Monday, March 27, 2006

A Classy Economist

Pop economist Steven Levitt may be getting all the press, but in my humble opinion nobody gets to the heart of basic economic issues like Thomas Sowell. The Weekend Edition of the WSJ has a great interview with him, for those of you with a subscription:

Similarly, Mr. Sowell says his interest in "international perspectives" -- most notably demonstrated in his lengthy trilogy on cultural history published in the 1990s -- initially came from reading Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1963 classic study, "Beyond the Melting Pot." "It was really the first book I read about different ethnic groups. There were many different patterns. And more than anything else, each group had its own pattern.

"The left likes to portray a group as sort of a creature of surrounding society. But that's not true. For example, back during the immigrant era, you had neighborhoods on the Lower East Side [of Manhattan] where Jews and Italians arrived at virtually identical times. Lived in the same neighborhoods. Kids sat side by side in the same schools. But totally different outcomes. Now, if you look back at the history of the Jews and the history of the Italians you can see why that would be. In the early 19th century, Russian officials report that even the poorest Jews find some way to get some books in their home, even though they're living in a society where over 90% of the people are illiterate.

"Conversely, in southern Italy, which is where most Italian-Americans originated, when they put in compulsory school-attendance laws, there were riots. There were schoolhouses burning down. So now you take these two kids and sit them side by side in a school. If you believe that environment means the immediate surroundings, they're in the same environment. But if you believe environment includes this cultural pattern that goes back centuries before they were born, then no, they're not in the same environment. They don't come into that school building with the same mindset. And they don't get the same results."