Intro. [Recording date: April 15th, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is April 15th, 2021 and my guest is journalist and author Jason Riley. He's a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. His latest book coming out soon is Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell.
I want to thank the Union League Legacy Foundation for partnering with us on this episode. This was part of a live webinar last month.
Jason, welcome to EconTalk.
Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is race, with some politics and economics. Let's start with the black experience today at this moment, 2021. Is the glass half full or half empty?
Jason Riley: Well, I'm an optimist, Russ, so I kind of always see it as half full. The question is always, for me, whether people are taking advantage of the opportunities that exist today. I think there is no doubt that there are more such opportunities. But, the question again is whether people are taking advantage of them, and whether our debates are about that versus other things that I consider more or less distractions from whether people are taking the initiative that they have today. And so, I think that's largely where our debates are.
I'm a journalist. I'm part of the frequently-disparaged mainstream media--elite mainstream media, in fact. And, I think part of the problem we have today is in how our coverage of these racial issues is taking place. Part of that has to do with social media today and the ability of things to go viral, things that are rare to be presented as commonplace. And, we can talk about some examples of that, obviously.
But, by and large, I feel very blessed to live at a time in America where there have never been more opportunities for minorities, for blacks, and others.
I think that's manifest: the fact that immigrants are still--currently, as we speak--on the border trying to push their way into this country because they see opportunity here. They see a way to better themselves and their situation; and that continues. And so, again, the question is whether the people here are taking that advantage of the opportunities that do exist.
Russ Roberts: And, there's obviously some serious barriers to taking advantage of those opportunities, and we'll talk about those. But, you made a reference, an allusion I thought, when you were talking about the issues that are in the news and the mainstream media and social media. Right now, April 15th, we're in the middle of a lot of tragedy and turmoil and death related to the relationship between black communities and the police. What are your thoughts on that issue in terms of where you think it stands and what needs to get done to make it better?
Jason Riley: Well, I think that there is a preoccupation within the media of breaking down these encounters between blacks and the police by race without breaking down criminality by race. They want to talk about one without the other. And, I think that presents a very distorted view of what's going on out there for the general public.
And, that gets to where I was referencing when I said that social media has played a role here in that distortion. So, you have these encounters between the police and blacks that gain more attention. But, that does not necessarily mean that they're happening more often, Russ--yet, that is the impression being given through the coverage of these incidents.
And so, just to give you some context here: the percentage of black homicides in this country that involve police is quite small. The tragedy is the number of black homicides in this country. And, it's legitimately viewed as a tragedy. But, the number that involves police as a percentage of those homicides is quite small.
Just a quick example. In Chicago, in 2019 there were 492 homicides. According to the Chicago Sun Times, which has kept a tally of these, of those 492, three involved police. Three out of 492.
So, we can talk about improving policing. We can talk about whether it should be easier to fire cops or whether they should not have the immunity that they're automatically granted in certain situations, and so forth. Those are legitimate debates to have.
But, to me they seem second-order issues here. Ninety-seven percent [97%] of black homicides in this country do not involve law enforcement. If we're worried about black lives per se, if we want to reduce that body count, should our focus be on the 3%, 2% of black homicides that involve cops or the 98% that don't?
And, my concern is that the focus has been on the latter. And, that is not only disturbing as a practical matter: it's disturbing to the extent that it could lead to less effective policing of these communities that most need effective policing.
In other words when you make police the targets, when you put the emphasis on them, when you start to scapegoat them for these outcomes, it has an impact on these communities. Police pull back. They are more reluctant to get out of their cars or take their time getting to the crime scene in response to a 911 call.
And, all that does is empower criminals in these communities, who by and large prey on poor black people.
And, we've seen this in city after city after city. This is not speculation. This is not anecdotal. It has been shown in empirical studies that when you scapegoat cops after these high profile incidences, they pull back. Crime increases, violent crime increases, and the most likely victims of that increase are poor blacks.
Russ Roberts: Well, the governance of the police in America is a whole separate issue. I think you're right. I think there's some evidence that they do pull back. The real puzzle then is: who's in charge? Why wouldn't police chiefs say, 'Do your job'? But, they don't. There's a certain autonomy to police in America that is--
Jason Riley: Well, police are endogenous, like any other group.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Jason Riley: They're not automatons. They're going to respond to being scapegoated, and that's what we see happening.
Russ Roberts: Well, let's talk--you alluded to the role the media plays, obviously, in this perception. The three out of 492, the other 489--yeah, 489--obviously one reason we don't spend much time on them is that they're usually not filmed. We don't have a lot of video footage of those tragic deaths, the homicides that are not at the hands of police.
Jason Riley: I don't think that's why we don't focus on them.
Russ Roberts: Tell me why.
Jason Riley: I think we don't focus on them because it's not politically expedient to focus on them. Who benefits from focusing on them? When you look at the people who focus on police shootings, it's very obvious who benefits. If you're a civil rights organization who wants to keep race front and center and wants to pretend like it's still 1960 in America, then you focus on police violence. You focus on police shootings of black people. You have no incentive to focus on non-police shootings of black people--even if that is the overwhelming majority of police shootings. So, this is a matter of incentives.
Russ Roberts: You mean shootings; yeah.
Jason Riley: Yeah. I think it's quite easily explained. If you're an activist, this is how you raise money. If you're a politician, this is how you drive blacks to the polls.
There are incentives in place to keep front and center what has been front and center in this situation involving police and black suspects.
And, there's also an incentive to play down black crime rates. The reality is that there is a legitimate reason why police are focused on these communities. This is where the 911 calls originate. There is no doubt about that. Blacks call police more than any other group in America. It's a funny way of showing you don't trust cops.
And, the other thing that's going on here is that black elites, whether they're civil rights leaders or black politicians or black activists, have been able to drive this debate in the media. The media turns to them to express the views of black Americans writ large.
And, it was mentioned in the introduction that I just completed a biography of Thomas Sowell, a black intellectual and economist based at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. And, in researching the book on Sowell I listened to any number of interviews he had done over the decades. And, one question he was repeatedly asked--and I find myself repeatedly asked--was: How does it feel as a black person who's more conservative, right of center, politically to be so out of step with other black people? And, Sowell responded by correcting the premise of the question. And, he would say, 'You mean: How does it feel to be out of step with black elites? Black elites,' he would say, 'are no more representative of black people than white elites are of white people.'
And so, that is something to keep in mind when we have these debates. In recent months and years this whole 'defunding the police'-narrative has taken place; and the media repeatedly turns to these black spokesmen, so called. 'Oh yes, the police are the biggest problem in these communities. Policing is the biggest--.' Not black criminality. 'Policing is the biggest problem in these communities.' 'We need to reimagine policing.' 'We need to redirect resources that are going into law enforcement.' And, this is the view of the black community writ large.
Well, I was always skeptical of this line of reasoning. Not only because I've lived in these poor black communities, I've worked in these poor black--I've gone to school in these poor black communities.
And, in my personal experience this has never been the attitude that I've heard among black people--that policing is the problem. So I was always skeptical.
But, there is reason to be skeptical of this.
And, let me just walk you through a little bit of the polling on actual black people who live in these communities. And so, a Gallup poll released in 2020 showed that 81% of black Americans said they wanted police presence in their neighborhood to remain the same or to increase. This is 2020.
Another Gallup survey published in 2020 asked black and Hispanic residents of low-income neighborhoods, specifically, about policing. And, 59% of both black and Hispanic respondents said that, quote, "they would like the police to spend more time in their area than they currently do."
A 2015 Gallup poll taken right after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri asked black respondents about policing. A majority said that police treat them fairly. And, more blacks than whites said that wanted, quote, "a greater police presence in their local community."
And, this is not a recent phenomenon, Russ. I can quote you polls going back to the 1990s about the importance of crime control among black residents in poor black communities.
A poll in 1993 taken by Gallup found that 82% of black respondents said the criminal justice system doesn't treat criminals harshly enough. 75% of blacks wanted more cops on the street to combat crime. 68% said: build more prisons so that longer sentences can be given.
So, this is going back 30-odd years; and we could go back even further.
So, we can talk about the talk about the defund-the-police movement. We can talk about what the activists are saying. But we cannot pretend that these folks are speaking on behalf of the black rank-and-file. Based on the empirical data that we have, they are speaking for themselves. And, too often, the media has interpreted what they're saying as speaking on behalf of all blacks.
And, that is very much part of the problem. It's part of what we saw in all these street protests over the summer about George Floyd. People really think there's some sort of epidemic going on out there of police targeting young black men. But, the fact is that there is no empirical data to support that narrative.
In New York City, where I'm based, it so happens that the police department has kept very detailed records of police shootings over the decades, and going all the way back to the early 1970s.
So, in 1971 police in New York City shot 300 people. By 1991, 20 years later, that had fallen to 100 people. By 2019 it had fallen to 34 people.
So, police use of lethal force has declined by roughly 80%, 85% in the nation's largest city, with the nation's largest police force, over the past half century.
And, New York is no outlier. You'll find the same stats in Los Angeles and Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland and Oakland. You go down the line. Police use of lethal force has declined, especially among minorities.
Yet we have groups out there claiming the exact opposite: that it's increasing. That it has become an epidemic. And, I really think that this is largely a function of the media dropping the ball and refusing to put things in perspective and cite the sort of data I just cited.
Russ Roberts: Well, you're also suggesting--I love it that the man who has just finished a biography of Thomas Sowell is lecturing the economist about incentives--which is something I'm a big fan of thinking about. But, it is--it's interesting in this area, it's easy to forget. I'll be a little less mercenary than you are. Attention is what's valuable in today's--it's the coin that many people are eager to pocket. And, I think the attention--
Jason Riley: Yes. Controlling the narrative is more important than having the facts on your side. You'll have no dispute from me on that. It's unfortunate but that's where we are. The facts can be completely at odds with the prevailing narrative and it doesn't seem to matter.
Russ Roberts: Well, some people would argue that no matter how few people are killed by reckless police or negligent police or worse--malicious or racist police--it's too many people. For me, the problem is one again of governance. Police unions are very powerful. There's very little--the chiefs of police in America have less control over their staff than I think would be healthy. But, they like that, too. They have an incentive for that to be the case as well.
Jason Riley: Again, we can have that debate, we can have that discussion. That's an important discussion. Police reform--
Russ Roberts: Good idea--
Jason Riley: is an important discussion. Should a police officer who is fired from one department be able to move into another jurisdiction and get a job at another police department without having that history follow him? Should these immunity laws that police have--are they legitimate?
Those are all legitimate, very legitimate questions to have. And, I have no doubt that there are racist cops out there. Just like there are racists in any number of fields. I'm not someone who believes that racism has been vanquished from America. The question is: does racism explain the outcomes we see today in the criminal justice system? Or does behavior explain those outcomes?
And, that is the question.
But, the idea that policing has become the centerpiece of a national discussion, to me, is completely at odds with what's actually going on. Young black men in Chicago or Minneapolis or Oakland or New York, may in fact leave the house every day, Russ, worried about getting shot. But, not by police officers. Yet, if you listen to the media, that is what you think would be the problem here.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's a tragedy all around, in so many ways.
Russ Roberts: Let's dig a little deeper into the behavior you're talking about and the issues that you think we ought to be spending more time on. You've spoken very eloquently and written eloquently on the lessons of history for the black experience--in particular, what we should learn from the period after the Civil War up through the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s. That century, that 100 years, there are things to learn from that. In particular, there was quite a bit of improvement in the situation of black people despite Jim Crow, despite the handicaps. What do you learn from that?
Jason Riley: I learn that Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery are not blanket explanations for black outcomes today.
There's no doubt that those events had a profound impact on the black experience in this country. There's no doubt, to me, that discrimination and prejudice and bias can in fact play a role in a minority group's upward mobility. The question is: how big a role is it playing? How much of what is going on today does it explain?
And, I would argue that it explains quite little given the amount of progress that was taking place when you had far more racial discrimination in America than you have today.
A lot of people look at these black crime rates and they say: Poverty. Obviously. Blacks are much poorer than whites on average, and so higher black crime rates make sense. These are desperate people. Which, you know, might sound logical, superficially, until you realize that in the 1930s and '40s and '50s, black people were a lot poorer then they are today and black crime rates were a lot lower than they are today. So, this correlation that is just thrown out there between poverty and crime rates does not hold up to scrutiny.
The poverty rate among black married couples has been in the single digits for more than a quarter century. You know, black people don't become less black after they get married. So, is the poverty rate in America a function of racism, or family formation? Is it a function of the fact you see fewer married couples among blacks?
We don't talk about that. We jump right to the racial explanation or the racist explanation of these outcomes.
And, I think that's a mistake.
And, for some groups, they willfully ignore that reality because they have an entirely different agenda. And, I just think it's incumbent upon the media, people in my profession, to challenge these folks when they cite racism as a blanket explanation, as an all-purpose explanation for racial disparities. Whether it's in educational achievement, or employment, or income, or any number of other measures. There are other explanations that I think are far more plausible in the 21st Century than simply racism.
Russ Roberts: Go ahead. How would you explain the--you know, some people would argue that in the--it seems so long ago--I think it was the 1980s when cocaine was very popular. White people took cocaine; and they didn't pay such a high price for it. But when it was black people taking other drugs, they all went to jail for a long time. We cracked down on that in a very disproportionate way. I mean, I think drug policy in the United States had a terrible impact on the black community--and white community, obviously, as well--but I think it's been disproportionately on the black community.
Now, is that racist? Where is that coming from? I don't know. Comment on that and also comment on what you think are the behavioral parts of this problem and particularly the family issues that I know you've written about.
Jason Riley: Well, in terms of the Drug War, I think there's a little revisionist history going on here. You mention the 1980s and the crack epidemic of that period that led to legislation being passed that treated crack cocaine offenses more harshly than powder cocaine offenses.
Russ Roberts: That's what I meant. Thank you.
Jason Riley: And, of course blacks were more likely to use crack cocaine than powder cocaine, which was more prevalent among whites.
What people leave out of that story is who led the fight for passing legislation that differentiated between sentencing for penalties for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. It was the Congressional Black Caucus. People like Charlie Rangel and Major Owens, Congressmen from New York City, led the fight to install those differentials that are, in hindsight, all these decades later, suddenly viewed as racist.
People conveniently forget who pushed for this because of what crack cocaine was doing to their communities.
And, you can go all the way back to Nelson Rockefeller and the Rockefeller drug laws in the early 1970s. Black leaders in black communities led the push for the Drug War in the first place.
Crime control has long been something that black leaders have been preoccupied with. And, rightly so because violent crime has disproportionately harmed their community.
So, there's a little revisionism going on right there and going back and rewriting what the motivations were and who was pushing what when, and why.
But, beyond that, just as a practical matter, I think there are very good arguments that some conservatives, libertarians, liberals make about the merits of the Drug War. Whether it's doing any good. I think there are very good arguments on both sides of this effect as to whether it's been a bust--
Russ Roberts: So, to speak--
Jason Riley: But, if your goal is to a). reduce mass incarceration, or b). reduce the racial disparities among our incarcerated population, among the prison population, going after the drug war is barking up the wrong tree.
And here's why. Blacks are about 13% of the population. They're about 37% of the incarcerated population in this country. If you were to send home everyone who was incarcerated for a drug offense, that disparity, that racial disparity, would barely budge. Blacks would still be right about 37% of the incarcerated population.
Nor would you address mass incarceration. America would still have the largest incarcerated population in the Western world if you sent home everyone who was in American prisons on drug offenses. So, you would not address the mass incarceration problem by ending the Drug War; nor would you address the racial disparity problem.
And here's why: What is driving the black incarceration rate? They're not drug offenses. They're violent offenses. Blacks commit violent crime at seven to 10 times the rate that other groups do.
And, according to the most recent figures I've seen, among the people who are incarcerated, violent criminals make up about 53% of the prison population. About 19% of the people in prison are there for property offenses. Drug offenses come in third, at around 16%--or less than a third of the violent offenders in prison.
So, again, what is driving the black incarceration rate? It's not drug offenses. It's violent offenses.
Russ Roberts: But, some of those violent offenses are the result of turf wars over drug dealing and artificially higher--
Jason Riley: There is some of that. There is some of that. But, even among the drug offenders, we're not locking up people who have been caught with a dime bag because they were frisked by some cops for standing on a street corner.
The people who get locked up in prison for drugs are dealers, Russ. They're traffickers. That's who we're locking up.
So, again, there are very good reasons for ending the Drug War, I would argue. But, again, if your goal is to reduce that racial disparity in incarceration rates, ending the Drug War is not going to get you there.
Russ Roberts: So, what role does the family play in this, in your view?
Jason Riley: Oh, I think it plays a huge role. I mean, the correlation between violent crime in these communities, incarceration rates in these communities, and intact black families is quite strong. You're an economist and--
Russ Roberts: Inverse--a negative correlation.
Jason Riley: Yes. And, like me, you're reluctant to try and make causal links here. But the correlation between when you had more intact black families and what crime rates were at that time, is quite revealing.
I can give you a few figures on that. So, for instance, in 1960 black men were murdered at a rate of 45 per 100,000. By 1990 that had climbed to 140 per 100,000--an increase of more than 200%.
Was there more racism in 1990 than there was in 1960, Russ? I mean, does racism really explain what was going on?
I mean, in 1960 in the South you had police departments in places like Alabama that were, like, a third of them were members of the Klan [Ku Klux Klan], openly. The idea that racist policing today is responsible for the incarceration rates that we see today or the arrest rates that we see today is preposterous, from a historical perspective.
So, what did you have going on back in 1960? or 1950? or 1930 and '40? You had more black intact families. In fact, between 1890 and 1940 black marriage rates, according to the census, were higher than white marriage rates in the country.
As late as the 1960s, two out of three black children were being raised in a home with a mother and a father. Today, you know, in some of these communities upwards of 80% are not.
And, yes, I do think this has a lot to do with why these young men in Chicago are running around shooting each other. Yes, I think that does, in fact, play a role.
You know, what's also interesting about the first half the 20th century is that you had this migration out of the South of black people. Several large migrations out of the South. And, even when people did not leave the South, they left rural areas and headed into cities. And, we know historically that cities are much more violent places than rural areas in these countries. So, you would have expected black violent crime rates to increase in, say, the 1940s and the 1950s.
In fact, the opposite happened. In the 1940s, homicide rates for black men fell by more than 18%. And, in the 1950s they fell by even more--by more than 20%. At the same time when white homicide rates were basically flat in this country. And, I think that's quite remarkable given, again, the trends in terms of urban areas being much more violent than rural areas, historically.
Russ Roberts: Well, let's talk about--I hope we get to the question of why you think the black family has done so poorly in terms of family structure. But, I want to ask you about education and a phrase that comes from economics but I like your richer use of it, which is 'human capital.'
So, one argument would be--I'm not going to call it racist on the part of teachers' unions--but, the inability to allow reform. The barriers to reforming the schooling system I think have differentially punished black communities at a time when education is increasingly important. So, it's not--I'm not going to argue that schooling was always great and it's gotten worse. Probably it was pretty bad before and it's still bad now in poor neighborhoods in America, black or white. But, we live at a time where education is increasingly important. And, my view is that too many young people in America are not given the tools they need to contribute and to earn and to hold their head up with dignity in the modern economy. And, I'd like your take on that. What do you think?
Jason Riley: I think you're absolutely right. I'd start by saying human capital isn't my term Russ. This is Gary Becker. This is Chicago School economics.
Russ Roberts: No. But, the reason I mention it is that a really bad economist thinks that human capital means how many years you sat a desk in a school building--
Russ Roberts: A good economist realizes that human capital has to be related to skill acquisition and other things. But, you broaden it to include cultural factors that I think are neglected by economists.
Jason Riley: Yeah. And, not me. Not only me. Again, I would go back to those Chicago School economists like Gary Becker--and like Tom Sowell--who use a definition of human capital that involves skills and behaviors and attitudes and culture.
And, the argument there is that, if you get those things right, what we've seen is that minority groups--ethnic and racial minority groups--can overcome all kinds of discrimination or bias or structural this-and-that, or legacies of this-or-that in their history.
And, we see this time and time again. It's played out not only here in the United States with certain ethnic groups, but around the world. Whether you're talking about the ethnic Chinese in sSoutheast Asia, whether you're talking about South Asians and East Africa. Whether you're talking about Jews in any number of countries around the world down through history. What is between your ears is not something larger society can control.
And so, during the times of Tsarist Russia when 80% or 90% of the public was illiterate, most Jews had books in their homes. It didn't matter what the greater society's view of education was. They had a tradition. They had a culture that valued education, and it followed them wherever they went, whether it was into a country like Tsarist Russia where education was not valued or whether they went anywhere else. And, that has followed them down through history.
So, if a group gets that right--that human capital factor--right, it matters more than discrimination. It's not that discrimination or racism or prejudice doesn't matter. It's that human capital matters more.
And so, that is why I think some of us have focused so much on the development of that human capital so that it doesn't matter who gets elected or who is in office, and so forth. If you're a group that has valued skills and behaviors to advance, particularly in a free market economy--you're going to do just fine.
If you look at who's hitting it out of the park right now in America, Asian Americans. You go, how much political clout do Asian Americans have in this country? Not much. And, yet you see them overrepresented in the skilled professions. You see Harvard so panicked about them that they're trying to keep them out, the way they did Jews in the early part of the 20th century.
I mean that is what human capital gets you. And, it's not just at the collegiate level. Here in New York City where I am even in these selective high schools you see politicians trying to curb Asian enrollment in schools because these student are doing so well. And, the politicians want more racial balance.
And, what's interesting about this is that if you look at a more detailed breakdown of the Asian students who are accepted at these more selective schools, at least here in New York, they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of them come from some of the poorer zip codes in the outer boroughs, where their parents are solidly working class, but where they have cultural traits that prioritize SAT [Standardized Achievement Test] test prep over $300 sneakers.
That's cultural, Russ. That is not something that is the result of prejudice from society. And, yet these kids are outperforming middle class and upper class black and white kids to be admitted to these schools.
And so, again, that gets back to the primacy of human capital. And, that is why I think so many of us focus on the importance of education as a way of economic advancement and upward mobility.
And, unfortunately in this country we have 85%, or so, percent of kids educated in public schools which are controlled by and large by teachers' unions. And, teacher's unions see public education as really more of a jobs program for adults.
And so, that explains the tenure rules, the last-hired-/first-fired, the inability of a principal to put the most experienced kids in front of the most difficult kids to teach and so forth. That explains a lot of what is going on in public education here in America.
And, that's why a lot of us work and advocate for more school choice and introducing more competition into public education. Because, right now we're in a situation basically where we were with the Post Office [USPS, the U.S. Postal Service] 30 years ago before UPS [United Parcel Service] and FedEx came along and put some competitive pressure on the Post Office to improve what it was doing.
Russ Roberts: I remember in the documentary Waiting for Superman how a really horrible teacher could just get shuttled to a different school system and get a new start--which is somewhat reminiscent of the union power you mentioned earlier with rogue police officers. Something there to think about.
I want to mention something you mentioned before, though, which I think is very important. You were talking about human capital. As you pointed out, people risk their lives to come into the United States to be poor. Because they believe--these are immigrants--they believe that they will not stay poor, that their children will not stay poor.
And, I know that there's work that's been done recently by a past EconTalk guest, Ron Abramitzky, with coauthor Leah Boustan and I forget the third coauthor--I apologize, I think there's three--that the mobility of immigrants in the United States hasn't changed. It's still very high despite these claims that everybody in America is just treading water--which I think is a misinterpretation of the data, as listeners get tired of me talking about sometimes.
But, I think that point about immigration is incredibly important. Now, it could be they're just deluded. They think this is the land where the streets are paved with gold. But in fact it seems to be borne out by their actual experience. I think that's a very important point.
Jason Riley: I think you're absolutely right. The thing about the immigration data is that it does undermine all the talk we hear on the left about stagnation and how there is no more upward mobility in America. That is not true when it comes to immigrants.
Which leads to the question of whether--what I started out saying in my opening remarks--whether people are taking advantage of the opportunities that do exist. And, then it comes down to why they are or are not taking advantage of the opportunities. Not a question of whether those opportunities exist or not.
And, I think immigrants continue to show that those opportunities do exist. And, these are humans. They act rationally, just like everyone else. And so, if the opportunities weren't here they wouldn't come. You know this. These immigrants are so plugged in to what is happening economically in America that there are economists who look at immigrant movements as leading economic indicators of where the economy is headed in the United States.
That's how tuned in these folks are. If somebody in Boston or Chicago or Seattle says to someone south of the border, 'Don't come, there are no jobs here. Don't come,' they don't come. When there are recessions, we see fewer immigrants coming. And so, I think they are acting very rationally.
And, my concern goes back to what Milton Friedman famously said, which is that, you can't have open immigration and a large welfare state because eventually it will turn into a welfare magnet. And, we've seen that in various parts of Western Europe where people migrate for the public benefits. For many years, for many decades, we've had strong evidence in the United States that that is not why they come here.
Russ Roberts: No, they come here to work. They come here to work. Most of them.
Jason Riley: Yeah. They come here to work.
And, we know that largely because of where they go. In the past 20 years or so, the fastest growing immigrant populations have been in states like Tennessee, and Arkansas, and the Carolinas, and so forth. These are not places that are known for generous welfare benefits, Russ. These are places known for quite stingy welfare benefits.
So, yet that is not where people have gone upon arriving in the United States. So, we know that they are coming for the jobs.
But, what I do fear is that as we continue to increase the size of the welfare state--and I think we made a big step in that direction with Obamacare and we've continued down that road particularly with the current administration, and what you see going on in the state level, in these blue states where they are actually--New York is having a debate right now of over how much money to give to illegal immigrants who were harmed by COVID. This is a state that is simultaneously having a debate on whether to become the highest-tax state in the country. So, we want to raise taxes on the most productive people in the state to give welfare benefits to people who are in the country illegally. That, to me, is a recipe for creating the welfare magnet situation that Milton Friedman warned us about. And so, that is my concern.
Even if you can argue right now that they're not coming for welfare benefits, as we continue to expand the size of the welfare state that argument is going to be harder and harder to make.
Russ Roberts: To defend the Left for a minute, which I always enjoy doing when I can, one might argue that: 'Well, we don't know much about culture, so it's all well and good to say we need to improve the culture, say, of a particular ethnic community, or we can laud the culture of another one. We don't really have the levers--the policy levers to, quote, "fix that"--so we're kind of stuck with that. And so, to focus on that is a mistake.'
I think that's what a lot of people would argue. And so, we focus on the stuff like the racism and the police enforcement and other issues that we think we can control. What's your answer to that?
Jason Riley: Well, I don't know that we can control what we think we can control. And, the question is what kind of goals we've set. We--there are some of us who believe that racism is part of human nature. We take a very tragic view of humanity. There are things that will forever be with us. War, inequality, racism and so forth.
Russ Roberts: The 'crooked timber of humanity.' [quote from Immanuel Kant: "Aus so krummen Holze,..."--Econlib Ed.].
Jason Riley: And, the goal is not to eradicate these things. We can hope to eradicate them, but realistically, the goal should be to put in place institutions and processes that manage these situations. The rule of law. A military defense.
I want world peace as much as I'm sure you do, Russ. But, it's unlikely to happen. So, the problem with a lot of these political solutions is that they're utopian. And, they set up this utopian outcome as the goal and say, 'Until we reach it we can continue to tinker.' And, a lot of that tinkering, I think, has made matters a lot worse.
Affirmative action would be I think a very good example of this--a well-intended policy to help more blacks join the middle class, create the number of more black professionals in this country, and so forth. And so, in places like higher education we put in place systems where we lowered standards for black applicants. But, what happened? We ended up with more black dropouts. Black kids who went into college wanting to be scientists or mathematicians, subsequently switching to easier majors because they were mismatched with schools.
And, we have this sort of natural experiment play out in many places. And, then we learned that after the University of California system ended racial preferences in higher education: Wow! Black graduation rates went up. Including in the more difficult majors like math and science.
So, a policy that had been put in place to increase the ranks of the black middle class had in practice resulted in fewer black doctors, lawyers, architects, and accountants, and so forth.
And so, I think our public policymakers need to be a little more humble about what they do and don't know, and what they can and can't do.
And, largely this involves getting out the way. Which is why I wrote a book called Please Stop Helping Us.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think it's an incredibly important point that is often forgotten: that, there are many problems in the world. Racism would be one of them. Crime. Cruelty. There's--it's a long list.
The question isn't, 'Are there things we wish were different?' The question is, 'Do we have tools available to make them better?'
And, I often quote Thomas Sowell and we'll segue to your biography of him, now. He may have heard this from George Stigler--I don't know, maybe you'll tell me--that, when given a policy solution--so-called solution.
First of all, Sowell famously said, 'There are no solutions, only trade-offs.' Which I think is the essence in many ways of the economic way of thinking.
But, he also would say, 'And, then what?' What comes next? Okay, it's well-intentioned. What are the consequences of it?
And I think--I think what I think separates people like you from others isn't that you're cruel and heartless, Jason, but rather that you care about consequences and outcomes rather than intentions and motives. At least that's one attractive way that I defend my views when I'm called cruel and heartless. I always say: 'We want the same thing. We disagree on how to get there.'
And, I think your policies say the minimum wage that someone advocates for actually hurts people we're trying to help.
So, I think that's--I think that's in many ways one of Sowell's most important legacies. Do you agree? Intellectual legacies.
Jason Riley: Oh absolutely. That is one of his legacies.
And, along with his belief that we should have no expectation of equal outcomes among groups to begin with. That this is an entirely unrealistic, utopian goal--an objective and starting point.
And, to say that because there are racial disparities in this area or that area is automatic evidence that something nefarious is amiss is his starting point. He's saying, 'Wait. Why are you assuming that we would have equal--' particularly, in a place like America where you have people who have come here from cultures that vary geographically, climate-wise, in all kinds of ways. That they would all come to America, and we'd send them to PS15[?] and sit them all next to each other in a classroom and we would get equal scores on tests and they'd all get into Harvard. And, if they don't, something's wrong. 'Harvard's discriminating.'
This is preposterous! This whole mindset that we assume that equal outcomes are the norm is not something borne out in history. Not here in the United States, not elsewhere, not today, not yesterday, not 500 years ago. Disparate outcomes are in fact the norm. And, that the fact that we hold them up as commonplace and, and, and, and view any discrepancy from them as problematic or as a problem in and of itself is the wrong way to go about public-policy making.
Russ Roberts: What we haven't talked about--and we should--we talked about the opportunities that many people in America have taken advantage of, different ethnic groups. And, blacks, of course, have improved greatly, their economic wellbeing over the last hundred years.
But, they came from the legacy of slavery, unlike those immigration groups. Does that matter? A lot of people would argue that is the essential fact. They would argue that the United States was founded as a slave nation and that that legacy has continued to burden black communities. You're an exception. Thomas Sowell's an exception. 'You're just not relevant. Your ability to thrive, you're a footnote. The overwhelming experience of black people has been inevitably, irrevocably damaged by the legacy of slavery and we should begin with reparations and a recognition that that legacy is incredibly important.' Do you agree?
Jason Riley: Well, one problem I have with that argument is the progress being made by blacks who lived much closer to the institution of slavery and Jim Crow. So, between 1940 and 1960 the black poverty rate fell by 40 percentage points in this country--from 87% to 47%. And, that was before any Civil Rights legislation of any significance had been passed. That was before Affirmative Action had been passed. That was before the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act had been passed--
Russ Roberts: or the Great Society--
Jason Riley: The Great Society had been put in place.
And so, I look at the progress that was made under those--that was being made at a time when you could put a sign in your window that said, 'We don't hire black people.' It was perfectly legal to do so.
And so, I look at that progress--and it wasn't just a reduction in poverty. If you look at the rate at which blacks were increasing their levels of education, not only in absolute terms but relative to white increases in schooling--if you look at income rates, if you look at home ownership rates, if you look at the level at which blacks were entering the skilled professions, middle-class professions--doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, accountants and so forth--all of that was happening at a much faster rate among generations of blacks that were much closer to the institution of slavery and Jim Crow.
And so, I find that explanation wanting, in that respect. And, again, that is not to say that slavery and Jim Crow have had no impact at all on the situation that blacks face today. The question is how much do they explain?
I'm looking at, right now, a Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] news release from January of this year. And, it's about median weekly earnings in America. And, it says blacks and Hispanics are lower than whites in their earnings, but whites are lower than Asians; and Hispanics are lower than blacks.
And, this always complicates the sort of facile explanation that the Left presents in using racism as an all-purpose explanation for inequality. If that is true, how is it that Hispanics--who have no history of slavery in America--are earning less than black people are? How is it that Asians who have experienced tremendous discrimination, at the hands of white people--you had eras when there were limits to what schools they could go to, what jobs Asians could have in this country. Asians were not allowed to own property in certainly states. During World War II they were rounded up and interned. They significantly out-earn white people in this country, and have for decades. How is this possible under the explanation that racism and racial prejudice and racial discrimination explains all?
And, you come across this time and time again when Asians are included in the equation, whether you're talking about bank loans or the number of blacks that are pushed out of employment during recessions.
People always do black/white comparisons. 'Oh, blacks are denied for loans at higher rates than whites.' Well, whites are denied at higher rates than Asians. If racism is the reason, then you're left with this absurd view that white bankers are discriminating against white loan applicants in favor of Asians.
The alternative is that other things are a factor here that we're not talking about because we stopped the discussion after a consideration of racism and the role that it plays. And, again, I think that that is doing a disservice, not only to the national debate about these issues, but a disservice to what the black underclass needs to be focused on in order to advance. And, right now, the thinking is that all it should be really focused on is obliterating racism in America and if they could just do that everything would be hunky dory. And, I see no evidence that that would be the case.
Russ Roberts: So, let's close with where we started. I think you said--it was a long time ago, Jason--I think you described yourself as an optimist.
Russ Roberts: Race relations--the role of race in the national discussion right now--is at a pretty depressing point for me. I'm white, you're black; so I don't know how you feel about it but the way that people talk about race right now, we're so far away from Martin Luther King's vision of a person being judged by the content of their character: Identity politics. Identity--race as an overwhelming determinant of who you are and nothing else--has become the norm. White people--and maybe some black people--are afraid to talk about it because they're afraid they're going to be canceled. Give me a little optimism going forward. Give me something to take home that's a little cheerful.
Jason Riley: Well, first, I do share your pessimism on this front. We've turned King's ideas on their head: Judge me by the content of my character, not the color of my skin. Don't focus on my race. Now we're to Black Lives Matter. That is King in reverse.
And, if you refuse to say that 'black lives matter,' we have a problem with you. If you say 'all lives matter,' we have a problem with you.
So, that is anti-King. And that's where we are right now. And, I am very disturbed about that.
And, the reason why, Russ, is that that element has always been out there. I've taken some comfort in that it was confined to academia.
Russ Roberts: That's true. That's true.
Jason Riley: It was--these were silly debates happening in seminars and discussions between intellectuals and publications nobody else read, for decades.
But, now they've spilled over into the larger society. They're part of our everyday language whenever we talk about institutional racism and unconscious bias and diversity tTraining in schools and Critical Race Theory.
And it's quite disturbing. This stuff is being taught to elementary school children.
And, Critical Race Theory is quite radical. This is a view that white people cause all black problems. And, those black problems are the responsibility of white people to solve. It asks nothing of blacks.
And, I find that quite disturbing.
And, why I'm optimistic, however, is that I think that, on balance, the American people will only put up with this nonsense for so long before they will eventually push back against it and call it out. And, I think we see that happening here and there but I think that that will be the case. That the Left and the Progressives have really--they're really, really pushing things here. And, I think they'll only be able to obscure the reality.
I mean, when you have statistic like the one I mentioned in Chicago--492 homicides, three involving police: 'Gee, let's have a discussion about police.' How long can that view hold before people say, 'This is a side show. This is a second order problem. We need to focus on the real problems.' And, that's why I'm optimistic. I guess I have this enduring belief in the common sense of the American people and that it will prevail in the long run even if I'm a little pessimistic in the short run.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Jason Riley. Jason, thanks for being part of EconTalk.