Anna Jacobson Schwartz (November 11, 1915–June 21, 2012)
By Robert Higgs • Thursday June 21, 2012 4:09 PM PST •
Anna Schwartz was one of the best economic historians of the past century. With Milton Friedman, she wrote (among many other works) that century’s most influential economic history book, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (1963). Although not an economic theorist of Friedman’s caliber, she was a fine economist in her own right. Friedman’s statement that “Anna did all of the work, and I got most of the recognition” was not a mere expression of false modesty, but an honest confession that the immense body of historical evidence meticulously collected, compiled, annotated, and displayed in their landmark books was overwhelmingly the product of Anna’s efforts.
Although I never knew Anna personally, I felt as if I did because I knew so many people who knew her well and because she was always friendly and helpful when our paths intersected. She wrote positive reviews of several of my books, and when Oxford University Press published my book Depression, War, and Cold War in 2006, she wrote a laudatory blurb for the dust jacket. Previously, when David Theroux and I made plans to launch a new journal, The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy, in the mid-1990s, we invited Anna to become a member of the journal’s board of advisors, and she graciously agreed to do so.
Over the years, as I moved away from monetarism and toward Austrian economics, I found myself in growing disagreement with Friedman and Schwartz in regard to monetary theory in general and the causes of the Great Depression in particular. At no point, however, did I lose my great respect for Anna as a scholar and as a person. Anyone inclined to dismiss her work with an offhand quip about the wrongheadedness of monetarists has almost certainly never plowed through the painstakingly constructed footnotes and appendixes in Anna’s books. I once taught a graduate seminar at the University of Washington in which A Monetary History of the United States served as the core text, to be read in its entirety, and I assure you that the able students in this seminar had their hands full to overflowing, as did their professor. In this book we find careful, intelligent historical research displayed at its very best. Stunningly impressive as the 859-page A Monetary History may be, however, it certainly was not the only thing Anna produced, by a long shot.
Anna remained a productive researcher for decades longer than most of us ever will. Just three years ago, I was in the audience for a New York conference at which she, in her capacity as a discussant, leveled scathing criticism at the Fed’s mismanagement of monetary policy before and after the 2008 financial debacle. Although she was physically frail and needed assistance in entering and leaving the conference room, her mind was definitely firing on all cylinders, and she injected real passion into some of her critical remarks. Even in her nineties, she continued to learn, to reconsider her views, and to remain engaged in the key economic debates of the day.
If ever an economist fought the good fight, Anna certainly did so. Although her work tended to be overshadowed because of her having worked so often jointly with the world-famous Milton Friedman, she more than pulled her share of the load in their joint work, and we may hope that in time her contribution to twentieth-century economics and especially to economic history will receive its just recognition.