Stubborn Things

THOMAS SOWELL'S REMARKABLE BOOK Economic Facts and Fallacies is even more remarkable for its brevity. In just over two hundred pages, he tackles and deconstructs fallacies infecting our cities, our relationships, the academy, business, race relations, and the Third World.

John Adams said famously, “Facts are stubborn things.” The Austin Lounge Lizards sang, “Life is hard, but life is hardest when you’re dumb.” Both are true and one of the most difficult things in life is keeping an open mind for facts that contradict received knowledge—our vision of the world which we hold close because it’s simply easier to believe what we already know is true than to investigate contradictory claims. After all, we’re not stupid; we know certain things are true, right?

Well . . . that depends. Here are a few fallacies and the facts that contradict them. How you receive these facts is something to ponder:

Urban Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Affordable housing requires government intervention.

Fact: It is precisely government intervention in housing which has made housing unaffordable. A hundred years ago people spent a smaller percentage of their income on housing than today. With increasing restrictions on building, due to zoning and environmental regulations, housing prices skyrocketed. “Open space” and “smart growth” policies restrict building and send prices upward. Houston has no zoning laws or like restrictions; a typical middle-class home on a quarter-acre lot that costs $152,000 in Houston costs more than $1 million in San Francisco. As recently as 2001, home prices in Tampa, FL were not much different than Houston, but after restrictive building laws began to take effect, housing prices doubled. And these rates hold true even when adjusted for inflation.

Male-Female Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: The fact that women earn less money than men is proof of discrimination. Where such disparities have lessened, it is because of government intervention.

Fact: While many white collar jobs may be performed equally well by women as men, most jobs are still dependent upon physical strength (construction) and the willingness of the person to engage in dangerous behavior (phone linemen). While men are 54% of the labor force, they are 92% of job-related deaths. In addition, women are often out of the job market for years at a time, bearing and raising children. When they return, their skills are rusty and outmoded. In the sciences, these same years are the peak years of achievement, and thus fewer women are notable scientists because most opt for motherhood instead. The proportion of women engaged in the professions was higher a hundred years ago than it was fifty years ago—long before anti-discrimination laws or the rise of the feminist movement. The reason is that the median age for marriage for women was higher a hundred years ago, thus more women were in the workforce during the formative years prior to their forties. Indeed, most women who staffed women’s colleges during this earlier era were not married at all; they opted out of family life. Finally, the likelihood of future interruptions because of a woman’s prospective role as a mother can make placing her in a senior position more of a risk to the employer than placing a man of similar ability in that same position. Only the never-married women and men are in comparable circumstances, and here women have had comparable or higher incomes than men, years before there were laws or government policies against sex discrimination.

Academic Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Attendance at a big-name college or university is essential for reaching the top.

Fact: The four institutions with the highest percentage of their undergrads going on to receive Ph.D.s are all small colleges with less than 2000 undergrads each. And of the chief executive officers of the 50 largest American corporations, only four had Ivy League degrees and just over half graduated from state colleges, city colleges, or community colleges. The fact that graduates of Harvard receive prestigious jobs and salaries may be traced more to their wealthy family connections than the education they receive, as well as their income from the earnings of inherited assets.

Income Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: American household income has stagnated, rising just 6% between 1969 and 1996.

Fact: Household size has diminished; average real income per person in the U.S. rose by 51% over that very same period. Studies of what people actually consume—their standard of living—show substantial increases over the years. Alarming statistics about the plight of the poor never take into account the government and charitable resources available to them; indeed, the poor’s actual income from work accounts for only 22% of the actual economic resources at their disposal. As for stagnation, by 2001 most people defined as poor had possessions once considered part of a middle class lifestyle. Three-quarters had air-conditioning, which only a third of all Americans had in 1971. 97% had color television, which less than half of all Americans had in 1971. 73% owned a microwave, which less than 1% of Americans owned in 1971, and 98% of the “poor” had either a VCR or a DVD player, which no one had in 1971. In addition, 72% of the “poor” had a car or truck. Yet the rhetoric of the “haves” and the “have nots” continues, even in a society where it might be more accurate to refer to the “haves” and the “have lots.” In fine, the problem is not a stagnation of the national economy, but particular economic and social problems of particular groups of people.

Racial Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Governmentally-enforced civil rights laws have reduced racism in America.

Fact: The percentage of black families with incomes below the poverty line fell most sharply between 1940 and 1960, going from 87% to 47% over that span, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and well before the 1970s, when “affirmative action” evolved into numerical quotas. While the downward trend in poverty continued, the pace of that decline did not accelerate after these legal landmarks, but in fact slackened. There was a similar historical trend as regards the rise of blacks into professional, managerial, and other high-level occupations. In short, affirmative action has produced little or no effect on the relative sizes of black and white incomes. The median black household income was 60.9% of the median white household income in 1970—and never rose above that, or as high as that, throughout the decade of the 1970s. As of 1980, median black household income was 57.6 of median white household income.

Fallacy: The current fatherless families so prevalent among contemporary blacks are a “legacy of slavery,” where families were not recognized.

Fact: Most black children were raised in two-parent homes, even under slavery, and for generations thereafter. Freed blacks married, and marriage rates among blacks were slightly higher than among whites in the early twentieth century. Blacks also had slightly higher rates of labor force participation than whites in every census from 1890 to 1950. While 31% of black children were born to unmarried women in the early 1930s, that proportion rose to 77% by the early 1990s. If unwed childbirth was a “legacy of slavery,” why was it so much less common among blacks who were two generations closer to the era of slavery? Oh, and by the way, from 1994 on into the twenty-first century, the poverty rate among black husband-wife families was below 10%. Turns out that “the man” most important to blacks is the man his wife calls her husband.

Third World Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Western nation’s imperialism is responsible for poverty in the Third World.

Fact: There are some prosperous countries whose conquests have been minor or non-existent, and countries mired in poverty that were never conquered. Why are those parts of the Third World least touched by contact with prosperous the most destitute of all? Blame is easier to understand than causation, more emotionally satisfying, and more politically convenient. There are many factors that must be considered: geography (mountainous countries persistently lag behind countries with extensive river valleys), isolation (the indigenous people of the Canary Islands were Caucasians living at a stone-age level when the Spaniards discovered them in the fifteenth century), climate (water is not only life-sustaining, but trade-sustaining; most advanced civilizations arose on navigable waterways), history (in the long view, all nations were Third World nations at some point), law and order (property rights, courts of law, uncorrupt officials—all culturally-dependent—create an environment of prosperity; even Rome’s bloody oppression of conquered lands resulted in a higher standard of living because these elements were a by-product of Roman dominance), population (there must be enough people to congregate in cities, where standards of living always increase; over-population is hardly ever the problem, as there are no examples of countries that had a higher standard of living when their population was half of what it is today), culture (Argentina was mired in poverty before German and Italian immigrants brought cattle-ranching and wheat-production to the country), and foreign aid (living standards were lower in sub-Saharan Africa decades after the departure of the colonial rulers, despite both nationalization of industries and foreign aid).

I’ve merely touched upon Dr. Sowell’s brilliant book, just one of the scores of clear-thinking economic tomes he’s written over the years. Yes, life is hard, but I intend to make my own life less difficult by basing it on facts, not fallacies.

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