When It Comes to Economic Achievement, Culture Matters . . . A Lot

Chinese, Jews, and Japanese are over-achievers.  And blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans are under-achievers, and it’s all due to culture.   –Thomas Sowell

A few observations from this interview.  Comments are mostly Thomas Sowell’s.

The Chinese are profitable in every country but China.  Germans produced the first pianos in Australia [hmm, according to this and other sources, it was Italian, Bartolomeo Cristofori, who produced the first piano, but maybe Sowell is referring to C. Bechstein mass production], they created the piano industry in the United States, they built the first pianos in England, built first pianos in Russia.

Look at the Chinese what they major in in college–science and technology. Group is not a creature of society but a creature of culture.  Chinese are prosperous everywhere in the world but in China.  Many groups when freed from the constraints of their society burst forth with all of the abilities that they have.  Indians are prosperous throughout Africa but in terrible shape in India.  Average person from the average country doesn’t get up and leave.  It takes an unusual person for that–to get up and leave.  The Japanese or Chinese who come to the United States do better than the Chinese who are born in the US.  White immigrants to Canada do better than white Canadians.  White immigrants to Britain do better than white Britains.  Heavy selection factor.

America is culturally pluralistic.  Shaken all that immigrant edge off?  Not really.  2nd generation Indians.  Germans who settled in Russia settled for one hundred years and never learned Russian.  Doesn’t stigmatize groups as permanent under-achievers.

Germans settled in Russia left Russia the way it was. They settled out in the far west, a pattern of life they have today as if they’d never been in Russia.

Chinese who came here from Hong Kong are far worse off than the average black.  Blacks started much farther behind.

Achievement is measured in income in occupation, economic achievement.  Achievement between blacks of the 1920s and blacks of the 1950s is phenomenal.

Blacks have started much further behind.  They went from being completely illiterate in the middle of the 19th century to being one-half literate by 1900: that’s just an amazing achievement!  Very little where you find that kind of achievement in the world.

Distinguished economic historian, Robert Higgs, said for blacks to go from being completely illiterate in the middle of the 19th century to being one half literate by 1900 is just an amazing achievement in the history of the world.  That you very seldom find that kind of change that quickly.

Here is Robert Higgs’ book, Competition and Coersion: Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914, 2008.  And here is a report that reviews his findings:

Black educational achievement in the 50 years following emancipation was substantial.  Black literacy increased from 10% in 1880 to 50% in 1910. (Note 2)

Robert Higgs writes:

But even if the true literacy figure a half century after emancipation reached only 50 percent, the magnitude of the accomplishment is still striking, especially when one recalls the overwhelming obstacles blocking black educational efforts. For a large population to transform itself from virtually unlettered to more than half literate in 50 years ranks as an accomplishment seldom witnessed in human history. (Note 3)

Increasing black literacy becomes even more striking when placed in historical context. The 50 years following emancipation saw the establishment of an oppressive racial code in the South, the elimination of blacks from the political process, and the establishment and subsequent constitutional validation of a “separate but equal” black school system. (Note 4)

Brown: “So what you’re saying is that Blacks haven’t caught up with whites.”

Sowell:  “Whites haven’t stood still.”

People must do what they can do.

There is a sign of progress, but very little sign of a miracle taking place.  You’re not going to be an engineer if you’re not getting an engineering degree.

Choices in the kinds of work that each culture determines income.

One . . . reason that 3rd world countries are poor along with the communist block is that they’re constantly fighting each other and not working things out.  Not much cohesion there [to build something more productive and prosperous].  If you spend your time fighting than working things out, you’re not going to get very far.

No group has risen from poverty to affluence through politics.  Affluence comes by staying away from politics.

Work . . . skills . . . savings.

Jim Crow was broken through politics.  Politics can do some things and other things it can’t do.

The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective, Thomas Sowell, 1985.

And Robert Higgs’ book, Competition and Coersion: Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914, 2008.


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