Thomas Sowell

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Thomas Sowell (born 30 June, 1930), is an American economist, political writer, and commentator, generally from a socially conservative and economically laissez faire perspective. He is currently a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. In 1990, he won the Francis Boyer Award, presented by the American Enterprise Institute. In 2002 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal for prolific scholarship melding history, economics, and political science. Conservative British author Paul Johnson has described Sowell as "America's leading philosopher".


[edit] Education

Image:Thomas Sowell - A Personal Odyssey.jpg
Thomas Sowell's memoir, A Personal Odyssey (2000)

Sowell was born in North Carolina, where, he recounts, his encounters with white people were so limited that he didn't believe that "yellow" was a possible color for human hair (A Personal Odyssey), and later moved with his mother and siblings (his father died before he was born) to Harlem, New York City. There he attended the highly selective Stuyvesant High School, but dropped out when he moved out on his own at the age of 17 because of money problems and a deteriorating home environment.[1] Soon after, he served in the US Marine Corps as a photographer and pistol instructor.

After his service, he earned an A.B. in Economics from Harvard College, an A.M. in Economics from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago. He chose University of Chicago, he has said, because he wanted to study under George Stigler, who would later (in 1982) win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Sowell has taught at prominent American universities including Cornell University, Brandeis University, and UCLA. Since 1980 he has been a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, where he holds the fellowship named after Rose and Milton Friedman. [2]

[edit] Writings

Sowell is both a popular columnist and an academic economist.

Besides scholarly writing, Sowell has written books, articles and syndicated columns for a general audience, in such publications as Forbes Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and major newspapers. Sowell primarily writes on economic subjects, generally advocating a free market approach to capitalism. Sowell opposes Marxism, providing a critique in his book Marxism: Philosophy and Economics. He argues that Marx never had a labor theory of value. Sowell also writes on racial topics and is a critic of affirmative action,[3],[4].

In another departure from economics, Sowell's book The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late (A follow-up to his Late-Talking Children) investigates the phenomenon of late-talking children frequently misdiagnosed with autism or pervasive developmental disorder. He includes the research of- among others- Professor Stephen Camarata, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University and Professor Steven Pinker, Ph.D., of Harvard University in this overview of a poorly understood developmental trait which affected many historical figures. Some of the famous late-talkers mentioned include physicists Albert Einstein, Edward Teller and Richard Feynman, mathematician Julia Robinson and musicians such as Arthur Rubenstein and Clara Schumann. The book and its contributing researchers make an interesting case for the theory that some children develop unevenly (asynchronous development) for a period in childhood due to rapid and extraordinary development in the analytical functions of the brain, which may temporarily "rob resources" from neighboring functions such as language development.

Sowell, a layman in the fields of speech pathology and developmental psychology, is clear that his own son’s late speech development and later giftedness sparked his interest in the subject. From this personal standpoint, as well as from the observation that child development fields lack information on the issue, the book appears to be an attempt to urge more researchers to look more deeply into what autism "is not" while research continues on what autism "is", all in order to avoid future misdiagnosis. Through case studies, the book provides evidence that many late-talking children mislabeled as autistic or "retarded" (as were Einstein, Feynman, Rubinstein, Schuman and Robinson before they could communicate) may defy diagnoses and develop into extraordinary adults without lingering speech problems or social maladroitness.

The book includes personal accounts of families who battled misdiagnoses of their bright, late-talking children. The overall effect of the anecdotes, research and Sowell's observations paint a culture of incomprehension, territoriality and jealousy among, as Sowell calls them, "para-professional" speech therapists and even some medical specialists in fields of child development, resulting in the misattribution of pathology to all things differing from the norm, particularly traits displayed by gifted individuals.

The book contradicts speculation by Simon Baron-Cohen that Einstein may have suffered from Asperger's Syndrome.

[edit] Columns

He has a regular politics column that appears on the conservative website. He also regularly writes a column for Capitalism Magazine.

A selection of the liberal positions of which Sowell is a staunch critic:

He has defended racial profiling regarding terrorist suspects today. He is a supporter of free market and pro-growth economics. In a recent column he criticized as "socialism for the rich" certain policies which he claims benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor. [17]

[edit] Books

[edit] Summary of some of Sowell's thought and philosophy

This section briefly summarizes some of the major themes and philosophies of Sowell. They range from social policy on race, ethnic groups, education and decision-making, to classical and Marxist economics, to the problems of children perceived as having disabilities. Sowell has also extended his themes from the United States to the international sphere, finding supporting data from several cultures and nations, and demonstrating that similar incentives and constraints often result in similar outcomes among very different peoples and cultures.

There are three fundamental keys to his work that seem to cut across specific topics: (a) the competing basic visions of policy makers, (b) the importance of empirical evidence both in initiating decisions and actual end results produced, and (c) an "economic" approach stressing trade-offs, constraints and incentives. These 3 keys place Sowell's writings in the greater context of human decision-making, rather than merely being those of a conservative pundit or "race" writer on particular contemporary social issues.

It should be noted that while his works are scrupulously documented, Sowell may sometimes employ humorous or sarcastic use of quotation marks as part of his trenchant writing style, but this style also includes the ability to clearly explain complex phenomena in layman's terms. See "Articles and writings" below. Example from "Basic Economics":

"By its very nature, as a study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses, economics is about incremental trade-offs, not about “needs” or “solutions.” That may be why economists have never been as popular as politicians who promise to solve our problems and meet our needs." <ref>Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell, p. 311</ref>

1) Empirical evidence and objective analysis of relevant factors is sorely lacking in claims surrounding race, culture and society: In his writings Sowell has repeatedly emphasized the need for empirical evidence and objective assessments of data, as opposed to the sweeping generalizations, wishful thinking, and distorted or false evidence provided by numerous writers in the field of social policy and economics. In no field are these distortions greater than when the topic of race is discussed. Common assumptions and stirring rhetoric about poverty, slavery, discrimination, economic progress or education don't hold up when measured against hard data.<ref>Sowell, Thomas (1981). Knowledge and Decisions </ref>

2) What counts in assessing a social or economic policy is not the stated intentions of promoters, but the actual end results produced on the ground: In his book "Marxism: Philosophy and Economics" Sowell shows that this was the outlook of Marx, and applies this "bottom line" approach to other social policies ranging from IQ Tests to affirmative action. In numerous cases he demonstrates that the stated aims of promoters had little relation to the actual results produced. In regard to affirmative action, for example, claims by proponents that it was a temporary measure, that it helped those categories of minorities less fortunate, that it would promote social harmony, et cetera, have all proven false when the empirical evidence is actually analyzed. Too often, Sowell points out, social policy is made on the basis of sweeping assumptions, arbitrarily-selected statistical data, and ideological dogma, where evidence is neither asked for nor offered. <ref>Sowell, Thomas (2004). Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-10199-6 </ref>

3) Numerous factors determine income and education levels among American ethnic groups, and between genders, not the commonly used, overgeneralized, "all-purpose" explanations of racism, or sexism: In books such as Markets and Minorities, Ethnic America, Race and Culture and many others, Sowell demonstrates the importance of such factors as geography, degree of urbanization, cultural structures, field of work, and other factors much more relevant than charges of “racism”. As with so much social policy, those who make such charges seldom present credible empirical evidence and often none is asked for. As for the “pay gap” between men and women, for example, Sowell’s “Civil Rights” book shows that most of said gap is based on marital status, not some sinister “glass ceiling” discrimination. Earnings for men and women of the same basic description (education, jobs, hours worked, marital status) were essentially equal, something that would not be possible under explanatory theories of “sexism”. <ref>"Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality", Thomas Sowell, 1984. "Markets and Minorities, Thomas Sowell, 1981</ref>

4) Internationally, empirical evidence shows easy charges of colonialism and imperialism, or claims of genetic superiority to be sorely lacking in explaining technological or economic differences: Sowell’s trilogy, "Race and Culture", "Migrations and Culture" and "Conquests and Cultures" take his analysis up to international level comparing nations and minority groups within nations, particularly migrants. On an international scale, cultural factors are very important and some of the countries heavily subjected to imperialism and colonialism are themselves among the most prosperous- Britain for example which suffered under centuries of Roman colonialism and imperialism. Geographic factors also play an extensive part- from the lack of navigable rivers or fertile land, to settlement patterns. Sowell shows that non-white nations like China were more advanced that those of Europe for centuries until comparatively recent times, and how the West borrowed freely from such nations. Within national settings, students of East Asian origin in the West frequently outperform their white counterparts and score higher on IQ tests, undercutting white supremacist theories of inherent genetic superiority,

5) Many modern ideological struggles can be traced to two visions: the vision of the anointed and the vision of the constrained realist: Sowell lays out these concepts in his "A Conflict of Visions", and "The Vision of the Anointed". These two visions encompass a range of ideas and theories, but essentially the vision of the anointed relies heavily on sweepingly optimistic assumptions about human nature, distrust of decentralized processes like the free market, impatience at systematic processes that constrain human action, and missing or falsified/distorted empirical evidence. The constrained vision relies heavily on a less grand view of the goodness of human nature, and prefers the systematic processes of the free market, and the systematic processes of the rule of law and constitutional government. It distrusts sweeping theories and grand assumptions in favor of heavy reliance on solid empirical evidence and on time-tested structures and processes.

6) On race and intelligence (as measured by IQ), whole groups and nations have raised their IQ scores over time, undermining various theories of intelligence as regards various minorities like Jews and blacks.

  1. In his writing "Intelligence and Ethnicity" Sowell demonstrates how IQ scores have risen among many groups, (see the Flynn effect) and notes that a number of white ethnic groups tallied poor scores as they began entry into the American urban economy. Jews for example scored dismally on Army intelligence tests during WWI leading to some disparaging commentary. However Jewish IQ scores rose steadily until they currently rank near the top. East Asian IQ scores were likewise unimpressive on some early measurements, but currently that situation is totally reversed.
  2. Black IQ progress has been concealed Sowell shows, by statistical redefinitions or "norming" of the beginning measurement baselines. Thus an IQ score that might have been considered "normal" or "average" in 1960, is today considered below par. By going back and recalculating from the original baselines, not only blacks but entire nations have shown significant rises in IQ over time. He notes that the rough 15-point gap in contemporary black-white IQ scores is similar to the gap between the national average and the scores of assorted white ethnic groups in past times. <ref>The Bell Curve Wars- Thomas Sowell- Chapter 6 'Ethnicity and IQ", pg 70-80</ref> Indeed similar gaps have been reported within white populations, such as Northern Europeans versus Southern Europeans.
  3. In short Sowell argues, IQ "gaps" are hardly startling or unusual between, and within ethnic groups. What is distressing he claims, is the sometimes hysterical response to the very fact of IQ research, and movements to ban testing in the name of "self-esteem" or "fighting racism." He argues however, that few would have known of black IQ progress if scholars like James Flynn had not undertaken allegedly "racist" research.<ref>"Race and IQ" - column for</ref>

7) What some portray as "authentic black culture" is actually a relic of a highly disfunctional white southern redneck culture. This in turn came from the ‘Cracker culture’ of certain regions in Britain, mainly the harsh English borderlands, origin of many 'cracker' migrants. Sowell gives a number of examples that he regards as supporting the lineage, e.g.

an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship,… and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery.

Sowell also provides figures to support his argument that there was a far bigger divide between the cracker/redneck culture and the North than between white and black. E.g. Northern blacks tried to stop redneck blacks coming up from the South, and the same happened between northern whites and redneck whites. This thesis is the title essay of Sowell's book Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

8) Ordinary citizens might benefit from analyzing issues and public policies in terms of costs, benefits and tradeoffs, where scarce resources have alternative uses, rather than rely on lofty rhetoric from political leaders, activists and special interests. In Basic Economics and Applied Economics, Sowell lays out the fundamentals of the discipline so that the layman can understand them, and his essential way or model for approaching problems. There are no free lunches Sowell emphasizes, only tradeoffs at various levels. This "transactional" approach to social and economic policy is one of the hallmarks of Sowell's writings. Quote:

"Lofty talk about “non-economic values” too often amounts to very selfish attempts to impose one’s own values, without having to weigh them against other people’s values. Taxing away what other people have earned, in order to finance one’s own fantasy ventures, is often depicted as a humanitarian endeavor, without allowing others the same freedom and dignity as oneself, so they can make their own choices with their own earnings, is considered to be pandering to “greed.” Greed for power is dangerous than greed for money and has shed far more blood in the process. Political authorities have often had “revolutionary values” that were devastating to the general population." <ref> Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell, p. 308</ref>

[edit] Those influenced by Sowell

It is worth noting that Sowell's book Race and Economics greatly influenced Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In 1975, when Thomas read the book, he found an intellectual foundation for his philosophy. Later on, Thomas said that the book changed his life.

[edit] Quotes

  • "One of the bitter ironies of the 20th century was that communism, which began as an egalitarian doctrine accusing capitalism of selfishness and calloused sacrifices of others, became in power a system whose selfishness and callousness toward others made the sins of capitalism pale." [18]
  • "'Entitlement' is not only the opposite of achievement, it undermines incentives to do all the hard work that leads to achievement. It is the people who were born and raised in the welfare state atmosphere who seem to have great difficulty finding jobs."
  • "Envy plus rhetoric equals 'social justice'."
  • "One of the sad signs of our times is that we have demonized those who produce, subsidized those who refuse to produce, and canonized those who complain."
  • "If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today."
  • "Blacks were not enslaved because they were black but because they were available. Slavery has existed in the world for thousands of years. Whites enslaved other whites in Europe for centuries before the first black was brought to the Western hemisphere. Asians enslaved Europeans. Asians enslaved other Asians. Africans enslaved other Africans, and indeed even today in North Africa, blacks continue to enslave blacks."
  • "The next time some academics tell you how important 'diversity' is, ask how many Republicans there are in their sociology department."
  • "The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics."
  • "Both free speech rights and property rights belong legally to individuals, but their real function is social, to benefit vast numbers of people who do not themselves exercise these rights."
  • "Prices are important not because money is considered paramount but because prices are a fast and effective conveyor of information through a vast society in which fragmented knowledge must be coordinated."
  • "The real minimum wage is zero [unemployment]."
  • "Imagine a political system so radical as to promise to move more of the poorest 20% of the population into the richest 20% than remain in the poorest bracket within the decade? You don't need to imagine it. It's called the United States of America."
  • "The most fundamental fact about the ideas of the political left is that they do not work. Therefore we should not be surprised to find the left concentrated in institutions where ideas do not have to work in order to survive."
  • "Liberals seem to assume that, if you don't believe in their particular political solutions, then you don't really care about the people that they claim to want to help."
  • "A recently reprinted memoir by Frederick Douglass has footnotes explaining what words like 'arraigned,' 'curried' and 'exculpate' meant, and explaining who Job was. In other words, this man who was born a slave and never went to school educated himself to the point where his words now have to be explained to today's expensively under-educated generation."
  • "Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late."
  • "Freedom has cost too much blood and agony to be relinquished at the cheap price of rhetoric."
  • "One of the most fashionable notions of our times is that social problems like poverty and oppression breed wars. Most wars, however, are started by well-fed people with time on their hands to dream up half-baked ideologies or grandiose ambitions, and to nurse real or imagined grievances."
  • "Like a baseball game, wars are not over till they are over. Wars don't run on a clock like football. No previous generation was so hopelessly unrealistic that this had to be explained to them."
  • "Would you bet your paycheck on a weather forecast for tomorrow? If not, then why should this country bet billions on 'global warming' predictions that have even less foundation?
  • "Many of the same people who cry 'No blood for oil' also want higher gas-mileage standards for cars. But higher mileage standards have meant lighter and flimsier cars, leading to more injuries and deaths in accidents — in other words, trading blood for oil."
  • "It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance."
  • "The simplest and most psychologically satisfying explanation of any observed phenomenon is that it happened that way because someone wanted it to happen that way."
  • "Facts do not 'speak for themselves.' They speak for or against competing theories. Facts divorced from theories or visions are mere isolated curiosities."
  • "The march of science and technology does not imply growing intellectual complexity in the lives of most people. It often means the opposite."
  • "The Massachusetts Institute of Technology accepts blacks in the top ten percent of students, but at MIT this puts them in the bottom ten percent of the class" (1980s)

[edit] Articles and interviews

[edit] External links

[edit] Criticism

[edit] Notes

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Thomas Sowell

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