Appreciating Walter Williams

Friday, January 22, 2021
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Walter E. Williams

On December 2, just hours after teaching his last class at George Mason University, economist Walter Williams died. He was eighty-four. That same day, I wrote a short appreciation of Walter that led to something unprecedented in my twelve years of blogging: comments by dozens of people, almost none of whom I knew, all complimentary. Our blog, EconLog, is one of the best at weeding out nasty, abusive comments. This time, though, there was nothing to weed out.

It’s easy to see why because Walter was an attractive person in so many ways. He had an inquisitive mind, a powerful work ethic, incredible courage, a great sense of humor, a strong sense of justice, and an ability not just to teach economic understanding but also to sell economic freedom. He did so in hundreds of syndicated columns written over four decades. If you want to understand what was so compelling about the man, you could do no better than read his 2010 autobiography, Up from the Projects. But Walter would have been the first person to remind you that your time is your most valuable resource. So if you’re in a time crunch, read my article instead.

Walter and his sister were raised by their mother in a government housing project in North Philadelphia. His father had left his mother when he was “two or three years old.” Walter educated himself by reading. He got first library card when he was six or seven and every Saturday he walked to the public library and checked out multiple books.

Walter had a number of part-time jobs when he was young. When he was thirteen, he started doing odd jobs at U-Needa-Hat, a millinery factory in Philadelphia. His hourly wage was between 50 and 75 cents an hour. Why is that fact important? Because the minimum wage at the time was only 40 cents an hour. On January 25, 1950, when he was almost fourteen, it rose to 75 cents an hour. Had it reached that level only a year earlier, Walter might not have had a job. But he did his job well and gained skills that made his productivity worth at least 75 cents an hour. It’s probably no coincidence that one of Walter’s passions in economics, both in his early scholarly work and in his later popular columns, was explaining to people how the minimum wage destroys jobs for teenagers and especially for black teenagers. 

Some days, when Walter finished his own work early, he stuck around, teaching himself to operate electric sewing machines so that he could do the job that the higher-paid seamstresses did. That led to his first break. When two seamstresses didn’t show up for work during the busy season, Walter volunteered to help. He earned more for those hours and, from then on, worked on the sewing machines when the seamstresses weren’t there.

That taught him another important lesson, not about work, but about the harm done by regulation. One of the company’s employees complained to the labor department that the company was hiring child labor. When the official from the labor department asked him about his work, Walter naively “thought they were acting in my interest to get me a higher wage.” He soon learned the truth: the government was trying to get him a zero wage by preventing him from working. It took until his PhD economics program at UCLA in the late 1960s, though, for Walter to put it all together. One of his professors, Armen Alchian, asked him if he cared about the intentions behind a minimum wage or about its effects. If he cared about its effects, said Alchian, he should read some work by University of Chicago economist Yale Brozen that showed the minimum wage law’s devastating effects on opportunities for unskilled workers.

After the child labor debacle, Walter found many other ways to make money. He caddied, picked blueberries, sold fruits and vegetables, shoveled snow, and collected bottles to claim the deposit. While reading his list, I had a wave of nostalgia. Substitute “crabapples” for “blueberries,” and I did four of those five jobs when I was about Walter’s age.

Walter understood how much he learned on those jobs that helped him in life. He wrote:

A supreme tragedy, in light of the great civil rights gains made by black people, is that the young kids who live in North Philadelphia today don’t have the work opportunities that I had. Early work experiences not only provide the pride and self-confidence that comes from financial semi-independence but also teach youngsters attitudes and habits that will make them more valuable and successful workers in the future. That is especially important for young people who attend rotten schools and live in fatherless homes. If they’re going to learn anything that will make them valuable workers, it will have to come through on-the-job training.

Walter showed courage and creativity, along with a mischievous streak a mile wide, as a young man dealing with racism. Some of the most impressive and humorous parts of his book are his stories of his time as an Army draftee, from 1959 to 1961, in Georgia and South Korea. At Fort Stewart in Georgia, Walter quickly learned that although the Army was formally desegregated, the best jobs went to white men. When he was assigned to an Army motor pool, he had to wash trucks and jeeps rather than working as a mechanic or mechanic’s helper. A sergeant who caught him reading on the job ordered him to paint a truck. Although Walter knew that the sergeant meant for him to paint the flat bed, he saw his opportunity. “The whole thing?” he asked. The sergeant answered “yes,” but regretted it. After Walter started painting the window and the tires, a lieutenant asked him what the [expletive deleted] he was doing. Walter writes, “I responded, in my best Southern Stepin Fetchit accent, ‘Boss, de sergeant told me to paint de whole truck; Ah’s just doin’ what he say.’ ”

That, plus some other antics, got him reassigned out of the motor pool to a desk job, where he actually learned a lot about courts-martial. That learning came in handy, because Walter used it successfully to defend himself when he was court-martialed. Although Walter didn’t like the Army, he admits that he matured a lot during his two-year stint.

After he was discharged, Walter and his wife, Connie, moved to Los Angeles, where he earned his undergraduate degree in economics at Cal State Los Angeles, and he then went on to get his master’s and PhD in economics at UCLA. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet him there because he finished in 1972, a few months before I arrived.

Getting that degree changed his life. He failed his economic theory exam the first time around. That convinced him “that UCLA professors didn’t care anything about [his] race.” Through the rest of his life, Walter applied the same standards to his employers and his students. He told potential employers that if he learned that he was hired because he was black, he would resign immediately. He also held black students to the same standards as white students, and called out his colleagues when they held black students to lower standards. In Walter’s mind, they were racists. Not “reverse racists,” a term you can’t find in any of his writing, just racists.

His strict standards led to a number of conflicts with colleagues when he was on Temple University’s faculty in the late 1970s. A colleague and friend, Lynn Holmes, told Walter that he shouldn’t blame faculty resentment of him on racism, laughingly adding, “Walter, even if you were white, people wouldn’t like you.”

The main way UCLA changed his life was that he acquired three new loves: economics, economic freedom, and teaching economics.

Fortunately, you didn’t ever have to go into a classroom to see Walter teach. You just had to read his columns or his books. Indeed, a number of books published by the Hoover Institution are compendiums of his columns. Walter followed the facts wherever they led and shared them with his readers, often with biting humor.

In one column, he references a study’s finding that black males who grew up in homes “where there were magazines, books, and library cards had incomes identical to” incomes of whites from similar homes. In that same column, he writes that experts on race tell us that “wherever there’s disparity there’s racism.” On that basis Walter asks, “What else, other than racism, can explain how blacks, who are 13 percent of the population, are 66 percent of professional football players and 80 percent of basketball players?” He ends the column by pointing out a gender disparity: “Men are 50 percent of the population, but men are struck by lightning six times as often as women. I want to know what whoever is in charge of lightning strikes has against men.”

In a column titled “Free Trade versus Fair Trade,” written in 1998, Walter points out many problems with arguments for tariffs. Addressing the view that high-wage American workers can’t compete with lower-wage foreign workers, he points out that if that were true we wouldn’t export much whereas, in fact, America does export a lot. He also points that although tariffs save jobs for the industries protected by tariffs, they cost jobs in downstream industries that use the protected industries’ goods as inputs. If Donald Trump had understood this, he might have won Michigan’s electoral votes, where his tariffs on steel hurt a number of steel-using industries.

Walter also followed economic analysis to sometimes surprising conclusions. My favorite example is a 1997 column titled “Extortion or Voluntary Exchange.” In it, he tells of a young woman, Autumn Jackson, who asked Bill Cosby for $40 million “in exchange for her silence about being his illegitimate daughter.” Jackson was convicted of extortion. But Walter points out that she simply offered an exchange that Cosby was free to reject. Walter notes that we should worry about extortion when people threaten violence. If we did, he argues, we would put our attention not on Ms. Jackson, but on the US Congress, which, with legislation, regularly threatens us with violence. He gives the example of Social Security and Medicare. If you don’t pay those taxes, he writes, they will threaten to take our property and/or put us in jail. If we resist, they will authorize their agents to use violence. If Autumn Jackson had offered Cosby such a deal, writes Walter, he would say, “Jail her for life!”

Once, when I was being interviewed with Walter and our Hoover colleague John Taylor, I told Walter that my second-favorite laugh was his. (My favorite is my daughter’s.) Walter Williams was one of a kind. I will miss him and this is at a time when the United States needs his wisdom more than ever.