Appreciating Walter 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.

These are the opening two paragraphs of David R. Henderson, “Appreciating Walter Williams,” Defining Ideas, January 22, 2021.

Another excerpt about Walter’s mischievous but also courageous streak:

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.’ ”

Also, a note about Walter following the logic to wherever it leads:

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!”

Read the whole thing.



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A Floor, A Hurdle, or Nonsense on Stilts?

Joe Biden has suggested that as our next president, among his first acts would be to boost the minimum wage level to $15 per hour.

In so acting he will be relying on the theory that this law is akin to a price floor. Raise it, and the compensation of all those now standing on it (those now being paid less than this amount, often at the $7.25 level mandated by present federal legislation) will in effect be able to hitch-hike on the increase, and now be paid at the rate of the aforementioned $15. Not that this level of remuneration is anything to write home about, but at least it beats the roughly half that amount, presently proscribed by law.

Why do most dismal scientists dismiss this justification as blithering economic illiteracy? This is because, if it were but the case, why stop the elevator at the 15th floor?  Why not raise the minimum wage, instead, to $150 per hour, or $1,500, or $15,000? If this theory were correct, if people could be made wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice by mere legislative enactment, why in bloody blue blazes settle for $15? If this theory were true, the entire case for foreign aid would vanish in smoke. Instead of shipping goods and services and money abroad, all we need to do is advise present recipients to implement a minimum wage law, and keep raising its level until poverty were ended in these countries. Yet no one, not even Bernie Sanders, advocates any such crazy thing.

Clearly, this theory is nonsense on stilts.

What then is the correct way to look at this matter? It is to see such legislation not as a rising floor, but rather as a hurdle over which a person has to jump in order to be employed in the first place.

Why is this? What determines wages?

In a word, productivity. LeBron James and Michael Milken earn high wages because they are tremendously productive. Hire one of them, and your revenues shoot through the roof. Middle class people also contribute to the GDP, but at a much more modest level. And the person who asks if you “Want fries with that?” or pushes a broom? He or she also does so, but again less so. Suppose a firm has 100 workers, and shows receipts of $10,000 for a certain time period. They hire the 101st employee, and total revenue rises to $10,010. The company properly attributes this rise to that additional member of the staff. His productivity is thus $10/hour.

What will his wage likely be? Well, there are only three possibilities. Either he will earn more than that, say, $12 per hour, exactly that amount, e.g., $10 per hour, or less than that, for example, $4 per hour. We can easily eliminate the first possibility. Any business paying $12 hourly to all their employees who bring in only $10 will face bankruptcy; they will lose $2 every hour, multiplied by their entire staff. But the $4 wage is not sustainable either. The firm will then garner a pure profit of $6 from his labor. Some competitor will offer $4.25; another $4.50 and we will be off to the races. No, the only equilibrium wage rate will be $10. This gives rise to the economic law that compensation tends to equal productivity. Will all those who contribute at that level earn exactly that amount? No, of course not. This theoretical bidding war is not costless. But there is a continual grinding market force that pushes wages in the direction of productivity. The two cannot long remain too far apart.

With a minimum wage of $7.25, will this person who can improve your bottom line by $10 get a job? He certainly has a good chance to do so. But what will ensue with a minimum wage of $15? Any firm foolish enough to hire him will now lose $5 per hour. Bankruptcy will ensue for such an employer, and unemployment for the would-be market participant. This legislation does not undergird wages, precluding very low compensation. Productivity, alone, does that. Before the advent of this law in 1938, people were earning compensation in accordance with their contribution to the bottom line.

It is no accident that the unemployment rate for teenagers is double that of people in their middle years. The former can undoubtedly jump higher over physical hurdles than the latter, but the reverse is true for economic barriers such as productivity levels. Also, black unemployment due to this law is twice that suffered by whites. Joblessness for black teens is quadruple that of white middle-agers. This has nothing to do with “privilege.” These statistics did not exist before this legislation was passed.

Should the minimum wage remain where it is at $7.25? No. Because the exact same analysis applies to those (mainly the mentally handicapped, but some severely physically handicapped), whose hourly productivity is $2, $4 or $6. They are now in effect totally frozen out of the labor market.

Why does this law exist given that it is so deleterious for the weakest economic actors? Northerners favor it since it enables them to better compete with lower skilled southerners. The minimum wage is a vicious, nasty, depraved law. It negatively impacts the “least, last and lost” amongst us. It ought to be repealed, and salt sowed where once it stood.

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Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: Other Civil Liberties

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is the 6th and final part. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. Part 5 is here.


M*A*S*H’s respect for civil liberties goes beyond people’s right to property and exchange. Freedom of speech and the press are lionized for protecting against government abuse (“For the Good of the Outfit,” “Are You Now, Margaret,” “Tell It to the Marines” [s. 9]); censorship is condemned and lampooned (“For the Good of the Outfit,” “The Moon Is Not Blue” [s. 11]); and religious freedom is revered (“Ping Pong” [s. 5], “A Holy Mess” [s. 10]).

Throughout the show’s run, bigotry is condemned. Racism is ridiculed (“L.I.P.” [s. 2],” “The General Flipped at Dawn,” “Yessir, That’s Our Baby,” “Bottle Fatigue” [s. 8], “The Tooth Shall Set You Free” [ s. 10]) and immigration is championed (“L.I.P.,” “Tell It to the Marines”). In “Dear Dad … Three” (s. 2), a wounded white soldier, Sgt. Condon (Mills Watson), warns the doctors to make sure he gets the “right color” blood. Hawkeye and Trapper decide to teach him a lesson, sneaking into the recovery room at night to dab the sleeping soldier’s skin with tincture of iodine. Worried that his darkening complexion indicates he has indeed been given the wrong blood, Condon confronts the doctors:


What are you guys tryin’ to do to me? Did you give me the wrong color blood?


All blood is the same.


You ever hear of Dr. Charles Drew?


Who’s that?


Dr. Drew invented the process of separating blood so it can be stored.




He died last April in a car accident.


He bled to death. The hospital wouldn’t let him in.


It was for whites only.


See ya, fella.


At the end of the episode, a wiser Condon thanks the surgeons “for giving me a lot to think about” and respectfully salutes nurse Ginger Bayliss (Odessa Cleveland), an African-American.

Sexism and sexual harassment are likewise treated with derision (“What’s Up, Doc?” “Hot Lips Is Back in Town” [s. 7], “Nurse Doctor” [s. 8]). In “Inga” (s. 7), Hawkeye —a notorious womanizer in the series’ early seasons — is agog over a visiting woman surgeon (Mariette Hartley) — until she shows him up in the operating room. Later, Margaret takes him to task for having a limited view of women:


You think a woman is dead until she lives for you. Well, let me tell you something, Benjamin Franklin: We actually survive without you.

We live, we breathe, we dream, we do our work, we earn our pay. Sometimes we even have our little failures, and then we pull ourselves together, all without benefit of your fabulous electric lips!

And let me tell you something else, buster! I can walk into that kitchen any time I want and replace those fabulous lips of yours with a soggy piece of liver!

M*A*S*H also respects the rights of homosexuals (“George,” s. 2) and the disabled (“Dear Uncle Abdul” [s. 8], “Run for the Money” [s. 11]). In “Morale Victory” (s. 8), Charles — a lover of chamber music — tries to help an injured soldier, David Sheridan (James Stephens), accept a permanent loss of dexterity in one hand even though Sheridan is a concert pianist. Charles introduces him to compositions written for one hand, explaining that the injury does not diminish who he is or his talent (and illustrates comparative advantage):


Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be.


Gift? You keep talking about this damn gift.

I had a gift, and I exchanged it for some mortar fragments, remember?


Wrong. Because the gift does not lie in your hands.

I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing.

More than anything in my life, I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift.

I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music.

You’ve performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin.

Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live.

Because the true gift is in your head, and in your heart, and in your soul.

Now, you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world — through the baton, the classroom, the pen.

As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one.


Classical liberals respect civil liberties because they appreciate the value — and even marvel at the wonder — of the individual. (In contrast, the non–classical liberal Frank Burns believes that “individuality’s fine, as long as we all do it together” [“George”].) This wonder is expressed in “Hawkeye” (s. 4), in which Hawkeye suffers a concussion while away from the unit and seeks help from a Korean family. Despite the language barrier, he keeps talking to stay awake, often falling into philosophizing:


Don’t you sometimes wonder about babies? I mean, how do they know what to do in there? They start out looking like little hairless mice, and they wind up looking like us.

How’s it all work?

I’ve held a beating heart in my hand. I’ve poked into kidneys and crocheted them together again. I’ve pushed air into collapsed lungs like beat-up old pump organs. I’ve squeezed and probed and prodded my way through hundreds of miles of gut and goo, and I don’t know what makes us live.

I mean, what keeps us in motion? What keeps the heart beating without anybody rewinding it? Why do the cells reproduce and re-re-reproduce with such gay abandon?

Did you ever see Ann Corio or Margie Hart? Strippers. … I remember Polly O’Day. She worked with a parrot. He didn’t help her strip or anything; while she got undressed, he stood on the side and talked dirty. It was an exciting act. What a body. She was built great, too.

But what I don’t understand is how she got that way, any more than how we did.

Look at your hand. It’s one of the most incredible instruments in the universe. Of all the bones in the body, one fourth are in the hand.

Forget the hand; look at your thumb, that wondrous mechanism that separates us from the other animals. The world-famous opposable thumb, that amazing device that has transported more students to college than the Boston Post Road. Ideal for sucking, especially as a baby. And lauded in song and story as the perfect instrument for pulling out a plum. Or, in the case of the Caesars, for holding it down for the gladiator to die, or holding it up, which means, “See you later at the orgy.”

My friends, for getting up and down the pike, in your pie, in your eye, I give you the thumb.

Have you any idea, Farmer Brown, of the incredible complexity of this piece of human apparatus?

You have no idea of the balletic interplay of parts that make up the human thumb. The flexor ossis metacarpi pollicis flexes the metacarpal bone. That is, draws it inward over the palm, thus producing the movement of opposition — and the Boy Scout salute.

Because of this magical engineering, we can do this. [Grasping a utensil.] And this. [Grasping a cup.] And this. [Making a fist.]

But our greatest triumph comes not from flexing the metacarpal bone and making a fist, which always seems to be thirsting to be clenched. No, no, no, no, no.

Our greatest moment is when we open our hand: cradling a glass of wine, cupping a loved one’s chin. And the best, the most expert of all, keeping all the objects of our life in the air at the same time. [Picking up three pieces of fruit.]

My friends, for your amusement and bemusement, I give you the human person. [Begins juggling the fruit.] Thumb and fingers flexing madly, straining to keep aloft the leaden realities of life: ignorance, death, and madness. Thus, we create for ourselves the illusion that we have power, that we are in control, that we are loved.


Weary Determination

Sadly, M*A*S*H seems out of step with today’s politics. In the America of the 1970s and ’80s and on through the end of the century, both the Democratic and Republican parties were liberal in the classical sense, believing in the value of the individual, the importance of civil liberties, and the benefits of the market. The parties did differ — vigorously — on where to draw certain lines: how big should the welfare state be and what should be required of beneficiaries, how muscular should foreign policy be, what tax rates should be. But those differences fit within a classical liberal philosophy. It’s no wonder that M*A*S*H found plenty of fans on both sides of that era’s red–blue divide.

Today, the show might not find a similar audience. Both ends of the American political spectrum have embraced illiberalism, demanding that speech and the press be constrained, denigrating religious differences, reanimating old bigotries, obstructing immigration, and clamping down on markets and private exchange.

For classical liberals, today’s politics are disturbing and exhausting. We feel a bit like the members of the 4077, who were tired of war, troubled by the horrors they witnessed, and desired the peaceful lives they led before Korea. But they rallied when they needed to. When the choppers and ambulances arrived laden with casualties, the 4077 determinedly carried out their medical duties. And when morale sagged, they found ways to boost it, often with a gag at the expense of some hypocrite, fool, or sadist who sorely deserved it.

And so, maybe classical liberals in the 21st century can rally in the face of today’s grim times — and at the expense of illiberals who deserve it. And, concerning this so-far-illiberal century, maybe we can be reassured by Colonel Potter’s words to an orphan boy in “Old Soldiers”: “You’re off to a kind of a rough start, but I bet you’ve got some glorious times ahead of you.”


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Cancelling David Hume

Daniel Johnson writes on our sister website, Law and Liberty, on David Hume and cancel culture. The University of Edinburgh “decided to rename the David Hume Tower, one of the best-known landmarks on its campus; it will henceforth be known as ‘40 George Square’.” The decision was taken because what Johnson calls “the fatal footnote – a brief sentence that to modern eyes seems unambiguously racist. His main argument is directed against Montesquieu’s claim that climate and other physical causes determine what we would call culture.”

The key argument by Johnson is at the end of his piece:

Was Hume more prejudiced than other thinkers of his day? Hardly: Voltaire and Kant, for example, were vicious anti-Semites. Or was he more complicit in the slave trade? No: Isaac Newton had been a large shareholder in the South Sea Company, which supplied slaves to Latin America. Hume’s compatriot, Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, accepted a post as a slave overseer in Jamaica, though he was unable to take it up. These and many other luminaries of the Enlightenment turned a blind eye to slavery and made no secret of their ethnic or religious antipathies. Yet none of them has been ‘cancelled’—at least, not yet.

Hume was unusual in only one respect: he confined his most odious prejudice to a single footnote.

This is a point what makes Edinburgh’s decision so astonishing. Hume was a highly original thinker, whose originality has little to do with his argument over persons of color. In a sense, this was actually nothing original: for once, the great philosopher somewhat echoed the prejudices of his time. Plus, nobody is reading Hume for *that* message: you cannot picture a thinker who is less likely to become popular among white suprematists or fascists of any sort.

Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that the new name of the building is strictly “geographical”: 40 George Square. But, as a Facebook friend of mine (alas I cannot remember whom!) pointed out, George Square is named after George III, whose reputation is not really that of a committed anti-racist.


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Implicit and Structural Witchery

You’re back in Salem during the 1690s.  After an exhaustive hunt for witches, the Lord High Witch Hunter files a bombshell report: Despite his best efforts, he’s failed to find any witches in Salem.  Don’t imagine, though, that the fight against witchery is over.  During his investigation, the Lord High Witch Hunter uncovered an enormous volume of “implicit witchery” and “structural witchery.”  For example, residents of Salem occasionally skip church, or lose interest during the sermon.  That’s implicit witchery, pure and simple.  Even worse, some leading merchants happily trade with Catholics and pagans.  That’s structural witchery at the highest levels of society.

If you’re part of this society, you’d better not laugh.  That’s implicit witchery, too.  For anyone else, however, the Lord High Witch Hunter’s report is absurd.  The magistrate launches a massive witchhunt.  He fails to detect actual witches.  So he redefines “witchery” as “Lack of single-minded devotion to my faith.”  Why bother with this farce?  To make a thinly-veiled threat:  If you’re not part of the solution to witchery, you’re an implicit/structural witch.  And will be burned like a witch.

Similarly, imagine that during the McCarthy era you fail to uncover any actual Communists.  The Lord High McCarthyite could admit he was wrong, but where’s the fun in that?  Wouldn’t it be better to declare that you’ve discovered a massive dose of “implicit Communism” and “structural Communism”?  As long as your society fears you, anything could count.  Perhaps support for progressive taxes is implicit Communism.  Perhaps the overrepresentation of left-wing academics in state-funded universities is structural Communism.  Yes, you can cry, “Bait-and-switch.”  But that sounds dangerously close to implicit Communism.

Or suppose you’re in modern Iran.  The Lord High Inquisitor hunts for atheists, but can’t find any.  So he declares war on implicit atheism and structural atheism, which abound even in the Islamic Republic.  Shocking?  Not really, because almost anything qualifies as implicit atheism or structural atheism.  If this is such an obvious scam, how come hardly anyone in Iran says so?  Fear.  Minimizing the danger of implicit atheism is a prime example of implicit atheism.

In the modern West, hardly anyone worries about in-the-flesh witches, Communists, or atheists, much less implicit or structural versions of these creeds.  But that’s because the targets have changed, not because the age of moral panic is over.  And while the list of targets is long, racists and sexists are plainly at the top.  The most obvious result is that people spend ample time trying to find racist and sexist individuals.  In practice, however, this is as frustrating as trying to find witches in Salem.  People today are about as likely to declare themselves racists and sexists as people in 17th-century Massachusetts were to declare themselves brides of Satan.  Part of the reason, no doubt, is fear; avowed racists do get punched in the face, after all.  The main reason, though, is that almost no one sympathizes with creeds that almost everyone hates.

So what are you supposed to do if you want to continue the good fight against social ills you’ve already practically driven to extinction?  Move the goalposts all the way to Mars.  These days, the world’s best detectives would struggle to find outright racists and sexists.  Yet implicit racism, structural racism, implicit sexism, and structural sexism will always be in plain sight, because the definition expands as the phenomenon contracts.


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Benjamin Boyce Interviews Adrian Lee Oliver

As regular readers of my posts know, I have little patience for long interviews. But I was blown away by this one. It’s the best interview I’ve seen in 2020.

I hadn’t heard of either Boyce or Oliver before, but from now on, whenever I see their names, I’ll pay attention.

I was so enthralled by the first 37 minutes that I forgot to time stamp things. So this time stamping will be rough up until the 38th minute.

In the first 30 minutes or so, Oliver talks about what it was like to grow up as a black kid facing extreme discrimination and racism in America. And not 1940s or 1950s America, but America of the 1990s and early 2000s. In one story he tells how he won over a white racist in school. Really neat story.

38:00: Why the cops suddenly apologized for torturing him. Hint: nepotism.

39:50: Why what’s going on with cops is not systemic racism. Many of them would like to treat everyone badly, but their statistical analysis stops them with certain groups.

41:38: The left’s preemptive strike against expertise and the recent Steven Pinker attack.

46:45: How what the left is doing could lead to an even more virulent and wider spread white nationalism.

57:00: We need arenas for the non-political. (By the way, my own is pickle ball. Political conversations are actively discouraged.)

59:00: Oliver makes a fantastic point about the failure of Communism.

1:03:40: Being in a cult isn’t fun.

1:14:50: We need to be ruthless against bad ideas but not against the people who hold them.

HT2 Bob Murphy.


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Discrimination and State Power

Reading a column by Karen Attiah in the Washington Post (“Monuments of White Supremacy Obscure the History of Colonial Crimes. That’s Why They Must Come Down,” June 13, 2020), I remembered the guy who defended the state by asking, “If the state did not exist, who would have abolished slavery?” The real question is, of course, “If the state did not exist, who would have protected slave owners with overwhelming monopolistic force?” The guy should have known Article IV, Section 2 of the US Constitution about fugitive slaves, which remained in force until the 13th Amendment in 1865:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Most of Ms. Attiah’s column can be read as a justified attack on the governments who financed and enforced racial discrimination, not only by erecting statues but in more direct ways. She mentions Belgian king Léopold II, a “brutal colonial ruler” whose

claim to genocidal fame was his orchestration of mass violence against the people in the Congo, a large portion of which he considered his personal territory for cultivating and exporting rubber and ivory.

She also writes:

Powerful governments erased the contributions of black people, the customs and traditions of native populations during colonization—and then whitewashed the evidence of the great harm done to these communities.

She ignores many things, though, such as zoning laws, which were originally adopted to prevent black Americans from using their economic freedom to move into white neighborhoods and which continue incognito to play that function today. (See my Regulation review of Jonathan Rothwell’s recent book, A Republic of Equals: “The One-Percenter State,” Regulation, Spring 2020; and my Econlog post “Rothwell Si, Piketty No!”  But, to be fair to Ms. Attiah, one can’t talk about everything in one column.

Still, I suspect Ms. Attiah is not a closet anarcho-capitalist, because such people are rather rare at the Washington Post. But if what she wants to defend is individual liberty instead of group identity, she might want to reflect on the following classical-liberal principle and apply it also to other issues than race: Grant to the state only powers that would not be dangerous if the worst racist (or hater of any minority) came to its helm. Who knows, you might not always be in a group preferred by the government.


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AEA Hides Its Racist Past


I posted on Thursday about the fact that the officers and governance committees of the American Economic Association don’t know much about the literature on the economics and discrimination. In their statement, they wrote:

We recognize that we have only begun to understand racism and its impact on our profession and our discipline.

I had thought at the time that they were simply ignorant of the literature. But it may be worse.

Commenter Richard Ebeling pointed out something I had missed: the AEA’s statement linked to literature on the “History of race and racism.” Take a look. Some of the items are excellent. The Richard Rothstein book, The Color of Law, is an example. I reviewed it positively here. Also, they recommend the movie Just Mercy, which my wife and I saw last month, and which is excellent. But the fact that they came up with a list would suggest that they did some kind of search. Where is the mention of work by Gary Becker or Thomas Sowell? Or how about work by Kenneth Arrow or Thomas Schelling?

And, most important, given that the list is presented by the AEA, where is the literature on Richard Ely, one of the founders, and the first secretary, of the American Economic Association, and a renowned racist? It’s not as if he hasn’t been studied. Princeton University economist Thomas C. Leonard wrote an excellent book, Illiberal Reformers, in which he documents the views of Ely and other Progressives. Ely called blacks people who “are for the most part grownup children, and should be treated as such.”

The straightforward way to deal with the AEA’s racist past would be to acknowledge it. There’s lots to choose from. How about, for example, the time (1888) when the AEA “offered a prize for the best essay on the evils of unrestricted immigration?” (The quote is from Leonard’s book on p. 143.) A lot of the anti-immigrant sentiment at the time, Leonard notes, was based on race.

Or how about Ely’s hostility to Chinese immigrants? He wrote:

[T]he fullest unfolding of our national faculties requires the exclusion of discordant elements—like, for example, the Chinese. (1894, “Thoughts on Immigration, No. I”) [quoted in Clifford F. This and Ryan Daza, “Richard T. Ely: The Confederate Flag of the AEA?Econ Journal Watch, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 2011, pp: 147-156.]

Or how about the fact that from 1962 to 2020, a prestigious lecture held every year at the annual AEA meetings was the Richard T. Ely lecture? To its credit, the AEA has suddenly deleted Ely’s name in the last few days. To its discredit, it says nothing about why.

Are we to believe that the AEA officers are ignorant of all this? One tell is that, as noted, they deleted the “Richard T. Ely” identifier from the annual lecture. Why do that suddenly if not for the fact that they do know something about the AEA’s racist past?

Of course, it’s possible that some of the AEA officers are ignorant. If so, I would recommend that they start with Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers. And if are unwilling to take the time to read it, at least they should put in on their own reading list.

Here’s Russ Roberts’ interview of Leonard.

Here’s Arnold Kling’s review of Leonard’s book.



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Why We Need to Keep Talking About George Floyd

I must begin by pointing out that this is really not what I wanted to be writing about. This is EconLog, for crying out loud; a virtual property of Econlib.  They don’t just let anyone natter on here, and for that reason, I would rather my introduction to the readers here be a message of freedom and hope. It was a mere few days ago that NASA launched a rocket built by SpaceX into space, ferrying humans to the International Space Station from American soil for the first time since 2011, signaling the successful culmination of a public-private partnership (sort of) that may one day see mankind colonize the stars.  But…I can’t engage you in a whimsical fantasy of our descendants enjoying Andorian ale in a bar on the joint colony at Titan.

Those of us tethered to the ground have been subject to pandemics, government overreach, massive loss of employment…and then there’s George Floyd. Those of us possessed of the masochism inherent in formal training in the social sciences have an obligation to review the world as it is, making data-driven observations, providing deep analysis of proximate causes, and generating recommendations aimed at making improvements and finding solutions. This last is the most difficult, because in matters involving race, I don’t necessarily know that here are any solutions outside of “we all need to be better.” Nor, in truth, am I an indifferent observer. As an African American myself, I have known too many George Floyds to remain indifferent.

It must be noted that the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers, and the resultant riots raging across the American landscape aren’t entirely about race. As Reason’s Christian Britschgi has so ably observed, a combination of coronavirus lockdowns, joblessness, and other related factors combined to form a perfect soup that boiled over the day Derek Chauvin and his cohorts essentially strangled Floyd to death. This, however, is an outcome, not a cause. While this matter isn’t entirely about race, it’s still about racial relations in America. As ostensible thinkers in the classical liberal tradition, those of us dedicated to the natural rights of all men often shrink from in-depth discussion of such matters, when we may be the only parties left with any shred of moral authority to lead the charge.

So, we’re going to have that discussion, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. We’re going to discuss public choice and path dependencies. The ruinous War on Drugs and its unholy offspring, the carceral state, are also on the docket.  Institutional bias, uneven enforcement of laws that, by all right, shouldn’t even be laws…they’re on the table as well. The first step to solving a problem is admission that the problem exists, and we’re going to get to the root of it.  We’re going to analyze through the filters of economics, sociology, political science, history…because we must. To channel Acemoglu, history happens when critical junctures mate with institutional drift, giving birth to persistent paradigms.  We are, as the fires attest, at a critical juncture. To create new paradigms, we must facilitate changes within our institutions.

I will, of course, talk about other things. It is an honor for me to be here, and this isn’t the only issue that needs discussion. Nevertheless, this will be an ongoing conversation, and it is my hope that both author and readers benefit from it. The American apartheid system known as Jim Crow was relegated to the dustbins of history because men and women of good conscience did not bury their heads in the sand at a critical juncture in time, but the work is not yet done. It is up to us to find its completion, so that we can truly fulfill the obligations inherent in our credo “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”



Tarnell Brown is an Atlanta based economist and public policy analyst.


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