Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.

Race and Rhetoric

One of the things that turned up, during a long-overdue cleanup of my office, was an old yellowed copy of the New York Times dated July 24, 1992. One of the front-page headlines said: "White-Black Disparity in Income Narrowed in 80′s, Census Shows."

The 1980s? Wasn’t that the years of the Reagan administration, the "decade of greed," the era of "neglect" of the poor and minorities, if not "covert racism"?

More recently, during the administration of America’s first black president, a 2011 report from the Pew Research Center has the headline, "Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics."

While the median net worth of whites was ten times the median net worth of blacks in 1988, the last year of the Reagan administration, the ratio was nineteen to one in 2009, the first year of the Obama administration. With Hispanics, the ratio was eight to one in 1988 and fifteen to one in 2009.

Race is just one of the areas in which the rhetoric and the reality often go in opposite directions. Political rhetoric is intended to do one thing — win votes. Whether the policies that accompany that rhetoric make people better off or worse off is far less of a concern to politicians, if any concern at all.

Democrats receive the overwhelming bulk of the black vote by rhetoric and by presenting what they have done as the big reason that blacks have advanced. So long as most blacks and whites alike mistake rhetoric for reality, this political game can go on.

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Super Tuesday

Many people are looking to the many primary elections on March 6th — "Super Tuesday" — to clarify where this year’s Republican nomination campaign is headed.

It may clarify far more than that, including the future of this nation and of Western civilization. If a clear winner with a commanding lead emerges, the question then becomes whether that candidate is someone who is likely to defeat Barack Obama.

If not, then the fate of America — and of Western nations, including Israel — will be left in the hands of a man with a lifelong hostility to Western values and Western interests.

President Obama is such a genial man that many people, across the ideological space, cannot see him as a danger.

For every hundred people who can see his geniality, probably only a handful see the grave danger his warped policies and ruthless tactics pose to a whole way of life that has given generation after generation of Americans unprecedented freedom and prosperity.

The election next November will not be just another election, and the stakes add up to far more than the sum of the individual issues. Moreover, if reelected and facing no future election, whatever political constraints may have limited how far Obama would push his radical agenda will be gone.

He would have the closest thing to a blank check. Nothing could stop him but impeachment or a military coup, and both are very unlikely. A genial corrupter is all the more dangerous for being genial.

The four remaining Republican candidates have to be judged, not simply by whether they would make good presidents, but by how well they can cut through Obama’s personal popularity and glib rhetoric, to alert the voters as to the stakes in this year’s election.

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The Progressive Legacy: Part III

The same presumptions of superior wisdom and virtue behind the interventionism of Progressive Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the domestic economy also led them to be interventionists in other countries.

Theodore Roosevelt was so determined that the United States should intervene against Spain’s suppression of an uprising in Cuba that he quit his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to organize his own private military force — called "Rough Riders" — to fight in what became the Spanish-American war.

The spark that set off this war was an explosion that destroyed an American battleship anchored in Havana harbor. There was no proof that Spain had anything to do with it, and a study decades later suggested that the explosion originated inside the ship itself.

But Roosevelt and others were hot for intervention before the explosion, which simply gave them the excuse they needed to go to war against Spain, seizing Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Although it was a Republican administration that did this, Democrat Woodrow Wilson justified it. Progressive principles of imposing superior wisdom and virtue on others were invoked.

Wilson saw the indigenous peoples brought under American control as beneficiaries of progress. He said, "they are children and we are men in these deep matters of government and justice."

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The Progressive Legacy: Part II

"Often wrong but never in doubt" is a phrase that summarizes much of what was done by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the two giants of the Progressive era, a century ago.

Their legacy is very much alive today, both in their mindset — including government picking winners and losers in the economy and interventionism in foreign countries — as well as specific institutions created during the Progressive era, such as the income tax and the Federal Reserve System.

Like so many Progressives today, Theodore Roosevelt felt no need to study economics before intervening in the economy. He said of "economic issues" that "I am not deeply interested in them, my problems are moral problems." For example, he found it "unfair" that railroads charged different rates to different shippers, reaching the moral conclusion that these rates were discriminatory and should be forbidden "in every shape and form."

It never seemed to occur to TR that there could be valid economic reasons for the railroads to charge the Standard Oil Company lower rates for shipping their oil. At a time when others shipped their oil in barrels, Standard Oil shipped theirs in tank cars— which required a lot less work by the railroads than loading and unloading the same amount of oil in barrels.

Theodore Roosevelt was also morally offended by the fact that Standard Oil created "enormous fortunes" for its owners "at the expense of business rivals." How a business can offer consumers lower prices without taking customers away frombusinesses that charge higher prices is a mystery still unsolved to the present day, when the very same arguments are used against Wal-Mart.

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The ‘Progressive’ Legacy

Although Barack Obama is the first black President of the United States, he is by no means unique, except for his complexion. He follows in the footsteps of other presidents with a similar vision, the vision at the heart of the Progressive movement that flourished a hundred years ago.

Many of the trends, problems and disasters of our time are a legacy of that era. We can only imagine how many future generations will be paying the price — and not just in money — for the bright ideas and clever rhetoric of our current administration.

The two giants of the Progressive era — Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — clashed a century ago, in the three-way election of 1912. With the Republican vote split between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt’s newly created Progressive Party, Woodrow Wilson was elected president, so that the Democrats’ version of Progressivism became dominant for eight years.

What Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had in common, and what attracts some of today’s Republicans and Democrats, respectively, who claim to be following in their footsteps, was a vision of an expanded role of the federal government in the economy and a reduced role for the Constitution of the United States.

Like other Progressives, Theodore Roosevelt was a critic and foe of big business. In this he was not inhibited by any knowledge of economics, and his own business ventures lost money.

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The Anti-Romney Vote

A funny thing happened to Mitt Romney on the way to his coronation as the inevitable Republican candidate for President of the United States. Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado happened. Rick Santorum beat him in all three states on the same day — and beat him by huge margins in two of those states, as well as upsetting him in Colorado, where the Mormon vote was expected to give Romney a victory.

The Republican establishment, which has lined up heavily behind Romney, has tried to depict him as the "electable," if not invincible, candidate in the general election this November. But it is hard to maintain an aura of invincibility after you have been vinced, especially in a month when pundits had suggested that Romney might build up an unstoppable momentum of victories.

In a sense, this year’s campaign for the Republican nomination is reminiscent of what happened back in 1940, when the big-name favorites — Senators Taft and Vandenberg, back then — were eclipsed by a lesser known candidate who seemed to come out of nowhere.

As the Republican convention that year struggled to try to come up with a majority vote for someone, a chant began in the hall and built to a crescendo: "We want Willkie! We want Willkie!"

If there is a message in the rise and fall of so many conservative Republican candidates during this year’s primary season, it seems to be today’s Republican voters saying, "We don’t want Romney! We don’t want Romney!"

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A Defining Moment

Governor Mitt Romney’s statement about not worrying about the poor has been treated as a gaffe in much of the media, and those in the Republican establishment who have been rushing toward endorsing his coronation as the GOP’s nominee for president — with 90 percent of the delegates still not yet chosen — have been trying to sweep his statement under the rug.

But Romney’s statement about not worrying about the poor — because they "have a very ample safety net" — was followed by a statement that was not just a slip of the tongue, and should be a defining moment in telling us about this man’s qualifications as a conservative and, more important, as a potential President of the United States.

Mitt Romney has come out in support of indexing the minimum wage law, to have it rise automatically to keep pace with inflation. To many people, that would seem like a small thing that can be left for economists or statisticians to deal with.

But to people who call themselves conservatives, and aspire to public office, there is no excuse for not being aware of what a major social disaster the minimum wage law has been for the young, the poor and especially for young and poor blacks.

It is not written in the stars that young black males must have astronomical rates of unemployment. It is written implicitly in the minimum wage laws.

We have gotten so used to seeing unemployment rates of 30 or 40 percent for black teenage males that it might come as a shock to many people to learn that the unemployment rate for sixteen- and seventeen-year-old black males was just under 10 percent back in 1948. Moreover, it was slightly lower than the unemployment rate for white males of the same age.

How could this be?

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Getting Nowhere, Very Fast

California has a huge state debt and Washington has a huge national debt. But that does not discourage either Governor Jerry Brown or President Barack Obama from wanting to launch a very costly high-speed rail system.

Most of us might be a little skittish about spending money if we were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. But the beauty of politics is that it is all other people’s money, including among those other people generations yet unborn.

The high-speed rail system proposed for California has been envisioned as a model for similar systems elsewhere in the United States. A recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle used the high-speed rail system in Spain as an analogy for California.

Spain is about the same size as California, and has a similar population density — and population density is the key to the economic viability of mass transportation, from subways to high-speed rail.

It so happens that I have ridden on Spain’s high-speed rail system. It was very nice, especially since I did not have to pay the full costs, which were subsidized by the Spanish taxpayers.

While the Spanish government has been subsidizing the passengers on its high-speed rail system, the European Union has been subsidizing the Spanish government. Someone once said that government is the illusion that we can all live off somebody else. Spain’s high-speed rail system is not even covering its operating costs, never mind the enormous costs of setting up the system in the first place. One reason is that half the seats are empty in the high-speed trains in Spain.

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South Carolina Message

Just days before the South Carolina primary, polls showed Mitt Romney leading Newt Gingrich. Then came the debates and the question about Gingrich’s private life, which brought a devastating response from the former Speaker of the House — and a standing ovation from the audience.

Apparently the television audience felt the same way, judging by the huge turnaround in the support for Gingrich. The stunning victory in South Carolina brought Newt’s candidacy back to life.

But the message from South Carolina was about more than a reaction to how Gingrich dealt with a cheap shot question from the media. Nor was it simply the Republican voters’ response to Newt’s mastery as a debater.

The more fundamental message is that the Republican primary voters do not want Mitt Romney, even if the Republican establishment does — and it is just a question of which particular conservative alternative the voters prefer.

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