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Glenn Loury is, among other things, a public intellectual and an academic economist. He has just published a memoir that is unlike anything I’ve ever read — and I’m guessing unlike anything you’ve ever read either.

Glenn LOURY: It’s called Late Admissions: Confessions of a Black Conservative.

Here is the first line of Loury’s book: “We are playing a game, you and I, reader and author.” And what are the rules of Loury’s game? Here’s how I’d describe it: the writer will tell the reader things about himself that most people would never admit publicly; and the reader will try to determine if these admissions are what Loury calls “a cover story,” meant to obscure something even worse — or, if the writer is being honest, why? To what end? The book is, to some degree, an exercise in game theory — which is appropriate, given that one of Loury’s mentors was the pioneering game theorist Thomas Schelling, who helped create U.S. nuclear-deterrence policy during the Cold War. The deeds and misdeeds that Loury confesses to in the book — you may be inclined to not believe them. Having read the book, and now having spoken with Loury, I am inclined to believe them. Which doesn’t necessarily make things any more comfortable.

Stephen DUBNER: One thing that strikes me, during all the troubles you’ve had and all the double lives you’ve led, it seemed as though you were shockingly bad at self-reflection. There are all these moments, reading about your life, where the reader just wants to say: “No, no, no, don’t do that again.” It’s like watching the bad horror movie, like, “Don’t go into the basement where the guy with the chainsaw is hiding. Don’t do that.” And yet you keep doing it. 

LOURY: Well, I hadn’t quite seen it that way, although Tom Schelling — my dear friend, the late, great economist — his widow, Alice Schelling, I sent her the book in draft, and she read it, and she writes me, saying, “I couldn’t stop myself. Every page I turn, I say, ‘No, Glenn, no, don’t, don’t. Condoms, Glenn! Condoms!’” So it struck her in a similar way.

Today on Freakonomics Radio: Glenn Loury may have you shouting back at him too. And that’s the point. Because he sees a world in which politics is losing out to protest, where honest inquiry is drowned out by sloganeering, and where second chances are increasingly rare. That last one is particularly tough for Loury to accept. Because if it weren’t for second chances — and third and fourth chances too — we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. So sit down, buckle up, and get ready to play Glenn Loury’s game.

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Glenn Loury grew up in Chicago, part of a large and boisterous Black family. Some of his relatives were brilliant and driven, the type that W.E.B. DuBois liked to call the Talented Tenth. But the family also had its share of troublemakers. Glenn Loury inherited some of both. He was always very bright, but school didn’t always hold his attention, and he spent some time dodging the police. His first attempt at college didn’t go well, so he dropped out and worked for a while in a factory; but then he caught a second wind, getting his undergraduate degree from Northwestern and his Ph.D. from M.I.T. In 1982, at the age of 33, he became the first Black professor to gain tenure in the Harvard economics department. 

DUBNER: It seems like the one constant in your life — I mean, this is a cliché — but the one constant in your life has been change. Most people, by the time they’re 30 or 35, they’ve kind of become a thing, and they stay that thing. You, meanwhile — I mean, I almost need a scorecard here. It’s, like, you’re a hardcore academic for a while, then you’re not. Then you are again. You’re a drug addict for a while, and thankfully you’re not. You become infatuated or fall in love with new women all the time — sometimes when you’re with someone else, then you fall out of love. You’re a neocon, then a liberal, then a conservative again. You’re a religious Christian, then you’re not. You change academic institutions a lot. There are falling-outs, there are coolings-off. And I’m curious what you think that’s all about, and whether maybe you recommend it? Maybe it’s a good idea to tear up your entire psychic road map every couple years, and remake yourself, but I don’t know. Do you recommend it? 

LOURY: Oh, I don’t know. It’s certainly — it’s not a plan. I’m not executing a plot here. I think your description is apt. I have gone left and right. I’ve gone in and out. I have fallen out with old friends. I have moved. I’ve been at four different universities over the course of my career — actually, five: Northwestern, Michigan, Harvard, Boston University, and now Brown. 

DUBNER: So if we were to be really reductive, do you see all this change as generally a cost or a benefit? 

LOURY: I see it as a benefit. 

DUBNER: Okay, tell me why. 

LOURY: Well, to me, it’s like being honest with yourself about something and then acting on that. I was way too comfortable with the neocon right in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I almost sold my soul. I was that guy. I was the guy that they’d trot out — I don’t mean to make it conspiratorial, it wasn’t conspiratorial — but I would say the thing that the Black conservative guy was supposed to say. 

DUBNER: Yeah. You were called, by a friend and colleague, Martin Kilson, “a pathetic black mascot” of the right.

LOURY: Yeah, Martin Kilson, the first African-American tenured member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. And yes, he called me publicly “a pathetic black mascot” of the right. And what I’m saying is: I came to understand there was more than a grain of truth in that unkind characterization. 

DUBNER: Now, that was your first round of, let’s call it conservatism. You’re kind of back on the conservative end of the spectrum now, although not a Trumpian. 

LOURY: I’m not a Republican, for that matter. 

DUBNER: How would you define your conservatism, then? Especially divorced from Republicanism? 

LOURY: Well, I’d say: notwithstanding the fact that my gay son is comfortable with his father’s view of his sexuality — and he has every right to be, because I am, in fact, entirely comfortable with his sexuality — I’m still kind of culturally conservative. I mean, the transgender issue — I can’t even say, I can’t say it here, what I think, because it’s unspeakable.

DUBNER: Unspeakable — meaning you’re not willing to accept the punishment that comes with saying something today in that realm? 

LOURY: Yeah. On some of the cutting-edge liberationist movements in American culture, I’m not entirely on board. I’m okay with abortion through the early periods of pregnancy but think that you can’t just take a life because it’s inconvenient. Once you get past a certain point, the issue should be about what point is that point. I think what’s happened to the Black family — even to use that phrase, “the Black family” — in terms of kids born out of wedlock, and family instability, and fatherless homes and whatnot, is worth remarking upon. I think it’s implicated, in part, in the persistence of racial disparities. I think it’s indicative of something that is alarming in African-American domestic relations. I’m more sympathetic to the maintenance of order, the necessity for the sustaining of civil life and requiring the services of law enforcement, even in the face of the fact of police brutality and racial discrimination and the killings of unarmed Black men and all of that. I’m not a big fan of Black Lives Matter. I think the cultural avant-garde dimension of that movement is part of the reason why I long for the simpler days of a church-based, Christian-animated, pro-American — see: I mean, even these words, these words are so out-of-date — take on African-American participation in the American enterprise, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from where Black Lives Matter stand. So, yeah, I’ve been one to say: “Look, there’s how many homicides in the country a year? Half of them are black men. Most of those — 95 percent of those, killed by other black men. And what have you got? A handful of cases of unarmed, putatively innocent African-Americans whose lives are taken by cops. Every single one of those wrongful police actions should be sanctioned. But what’s the real problem here?” I’m inclined to say stuff like that. 

DUBNER: In your book, you write about a long list of problems in Black communities. You write about the terrible public schools, unstable one-parent homes, cycles of unemployment, crime and more. And then you write, “It seems to me that white racism can take us only so far in explaining these maladies.” Can you walk me through your position there? 

LOURY: We’ve got racial disparities in education and economic attainment, wealth-holding, in social life, in criminal participation, in penetration of certain professions, etc. We got disparities. There’s a line about these disparities, which is the anti-racist line that one associates most recently with the Ibram X. Kendi view of the world, which is, either you’re a racist who is acting in ways that perpetuate the disparity, or you’re an anti-racist who’s acting in ways that diminish the disparity. Racism and discrimination by employers, or in housing, or in the credit market, these are issues. One should be aware of them, there’s legislation to deal with them. We should be ever-vigilant. But these are not the most pressing issues. The most pressing issues have to do with, to what extent are we African-Americans so organized and oriented that we are in a position to take advantage of what opportunities actually exist? They may not be perfectly, in every instance, equal, and we should be vigilant about that, but they are largely equal, vastly more so than was the case a generation or two ago. And the ball is in our court. And yet we have cultivated this posture in our political activities and in our cultural and social criticism that can’t get out of this early/mid-20th century box that doesn’t realize that the country is a dynamic, ongoing, and constantly changing engine of opportunity and mobility and economic dynamism, that the world is not waiting for America to do right by its Black people. Have you noticed the scores of millions of non-European immigrants who’ve come into this country from Asia and Latin America, who are transforming the country and transforming their lives here? And you’re going to look up in the middle of the 21st century, and all you’re going to have to say is, “The 19th century had slavery, the 20th century had Jim Crow, and we’re due reparations.” And the best outcome for you then will be a pat on the head. They’ll actually give you the goddamn reparations. Then where are you? So, if we don’t man up and woman up — this is Glenn Loury vituperating here — and don’t seize the nettle, stop making excuses, nobody is coming to save us. These Democratic Party apparatchiks who want your vote? They’ll tell you anything that they think you want to hear. Their kids are not languishing in these jails. So, we had better get busy. The 21st century is not waiting for us.

DUBNER: But for those who argue that the U.S. is a system that’s defined by systemic racism and white supremacy, you say what? 

LOURY: I say we, Black Americans in the 21st century, have boundless opportunity. I say we are by far the richest and most powerful large population of African descent on the planet. I say that the advent of an African-American middle class, which has taken place over the last half-century and more, is a world historic event. I say that the success of the civil rights movement, not only in law but in the transformation of attitude, and custom, and norm in American life, is virtually without historical precedent. And so I say the glass is way, way, way more than half full here. I guess that pretty much captures it for me, in preference to cultivating the posture of the victim and the aggrieved, where I feel that in a way, we are being patronized. We’re being patted on the head. “Don’t worry about it. We understand. We understand why you couldn’t do this. We understand why you weren’t able to live up to this or that expectation.” And I fear that because it is an open society and because technology, and economic practice, and so on, are constantly being changed, you know, that we’ll be left behind — we, by which I mean a non-trivial portion of the African-descended population in the country who are mired in the backwaters of society will remain there. And the country will just move on. And people will not be held responsible for their failures to take advantage of the opportunities that exist, but instead will be handed a ready-made excuse. It’s probably the path of least resistance for the mainstream, but is not at all healthy either for the country or for the well-being of my co-racialists. 

DUBNER: Do you think that that message might be more widely accepted or embraced if you weren’t politically conservative, though? 

LOURY: Well, I think that’s an oxymoron, or a contradiction in terms. I would be, by virtue of saying that message, by definition, politically conservative. 

DUBNER: My point is that because that component of your message could resonate with a lot of people who, if they know it’s coming from someone who is aligned with some conservative planks, it’s just going to fall on deaf ears. That’s my concern, or wonder. 

LOURY: Well, that may be. I will say, a hope I have is that the candid self-revelation that I undertake in this memoir will persuade some detractors who, when they see the subtitle Confessions of a Black Conservative, want to put the book down and run from the bookstore, to say, “Well, well, wait a minute. Look at his struggles. Look at his self-criticism. Look at how he has grown. Look at the full measure of the man. Maybe we ought to take him a little bit more seriously than to just, you know, invoke some stereotype, “Oh, Black conservative, I think we know about those guys,” and dismiss him.

DUBNER: So if I didn’t know any better, I might look at Glenn Loury, and Barack Obama and think, well, you know, they’re both, let’s call them Black intellectuals. Both have some Chicago history. Both are politically attuned. And I might think you’d be a big fan of Obama. But in fact, you write that he was “little more than a political operator … self-presentation as an icon of American blackness was absurd.” Talk about not necessarily Obama as a person, but the Obama presidency. And what’s your assessment of it now that it’s in the rear-view mirror a good bit?

LOURY: Well, that remark that you quoted, I believe was made in the context of me describing my reaction to the emergence of Obama as a political figure in 2007, 2008, when I thought of him as an opportunist and a carpetbagger. I knew the Altgeld Gardens far–South Side low-income Black enclave where Obama got his start as a, quote, community organizer, close quote. I knew those people. I knew the housing projects. I knew the streets. And I thought, Okay, some fancy people at Harvard Law think that this is a very bright young man. He’s nice and shiny, clean and well-spoken. And he’s got Chicago, you know, he runs his campaign. He announces in Springfield, Illinois, he’s got Abraham Lincoln. And I thought, Oh, man. Okay, okay. It’s a sales pitch, I get it. It’s America, P.T. Barnum, whatever. But come on, really? You’re Black from the South Side of Chicago? Not really. I think a historic opportunity was missed. If he’s going to make Al Sharpton his ambassador to Black America, what’s the point of having a Black president? I mean, Joe Biden could have done that. On that question — the question of how does America deal with the unfinished business of incorporating the descendants of slaves fully into the body politic — the role that can uniquely be played by a Black president is to tell the country the truth about these issues, right? Not to gaslight us. Not to guilt-trip us. Not to virtue-signal us. But to tell the country the truth. 

DUBNER: You are not at all pleased by the Black Lives Matter movement and their prominence; explain why.

LOURY: I mean, they don’t much like the nuclear family. They don’t like capitalism. They think about America as an imperial power that’s profoundly corrupt, morally bankrupt, and contemptible. They’re radical with a capital R along many of these dimensions. So —

DUBNER: Now, if you were a white guy and said those very words, what would happen to you? 

LOURY: I don’t know. I should hope nothing, but I expect, depending on the context, uttering those words could cause me a lot of grief. If I were teaching a class on American social life at an Ivy League college with a third of the students being of color, and I said something like that, I might find myself being brought up on charges, you know, students complaining about a hostile classroom environment.  

DUBNER: What do you feel are the costs to American society of how difficult it is for anyone who’s not Black to talk about certain Black issues? 

LOURY: At the end of the day, it depends on what kind of conversation one is trying to have. I think it’s deadly in a university that we would constrain argument and the exchange of ideas and discourse by these ad hominem identitarian prohibitions. I think that that’s a very, very bad thing for a university, which is where that kind of critical engagement with facts should take place. I think a politician who tempers what she says in the interest of not inflaming uninformed racist ideas in the population or signaling to a vulnerable community a set of sympathetic consideration for the interests of that community and awareness of their vulnerability — you know, I think a case can be made. I don’t think political correctness is ipso facto a bad thing. I mean, every instance of modulating in the interest of not giving the wrong impression, not offending sensibility — sometimes that can be the only way to sustain a conversation long enough for it to ever be able to evolve and mature into a more considered disputation about controversial issues.

This question has come up for me recently because I interviewed Amy Wax, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who has gotten herself into trouble for taking conservative takes on some racial issues, and she believes that it’s an important thing to do, to call to people’s attention the difference in the distribution of cognitive ability as measured by IQ test within racially distinct populations, with the Black population mean being roughly 15 IQ points, about a standard deviation, lower than the white population mean. She thinks that’s a very important thing to call to people’s attention. I think it can be a very destructive thing to call it to people’s attention, depending on the context of what kind of conversation you’re trying to sustain with people. But I also think it’s true. I don’t mean to pile on Amy Wax, who I think is being treated very badly at the University of Pennsylvania, where they’re running her out of town on a rail, in effect, for having opinions. I don’t necessarily share the opinions, but I think you should be able to have them.

She says “There are no Black physicists in the physics department at Harvard. How could there be? Look at the IQ distributions.” And I want to say two things. I want to say, one, “You don’t know that the IQ distribution difference is what accounts for the absence of Black physicists — ” and the other thing I want to say is, “Even if it were the case, the aspiration to bring Blacks into the physics department at Harvard is a defensible social goal. You haven’t said anything that refutes that as a social goal. So you’re not engaging in the moral conversation, ‘What kind of country do we want to be?’ And you’re extrapolating beyond the data because you think you can explain this thing with one variable, and there are many variables at play.” But in any case, that whole discussion doesn’t get very far at all if the person who introduces the fact that there are differences in the distribution of cognitive ability by race in the country does so with their lip curled up and with a sneer. 

When he was a young academic economist, Glenn Loury got off to a very hot start. And then … he choked.

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Glenn Loury has been publishing research in economics journals for more than 40 years, but he’s best known for his commentary on political and social issues. His new book, Late Admissions, includes all that — but also a lot of personal stories that most of us would never tell in public. I asked him what was behind the book’s title.

LOURY: Well, you know, “Late”: late in life. “Admissions”: There’s a confessional quality to much of the narrative. I’m telling about my life honestly, and some of the darkest corners get exposed to sunlight. So: “admissions.” I went through various titles: Changing My Mind was an early contender. Changing My Mind was about politics, it was about: “Am I on the left? Am I on the right? What about my friends whom I’ve abandoned or betrayed?” And I wanted to interrogate that, just as a self-exploratory project, quite apart from the literary product. I wanted to ask myself what was going on, you know, when I — at a political rally where my friend was isolated and, you know, verbally attacked — I didn’t stand up for him, and —

DUBNER: This is at a Black Panther gathering back in Chicago, and your friend Woody, yes, you’re talking about?

LOURY: Yeah, I’m talking about Woody, my friend who looked like a white guy although he was a Black guy. We’re at this political rally, and white guys are not supposed to be there because it’s the Black people getting their stuff together. And yet there he is intrepid. And he wants to speak and they don’t want him to speak. “Who can vouch for this man?” says one of those guys up in the front, who’s the Black Power mogul. And I should have said: “This is my buddy. He’s okay.” And instead, I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to be on the outs with the temper of that radical meeting. You know, “You brought a white guy into our meet?” 

DUBNER: Not only that but, years later, you sleep with Woody’s wife!

LOURY: You had to tell that, did you? 

DUBNER: Well, you know, I read it in your book, Glenn. 

LOURY: “Confessions of a Black Conservative”: Indeed I did, indeed I did.

DUBNER: Are there any confessions in your book that you came close to not confessing, that you almost pulled out, or only reluctantly included? 

LOURY: My affair with my best friend from boyhood’s wife. The questionable paternity of my sister. How to make a crack pipe. I know a little bit too much about that. I wondered whether or not to get that gritty, but decided, after looking over the transcript in which I had gone on an extended, spontaneous discussion of the detailed practices that you had to cultivate in order to be an effective smoker of crack cocaine from the back seat of your car in the 1980s, I wondered if that wasn’t over the top a little bit. And then I decided I’m just going to let it all hang out. 

DUBNER: Was there anything that you didn’t include, or is this the full monty we’re getting? 

LOURY: There’s nothing that I’m willing to tell you that I didn’t include in the book. 

DUBNER: Fair enough. 

LOURY: Of course, there are things — look, I couldn’t tell of all the affairs. I couldn’t tell of all the betrayals, because there are too many. 

DUBNER: Well, yeah, but that’s different. That’s just a volume question. 

LOURY: Yeah, I was about to note that they are also too gory, gruesome, and craven, and callow, and despicable.  

Intersecting with all that gruesome and despicable was an economist who was brilliant and, seemingly, bold. In his early years at Harvard, he would have been a decent bet to win the John Bates Clark Medal, the big prize for young academic economists; it’s often the precursor to a Nobel prize.

LOURY: That was something that I thought about, and I even talked with some of my mentors about, as an aspiration, because I did hit the ground running. I had a half dozen papers in good journals by the time I got to Harvard in 1982 and I thought I could be a player at that level, within the profession. It didn’t quite work out that way. And I made some choices that, in retrospect, were motivated in part by a loss of my nerve. 

DUBNER: You write in the book that you choked. I almost never hear anyone say that they choked. We say that about other people, but the people in those positions usually have a different explanation of it. But you write several times in this book that your stint at Harvard was an out-and-out choke. 

LOURY: Yeah. I was afraid of failing, and I bailed out. I got to Harvard in 1982. Jointly appointed in economics and Afro-American studies. That’s what they called it in those years, Afro-American. 

DUBNER: And it was a new department then?

LOURY: It was a relatively new department. It had actually been formed in either the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, but it had fallen into bad repair. And they were looking to repopulate the department with outstanding scholars in the humanities and social sciences. And I came in six years out of graduate school, with a strong track record. But it’s very clear that what I need to do if I want to succeed in economics is write another six papers. And not just another six papers, to have a research program built around an important unanswered set of questions on the frontier of investigation and economic theory, which I execute.

DUBNER: I mean, that sounds like it’s within your means. It sounds like you’re capable of all that. 

LOURY: That’s exactly what Tom Schelling, my dear friend, said to me when I went crying in my beer to him, saying “Woe is me, woe is me. I don’t know if I’ve got any ideas. Am I good enough to be here?” And — 

DUBNER: Well, he also said, hey, Glenn, every single person in this department thinks exactly that about themselves. 

LOURY: He did. He says, all these neurotics around here, living in fear that someone’s going to ask them, “What have you done for me lately?” These people on their way to winning this or that prize, nevertheless, are afraid that they’re not going to measure up and are constantly looking over their shoulders. And he said, “You should just relax and go and do your work.” And I didn’t. I couldn’t. When I say I choked, I mean, I sat for hours with my yellow pads, with my notes, with my journals and it wasn’t clicking for me, and, and I didn’t have confidence that it ever was going to click. 

DUBNER: If you could go back to that self of yours now, or if you could go back to someone who’s listening to you today who’s in the similar position, what advice would you have? 

LOURY: I’d say, stick to your knitting and let the chips fall where they may. I’d say, you must have some talent. It got you to where you are right now. Maybe you’re not going to win the prize. That’s not the end of the world. What work do you find to be of value? Do that. And actually, in retrospect, I became a public intellectual. I moved over to the Kennedy School of Government. I shifted my writing output from stick-figured models to get into clever economics journals to writing blockbuster essays that pulled the cover off of the shrouded and inadequate public discussion about an important question for American domestic affairs, and to some degree reoriented the discourse. 

That question was affirmative action. At Harvard’s Kennedy School, Loury became well-known as a critic of affirmative action in hiring and college admissions. A few years later, he returned to academic economics, taking a position at Boston University; but he stuck with the subject. In 1993, he and Stephen Coate published a paper in The American Economic Review called “Will Affirmative-Action Policies Eliminate Negative Stereotypes?

LOURY: It’s not a data-driven paper. It’s a theoretical paper of the sort that used to take up a lot of space in economics journals, where applied theorists would spin out an exploration of a stick-figured, mathematical representation of some complex system.

DUBNER: You make it sound so valuable when you put it that way, Glenn. 

LOURY: Well, you know, I think I’m trying to see it in full context. We’re better off now than we were before, I think, as a profession. 

DUBNER: Meaning there’s more empiricism even in those theoretical areas? 

LOURY: Yeah. Meaning there’s more data. And there’s been cultivated an appreciation within the profession for the value of carefully executed, factually based investigations of cases. But in 1993, when that paper was published you could still make a living by asking a question and saying, “Well, here’s a good, interesting little model of that.” And that’s what this paper was about affirmative action. The idea was simple. Will affirmative action be necessary in perpetuity? If we start out with racial disparities that are not a reflection of fundamental differences between the populations, but that are rather an artifact of the self-fulfilling negative beliefs that employers might have about a population, that employers think the Black kids are on the whole not going to work out if you employ them, and hence are requiring exceptional additional evidence before they’re willing to take a chance on a Black kid and hire him. The Black kids, knowing that it’s going to be difficult for them to get hired, when they consider whether or not to make the investment to improve their skills, decide it’s not worth it because the chances of them getting hired are not so great. And so they don’t make the investment. That could be an equilibrium. The Black kids don’t make the investment because the employers are unwilling to hire them. The employer is unwilling to hire them because the Black kids aren’t making the investment. And this can be an equilibrium to the detriment of the Black kids, because the employer could have different and also self-fulfilling beliefs about the white kids: the employer could think the white kids are going to, on the whole, do well, and hence require relatively less of them in order to hire them. And the white kids think they’re going to get hired, and so they’re willing to make the investment, etc.

So we start with that as a baseline and we ask, in that situation, does the introduction of a requirement by government that employers hire the Black kids and the white kids at the same rate, lead to a circumstance in which the employers’ adverse expectations about the Black population are reversed or dissipated? And the answer is no, not necessarily. It doesn’t necessarily happen because employers’ beliefs, and workers’ incentives, are jointly determined in our model. And the introduction of a quota requirement creates a circumstance in which employers can have pessimistic beliefs about the Black population, but in the interest of meeting the affirmative action quota, notwithstanding those pessimistic beliefs, still endeavor to hire the Blacks at the same rate and so require even less of them, lowering the standard in order to make sure that the African-American youngsters are adequately represented under the requirements of the affirmative action constraint. But lowering the standard can undercut their incentives. Like, you tell kids to get into law school, if you’re white, you have to be at the 90th percentile of the LSAT and you have to have an A-minus grade-point average, and then you can get into a good law school. But if you’re Black, it’s okay to be at the 70th percentile of the LSAT test-takers, and to have a B-plus average, and you can still get into law school. Now, if I tell the kids that’re white and the Black kids that they, in effect, have to perform at different thresholds of excellence in order to get admitted, I change the incentives for those populations in a way that could be adverse to the Blacks, who will reckon that they don’t need to put in as much effort if they’re going to get the prize with a lower test score and grade point average. That can be what we call a patronizing equilibrium. The Black population is being patronized in the sense that it is assumed that they need to be treated with kid gloves in order to achieve the goal of equal representation. And that assumption is a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

DUBNER: Which, therefore, does not eliminate negative stereotypes. But let me ask you this. I’m just curious where you think we’d be with the counterfactual, if affirmative action policies in education and labor markets and so on had never been instituted in this country, where do you think we’d be instead? 

LOURY: As George Herbert Walker Bush once said, we’d be in deep doo-doo. You know, I’m a critic of affirmative action, and I welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision in 2023, about what the 14th amendment requires, and how discriminating against these Asian kids is a real problem. On the other hand, I think that coming out of the 1960s and 1970s, when mainstream American institutions were bereft of African-American presence, it was a first-order imperative for the country to introduce some racial diversity into those elite cadres. But the question is, is this what we want to do in perpetuity? So when Sandra Day O’Connor said, and I think it was 2003, in those University of Michigan cases on affirmative action, which was the last big case before the Supreme Court on affirmative action, before the one just decided last year, when she said, I should hope that in 25 years we wouldn’t still be in this business — I think there was a lot to be said for that position. And the clock is ticking. 

DUBNER: So, you grew up in an age of protest, including against the Vietnam War. But now you make the argument that a lot of protest is based on false or murky narratives, that there’s a lot of protesting for the sake of protesting, and that people seize the high moral ground even when it’s undeserved. But there are plainly still real problems that people hope to address. So if protest isn’t a fruitful path, generally, what would you have them do? 

LOURY: The first part of my answer is: from protest to politics. The fortunes of the marginal amongst African-Americans will be most effectively advanced through politics. And by politics, I mean trans-racial politics. I mean a politics that doesn’t dwell on the 19th century, but looks to fashion governing coalitions of progressive intent for the 21st century. But the other part of that is development. I’m saying: Okay, let me take your progressive narrative, your ultra-liberal, anti-racist narrative, seriously, and let me read American history in a manner friendly to the way in which you would interpret it, which is “Black folks have been kept at the margins all the time. Black folks have had a boot on our neck, we’ve had a boot on our neck.” Well, a boot on the neck cuts off the blood to the brain. I mean, the weight of that mistreatment will be manifest in the unfulfilled human potential of the population subject to it. We got work to do. So politics, not protest for the performance-art sake of being able to throw a fit, but hardheaded politics that recognizes the limitations and the realities, that works to build coalitions that are oriented toward a policy program that is affirmative of the human decency and so on, and a focus on development. 

If you find yourself thinking that Glenn Loury is too willing to go hard on other people — don’t worry, he can go plenty hard on himself. And with good reason.

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When Glenn Loury became a prominent critic of affirmative action in the 1980s, he joined an influential group of neoconservative intellectuals. But he broke with that group in the mid-’90s, after publicly attacking some of their books — including Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which Loury described as “borderline racist.” But more recently, he has directed most of his criticism at progressives who point to racism as the overwhelming driver of inequality. His personal life has been just as turbulent as his politics. Not long after he established himself as a brilliant young academic economist, he was staying out all night smoking crack and soliciting prostitutes. He was arrested twice: once for possession of drugs, and once for domestic abuse of a woman with whom he was having an affair — although those charges were later dropped. He spent time in a halfway house, and he committed himself to both sobriety and the Christian faith — although today, he says, he is no longer a believer.

LOURY: I’m still not entirely clear on the questions about faith. I’d call myself an agnostic, not an atheist. I can’t believe that a man was raised from the dead and lives on now, thousands of years after his demise. On the other hand, I find such dignity, nobility, and humanity in the quest that so many people have undertaken to try to find a relationship with the creator of the universe. I think it’s a hard problem, and it’s not entirely an intellectual problem.

DUBNER: Do you believe in an afterlife? 

LOURY: No. No. I don’t believe in it. I think we are our consciousness. That’s something that’s going on in the brain. Neuroscientists are on it. Before the 21st century is out, they’ll probably have pretty much of an answer, I’m guessing. And when that stuff dies, those cells stop firing, that’s it. 

DUBNER: The people that you were friends with and worked with and sometimes, you know, feuded with and sometimes got alienated from, it’s a really impressive list of people, and it seems like it stood you in good stead. At least a lot of times, you had a lot of people who were very loyal to you and good to you. And I’m sure you were often, if not always, loyal and good to them, too. But, you know, it strikes me that people are having a harder time in this digital-first age of forming that kind of relationship and having that kind of conversation, you might call it soul-searching or confessional, right? Do you have advice for people on how to make yourself more likely to engage in that kind of deep relationship? 

LOURY: Yeah, that’s a nice observation that I’m proud to hear you say. It is an impressive, distinguished pantheon of personalities over these decades, and yeah, left, right, center. Agree, disagree. But mutually respectful and learning from each other. So how to cultivate that? It seems to me that the technological transformation of social media looms large in our current intellectual climate, and that — 

DUBNER: I mean costs and benefits, though, right? Just look at the way you communicate now with the public. You know, YouTube, podcasts, Substack, etcetera. So there are benefits for sure. Sounds like you’re saying the costs, however, can be substantial. 

LOURY: I don’t have a real empirical basis for making that assessment. It’s a hunch. What I’m thinking is, take my friendship with the late Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom, which goes back to my early days at Harvard, and which ended when I critically reviewed their book, America in Black and White, in a long review in The Atlantic. And they broke off with me. Now, we had been exchanging ideas, through correspondence and personal conversation, but nothing on Twitter, nothing that brought the attention of the world to what it was that we had to say to one another. Nothing that left a permanent record. And I think while we did end up falling out, there was a long period before the falling out, before I went public with my critical review of their book, when we disagreed vociferously, and we went back and forth about it, but we did so kind of on the down-low. And I’m wondering whether the technologies, communication today make it less likely that people’s exchanges are of that sort. But I’m over my skis now. I’m outside of my area of expertise. 

DUBNER: Now that you’ve come out on the other end of all these experiences, with a little bit of crime, a lot of drugs, a lot of sleeping around along with a lot of other, you know, very, let’s call them prosocial things as well, do you have any advice for people who are in the middle of the trouble, for a way to kind of take a step back and reflect and maybe change while you’re in the act, as opposed to waiting until it’s all over and writing about it? 

LOURY: My response, I guess, is that: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” That doesn’t exactly originate with me, but I think it actually captures the spirit that I want to try to convey — that: who are you fooling? There’s this quote from Václav Havel, the Czech playwright, politician, which describes the way of looking at the world of the East European dissidents back in the Soviet hegemony days, and he says: “Let’s not flow along with the crowd down the river of pseudo life. Let’s tell the truth as we understand it.” And I want to say that the main audience for the truth-telling is yourself. Don’t delude yourself, be honest with yourself. Maybe if I had been, I could have avoided some of the fiascos that I report about in the book. 

DUBNER: And you write about this, how being smart — and you’re prima facie, you’re a very smart person on a number of levels — but being smart, it seems, can really get you into trouble because you can reason your way into things that you want, even though you know they’re not good. And I’m curious if you’ve maybe overcome that, or you still get yourself in trouble with that?

LOURY: I think I’m better. I got that from my sponsor, one of my sponsors, when I was in the alcohol and drug recovery movement, where he said: “You’re a very clever fellow — I mean, maybe too clever for your own good, because you can rationalize and you’ve got your theories and you can convince yourself of stuff. But the basic issue here is don’t drink. Don’t use coke — you know, don’t use. That’s all you have to really worry about.”

DUBNER: Did that strike you as too basic? “Don’t use.” Did it strike you as too simple? “I need to complicate it because I’m a smart guy.”

LOURY: Well, yeah, I think that was my initial reaction. Although, holding on by my fingernails, living in a halfway house full of drunks, being tempted every day by the streets of inner-city Boston to go back to the corners where I used to cop, but knowing that, I took my life in my hands every time I did, in that I was at risk of throwing away everything. The simplicity and clarity of the “Don’t use” — today, by the way, today is the only day you need to worry about — was exactly what I needed to hear. I didn’t need a whole lot of theory. 

DUBNER: So, Glenn, you’ve been around academic economics and policy for a bunch of years at a bunch of well-regarded institutions: M.I.T., Harvard, Northwestern, many, many panels. I could see where you could have written a book that described all your research on race and politics, the failures of the civil rights movement, the failures of widespread incarceration in this country, your papers on affirmative action. But instead, you wrote about the hole and not the donut in a way: you went straight for what feels like — again, I don’t know you personally, but it feels like a very honest assessment of a full life with the flaws, really, front and center. And I have just a, I guess, an obvious, basic question for you: Why? Why did you choose to put yourself out there like this? 

LOURY: You know, Stephen, I don’t know if I have a ready answer for that. I could have written the book that you described. But I wanted to be a little bit more ambitious as a literary endeavor, and challenge myself to see if I couldn’t say something that my children, all of whom are adults now and none of whom are academics, or quantitative social scientists, but all of whom want to know about their father. 

DUBNER: What has been the response from your family, from your children especially, to your book? 

LOURY: Some of my grandchildren — I have six grandchildren, the youngest of whom is in high school. Some of them have read some of the book. Shock and horror. “Really? You did that?” Being appalled. “How could you treat my mother that way?” Or “how could you speak of my mother in that way?” My older two daughters, Lisa and Tamara: their mother Charlene, she became pregnant at the age of 15 with Lisa. She had dropped out of school, she got a high school equivalency degree and went to work pretty soon thereafter to help us get by when I was a student. And the way in which she’s depicted in the book, in my older daughter’s eyes, is unflattering. “You make Mommy look stupid. You think you were better than her? You think you were too good for her?” Glenn is a gay man. He and his partner Rob live a 45-minute drive from where I am, in Providence, Rhode Island. We see each other on a regular basis. When he came out of the closet to me, he was, I think, persuaded that I was myself a closeted homophobe. While I said, “Everything’s okay, I’m with you, I’ve got you,” he just didn’t believe me, he didn’t believe that I believed it. And, Glenn’s relief at the way in which I tell the story about his coming out to me and about my feelings about it, and the way in which I, indirectly, kind of acknowledge certain homoerotic sentiments within myself that were never acted on — I came to realize that I couldn’t really come to terms with my son’s sexuality until I had been completely honest with myself about my own. And I think that really, really did it for him. All these years later — he’s 35 years old, he came out when he was 17. But, I think I finally gained his confidence in the judgment that he’s okay with me, however he is. 

DUBNER: There’s a line in the book — a lovely line. This is right after your wife had died, and you go to pack up her office at Tufts, where she taught. You write: “I’ll spend the rest of my life thinking about Linda, her death, and what I found in her office.” Can you just walk us through what you found in the office? And what I really want you to talk about is the human capacity to forgive. Because you gave her a lot of ammunition to forgive you. She had a lot of forgiving to do.

LOURY: Yeah, I found two things there, actually. I found a framed copy of the letter — it wasn’t the copy, it was the letter — that I wrote her on the occasion of our 10th wedding anniversary. We were married in 1983, so this would have been 1993. I had, by the time the 10th anniversary come around, been accused of assault with a deadly weapon against a younger woman who was my mistress who I was keeping in a secret penthouse apartment in the South End of Boston while Linda and I were married. But at the time, we were in this golden period: our 10th anniversary, where I had come back from the brink, we had become Christians. We had renewed our marriage in a very fruitful way. Glenn came into the world in 1989, Nehemiah came into the world in December of 1991. And we were living a more or less idyllic domestic life. I was very committed to the relationship, and I penned a letter of appreciation to my wife, for her loving, patient, selfless, sacrificial support. It was sincere, and it really moved her, I’m sure. She had a frame of the letter sitting on her on her bookshelf. And among her books — I don’t remember the author — there was a self-help book about forgiveness that she had dog-eared, written marginalia. She spent hours with this book, it was really quite clear. I set myself down at the desk and I began to page through this book and look at the marginalia and look at where she lingered and the things that she was struggling with, and I realized that she had made a project out of forgiving me, and I was floored. I was floored by that, and ashamed by it, but also so proud of her. 

DUBNER: So you’ve been the personal beneficiary of forgiveness quite a bit. And I’m just curious what being the target of all that forgiveness has done to you, or for you, in the way that you think about social issues and policy issues, whether you feel that the forgiveness that was extended to you made you more compassionate in any of your political views? 

LOURY: It did. It did, I think, in a number of ways. I mean, one is just the straightforward idea: I’m the beneficiary of grace, maybe I could pause for a moment or two before I lapse into a condemnatory rant holding everybody responsible for their failures and not realizing that there before the grace of God go I. 

DUBNER: But you do like the condemnatory rant — still, to this day. I mean, you’re good at it, you enjoy it. 

LOURY: And I like the way it makes me feel. But I’m at least aware of that, I tell myself. My cover story is that I feel it coming on, and I know it’s a rant, and I know I’m performing, so see there: you should still trust me. There’s a certain righteous — or perhaps I should say self-righteous — boost that one is getting, that I am getting. I mean, I can imagine what a jazz saxophonist feels like when they’re in the midst of an improvisational run, and somehow the notes are just coming. They’re not even thinking about it, and somehow the words are just coming: I have this gift, if I may say, and just the exercise of that muscle feels good.

That was Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University, a self-described self-righteous truth-seeker, and much more. His new book is called Late Admissions: Confessions of a Black Conservative. It’s one of the strangest and most interesting books I’ve read in a while — roughly 10 times more interesting than the kind of book most economists write at least. I’d love to know what you thought of this conversation. Our email is And I do hope you’ll recommend Freakonomics Radio to family and friends — that is a great way to support the podcasts you love.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Gabriel Roth, Julie Kanfer, and Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Augusta Chapman, Dalvin Aboagye, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Greg Rippin, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Sarah Lilley, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; our composer is Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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  • Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown University and host of The Glenn Show.