Soul Poverty


Meanness Mania, by Gerald R. Gill, Washington, D.C.: Howard University, 1980, 104 pp., $10.95/$6.95.

Gerald R. Gill is sure that Americans have turned mean over the last decade. Meanness Mania is the instrument used to tell us about our changed mood.

Evidence of this changed mood, according to Gill, is the increasingly vocal attack on social programs dear to the hearts of interventionists. The passage of Proposition 13 in California, antibusing amendments, Kemp-Roth tax cut proposals, and the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment all constitute, according to Gill, specific evidence of meanness mania throughout the land.

This meanness is particularly puzzling to him because, as he says at the beginning of his book, "this study asserts that social welfare programs, busing, and affirmative action are effective strategies to help bring about equal educational and economic opportunities." Herein lies the book's distinction: Gill may be the only person in America who still views the Great Society programs as a success.

Space limitations preclude a full discussion of faulty logic and nonsense in Meanness Mania, so I will highlight the more outstanding stuff. Gill criticizes studies which point to the fact that blacks' incomes are rising. Blacks' median income is only 57 percent of whites', he counters. But using median income as a comparison leads to much mischief because it tells nothing about the distribution and, more important, nothing about other income-relevant characteristics of the groups being compared.

Would anyone be surprised, for example, if told that teenagers' median income is considerably less than that of adults? Then neither should you be surprised if someone told you that the median income of Mexican-Americans is considerably less than that of Italians in this country. Why? Mexican-Americans have a median age of 18 and Italians a median age of 36. The median age of blacks is 22, while that of the general population is about 30.

If all racial groups were identical in every income-relevant respect, median income alone might be a useful statistic for comparison. This is borne out by several recent studies which control for these differences. Those studies show that the income gap between certain groups is quite narrow.

In another chapter, Gill laments criticisms of public education. I really wonder whether he feels as though he could go to the slums of the Bronx, North Philadelphia, and Chicago and say to those schools: "A fine job. Well done." Yet he attacks improvement proposals such as tuition tax credits and vouchers, as possibly destructive of the public school system in America. School systems that graduate students who are functional illiterates are, in my judgment, good candidates for destruction.

Consider what Gill says: "Tuition tax credits, rather than increasing educational options available to parents, particularly black and low-income parents, pose a great threat to the present concept and historic intent of public education." Agreeing with Bayard Rustin, he says that such credits "will lead to the creation of a two-tiered educational system in this countrypublic schools for the poor and dispossessed, many of whom are black, and private schools for the affluent."

Were this kind of thinking not tragic, it would be riotous talk. For the most part, we already have a two-tiered educational system: almost-real education for whites and unreal education for blacks. And if the present results of public education bear any relation to its "present concept and historic intent," concept and intent could stand considerable overhauling.

I view tuition tax credits or vouchers as having zero downside risk for blacks' education. I take this stance not so much because of my faith in market alternatives for education but because I cannot conceive of a more effective way of sabotaging black academic excellence than by continuing the presently organized public education system.

Throughout Meanness Mania, Gill argues for the status quothat is, the continuance of existing programs, but with more money. These programs of the Great Society have been successful in eliminating poverty of the stomach but have heightened poverty of the soul by making large segments of the American population dependent on government largess for its existence. Such dependency is dangerous, particularly for minority groups, becauseGill is right about one thingmoods do change.

There is meanness in America, but not the kind Gill cites. The meanness takes the form of our government permitting various interest groups to use its coercive powers to create monopolies for themselves. The Miami law, for example, that requires a person to go to school two years to get a license in order to go into business as a pool cleaner is mean. The taxi laws in Boston, Chicago, and New York that require that a person buy a license, which ranges in price from $40,000 to $65,000, in order to own and operate one taxi for a living is another example of meanness. The minimum wage law of $3.35 an hour, which in effect prohibits companies from hiring anyone who has the skills to produce only $2.00-an-hour worth of goods and services, is the supreme example of this meanness in America.

Ironically, people like Gill completely ignore, and sometimes even sanction, this kind of meanness. Instead, Gill says that Americans, who now work from January 1st to the 27th of May to pay their state, local, and federal taxes, are mean because they don't want to work on into the summer. That's mean when the former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare was able to tell Congress of his attempt to keep waste, fraud, and mismanagement in HEW to $9 billion a year? I'll just have to be one mean mother. And I'm sure glad that Meanness Mania is biodegradable.

Walter Williams is a visiting professor of economics at George Mason University.