Glenn Cartman Loury is an economist, academic, and author. In 1982, at the age of 33, he became the first Black tenured Professor of Economics in the history of Harvard University. He is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University, and currently hosts a podcast called “The Glenn Show” on bloggingheads.tv.
Guest interviewer Glenn Yu ’20 is the founder of WeFlop, an early-stage online poker platform that enables people to operate, customize, and monetize their own competitive online poker casinos. He graduated in 2020 with a B.A. in Economics and English.
*An abridged version of this interview was originally published in City Journal.
Glenn Yu: I’ve asked to speak to you because I find myself in the awkward position of being at once uncomfortable with the liberal stance on race that seems to altogether deny the disturbing underlying reality of the Black experience today — a reality I’m sure we will speak about at length in this interview — while also being uncomfortable with the conservative stance that, in its willful acceptance of this reality, seemingly confers no meaningful solutions to it, all while disdaining the protests in such a manner that makes it hard for me to believe that they have any empathy for problems and dysfunction at which they so readily point.
Beyond all of these first-order confusions, I am also confused about whether it’s even my place to talk about these issues. How could it be that I, some random Asian kid quarantined in Kentucky, am more correct about these issues than anyone else? How could it be that I understand these communities better than they understand themselves?
Glenn Loury:Well, I can’t exactly answer that question, but I can make a comment, and the comment I’ll make is philosophical. If we were going to try to be systematic and rigorous in developing a theory — an epistemology, or a theory of knowledge — to know what it would mean to know something, we would have to develop a theory about the question of experience, the authority of experience, and the personalization of it. I happen to take a rather strict view that regards with suspicion the assertion of authority in the realm of knowledge based upon identity, or based upon Blackness.
Let’s take this example. Were the actions we’ve all seen of the police officer in Minneapolis, Derrick Chauvin, expressions of racial hatred? I happen to think that we have no reason to suppose that about him, absent further evidence. There are plenty of alternative accounts that could be given from negligence to him just being a mean son of a bitch. Sure, we could project a motive onto him, onto the expression on his face, onto his smirk; we could feed thoughts into his head that make him symbolically emblematic of a certain trauma or sickness in American society, and this all may or may not be true. It might be true! But it might not be. You may or may not have an opinion about that, but suppose the question were to arise in the dorm room late at night. Suppose you have the view that you’re not sure it’s racism, and then someone challenges you, saying you’re not Black. They say, you’ve never been rousted by the police. You don’t know what it’s like to live in fear. How much authority should that identitarian move have on our search for the truth? How much weight should my declarations in such an argument carry, based on my Blackness? Now, what are we talking about here? What is Blackness? What do we mean? Do we mean that his skin is brown? Or, do we mean that he’s had a certain set of social class-based experiences like growing up in a housing project? Well, white people can grow up in a housing project too. There are lots of different life experiences.
I think it’s extremely dangerous that people accept without criticism this argumentative authority move when it’s played. It’s an ad hominem move. We’re supposed to impute authority to people because of their racial identity? I want you to think about that for a minute. Were you to flip the script on that, you might begin to see the problem. What experiences are Black people unable to appreciate by virtue of their Blackness? If they have so much insight, maybe they also have blind spots. Maybe a Black person could never understand something because they’re so full of rage about being Black. Think about how awful it would be to make that move in an argument. How unreasonable. Suppose someone, a white guy, is arguing about affirmative action with me. Suppose they think that affirmative action is undignified because they think that positions should be earned, not given, but they don’t expect me to understand that argument because I’m Black. That would be terribly unreasonable — even ‘racist.’ It would certainly be very pernicious, yet I’m hard-pressed to see the difference.
Hundreds of thousands of people are protesting George Floyd’s death, as well as broader issues having to do with the structure of American society. On June 1, President Christina Paxson wrote a letter to the Brown community indicting the structures of racism and prejudice that she and most on the Left claim to be at the basis of American society. A few days later, you wrote and published your challenge to this letter. Why?
If My Dear Colleague, Christina Paxson, Professor of Economics, as well as President of this University, were simply to have said, “Dear colleagues, I have been pondering the events of the last few days and weeks, and it has brought me to a set of conclusions that I want to share with you from my heart,” and then she proceeded to do so, I would not have written to my friend, nor would I have made public what I wrote, which was printed in the City Journal. I wouldn’t have done it because she’s entitled to her opinion. But that’s not what happened. What happened was a letter signed by the President and cosigned by the Provost. It was signed by the Senior Vice President for Administration, by the Senior Vice President for Finance, by the person in charge of Advancement and Development for the University. It was signed by the University’s General Counsel, by the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, and by every other functionary all the way down the line to the Dean of the School of Public Health. They signed a political letter.
The letter is surely political. These events don’t speak for themselves. Americans disagree about Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is not axiomatic. They represent a particular thrust in American politics. We can talk about it. I’m not without sympathy for the struggle for racial justice, but I have severe disputes with people when it comes to interpreting what’s going on in American cities. The letter doesn’t mention the fact that it’s dangerous on the streets of many inner-city neighborhoods where police have to operate every day, that there are a lot of weapons out there, or that the homicide rate is extraordinarily high and that most of the people committing the homicide are Black. Now, imagine that I wrote not a Left letter, but a Right letter. “I think the Blacks are complaining too much.” Suppose I wrote that letter and I had everybody in the administration sign it. So, it’s a political statement. It may be a very sympathetic and a very persuasive statement, but it’s political! Universities ought not to be political in this sense. When I got that letter signed by everybody on the payroll of this University who gets paid above $400,000 a year, I thought: This is thought-policing. They’re telling us what to think. They’re saying that this is what “Brown values” require one to think. They’re speaking about a “We” with a capital W, and it’s including everybody. Well, actually, it didn’t include me! So, I object. I object to the very soft tyranny of having political postures put forward as self-evident truths to which every decent member of this community should subscribe. I object to that. That’s the last thing that a university should be doing. It’s malpractice. It is administrative malpractice of this precious institution for it to be swept along by political fad and fancy, and then have the assent of every administrator, in lockstep, without any dispute among themselves. This is horrible, I thought. I thought the propagation of such groupthink at our University was just horrible. I’m sorry, I know this will seem a bit hysterical, but I felt violated by the letter, because it was trying to tell me what to think. And not only that. It was also, in effect, telling me what I can say in my classes without contravening “Brown values.” It was telling me what I can and cannot write, what I can and cannot pronounce in my public statements if I wish to remain a member in good standing in this community. That is an outrage, in my opinion.
President Christina Paxson has a point of view about racism that it is structural. How does your definition of racism disagree with that definition? If structural racism is not responsible for levels of crime and poverty and Black communities, what is?
Well, I want to be very respectful because the discourse has taken a certain turn and people use these words casually but let me try the following. Something like seven in ten children born to an African American woman in this country are born to a woman who doesn’t have a husband. I don’t have an opinion about whether that’s right or wrong morally. But I do have a question about whether that’s at all relevant to aggressive behavior by male adolescents in American cities. I don’t know. I’m not making a claim that it is. But let’s just say I’m asserting that it could be. Suppose it’s the case that the vast majority of incidents where police violence has been used against Black men are incidents where there was resistance to arrest. No, you did not hear me say that his resisting arrest justified killing him. But aggressive behavior is relevant to the dynamic of social interaction that may result in him being killed! Surely, it’s relevant.
People cry, “structural racism.” Is that why the homicide rate is an order of magnitude higher amongst young Black men? They say structural racism. Is that why the SAT test score gap is as big as it is? They say structural racism. Is that why two in three Black American kids are born to women without a husband? Is it all about structural racism? Is everything structural racism? It has become a tautology explaining everything. All racial disparities are due to structural racism, evidently. COVID comes along and there’s a disparity in the health incidence. It’s due to structural racism. They’re naming partners at a New York City law firm and there are few Black faces. Structural racism. They’re admitting people to exam schools in New York City and the Asians do better. This has to be structural racism with a twist — the twist being that this time the structural racism somehow comes out favoring the Asians.
This is not social science. This is propaganda. It’s religion. People are trying to win arguments by using words as if they were weapons. They point to history. But the history is complicated. Yes, there was slavery. Yes, there was segregation. Yes, there was redlining. There were a lot of other things too. A lot of things happened in American history. Is the relatively marginal position of African Americans taken as a whole within the American political economy a causal result of Jim Crow segregation? Nobody knows the answer to that question. I’m not saying that you won’t find examples, many examples for that matter, of patterns or practices of racial mistreatment in history, but I’m saying that the link between them and the contemporary circumstances of African American communities, especially at the bottom end, remains to be established.
And just so I don’t sound like a right-winger, observe that if I were a Marxist, I’d be furious at these people going around talking about “structural racism.” Structure, yes. Racism, no. Because if I were a Marxist, which I am not, I’d understand the driving force of history to be the interaction between class relations and the means of production — the struggle between workers and capital in the quest for profit, given the logic of capitalism. That, although I don’t subscribe to it, is at least an intellectually serious theory. I know what people are talking about when they say we need more unions, when they say we need to break up big companies, when they say that the accumulation of wealth has gotten too great. When someone says that the logic of profit-seeking leads to war, at least I know what they’re talking about. I don’t necessarily have to agree with Das Kapital to understand that it’s a serious engagement with history. Structural racism is a bluff. It’s not an engagement with history. It’s a bullying tactic. It’s, in effect, telling you to shut up. It’s telling you don’t inquire too closely into what the actual dynamics are because there could be responsibility enough to go around here.
Take structural racism’s narrative of incarceration. It’s supposed to be self-evident that if there’s a racial disparity in the incidence of punishment from law-breaking, then the law is illegitimate. Well, an alternative hypothesis is that, for reasons that we could perhaps spend a whole lot of time pursuing, behaviors are different. Behaviors that bear on law-breaking are different between races, on average. Violence is one behavior, but it’s not the only one I’m talking about. People have tried to do these studies. They’ve examined whether or not policing practices can accommodate disparity in arrest rates. They’ve examined whether or not court dispositions are somehow structurally biased, finding Blacks guilty when whites would have been found innocent; whether or not judges systematically pronounce longer sentences for Blacks than for whites. And, the net result of that inquiry is, no. No. You cannot get off first base trying to account for the racial disparity in incarceration rates, or in the purported behavior of police courts or parole boards, by reference to racial discrimination, Michelle Alexander notwithstanding. I’m not saying there’s no discrimination, but you can’t get anywhere close to explaining the outsized disparity with the explanations they give. There are many disparities, and for every disparity, there are a boatload of alternative explanations that one can bring to bear, but “structural racism” doesn’t even attempt to provide an explanation. It attempts to rhetorically maneuver you into a corner so that you have to concede that some disparity is not the fault of the people who suffered the condition at hand.
What is it about your psychology, your upbringing, or your research experience that has led you to have such a divergent perspective on these issues?
What kind of question is that? You might as well ask why they don’t agree with me. Why do you have to become a psychological defect to think what I think? I don’t want to duck the question, but I want to register my objection to the question before I address it.
Okay. I was a Reagan conservative in the 1980s. I’m in my 70s. I’ve had decades of experience as an outsider. I was ostracized, man. When I got to Harvard in the 80s, I was the first Black tenured Professor in the Economics Department, and all my colleagues around the University, especially the liberal and Black ones, were so happy there was going to be a Black person in the Economics Department. I was going to be a colleague, a part of the team, a part of Afro-American Studies. But, I found myself attracted to both the neoliberal and neoconservative arguments at the time. I got intellectually persuaded by the neoliberals that markets were good and that the pursuit of profit was not the worst thing. For the neoconservatives at the time, the big issue was what to do about the cities, what to do about social policy and welfare. I was influenced by this group of people when I got to Harvard in the 80s, and before I knew it, I was buddies with William Kristol, Bill Bennett and others on the Right.
My colleagues just went ballistic. My liberal, Black colleagues thought I was a sellout. One of them was the late Martin Kilson. Well, for decades, he called me “a pathetic Black mascot for the Right.” They wouldn’t invite me to dinner parties anymore. I was a pariah. And then, of course, I had a public humiliation and a fall. You know, I got into trouble. I had to withdraw from government office. I was scandalized. But all of that trauma led me to become very comfortable with being an outsider. I became a Christian. I was born-again and baptized at the age of 40. I was a Bible-believing Christian. I served on Charles Colson’s Board of Directors of the Prison Fellowship Ministries in the 1990s. I was right there with them at the prayer meetings. I’m used to being out there on my own.
I tried, man, I really tried to get behind affirmative action. I tried. I tried to get behind the idea that mass incarceration is nothing but systemic racism and we all have to stop it and let’s not talk about Black on Black crime. I tried. I gave a whole Tanner Lecture, one of the most prestigious lectures in social philosophy that you could be invited to give, at Stanford, with Nobel laureates and philosophers and ethicists and lawyers and whatnot in the audience, and I stood up there for two days ranting about incarceration, how bad it was. But no matter how I tried, I could not change my conviction, at the end of the day, that affirmative action is undignified. It is, in the long run, inconsistent with equality. It’s a bad thing. Yes, I agree that we have too many people in jail in America. Yes, the way we use law enforcement to deal with our problem of social control is off base. We’ve got a quarter of the incarcerated people on the planet here in the United States even though we’re only 5% of the population. That’s too many people in prison. Yeah, I did (and do) think that, but I couldn’t change the way I thought that Black crime — I’m sorry I know you’re not supposed to even use these words — was, is, an independent problem blighting the lives of millions of people. Have you been reading the reports about who got killed last weekend in Chicago? Children are being shot with bullets flying left and right. There was a guy in the car with his three-year-old in the backseat. The kid is dead because of a stray bullet. Another woman sitting on her couch, her daughter sitting next to her, and now they’re dead because gangbangers are going down the street popping guns out the windows. I don’t want to dwell on that. I don’t want to make any more of it than is warranted. Mass incarceration is just one kind of problem, but there are some problems of social control. There are some problems with aberrantof aberrant behavior. There are problems of behavioral pathology. What? I can’t talk about them?
With the 1619 Project, now they’re getting into interpretations of American history, but all I see is fad and fancy. I see avoidance. The problems of social exclusion, marginality, failure, dysfunction, self-inflicted wounds — these problems here are absolutely massive. And, here we are. The year is 2020. The Civil Rights movement exists as a distant memory, a half-century in the past, yet here we are, and it’s all the same: Watts 1965, LA 1992, Ferguson 2014, Baltimore, 2014, Minneapolis 2020. Here we are in the same situation. You know, I’m frustrated. I’m angry. So, I’m self-sufficient, and I feel — you know, it’s a spiritual metaphor but I don’t say this as a religious person — I feel called to play a certain kind of role at this point, and I’m going to do it.
My previous question was poorly structured, so let me rephrase. In a lecture you gave for the Watson Institute a few years ago, you detail a formative moment for you, a meeting you had in DC with Black leaders years ago wherein you made Coretta Scott King cry. In your description of that event, you said that you went in there thinking that once they knew the facts, they would have to agree with you. But, they didn’t. So, perhaps a better way of phrasing the question is: Are people disagreeing with you because they don’t have the same information or statistics as you? Or, are these differences merely ideological?
Everybody pretty much has the same information available to them, but people are very selective — and I guess I have to include myself in that, although I hope not to be too much so — of what information they avail themselves. There’s also a confirmation bias problem that we all suffer from where we want to pay attention to evidence that confirms our prior beliefs and disattend evidence that contradicts them. Let’s take the question of the police use of lethal force. Do they use lethal force in a manner that is systematically racially biased? There are studies out there, and it’s not the kind of question you’re going to definitively answer with a single study, but the accumulation of people’s careful investigations should bear on what we think about the question. Nevertheless, I don’t think people care what’s on the appendices of these studies. I don’t think they care what attention went into the accumulation of the data set at the basis of the statistical analysis. I think they cherry-pick. Here’s Roland Fryer, for instance, who has got this controversial paper regarding police use of force in American cities, where he finds no racial differences between police use of lethal force once you’ve controlled for the circumstances of the situation. As I follow the discussion on Econ Twitter, Facebook, and popular media, Fryer is portrayed in two distinct ways. He is either, from a Heather McDonald point of view, a white knight riding in with the facts that finally prove what she’s been saying all along, or he’s a traitor sensationalist who wants to get famous by telling the white people what they want to hear. After some engagement with the details, I personally think Fryer has the better of the arguments. I think he raises very legitimate questions about how important the circumstances are of each encounter that led the police officer to use deadly force in that encounter.
But to answer your question: Is disagreement factual or ideological? The answer is that, even when people seem to be arguing about the facts, it’s ideological.
Then how do we convince people? How do I have a conversation with a friend who is liberal, and communicate productively about these issues? I can’t talk about the statistics, so we can’t even agree about the facts on the ground. What do I say? Okay. Here’s perhaps a better way of phrasing this. I’m wondering. In your personal experience, have you ever convinced anyone?
Okay, I cannot say that I have. I mean maybe I’m talking to the wrong people. Maybe if I talked often enough to people who really disagreed with me, I would have created a broad enough sample of encounters such that sometimes I would have succeeded. Maybe I haven’t given myself the opportunity to persuade. I’m conceding that that’s a possibility.
What about in your classroom?
Well, you should ask my students. Based on the comments that I get back from some of them, many appreciate that I’ve brought a perspective that they otherwise would not have seen. Often they will say they don’t agree or they don’t fully agree. I appreciate it, and what that tells me is that I’ve persuaded them of something. While they may not agree at the end of the day with any particular judgment I make about affirmative action or police shootings, they do agree that the problem is more interesting and subtle and complicated than they might have had first thought, that there is in fact a respectable other side to the argument, even if they don’t want to decide to take up that side.
So, I do think I’m getting through to some of my students in a very helpful way. I had about 60 evaluations. I was looking at the written comments, and I was afraid they were gonna say, you reactionary, you self hating Black man, you conservative, you secret closet Trump supporter. Fortunately they didn’t. One mentions that “I didn’t like him.” Okay, well, if you have 80, one or two will say they don’t like you. But most of them said interesting, well-informed, thoughtful, glad he brought guest lecturers, readings were interesting, pop quizzes sucked, and should have gone a different way about grading papers. And, you know, they all sort of said, in one way or another, Loury’s a good professor. Some of them even said Loury’s the best professor I ever had. So, my impression is that while I may not be the person they’d vote for to be the next Provost of the University, they do respect me.
Perhaps this is an uncomfortable question, but if you don’t think your podcast can convince people from the other side, but instead serves primarily to entrench people’s existing views, how much progress are we really making with regards to race?
Okay, well, I will interpret that as being a generous way of saying: Might I not be a part of the problem? I get constant exhortation from people in the comments of my podcast to have on serious left-wing intellectuals. Why don’t you talk to Ta Nehisi Coates? Why don’t you talk to Charles Blow? Why don’t you talk to Michelle Alexander? Why don’t you have a Black Lives Matter person? I’ve reached out to a couple of these people. They’ve said no, and I’m not gonna say that I’m altogether unhappy because I don’t relish having that particularly unconstructive conversation, as I imagine it would go. But I might be selling them short, and I might be selling myself short. I do have a variety of people on the podcast, but it’s true that I don’t have fire-breathing Nikole Hannah Jones-esque racial liberals on the show. Harold Pollack is about as far left as it goes, and he’s an Obama Democrat so that’s not gonna be far enough left for a lot of people. Moreover, he’s white!
Well, even so, I do appreciate the habit you have of always steel-manning the liberal position on your podcast, so maybe it’s not so bad. But, part of the reason why I try to listen to your podcast is that I want to find better ways of understanding these issues so that I can more effectively communicate my feelings about them. I’ve had conversations in the past few weeks that have ended very poorly; conversations that have spiraled out of control, where I’m now a racist, so I’m on damage control. I just don’t know how to reach people in any meaningful way, and that’s very disturbing to me.
It is disturbing. I’m not a seer. My mouth is not a prayer book. I only say what I say based on my subjective assessment of it all. But it may be that, for a while anyway, there’s not gonna be a whole lot of effective talking. I mean, it may well be that we have to imagine a world where effective deliberation and consensus is not within reach for us and we’re going to have to manage that situation. It could get very bad. I mean it could go to violence. This is what Sam Harris always says, and I think he’s got a point. He says that if we can’t we can’t reason together, then the only alternative for dispute resolution is violence.
I don’t know if you saw my piece in Quillette where I state my position about the looting and the rioting, but I’ll pick up these pieces in the New York Times, respectable left-wing journals. I’m reading it, and the person is saying, “America was founded on looting. What did you think the Boston Tea Party was?” Or, they’re saying, “You’re talking about looting when George Floyd lies dead? Oh, I see, Black lives don’t matter as much as property.” These are, to my mind, incomprehensibly idiotic. I don’t mean that to cast aspersions. I’m making a literal report. The civilization that we all enjoy rests upon a very fragile foundation. Look. I’m in my backyard. It’s very nice. I’ve got a lot of space. There’s a fence. The birds come. I have a lawn.
Now, if a homeless person comes and squats in my backyard, I call the police. I have him removed, forcibly. There should be no lack of clarity about whether George Floyd’s death somehow excuses or justifies burning a bodega to the ground that a Muslim immigrant spends his whole life building. Being confused about that, equivocating about that, splitting the difference about that — I don’t understand how we’re gonna have a reasoned discussion. My thoughts revert to: protect civilization. Again, I know how that sounds. It’s hyperbolic. It is exaggerated. But only a little! My gut response is that this is not the time for argument. This is the time to protect civilization and protect our institutions. When people start toppling statues of Abraham Lincoln and spray-painting on statues of George Washington, “a slave owner,” the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the center cannot not hold. We teeter on the brink of catastrophe.
What will be the long-term implications of this moment?
I’m an economist, and although I’m kind of a jack of all trades guy, who you need to answer that question is a serious contemporary historian who has read the books, who can look at the different forces going on in the context of history; somebody who can parse the culture wars. There’s a very large subject here and I don’t claim to have mastery over it.
What about the Ferguson Effect?
I think Fryer’s studies are giving us good evidence of the Ferguson Effect’s validity. This most recent paper is only one study, but the numbers are stunning. It looks at Ferguson, Riverside, Chicago, and Baltimore as cities where there were Michael Brown or Freddie Gray type viral incidents of police brutality, which caused a big public stir that then drew in a federal investigation of each respective local police department. He compares those to other cities that are similar in terms of demography and economic structure, but where there was no viral incident, or there was a viral incident, but it was not followed by an investigation by the federal government of the local department. And, he finds, to make a long story short, that violent crime is significantly higher in those cities that were investigated than it is in comparable cities in the years after the federal investigations. It’s a very comprehensive regression discontinuity study. Take a look. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s pretty compelling. They estimate that these investigations caused an additional 900 homicides and an additional 30,000 or so felonies. Why? Because, he says, the amount of policing activity in those places diminished significantly with the onset of the federal inquiry, which he shows by documenting the decrease in stops made by police in those places. So, he’s got two findings, really. One of them is that police engagement with citizens seems to be sensitive to the extent to which police are placed in jeopardy by the scrutiny of the federal government. And secondly, that the amount of violent crime in those places depends on the amount of police engagement because violent crime goes up when police engagement goes down. That’s an association, not a demonstration of causality, but it certainly is a very suggestive association.
Tell me, what is wrong with this characterization of history? Black men and women were brought to America to be exploited. They were brought here so that white agriculturalists in the South and white textile manufacturers in the North could make more money. For four hundred years, they have been trying. They tried to be landowners only to have their land stripped from them. They tried to be shopkeepers and they were dispossessed. They tried to participate in the political process. They were disenfranchised. They went and fought wars for the country. They were treated with disdain. They tried to live productive lives. They were lynched. They tried to build communities in Tulsa and Rosewood. They were burned to the ground. Now, Glenn Loury comes along. He looks at the conditions of Black communities. He points at the homicide rate. He points at SAT scores. He points at the children growing up without fathers. Then, he doesn’t point at the white people. He points at the Black people. Glenn Loury points at them and says, “You are responsible for this. This is your fault. You need to fix your culture and stop blaming white people.” Am I mischaracterizing you?
That is an especially ungenerous representation of my position, but I don’t think it’s a mischaracterization of it. I think I would put it differently, but I don’t think I would necessarily disagree.
Okay, yeah, I’m Black. Yeah, these people are Black. And we descend from Africans, and the Africans were enslaved. But, how determinative is that fact of history on the condition of my community today if I’m an African American? How determinative is that on the condition of my family today, for what happens in my life today? Left out of your litany was the Civil Rights Era. Left out was the advent of affirmative action. Left out was the elaboration of an extensive welfare state with vast reach; I’m talking about support for indigent families; I’m talking about Medicaid; I’m talking about food stamps and unemployment insurance. Each of those has had its own consequences on the development of social life. Left out of your story are some other causal mechanisms. I’m talking about families. I’m talking about how children are raised. This is not relevant? I talk about the family because that’s where children are raised. Human Development doesn’t just take place in a school building. It takes place twenty-four, seven, three-sixty-five. The values of the peer group with whom young people affiliate matter. Differences between ethnic groups in the social outcomes we’re interested in, like performance in educational institutions, surely have some relationship to patterns of culture, values, behavior, and the organization of the families and communities from which these youngsters emerge, okay? So, you left some stuff out.
Things are not what they were in 1860, in 1910, in 1950, or even in 1980. Things are different now. Now, you get fired from your job if you’re a prominent person if you merely use the wrong word. Now, if you are a university administrator known to be hostile to affirmative action, your chances of employment outside of Liberty University in Virginia are essentially nil. There’s a vast middle class of African Americans that didn’t exist a half-century ago. Compared to where on the planet are your prospects better, even as a person of African descent born from nothing? Where has the practical implementation of government resulted in a more dynamic, a more open society than the one that you and I are privileged to live in right now? Does that sound like some kind of “America’s all great” ideology? Perhaps it does. But, I’m willing to take that chance because I think it’s actually an empirical assessment. The question must always be: “Compared to what?”
But isn’t there more socioeconomic mobility for some and less for others in America?
Come on, say you’re a Black kid with working-class parents. You’re reasonably, decently smart. You couldn’t get into Stuyvesant or Bronx High School of Science, but you got picked up in the Ivy League anyway because you had a good record and your SAT scores weren’t half bad. Are you telling me that the streets of this country are not paved with gold for you? Are you telling me that you’re not going to end up at a good law firm? Are you telling me that if you want an MBA, you’re not going to end up with a job in a Fortune 500 company?
Well, what if you’re growing up in Chicago? You’ve got crime all around you. No one in your family can hold down a job. There’s lead in the walls. School is a waste of time for six hours a day. There are no books in your house. That’s certainly not the same upbringing that I had.
Sure, it’s not. But what’s racial about that? Aren’t there white people in that situation? And Latinos? As I said, if structural racism explains everything, then it doesn’t explain anything. There’s lead in the water because the municipality hasn’t been properly maintained; because the tax base is too scant to be able to support the kind of infrastructure investment needed to get decent water delivered to people and the teachers union blocked the effort to try to reform the schools to charter schools, and the local school district is strapped because of the low values of the properties surrounding it, and the state is unwilling to help.
Those are all problems. I agree with you that those are problems, but they are American problems. To construe them as the consequence of something called structural racism, in my opinion, is not only to get causality wrong, but is more importantly to impede the kind of politics that could actually end up effectively addressing that problem, which would be a working-class politics on behalf of a decent provisioning to all Americans, period. I don’t dispute the fact that there’s unequal opportunity in society.
Then what are solutions for poor communities, Black or otherwise?
Well, there’s a need for a robust safety net and investment in human capital. I also think people need order and safety in the environments in which they’re living. I think they need the police, so I’m not for defunding the police. Reform the police? Of course. The police should be accountable for behaving in accordance with the basic strictures that we would want to impose on people who have that kind of authority among us. Grow the economy. Look, I’m not a Bernie Sanders Democrat here. I’m gonna be somewhere in the center of the policy spectrum. I’m gonna confess to a certain degree of neoliberalism. I don’t want to kill the golden goose. The goose has laid golden eggs in terms of the prosperity of the society. I don’t think we should soak the rich because I actually do believe in incentives, and I think you don’t want to discourage creativity, productivity, and whatnot. I mean, in a situation where someone is leaving behind a gazillion dollars to his kid and the government wants to tax some of that away — okay, you can have your philosophical argument about whether or not that should happen. I don’t think that’s a first-order economic question. But, an 80% marginal tax rate on incomes above $300,000 a year? That’s a very bad idea.
What about policies that might help bridge the disparity between Blacks and whites within society?
So, we’ve got affirmative action, or what’s called diversity and inclusion now, and we have institutions trying very hard to manage their affairs in such a way that they increase the representation of the African Americans in their midst. We can talk about reparations. People talk about wealth disparity. They say that there should be an acknowledgment of the historical indebtedness to African Americans that has accrued from the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. But I’m not a fan of affirmative action or reparations. I think they’re undignified, and inconsistent with genuine racial equality over the long run.
Well, so if there’s no available policy intervention, and there’s also no way we can change people’s minds, then is it hopeless? Is disparity always going to be the case?
Yes. If you seek to eliminate all group disparities, then it’s hopeless. But let me rephrase the question, and I’m channeling Thomas Sowell now. You have two alternates. You can live with disparities, or you can live in totalitarianism. Again, hyperbolic, I know. No, I’m not talking about Eastern Europe circa 1960 or something, but look at it this way. There can’t be a disparity without somebody being on top. People don’t recognize this. What groups are on top? What about the Jews? I think there are too many of them in positions of influence, I say, sarcastically. If there are too few Black lawyers who are partners in big firms in Los Angeles, Chicago, DC, and New York, why aren’t there too many Jews who are partners at these big firms? If there are too few Blacks who are professors of Mechanical Engineering at places like Carnegie Mellon, why aren’t there too many Korean professors at these places? If the system is so structured as to deny the potentiality of Black humanity, as to not recognize it, relegating Blacks to a backwater, why isn’t the system so structured as to so affirm the humanity of those particular groups that are overrepresented in the prized venues of American life? People don’t realize that they’re playing with fire when they take these disparities as ipso facto evidence of systemic failure. They insist on wholesale interventions into people’s exercise of their liberty in order to enact a reduction or elimination of disparities, yet a world without any disparities is a world where you don’t have so many — name your group — who’ve got so much money or so many prizes. There are only so many positions. There is no under-representation without over-representation. This is arithmetic.
I want you to ask yourself: What is the nature of the world that you’re living in? Why would I ever expect that there would be parity across the board between ethnic, racial, cultural, and ancestral population groups in an open society? It’s a contradiction because difference is an inevitable fact of groupness — what do I mean by a group? Well, it’s genes, to some degree; it’s culture; it’s networks of social affiliation, of intermarriage and kinship. I mean the shared narrative, the same hopes, the dreams, the stories. I mean the practices of parenting and filial piety and whatever else might be going on. A group is a group. It has characteristics. Those characteristics matter for whether or not you play in the NBA. They matter for whether or not you learn to master the violin or the piano. They matter for whether or not you pursue technical subjects, or choose to become a humanist or a scientist. They matter for the food that you eat. They matter for how many children you raise, how you raise them. They matter as to the age when you first have sex. They matter for all of those things, and I think everyone would agree with that. But now you’re telling me that they don’t matter for who becomes a partner in a law firm? They don’t matter for who becomes a Chair in the Philosophy Department somewhere? Groupness implies disparity because groupness, if taken seriously, implies differences in ways of living life. Not everybody wants to play the fiddle. Not everybody wants to dunk a basketball. Not everybody is frightened to death that their parents are going to be disappointed with them if they come home with an A-minus. Not everybody is susceptible to being swayed into a social affiliation that requires them to commit a violent crime in order to prove their bona fides. Groups differ. Groups are not evenly distributed across society. That’s inevitable. If you insist that all those disparities be flattened, you’re only going to be able to succeed by imposing a totalitarian regime that monitors everything and jiggers everything, recomputing and refiguring things until we’ve got the same number of Blacks in proportion to their population and the same number of second-generation Vietnamese immigrants in proportion to their population being admitted to Caltech or the Bronx High School of Science. I don’t want to live in that world.
Clearly, we don’t want equality of outcome. But what about equality of opportunity?
Well, that’s the ideal. And, insofar as we can give people opportunity through public action — for example, funding schools — yes, I think we should do so. But, insofar as opportunity is also a consequence of informal associations among people — for example, what goes on in their families — again, I repeat: You can get equality only at the cost of tyranny. You’re going to make every parent spend the same amount of time reading to their kid? Is every parent going to make sure that the television is turned off and make sure that the kid is studying at night to the same degree? No, they’re not. Some parents are going to do that more. The kids who have parents who are attendant to the nutrition of their child during the gestation period before they’re born, who read to the child while the child is in the crib, who insist that their child does their homework and monitors the kind of friends they have and knows where they are at 10 o’clock on any given night— those kids have greater opportunity. How are you going to equalize that?
I can’t say I have an answer. But, I’m wondering. What were you reading at my age?
How old are you?
At 23, I was an undergraduate at Northwestern, taking a graduate course in mathematical analysis, and reading Avner Friedman’s book, The Foundations of Modern Analysis. It was about measure theory, functional analysis, Hilbert spaces, Banach spaces — *uncontrollable laughter* — adjoint operators; you know, metrics, and compactness. So, I wasn’t reading a lot of big books. I did read some political philosophy. We read Marx, Smith, a bit of Mill, and then there was contemporary philosophy like Rawls. I was reading a little literature, and, yeah, I was reading some Afro stuff. I was reading about South Africa because it was still long before the fall of apartheid could be envisioned, and there was a lot of agitation among African Americans about South Africa.
If you hadn’t devoted your life’s work to the question of race, what would you have researched otherwise?
If you go to my Brown webpage, and you look at some of my early papers, like “Optimal Exploitation of an Unknown Reserve” and “Theory of Oil’igopoly,” a theory of oligopoly in the oil business. I started out researching market structure and innovation. So, I probably would have been a conventional microeconomist, much like some of my colleagues here, churning out papers for the Journal of Political Economy on one or another interesting technical question in theory.
Do you ever regret that you never became that?
No, there was a critical moment in my career in the early 1980s right after I got into Harvard in 1982. I was a Professor there, but unhappy. It was known that I was unhappy, so I was approached by my former dissertation adviser, the great Robert Solow, a Nobel Laureate. I was six years past my Ph.D., and he asked me: Do you want to come back to MIT? They were gonna make me a Professor in the Department, but he said, if you do, you have to promise that you’ll focus most of your attention on scientific work. But, at the same time, I got an offer from Thomas Schelling, the late great economist, also a Nobel Laureate, who told me: Come to the Kennedy School, and do both.
So, I chose to go to the Kennedy School. While the demands on my technical work at the Kennedy School would not have been as high as would have been the case at MIT, the opportunity to engage myself in political analysis was much greater. I don’t think it was a mistake. I don’t regret it. I wrote in magazines and became a public figure representing a certain outlook with respect to public affairs, which was very different from my theoretical work. Maybe a jack of all trades leads to a master of none. Maybe I’m not as good at either one of those things as I would have been if I had stuck strictly to one, but I’m, well, I’m happy.
What makes a piece of economic theory good? What makes a piece of economic theory beautiful?
Economic theory is model building. You reduce a real-world problem that’s complicated into its essential aspects, and formalize that reduction with mathematical representation and equations and concepts and definitions. Then you try to use the apparatus of mathematical and numerical analysis to shed light on what that model implies, what’s not self-evident in it. To have constructed a model in such a way that sheds light on questions of immediate relevance to the rest of empirical economic research; that is to say, to have empirical implications that will be borne out in subsequent investigation — all of that makes it good.
What makes it beautiful is in the eye of the beholder. For this beholder? Simplicity. Transparency. Elegance. Don’t try to snow me with apparatus. Presumably, we’re on this journey together for a purpose. I should be able to understand how your mechanism works. Spurious generality is mischievous. People may think a structure is beautiful because it has a lot of bells and whistles or because it’s complicated, but maybe they’ve just taken refuge in complexity. It’s a toy, after all. It’s a model. It’s not meant to be a perfect representation of the thing. It’s meant to be a tool to generate insight into a real phenomenon.
A friend of mine, Richard Zeckhauser at the Kennedy School, just had his 75th birthday. There was a conference honoring him, and I was asked to write something. So, I ended up writing about a maxim that Richard was very proud of: “Don’t take refuge in complexity.” In my speech, I elaborated. I came up with ten corollary maxims, and they, in a way, respond to your question. Let me see if I can remember any of them.
You might want to explore your model with a particular functional form rather than just writing f(x).
Draw a picture and try to shift the curves. A picture may save you a thousand equations.
Do you have any idea what happens outside of equilibrium in your model?
What real-world institutions are like the phenomenon you’re trying to model?
Oh, here’s another one.
For intertemporal analysis, having N periods doesn’t add anything. Looking at three periods is often enough. The past, the present, and the future.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.