Steven Pearlstein is a contributing writer for the Post. He is also Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University.
By Thomas Sowell
Basic. 328 pp. $29.99
As public intellectuals go, few have been more prolific than Thomas Sowell. For more than 40 years, he’s been churning out books at the rate of one a year, in addition to writing a syndicated column and academic articles and teaching courses at Cornell, UCLA, Amherst, Brandeis and Stanford, where he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His wide-ranging interests include economics, history, race and ethnicity, poverty, higher education, justice, and children with delayed speech.
A Marxist radicalized into a free-market libertarian by a year working at the U.S. Labor Department, Sowell is now the go-to black academic for conservative media outlets. The son of a maid, he earned his way in the old-fashioned style to and through New York’s elite Stuyvesant High School, Harvard College, Columbia and the University of Chicago. He has waged a relentless crusade against those who would try to alleviate poverty or equalize opportunity through welfare, affirmative action or anything else that interferes with the operation of free markets.
Having written so much, it is perhaps not surprising that Sowell has very little new to say in his latest book, “Wealth, Poverty and Politics.” Although its subtitle proclaims an international perspective, it’s quickly apparent that these are largely pretexts for having another go at his usual American targets: liberals, academics, universities, the media and civil rights leaders, along with anything that smacks of multiculturalism or social justice.
Sowell’s central message is that the reason some people are poor — in any country, at any period in history — is not discrimination or exploitation or malicious actions on the part of the rich. Rather, people are poor because they don’t or won’t produce. For him, the only mystery is why.
Geography may have something to do with it. Civilizations that shut themselves off from the rest of the world, Sowell writes, are those that lag behind. Sometimes that is because of physical barriers, like mountains or a lack of navigable waterways or the unavailability of pack animals. Other times, as with China and Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries, it is because political leaders seeking to protect their own power cut themselves off from the world. Either way, the isolation inhibits the development of the “knowledge, skills, experiences and habits” that lead to economic growth. It also prevents humans from developing antibodies, making them susceptible to devastating diseases when foreigners arrive, as happened with the Incas and the Native Americans.
A second determinant of economic success is culture, by which Sowell means customs, values, norms and attitudes. For him, the proof of culture’s importance is to be found in the experience of minority groups, in various countries, that have achieved extraordinary economic success: Germans in Eastern Europe, Lebanese in West Africa, Japanese in Peru, Chinese in other parts of Asia, Jews and Indians everywhere. These immigrant groups arrive with a taste for entrepreneurship, a focus on education, a commitment to family, a reputation for honest dealing and an instinct for hard work. They also have high levels of trust and cooperation among themselves. Successful countries have learned to incorporate these cultural traits into their own, in contrast to “lagging” ones that envy and resent these minorities and concoct grievances against them to explain their own lack of success.
So far, so good. But it’s when Sowell adopts these historical lessons as the only explanation you need to understand inequality of incomes and opportunities in 21st-century America that he reveals how little he’s learned in the past 20 years.
Culture matters, of course, and Sowell has been courageous in calling attention to the growing acceptance of a black “ghetto culture” that has rejected traditional values. Dressing neatly, speaking proper English, achieving academic success, raising children in the context of stable marriages — by the 1970s, Sowell argues, these were demeaned as “acting white,” setting back the economic prospects of a generation of African Americans after decades of advances.
“None of the usual explanations of racial disparities — genetics, racism, poverty or ‘legacy of slavery’ — can explain this retrogression over time,” he writes. “One of the few possibilities left is that the culture within black communities has in some respect changed for the worse over the years.” And what is Sowell’s proof of this “retrogression”? That elite high schools such as Stuyvesant no longer boast as many black students as they used to.
In fact, while “ghetto culture” may help to explain the stubborn persistence of a black underclass, there is ample evidence of the progress of black Americans since the 1960s in statistics on poverty rates, educational achievement and household incomes. Gains relative to whites have slowed, but there are still absolute gains. Nor can “ghetto culture” explain the growth in poverty, the decline in marriage, the slowdown in educational achievement or the widening income gap in white America.
As Sowell sees it, this “retrogression” took root because of a virulent multiculturalism, imposed by academics and the media, that now makes it socially and politically unacceptable to criticize any group’s culture. And it is reinforced by an overly generous welfare state that has lulled poor blacks into a permanent state of dependency and sloth — “non-judgmental subsidies of counterproductive behavior,” in his felicitous phrasing.
This may have been a somewhat valid story line when Sowell and others first raised it in the 1980s, but his rendition remains unchanged 20 years after the passage of welfare reform and sharp cuts in cash assistance targeted to the poor in favor of the earned-income tax credit. His suggestion that there are still legions of working-age Americans who live better on welfare than by working is nothing more than a right-wing canard.
This book, in fact, is filled with such instances of overreach.
Sowell is certainly right in pointing out that when people talk about changes over time in the income of the top 1 percent or the bottom 20 percent, they are unaware that the households in each group are constantly changing. And the simple fact that earnings tend to increase with age means that most people’s incomes aren’t stagnant over their working lifetime, as many liberals often claim.
But to leap from those useful corrections to the sweeping conclusion that inequality is not rising — or, if it is, is not a problem — more than trifles with the truth. Even after accounting for the usual churn and life-cycle changes, the share of national income going to those at or near the top has grown dramatically, concentrating the benefits of economic growth in fewer and fewer hands. This is neither a statistical mirage nor a figment of our imagination.
Sowell is also right to point out that, contrary to the constant liberal refrain, economic mobility in America is not dead and that unequal incomes are not, by themselves, proof of unequal opportunity. But surely that is no reason to cavalierly dismiss a growing body of evidence of large and growing gaps between rich and poor children in terms of their physical, emotional and intellectual development and their later success later in life. As Sowell sees it, life has always been unfair, and if poor children start out with life stacked against them, they have no one to blame but their parents and their culture.
“Some children today are raised in ways that make it easier for them to become doctors, scientists or engineers,” he blithely writes, while others “are raised in ways that make it more likely they will become welfare recipients or criminals.”
Moreover, by his reasoning, any attempts to equalize opportunity would be counterproductive because they would deny society the higher output of the well-bred. In making such a calculation, however, Sowell never stops to consider what the ill-bred might have contributed to society if they had had a similar chance to develop their natural talents and capabilities.
As an intellectual combatant, Sowell thrives on jousting with straw men whose existence he posits with little or no proof. In the world according to Sowell, liberals (including rich ones, apparently) are so filled with envy and resentment that they will deny billionaires the chance to create new jobs and new products if it means adding even a dollar to their incomes. Black leaders want to keep their people in poverty because otherwise they would have no purpose. The media and government officials systematically ignore and cover up racially motivated black-on-white violence (he knows about these incidents, according to the footnotes, from major news outlets). These are more like the rants of a talk-radio host than the considered judgments of a respected academic.
Sowell does manage to score a clean hit on those who now complain that income inequality is too high by noting their refusal to say what level of inequality they would consider acceptable. What we also learn from “Wealth, Poverty and Politics” is that there is apparently no level of inequality of income or opportunity that Thomas Sowell would consider unacceptable.