From: Foundation for Economic Growth

Green Thoughts
The Vision Of The Anointed
By Thomas Sowell
Oct 18, 2004, 18:08


Who are the anointed and what is their vision?

Occupationally, they can be described as the liberal intelligentsia and their numerous followers in politics, in the courts, in the classrooms, and in the media. Far more important than this occupational description, however, is the way they envision their role in shaping policy in the world at large and therefore the kind of world they envision in which they are to play that role.

Perhaps the proudest title to which the anointed can aspire, and the finest accolade which they can bestow on one of their own, is to be the "conscience" of other people. Thus Justice Harry Blackmun was said to be the conscience of the Supreme Court. At various times in the past Senator Wayne Morse or Senator Frank Church was said to be the conscience of the Senate. Now, we all need consciences but to be the conscience of other people suggests a sense of moral superiority one of the defining characteristics of the anointed. Socially and politically speaking, they are the missionaries and the rest of us are the heathens.

Among the consequences of this vision of the world is a tendency to talk down morally to one's colleagues and others, as Harry Blackmun, Wayne Morse, and Frank Church often did. Frank Church in fact acquired the nickname "Frank Cathedral." However, the consequences of this vision of the world extend far beyond moral pomposity.

There are many ways in which the various policy issues that arise can be seen. They can be seen as trade-offs to be weighed or as decisions better made in one kind of institution rather than another (in the marketplace, rather than in the courtroom, for example), or as technocratic challenges or they can be seen as opportunities for moral exhibitionism, for showing that you have more compassion for people or more commitment to ideals.

Consider, for example, questions involving income and wealth. The anointed have remarkably little interest in how income and wealth are produced, compared to their overwhelming preoccupation with how it is distributed. Despite the fact that the level of production of goods translates into the level of the standard of living for millions of human beings at home, and billions abroad, the production of these goods and services offers no opportunities for being morally one-up, while questions of who receives what do present such opportunities. It is these differences in income and wealth that arouse the anointed, whether these are differences between nations or differences between individuals and families.

At the international level, the anointed often lament that "the world's income is so unequally -- or "inequitably"-- distributed. But this whole way of conceiving the question suggests that there is such a thing as "the world's income" when in fact real income consists of the goods and services that each country produces, most of which is usually consumed within that country. So the real question is: Why do different countries produce such radically different amounts of output. That question may not offer such golden opportunities for being morally one-up but that is what talk about the maldistribution of "the world's income" boils down to. It so happens that I have been studying the effects of cultural differences among peoples on their economic and social fates over the past 15 years. Fortunately for all concerned, I will not attempt to summarize these 15 years of research here, since I have a plane to catch tomorrow.

Vast disparities in output have been the rule, not the exception, for as far back as history presents data. The particular countries that were rich, and the ones that were poor, have changed over a period of many centuries, but the disparities have remained. Once it was China that was far richer than Europe but now their positions are reversed.

Within Europe, it was southeastern Europe that was economically and culturally far in advance of northwestern Europe in ancient times but, again, the regional disparity has been the reverse in modern times. But huge disparities have continued to exist, regardless of who was ahead and who was behind at a given moment.

In the late nineteenth century, just three countries, Britain, Germany, and the United States produced two-thirds of all the manufactured goods in the world. By the late twentieth century, it was estimated that 17 percent of the world's population produced four-fifths of its total output. Nor are these necessarily differences between racial or ethnic groups. In 1994, it was estimated that the 36 million "overseas Chinese" scattered around the world produced as much wealth as the one billion people living in China itself. Among Southeast Asian nations, annual output per capita in 1996 ranged from $107 in Myanmar (Burma) to $30,860 in Singapore.

Some, but not all, of the factors behind such striking contrasts in productivity can be quantified. For example, when Britain alone produced more than 40 percent of the major inventions, discoveries and innovations in the world from the mid-eighteenth century to the first quarter of the nineteenth century, this clearly was a key indicator of its economic advancement and of the cultural capital behind that advancement. The same would be true of the United States in a later era, when it alone produced more than 80 percent of the major inventions, discoveries, and innovations in the middle of the twentieth century.

While it is hardly surprising that such large productivity differences are associated with similarly striking differences in income and wealth, such mundane facts have little or no effect on the way the anointed envision the world. In their vision, the rich are rich because the poor are poor - whether among nations or among groups within a given nation. Thus the poor are often described as "the exploited" or the "dispossessed" - without any evidence being either asked or given to support that description and conception of what is happening.

Imperialism, for example, has often been depicted as a process by which one country grows rich at the expense of another. While this can and does happen in particular instances, if "exploitation" theories were as widely applicable as supposed, then the dissolution of empires should lead to rising standards of living among the formerly conquered and presumably exploited peoples. Yet history repeatedly shows the opposite happening.

When the Roman conquerors withdrew from Britain, the Britons' standard of living declined by all indications - cruder products, crumbling infrastructure, wilderness growing back into human settlements, and people being buried in shallower graves and without coffins, for example.

Later, in the last half of the twentieth century, the withdrawal of European imperialists from sub-Saharan Africa likewise left much of that region with lower per capita incomes twenty years later than they had had when living under the domination of the imperialists. It was much the same story in Central Asia, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union made it independent of the Russians for the first time in centuries - but also left it with shortages of the skills that many of the departed Russians had supplied.

Very similar conceptions of income and wealth apply within countries, as well as between countries. It is difficult to discuss either tax issues or issues involving social programs without becoming bogged down in controversies about "the rich" and "the poor." Few issues arouse such passions as claims that the rich have been getting richer while the poor have been getting poorer. While there are surely rich and poor people, much of the controversy is not really about those people but about statistical categories and about the social vision evoked by these numbers.

How well do the statistical categories correspond with flesh-and-blood human beings, for either "the rich" or "the poor"? Often those in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution are referred to as "the poor" and those in the top 20 percent as "the rich." But most of the actual flesh-and-blood human beings in both these categories as of a given moment move out of these categories within a decade.

Ironically, a study done by left-wing academics at the University of Michigan was one of the first to show this, much to the apparent disconcerting of its authors. They discovered that less than half of the families they followed from 1971 to 1978 remained in the same quintile of the income distribution throughout these years. Those people who remained in the bottom 20 percent for eight years constituted just 3 percent of the American population.

This radically different picture produced by following actual flesh-and-blood human beings over time, as distinguished from looking at statistics for a given moment in time, applies not only to "the poor" but also to "the rich." The typical Hollywood movie version of the rich - someone born in a mansion, heir to a fortune, educated in snooty private schools and Ivy League colleges - bears little resemblance to actual millionaires studied in the 1990s, or in the 1890s.

A 1996 study found that four-fifths of all the American millionaires studied earned their fortunes within their own lifetimes. So did an 1894 study. The social origins of a group of individuals with net worths of $10 million dollars each or more was accidentally revealed at a gathering where exquisite food and drink had been prepared for a group more like the Hollywood millionaire or "the rich" of political rhetoric.

To make sure our decamillionairere respondents felt comfortable during the interview, we rented a posh penthouse on Manhattan's fashionable East Side. We also hired two gourmet food designers. They put together a menu of four pâtés and three kinds of caviar. To accompany this, the designers suggested a case of high-quality 1970 Bordeaux plus a case of a "wonderful" 1973 cabernet sauvignon. . . .During the subsequent two-hour interview, the nine decamillionaire respondents shifted constantly in their chairs. Occasionally they glanced at the buffet. But not one touched the pâté or drank our vintage wines. We knew they were hungry, but all they ate were the gourmet crackers.

These multimillionaires were clearly in an unfamiliar setting, based on a lifestyle very different from the way they lived. Unlike Hollywood movie millionaires, most American millionaires do not have a lavish lifestyle. The average cost of their automobiles ($24,800) is only a few thousand dollars more than that of the average American's automobile and is well below the cost of such luxury cars as the Cadillac or Lexus. Twice as many American millionaires have a Sears credit card as have a credit card from Nieman-Marcus. Most have never paid as much as $400 for a suit. For every millionaire who buys a $1,000 suit, six or more non-millionaires buy one.

In short, neither the rich nor the poor match the classic picture of a class into which people are born, live, and die - and in which they maintain a lifestyle born of that permanence. The persistently rich and persistently poor, put together, are not a major segment of the American population, though political issues are often framed as if they were.

We have noted that only 3 percent of Americans remain in the bottom 20 percent for as long as eight years. Only 3.5 percent of the American population have a net worth of one million dollars or more, even though net worth literally includes the kitchen sink, as well as other household assets, clothing, pension fund equity, and other assets that could not be turned into ready cash. Nevertheless, even with this generous definition, both the rich and the poor put together add up to only 6.5 percent of the American population. Nevertheless, great political and ideological battles are often framed as if these were the central groups in the society, rather than the other 93.5 percent who are in no meaningful sense either rich or poor.

A major factor in both income and wealth is age. The results of the eight-year study at the University of Michigan should not have been surprising. People are eight years older at the end of eight years. Employees have eight years more experience on the job, professionals have had eight more years in which to establish a clientele and a reputation, businessmen have had eight more years to have their businesses become known and to develop networks with other businesses and with their customers.

It would be amazing if everyone simply wasted those eight years without advancing. Over longer spans of time, increases in income and wealth become even greater. It has not been uncommon for people in the age bracket from 45 to 54 years old to have at least double the national average income. With wealth, the age differences are even greater. One study showed that households headed by someone aged 55 to 64 average ten times the wealth of households headed by someone under age 35.

None of this should be surprising either. Those who have worked for many years tend to have advanced in their careers to higher-paying positions and to have accumulated more assets, whether in the form of money in the bank or a pension fund, or equity in their homes.

People in their sixties have persistently had higher incomes than people in their twenties and much higher net worths. In short, membership in various income brackets tends to be transient, in the American economy at least, due both to age and to the ordinary ups and downs of individuals' careers and of the surrounding economy.

There is a story about someone who was told that a person is hit by a car every 20 minutes in New York City. The response was: "He must get awfully tired of that!" Yet exactly the same reasoning, or lack of reasoning, is used when dealing with income and wealth statistics, as if we were talking about a permanent class rather than a changing assortment of individuals. Nevertheless, the concept of "class" is deeply imbedded in the vision of the anointed and has become part of the new secular trinity of race, class, and gender that dominate much of contemporary academic life.

The heavy emotional investment in the vision of the anointed is often demonstrated by the intellectually desperate methods used to try to support it. For example, a great furor was set off a few years ago by statistical data which seemed to indicate that the rich were getting richer, while the poor were getting poorer during the Reagan administration. Putting aside for the moment the question whether these were the same people for the entire 8 years that Ronald Reagan was in the White House, what were these statistics based on?

First of all, these data excluded about $180 billion worth of transfer payments going to low-income people. This amounted to more than $11,000 per poor household that was not counted in these statistics. On the other end of the income scale, capital gains were counted in a way virtually guaranteed to exaggerate what gains might occur. When statistics are handled in this way, then of course the rich will be getting rich and the poor getting poorer, at least on paper, regardless of what is happening to actual flesh-and-blood human beings.

I would like to propose, as an iron law of statistics, that A will always exceed B if A is exaggerated enough and B is understated enough.

Another great source of statistical disparities about income and wealth are household data. As in so many other areas, it is so easy to think that we are talking about the same thing just because we are using the same word. But, in fact, households have differed in size from one era to another, from one group to another, and from one income bracket to another.

For example, there are more than 50 percent more people in households earning $75,000 and up as in households earning under $15,000. That is one of the reasons for their differences in income: People earn money and more people tend to earn more money. There are more than twice as many income-earners in households earning $75,000 and up as in households earning under $15,000. The top 20 percent of income-earning families supply 29 percent of all workers who work 50 weeks or more per year, while the bottom 20 percent supply just 7 percent of such workers. There are very mundane explanations for many of the statistical differences that the anointed seek to explain in more melodramatic terms.

Just as economic issues are often seen as being about "the rich" and "the poor" various statistical disparities between social groups are often attributed to the moral failings of "society," just as innumerable dangers that are allowed to exist show society's blindness or callousness.

Whatever the issue, it tends to be seen within this framework - this vision of the anointed - and to take on the aura of a moral crusade. "Intellectuals cannot operate at room temperature," as Eric Hoffer put it. They cannot simply say that policy A is preferred to policy B for the following reasons and with the following evidence. To do that would be to lay their reasons and evidence alongside the reasons and evidence of those who disagree with them, so that others can weigh the one against the other. To argue in this way, on the same moral plane and under the same impartial rules of logic and evidence applying to both sides would be a violation of the whole vision in which the anointed see themselves. Their role is not to put themselves on the same plane as other people. The very words and phrases they use reveal the loftier plane on which they see themselves. From this loftier plane they are to raise our "consciousness", make us "aware" and hope that we will "grow". Those who nevertheless continue to disagree with them must then be shown to be not merely in error but in sin.

This is the tenth anniversary of one of the great examples of this approach - the confirmation hearings of Judge Robert Bork. Judge Bork's opponents were not preoccupied with arguing with him that particular passages in the constitution meant A rather than B, or that the principles of judicial interpretation should be X rather than Y. The point was not to show that he was in error, but that he was in sin, that he was anti-woman, anti-black, and callous toward working people.

To say that the anointed did not let facts cramp their style in this endeavor would be to put it charitably. It was quite an experience for me to spend hours in the law library at Stanford University going through all the amicus briefs filed by Robert Bork as Solicitor General on the side of minority litigants, and then go home and watch on television as he was being depicted as little short of a racist. That episode left us with a new verb in the language - to "Bork" - that is, to demonize and seek to annihilate morally as well as politically.

Not only other individuals, but whole categories of people, have been demonized: developers, multinational corporations, and, for some of the anointed, western civilization as a whole. One of the consequences of looking at the world in this way is that it cuts off your path of retreat if empirical evidence begins to prove you wrong. It is one thing to admit simply that policy A is not better than policy B after all. It is far more devastating to acknowledge that all the moral disdain you poured down on those who opposed you was a farce and that the whole vision of yourself and of the world which led to the policy you advocated was a house of cards. Few people are prepared to see their world come crashing down around them like that. Accordingly, great expenditures of effort and ingenuity have gone into denying evidence against the policies for which the anointed have crusaded. In fact, a very distinct pattern has emerged in these denials.

Before looking at specific issues, let me go through a four-stage pattern that has emerged over a wide range of issues:

Stage 1 is something that the anointed choose to call a "crisis".

Stage 2 is their "solution" to this "crisis."

Stage 3 are the results that follow and,

Stage 4 are the anointed's responses to these results.

Stage 1. THE "CRISIS": What is a crisis? It is some situation that whose negative aspects the anointed propose to eliminate. Such a situation is routinely characterized as a "crisis," even though all human situations have negative aspects, and even though evidence is seldom asked or given to show how this particular situation at hand is either uniquely bad or threatening to get worse.

In fact, sometimes the situation described as a "crisis" has already been getting better for years. But to stand back and allow it to continue to get better would be operating at room temperature and missing an opportunity for a crusade.

Stage 2. THE "SOLUTION": Policies to end the "crisis" are advocated by the anointed, who say that these policies will lead to beneficial result A. Their critics say that these policies will lead to detrimental result Z. The anointed dismiss these critics' claims as absurd and biased, if not dishonest.

Stage 3. THE RESULTS: The policies are instituted and lead to detrimental result Z.

Stage 4. THE RESPONSE: Those critics who attribute detrimental result Z to the policies instituted are dismissed as "simplistic" for ignoring the "complexities" involved, since "many factors" went into determining the outcome. The burden of proof is put on the critics to demonstrate to a certainty that these policies alone were the only possible cause of the worsening that occurred. No burden of proof whatever is put on those who had so confidently predicted improvement. Indeed, it is often asserted that things would have been even worse, were it not for the wonderful programs that mitigated the inevitable damage from other factors. This is one of many heads-I-win-and-tails-you-lose arguments used by the anointed: If things improve, it must be due to the policy, but if things get worse, it must be due to something else.

Keeping this pattern in mind, let us now turn to specific policies. Three of the most important policies of the anointed, over the past generation have involved "the war on poverty," sex education, and the criminal justice system.

I. The Pattern

A. The War on Poverty (and Dependency)

1. The Crisis

a. dependency had declined by one-third since 1950
b. people in poverty had been declining since 1960 were less than half their numbers in 1950
c. critics: Hazlitt predicted that the cost would "increase geometrically."

2. The Solution

a. a variety of retraining and other programs were instituted, with the idea that these would be "investments" whose pay-off would be less government spending later on, less poverty, less dependency, and fewer urban riots
b. The Council of Economic Advisers declared: "The conquest of poverty is well within our power."

3. The Results

a. dependency began to increase
b. massive spending brought down the poverty rate but, over time the absolute number of people in poverty was higher by 1992 than in 1964
c. urban riots spread across the country and did not stop until Johnson administration was replaced by the Nixon administration. The assumed inverse relationship between welfare-state policies and urban riots was tested again during the 8 years of the Reagan administration, when major ghetto riots became extinct.

4. The Response

a. no admission of failure of the policy or of the assumptions behind the policy
b. poverty would have been worse (U. of Wisconsin)
c. evidence of "caring"; "exhilaration"

B. Sex Education

1. The crisis:

a. educators, Planned Parenthood, etc. urged the introduction of sex education into the schools, to reduce venereal diseases and unwed pregnancies in high school girls.
b. fertility rates among teenage girls had been declining since 1957; gonorrhea declined every year of the 1950s; the rate of syphilis infection in 1960 was half of what it had been in 1950
c. critics said that sex education would lead to more venereal disease and unwed pregnancies among teenage girls but N.Y.Times pooh-poohed this

2. The solution

a. one of the first grants from the "war on poverty" was for a sex education program in Texas in 1964
b. by 1968, half the schools in the country had sex education and the proportion continued to escalate rapidly in the 1970s

3. The results

a. downward trends in teenage pregnancy reversed, as did national downward trends in venereal diseases
b. data from Alan Guttmacher Institute showed more sexual activity among teenagers than before
c. pregnancy rates among 15-19 year old girls rose from 68 per thousand in 1970 to 96 per thousand in 1980
d. teenage gonorrhea tripled

4. The response

a. only Sargent Shriver reconsidered
b. blaming sex education "simplistic"
c. showed need for more sex education

C. Crime

1. Crisis: Bazelon in 1960: "We desperately need all the help we can get from modern behavioral scientists" for dealing with crime (note "help" and "scientists")

a. fewer murders in 1960 than in 1930, 1940, or 1950, despite a growing population and two new states
b. murder rate in 1960 was less than half of what it had been in 1934

2. Solution

a. rehabilitation rather than punishment
b. expanded criminals' "rights" and prisoners' "rights"
c. critics: NYC police chief laughed at.

3. Results

a. murder rate was more than twice as high by 1974 as in 1961
b. citizen's chance of becoming a victim of a major crime tripled during the decade of the 1960s
c. between 1965 and 1995 the murder arrest rate among juveniles tripled

4. Response

a. denial: statistical illusion due to better reporting, but cf. murder rate (liberal journalists' typewriters stolen)
b. suppression: "law and order" = racism
c. distortion: Silberman's comparisons
d. Earl Warren: "root causes" (poverty, ignorance, unemployment, all much worse in the 1930s)

5. Dénouement: growing incarceration and declining crime

How do the anointed manage to survive and, indeed, flourish after being wrong so often? Much as animals and plants survive in nature by being in environments favorable to their strengths and not very severe on their weaknesses. The strengths of the anointed are verbal strengths and mental nimbleness, combined with whatever academic credentials may help sustain their sense of intellectual and moral superiority. There are environments in which that is sufficient and other environments in which that counts for virtually nothing. The anointed can be found concentrated in the former kinds of environments, rather than the latter, just as fish are found in the sea and not on mountaintops, just as it is just the reverse with eagles.

The academic world, for example, is a sort of natural habitat or wild-life refuge for ideas that cannot stand the test of empirical results except for those fields in which there are decisive tests, such as science, mathematics, engineering, medicine and athletics. In all these fields, in their differing ways, there comes a time when you must either put up or shut up. It should not be surprising that all of these fields are notable exceptions to the complete domination of the left on campuses across the country.

You might think that the collapse of communism throughout Eastern Europe would be considered a decisive failure for Marxism, but academic Marxists in America are utterly undaunted. Their paychecks and their tenure are unaffected. Their theories continue to flourish in the classrooms and their journals continue to litter the library shelves.

Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it. Even countries that were once more prosperous than their neighbors have found themselves much poorer than their neighbors after just one generation of socialistic policies. Whether these neighboring countries were Ghana and the Ivory Coast or Burma and Thailand, it has been the same story around the world.

Nor is economic failure the worst of it. The millions slaughtered by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot for political reasons are an even grimmer reality.

People who live and work in a world where there is a business bottom line, an athletic scoreboard, a military battlefield or life-and-death surgery may find it hard to fully appreciate the difference between that kind of world and one in which the only decisive test is whether your colleagues like what you are saying.



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