August 13, 2003

What Is Wrong with Thomas Sowell?

Thomas Sowell rants about how migration data covering the 1995-2000 period show that the California state government is killing California's economy:

Thomas Sowell: The real voting: The latest census data show -- for the first time -- that more Californians have been moving to other states than people in other states have been moving to California. Between 1995 and 2000, California had a net loss of more than 600,000 people to other states. People are voting with their feet. California's total population has not gone down, however. Immigrants have replaced Americans. Apparently California is still considered to be preferable to Mexico or Central America.

After years -- indeed, generations -- of being a magnet for people and businesses, California is now exporting both, including particularly young people. Why? One reason is that California's politicians are following a strategy which has worked well politically in New York City -- milking the productive people in order to support the unproductive, whose votes count just as much and are easier to get. This may be killing the goose that lays the golden egg, but that is all right politically, so long as the goose doesn't die before the next election...

But the 1995-2000 period Sowell references--the one during which Americans "voted with their feet" against California--saw employment grow by 14% in California (as opposed to 12% in the rest of the country). The 1995-2000 period saw real gross state product in California grow by 27% (as opposed to by 21% in the rest of the country).

To call the California economy between 1995 and 2000 a failure doesn't pass the laugh test.

Posted by DeLong at August 13, 2003 10:28 AM | TrackBack

Comments

There are so many things wrong with Sowell it's hard to know where to begin frankly. I wrote about his detached from reality summary of a NYT article last month.

http://www.sadlyno.com/article.php?story=20030702094911316

Posted by: Seb on August 13, 2003 10:33 AM

"Immigrants have replaced Americans."

Seems that Sowell is now a neo-Know-Nothing. Ironic, that.

Posted by: David W. on August 13, 2003 10:39 AM

By AEI standards this is an outstanding piece of scholarship.

Posted by: M. Hackenkaus on August 13, 2003 10:48 AM

"...milking the productive people in order to support the unproductive, whose votes count just as much and are easier to get."

Darn, and I had missed it. So, we really can milk the productive to suuport the unproductive. Like milking the productive millionaire at say a 30% average tax level, to support a Medicaid grant to the child of a mother who earns $20,0000 working her unproductive way as a nursing home attendant with no health care benefits and still winds up paying taxes at about a 30% level?

Fairly balanced, y'all.

Posted by: lise - fairly balanced on August 13, 2003 10:48 AM

Is there any real data behind all these folks’ equation of “native” with “productive” and “immigrant” with “unproductive,” or is it all just bigotry and prejudice?

If anything, I’d think historically immigrants have been MORE productive, technically speaking — but that might just be MY prejudices.

Posted by: David Moles on August 13, 2003 10:50 AM

How does CEO pay get figured into worker productivity estimates?

Posted by: David Moles on August 13, 2003 10:55 AM

Where in the piece does he call the economy a failure?

Posted by: spongeworthy on August 13, 2003 10:59 AM

My impression (anyone have numbers?) is that the immigrants moving into Santa Clara county (can't speak for the rest of CA) are better educated and better paid than the residents who have been moving out because they can't afford to live here anymore. The trend may have changed since the economic downturn, but most observers would have agreed with this assessment in 2000. So I have been a little puzzled by the recent focus on Americans moving to other states that apparently ignores an influx of highly skilled workers from other countries. It does sound to me more like American chauvinism than an objective understanding of the trends. And it seems to be the result of a favorable economic climate.

Posted by: Paul Callahan on August 13, 2003 11:00 AM

Where in the piece does he call the economy a failure?

Posted by: spongeworthy on August 13, 2003 11:04 AM

Didn't the Census Bureau offer the view that domestic East-to-West migration had finally run its course? Isn't that as an explanation for the lack of migration by those from East, compared to those from the South, of California into the state? Saturation seems at least part of the explanation. Land is used up. Water is used up. Those are not the same issue as robbing from the busy to give to the slacker. If there has been a big domestic trend change that has nothing to do with imported labor, it seems a bit odd that Sowell didn't mention it.

Posted by: K Harris on August 13, 2003 11:14 AM

The sneering disdain for immigrants, especially immigrants from Latin America is a throwback to the worst of our past. I am a child and grandchild of immigrant laborers and never ever imagined they were not productive as could be. What gets to these radical right ranters?

Fair and Balanced
Not to be mistaken for the other Dahl

Posted by: dahl on August 13, 2003 11:19 AM

As another poster said, Sowell didn't say the California economy was a failure. So the potshot is poorly aimed. Also, he didn't sneer at immigrants, as dahl claims.

And, contrary to lise, Sowell did give an example of milking the productive for the benefit of the unproductive:

" A classic example is San Francisco's monthly stipend paid to the homeless, who nevertheless panhandle and make themselves a nuisance on the streets in other ways, much to the dismay of downtown business owners. Recently, a San Francisco hotel association asked its guests not to give money to panhandlers because this just kept them hanging around, creating problems.

" Instantly, a San Francisco official threatened to launch an investigation of hotels' charges if they didn't back off from telling people not to give money to panhandlers. "

Another example would be the extortionate workmans' compensation taxes, and disability programs. That was enough to scare me from opening a branch of my business in California.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on August 13, 2003 12:31 PM

What could "killing the goose" mean in the context of Sowell's remarks except that the economy isn't performing well? Who, otherwise, are these highly productive people for whom Sowell is concerned? Good grief.

And there are 4 words to remind Sowell of in the period 1995-2000: "Silicon Valley" and "dot-com boom" (regardless of how it played out). Somehow, whatever horrible things California was doing to its productive workers, that didn't seem to harm the formation of new businesses and the creation of new, high-paying jobs.

Now, i know nothing about San Francisco's approach to "paying the homeless," but what in the world does that have to do with the behavior of California, the state?

As for disability and worker's comp, I'm sure that Patrick knows what he's talking about, although i'd like to hear a little more about exactly what the problem is as compared to other states, but again, why didn't these problems cause the California economy to grow less than the national norm rather than more during the period that Sowell is discussing?

Posted by: howard on August 13, 2003 12:45 PM

The very strong implicit suggestion is that Mexicans and Central Americans are coming to California, replacing real Americans, and then getting on welfare.

I'm not too surprised that he didn't mention Indians, who tend to be more associated with high-tech. (They got the most H1 visas throughout the boom.) However, it's dishonest to fail to mention Asians when discussing population patterns in California.

I guess I'm a real American? I'm from Oregon and I came here because the state is so desirable, but honestly what difference does it make? I honestly don't give a s*** if my coworker is from Akron or Wuhan (and why would anybody else?). In fact I'm offended by this. If the author can show that immigration in California has accompanied a demonstrable loss of productivity or general economic welfare then so be it. Does the author assume displeasure at seeing a brown face?

Could it be that immigrants are coming to CA, filing for benefits, and then voting for unscrupulous California politicians? Has Sowell ever had to deal with the INS? Has he ever applied for citizenship? (My assumption was always that it was the 'real' Americans that were most likely to apply for and receive government assistance.)

Nuts.

Posted by: Saam Barrager on August 13, 2003 04:52 PM

Actually, it just occured to me that he might be on the right track if he were strictly talking about agriculture.

California (if I remember correctly) is the biggest agricultural producer in the US. Nationwide, labor decreased by 20% from 1990 - 2000 in the agricultural sector. (Burea of Labor Statistics) This must mean that California was hit also.

My mother works for the Oregon Department of Agriculture and interviews farmers. Her experience is that farmers hire native Spanish speakers almost exclusively.

If Sowell wants to express that 'real Americans' (as in native-born English-speaking Americans?) working in agriculture have seen declines in labor participation in California he might be on to something.

If Sowell wants to express that the California economy has suffered due to the displacement of 'real Americans' by resource-sucking Mexican immigrant voters then he's got a pretty weak case there. (I think this is what he's saying.)

Posted by: Saam Barrager on August 13, 2003 05:17 PM

Yikes. Did anyone (DeLong included) actually read the column by Sowell? At no point does he say that California's economy is a failure. He never uses the phrase "real americans" and so on. Feel free to criticize the guy, but do so on what he actually wrote, not what you fantasize he wrote.

Posted by: Ross N. on August 13, 2003 07:44 PM

Sowell has been laboring for decades under the misapprehension that a chronically filthy temper can conceal ignorance. (The last straw for me was a similar sneer in which he managed to totally confuse ozone depletion with global warming.)

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on August 13, 2003 07:48 PM

I wonder if we can turn his central fact about 600,000 net natives departures around slightly. I suspect even Mr. Sowell is aware of the bouyant, even bubbly, performance of the California economy from 1995 to 2000.

But how many of us would have guessed that California actually had a net outflow of native Americans during the same period? It would never have occurred to me suspect that - I would have assumed that the strong CA economy was attracting folks from the rest of the country.

I find the fact of net domestic emigration to be sufficiently counter-intuitive as to merit a bit more thought than a simple, well, the economy was good, screw it.

Sowell's point would seem to be that something unusual was going on beneath the surface of a seemingly strong economy, and now, in 2003, it is clear that CA has problems. However, I have a lot of questions about his numbers and his conclusion.

First, what is up with 1995? The Census is every ten years - is this some intermediate survey that may simply be unreliably noisy?

Second, do I care about net domestic immigration? America is a land of immigrants, we are proud of our ability to attract and employ them, and maybe this is just a sign of California's strength. Or maybe not, since the state does have problems, and it has never (we are told) had net domestic outflows in previous periods. I am inclined to continue caring, but I note that Sowell may have identified a non-problem.

Third thought: suppose we split US citizens into three categories - workers with kids (in a burst of old-fashioned, overly optimistic conservatism, I will call them "Marrieds"); Single workers ("Singles", clever, huh?); and retired folks (Geezers? NO, "Retired").

SO, suppose we could break down the net 600,000 outflow, and we learned that Marrieds and Singles performed as per historical norms, but Retireds were a huge net outflow. Would I still be inclined to follow Sowell and conclude that CA is too burdened by regulation and too inclined to subsidize the non-working, and is driving businesses away? I might go for a simpler theory - high real estate prices encouraged Californians to sell and move, and discouraged others from retiring TO California.

Or suppose the big break in historical patterns came with Marrieds. Maybe it is a combination of unaffordable housing and declining school quality that is (on net) pushing these folks out. If that is the problem, then tax cuts and less regulation may not be the answer.

Or maybe the fact that CA grew at 14% while the country grew at 12% is a distraction. If Oregon and Washington grew at 20%, that could easily skew patterns of domestic migration.

Look, Sowell raises an interesting point that this "600,000 out" number is, superficially at least, wildly at odds with what one might have expected. And he is on solid ground in noting that Californians believe they have a problem today (he did write this in 2003, remember, not 2000).

He then says, this number is an early symptom of a problem that has now come home to roost. That bit is less convincing. But to respond with accusations of racism, or to say the economy was good then, is also not convincing.

More research is needed. Where is the grant proposal?

Posted by: Tom Maguire on August 13, 2003 08:13 PM

OK, here is the Census website. My computer is not accepting .pdf files evidently - I agreed to suppress further errors, and got a series of black pages. Very helpful. The introductory test noted that a lot of retirees moved from CA to Nevada, so my curiousity was whetted.

http://www.census.gov/newonsite/

Posted by: Tom Maguire on August 13, 2003 08:20 PM

Sowell: "Illegal immigrants are at least as valued as native-born American citizens." This differentiates between illegal immigrants and native-born Americans, which I termed 'real Americans.'

The article rambles quite a bit, and having read the whole thing I'm feeling silly for getting angry. Still, there are streaks of racial nationalism and I responded emotionally to them.

Posted by: Saam Barrager on August 13, 2003 11:34 PM

The california economy from 1995-2000 was like AOL during those years. Things were going great, and rather than believing it a combination of luck and timing those in power(government in california, senior management in aol) believed that it was due to their exceptional skill. Now we know that 95% of senior managers at AOL were lucky incompetents rather than skillfull and insightful managers. Same thing for California. That the economy was riding an unsustainable wave of tech investment and boom doesn't mean that it's policies were very good.

Posted by: William Utley on August 14, 2003 05:44 AM

I have to agree with Tom -- doesn't it worry you, as a Californian, at least a little bit that during the biggest, longest local boom this country has ever seen, it was only 14% compared to 12%, and workers and businesses were leaving the state? I'm not saying Sowell's right -- I have no idea -- but with the amount of money that was pouring into the state, it's rather shocking that the stats are so modest.

Posted by: Jane Galt on August 14, 2003 07:45 AM

Some of the states with big net outflows:
California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Louisiana, the Dakotas, Hawaii, DC.

Some of the states with big net inflows:
Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington.

So California is in there with a bunch of rust belt and farm states, and not in there with the other Sunbelt and Western tech states. I think Sowell has a point.

Posted by: rvman on August 14, 2003 08:24 AM

Um, so if CA just had less regulation and taxes, everyone'd stay put? I think the outflows had more to do with overcrowding and land prices.....

Posted by: Jason McCullough on August 14, 2003 09:12 AM

Jason's "overcrowding and land prices" notion is far too broad minded, accepting that a trend that can be explained (or at least worried about) by leaning on a pet grievance might actually have a more complex causes, or causes that one has not yet considered. Jason, please stop that.

Let's say I'm a codger (since geezer has been ruled out of bounds) enjoying a 3-fold increase in the value of my home. I live on a fixed income. It occurs to me that selling real estate in a high-priced market and moving to a lower priced market might make me wealthier. I will miss my culturally interesting and hard working immigrant neighbors, but this is America - I'm mobile and I drugs are expensive. gotta go. Ta ta.

Posted by: K Harris on August 14, 2003 09:59 AM

Whew! Liberals/Socialist gathering! Posts are full of missquotes, emotional responses vs. fact-based replies.
"If the author can show that immigration in California has accompanied a demonstrable loss of productivity or general economic welfare then so be it. Does the author assume displeasure at seeing a brown face?" What the h*** was that? Did i misread that reply? Immigration is a MAJOR drain of funds. Illegal aliens, oops I mean "undocumented immigrants" come here, sponge off the system, pay no taxes, do not serve in the military, send thier money back to Mexico (and other countries yes), go to emergency rooms where they have to be treated for any illness, send thier non-english speaking children to school, have no insurance, pay no federal taxes...Nuff' said! send them back and allow them to re-enter legally. WHY DO YOU LIBERALS CLAIM THIS IS A RACIST? They need to straighten up Mexico. The ruling class are descendants of Spaniards, corrupt and oppressive. MECHA is just a way to vent thier anger for thier failings. I am American-Mexican by the way.

Posted by: Bob Jacobo on October 17, 2003 11:32 PM

Whew! Liberals/Socialist gathering! Posts are full of missquotes, emotional responses vs. fact-based replies.
"If the author can show that immigration in California has accompanied a demonstrable loss of productivity or general economic welfare then so be it. Does the author assume displeasure at seeing a brown face?" What the h*** was that? Did i misread that reply? Immigration is a MAJOR drain of funds. Illegal aliens, oops I mean "undocumented immigrants" come here, sponge off the system, pay no taxes, do not serve in the military, send thier money back to Mexico (and other countries yes), go to emergency rooms where they have to be treated for any illness, send thier non-english speaking children to school, have no insurance, pay no federal taxes...Nuff' said! send them back and allow them to re-enter legally. WHY DO YOU LIBERALS CLAIM THIS IS A RACIST? They need to straighten up Mexico. The ruling class are descendants of Spaniards, corrupt and oppressive. MECHA is just a way to vent thier anger for thier failings. I am American-Mexican by the way.

Posted by: Bob Jacobo on October 17, 2003 11:33 PM

Whew! Liberals/Socialist gathering! Posts are full of missquotes, emotional responses vs. fact-based replies.
"If the author can show that immigration in California has accompanied a demonstrable loss of productivity or general economic welfare then so be it. Does the author assume displeasure at seeing a brown face?" What the h*** was that? Did i misread that reply? Immigration is a MAJOR drain of funds. Illegal aliens, oops I mean "undocumented immigrants" come here, sponge off the system, pay no taxes, do not serve in the military, send thier money back to Mexico (and other countries yes), go to emergency rooms where they have to be treated for any illness, send thier non-english speaking children to school, have no insurance, pay no federal taxes...Nuff' said! send them back and allow them to re-enter legally. WHY DO YOU LIBERALS CLAIM THIS IS A RACIST? They need to straighten up Mexico. The ruling class are descendants of Spaniards, corrupt and oppressive. MECHA is just a way to vent thier anger for thier failings. I am American-Mexican by the way.

Posted by: Bob Jacobo on October 17, 2003 11:38 PM

Whew! Liberals/Socialist gathering! Posts are full of missquotes, emotional responses vs. fact-based replies.
"If the author can show that immigration in California has accompanied a demonstrable loss of productivity or general economic welfare then so be it. Does the author assume displeasure at seeing a brown face?" What the h*** was that? Did i misread that reply? Immigration is a MAJOR drain of funds. Illegal aliens, oops I mean "undocumented immigrants" come here, sponge off the system, pay no taxes, do not serve in the military, send thier money back to Mexico (and other countries yes), go to emergency rooms where they have to be treated for any illness, send thier non-english speaking children to school, have no insurance, pay no federal taxes...Nuff' said! send them back and allow them to re-enter legally. WHY DO YOU LIBERALS CLAIM THIS IS A RACIST? They need to straighten up Mexico. The ruling class are descendants of Spaniards, corrupt and oppressive. MECHA is just a way to vent thier anger for thier failings. I am American-Mexican by the way.

Posted by: Bob Jacobo on October 17, 2003 11:40 PM
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