| May 8, 2013

What I Learned from Walter Williams

When I stepped into a Ph.D. microeconomics class at George Mason University at the age of 23, I knew little about what lay in store for me. The professor, Dr. Walter Williams, was unfamiliar to me. I had never read any of his syndicated columns and had never heard him on the radio when he guest-hosted Rush Limbaugh’s show.

With wide-ranging discussions ranging from the minimum wage to the precepts of libertarian thought, Dr. Williams’ class exposed this young student to those economic and political ideas that are the cornerstones of liberty, dramatically reshaping my worldview over time.

Some of the most interesting discussions occurred when Dr. Williams would share personal stories with us. Somehow, his stories turned what might be a dull graphical presentation of the minimum wage into a fascinating historical narrative that vividly drew a picture of why the minimum wage wasn’t the great policy innovation it was purported to be.

His minimum-wage observations were rooted in his experiences in the North Philadelphia housing project where he grew up. He talked about the well-kept subsidized housing where most of the households were married, unlike his mom. Additionally, the majority of mothers and fathers worked full time.

In his autobiography, Up from the Projects, he states: “In those days, the Richard Allen administration office would periodically send someone to make inspection visits to all apartments to ensure cleanliness and good repair. Graffiti and wanton property destruction were unthinkable. The closest thing to graffiti was the use of chalk to draw blocks on the pavement to play hopscotch.”

He described the thriving business community next to the housing project where the proprietors were both Jewish and black. Most striking were all the jobs he talked about having as a boy. A thriving business community meant jobs for any young person willing and able to work.

Enter: the minimum wage. Dr. Williams described the minimum wage as a tool that eradicated opportunities for young, willing workers like him. This outcome is especially egregious for those growing up in the inner cities that don’t have access to the best schools. They need the experience a job allows. However, when an employer is forced to pay $7.25, he will discriminate and hire the better-educated white worker over the inner-city black or Hispanic worker. What happens to those who would have been willing to work for a wage below the minimum? Unfortunately, these missed employment opportunities have left us with generations of poor, unemployed Americans trapped in a cycle of hopelessness.

Another lesson that stood out was a story about a woman who knocked on Dr. Williams’ door at his Pennsylvania home and asked if he was registered to vote. He said he didn’t vote. She said that was a shame—everyone should vote. What followed was a classic Williams reply: “As soon as everyone else stops voting, I’ll start voting. Then, my vote will count.”

Another vivid memory from his class involves the time I swiftly transcribed his words onto paper and then suddenly screeched my pen to a halt as I re-read what I had just wrote: “education departments are the cesspools at all universities.” Having no idea what that meant, I looked up to survey the reaction of my fellow classmates. This was one of the first times I had really looked around the classroom. I think it was the third class of the semester. We were seated in a U-shaped configuration.

I remember seeing this guy across the room with his arms crossed, leaning back in his chair as if he didn’t have a care in the world. I immediately thought, “I need to get to know that guy—he must be the smartest guy in class.” We talked after class, and it turned out that the main reason he applied to George Mason’s Ph.D. economics program was that he had grown up reading Dr. Williams’ columns and listening to him on Rush. So, for him, sitting in Williams’ class was like listening to his favorite radio show. That guy eventually became my husband. Longtime Perspective readers might recognize the name: OCPA research fellow Scott Moody.

One of the things I admire most about Dr. Williams is his boldness. He is unafraid to speak the truth despite the onslaught of criticism that follows. For that example, I will always be grateful. He was also an unknowing matchmaker—for which I am also grateful.

OCPA research fellow Wendy P. Warcholik (Ph.D., George Mason University) formerly served as an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, and was the chief forecasting economist for the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services. She is a co-creator (with J. Scott Moody) of the Tax Foundation’s popular “State Business Tax Climate Index.”

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