Thomas Sowell Explains The Economics Of Discrimination
At 88 years old, Thomas Sowell continues to demonstrate why he’s one of the most formidable intellects of the age. In Discrimination and Disparities, released earlier this year, Sowell rebuts common misconceptions regarding socioeconomic differences among individuals, groups, and nations, and demonstrates that disparities are often explained by economics.
For instance, emotionally loaded phrases like “systemic racism” and “exploitation” are frequently used to explain differences between blacks and whites, rich and poor, and even individual nations. But a better understanding of economics refutes these notions.
Sowell begins by noting there are different types of discrimination. Discrimination I he defines as “an ability to discern differences in the qualities of people and things, and choosing accordingly”—in other words, “making fact-based distinctions.” Discrimination II he defines as “treating people negatively, based on arbitrary assumptions or aversions concerning individuals of a particular race or sex, for example”—in other words, what most people mean today when they talk of “discrimination.”
Ideally, Discrimination I—judging each person individually—would be universally practiced. Rarely, however, is the ideal “found among human beings in the real world, even among people who espouse that ideal.” He gives an example:
If you are walking at night down a lonely street, and see up ahead a shadowy figure in an alley, do you judge that person as an individual or do you cross the street and pass on the other side? The shadowy figure in the alley could turn out to be a kindly neighbor, out walking his dog. But, when making such decisions, a mistake on your part could be costly, up to and including costing you your life.
In short, cost is the relevant factor when determining a course of action. The cost of Discrimination I—judging the person as an individual—may be prohibitively high in some cases, as when you approach a shadowy figure in a dark alley. But that does not mean that choosing to cross the street to avoid that shadowy figure is automatically Discrimination II—arbitrarily expressing antipathy toward a group.
As Sowell explains, in the case of crossing the street,
This is still Discrimination I, basing decisions on empirical evidence. But the distinction between the ideal version of Discrimination I—judging each individual as individual—and making decisions based on empirical evidence about the group to which the individual belongs is a consequential difference. We can call the ideal version (basing decisions on evidence about individuals) Discrimination Ia, and the less than ideal version (basing individual decision on group evidence) Discrimination Ib. But both are different from unsubstantiated notions or animosities.
Not All Discrimination Is Equal
In other words, discrimination based on factual generalizations (Discrimination Ib) is not the same as discrimination based on personal aversions to race, sex, etc. (Discrimination II). Indeed, evidence-based generalizations are used routinely, including by employers whose cost of judging everyone individually may be prohibitively expensive:
To take an extreme example of Discrimination Ib, for the sake of illustration, if 40 percent of the people in Group X are alcoholics and 1 percent of the people in Group Y are alcoholics, an employer may well prefer to hire only people from Group Y for work where an alcoholic would be not only ineffective but dangerous. This would mean that a majority of people in Group X—60 percent in this case—would be denied employment, even though they are not alcoholics. What matters, crucially, to the employer is the cost of determining which individual is or is not an alcoholic, when job applicants all show up sober on the day when they are seeking employment.
Critically, cost is not limited to employers:
[Cost] also matters to the customers who buy the employer’s products and to society as a whole. If alcoholics produce a higher proportion of products that turn out to be defective, that is a cost to customers … To the extent that alcoholics are not only less competent but dangerous, the costs of those dangers are paid by either fellow employees who fact those dangers on the job or by customers who buy dangerously defective products, or both.
Consider, says Sowell, a real-world example. A disproportionate number of young, black job applicants have criminal records, meaning that employers may turn them down at a higher rate, even if they have zero animosity toward them (Discrimination 1b).
Although this is less ideal than discerning each person individually (Discrimination Ia), higher rates of rejection cannot automatically be assumed to be “systemic racism” (Discrimination II), when discernment is based not on personal antipathy but on empirical generalization, even though that generalization does not apply to every individual within the group. In fact, employers who run background checks on all employees regardless of race hire more black males than do other companies. Sowell explains:
Where the nature of the work made criminal background checks worth the cost for all employees, it was no longer necessary to use group information to assess whether individual young black job applicants had a criminal background. This made young black job applicants without a criminal background more employable than before.
Moreover, understanding the economics is more than merely an academic exercise, when our understanding can make the difference between policies that hurt and help real people. Indeed, background checks have increased opportunity for black job seekers, yet many elites—including the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—have tried to prohibit employers from conducting background checks by suing in the name of “racial discrimination.” If they acquainted themselves with the facts, however, they may realize the folly of their actions and emotionally charged rhetoric.
The Left’s Intersectional Identity Politics Are Racist, Sexist, Anti-American Lies
Inez Feltscher Stepman 28, 2018
The language of intersectionality – speaking of racial, gender, or sexual identity as though those categories represent the most important aspects of a person – is taking over, not just on university campuses and in the legacy media, but also in Fortune 500 board rooms and across social media. Twitter even made its dedication to the academic theory official in its most recent rules update (the one that apparently got The Federalist’s hilarious Jesse Kelly the axe), which implies that abusive behavior on the platform is more consequential, and therefore more deserving of censure, when directed towards those with more intersectional oppressed class notches on their identity belts.
Having finally made it into the Oxford English Dictionary just three years ago, intersectionality is now the go-to explanation for everything from vote totals in the midterm elections to why some people are more interested in astrological superstitions than others.
But viewing human action as reducible to a series of checked boxes strips us of our individuality and rationality, and, oddly for a movement that claims that personal experience dictates worldview, even of how our unique life experiences (rather than those of a large group) have influenced our thinking. Intersectionality is aptly-named, for it reduces each of us to a plotted point on a series of identity axes, a collection of reactions to impersonal forces between large collectives. Not only is this lens for analyzing complex and whole human beings incredibly boring, it often produces one-dimensional, or even outright false assessments of motivations and actions.
Witness the rage on the left against what they see as a bloc of white women voting against the sisterhood by supporting Republicans in 2016 and 2018. A Vogue article after the midterm elections lamented white women’s failure to fall in line. Columnist Michelle Ruiz wrote, “White women voters are establishing themselves as maddeningly, confusingly … unsisterly.”
Twitter’s Trans-Activist Decree
On November 15, I woke up to find my Twitter account locked, on account of what the company described as “hateful conduct.” In order to regain access, I was made to delete two tweets from October. Fair enough, you might think. Concern about the tone of discourse on social media has been widespread for years. Certainly, many have argued that Twitter officials should be doing more to discourage the vitriol and violent threats that have become commonplace on their platform.
In this case, however, the notion that my commentary could be construed as “hateful” baffled me. One tweet read, simply, “Men aren’t women,” and the other asked “How are transwomen not men? What is the difference between a man and a transwoman?” That last question is one I’ve asked countless times, including in public speeches, and I have yet to get a persuasive answer. I ask these questions not to spread hate—because I do not hate trans-identified individuals—but rather to make sense of arguments made by activists within that community. Instead of answering such questions, however, these same activists insist that the act of simply asking them is evidence of hatred.
The statement that “Men aren’t women” would have been seen as banal—indeed, tautological—just a few years ago. Today, it’s considered heresy—akin to terrorist speech that seeks to “deny the humanity” of trans-identified people who very much wish they could change sex, but cannot. These heretics are smeared as “TERF”—a pejorative term that stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist—and blacklisted. On many Twitter threads, the term is more or less synonymous with “Nazi.” Earlier this year, Tyler Coates, an editor at the apparently respectable Esquire magazine, tweeted out “FUCK TERFs!” and promptly got retweeted more than a thousand times.
In many progressive corners of academic and online life, it now is taken as cant that anyone who rejects transgender ideology—which is based on the theory that a mystical “gender identity” exists within us, akin to a soul—may be targeted with the most juvenile and vicious attacks. “Punch TERFs and Nazis” has become a common Twitter tagline, as is the demand that “TERFs” be “sent to the gulag.” (This latter suggestion was earnestly defended in a thread authored by students who run the official Twitter account of the LGBTQ+ Society at a British university. The authors went on to say that the gulag model would, in fact, comprise “a compassionate, non-violent course of action” to deal with “TERFs” and “anti-trans bigots” who must be “re-educat[ed].”)
In other cases, attacks on “TERFs” take the form of taunts that one might hear in middle school. Last August, for instance, The Cut published a lengthy investigation into “TERF bangs.” The author, Amanda Arnold, claimed to be interested in how “short, chunky bangs” came to be wrongly associated with “TERFs”; but of course, the whole thing was a thinly veiled attempt to provoke catty disparagement of women who don’t toe the party line on gender mysticism. And while The Cut may be considered a vacuous fashion blog, it is a vacuous fashion blog run under the auspices of New York magazine.
The reason why engagement with the most militant trans activists is fruitless, and yields only a slew of empty mantras and false stereotypes, is that one cannot argue with religious faith. At the core of transgender ideology is the idea that the old mind/body problem that has bedeviled philosophers for centuries has been definitively solved by gender-studies specialists—and that a female mind can exist within a male body and vice versa. Moreover, we are informed that these mystical phenomena are invisible in all respects, except to the extent that they are experienced from within—which means the only reliable indicator of supposed bona fide transgenderism is the self-declaration of trans-identified individuals (many of whom seem to have made these stunning discoveries as part of a sudden social trend).
In March, the San Francisco Public Library hosted an art exhibitfeaturing the work of Scout Tran, founder of the Degenderettes, a trans activist group that has taken to showing up at LGBT and women’s events with baseball bats and mock-bloody t-shirts festooned with the words “I punch TERFs.” This is considered very edgy and progressive in the avant-garde scene. One trans exhibit included a display of these gore-themed shirts alongside baseball bats and axes, painted pink and blue. In case there was any doubt that these are intended to be viewed as weapons brandished in the prosecution of a culture war, some of the bats were wrapped in barbed wire—presumably as a threatened means to turn a regular old woman-beating into a maiming, or even a murder.
While it might comfort some to view these threats as performative or theoretical, that isn’t always the case. On May 29, a lesbian named Taelor Furry was beat up outside the Grey Fox Pub, a gay bar in St. Louis, Mo. Her attackers were queer-identified women who had accused Furry of being a “TERF.”
In April, a trans-identified biological male who goes by the name “Tara Wolf” was convicted of assault after beating 60-year-old Maria MacLauchlan, who had gathered with other women at Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park to discuss mooted gender-identity legislation. Prior to the gathering, this champion of progressive ideals had posted on Facebook, asking where the event would be taking place, as the assailant wanted to “fuck some TERFs up.”