January 21, 2014
Someone summarized Barack Obama in three words -- "educated," "smart" and "ignorant." Unfortunately, those same three words would describe all too many of the people who come out of our most prestigious colleges and universities today.
President Obama seems completely unaware of how many of the policies he is trying to impose have been tried before, in many times and places around the world, and have failed time and again. Economic equality? That was tried in the 19th century, in communities set up by Robert Owen, the man who coined the term "socialism." Those communities all collapsed.
It was tried even earlier, in 18th century Georgia, when that was a British colony. People in Georgia ended up fleeing to other colonies, as many other people would vote with their feet in the 20th century, by fleeing many other societies around the world that were established in the name of economic equality.
But who reads history these days? Moreover, those parts of history that would undermine the vision of the left -- which prevails in our education system from elementary school to postgraduate study -- are not likely to get much attention.
The net results are bright people, with impressive degrees, who have been told for years how brilliant they are, but who are often ignorant of facts that might cause them to question what they have been indoctrinated with in schools and colleges.
Recently Kirsten Powers repeated on Fox News Channel the discredited claim that women are paid only about three-quarters of what a man is paid for doing the same work.
But there have been empirical studies, going back for decades, showing that there is no such gap when the women and men are in the same occupation, with the same skills, experience, education, hours of work and continuous years of full-time work.
Income differences between the sexes reflect the fact that women and men differ in all these things -- and more. Young male doctors earn much more than young female doctors. But young male doctors work over 500 hours a year more than young female doctors.
Then there is the current hysteria which claims that people in the famous "top one percent" have incomes that are rising sharply and absorbing a wholly disproportionate share of all the income in the country.
But check out a Treasury Department study titled "Income Mobility in the US.
from 1996 to 2005." It uses income tax data, showing that people who were in the top one percent in 1996 had their incomes fall -- repeat, fall -- by 26 percent by 2005.
What about the other studies that seem to say the opposite? Those are studies of income brackets, not studies of the flesh-and-blood human beings who are moving from one bracket to another over time. More than half the people who were in the top one percent in 1996 were no longer there in 2005.
This is hardly surprising when you consider that their incomes were going down while there was widespread hysteria over the belief that their incomes were going up.
Empirical studies that follow income brackets over time repeatedly reach opposite conclusions from studies that follow individuals. But people in the media, in politics and even in academia, cite statistics about income brackets as if they are discussing what happens to actual human beings over time.
All too often when liberals cite statistics, they forget the statisticians' warning that correlation is not causation. For example the New York Times crusaded for government-provided prenatal care, citing the fact that black mothers had prenatal care less often than white mothers -- and that there were higher rates of infant mortality among blacks.
But was correlation causation? American women of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino ancestry also had less prenatal care than whites -- and lower rates of infant mortality than either blacks or whites.
When statistics showed that black applicants for conventional mortgage loans were turned down at twice the rate for white applicants, the media went ballistic crying racial discrimination. But whites were turned down almost twice as often as Asian Americans -- and no one thinks that is racial discrimination.
Facts are not liberals' strong suit. Rhetoric is.
Words seem to carry far more weight than facts among those liberals who argue as if rent control laws actually control rents and gun control laws actually control guns.
It does no good to point out to them that the two American cities where rent control laws have existed longest and strongest -- New York and San Francisco -- are also the two cities with the highest average rents.
Nor does it make a dent on them when you point out evidence, from both sides of the Atlantic, that tightening gun control laws does not reduce gun crimes, including murder. It is not uncommon for gun crimes to rise when gun control laws are tightened. Apparently armed criminals prefer unarmed victims.
Minimum wage laws are another issue where the words seem to carry great weight, leading to the fact-free assumption that such laws will cause wages to rise to the legally specified minimum. Various studies going back for decades indicate that minimum wage laws create unemployment, especially among the younger, less experienced and less skilled workers.
When you are unemployed, your wages are zero, regardless of what the minimum wage law specifies.
Having followed the controversies over minimum wage laws for more than half a century, I am always amazed at how many ways there are to evade the obvious.
A discredited argument that first appeared back in 1946 recently surfaced again in a televised discussion of minimum wages. A recent survey of employers asked if they would fire workers if the minimum wage were raised. Two-thirds of the employers said that they would not. That was good enough for a minimum wage advocate.
Unfortunately, the consequences of minimum wage laws cannot be predicted on the basis of employers' statements of their intentions. Nor can the consequences of a minimum wage law be determined, even after the fact, by polling employers on what they did.
The problem with polls, in dealing with an empirical question like this, is that you can only poll survivors.
Every surviving business in an industry might have as many employees as it had before a minimum wage increase -- and yet, if the additional labor costs led to fewer businesses surviving, there could still be a reduction in industry employment, despite what the poll results were from survivors.
There are many other complications that make an empirical study of the effects of minimum wages much more difficult than it might seem.
Since employment varies for many reasons other than a minimum wage law, at any given time the effects of those other factors can outweigh the effects of minimum wage laws.
In that case, employment could go up after a particular minimum wage increase -- even if it goes up less than it would have without the minimum wage increase.
Minimum wage advocates can seize upon statistics collected in particular odd circumstances to declare that they have now "refuted" the "myth" that minimum wages cause unemployment.
Yet, despite such anomalies, it is surely no coincidence that those few places in the industrial world which have had no minimum wage law, such as Switzerland and Singapore, have consistently had unemployment rates down around 3 percent. "The Economist" magazine once reported: "Switzerland's unemployment neared a five-year high of 3.9% in February."
It is surely no coincidence that, during the last administration in which there was no federal minimum wage -- the Calvin Coolidge administration -- unemployment ranged from a high of 4.2 percent to a low of 1.8 percent over its last four years.
It is surely no coincidence that, when the federal minimum wage law remained unchanged for 12 years while inflation rendered the law meaningless, the black teenage unemployment rate -- even during the recession year of 1949 -- was literally a fraction of what it has been throughout later years, as the minimum wage rate has been raised repeatedly to keep up with inflation.
When words trump facts, you can believe anything. And the liberal groupthink taught in our schools and colleges is the path of least resistance.
Since this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the "war on poverty," we can expect many comments and commemorations of this landmark legislation in the development of the American welfare state.
The actual signing of the "war on poverty" legislation took place in August 1964, so the 50th anniversary is some months away. But there have already been statements in the media and in politics proclaiming that this vast and costly array of anti-poverty programs "worked."
Of course everything "works" by sufficiently low standards, and everything "fails" by sufficiently high standards. The real question is: What did the "war on poverty" set out to do -- and how well did it do it, if at all?
Without some idea of what a person or a program is trying to do, there is no way to know whether what actually happened represented a success or a failure. When the hard facts show that a policy has failed, nothing is easier for its defenders than to make up a new set of criteria, by which it can be said to have succeeded.
That has in fact been what happened with the "war on poverty."
Both President John F. Kennedy, who launched the proposal for a "war on poverty" and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who guided the legislation through Congress and then signed it into law, were very explicit as to what the "war on poverty" was intended to accomplish.
Its mission was not simply to prove that spending money on the poor led to some economic benefits to the poor. Nobody ever doubted that. How could they?
What the war on poverty was intended to end was mass dependency on government. President Kennedy said, "We must find ways of returning far more of our dependent people to independence."
The same theme was repeated endlessly by President Johnson. The purpose of the "war on poverty," he said, was to make "taxpayers out of taxeaters." Its slogan was "Give a hand up, not a handout." When Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark legislation into law, he declared: "The days of the dole in our country are numbered."
Now, 50 years and trillions of dollars later, it is painfully clear that there is more dependency than ever.
Ironically, dependency on government to raise people above the poverty line had been going down for years before the "war on poverty" began.
The hard facts showed that the number of people who lived below the official poverty line had been declining since 1960, and was only half of what it had been in 1950.
On the more fundamental question of dependency, the facts were even clearer. The proportion of people whose earnings put them below the poverty level -- without counting government benefits -- declined by about one-third from 1950 to 1965.
All this was happening before the "war on poverty" went into effect -- and all these trends reversed after it went into effect.
Nor was this pattern unique. Other beneficial social trends that were going on before the 1960s reversed after other bright ideas of that decade were put into effect.
Massive "sex education" programs were put into schools, claiming that this was urgently needed to reduce a "crisis" of teenage pregnancies and venereal diseases. But teenage pregnancies and venereal diseases had both been going down for years.
The rate of infection for gonorrhea, for example, declined every year from 1950 through 1959, and the rate of syphilis infection was, by 1960, less than half of what it had been in 1950. Both trends reversed and skyrocketed after "sex education" became pervasive.
The murder rate had been going down for decades, and in 1960 was only half of what it had been in 1934. That trend suddenly reversed after the liberal changes in criminal laws during the 1960s. By 1974, the murder rate was more than twice as high as it had been in 1961.
While the fact-free liberals celebrate the "war on poverty" and other bright ideas of the 1960s, we are trying to cope with yet another "reform" that has made matters worse, Obamacare.
One of the things that attracted me to the political left, as a young man, was a belief that leftists were for "the people." Fortunately, I was also very interested in the history of ideas -- and years of research in that field repeatedly brought out the inescapable fact that many leading thinkers on the left had only contempt for "the people."
That has been true from the 18th century to the present moment. Even more surprising, I discovered over the years that leading thinkers on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum had more respect for ordinary people than people on the left who spoke in their name.
Leftists like Rousseau, Condorcet or William Godwin in the 18th century, Karl Marx in the 19th century or Fabian socialists like George Bernard Shaw in England and American Progressives in the 20th century saw the people in a role much like that of sheep, and saw themselves as their shepherds.
Another disturbing pattern turned up that is also with us to the present moment. From the 18th century to today, many leading thinkers on the left have regarded those who disagree with them as being not merely factually wrong but morally repugnant. And again, this pattern is far less often found among those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.
The visceral hostility toward Sarah Palin by present day liberals, and the gutter level to which some descend in expressing it, is just one sign of a mindset on the left that goes back more than two centuries.
T.R. Malthus was the target of such hostility in the 18th and early 19th centuries. When replying to his critics, Malthus said, "I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candor."
But William Godwin's vision of Malthus was very different. He called Malthus "malignant," questioned "the humanity of the man," and said "I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made."
This asymmetry in responses to people with different opinions has been too persistent, for too many years, to be just a matter of individual personality differences.
Although Charles Murray has been a major critic of the welfare state and of the assumptions behind it, he recalled that before writing his landmark book, "Losing Ground," he had been "working for years with people who ran social programs at street level, and knew the overwhelming majority of them to be good people trying hard to help."
Can you think of anyone on the left who has described Charles Murray as "a good person trying hard to help"? He has been repeatedly denounced as virtually the devil incarnate -- far more often than anyone has tried seriously to refute his facts.
Such treatment is not reserved solely for Murray.
Liberal writer Andrew Hacker spoke more sweepingly when he said, "conservatives don't really care whether black Americans are happy or unhappy."
Even in the midst of an election campaign against the British Labour Party, when Winston Churchill said that there would be dire consequences if his opponents won, he said that this was because "they do not see where their theories are leading them."
But, in an earlier campaign, Churchill's opponent said that he looked upon Churchill "as such a personal force for evil that I would take up the fight against him with a whole heart."
Examples of this asymmetry between those on opposite sides of the ideological divide could be multiplied almost without limit. It is not solely a matter of individual personality differences.
The vision of the left is not just a vision of the world. For many, it is also a vision of themselves -- a very flattering vision of people trying to save the planet, rescue the exploited, create "social justice" and otherwise be on the side of the angels. This is an exalting vision that few are ready to give up, or to risk on a roll of the dice, which is what submitting it to the test of factual evidence amounts to. Maybe that is why there are so many fact-free arguments on the left, whether on gun control, minimum wages, or innumerable other issues -- and why they react so viscerally to those who challenge their vision.
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