Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dr Block is Guilty of Faulty Reasoning and Signs of Douchebaggery, But He is not a Racist as far as I Can Tell from One Lecture

JL Wilson comes to the defense of Walter Block

Dr Block, an economics professor at Loyola in New Orleans, gave a talk at Loyola in Baltimore on the issues of the gender gap and the racial gap in earnings. This led the Diversity Task Force at his school to publish a letter distancing the school from Dr Block's remarks. The letter claimed that the talk had ignored structural conditions in society. Some other folks complained that Dr Block is a racist and/or a sexist.

I took up Wilson's challenge and viewed the repeat performance Dr Block gave of his talk. I have several observations: (1) that's two hours of my life that I will be regretting on my death bed; (2) if I ever decide to study economics, I will not do so at Loyola in New Orleans; (3) Dr Block, who refers to people who disagree with him as "monstrous, vicous and depraved", is not easy to sympathize with; (4) Dr Block's talk was among the lamest I have ever endured; and (5) there is no basis for charging Dr Block with racism based strictly on the content of the talk.

The Diversity Task Force was almost on point when it criticized the talk for ignoring structural conditions. He didn't so much ignore structural conditions as illustrate their very existence and then fail to recognize what was right in front of his nose.

Let's take his discussion of the gender gap. Dr Block sets out to refute the feminist argument (the straw one that he sets up anyway) that the gender gap is due solely to sexist discrimination and is an artifact of the capitalist system. I have read some feminist critiques of the capitalist system in my day, but none were quite so superficial as Block's straw version. He argues that the cause of the gender gap is explained by the "marital asymmetry hypothesis". Women have more responsibilities in the home than men and are, therefore, disadvantaged in the labor market. If women are cheaper than men with equal productivity, then free market folks will hire more of them and make more profit and ultimately get rid of the gender gap. This has not occurred; therefore, either women are less productive than men and should earn less or there is no wage gap.

Dr Block stipulated several times that men and women were equally productive, and he admitted the existence of the wage gap, so the conclusion about variable productivity has to be teased out. What Dr Block failed to recognize was that the domestic asymmetry he describes is a structural condition that imposes on the free market system that he appears to believe we actually live in. Economic actors take the structural conditions of society as they find them. Women are burdened with domestic responsibilities and are, therefore, less productive than their husbands who can ignore sick children and dirty dishes and get lots of face time with the boss. This makes for a feedback loop. Women get paid less than men, so their jobs are the ones that get sacrificed for childrearing, sick kids, what have you. They are the ones that give up their jobs when their husbands get relocated. It's the only rational decison they can make in a society structured to impose the majority of the domestic burden on women. Women without kids, or whose kids are grown get penalized because of the perception that their possession of a vagina necessarily makes them less productive.

It's not enough for Dr Block to recognize that the capitalist system is vindicated in this analysis. Capitalists didn't make marital asymmetry; they just take it into account as a social fact. Dr Black has to take it one superfluous step further and declare that marital asymmetry is due to biology. Men and women are variably productive because in the pleistocene our male ancestors couldn't be bothered to run the vacuum cleaner or empty the dishwasher now and again? Dr Black insists on making marital asymmetry an act of God or Evolution which is utterly unproblematic.

Also, Dr Block seems to deny that a lot of men (and women for that matter) are sexist douchebags who can't work with women and who won't advance their careers. This is not to say that they don't love their wives and mothers and daughters and sisters. They just have some irrational subjective preferences about whom they want to spend time with at work and on the golf course. I'm a corporate tool, and I know whereof I speak.

Because Dr Block goes out of his way to demonize and mischaracterize feminists and, for no apparent purpose, posits an essentialist argument for marital asymmetry, I'm going to classify him as "sexist". I'm not saying he is a misogynist or anything, just that he holds to the view that a great many more gender differences are essential and immutable than is accepted in the mainstream.

On to the part about the racial gap in earnings. According to Dr Block, his talk in Baltimore provided two explanations for the wage gap: (1) lower productivity among blacks being due to existential factors, or (2) black people are stupider than white people. He claimed not to have a position on this, but in his New Orleans recap, he added a number of additional existential explanations (welfare, family instability). He didn't deny that racial prejudice exists, but he spent quite a bit of time trying to rationalize it.

The gravamen of Dr Block's argument with respect to the racial gap is that the capitalist system would eliminate it because folks would have to pay for their prejudice. Well, I'm here to tell you that folks do pay for their prejudice. Also, once again, let me point out that we don't live in the free market paradise Dr Block is counting on. There are structural obstacles put in the way of black people and the folks who would employ them. Reduced black productivity is not the whole story. It may not even be the biggest part of the story.

In the end, though, Block never crossed the line into racialism. He didn't argue that the differences of black folks to white folks are essential. Since he didn't even get racialist, he certainly didn't display racism. It was a mistake to bring up the "black people are stupider" theory since it did not contribute to his argument, and it may have left the impression that he bought into it, in which case you could plausibly suspect him of racism.

Here's where Dr Block disappoints me. He could do a lot of good work by using his free market models and ways of thinking to show what a free market system would look like under ideal conditions and then to show where there are discrepancies from the ideal and how those discrepancies persist. We don't need economists to tell us why they persist. That's not a meaningful social scientific query. We don't need economists to be apologists for the world as it is. We have prozac for that.

I support Dr Block's right to hold contrarian views and expound on them no mattr how stupid I think they are. Hell, I reckon he has a right to racist or sexist views and to express them if he held them. On the other hand, everyone else has a right to call bullshit. I think even Dr Block would agree to that. He read an excerpt from JS Mill's "On Liberty" before his repeat performance, the one where Mill argues that all views should be expressed. I would not want to see Dr Block silenced. I would not want his critics to be silenced, either.


James Leroy Wilson said...

"Here's where Dr Block disappoints me. He could do a lot of good work by using his free market models and ways of thinking to show what a free market system would look like under ideal conditions and then to show where there are discrepancies from the ideal and how those discrepancies persist. We don't need economists to tell us why they persist. That's not a meaningful social scientific query. We don't need economists to be apologists for the world as it is."

Block is not pointing out that the world as it is is fine. But it's wrong to say that academics shouldn't show us the world as it is. Block's pointing out that even in this world we live in, racism and sexism do not explain wage inequality. His arguments oppose State intervention into free association - and who can be an anarchist who doesn't agree with that?

On one level, I didn't think Block adequately answered the question of why men don't offer to do more around the house, or why women in that environment don't tell the husband to get their own damn coffee. But, I believe in Block's view, unless the women were coerced into the marriage, there's no problem as far as ethics and law are concerned.

Vache Folle said...

Thanks, James. I don;t think he succeeded in ruling out racism and sexism as causes for income inequality. He just shifted them and tried to hide them by making them less proximate. Structural sexism underlies marital asymmetry which then leads to the gender gap. Block did explain that capitalism per se does not entail sexism, but he failed to recognize that capitalists take the structural circumstances as they find them and that this might inadvertently perpetuate sexist a sexist social order.

As for racism, Block expressly adopted the view that black income inequality is due to lower black productivity which he then attributed to existential circumstances, some of which are undoubtedly artifacts of racism. He did not establish that race does not account for the racial gap in income at all. He showed that capitalism, in principle, does not entail racism, but he did not acknowledge that capitalists operate within a racist structure and that they make rational capitalist decisions based on the world in which they find themselves. Again, capitalists may find themselves inadvertently perpetuating racist structures.

I'm not assignng blame here for racism or sexism, just acknowledging how they work and that they exist. THere may be free market solutions to the problems created by these "isms", but we're not likely to find them if we pretend that (a) the isms don't exist or matter or (b) that we actually live in a free enterprise system.

I agree that academics should show us the world as it is. They shouldn;t be such Panglossian apologists for it, though. Hitler and Stalin are easier to take because having potential genocidal maniacs in the gene pool may have been beneficial? That pretty much sums up the world view.

Block is what Kevin Carson would call a "Vulgar Libertarian". I'm sure he means well, but his approach is way too simplistic.