Discrimination And Disparities With Thomas Sowell

interview with Thomas Sowell
Thursday, May 3, 2018
Thomas Sowell in front of a black background with an Uncommon Knowledge mug
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Uncommon Knowledge

Recorded on March 14, 2018.

Rich or poor, most people agree that wealth disparities exist. Thomas Sowell discusses the origins and impacts of those wealth disparities in his new book, Discrimination and Disparities in this episode of Uncommon Knowledge.

Sowell explains his issues with the relatively new legal standard of “disparate impact” and how it disregards the American legal principle of “burden of proof.” Sowell and Robinson discuss how economic outcomes vary greatly across individuals and groups and that concepts like “disparate impact” fail to take into account these variations.

They chat about the impact of nuclear families on the IQs of individuals, as studies have not only shown that children raised by two parents tend to have higher levels of intelligence but also that first-born and single children have even higher intelligence levels than those of younger siblings, indicating that the time and attention given by parents to their children greatly impacts the child’s future more than factors like race, environment, or genetics. Sowell talks about his book in which he wrote extensively about National Merit Scholarship finalists who more often than not were the first-born or only child in a family.

Sowell and Robinson go on to discuss historical instances of discrimination and how those instances affected economic and social issues within families, including discrimination created by housing laws in the Bay Area. They discuss unemployment rates, violence, the welfare state in regards to African American communities, and more.

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Peter Robinson: Some people are rich, and many are poor. Some are fortunate, and many are not. On the very face of it, that is wrong and unfair, and something must be done, or so you might think until you read the work of our guest today. Dr. Thomas Sowell on Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Thomas Sowell has studied and taught economics, intellectual history, and social policy at institutions that include Cornell, UCLA, and Amherst. Now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Dr. Sowell has published more than a dozen books, including his newest volume just published, Discrimination and Disparities. Tom Sowell, welcome.

Thomas Sowell: Thank you. Good to be here.

Peter Robinson: First question, disparate impact, the legal standard holding the statistical differences in outcomes among groups can be enough to establish illegal discrimination even in the absence of evidence of intentional discrimination. That's the concept, two quotations. One is you in your new book, Discrimination and Disparities. "The disparate impact standard represents a major departure from American legal principles where the burden of proof is usually on those making the accusation." Here's the second quotation. This is the journalist Lauren Kirchner writing in The Atlantic. Get ready. "Attorneys have used the concept of disparate impact to successfully challenge policies that have a discriminatory effect. It's been deployed in lawsuits involving employment decisions, housing, and credit. Over the past several decades, disparate impact has represented an important tool for assessing and addressing discrimination." An important tool? Are you persuaded?

Thomas Sowell: I am. Lawyers have made millions doing this.

Peter Robinson: Oh, right. But, Tom, what about the notion that we need a disparate impact test because discrimination, particularly racial discrimination, particularly against African Americans, is so deeply embedded in the fabric of this country that people discriminate all the time without even being aware of it?

Thomas Sowell: If you're going with that assumption, then you don't need the disparate impact theory. You just simply say what you've just said. To dress it up as the disparate impact theory, the disparate impact theory depends upon the truth of the assumptions.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Thomas Sowell: I might also add-

Peter Robinson: Sure.

Thomas Sowell: ... that whenever you look at theory, you see this implicit assumption that all of the groups are very similar in their capabilities, what they want to do and so forth. When you look at facts, you find disparate impacts everywhere. There's been a story in the Wall Street Journal today about the Irish. Well, if you just go back to the 19th century, and you take the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews, just to pick three European groups, something like 40% of all the Italian immigrants to the United States return to Italy.  The Irish and the Jews were not going back to anywhere. They were glad they got out of where they got out of and they stayed here. If you look at things like politics, the Irish were so far more advanced politically than either the Italians or the Jews that for generations you had Irish politicians representing neighborhoods that were overwhelmingly Italian or Jewish.  Everywhere you turn, my gosh, you find these disparate impacts. And in the book, I go into nature, that you don't find things happening randomly around the world. You find 90% of all the tornadoes in the entire world occurring in one country, namely the United States. And only in a part of the United States. You don't hear about tornadoes in Maine or in the Pacific Northwest. So think how much land area there is in the world, and 90% of them right in this one little place.

Peter Robinson: The large point here is reality is lumpy and uneven and particular.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And it just doesn't fit the kind of bland, smooth reality that seems to be in the premise, in the back of the theorist's mind.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: All right. Discrimination and Disparities. Let's get the underlying argument of the book established here. I'm quoting you again, Tom. "The fact that economic and other outcomes often differ greatly among individuals, groups, institutions, and nations poses questions to which many people give very different answers. At one end of the spectrum, the belief that those who have been less fortunate are genetically less capable." That's the racist argument essentially.

Thomas Sowell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Peter Robinson: All right. "At the other end, the belief that those less fortunate are victims of other people." For me to put it crudely, that's the argument that liberals or progressives tend to make.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Thomas Sowell: Although I will say progressives were in the forefront of those putting the genetic argument 100 years ago.

Peter Robinson: Oh. So explain that. For example, Woodrow Wilson was a leader of the progressive movement and one of the leading racists of the day.

Thomas Sowell: Yes. And many people looking back and say, "Well, his racism was just an exception to his liberalism." No, that was what progressives were pushing that whole time. And not so much against blacks because they just assumed that blacks couldn't do anything, but they were pushing it against immigrants from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, and it was they who pushed the ideas that led to the great immigration restrictions of the 1920s.

Peter Robinson: All right. Again, Discrimination and Disparities, "Disparities can reflect the plain fact that success in many kinds of endeavors depends on prerequisites peculiar to each endeavor, and a relatively small difference in meeting those prerequisites can means a very large difference in outcomes." Now, you illustrate that point by describing a sociological or a psychological experiment that Professor Terman here at Stanford conducted at the beginning of the 20th century or so.

Thomas Sowell: Well, it wasn't so much an experiment; it was an empirical study. He picked something like 1,500 people who had IQs in the top 1%, and he followed them, or his program did, for a period of more than 50 years to see how they turned out. What I point out in the book is that the disparities within that narrow range, the top third, for example, had more than 10 times as many post-graduate degrees as the bottom third, among people who were all in the top 1%. So there were obviously many other things that had to come together. The other thing was that two people who failed to make the 140 IQ cutoff ended up getting Nobel Prizes in physics. There's nobody among these 1,500 that did, so obviously there have to be a lot of things coming together.

Peter Robinson: And you write, again, I'm quoting you here, Tom, "The biggest differentiating factor in that study was family backgrounds."

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Explain that.

Thomas Sowell: Well, the ones who were in that top third, they came from families that were more educated. The ones who were in that bottom third, something like 30% or so, had a parent who had dropped out of school before the eighth grade. So it doesn't matter how much brain power you may have, if you're not raised in a home where people are thinking, where they're doing intellectual things, you're not in the same position as someone with the same IQ who's in a family that has that kind of background.

Peter Robinson: So the point is you've got these 1,500 brilliant kids, you follow them for 50 years, and if nobody knew anything else about them, they'd say, "Gee, some of these people are relatively poor, and some of these people are relatively unfortunate by comparison with the others." And Tom Sowell says, "Well, the genetic argument is ruled out of bounds immediately because they're all brilliant. They're all in the top 1% in terms of smarts." But so is the argument that anybody victimized them. The principle factor that accounted for success as opposed to failure or ending up ... was family background, and that's really not victimization; that's a question of almost cosmic luck. What kind of family-

Thomas Sowell: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: That's right? Is that right?

Thomas Sowell: Yes. This is why I spend so much time on the difference between a first-born child and the others.

Peter Robinson: Explain that.

Thomas Sowell: Well, I first became aware of this years ago when I came across some data on the finalists from the National Merit Scholarship, and in five-child families, that finalist was the first-born more often that the other four put together. And in four-child families, that first-born was the finalist more often than the other three. And two-child. Wherever you do it. The only child who does better than the first-born is the only child. And then the other thing is that twins tend to have several points lower average IQ than people who are born one at a time. So when you put all that together, it suggests that the amount of parental attention a child gets makes a huge difference in the future.

Peter Robinson: I see. But again, you-

Thomas Sowell: You [crosstalk 00:09:46] that-

Peter Robinson: The argument of victimization doesn't really apply there. That's more-

Thomas Sowell: Nor does genetics. They're born to the same parents and raised under the same roof.

Peter Robinson: Right. All right. The costs of discrimination. Again, the book Discrimination and Disparities. "Too many observers reason as if intentions automatically translate directly into outcomes." And then you go on, you of all people go on to quote approvingly from Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's co-author in The Communist Manifesto, and he has this phrase, "What emerges." Engels makes the argument intentions don't matter as much as "what emerges." You use that-

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: So explain that.

Thomas Sowell: Well, what Engels says is that what each person wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed, so you can't go from intentions to results. And as if to emphasize that, I later go into the question of South Africa under apartheid. So that we don't get bogged down in the question how much racism there is and so forth. Of course, it's unambiguous that the black-

Peter Robinson: State policy.

Thomas Sowell: Yes, it's state policy. It's the law. And yet, there were industries in South Africa under apartheid where there were more blacks hired than whites in occupations where it was illegal to hire blacks at all. And part of the problem that the people who were imposing apartheid had was that there's money to be made by hiring black workers. So whatever the racial views of the employer, he's thinking about the money, so you get all these anomalies. And of course, my colleague and friend Walter Williams, when he did research in South Africa for three months, and he lived in an area that was set aside for whites only. So even in the housing market, you had this kind of thing. In at least one area in South Africa, non-whites were a majority in one of the areas set aside for whites only, and again, it's the cost of discrimination. And you get that with minimum wage arguments as well, that if you have a minimum wage, and that's set above where it would be in a free market, then that means you're going to have more people applying because there's a higher wage, and there are going to be fewer people hired because of the higher wage. So you're going to have a chronic surplus of applicants. Now, in a market where there's, say, a chronic surplus of qualified people of, say, 200, and there a hundred blacks, for example, who are qualified, then if the employer refused to hire all hundred black qualified people, he still has 200 others he can call on, and that's it. And it's cost him nothing. But if there's no minimum wage now, and there's no chronic surplus, every time he turns away a qualified black person, he has to have someone who's not black who's also qualified that he can hire.

Peter Robinson: And he may not be able to find that person.

Thomas Sowell: At that price.

Peter Robinson: At that price.

Thomas Sowell: Therefore, the price will have to go up, so it's costing him. And if he doesn't raise the price, he's going to have to keep his customers waiting because he doesn't have enough people to do the job.

Peter Robinson: Got it. Got it. This question of the difference between intentions and what emerges, a couple of illustrations from the American experience that you describe in the book. In the American South after the Civil War, whites employed a number of measures to keep down the earnings of black workers and sharecroppers, keep them poor. And yet, you write, "Black incomes in 1900 were almost half again higher than they had been in 1867 to '68." In other words, just after the Civil War, after African Americans received their freedom. "This represented a rate of growth higher than that in the American economy as a whole." Just-freed slaves improved their material well-being faster than the rest of the nation in spite of laws intended to keep them down. How come?

Thomas Sowell: Well, it wasn't so much laws in this case; it was agreements.

Peter Robinson: Agreements, I'm sorry.

Thomas Sowell: And many of these agreements simply fell apart, especially in agriculture because as the spring comes in, you've got to get yourself a workforce out there to plow that ground and plant the seeds. Otherwise, there's no crop.

Peter Robinson: You lose the whole season. Right, right, right.

Thomas Sowell: Yeah. So the people who decided they weren't going to stick by the landowners, they weren't going to stick by this agreement, they got the first dibs on the black workers and sharecroppers, and the others had to take what was left over. And they got away with a lot of really terrible cheating the first year or so. But of course, by experience, the guy who was cheated the first year knows that his cousin is getting paid more next door. You don't need to read about that, you don't need anything else, you go down to where your cousin's working.

Peter Robinson: Got it. Got it. Again, Discrimination and Disparities. "Three decades after the end of slavery, laws mandating racially segregated seating in municipal transit vehicles began to be passed in many Southern communities." This didn't happen immediately after the Civil War. It's toward the end of the 19th century. "Municipal transit companies fought such laws." How come?

Thomas Sowell: They may have had exactly the same racial views as the people who passed the law, but the people who passed the laws paid no price for it. People that owned the transit companies ... See, the votes, only whites could vote, but whites and blacks could both supply money. So the incentives were very different from the people who owned transit companies than they were for politicians.

Peter Robinson: Got it. One final example of this difference between intentions and what actually emerges, the reality on the ground — housing right here in Northern California. Beginning in the 1970s, as you explain in the book, San Francisco and other communities right here in Northern California began enacting building restrictions in the name of protecting the environment. Open spaces, protecting the environment, and so forth. "By 2005, the black population in San Francisco was reduced to less than half of what it had been in 1970, even though the total population of the city as a whole was growing." What happened?

Thomas Sowell: Well, as the restrictions on housing were put in, then of course that meant the growing population was not accommodated by a growing amount of housing. In Palo Alto, for example, the prices of housing almost quadrupled in one decade. It was not because they were building luxury homes because there was not a single new house built in Palo Alto during that decade. It meant that the existing houses almost quadrupled in price. It's amazing how in California there are people asking, "What can we do about the affordable housing price-"

Peter Robinson: Build more houses.

Thomas Sowell: And they'll appoint some blue-ribbon committee. It's like appointing a blue-ribbon committee to go out there and find out why the ground is wet after the rain. I think it's almost miraculous the way they can avoid the obvious.

Peter Robinson: So, Tom, if we were to apply the disparate impact standard to the question of the legal building regime in San Francisco, we would be forced to conclude that the devout liberals of San Francisco had enacted a soft version of Jim Crow.

Thomas Sowell: Absolutely. But they don't seem to ever get around to applying the disparate impact theory in those cases.

Peter Robinson: Okay. The great retrogression. This may be the biggest contrast between intentions and what emerged, and that is the way that circumstances for African Americans were starting to improve and then turned around. Poverty. Discrimination and Disparities. "The plain fact is that the black poverty rate declined from 87% in 1940 to 47% in 1960, prior to the expansion of the welfare state that began in the 1960s under the Johnson administration. There was a far more modest decline in the poverty rate among blacks after the war on poverty began." How could that have been?

Thomas Sowell: Well, it could be because the things that they thought were going to help did not help and, in many cases, made things much worse. One would be the welfare state, and the other would be things like minimum wages, which just priced people out of their jobs. It's amazing how that simple concept never seems to get through to so many people.

Peter Robinson: All right. Crime. And in this case, you're not only writing about African Americans but about low-income people generally. "In the United States, murder rates, rates of infection with venereal diseases, and rates of teenage pregnancies were among the social pathologies whose steep declines were suddenly reversed in the 1960s. Nowhere was rampant violence and other social pathology as common among low-income people in the first half of the 20th century, when they were more deprived, as in the second half, when the welfare state had made them better off in material terms." Again, it's not the intention of anybody enacting the welfare state to cause increases in violence, but it happened.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: What was the disconnect between intentions and what emerged?

Thomas Sowell: Oh, heavens. They misdiagnosed the causes of things, and, therefore, they misdiagnosed the effect to expect. For example, in the case of venereal diseases, sex education was introduced on a mass basis in the 1960s, and when the argument for doing it were, one, to reduce the level of venereal diseases and of teenage unwanted pregnancies, and both those things had been going down on their own. And by 1960, the rate of infection for venereal diseases was something like half of what it was in 1950.

Peter Robinson: Whoa.

Thomas Sowell: And then they bring in the sex education, and it turns around and shoots up among blacks. And the homicide rates among black males declined by 18% in the 1940s, by 22% in the 1950s, and then skyrocketed in the 1960s, wiping out all that progress. And they had a different view of the world, and their view just did not meet the test of time.

Peter Robinson: One more instance of this kind of retrogression, the family. Again, Discrimination and Disparities. I just find this heartbreaking. "As of 1960, two-thirds of all black American children were living with both parents. That declined over the years until only one-third were living with both parents in 1995. Among black families in poverty, 85% of the children had no father present." So it's not the legacy of-

Thomas Sowell: Slavery.

Peter Robinson: ... slavery that destroys the African American family.

Thomas Sowell: It's the legacy of the welfare state.

Peter Robinson: And by the way, we see illegitimacy rates rising among everybody.

Thomas Sowell: Yeah, and in other countries. Now, the very same thing in England.

Peter Robinson: And what's the mechanism? Why does the welfare state dissolve the family structure?

Thomas Sowell: For one thing, it makes it unnecessary for fathers to support their offspring. And in fact, it makes it counterproductive in many cases. A very poor man who might be able to support his family realizes his family will be better off without him. But on the other hand, someone who's strictly irresponsible, either the man or the woman or both, now pays no price for being irresponsible. The taxpayers pay the price. And actually, the harm done to the taxpayers, which is serious, still is not comparable to the harm done to the families, especially the children.

Peter Robinson: To the kids.

Thomas Sowell: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Yeah.

Thomas Sowell: Moynihan was excoriated for pointing this out.

Peter Robinson: 1965 ...

Thomas Sowell: The Moynihan-

Peter Robinson: The Moynihan Report.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: That's what ... The Moynihan Report.

Thomas Sowell: People took this as a way of putting down blacks. What they don't understand was that, one, Moynihan was a scholar who knew that his own group, the Irish Americans, had that very same problem at the beginning of the 20th century. And more importantly, Moynihan's own father deserted the family when he was 10 years old.

Peter Robinson: I didn't know that. I didn't know that.

Thomas Sowell: He and his brother were out shining shoes in Times Square and Central Park to try to bring in a few pennies to help keep the house going. So where they'd been living in this wonderful suburban area, suddenly they were in a very rough neighborhood, and they were shining shoes in Times Square to try to make ends meet. So he understood that this was one heck of a problem that people should be warned about, and he was simply excoriated.

Peter Robinson: Discrimination and Disparities. "Much of the social retrogression that took place is traceable to the central tenet of the prevailing social vision that unequal outcomes are due to adverse treatment of the less fortunate." Okay. So grant that argument that they're not paying attention, they're not attempting to square up intentions with what emerges, but here's the bit that's still baffling to me. You mentioned The Moynihan Report, where his central finding was, again, the breaking down of the black family, and the out-of-wedlock birthrate then was 25%, now it's over 70%. By the way, it's over 30% among whites now. That was more than 50 years ago. A half century of failing to try to align intentions with results. Why is it that we still have this prevailing social vision that seems not only not to ask what are results, are our fine intentions actually achieving the ends we wish for, but almost refuses to look at the massive evidence to the contrary?

Thomas Sowell: That it was counterproductive.

Peter Robinson: So what's going on?

Thomas Sowell: Why it was going on and among professional politicians is that it can be the end of a whole career to admit that you were wrong. Imagine you're president, and you send men into battle in a war, and they get wiped out, and you say, "You know, we really didn't have to fight that war." That is not something you're going to say. It's something you're not likely to say to yourself. There'll be 1,000 rationalizations, and the ability of the human mind to rationalize is just phenomenal.

Peter Robinson: All right. Marx and the kids. "The most spectacularly successful political doctrine in the 20th century was Marxism based on the implicit presumption that differences in wealth were due to capitalists growing rich by keeping the workers poor through exploitation." And what was wrong with that assumption?

Thomas Sowell: Well, it sounded good like so many others, but again-

Peter Robinson: And you speak as a former Marxist. You were a Marxist for a little-

Thomas Sowell: Yes. Oh, yes, yes.

Peter Robinson: You considered yourself a Marxist for some years.

Thomas Sowell: Yes, yeah. During the McCarthy era, by the way. But I am-

Peter Robinson: Tom Sowell, always swimming against the stream.

Thomas Sowell: It simply was never put to any test. Now, the test I suggested is a simple one, but it is a test. And if it's true that the rich are rich because they're keeping the poor poor, then in a country with lots of billionaires, you should correspondingly have great amounts of poor people. But if you compare the actual data, there are more billionaires in the United States than in Africa and the Middle East put together, and yet the standard of living of the poor in the United States is higher than that of people in Africa and the Middle East. So by that simple standard, it just doesn't hold up.

Peter Robinson: There are problems with the theory. A recent YouGov survey, the portion of baby boomers, that's my group, who hold favorable views of communism is just 4%. The proportion of millennials, that's my kids and your grandkids, who hold favorable views of communism is 19%.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Roughly one in five young Americans now holds a favorable view of communism. What do you do with that datum?

Thomas Sowell: Well, I think I get very pessimistic. More recently, during the election, all this enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders was taking place while people in Venezuela under a socialist government with lots of oil were-

Peter Robinson: A rich country. A rich-in-natural-resources country.

Thomas Sowell: ... rich-in-natural-resources country, were starving. They were breaking into grocery stores desperate to get food. They're going into other countries to try to find something to eat. And the two things never came together. And they saw socialism as an idea. Socialism has always been a wonderful-sounding idea. It's only when you put it into practice that you discover that there are real problems.

Peter Robinson: All right. Tom, when you were writing your column, every so often you would publish a column in which you described your column as "random thoughts on the passing scene." Last segment here, let's do a few random thoughts on the passing scene, all right? Listen to this list. The Thomas Sowell Reader, 2011. Intellectuals and Race, 2013. A new edition of your classic work Basic Economics in 2014. Wealth, Poverty and Politics, 2015. And now, 2018, Discrimination and Disparities. And do you know what I just did? I just listed the books you've published since turning 80. Tom, you haven't had anything to prove to anybody for at least three decades. What keeps you at it? Why do you work so hard?

Thomas Sowell: Well, I don't know.

Peter Robinson: I'm happy you do, you understand, but why do you?

Thomas Sowell: Well, I don't work nearly as hard because I discontinued the column. I did that after spending some time in Yosemite with a couple of photo buddies, and I realized in those four days we hadn't watched a single news program, we hadn't seen a single newspaper. I said, "This is the life." I don't need to be watching the ... Because most of the foolish things that are said on these programs were said 20 and 30 and 40 years ago and refuted 20 and 30 and 40 years ago.

Peter Robinson: By you, quite often.

Thomas Sowell: By me, but by many other people. I see this thing about women get only X-percent of what men get for doing the same job, and there've been studies, including studies done by women who have the courage to do these studies more so than men do, showing that, no, as you hold various things constant, whatever that percentage is begins to shrink and shrink and, in some cases, reverse. That among academic men and women, in the study that I did 40 years ago now, if you took never-married women in academia, they had a higher income than never-married men.

Thomas Sowell: And the data from not only from my study but a number of other studies show that the real difference is between women who are married and who become mothers and everybody else. And men who get married have higher incomes than men who have the same education, age, and so forth who don't get married. And women who get married have lower than women who don't get married. And of course, this is because of the division of labor within the home. And there are so many statistical mess-ups when they do these comparisons, I can't even get into them all.

Peter Robinson: But you're happier when you're not reading the news.

Thomas Sowell: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: But at the same time, you're also happier when you're working on a book.

Thomas Sowell: Yes, when I can go out there and get the hard data and find out what's really happening.

Peter Robinson: Got it. Got it. This is the mandatory subject: Donald Trump. During the presidential campaign, you wrote a column, this is when you still had your column, that appeared under the headline, "Choose Trump, he'd be easier to impeach." And you wrote that voters faced a choice between, I'm quoting you, "Two out-of-control people, one of whom is going to be president." And you said since Hillary Clinton would be the first woman chief executive, she'd be very difficult to impeach, but Trump would be easier to kick out, so vote for Trump. Now that he's been in office for a year, what do you make of him?

Thomas Sowell: Well, it's interesting. Oh, gosh. Let me say that just recently, Walter Williams sent me a video of Donald Trump in his mid-30s being interviewed, so I've had to back off on one of the things I've said, which is that Trump is someone who has simply never grown up. He was very grown up in his mid-30s.

Peter Robinson: Speaking of retrogression.

Thomas Sowell: It's scary because how many people are more mature in their mid-30s than they are at age 70?

Peter Robinson: All right.

Thomas Sowell: And given the trend line, how optimistic should we be about his becoming more grown up as time goes on?

Peter Robinson: All right. All right.

Thomas Sowell: In terms of the people he surrounded himself with, I think on the whole they're a better bunch than either of the last two presidents had, so he has very good people. I think that General Mattis as Secretary of-

Peter Robinson: Secretary of Defense.

Thomas Sowell: Yeah. But for other people around him, and their question is, "Is he going to listen to them?

Peter Robinson: All right. Let me play you a brief excerpt of Donald Trump himself. This is from the State of the Union address this past January.

Thomas Sowell: This'll be my first time to hear it.

Donald Trump: It's something I'm very proud of, African-American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Thomas Sowell: Oh, my.

Peter Robinson: He produces this ... Maybe this statistic isn't quite right. Either maybe there-

Thomas Sowell: No, it is. It is.

Peter Robinson: It is.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And there you see a shot. You see Republicans standing and applauding, and there you see a shot of Democrats who are sitting on their hands, including many members of the Black Caucus in Congress. What do you make of that?

Thomas Sowell: That, as with so many groups around the world, the leaders of groups that are lagging are often themselves one of the biggest handicaps for those groups because they have to depict the problems in ways that will allow them to play the role of rescuers. And so there'll be no talk about how you can do this or that for yourself. There'll be talk about what we can get the government to deliver for you. And usually, that's a lot of words and things that have bad effects. And that's true not only with blacks in the United States, it's true of people in the lower-income people in England and elsewhere.

Peter Robinson: So it's actually dangerous for less fortunate people to turn to politics-

Thomas Sowell: Oh, yes.

Peter Robinson: ... as a form of redress.

Thomas Sowell: No question about it. If you look in the United States or around the world, you think of spectacularly successful people, you can almost never name any prominent leader to whom that success can be attributed. I mean, what Asian leader had made Asia successful?

Peter Robinson: Well, the answer would be Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.

Thomas Sowell: Yes. Yeah.

Peter Robinson: What do you do with that example?

Thomas Sowell: That's the outlier.

Peter Robinson: Okay, all right, all right.

Thomas Sowell: Well, he didn't do that by championing their cause in Malaysia. He did it by taking charge of Singapore itself independently.

Peter Robinson: And creating free markets.

Thomas Sowell: That's right. But he never had to tell them that their problems were all caused by somebody else, and that's the first thing a "leader" has to do if he wants to remain a leader of some group that's lagging. I'm always amazed at countries that split apart where the poorest part of the country is the part that wants to split apart. I mean, the Slovaks are the ones who ...

Peter Robinson: They wanted to break away from Czechoslovakia.

Thomas Sowell: That's right. In Pakistan, it was the East Pakistanis, who were poorer than the West Pakistanis, who broke off to form Bangladesh. All of that helps the leaders; it does not help the people that they're leading.

Peter Robinson: All right. So politics actually provides perverse incentives-

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Particularly for the less fortunate.

Thomas Sowell: Yes, absolutely.

Peter Robinson: All right. Tom, reparations. We began by talking about disparate impact, the idea that discrimination is so deeply embedded in the American experience that it can take place even in the absence of an intention to discriminate. So this argument, which is that there's something, some basic flaw or sin that's still with us, comes up in the case for reparations. Longish quotation, but it sets something up, but from Ta-Nehisi Coates in an article in The Atlantic entitled, "The Case for Reparations," "White supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it. And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say — that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What I'm talking about is more than recompense for past injustices. What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal." And Tom Sowell makes what of that?

Thomas Sowell: I will explain that tells me I've made the right decision not to read The Atlantic for decades. Slavery is a very big subject. I have in my home an entire bookcase of nothing but books about slavery in various parts of the world in various times of history. And the sad fact is that slavery has been a universal institution for thousands of years, as far back as you could trace human history, and what we're looking at is if slavery is something that happened to one race of people in one country, when in fact the spread of it was around the world. In 1776, which is when Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, as well as when the United States got started, he said that Western Europe is the only place in the world where there is no slavery. And even the Western Europeans had vast numbers of slaves in the Western Hemisphere but not in Western Europe itself. So if you're going to have reparations for slavery, it's going to be the greatest transfer of wealth back and forth and cross-hauling, as they say in the railroads, because the number of whites, for example, who were enslaved in North Africa by the Barbary pirates exceeded the number of Africans enslaved in the United States and in the American colonies before that put together. But nobody is going to North Africa to ask for reparations because nobody is going to be fool enough to give it to them. Here, we have intellectuals who can imagine a different history from the rest of the world, even though it's so similar to the rest of the world.

Peter Robinson: Tom, would you close our program by reading a passage from your marvelous new book, Discrimination and Disparities?

Thomas Sowell: It's about people who want to redress the past. "The only times over which we have any degree of influence at all are the present and the future, both of which can be made worse by attempts at symbolic restitution among the living for what happened among the dead, who are far beyond our power to help or punish or avenge. Any serious consideration of the world as it is around us today must tell us that maintaining common decency, much less peace and harmony, among living contemporaries is a major challenge, both among nations and within nations. To admit that we can do nothing about what happened among the dead is not to give up the struggle for a better world but to concentrate our efforts where they have at least some hope of making things better for the living."

Peter Robinson: Dr. Thomas Sowell, author of Discrimination and Disparities, thank you.

Thomas Sowell: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge and the Hoover Institution, I'm Peter Robinson.

Peter Robinson: I'd love to keep you, but you need to go home to start your next book, Tom.