There are no Solutions, only Trade-offs.
By Amy Willis
By Amy Willis, May 27 2021
What is the outlook for black Americans today- is the black experience glass half full or half empty? Is racial discrimination the root of all problems in Black America? In this episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes the Wall Street Journal‘s Jason Riley, who argues the current situation has been distorted by activists with conflicting interests. Says Riley, “I’m not someone who believes that racism has been vanquished from America. The question is: does racism explain the outcomes we see today…?”
Now we’d like to turn the conversation over to you. After listening to the episode, consider the prompts below and share your replies. We’d love to see them here online, but we’re equally pleased if we can help you start a conversation with someone offline.
1- The conversation begins with a discussion of police violence. Riley argues that the media preoccupied with breaking down police encounters by race, but not criminality by race. Which is the bigger problem- policing or black criminality? To what extent do you agree this presents a distorted view to the public? What are some of the unintended consequences Riley says results from this media (and social media) attention?
2- Riley notes that during the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, black lives improved greatly and in a great many ways. What does he suggest we should learn from that? How does this relate to what Riley call the problem of black elites? How does Riley use the case of immigration as a comparison to black Americans today?
3. For what reasons does Riley argue that the Drug War has become a victim of revisionist history? To what extent do you agree with his statement that, “if your goal is to a). reduce mass incarceration, or b). reduce the racial disparities among our incarcerated population, among the prison population, going after the drug war is barking up the wrong tree.”
4- Riley sadly suggests he thinks racism is a part of human nature. Is that true? As he and Roberts speculate at the end of the conversation, would everything really be hunky-dory if  the US eliminated racism?
5- The episode ends with a brief discussion of Riley’s new biography of Thomas Sowell. What do Riley and Roberts see as Sowell’s legacy?
Footloose, Fancy-Free, and Failing
Systemic racism. Cancel culture. Police brutality. Tumbling statues. We hear about these everywhere and all the time today. Should this make us optimistic or pessimistic about America's future? In this episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes economist and author Glenn Loury to discuss race and inequality in America today. This lively conversation covers these issues and more. We are eager to continue the conversation with you, our loyal listeners. Please use the prompts below to join our...
John Alcorn
Jun 11 2021 at 10:42am
The conversation between Jason Riley and Russ Roberts is EconTalk at its best. All light, no heat — on the thorniest, most contentious issue in America. Riley does justice to the whole ball of wax, in the sprit of Thomas Sowell. A riveting moment: Roberts eloquently steel-mans the case for reparations. Many insights and much wisdom in an hour. There is hope!
Amy, Thank you for the latest batch of stimulating, probing questions.
1. Homicide by civilians and by police officers in the USA.
In 2019, the number of killings by civilians (19,141) was 20 times greater than the number of killings by police (999).
Roland G. Fryer’s groundbreaking research (2017), “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” finds that police, in context, do stop and frisk racial minorities more than whites, but don’t use lethal force disproportionately against racial minorities:
“Using data on police interactions from NYC’s Stop and Frisk program, we demonstrate that on non-lethal uses of force – putting hands on civilians (which includes slapping or grabbing) or pushing individuals into a wall or onto the ground, there are large racial differences. In the raw data, blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to have an interaction with police which involves any use of force. Accounting for 125 variables that represent baseline characteristics, encounter characteristics, civilian behavior, precinct and year fixed effects, the odds-ratio on black (resp. Hispanic) is 1.178 (resp. 1.122). [… .]
In stark contrast to non-lethal uses of force, we find that, conditional on a police interaction, there are no racial differences in officer-involved shootings on either the extensive or intensive margins. Using data from Houston, Texas – where we have both officer-involved shootings and a randomly chosen set of potential interactions with police where lethal force may have been justified – we find, after controlling for suspect demographics, officer demographics, encounter characteristics, suspect weapon and year fixed effects, that blacks are 27.4 percent less likely to be shot at by police relative to non-black, non-Hispanics. This coefficient is measured with considerable error and not statistically significant. This result is remarkably robust across alternative empirical specifications and subsets of the data. Partitioning the data in myriad ways, we find no evidence of racial discrimination in officer-involved shootings. Investigating the intensive margin – the timing of shootings or how many bullets were discharged in the endeavor – there are no detectable racial differences.” (pp. 3-5)
Riley reminds us that the number of killings by police officers has decreased by an order of magnitude in the past half century. In order to make further progress, we need perspective, accurate data, careful analysis of mechanisms (cause and effect), and rigorous experiments in ‘keyhole solutions’ and constructive reforms. Vivid, disturbing instances of lethal force by police officers should prompt us to do our level best, rather than to abandon numeracy. Mainstream media didn’t rise to the occasion!
2. Trends in Black life from emancipation to the Civil Rights movement.
Riley is impressed by two trends in Black life before the Great Society reforms: high marriage rates and emergence from extreme poverty. A lesson that he draws is, Please stop helping us. He reasons that Black academic and political elites — who espouse critical race theory, and who advocate reparations and racial preferences in education and in employment — pander and mislead. He observes that immigrants continue to pull themselves up from nothing, and infers that Blacks would do better to emulate immigrants, instead of heeding Black elites. Riley’s message is conservative: self-improvement, marriage, self-reliance, dignity.
I would add that government should stop getting in the way of Blacks. Deregulate occupational licensing. Allow open school choice and radical vouchers for alternative paths (apprenticeships, training programs, internships) to the labor market. Take pragmatic steps to reduce regulation in housing construction.
[I will try and get to Questions 3, 4, and 5 later …]
John Alcorn
Jun 11 2021 at 5:48pm
3. Disparate impact of the War on Drugs.
Riley points out that (a) the War on Drugs imprisons mainly dealers, not retail buyers, and (b) Black leaders advocated the War on Drugs (in response to rapid growth in crack cocaine use).
I would like to clarify aspects of this complex issue, beyond what is feasible in a free-wheeling podcast conversation, by quoting excerpts from a recent, comprehensive study by top scholars, Jonathan P. Caulkins & Peter Reuter, “Reorienting the Criminal Justice System to Deal with Illegal Drugs More Effectively and Humanely” (2017):
“[…] it is misleading—if not simply false—to say that drug enforcement drove the overall growth in incarceration since 1990, since that growth was as great for nondrug offenses as it was for drug law violations. [… .]
Another major charge against drug enforcement is that its burdens are even more racially disparate than those of the criminal justice system generally. In terms of incarceration, the rates are distressingly different: 3,000 per 100,000 for black males in 2010 compared to 500 per 100,000 for white males. Yet Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that disproportionality in recent years is no greater than for nondrug offenses: in 2013, 37.7 percent of those imprisoned under state jurisdiction for drug law violations were black (79,300 out of 210,200), and 37.9 percent of those imprisoned for nondrug violations were black (418,800 out of 1,104,700; Carson 2014).[… .] Those imprisoned for drug law violations, even drug possession, almost always played some—albeit perhaps minor—role in drug distribution. People who have committed no crime other than possession of amounts suitable for personal consumption might go to jail, but they rarely go to prison. Data on drug use say nothing about the composition of the dealing population, but they are frequently cited, perhaps because there are no meaningful data on the demographic breakdown of drug dealers. [… .]
Drug offenses may not account for a very large share of the prison population, but drug-involved offenders certainly do. Using data from self-reports of inmates in local jails in 2002 and in federal and state prisoners in 2004, Sevigny, Pollack, and Reuter (2013) find that over half of inmates either are dependent on, or are abusers of, one or more of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. Some additional proportion committed nondrug crimes (murder, money laundering, etc.) that were motivated by participation in drug distribution. So the share of incarceration that is drug-related, through either drug selling or dependence or abuse, greatly exceeds the proportion of inmates serving time for drug law violations. [… .]
Federal incarceration for drug offenses also shows disproportionately few non-Hispanic white inmates. For blacks the differential is primarily from crack offenses; African Americans have typically accounted for 80 percent of those sentenced for that offense. Federal statistics also show a much higher percentage of Hispanic inmates for drug offenses, relative to state and local systems, between 40 percent and 47 percent. In part, the reason is that until recently almost all of America’s illegal drugs were imported from Latin America, primarily Mexico, and federal drug enforcement effort is mostly aimed at importation and high-level distribution. [… .]
[…] when local police and prosecutors cause a drug offender to be sentenced to prison, the cost of that prison sentence is usually paid by taxpayers throughout the state, even though the majority of the benefits accrue locally. This creates a ‘tragedy of the commons’ that can incentivize over-incarceration.”
John Alcorn
Jun 12 2021 at 8:35am
4. Racism and human nature.
I would distinguish animus and statistical discrimination. See Bryan Caplan’s lucid slide deck about economics of discrimination.
Racial animus has an emotional grip on the mind and clouds judgment. Psychologically, it invites confirmation bias. Sustained, positive interracial interactions would change hearts, but animus forestalls interactions. It’s a bad equilibrium.
Racial statistical discrimination is insidious. In many contexts, it’s hard to judge individual character and competence before interacting.
Consider, for example, decision-making by taxi drivers a generation ago, before the advent of platforms like Uber or Lyft. The taxi driver wants to avoid robbery. She can’t gather information about individual character when she decides whether to pick up a person hailing a taxi. She relies on statistical discrimination — salient group identity based on features that correlate with crime. She hesitates to pick up a young, Black, male. (Note the intersection of 3 dimensions of statistical discrimination: age, race, sex.) Law-abiding young, Black, men suffer loss of service — and don’t find comfort in the distinction between animus and statistical discrimination. It’s a bad equilibrium.
By contrast, recently, entrepreneurial, technological innovation has undermined racial stereotyping in car ride service. Ride-sharing platforms greatly reduce uncertainty about individual character before interaction. The Uber or Lyft driver efficiently checks the prospective client’s individual reputation score.
John Alcorn
Jun 12 2021 at 10:32am
5. Legacy of Thomas Sowell.
Russ Roberts highlights 2 of Sowell’s pithy policy maxims:
1) ‘There are no solutions, only trade-offs.’ (Always acknowledge constraints.)
2) ‘And then what?’ (Always try to discern or imagine potential unintended consequences.) The road to hell might be paved with good intentions. Recall Jason Riley’s dictum, ‘Please stop helping us.’
Riley adds a another Sowell maxim:
3) ‘Never expect equal outcomes.’ (Group differences in endowments and culture shape outcomes.)
Thomas Sowell is a gold mine. Here are two of my takeaways:
4) ‘Compared to what?’ (Compare realistic options. Utopia is not a benchmark.)
5) ‘Get out of the way.’ (Freedom fosters opportunity, accountability, and initiative. Heavy regulation does the opposite.)
Sowell is a subtle mix of libertarian and conservative — a modern ‘classical liberal.’ Conservatives must reckon with his affinity for free markets. Libertarians must reckon with his doubts about pacifism, vice markets, and open borders.
Your Name:
Email Address:
required, not displayed
Website URL:
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.
Enter your email address to subscribe to our monthly newsletter:
Footloose, Fancy-Free, and Failing
Systemic racism. Cancel culture. Police brutality. Tumbling statues. We hear about these everywhere and all the time today. Should this make us optimistic or pessimistic about America's future? In this episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes economist and author Glenn Loury to discuss race and inequality in America today. This lively conversation covers these issues and more. We are eager to continue the conversation with you, our loyal listeners. Please use the prompts below to join our...
Search Econlib
The Library of Economics and Liberty

Enter your email address to subscribe to our monthly newsletter:
Contact Us Privacy Policy

Copyright @ 1999-2019 Liberty Fund, Inc.
All Rights Reserved