Monday, June 13, 2005

Thomas Sowell Is Top Class

Thomas Sowell has done a three part series called Liberals And Class (Part I, Part II and Part III). As usual, Sowell nails the complex in quick, easy to handle ways. He is also an excellent author. His latest book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, is reviewed here.

Sowell does the reader right in this series. He begins with a recent statistic the left has tried to portray as evidence that America is a "class static" society.

The latest statistics seized upon to support this class-ridden view of America and other Western societies . . . [shows that] men born in families in the bottom 25 percent of income earners only 32 percent end up in the top half of the income distribution. And among men born to families in the top 25 percent in income earners, only 34 percent end up down in the bottom half.

How startling is that?

More to the point, does this show that people are trapped in poverty or can coast through life on their parents' wealth? Does it show that "society" denies "access" to the poor? Could it just possibly show that the kind of values and behavior which lead a family to succeed or fail are also likely to be passed on to their children and lead them to succeed or fail as well?
Or, as I have heard it stated, people who are rich do things that make them rich, and people who are poor, do things that make them poor. And if you switched their assets one day but otherwise allowed them the freedom to succeed or fail, in a few years people would end up back where they started.

The same story discussed by Sowell notes the obvious flaw with the premise.

One recent story attempting to show that upward mobility is a "myth" in America today nevertheless noted in passing that many recent immigrants and their children have had "extraordinary upward mobility."

If this is a class-ridden society denying "access" to upward mobility to those at the bottom, why is it that immigrants can come here at the bottom and then rise to the top? One obvious reason is that many poor immigrants come here with very different ambitions and values from that of poor Americans born into our welfare state and imbued with notions growing out of attitudes of dependency and resentments of other people's success.

The fundamental reason that many people do not rise is not that class barriers prevent it but that they do not develop the skills, values and attitudes which cause people to rise.
In Part II, Sowell attacks the sloppy use of statistics to make conclusions. Is one's lack of "class" mobility evidence of lack of opportunity, as most media portray it? Or is evidence of lack of skill or effort?

A huge literature on social mobility often pays little or no attention to the fact that different individuals and groups have different skills, desires, attitudes and numerous other factors, including luck. If mobility is defined as being free to move, then we can all have the same mobility, even if some end up moving faster than others and some of the others do not move at all.

A car capable of going 100 miles an hour can sit in a garage all year long without moving. But that does not mean that it has no mobility.
Another problem of course is that we let people who failed to rise out of the bottom economic levels teach their own kids those same values. And with the extra layer of the welfare state on top, the incentive to learn different values is reduced.

So long as each generation raises its own children, people from different backgrounds are going to be raised with different values and habits. Even in a world with zero barriers to upward mobility, they would move at different speeds and in different directions.

If there is less upward movement today than in the past, that is by no means proof that external barriers are responsible. The welfare state and multiculturalism both reduce the incentives of the poor to adopt new ways of life that would help them rise up the economic ladder. The last thing the poor need is another dose of such counterproductive liberal medicine.

In Part III, Sowell takes on the fallacy of the "dead end job."

Why do employers pay people to do "menial" work? Because the work has to be done. What useful purpose is served by stigmatizing work that someone is going to have to do anyway?

Is emptying bed pans in a hospital menial work? What would happen if bed pans didn't get emptied? Let people stop emptying bed pans for a month and there would be bigger problems than if sociologists stopped working for a year.

The dead end job, to the person who has the drive to move beyond that job, is called a learning experience. The left does what it can to train the mind that your economic class is static, that those who moved beyond it are just lucky, and access is limited. That type of education from our "benevolent" left is poison to the lower classes.
Notions of menial jobs and dead-end jobs may be just shallow misconceptions among the intelligentsia but they are a deadly counterproductive message to the poor. Refusing to get on the bottom rung of the ladder usually means losing your chance to move up the ladder.

* * * *

The real chumps are those who refuse to start at the bottom for "chump change." Liberals who encourage such attitudes may think of themselves as friends of the poor but they do more harm than enemies.
The Left has done two grave injustices to the poor. First, the Left promotes the idea that "class" is static and that opportunity is denied. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Left also sees its role as giving the poor fish, rather than requiring that the poor learn to fish. In this way, the Left has become the problem, not the solution.


At 3:34 PM, Blogger Jehane said...

KJ, I've been dying to read this all day. I just can't get off the phone :)

Darned clients.

At 9:12 PM, Blogger Jehane said...

Nice work KJ - this was worth the wait.

Regarding 'menial work' - I did manual labor and/or menial jobs for years. Long enough to know there's no shame in that sort of work and long enough to know I didn't want to be doing it when I was old if I could help it :) But there is also a peace in that kind of work you don't feel in the job I have now, too and that's something people overlook. You leave it at the door when you leave work.

Less pay, but less stress and responsibility too.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger tee bee said...

Menial work is a boon to many workers - often students - who need a flexible schedule and can't commit long-term to a job. But attitude is everything; as many McDonalds workers expect to keep on being McDonalds workers as don't. If you rise to management, you can make around $60k, am told by a local ex-McD's friend. They couldn't pay him enough, though, to put up with the crap attitude of so many of the regular workers, who tend to get fired and go work in other fast food places.

I think an interesting thing about the 32% of poor who rise to the top half and the 34% of rich who drop to the bottom half is that these people aren't getting the message at home or just don't care. They make their own decisions and live with the consequences. Then again, it appears that the other 60%+ can be inculcated to behave a great deal like their parents. Maybe that's why the liberals want their attention.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger KJ said...


The study was of people starting in the top/bottom quartile v. the bottom/top half. And kids born into the top quartile may have become school teachers or preachers for all we know and ended up in the bottom 50%. Just as a good plumber is probably in the top 50%. It doesn't really follow that people falling out of the top quartile end up on welfare. BUT, what is true is that most people move through all 4 quartiles in their life, starting out in lower paying jobs and advancing (like your McDonalds burger flipper, later manager). And if you don't, well it is probably b/c you listened to liberals telling you how unfair it was that your "dead end" job paid you like you had few job skills, which is probably the case.


Post a Comment

<< Home