Saturday, September 5, 2015

The March of Foolish Things

The March of Foolish Things - WSJ

The conservative sage on the decline of intellectual debate, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and what the welfare state has done to black America.

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.”

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