nothing more than yakety-yakety-yak. Now, let me let me use our discussion here. I hope a lot of people watch this and gain from it. But I guarantee you the people who watch it and gain from it are going to be a tiny percentage of the population and they're going to be predisposed to this kind of intellectual exploration. Now, what percentage of the human population does that include? I don't know, but it's got to be less than 1%. Okay, so you have a nation of 330 million or whatever the heck the number of the latest population of the U.S. is. And a great deal of what happens in this country is and has constantly been increasing is dependent on the government. Government is the driver. And the percentage of GDP that is government has has gone up and up and up, despite the fact that markets appear to be doing a great job. And there are several reasons for that. But let me come back then to the question of entertainment of Storytelling. It's important to reach that 1%. But, what about the rest? What about the 99% Cuz they're the ones that are going to really determine the outcome. They're the ones that have the numbers. They can vote and they can vote to take us in directions that are not acceptable. Now how do you reach those people? Now here's where my own experience is limited and that I only can speak to the area of traditional documentaries. And certainly not even entertaining television, per say, it's not something I've ever done. I admire it. And Rob Long who is a friend, I once asked him, “Why can't you insert free-market ideas into cheers”, which he was executive producer of for a while and he claimed that he couldn't do that. Well, I disagree with Rob on that. I think you can do it but you have to have a culture that’s accepting of diversity of ideas. And that's where we've lost. We’ve allowed the media, we’ve allowed journalism, we've allowed the academy to become Johnny one notes. So now we have to fight our way back in. Now how do you do that? I'm not sure there. But I think one thing that has to be done is that those people who provide the funding for movement activities that they help Atlas they help Free to Choose Network Etc. They have to become immune to sticker shock.
Vale: I'm with you.
Bob: India awakes cost us, the total project cost us, including is it products and etcetera a million $300,000. Now funders, they kind of gasp at that and they are used to the fact that that X, Y, or Z freedom organization is cranking out videos that cost 2000 bucks and its two people talking to each other. Well, both of those things have a place in the effort that we are all committed to. But if you consider the number of people or you consider the number of programs that have been on public television, that seriously address these kinds of issues, And if you subtract from that the ones we've created there aren't very many left. And on the one hand I could say that's great because now we hold a monopoly on that area. And so it would be even harder for money if there were 20 other organizations wanting to do the public TV stuff. But, until the movement understands that mass media is big dollars, and it’s mass media as big dollars and no guarantee of success. Because the creative process is so tricky.
Vale: Yes you can’t just distill it out like it's a guaranteed recipe for return investment in success. That’s the beauty of the creative process I suppose. You don’t necessarily know what you'll get at the end of it.
Bob: That's absolutely right. And an example, Hollywood has spent tons of money trying to figure out: what are the elements that would guarantee success of a film? And they've come to one conclusion. There is only one factor where there is a strong correlation. Where if they follow this guideline the likelihood is that the film will be successful meaning you won't lose money and it may make a lot of money and that secret is very simple one word: do a sequel.
Vale: (laughing) Sequel.
Bob: (laughing) And see I would say to people, this gets back to one of my mantras “that economics, the economic way of thinking is all about choices.” That's all it is. And the information that you need to make choices is all around you. And most of us go through life blind. That's the thing the Milton did for me. He opened my eyes to the miracle of the market as providing an unlimited amount of information. And most people tune it out because you know, hey enough is enough is enough. Well, the debate over well should there be three shampoos or should there be 50 shampoos? Folks, that's sending you a message. There are 50 shampoos because there are at least someone who will buy any one of those. And if there was not someone who would buy any one of those then there would only be three of them. And you don't have to be a rocket scientist to take that information home with you. And then you say and then say to yourself, what difference does that make? What if the one shampoo you love is the 50th which were going to do away with because we don't see any reason why there should be so many. And the fact that the 50th only sells and it's a small company and it's only 10 million a year in sales, that can happen in a free-market. It can't happen in a command-and-control society. Because there they will assume that it’s far more effective to just have three choices.
Vale: And we’re lucky that we’re talking about shampoo in this analogy, Bob, we're not talking about your food or where you live or your healthcare.
Bob: That’s right, exactly, and it applies. I mean I raised that because the left is raised that you know, the Bugaboo, well, why the hell do we need all these shampoos?
Vale: Of Course.
Bob: Okay. Well why the hell do you need all the various vegan food choices that you want? And yeah, go to bed as well and see how well a vegan you do. Well, I guess you could if you live out in the woods and grow your own stuff, but.
Vale: No, I'm with you, I'm with you. And while we're on this topic of the intersection of storytelling and freedom, I would love to prevail on you once again to share a bit of poetry with us if you don't mind because I know in 2016 you received the Sir Antony Fisher Lifetime Achievement Award in Miami.
Vale: And when you accepted it you shared one of your favorite poems, I believe it's Overland to the Islands with the audience. Unfortunately, I was not in attendance. So this is kind of making up for lost time and I would love to hear you share that with us if you wouldn't mind.
Bob: I’d love to share it with you and give you the context of the poem.
Bob: And I read it as part of an introduction I did when Milton came to Erie. February of 1977 Milton and Rose said yes, they did the project. I then immediately began working toward that. I'm the head of a public TV station in Erie, Pennsylvania. I have a board of directors. I now made a commitment to do a project that would have a total budget, that let me think at that point in time, it was probably seven times our annual budget for running the public TV station. And of course it was going to take a lot of my time and so who's going to run the public TV station while I'm doing that? They're all those questions. And also there were those who I was just telling them hey Milton Friedman said yes, we're doing this project together. And I can guarantee you there were a number of people who thought, well is Bob blowing smoke here? And I was not a drug user but they may have thought I was high or something, I don't know. So, it was very important for me to have Milton come to Erie and he came to speak to the Erie Rotary Club. In September of 1977. Because that kind of gave absolute evidence that this was real (laughing).
Vale: (Laughing) It’s happening.
Bob: This wasn’t Bob running some kind of black market thing on the side and running around the country. So I read this poem and introduced Milton. I'll read it and then I'll tell you how he reacted.
Bob: Overland to the Islands, Denise Levertov is the poet.
Bob: Let’s go-much is that dog goes, intently haphazard. The Mexican light on a day that smells like autumn in Connecticut makes iris ripples on his black gleaming fur-and that too is as one would desire- a radiance consorting with the dance. Under his feet rocks and mud, his imagination, sniffing, engaged in its perceptions-dancing edgeways, There's nothing the dog disdains on his way, nevertheless he keeps moving, changing pace and approach but not direction- ‘every step an arrival.’
Bob: And ladies and gentlemen, Milton Friedman has curiosity beyond belief as reflected in the poem. I sit down. Milton gets up and says "Bob I didn’t know you thought of me as a dog."
Vale: Beautiful and beautiful.
Bob: And it tells you a lot about Milton, it tells you why he was successful.
Vale: You know I have to say, Bob, hearing you read that poem is wonderful and that's such a great story. And you know, I would be remiss to not share with you a small anecdote. In preparing for this interview a good friend of mine and colleague, Austin Skiera, specifically said that he was in the audience in Miami in 2016 and then heard your speech and heard you read that time and how much it moved him and help him in his decision to stay on with Atlas Network where he still working four years later. The ripple on effects, Bob, of poetry and of your speeches are definitely felt. So, thank you.
Bob: Well, I'm delighted there and I do feel at the end of my life, and that is an absolute statement, I may not see Christmas this year. We’ll see. But, but at the end of my life it certainly is, I still feel, I still feel disappointed that I didn't realize my full potential. But I think everyone was honest would conclude that. On the other hand, I have to also, I certainly am not the least bit hesitant in acknowledging that I have changed the world. But quickly adding that I was only able to do so because of Milton Friedman's genius. I mean, I was in a vehicle. For expanding the range Milton Friedman. But you can expand nothing so there had to be something of considerable importance and value to expand. And that was Milton, and his unique combination of scholarship, and communication skills, and his curiosity and interest in everybody.
Bob: He went through life with a twinkle in his eye is the way I've described Milton.
Vale: Thinking about those kinds of experiences and memories of your time with Milton and even your own amazing Story and experiences. What kind of advice would you give somebody who is 18, going into college getting ready to start it all in their adult life. What kind of pearl of wisdom would you share with them?
Bob: Well, I think the key thing is they need to be a voracious reader. They need to read widely. For example, I I love the,I can't remember what they're called now. But recently this fellow came out and came out with new editions of Herodotus and the Peloponnesian War etc. and they're fabulous because they have lots of maps in them which I love because then you have a better sense of what was going on and where. But you have to read widely and you have to avoid being trapped by conventional wisdom. You have to be a contrarian in a way. And part of it is curiosity too. I’ll give you an example: George Shultz is a good friend of mine. Theo Wilson and I have had a couple of meetings and in the course of that developed a very, I think, an interesting friendship. So you go from the social biologists on the one hand to the Secretary of State on the other. And then the fact that I have very good friends at the high level of the Mormon church, where most of my personal friends are non-believers. And to me, it's all wonderful. It's all part of gathering in as much information as you can that illustrates the diversity that comes with the market. And that diversity is what drives human progress. And I think that's a powerful argument we need to make. Now, there are those who argue against progress, period. That's an argument we need to continue to engage. But I think that that will always remain a minority view meaning I dont think thats a terrible threat simply because I think the average person says “sorry Charlie Brown, I want more and I and I don't see anything wrong with more.”
Bob: Now as we get wealthier we tend to find ways to reduce the harm of more so were not totally unsympathetic. We don't want to live in a garbage can. That's natural. I would like to share with you a very personal moment. I had with Milton and Rose and perhaps use it as a way to close out our discussion.
Vale: Please, please.
Bob: And it occurred after Milton was 90. He was, at least it was after his 90th birthday party. And to stress the fact that Milton and Rose and Milton particularly, was about as generous and warm and cordial a person as you can meet. Now, students of his would tell you otherwise, he was a tough teacher at a tough grader.
Vale: I can imagine.
Bob: Tom Soul tells the story that he went to Chicago and took classes from Milton. And the very first, and he was late for one class and Milton threw him out. He wouldn't let him stay, because Milton had a rule that if you came late you were just certain as well not come in because,I'm not going to accept you, I'm not going to let you in the room. And Tom made the point about how he worried all the time he was walking back to the dorm, you know, how is he ever going to find out what Milton talked about that day which may be included in the test. Well, then goes on many comments about another incident where Milton had given a test to the class and Tom had gotten a B. And he was not very happy about that. And he was talking to another student in the class. And the other student said, “well, what did you get?” He said I got a B. “He said oh my gosh that's fabulous. What do you mean that he said? Well as far as I know Milton only gave two Bs and the rest were Cs or Ds.”
Bob: So he was tough in that intellectual sense. But as a person, as a friend, he was the best you could be the most loyal. And he was curious. So now let me tell you this wonderful story. I have always been well, since I was 39, I became a fitness freak about 39. My brother ran in a marathon. I thought what's that all about? And so I decided I would do that and I did run four marathons. I was always running and fit so I show up at Milton’s apartment. This is how he's 90 years old. “How are you Bob?” good, I’m well Milton. How are you? “Im well, how many miles did you run today?” I didn't run any miles today Milton, but I did do 250, crunches. “Oh, what’s a stomach crunch?”, Milton asked. So I figured the only way to answer that was a demonstration. So, I get down on the rug and I start to do a few stomach crunches. And I’m kind of not watching because I’m like this, and then I noticed Milton got down on the rug next to me on his back at 90 years old and he's doing tiny little stomach crunches. And then Rose joins us on the other side on the floor, so here are the three of us in their apartment doing our stomach crunches. That captures that couple and what made them special as well as any other example, I could give.
Vale: It's a beautiful story. It's incredibly humanizing and thinking about these absolute juggernauts of economics, liberty, being able to just be human like you and me.
Bob: It's wonderful exactly.
Vale: I really appreciate your time. Bob. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today, and I really just want to say more broadly, thank you for all of your work through the Free to Choose Network through Free to Choose itself to spread these ideas around the world. I'm very privileged in my role at Atlas Network to work with so many people around the world advancing freedom and liberty. And knowing that they have access to these ideas through your work and what you produced over the course of your career is wonderful and it must be you know, something that gives you great pride because it's really done so much for pursuing these ideas on which I think human flourishing depends.
Bob: Well, I do feel a gratitude to people who've been so generous and helping me. And who had trust in me when I was not able to give them a lot of assurance of success. And then I would leave people then with another poem if you'd like and this poem closes us out in this way. And then as I said, I tell people economics is just about choices. And choices are important and we don't necessarily keep that in mind. We tend to make choices without really careful thought as to their possible repercussions. This is called Hay for the Horses by Gary Snyder.
He had driven half the night From far down San Joaquin Through Mariposa, up the Dangerous Mountain roads, And pulled in at eight a.m. With his big truckload of hay behind the barn. With winch and ropes and hooks We stacked the bales up clean To splintery redwood rafters High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa Whirling through shingle-cracks of light, Itch of haydust in the sweaty shirt and shoes. At lunchtime under Black oak Out in the hot corral, -The old mare nosing lunchpails, Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds- “I’m sixty-eight” he said, “I first bucked hay when I was seventeen. I thought, that day I started, I sure would hate to do this all my life. And dammit, that’s just what I’ve gone and done.”
Bob: And then I ask people. Did he really hate it? Actions speak louder than words. And we need to keep that in mind too because as we observe what other people are doing, we need to be careful. And not misinterpreting how they feel about things. And that we need to be more willing to accept at face value that they have made choices willingly. And they’re really happy with the choices they made.
Vale: Marvelous, I appreciate your words, Bob, I appreciate the poetry and discussion. Thank you so much for joining us and thank you to our audience for tuning in to this very special episode.
Bob: Thank you, Vale, very much enjoyed it.