Saturday, January 21, 2012

Steve Horwitz is exactly right about thinking about labor market discrimination

He provides a defense of his youtube video here. These arguments are very similar to the ones I made on Martin Luther King day about racial disparities - a literature I'm more familiar with than the gender disparities literature.

The point is, late stage discrimination is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to disparities, although it's often the most trumpeted. Steve and I do make slightly different points. Mine emphasizes the fact that when we define the problem as "the portion of the disparity that is not accounted for by legitimate observable variables, like education, intelligence, etc.", we miss the fact that inequality in those "legitimate observable variables" is often not acceptable either - often because of earlier-stage discrimination or inequality that we would not approve of. So only focusing on the "unexplained" variation at the later stages downplays the problem of racial disparities.

Steve's video's point is more highlighting the fact that the problematic disparities we do see are - for lack of a better term - "compounded" inequalities that occur well before the employer, rather than "discrimination" by the employer. Steve's post's point is that in saying what he did in the video, he did not mean to imply there aren't problems further upstream (the problems I spent time discussing in my post the other day).

An excellent source on this kind of compounding of inequality is Charles Tilly's book Durable Inequality, as is Oliver and Shapiro's book, Black Wealth/White Wealth. I read both in an economic sociology course I took with Deirdre Royster at William and Mary, and to this day are very important for how I think about inequality and racial disparities.

1 comment:

  1. I note that in Steve Horwitz's comments that a couple of his commentators are making essentially the sorts of low-durability arguments that Steve was getting pilloried for. I think that the problem is not that people disagree with what Steve is saying, it's that the "subtle" points of his argument and belief don't appear to be reaching his audience at all. This would suggest that his time would be better spent on those other points.

    I also originally wanted to write something about late stage discrimination actually being not merely proximate (in the historical sense) cause but also the overt cause of hidden causes and biases which form the structure of disparity.

    One of the problems with the "overt discrimination only" approach is that it relies on the easy evidence, and seems to deny that any reactions by disadvantaged groups may nevertheless be reasonable, even if the apparent result through generations is detrimental.

    Here is a simple case: By the 1880s, white southern politicians are returning to Congress, and obstructing the course of justice by denying the Justice Department and the Secret Service funds and manpower to investigate the KKK after successes in the period from 1871 onward (one of President Grant's many unheralded successes).

    So if black folks look to the Federal Government to protect them, as it did in that critical interwar period, and if they tend to group together for mutual protection and comfort - rather than intersperse according to a "melting pot" theory of racial diversity for the whole nation - are we to believe this is unreasonable, merely because some people feel that the Federal Government does not have a legal mandate to enforce equality under the law, and because the action of enclaves forces many students into less well-funded school districts? The answer should be a resounding no here.


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