Friday, December 02, 2005

The great Thomas Sowell

Fox News aired a rare interview with Thomas Sowell, in my opinion America's greatest public intellectual and one of my personal heroes, over the Thanksgiving weekend. I cannot find a transcript but want to hit some of the highlights, as he has a unique talent for breaking issues down so logically and making so much sense you wonder why he is not the voice of modern black America instead of the motley collection of race-baiters that unfortunately fill the role. The following are his quotes or paraphrases from the interview.

One of the reasons government programs do not work is that they cannot create good parents.

As a young man, he was a Marxist. What changed him? He took a job in the government, and it only took him one summer to figure things out: “I realized that the government was nowhere close to being capable of doing what people on the left wanted the government to do, and that in fact we would be lucky if they didn’t make things worse.” Working in the Department of Labor, he wondered whether the minimum wage law made poor people better off or worse off. But since the law provided 1/3 of their budget, he found no enthusiasm for, as an example, looking at how much unemployment the law caused.

Anybody can graduate from Princeton (or similar elite university) and be “an ignoramus” because the course requirements have been relaxed. Elementary and secondary education are a disaster because the people who go into teaching (education majors) are the lowest level of college students, and have been for half a century. What would help the state of education? First, break the NEA and make teaching non-union. Second, abolish all education schools – the best way one could spend money to improve education would be to pay all education professors to retire.

“The effect of disaster relief is that people locate in dangerous places that they wouldn’t locate in if they had to pay for it themselves.” If people bore the high cost of high-risk insurance, they would locate in safer places and there would be less property damage and fewer people killed. “I think that’s desirable.” When it was noted that he lives on an earthquake fault: “[I]f the earthquake comes, I don’t think I have a right to ask somebody living in the Rocky Mountains to pay for rebuilding my house.”

“[Oil] prices are symptoms. […] People think that if you can control the prices that’s going to do something. All that’s going to do is cut off the supply, it’s going to reduce the supply so that you’re going to be worse off than before.” What to do? Drill for more oil, build more refineries – “What the high price tells you is that there isn’t enough gasoline.” In the short term, as prices rise people will find ways to drive less.

“Democrats are the only reason to vote for Republicans.”

On the Patriot Act: “There’s no such thing as benefits without costs.” We’ve gone more than four years with no attacks, that’s a good track record, and “I don’t think it’s because the terrorists have gotten nicer.” Asked about loosening it, he cites the “polio fallacy”: when people started to get vaccinated for polio, instances of the disease dropped drastically, to the point that people thought they didn’t need to get vaccinated because nobody had it anymore, leading to a resurgence of polio. “You can’t just assume that things got better on their own.”

“I try to think back to any war that had an exit strategy.” There has never been one, it’s about holding this war to an impossible standard.

On why he’s an independent: “Nothing I’ve seen about either political party makes me confident.”

On the self-anointed: “They are people who seriously believe that they are wiser and nobler than others, and that the way to improve society is to have the government force people to follow what the anointed want rather than have that people do what they themselves want to do.” All kinds of fiascos follow from this line of thinking. “What could be more stupid than a system where young men don’t have to work because the government is taking care of them, their mothers or their sweethearts, and who therefore have nothing but time on their hands to get into mischief.” This is a recipe for disaster.

“To say that you’re going to have social justice means that you are going to have to concentrate power in some small group of people to override rules and standards and so forth. And people do not see that that’s more dangerous than the injustices they’re trying to wipe out.”

On protests over Wal-Mart’s pay: “Hey, I want more money for myself, but that doesn’t mean that someone else has an obligation to pay it.”

Liberals want to help people while they’re poor. Conservatives want to stop people from being poor, and liberals have no interest in that, a fundamental difference between the ideologies. Liberals believe that the problems in the world are caused by the institutions being wrong, and if you just could fix them everybody would be happy. Conservatives believe that “there are no solutions, there are only tradeoffs, and whatever you do to deal with one of man’s flaws it creates another problem, but that you hope to get the best tradeoff you can get and that’s all you can hope for.” There are three questions that would destroy most of the arguments of the left: 1) “Compared to what?”; 2) “At what cost?”; 3) “What hard evidence do you have?”

The black urban underclass has a redneck culture that was inherited from southern blacks who in turn inherited it from whites from England and Scotland, and that culture has never worked for any group. How to end it? Stop making it sacred. If a child makes a mistake, correct him; it’s better to hurt his self-esteem than to let him fall permanently behind.

Why do black leaders dislike him? “Why does the mafia dislike policemen? They’re making their racket harder.” Blacks were rising faster before the civil rights movement than they have since, getting more and better quality education and not being dragged down by affirmative action.

Affirmative action has given benefits to a group of people who were already more fortunate. If you’re a black millionaire, affirmative action is great, it can help you buy a business or get contracts. But there is no evidence that people who are poor have benefited from affirmative action at all. It is a heavy burden to bear: “How will they know if they were hired because they were the best person or because they were black?”

What should the civil rights movement do? Declare victory and pour their efforts into something else like education or entrepreneurship.

“Businesses have done more to reduce poverty than all of the intellectuals combined. […] The only thing that will reduce poverty is wealth, and the people who produce the wealth reduce the poverty.”

What irritates him most?
1) Environmentalism: “I just wish there was some way to add up the incredible costs that are run up in order to appease a small group of noisy, self-righteous people.” Their efforts are causing havoc to low-income people by driving up prices, especially of housing.
2) “The people who are playing the race card at every turn, because the people who are hurt most by them are the blacks themselves.” There is twice as much hope for young black people as there was for their parents, and ten times what there was for their grandparents, but they become convinced by propaganda that they can’t make it, which is just not true at all.
3) The education establishment: “People think that they’re doing black kids a favor when they pass them along without holding them to the same standards; that kid is going to pay the rest of his life fro your apparent generosity.”

If he ran the country:
“You would have the 14th Amendment applied as it is written, namely that everybody is to be treated alike. You would not have huge numbers of government programs to insulate people to the consequences of their own decisions.”

He is pessimistic about the future. Why? “The decline of values, because that’s what’s inside people and if that’s not there the rest of it is not going to matter.” Particularly honesty. And the attitude that you are entitled: “Why are other people bound to do something for you that you are not going to do for yourself?”

[Me again, wrapping up]
You can see why I call him our greatest public intellectual – this one of the most clear and logical thinkers I have ever encountered. His wisdom enriches not just his fellow blacks but all of us, he is truly a national treasure. If you ever read any of his books or even his columns, I guarantee you it will make you think and improve your mind.


At 12/03/2005 11:06 AM, Blogger urbansocrates said...

As a high school history teacher who just left teaching in an urban system in the Northeast to work in a well-off white suburb south of Boston, I think I can speak from experience about the "educational establishment." Teachers tend to be drawn from the "lowest level of students" (that is if you acknowledge the validity of their test scores -- none of which measure the many other things besides academic ability that make for a good teacher) because teaching offers little financial reward. If your SAT's were in the Mensa range, why would you go into teaching (I ask myself this question all the time, because my SAT's were in the Mensa range!)?

In fact, the only thing that keeps teaching salaries competitive with those of careers requiring equivalent skills in the private sector is the pressure from the teacher's unions and the guild-like shortage created by the state boards of certification working with the schools of education. If you don't believe me, look at what white collar professionals make in the non-unionized and unregulated field most like teaching: human services. From 1990 to 1996 I worked as a case manager for mentally retarded adults for 2lk a year, even though I had been graduated cum laude from a prestigious school and was very good at my job. I WENT INTO TEACHING BECAUSE THE JOB WAS A GOOD FIT AND THE MONEY WAS BETTER.

As for the inequities in public education, I can speak knowledgeably about that (see my experience, above). Sowell is right that government can't create good parents. Government can, however, ameliorate the effects of bad parenting by intelligent use of funding on social programs. By giving opportunities for good early childhood education to poor, uneducated citizens, government can spend money on education that will pay off dividends by avoiding the high costs of prisons!


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