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Intro. [Recording date: July 2, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is July 2nd, 2020 and my guest is economist and author Glenn Loury of Brown University where he is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics. Glenn, welcome to EconTalk.
Glenn Loury: Thank you, Russ. Good to be with you.
Russ Roberts: I want to start with the issue you examine in your 2018 lecture at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, which we will link to: "The Persisting Subordinate Position of Blacks in the United States"--that's your wording. That was a lecture you gave two years ago.
In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and other deaths of blacks at the hands of police, this issue is now deeply front and center in the United States. A lot of people are arguing that the inequality and what you call the subordinate position of blacks in America is due to what is being described as 'systemic racism.' Does that phrase resonate for you at all? And, if so, how? And, if not, why not?
Glenn Loury: I'm not a big fan of that phrase, because I think it conceals more than it actually illuminates. I think it's a rhetorical, not a scientific, claim. I think what people have in mind when they say 'systemic racism' is that many different kinds of processes--some of them are political, some of them economic, some of them are social, some of them are cultural--have had the cumulative effect of subordinating or marginalizing the descendants of the slaves and those processes are still ongoing. But, I don't think that takes me very far. I mean, we would have to talk about examples.
So, there's a huge disparity in the performance across racial lines of young people as measured by their grades and test scores and so forth like that in school--SAT [Scholastic Assessment Tests] tests and so on. There's disparity in cognitive development.
Now, we know from empirical investigations like this classic paper by Derek Neal and William Johnson on racial wage differences where they take the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which has information of the Armed Forces Qualification Test score performance of the respondents in the survey when they were 14- to 18-years old--if I remember this correctly--when they were young. Pre-adult scores. And, they then look, because it's a longitudinal data set, at the wages of the young adults after they'd been in the labor market for 10, 15 years. And, they look at the racial disparity, which is only a magnitude of 25% in the raw data, which, after you end up controlling for these earlier life pre-market cognitive abilities they can get the unexplained racial wage gap down to like 6 or 7% are[?] white. Three-quarters of the difference in black/white wages in their data are accounted for by the cognitive performance of the people in the sample when they were teenagers. Now--
Russ Roberts: What do we do with that? What do we make of that?
Glenn Loury: Exactly. I mean, that's a very significant thing. So then I started asking myself: Where does cognitive performance and quantitative and verbal things come from?
And, one answer that you have to at least entertain is that, well, there might be natural differences in these populations. And that's very political; and I'm not asserting that. I'm not asserting that. I'm saying that's a question. And actually it's an empirical and it's a scientific question for psychometricians and so on to consider. But there are many other things. There's the quality of education, there's the socialization processes, there are environmental influences. Is there lead in the water? How does that affect neurological development? There's: what's the family structure? What's the--you know, human development: Is it a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year phenomenon? It's not just a six hours a day, five days a week for 40 weeks out of the year that you spend in a classroom.
Russ Roberts: And, it starts before birth, in the womb.
Glenn Loury: And, indeed, it does start before birth. It depends on prenatal behavior of the parent, and it depends on when they're reading to the kid when the kid was two years old, and--etc. So, I'm sorry, I've been rambling. So, now I forgot what the question was.
Russ Roberts: No. Well, we were talking about the fact that--I would call it the legacy of slavery, and the system of--
Glenn Loury: Oh yes, about systemic racism.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Glenn Loury: Excuse me, Russ. Excuse me.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's all right.
Glenn Loury: And, what I was trying to say with the example was: It's a very complicated process. I was using the example of SAT score gap--gap of kids--who gets into the Bronx High School of Science when they have an exam, school in New York--and whatever. And, it's a very complicated--now, you could say systemic racism, you could say--
Russ Roberts: It's a summary of all those effects.
Glenn Loury: And, you put a label on it, you call it 'systemic racism,' but there's no real information in that statement about what to do. It's a rhetorical move, I think, that's aimed at saying it's not the fault of the quote-unquote "victim"; it's the fault of the quote-unquote "system."
And there's a lot of stuff that's like this. So, I tend to want to be a little cautious when I hear people invoking this kind of broad category and I want to then talk in a more concrete and explicit terms about what we're talking about. And there are many, many examples that I could give. There's the police, there's so called voter suppression, there's--
Russ Roberts: Prison system.
Glenn Loury: Yeah, prison, exactly.
Russ Roberts: Education, which you alluded to.
Russ Roberts: But I think, your point that it's a rhetorical device--I think it is a rhetorical device, but it's more than that, I think, in the eyes of the people who invoke it.
I think the people who invoke it are essentially arguing that the system is rotten to the core. And, that system is multi-faceted: It's political, it's economic. They blame capitalism. They blame the political structure that, of that, is they claim oppressive of minorities, people of color. And, they want to start over.
You know, my response to that is: Starting over doesn't have a great track record in Western or Eastern history. Starting over is usually the road to tyranny. It's what led--the French Revolution had that attitude. That didn't end well. The Communist Revolution had the same attitude: 'We've got to start from scratch'--
Glenn Loury: The Cultural Revolution--
Russ Roberts: Ye p. China. Exactly, exactly.
So, I think then the question becomes for those of us who are skeptical of the value of starting over, even if we concede there are challenges in the current system for people of color, and others by definition--
Glenn Loury: May I offer something here , because I think it was a real--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, sure.
Glenn Loury: I think you're right that what people are saying is the system is rotten to the core. They're wrong about that. And, I think that argument needs to be had. I'm quite prepared to say that. I'm quite prepared to say that.
Russ Roberts: Can you talk about that? Why?
Glenn Loury: But I want to say one other thing, which is that the stance of the system is rotten to the core. It has the convenient consequence of eliminating any necessity to make judgments and assessments of the extent to which people are responsible for their own fate.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, well said.
Glenn Loury: It's a kind of leveling . It's a kind of demoralization or denormalization, which says we're not going to make discriminating judgments amongst individuals, because any disparities that we observe are necessarily the consequence of a morally illegitimate structure. And, that's a very, very dangerous, slippery slope to be standing on.
Russ Roberts: That's a Marxist claim, right? It's not very different from the standard Marxist critique of economic system or outside of race. But, yeah, I mean, it removes agency. It not only says you don't have any agency, it tells you, 'Don't try, because it's a waste of time. You have no shot.'
Glenn Loury: So, as far as the system being big corrupted acquainting--look, I'm an economist, trained in the neoclassical tradition. Call me a neoliberal if you want. I mean, I really do think at the end of the day that the markets are a pretty remarkable, complex mechanism; that incentives are real; that profit is not the worst thing in the world. Excessive profit--you know, rent-seeking profit, monopoly profit, that's one thing. But the idea that people are trying to better their circumstances, that's the way of the world. I think the historical record is pretty clear: centralization, the collectivization, the massive, extensive, political control over economic processes is the road to serfdom. I think Hayek was right about that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. No--we agree on that.
Glenn Loury: I think we are richer by a vastly unimaginable amount than were our great-great-grandparents; and that the reason for that is capitalism, not socialism. I think that there are people who are not starving by the hundreds of millions in South Asia and East Asia right now because of the globalized market dynamic that has allowed them to enter into the modern economic sphere, and empowered, through recruiting into the industrial economy of the world, hundreds of millions of peasants out of these villages in these rural places that people were living in penury.
I think that technology advances under the ingenuity of human beings who are largely motivated by self-seeking motives. I think that the great universities and the research laboratories of the great corporations that you see in Northern Europe and in North America are making mankind as a whole-- they're not alone, of course; there are research labs everywhere--but I'm saying this is something that you can't deny the force of this over the last couple of hundred years.
So, start over again, I mean, it's madness. And, I think too, that the United States--which is far from perfect--is not half-bad in terms of being a society that is open, and adaptive enough, to accommodate with wave after wave after wave of immigration. And, I know you're not supposed to compare blacks to immigrants, but I'm talking about the society. I'm talking about the society. Incorporate them into this burgeoning, dynamic, prosperous political economy that we enjoy here.
I think that if you look at the status of African Americans over the last 100 years, I remember reading when I was in college Gunnar Myrdal's book An American Dilemma, which was a close socioeconomic, political assessment of the status of, quote, "The Negro," in, I don't know, 1940. Man, I don't know--something like three-quarters of employed African American women were domestic servants. Agricultural labor was the modal occupation of men. Family incomes were like 30, 40%. They were shutting down the schools that these kids would go to in the South for three, four months a year, so that they could go out and pick cotton crops in the field. Etc.
It's not as if we don't have some issues here, but the status of the African-American population on the whole in the United States of America over the last 75 years has experienced a revolutionary transformation, such that the descendants of American slaves, again, taken as a whole, are the richest and most powerful and influential population of African descent on the planet.
So, the idea that we want to scrap the system and start from scratch--as I say, I think it's a very mischievous idea.
Russ Roberts: That was incredibly eloquent.
Let's look at two areas that I think you and I both agree could use some improving, even if we don't start from scratch.
The first is: I want to talk about education and I want to talk about police/prison. They're two areas that are crucial in the conversation, the national conversation we're having.
Let's start with education. You alluded to earlier the challenges that the black students face and the racial differences that are there--we don't fully understand the source of them. And, even the cognitive differences, of course, that you mentioned that appear in a test that was given in 14- to 18- years old, those tests--it's hard to measure cognitive differences, if any. You can call it a cognitive difference, but it's not clear what you're measuring actually in reality. So--
Glenn Loury: And, I should acknowledge there's a whole vast literature out there that's critical along exactly [?] not just in the[?] United States.
Russ Roberts: Cool. I know you meant that.
But, I think that the more fundamental issue for me, and it's been a topic of a lot of recent episodes here on the program, is the public school system versus alternatives for inner city children: Most of them happen to be black, but not all of them, but children living in poorer neighborhoods whose parents are in poverty. I argue for the last three generations, roughly for 60 years, we have tried to improve that system through a variety of ways--the public school system--through spending more money. And, we spend a dramatically larger sum of money per student, corrected for inflation. We've tried to play with class size; we've tried a whole bunch of--we've increased certification.
They've all failed in my view. It's also, of course, the case that the quality of the school, as you point out is only a fraction, not a trivial fraction, but only a fraction of the environment that a young person grows up in. But, what are your thoughts on what we should be doing to improve education for children in poor neighborhoods and poor families in America?
Glenn Loury: I think open things up to alternative sources of supply. I think charter schools, I think of vouchers, I think of choice, I think empowering parents. I think competition for the public supply monopoly of educational services to people with modest incomes is the way to go. I confess to you that I'm a neoliberal; I think market forces work even in the provision of public goods. So, that's what I would want to see.
I mean, I think it's very interesting, actually, to[?] contrast policing issues and education issues in terms of public employees providing services inadequately or adequately to the populace.
Now we know what a police union is. A police union is a blue line of silence that protects the bad officers and tries to give every prerogative to the road cop that's abusing people. And it's a bad thing. That's the progressive view about a police union.
And, we know what a teacher's union is: teacher's union is a long suffering of these people who are public servants, who get paid not enough at all and who are the butt end of all the conservatives' attack and the religious people who want to get to school choice. And, you can--
Russ Roberts: That's the progressive view of the teacher's union.
Glenn Loury: That's the progressive view to teacher's union, but--
Russ Roberts: They seem inconsistent.
Glenn Loury: They would appear to be so.
And, I mean, if you brought some of the empathy for the public servants, who were teachers, over to a sense of empathy for the extremely difficult job of being a police officer in an American city, and you brought some of the sense of judgment and insistence upon accountability that is reflexively invoked when we talk about police officers over to talking about how we want to think about our public servants who are providing educational services, I think we'd all be better off.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I said there were contradictory views--that's not what I said. You just said it better than I did. We had Jennifer Doleac on the program talking about the monitoring of police performance and the role body cameras have, and how, on the ground in a tense situation, an interaction with a person under great anger, stress, violence, whatever it happens to be that a police officer faces, that can be captured on a body cam and then used as an educational lesson to figure out how to do that well, is not very different from--I suggested in our conversation with Jennifer Doleac--not very different from filming teachers of the classroom and helping them get better at the problem students, classroom discipline, management, and so on.
And, that art--and it's an art--there's not a set of clean rules for those two types of very challenging interactions. One, of course, involves life and death. But the other is also life and death, the education one, in a different way because so many of those students are going to get left behind if their teachers can't educate that classroom in an effective way.
And, so to me, a lot of that art has to take place school by school, police department by police department, with incentives, skin in the game for the managers of those people. I think the problem of unions that you--on the negative side--you talked about the positive side. There is a positive side. The negative side is that it can eliminate 'The buck stops here.'
I mean, why in this tragedy of George Floyd--you would think that the first people to be examined would be the Chief of Police and the Mayor of the city. They're the ones in charge. But, we kind of realized, actually, they're not so much. Their ability to monitor and discipline, fire, or promote, reward is limited by that union. And, that's a big cost of that system, even though it does protect people who aren't rogue officers.
Glenn Loury: Yeah, that seems right.
Another thing in the analogy between the public servants who provide educational services and those who provide the policing services that I see is that: the outcome of the public good provision depends on the interaction between the service provider and the client.
So, teachers will say, 'Look, it's only six hours a day. I can't make the kid do the homework. Their home is chaotic or whatever, and I'm dealing with that. And, that's why, you know, when you compare me to another classroom, in terms of the average test scores of my kids, it's unfair. I don't have control of that.'
Russ Roberts: It is.
Glenn Loury: And, the cop is saying, 'Look, I just asked the guy to put his hand behind his back. If he had done that, I would have put the cuffs on him and we would have processed the arrest. But, instead, he fought me. And he was going for my gun. And, I mean, if the situation became chaotic and I can't control that, it's not my fault that there's so many criminals out here with weapons and bad attitudes and what-not'--
Russ Roberts: Mental issues. Yeah--
Glenn Loury: So, both of those points warrant to be taken on board by any critic who comes along saying, 'You're not doing your job, public servant.'
Russ Roberts: And I think--I just want to emphasize the point you made. I think it's people on the Right who criticize teachers working in public schools who can't imagine what it's like to teach a public classroom. They have no idea how hard it is. And, people on the Left, I think struggle to realize how hard it is to walk the streets or even drive the streets of America in a police cruiser. It's not an easy job. I have a lot of empathy for both groups.
Having said that, there's got to be accountability. There's got to be punishment for bad behavior. And, I think the role of immunity in both of those systems is wrong--for police officers and what we could call rogue teachers, bad teachers. Not right.
Glenn Loury: Yeah. So, we're in agreement about that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Let's talk about the--
Glenn Loury: Probably the world would join us.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, it's coming along. I think we're making some progress.
Russ Roberts: But there's a related piece of this, that I think will bring us back full circle a little bit to the systemic question and the state of America, which is the drug war. The legislative environment in which drug use and drug sales are prosecuted in America has been incredibly racially punishing of blacks. It's a large--it's not the whole part, but it's a large part of the so-called mass incarceration, the disproportionate share of Americans in jail relative to other nations and black Americans relative to white Americans. Talk about that and what we might do to make that better.
Glenn Loury: Yeah. Well, back in the day, it was 2007, I was invited to give the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford, a couple of lectures. And I devoted it to this question of race and incarceration, a small book called Race, Incarceration, and American Values, came out of that.
And, you're right: the drug war doesn't account entirely, or even mostly, for the disparity by race, and arrest, and imprisonment. But it's a big part of the story. The first thing I would say about that is: it's not a surprise that you would see a lower class, a marginal minority population, male, young, overrepresented amongst those. If you decide that you're going to have this massive crackdown in mobilization against trafficking in these illicit substances.
Because, the way people are going to sort themselves out in the informal labor market is that it's going to be the people with the least alternative opportunities who are going to be the ones who are working this job, which is very risky. And, you know, the cops are the least of your problems. And you've got to be worried about getting robbed and killed--
Russ Roberts: Your competitor--
Glenn Loury: And so on. It's not an easy job and it doesn't--if you believe Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh who did an analysis of the records that they somehow were able to get their hands on from a drug-selling gang in Chicago--there's a paper published, I think it's in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, on the economics of drug-selling gangs. They had--the wage rate for these guys is like $15 bucks an hour. You know, for something that has, I don't know, 0.01 chance that you're getting killed in a year. Kind of thing like that.
So, who else is going to be doing that except for the losers? So, if I see that I have poorly educated and I have minority in urban--and, on the other hand, the demand for the substance is very broadly distributed in the society. So, you got to balancing our cultural budget, which is, we don't want the middle-class to use drugs because it's bad, we decide on the backs of--
You know, it's a little bit like blaming the streetwalker for prostitution. You know what I mean? When there is no market without guys with $100 bills driving down the street--I mean, likewise, there is no market for illicit substances without middle-class users of drugs, but it's going to be so-called underclass suppliers of the services that end up getting sacked.
So, there's a just first order injustice in that.
The other thing I would say is--and I argued in these lectures--I think penalties are endogenous. We can pull back from the brink: we can start out on a drug war and then we can decide, 'Oh my God, this was a bad policy. It's devastating communities. It's not really buying us anything. We should change our minds.' And, to the extent--here I might give systemic racism a little play--to the extent that a failure to reconsider, because the main brunt of the cost is falling on people who we don't [crosstalk 00:25:17]--
Russ Roberts: Pay enough attention to--
Glenn Loury: [?] have cognitive distance of [?]--I mean, I'm not going to argue with the liberals about this. That's a kind of systemic problem that we need to be mindful of.
Russ Roberts: That's very well said.
Russ Roberts: It reminds me a little bit, your analogy to funding education, using a lottery, a state lottery that tends to attract very poor people. I mean, it's a bizarro social--it's a form of regressive public policy that doesn't make sense to me. It's a horrible idea.
Certainly, the disparate treatment of cocaine versus marijuana, which I think is driven by race, tragically, is definitely a part of this. I think--one of the things I'm going to add, the public choice parts of this because we were talking about unions earlier and entrenched interests: Police departments like the drug war. We should remember that. It only gives them a lot of reasons to be powerful. It allows them to take assets from people and use them for their own benefit. It's despicable, in my view. And, I hope that this moment of awareness on these issues leads to some policy changes that would have made sense for a long time.
Glenn Loury: Yeah. And, it should be mentioned only we live in the era of the opioid addiction epidemic and there are lots of people dying and it's an ongoing problem, and it's not as racially definable as had been the crack cocaine epidemic earlier, which tended to be more urban and black. But, it's a big public health issue. And, you know, I suppose you should be careful about cartels bringing substances across the border and whatnot: you should try to stamp them out.
On the other hand, addiction is a health issue and people need, basically, they need access to support to try to deal with their health problem. So, the therapeutic, as opposed to the punitive response to the problem, and again--
Russ Roberts: It seems like a good idea.
Glenn Loury: you might argue systemically the instinct is going to be more toward therapeutic than punitive if the subjects are more sympathetic figures in the mind of the media folk.
Russ Roberts: For sure. And, of course, the heterogeneity of U.S. society is going to push us in various directions on--let me say with a little more articulateness: In a more homogeneous society you'd expect more compassion and more pushing toward a more therapeutic response than a punitive response. And, racism is only going to make that worse, almost by definition.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk--the other thing I wanted to just hear your thoughts on--I have a few more, but one of the ones that's front and center, it's an issue July 2nd, front page of--I think it's the paper today--they tore down the statue of Stonewall Jackson in Richmond. So, I may--
Glenn Loury: I'm sorry: Was it a protest that tore it down? Was is the--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think it was a protest.
Glenn Loury: Okay. I didn't see that yet.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think it was in today's paper. But, there've been many of both. We've had some institutions that said, 'We should have fixed this a long time ago, we're ashamed of it; we're tearing it down.' And, in others--in Portland, Oregon, they turned down a statue of Christopher Columbus--or Georgia, I can't remember. There's so many of them now. I wonder your thoughts on that.
In particular, people talking about Mount Rushmore that--I love his name, Gutzon Borglum is the sculptor of Rushmore. I think it's a magnificent thing, but it's alleged that he had connections to the KKK [Ku Klux Klan]. I don't know how strong they were, real they are. It doesn't really matter. But on that mountain, you've got Theodore Roosevelt--Teddy Roosevelt--who was imperialist and oppressor of people of color. You've got George Washington, a slave owner; Abraham Lincoln, who took too long to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. You can make a claim: you should tear them all down.
And, I think Thomas Jefferson is the fourth guy: he's a really bad slave owner. So, when this started, I thought you might want to put some guards at the Jefferson Memorial because he might be coming down; and, got the Washington Monument, you got the City of Washington.
So, my thought is that: I understand that urge to destroy those things. But they are symbols of more than racism. So, what do we do about that? And, can we have a country where our whole national narrative , coming back to our previous question--I think in some people's eyes, and I can understand the argument--it's rotten to the core. The country was founded by slave owners. Its founding documents were written by slave owners--cut John Adams some slack. But, what do we do with that? Do we just say, 'Start over again as a country with a blank slate?' Or, do we try to come to grips with that in a different way? What do you think? What do you think?
Glenn Loury: Well, okay. Let me distinguish between the political, which is there's a fight going on and it ain't over, and, if you like, the kind of ethical/philosophical. Okay?
So, as a political matter, I worry that people are vastly overplaying their hand. I worry about backlash. Okay? You and I, we're intellectuals; we're sitting here and talking about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, they were slave owners, should we whatever, whatever? There are a lot of people who are just going to react to this, is, 'I want my country back'--
Russ Roberts: Yep, they're already--
Glenn Loury: 'Keep your hands off my--you're going to pull down the statue of a Founding Father? What are you going to do? Blow up Rushmore? Is that it? You're terrorists? What are you? You're the Taliban, blowing up these Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. You're--and I want my country back.' And, 'Keep your hands off my country.'
Now, they're going to get called racist in the polite society, cocktail parties; and nobody's going to give a damn, and somebody like Donald Trump is going to be President again. And, so, be careful, okay? You're playing with fire, all right? This is not a racist monument set up by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1910 to remind the coloreds to stay in their place. This is the country. This is the United States of America. So, really? There's nothing here worth celebrating? Really? The founding of country is not--
Russ Roberts: Is it irredeemable? It's irredeemable?
Glenn Loury: Exactly. 'It's only an expression of white supremacy,'--there's nothing else that's going on here?
So, I think that it's not over. I think the iconoclasts are having their way for a moment. But I think we had better be careful, because this is in process. And there's going to be a lot of consequence of the iconoclasm that's going to be not, I think, healthy for the Republic.
But, on the substance of the matter, on the kind of ethics: should you, you know, should you let TR's [Theodore Roosevelt's] statue or monument alone? Uh--you know, I mean, there are a number of points that one could make here. One is about the anachronistic projection of contemporary sensibility back onto the times that are long gone; and then the holding of people to a standard of behavior, which if they had actually adhered to it would have required them to be virtually alone in their heroism, in contravening the tenor of their times.
Yes, there were Abolitionists in the 18th century when Thomas Jefferson was penning the Declaration of Independence, but there weren't that many of them. Everybody recognized that the process that led to the founding of the country, that a compromise was going to have to be made with this awful institution. The fact of the matter is they set in place a structure that had the capacity, within a century, of leading to the extirpation of the institution. A lot of blood on the battlefield is along the way. But, Lincoln is clearly, in his presiding over this transformation, drawing on the intellectual and moral resources that are set out in the period of the Founding.
Slavery is not new to human history when in 1619, when some Africans are offloaded in Virginia. Slavery is ubiquitous in human history, on every continent, in every culture, in every civilization going back to antiquity. The new idea, the modern idea, the enlightened modern idea, the Western idea, the idea about liberty and the value of the individual is reflected in the founding of the United States of America and has borne fruits through our institutions. So, I mean, this is not to excuse Night riders. This is not to say that there wasn't rape in the slave wards and--
Russ Roberts: Lynching. Lynching and--
Glenn Loury: I mean, history is littered with all kinds of awful stuff. This is awful; it's awful stuff. The appropriation of the lands of the native people and the extirpation of the native population of the Western hemisphere--I mean, we're on historic catastrophe for those people.
I don't dispute that. But, here we are. Now look around the world. I don't know where people are finding an example of practical government implemented by real people through actual concrete institutions that has a greater capacity for self-reform and for expansion of liberty than that which we are enjoying right here in this Republic. So, I would say keep it under proportion. I mean, don't be so self-absorbed that you think that your particular beef is the only thing that's going on.
And, that would cause me to be much more conservative about the iconoclasm. I mean, conservative, just in the sense of having a very high threshold before I try to wipe--now, context, what do you put in a history book? How do you tell the story? These things aren't going to be renegotiated over and over again through time--
Russ Roberts: They should be. Should be.
Glenn Loury: But we're a pluralistic society, you know? And not everybody is on the same page about all of these things. And we have to get along.
Russ Roberts: Well, as listeners know, I'm Jewish. I lived for 14 years in St. Louis. St. Louis is named after a man that is a famous among Jews for his antisemitism. He burned tens of thousands of manuscripts of the Talmud, one of the most precious sources of Jewish wisdom. I suspect he--he got Jews involved in disputes over the Church, and we always lost; because the judges made the decisions, were, maybe not so objective. And I don't remember, but I suspect he killed a few Jews along the way or created some pograms that did that.
So, there's some Jews in St. Louis asking, 'We should take down the statue of Mr. Louis, of King Louis in Forest Park.' And maybe change the name of the city. And, I, um--23% of St. Louis is Catholic. They think he's a saint. Not just like, 'Yeah, he wasn't so bad.' They thank God--they think he's a saint.
Now I don't agree. But, as you say, we're a pluralistic society. I'm okay with calling it St. Louis. And, I think about the early church, I don't think about the antisemite. But, I think it's very hard, and in a moment of--and to give the other side its due for a minute--I think when rage and a feeling of injustice has built up over time, I understand the urge to destroy. It's not a--it's a very human urge.
And, I think the challenge is, as you point out, and as we've alluded to earlier, that doesn't end well.
Well, let me just say a different thing and then I'll let you react to it. It's July 2nd, we're almost at July 4th, tomorrow is July 3rd, and tomorrow Disney will be streaming a film version of Hamilton. Hamilton was kind of Lin-Manuel Miranda's work of genius, in my view--
Glenn Loury: Yeah, that's very true.
Russ Roberts: where he basically said, he honored--Hamilton is not the star of that show. Alexander Hamilton is not the star. The star of that show is the United States of America. And the vision that the Founders had in 1776 that they could not live up to.
And, what Hamilton is about as a show to me is holding their feet to the fire and saying, 'When we tell this story with black and Latino actors and actresses, we have a reminder of what that richer story is all about.' It's not the history-book version that my parents learned in Memphis, Tennessee in 1950 or 1947, and it's not the revisionist version, which says the whole thing is rotten to the core. It's complicated.
And, I think--I love the idea--because that's my motto with this program--that we could go forward as Americans recognizing it's complicated. But my worry is, is that we're not going to have a country soon. We're not going to have a nation. We're going to have a civil war. It's not going to be a racial civil war: it's going to be a different kind.
Glenn Loury: Well, I hope you're wrong about that. I agree with you about Hamilton, I thought you said it very well. It is complicated. And, there is a very powerful effect of those actors of color. It's the spectacular music and the drama enacting this moment in world history and in American history at the Founding. It's quite powerful. And it's my story, too, even though some of my ancestors were owned by some of the characters who were being portrayed. And, that's only--some of my ancestors, because some of my ancestors are European.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Let's close to talk about an institution that you and I are both deeply involved in, which is the university. When we went to graduate school--I'm a little younger than you, but not much--there was still an idea that a university was a place that people would go to learn about things and think about great ideas, and write about them, and think, and interact with great minds. It's gotten a little more complicated since then. It tries to serve that institution; I think it is serving other purposes. But in particular right now it's been very--I don't know what the right word is--'electrified' by the--a current is surging through it related to, I don't know, identity politics, all kinds of interesting, complicated social forces.
And, your university came out with a statement about the current race situation. You were brave enough and bold to challenge it. You can talk about that if you want, or you can just talk about what you think the University has become and where it might be headed.
Glenn Loury: Well, I'll tip my hand by telling you that I went back and picked up Allan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind, and I couldn't put it down, because--I mean, people can look this up--I felt that this is mid-1980s when he's writing. And, that he put his finger on some of the stuff that I think is problematic. And it's going to sound old-fashioned, right? I mean, when I was in college, it was the early 1970s. I graduated from Northwestern University in 1972. There weren't any Afro American Studies departments. There wasn't any, 'You don't have any requirements here.' Yeah, you have to learn a foreign language. I took German. You know? Reading Goethe, Rilke, Kafke, and Mann. I mean, I had to take a distribution of courses across the science and social sciences. I majored in mathematics. I minored in economics, I took a lot of philosophy. I got a very good education at Northwestern University in the early 1970s and went on to MIT and a very rigorous quantitative training in economics, so that's me.
But, stuff is a lot footloose and fancy-free now.
You can find an education in the university. You can find one at Brown. You can find one at Berkeley or Stanford. But you can also spend four years there and not learn a God-damn thing worth knowing and come out with a degree. Grade inflation. Grade inflation is a horrible corruption, in my opinion. And, I know I spit in the wind in saying so, because there's no--
Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah. God bless you, Glenn.
Glenn Loury: There's no turning back, man. There is no turning back, but it's--I now have to basically anticipate the possibility that a kid's going to go home and take a bottle of pills or something if I give him a C.
You know, 'You've ruined my life: I'll never get in the law school, I'll never get into medical school. Professor Loury, you can't do this to me, you can't do this,' you know, whatever. And, I say, 'Man, look at that paper that you wrote. You didn't write a very good paper. I'm sorry.' But, I end up with the B anyway, half the time, because I just can't do it. And, yeah. I think therapeutic--
Russ Roberts: That's a wealth phenomenon, by the way. That's the blessing and curse of our standard of living.
Glenn Loury: Yeah. I guess you're right about that.
Russ Roberts: Sorry. I interrupted you. Therapeutic, you were going to say.
Glenn Loury: I agree with you about identity politics in the United--I have a little speech I give at the beginning of some of my classes. I say, 'I don't believe in identity pedagogy. I don't believe in identity epistemology. And, I don't believe in identity politics.' And, what do I mean by that? Identity pedagogy is what we're going to teach different because you're black. Identity epistemology is, well, there's some facts that people don't know because they are this particular thing or they have inside knowledge: I'm a black person, I understand this better in virtue of being black. And, identity politics, meaning that I think of myself primarily as a person that belongs to one of these groups. I define myself in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, so forth like that. When in fact, we are so much more than that. There are so many availances and dimensions through our expression of our humanity. And, when I'm talking to 18- to 22-year olds, I want to say to them, like, 'I'd like this precious moment, when the world is your oyster, everything is open to you. You don't tunnel down into a silo. Don't bury yourself in a closed-off identity, define a sense of what's possible, open your mind. Open--'
So, there's that. So, in a way, I'm just defending why I thought Allan Bloom's, the 35-year old reflections, were still worth reading.
As far as the politicization--and, this is the thing--Police Commissioner of New York City in 2013 wants to come and give a lecture; and he's invited here to Brown [Brown University] and basically the students and townsmen and women decide that he can't talk. They shout him down. And, then basically the progressive faculty kind of back it, even though Brown has rules about, you're not supposed to interrupt people while they're speaking. They don't enforce those rules. And then the report is written saying that racial profiling is a bad thing, which it may or may not be. But, I found that to be completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not the Police Commissioner from New York City should be permitted to speak. If it's a bad thing, let him speak and then we can point out why it's bad. And so on.
The politicization has many manifestations of that, but the most recent one was this, in the wake of George Floyd's death, the president at my university felt that she had to send the letter around to the entire university community expressing her opposition to anti-black racism. And, I thought, 'Okay. Well the president is opposed to anti-black racism. So am I. That's great.' But, then I noticed that the letter was signed by every top administrator at the university. And, then when I read the letter, I found that it trafficked in the tropes, and language, and rhetoric of the Black-Lives-Matter-type of social justice advocacy. And, I thought my president is entitled to her opinion, but surely the university ought not to have a position about something like this.
And, I objected to the sense of group think and the kind of imposition of a party line, which basically it's saying, 'We are Brown, Brown's values are the following.' And, I wondered how could I teach my students in an undergraduate course on race and inequality to consider critically the question, 'Do we know that Derek Chauvin was motivated by race when he kept his knee on George Floyd's neck?' That question is a question. How do we know? What would be the evidence? What would justify our conclusion that that was a racial event? What would support our inclination to link it with other events of a similar kind--Eric Garner in Staten Island, or Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland--and, then construct a narrative? What's that based on? Is that us imagining something? Or is it something that's real? How would we know?
Now, these are first-order questions. I didn't answer them: I just asked them. But my president of the university, by sending around a letter signed by every top administrator, insisting that a particular interpretation of these events was the one that Brown's values required, precludes me from the possibility of engaging my students critically on such a question.
That is not what a university should be.
So, what is she doing? Well, a generous interpretation is that she is absolutely convinced that what she has said; and so are every single one of the 20 most influential administrators in the university so convinced. That would be the most generous.
A less charitable interpretation is that they are anticipating a hysterical reaction from students on campus; it would be disruptive and demonstration and protest. And, they're trying to get out in front of it by signaling to our charges that we're woke and responsive to their sensibility. And, that we are standing 'in solidarity' with--a university standing in solidarity with--? A university, which is supposed to be a site where people think critically and deeply about matters in light of all the human culture has produced here before, it's got to stand in solidarity with something? Anything, anything--stand in solidarity with the New Deal, stand in solidarity with a war effort. No, that's not what a university should be doing.
So, I felt that it was imperative to object to that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. We'll put a link up to that article you wrote. It's quite eloquent, although, I think you bested it--you did better, even, here than you did there. Nicely said.
Glenn Loury: Thanks, Russ.
Russ Roberts: I think this question of the purpose of university--what is deeply troubling to me is: this shutting down of certain ideas and the shutting down of debate--conversation, discussion--has consequences we don't fully appreciate or understand. I don't know what they are, those consequences. But, when certain things are off the table because they have consequences for your social standing or your cultural wellbeing, that's the death of a lot of things. It's not just that universities, I think, are less effective now in educating people. I think the public square has less conversation and now people are afraid that--I hate to use it--I don't hate to use that--I use it with some trepidation: There's a Maoist force let loose in the land. It's Stalinist, also, this idea of calling out your neighbor, calling out your family members, reporting on them not for behavior, but for inappropriate beliefs and thoughts. I think that's a very corrupting part of the human experience.
Glenn Loury: You can lose your job for retweeting something.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It just doesn't make sense to me, but we're in the minority, Glenn. It's the way it is.
Glenn Loury: 'White silence equals violence,' that kind of thing.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't think that's so helpful, but that's where we're headed.
Give me some optimism. It's been a pretty, somewhat pessimistic conversation so far. And, you're a contrarian, which I salute. The things you're saying, I think, probably aren't always easy to say; and I know you've thought about them a lot and I salute you for that. But, give me some optimism where we might be heading as a nation.
Glenn Loury: Well--
Russ Roberts: And, my only optimism is that we recognize something that I think a lot of people have failed to recognize, which is what it's like to be black in America. In response to that, I worry we might do something not so wise. So, what are your thoughts?
Glenn Loury: But, I mean, is it really what it's like to be black in America? I mean, does Ta-Nihisi Coates[?] or Nikole Hannah-Jones, or these writers, Ava DuVernay, the filmmaker, are they telling us what it's like to actually be black in America? Or are they a reflection of a particular sliver of American and African American culture, of relatively prosperous people who are ideologically Left and in the throes of a particular narrative about American history that we've already discussed?
I don't know if the work-a-day, average person in a African American enclave and American city necessarily sees the world in the same way. I don't know. These are questions that we could ask--what people have to say about the 4th of July, about the founding of the country, and so on. We could ask. I wouldn't necessarily take what I see from the talking heads in, and[?] on the op-ed pages, as dispositive in that regard.
But, here's my optimism; and it's not an optimism about race. I'm actually very pessimistic. I think we're cruising for a bruising. I think things are going to get worse before they get better. I think when you have mobs in effect outside of courthouses demanding, quote-unquote, "justice"--which means the conviction of people, in effect, independently of what the evidence might show--that's a very bad thing. I think when you get the routine characterization of difficult interactions between citizens and the police, in terms of the race of the people who happened to be involved in these things--that's the first thing they say--I worry. I worry that tomorrow I'm going to wake up to a world in which black criminality is legitimately a term of discussion in public discourse, because the racialization of the interaction between police and citizens has become so routine. And, that's a world of trouble.
But, I look at the last 50 years--so you go back to 1970 and how the country has changed. And, one of the things that has changed dramatically is we have had an enormous wave of immigration, largely from non-European sources--from Asia, from Latin America, and to a lesser extent from Africa and Europe. But we've had a huge, massive flow of people.
And, what has been the net result of that? The net result of that has been one of the most remarkable stories in modern history, of the incorporation--again, because we also had a huge wave of immigration from European sources or earlier in the 20th, the late 19th, or earlier in the 20th century. The dynamism for the capacity of our society to absorb, to the countless number of stories of families whose lives have been transformed and enhanced--the possibility.
This is a very, very, very good thing. I mean, remember: The United States of America defeated Fascism in the 20th century, or at least contributed very, very profoundly to the defeat of Fascism in the 20th century. The statues that you want to tear down, the systemically racist, the white-supremacist country that you want to teach our children to hate is the country that saved the world from the Soviet--the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [USSR]. I mean, the Cold War. Yeah. So--you know.
I'm rambling a little bit here, and I apologize. I am optimistic about the country overall. I think that, of, the United States with all of its flaws, is nevertheless a force for good in human history. I am not so optimistic about working out the race-relations problems, at least not in the short run, because of the ideological sway that a certain kind of racially progressive rhetoric and political philosophy is exerting on so many Americans.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Glenn Loury. Glenn, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Glenn Loury: Thank you, Russ. My pleasure.