Another Uncommon Knowledge interview with economist Thomas Sowell came out this week, coinciding with the updated version of his book Discrimination and Disparities. There’s always wisdom that comes from listening to this octogenarian (I hope he lives at least another 20 years). Some of the stories I’ve heard before. I’ve read his biography. But some of it is new, or clarifying because of current data. He’s big on finding evidence from the data.
|Thomas Sowell, on Uncommon Knowledge|
screen shot from here
He has added a new chapter to the book, and here’s an example quoted from that:
The poverty rate among black married couples has been less than 10% every year since 1994. As far back as 1969 young black males whose homes included newspapers, magazines, and library cards had similar incomes to those of their white counterparts. Academic outcomes show a pattern of disparities similar to the pattern of disparities in the amount of time devoted to schoolwork. Apparently, lifestyle choices have consequences.
Host Peter Robinson asks him about that:
PR: So this is the constrained vision once again. Welfare state, that’s government; we don’t rely on that. Affirmative action, government; we don’t rely on that. We rely on hard work. We rely on the institution of marriage. That’s correct?
TS: Yes. In other words, these things— I don’t think it’s the marriage as such or the library cards as such; it’s that there are lifestyle choices that have been made. And the comparison I made was between—if you look at the poverty rate among blacks, it was at 22%, and among whites it was 11%, but among black married couples, it was 7.5%. So they not only do better than blacks as a whole; they do better than whites as a whole. So it’s lifestyle choices.
That’s not something we hear in the news, or from mainstream opinion commentary.
|new edition, with new chapter|
Thomas Sowell talks some about minimum wages. That was a particular interest of his, back when he was working on his PhD, and was still a Marxist, but was academically committed to empirical data (which, of course, is what led him in the opposite direction of Marxism so many decades ago). When he tried to get data from one department of government to another, he couldn’t. There was a sense that people’s jobs—in the government—were at stake if evidence showed, as some believed, that higher minimum wages led to greater unemployment.
Of that experience he quips:
I worked in the US Department of Labor, and I began to realize—well, a number of things—that the government is not simply the personification of the general will, like Rousseau or others would say. The government institutions have their own institutional interests.
His own life example about the minimum wage was as a 16-year-old high school dropout, when he got a job as a Western Union messenger, delivering telegrams on a bicycle. The minimum wage for the job, as set by the US Fair Labor Standards in 1938 was 40¢/hour. But by 1948, when he got the job, he started at the bottom, getting paid 60¢/hour—the going rate to get the workers, rendering the minimum wage irrelevant.
But then “compassionate” government stepped in to “help” by raising the minimum wage. The result is that 20 years later a black kid (or for that matter a white kid) can’t get a job.
Sowell and Robinson spend some time discussing the difference between the “constrained vision” and the “unconstrained vision,” from an earlier book, A Conflict of Visions. Constrained means that you pay attention to reality. Unconstrained means there’s an assumption that good things happen all by themselves, but if bad things happen there’s some institution to blame—even maybe civilization itself.
So, when there’s disparity, there’s one side that looks for data and evidence to compare one approach to another (the constrained side). And then there’s the side that assumes there’s racism or some other social ill at fault (the unconstrained side).
Most of the time, in our country today, disparities are not racially caused. He talks about another possible effect contributing to poverty:
TS: Wherever you look around the country, around the world, you find people that live up in the mountains poor and backwards. Even in the richest country, including the United States. I believe the poorest county in the United States was in a mountain community which was almost 100% white.
PR: Somewhere in Appalachia? West Virginia? Southern Ohio?
TS: Yeah. And men in that county had a life expectancy ten years less than men in a county in Virginia.
PR: And the unconstrained vision says, “Lets fix that. Surely we can pass a law that would improve that.” And the constrained vision says, “Well, now, wait a moment. If people who live in isolated pockets in mountains are poor and backwards all around the world, and we see this pattern over, and over, and over again, maybe there’s something very deeply rooted in reality about that that is hard for us to get at.” Correct?
Robinson reminds him of a recent column in which he challenged Nicholas Kristoff, a New York Times writer who thinks whites should pay reparations for the legacy of slavery.
PR: Kristoff had ascribed the gaps between African Americans and whites in America—gaps in wealth, gaps in educational achievement, the usual gaps—to, and this is a quotation from Kristoff: “to the lingering effects of slavery.” And here’s Tom Sowell:
“If we wanted to be serious about evidence, we might compare where blacks stood 100 years after the end of slavery with where they stood after 30 years of the liberal welfare state. In other words, we could compare hard evidence on the legacy of slavery with hard evidence on the legacy of liberals.”
And so there it is. Life is hard; you use the word hard. You use the word serious. You use evidence. Tom Sowell is a man of the constrained vision through and through and through. Correct?
TS: Yes. Part of a vanishing breed, I might add.
There are a couple of times in the conversation that charter schools come up. They’re educating better than children in privileged areas are being educated. And they’re not getting the cream of the crop; they’re allowing students in by lottery, without even looking at they’re academic history. But they do have high expectations, and they don’t tolerate nonsense.
Near the end they cover charter schools in more detail. Robinson points out that Democrats—and he can’t remain nonpartisan about it—prevent quality education for those that need it. And Dr. Sowell agrees:
TS: That really is one of the moral outrages, that for many kids who come from a very poor background, and whose parents might not have had much education, a decent education is the one thing they have to have to have a better life.
And these schools have been absolutely spectacular. The charter schools. The successful ones. Now there are some that weren’t, but— For example, a few years ago on the New York statewide math test, there was an elementary school, grade 4 I believe, in Harlem, whose students passed those tests at a higher rate than any 4th grade kids anywhere in the state of New York. I mean, we’re talking Scarsdale, Radcliffe, places like that. The Success Academy schools as a whole, their students pass both the math and the English statewide tests at a higher rate than any school district in the entire state of New York.
The vast majority of the kids in the Success Academy schools are either black or Hispanic. If you look at the five highest scoring school districts in the state, in terms of the percentage of students who pass the math or the English tests, their average family income ranges from four times that of the kids in the Success Academy schools to more than nine times the family income of the kids in the Success Academy schools. And yet, the Mayor of New York is doing his darndest to put a stop to the expansion of these schools in general, but his special ire is aimed at the Success Academy schools. And this is happening all across the country.
PR: Because they make the teachers unions look bad, in the public schools? What’s the political motivation? Why would Mayor de Blasio have it out for the charter schools such as Success Academy?
TS: Well, the teachers unions are the major reason. And we talk about the money they contribute, the votes they contribute. What’s happening, again, not just in New York, but other parts of the country, including California, is there’s all kinds of chicanery to prevent the charter schools from expanding. That’s why you have tens of thousands on the waiting list. It’s not that the charter schools aren’t willing to expand, but every conceivable obstacle is put in their way. Because, if you let that go at the natural pace, it would be very hard for public schools to compete.
There it is again: something about that government institution having its own institutional interests—apart, and probably in conflict with the stated goal.
What’s missing is a search for—or even a valuing of—evidence, or truth. The current rise of socialism’s popularity is an example—51% approval from those in the 18-29 demographic, according to a recent Gallup poll. How can that be?
TS: Yes. Socialism is a great idea; that does not mean it’s a great reality. One of the things that disturbs me tremendously is about this enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders and socialism at a time when people are literally starving in Venezuela, an oil rich country. And they’re breaking into the grocery stores to try to get food. And they’re fleeing to neighboring countries, most of which are not all that prosperous themselves, but at least you don’t starve to death in them. And none of that makes a bit of difference. I don’t think most of the people that are out there cheering for Bernie Sanders have given a thought to Venezuela.
PR: To the evidence.
TS: That’s right. To the evidence, yeah.
So that’s one theme for this conversation: get the evidence, so you know what you’re talking about.
And this is another common Sowell theme:
TS: In the government you have surrogate decision makers, and they cannot possibly know as much as the individuals whose person decisions have been preempted.
The third would be about lifestyle choices:
PR: Tom Sowell’s view is, get an education, stay married, and do your job, roughly?
It sounds like what we’ve been saying here for years. If Thomas Sowell agrees with us, I think that means we’re on the right track.