“Sowell has been teaching economics to Americans through his books and articles for four decades. So it seems like a natural question: Have we learned anything? Has the level of economic thinking in political debate gone up at all? “No—in fact, I’m tempted to think it’s gone down,” Mr. Sowell says…
…“At one time you had a lot of people who hadn’t had any economics saying foolish things. Now you have well-known economists saying foolish things……. Mr. Sowell says he cannot remember ever hearing a gunshot when he was growing up in Harlem, and he used to sleep on the fire escape to beat the summer heat. He cites changes in black enrollment at New York City’s highly competitive Stuyvesant High School, which he attended. In 2012, blacks were 1.2% of the students at Stuyvesant,” he says. “Thirty-three years earlier, they were 12%.” Here’s the point: Does anyone believe that racism and the legacy of slavery are stronger today than in the 1970s—or for that matter in 1945, when Mr. Sowell enrolled at Stuyvesant? “It’s not a question of the disproportion between blacks and whites, or Asians, but the disproportion between blacks of today and blacks of the previous generation,” he says. “And that’s what’s scary.”…. He offers another statistic: “For every year from 1994 to the present, black married couples have had a poverty rate in single digits,” Mr. Sowell says. “Those people who have not followed the culture—the ghetto culture—are doing fine.””, Kyle Peterson, “The March of Foolish Things”, The Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2015
The March of Foolish Things
The conservative sage on the decline of intellectual debate, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and what the welfare state has done to black America.
By Kyle Peterson
Photo: Ken Fallin
Thomas Sowell turned 85 years old this summer, which means he has been teaching economics to Americans through his books and articles for some four decades. So it seems like a natural question: Have we learned anything? Has the level of economic thinking in political debate gone up at all?
“No—in fact, I’m tempted to think it’s gone down,” Mr. Sowell says, without much hesitation. “At one time you had a lot of people who hadn’t had any economics saying foolish things. Now you have well-known economists saying foolish things.”
The paradox is that serious economic discussion enjoys a wider platform than ever before. One of the great bounties of the Internet is the trove of archival news and debate footage that has been dumped onto YouTube and other websites. Anyone with a modem can now watch F.A. Hayek discussing, in a soft and dignified German accent, the rule of law with Robert Bork in 1978. Or Milton Friedman at Cornell the same year, arguing matter-of-factly about colonialism with a young man in a beard, sunglasses and floppy sideways hat.
There is plenty of old footage of Mr. Sowell floating through the ether, too, and if one watches a few clips—say, his appearance on William F. Buckley, Jr.’s “Firing Line” in 1981—two things stand out. The first is how little Mr. Sowell has changed. The octogenarian who sits before me in an office at the Hoover Institution, where Mr. Sowell has been a senior fellow since 1980, has a bit of gray hair and a different set of glasses, but the self-assurance and the baritone voice are the same.
The second thing that strikes is how little the political debate has changed. Maybe economics isn’t merely a dismal science, but a futile one.
Take the minimum wage. In 1981, a year in which the federally mandated hourly pay rose to $3.35 from $3.10 (in today’s dollars that would be to $8.79 from $8.14), Mr. Sowell argued on “Firing Line” that the minimum wage increases unemployment by pricing unskilled workers—young minorities in particular—out of the job market. It’s the same point he makes today, as activists call for a minimum wage of $10.10, or even $15.
“When looking back over my life, I think of the lucky things that happened to me. And one of the luckiest ones, I just realized recently, is that when I left home as a 17-year-old high-school dropout, the unemployment rate among black 17-year-old males was in single digits,” Mr. Sowell says. “In 1948, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was 10 years old and it hadn’t been changed. And there was huge inflation, and so it was as if there was no minimum wage.” He got a series of jobs—delivering Western Union telegrams, working in a machine shop—that put him on the right path.
Which is not to say that life was easy: In his 2002 memoir, “A Personal Odyssey,” Mr. Sowell describes how he once pawned a suit of clothes to buy food—a knish and an orange soda at a little restaurant on the Lower East Side in New York City. “Since then I’ve eaten at the Waldorf Astoria, I’ve eaten in Parisian restaurants and in the White House,” he tells me. “But no meal has ever topped that knish and orange soda.”
Or take “disparate impact,” the idea that different outcomes among different groups—say, that there are more male CEOs than female—is ipso facto evidence of discrimination. The Obama administration has used disparate impact to charge racism in housing, employment and other matters. In the absence of discrimination, the theory goes, people naturally would be dispersed more or less at random. Nonsense, Mr. Sowell says. “In various books I’ve given lists of all the great disparities all over the world, and I recently saw a column by Walter Williams in which he added that men are bitten by sharks several times as often as women.”
Differences in outcome is a matter that Mr. Sowell takes up in his new book, “Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective,” out Sept. 8. Its theme, he says, is that “in a sense, there was never any rational reason to believe that there would be this evenness that they presuppose.” Some continents have more navigable rivers and deep water harbors than others. Some cultures value education highly, and some don’t. Underwhelming as the conclusion might sound to those with the urge to reorder society, many disparities arise simply because people are different, and because they make different choices.
Another problem is that the “disparate impact” assumption misidentifies where group differences originate. He sets up an example: “If you have people in various groups in the country, and their kids are all raised differently, they all behave differently in school, they do differently in school. And now they’re grown up and they go to an employer, and you’re surprised to find that they’re not distributed randomly by income.” It’s “just madness,” he says, to assume “that because you collected the statistics there, that’s where the unfairness originated.”
Mr. Sowell, looking back, can count the lucky breaks that contributed to his own success. As a baby he was adopted into a household with four adults who talked to him constantly. When he was 9 years old, the family left the South, moving from North Carolina to Harlem in New York. A mentor there took him to a public library for the first time and told him how to transfer out of a bad school into a good one. Not everyone has that kind of luck.
“It is unjust—my God it’s unjust,” Mr. Sowell says. “And yet that doesn’t mean that you can locate somebody who has victimized somebody else.” In human affairs, happenstance reigns.
Why do we never seem to learn these economic lessons? “I think there’s a market for foolish things,” Mr. Sowell says—and vested interests, too. Once an organization such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is created to find discrimination, no one should be startled when it finds discrimination. “There’s never going to be a time when the EEOC will file a report saying, ‘All right folks, there’s really not enough discrimination around to be spending all this money,’ ” he says. “You’re going to have ever-more-elaborate definitions of discrimination. So now, if you don’t want to hire an ax murderer who has somehow gotten paroled, then that’s discrimination.”
It’s a funny line—and an instance of what sets Mr. Sowell apart: candor and independence of mind. No one can suggest that he doesn’t say what he thinks. In 1987, while testifying in favor of Judge Robert Bork’s ill-fated nomination to the Supreme Court, he told Joe Biden, a senator at the time, that he wouldn’t have a problem with literacy tests for voting or with $1.50 poll taxes, so long as they were evenly and fairly applied. When I ask whether he remembers this exchange, Mr. Sowell quips, “No, Joe Biden is forgettable.”
In our interview he maintains that the 1964 Civil Rights Act should have stuck to desegregating buses and government services, and let market forces take care of integrating lunch counters. Mr. Sowell says that the precedent set by imposing integration on people like Lester Maddox, a segregationist governor of Georgia who also owned a chicken restaurant, has opened a Pandora’s box. “If you say that Lester Maddox has to serve his chicken to blacks, you’re saying that the Boy Scouts have to have gay scout masters. You’re saying—ultimately—that the Catholic Church has to perform same-sex marriages.”
Mr. Sowell is unsparing toward those who purport to speak for American blacks. I ask him about the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. “People want to believe what they want to believe, and the facts are not going to stop them,” he says, adding that black leaders—from President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder down to Al Sharpton—“do all they can to feed that sense of grievance, victimhood and resentment, because that’s where the votes are.”
What about Ta-Nehisi Coates, the black writer whose new book, a raw letter to his son about race relations in the U.S., is stirring public intellectuals? I read Mr. Sowell a line from Mr. Coates’s 15,000-word cover story for the Atlantic calling for reparations for slavery: “In America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.”
“Ah . . . yes,” Mr. Sowell sighs, as if recognizing a familiar tune. “What amazes me is not that there are assertions like this, but that there is no interest in checking those assertions against any evidence,” he says. “One of the things I try to do in the book is to distinguish between what might be the legacy of slavery, and what’s the legacy of the welfare state. If you look at the first 100 years after slavery, black communities were a lot safer. People were a lot more decent. But then you look 30 years after the 1960s revolution, and you see this palpable retrogression—of which I think the key one is the growth of the single-parent family.”
Mr. Sowell says he cannot remember ever hearing a gunshot when he was growing up in Harlem, and he used to sleep on the fire escape to beat the summer heat. He cites changes in black enrollment at New York City’s highly competitive Stuyvesant High School, which he attended. “In 2012, blacks were 1.2% of the students at Stuyvesant,” he says. “Thirty-three years earlier, they were 12%.”
Here’s the point: Does anyone believe that racism and the legacy of slavery are stronger today than in the 1970s—or for that matter in 1945, when Mr. Sowell enrolled at Stuyvesant? “It’s not a question of the disproportion between blacks and whites, or Asians, but the disproportion between blacks of today and blacks of the previous generation,” he says. “And that’s what’s scary.”
He offers another statistic: “For every year from 1994 to the present, black married couples have had a poverty rate in single digits,” Mr. Sowell says. “Those people who have not followed the culture—the ghetto culture—are doing fine.”
So how can the case for reform be made? Let’s say the Republican presidential nominee has a speech lined up at the historically black Howard University. What should the candidate say?
Mr. Sowell says he should tell the audience that “one of the worst things for blacks is the minimum wage. The worst thing,” he says, is “the public schools run by the teachers unions who will protect the most incompetent teacher there is, who will fight tooth and nail against your being able to make a choice and go to voucher schools.” Lay out the case, Mr. Sowell says, and “address them as if they’re adults. You’re not going to get 50-plus percent of the black vote. But good grief, if the Republicans got 20% of the black vote it would be a revolution.”
One can only hope that if such a day comes, Mr. Sowell, who has been making these arguments since Barack Obama was a teenager, is around to see it. He says he doesn’t intend to retire. The fifth edition of his 2000 book “Basic Economics” came out last December, and although his newest title isn’t on store shelves yet, he is already mulling a sequel. Mr. Sowell seems as sharp as ever, so I have to ask: Does he feel 85 years old?
Another answer with no hesitation. “Yes. Maybe 95 on some days,” he says, with a deep laugh. “When I think of the things that other people my age are going through, I really should feel so lucky.”
Mr. Peterson is an associate editorial features editor at the Journal.