Glenn Loury's Round Trip

The search for better economic policy.
May 15 1998 3:30 AM

Glenn Loury's Round Trip

The travails and temptations of a black intellectual.

Although Glenn Loury and I overlapped in graduate school--I arrived at MIT in 1974 and he left in 1976--I have never known him well. But I do remember the joke classmates told about him--that his thesis began: "This dissertation is concerned with the economics of racism. I define racism as a single-valued, continuous mapping ..." The story isn't true, but a chapter of that thesis, titled "A Dynamic Theory of Racial Income Differences," does have an appendix that begins "Each agent begins life with a random innate endowment. Q is the endowment set, taken to be a subset of an arbitrary, finite dimensional Euclidean space."

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Loury, in other words, was and is a first-rate technical economist with a mathematical bent who has ended up writing and speaking not about Euclidean spaces but about the political economy of race. This is partly because he is as good with words as he is with equations. It is partly because he cares deeply about social issues. But inevitably, it is also partly because he is one of only a handful of well-known African-Americans in his field. In the process he has become what, say, Arthur Koestler or George Orwell was in another time and place: one of those emblematic intellectuals whose career illustrates in microcosm the dilemmas, temptations, and betrayals of an era.

When he was young, Loury's disillusionment with the civil rights movement drove him into neoconservatism. But in recent years, he has been exiled once again, cast out by the right essentially because he still cares about what happens to the poor. The dogmatic rigidity, left and right, that has left Loury without an ideological home is also why this nation has such a hard time talking honestly about race.

Reading Loury's dissertation today, 22 years after he wrote it, is a depressing experience--precisely because the essays were so good and remain so relevant. In the first few pages, he stated the central dilemma of race policy in modern America. He was willing to give American society the benefit of the doubt, to assume that in the future, racism--direct economic discrimination--would no longer be a major force holding African-Americans back. But he argued that this probably would not be enough, and therein lay the dilemma.

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O n one hand, we all believe that individuals deserve to be judged on their own merits, not by who their parents were or what group they belong to. On the other hand, anyone who imagines that a child growing up in the South Bronx has the same chance to make it as an equally talented child growing up in Scarsdale is living in a fantasy world. So merely eliminating current racial discrimination might very well fail to eliminate the effects of past discrimination. Indeed, Loury argued persuasively that even a world of "equal opportunity" might "perpetuate into the indefinite future the consequences of ethically unacceptable historical practices." If you find that prospect unacceptable, you must support some form of social engineering--which ultimately, no matter how you package it, means giving some people special consideration based on the color of their skin as well as on the content of their character.

In a better world, Loury would have spent the last 22 years devising policies--working with other well-intentioned people to come as close as possible to squaring this circle, finding ways to eliminate the legacy of past racism with as little intrusion as possible on the colorblind ideal. But he has basically never been able to get off square one--because at no point over the past two decades has he been able to find allies who are even willing to accept the reality of the dilemma.

Loury's problems began with the left. Although his dissertation was written only a dozen years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, he saw clearly that the problems facing African-Americans had changed. The biggest barrier to progress was no longer active racism of whites but internal social problems of the black community. But black leaders, and to a lesser extent liberalism as a whole, flatly refused even to contemplate that possibility. He also found powerful pressures--"loyalty tests"--operating against any black intellectual who tried to challenge the orthodoxy.

To Loury's credit, he did not give in to these pressures. He said what he thought. In so doing, he found himself labeled a "black conservative"--and thereby exposed to new and dangerous seductions. Let's face it: Any articulate minority intellectual who reliably espouses conservative positions is automatically offered a ticket to a very nice lifestyle. No more rejections from picky academic journals or grubbing for sabbatical time. Instead there are cushy fellowships at Hoover, guest editorials in the WallStreetJournal, and invited articles in Commentary--maybe even a regular column in Forbes--and a steady stream of invitations to plush conferences in nice places. All this and more lay before a bona fide academic star such as Loury. Until personal problems temporarily derailed him in 1987, he was well on his way to high political office and all the rewards that brings in later life.

But at some point Loury made the discovery that eventually confronts every honest intellectual who gets drawn into the political arena: The enemies of your enemies are not necessarily your friends. The Glenn Loury who wrote that 1976 thesis was not a conservative. He criticized the simplistic anti-racism of the liberal establishment because he wanted society to tackle the real problems, not because he wanted it to stand aside. His seeming allies on the right, however, turned out to be interested only in the critique, not in the next step. (According to Loury, "When I told one gathering of conservatives that their seeming hostility to every social program smacks of indifference to the poor, I was told that a surgeon cannot properly be said to have no concern for a terminally ill patient simply because he had moved on to the next case.") Loury found out that the apparent regard for his ideas by conservative intellectuals was entirely conditional. Any questioning of conservative orthodoxy was viewed as an act of betrayal, giving aid and comfort to the liberal enemy. It was the loyalty test all over again.

The final straw was surely the grotesque affair of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. This book came close to claiming that, given your genes, it makes no difference to your economic success whether you grew up in Scarsdale or the South Bronx. The implied subtext was that this absolves society from any responsibility to do something for children growing up in the South Bronx. Since The Bell Curve was published, it has become clear that almost everything about it was inexcusably wrong: suspect data, mistakes in statistical procedures that would have flunked a sophomore (Murray--Herrnstein is deceased--clearly does not understand what a correlation coefficient means), deliberate suppression of contrary evidence, you name it. Yet conservative publications such as Commentary, which was always happy to publish Loury when he criticized liberal evasions, would not grant him space to critique The Bell Curve.