Thomas Sowell

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Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell cropped.jpg
Sowell in 1964
Born (1930-06-30) June 30, 1930 (age 92)
Political party Democratic (until 1972)
Unaffiliated (1972–present)
Spouse(s)
Alma Parr
(m. 1964;div. 1975)

Mary Ash
(m. 1981)
Children2
Institutions
Field
School or
tradition
Chicago School of Economics
Alma mater
Doctoral
advisor
George Stigler
Influences
Contributions
Awards
Military career
AllegianceFlag of the United States.svg  United States
Service/branchFlag of the United States Marine Corps.svg  United States Marine Corps
Years of service1951–1952
Battles/wars Korean War
Website Official website
Signature
Thomas Sowell signature.png
Notes
  1. Sowell was first a member of the Hoover Institution as a fellow in April of 1977. He became a Senior fellow in September 1980.

Thomas Sowell ( /sl/ ; born June 30, 1930) is an American author, economist, and political commentator who is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. [1] With widely published commentary and books—and as a guest on TV and radio—he became a well-known voice in the American conservative movement and is considered one of the most influential black conservatives. [2] [3] [4] He was a recipient of the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2002. [5] [lower-alpha 1]

Contents

Sowell was born in segregated Gastonia, North Carolina, to a poor family, and grew up in Harlem, New York City. [6] Due to poverty and difficulties at home, he dropped out of Stuyvesant High School and worked various odd jobs, eventually serving in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War. Afterward he took night classes at Howard University and then attended Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1958. [7] He earned a master's degree in economics from Columbia University the next year and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago in 1968 under his mentor Milton Friedman. [8] In his academic career, he has served on the faculties of Cornell University, Amherst College, Brandeis University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and, currently, Stanford University. He has also worked at think tanks including the Urban Institute. Since 1977, he has worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy.

Sowell was an important figure to the conservative movement during the Reagan era, influencing fellow economist Walter E. Williams and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. [9] [10] [2] He was offered a position as Federal Trade Commissioner in the Ford administration, [11] and was considered for posts including U.S. Secretary of Education in the Reagan administration, [12] but declined both times. [13] [11]

Sowell is the author of more than 45 books (including revised and new editions) on a variety of subjects including politics, economics, education and race, and he has been a syndicated columnist in more than 150 newspapers. [14] [15] His views are described as conservative, especially on social issues; [16] [17] [18] [3] libertarian, especially on economics; [16] [19] [20] or libertarian-conservative. [21] He has said he may be best labelled as a libertarian, though he disagrees with libertarians on some issues, such as national defense. [22]

Early life

Sowell was born in 1930 into a poor family in segregated Gastonia, North Carolina. [23] [6] His father died shortly before he was born, leaving behind Sowell's mother, a housemaid who already had four children. A great-aunt and her two grown daughters adopted Sowell and raised him. [6] His mother died a few years later of complications while giving birth to another child. [24] In his autobiography, A Personal Odyssey, Sowell wrote that his childhood encounters with white people were so limited that he did not know blond was a hair color. [25] He recalls that his first memories were living in a small wooden house in Charlotte, North Carolina, which he says was typical of most Black neighborhoods. [24] It was located on an unpaved street and had no electricity or running water. [24] When Sowell was nine years old, he and his extended family moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Harlem, New York City, for greater opportunities, joining in the large-scale trend of African-American migration from the American South to the North. Family quarrels forced him and his aunt to room in other people's apartments. [24]

He qualified for Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious academic high school in New York City; he was the first in his family to study beyond the sixth grade. However, he was forced to drop out at age 17 because of financial difficulties and family quarreling. [6] He worked a number of odd jobs, including long hours at a machine shop, and as a delivery man for Western Union. [26] He also tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948. [27] Sowell was drafted into the armed services in 1951 during the Korean War and was assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps. Although Sowell opposed the war and experienced racial discrimination, he was able to find fulfillment as a photographer, which eventually became his favorite hobby. [6] [24] He was honorably discharged in 1952. [24]

Higher education and early career

After leaving military service, Sowell completed high school, took a civil service job in Washington, DC, and attended night classes at Howard University, a historically black college. [28] [29] His high scores on the College Board exams and recommendations by two professors helped him gain admission to Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1958 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. [6] [30] He earned a master's degree from Columbia University the following year. [30] Sowell had initially chosen Columbia University to study under George Stigler, who would later receive the Nobel Prize in Economics, but when he learned that Stigler had moved to the University of Chicago, he followed him there and, when he arrived in the fall of 1959, studied for his Doctor of Philosophy degree under both Stigler and Milton Friedman. [31]

Sowell has said that he was a Marxist "during the decade of my 20s"; accordingly, one of his earliest professional publications was a sympathetic examination of Marxist thought vs. Marxist–Leninist practice. [32] What began to change his mind toward supporting free market economics, he said, was studying the possible impact of minimum wages on unemployment of sugar industry workers in Puerto Rico, as a U.S. Department of Labor intern. Workers at the department were surprised by his questioning, he said, and he concluded that "they certainly weren't going to engage in any scrutiny of the law". [22]

Sowell ultimately received his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in economics from the University of Chicago in 1968. [30] His dissertation was titled "Say's Law and the General Glut Controversy". [33]

Academic career

From 1965 to 1969, Sowell was an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University. Writing 30 years later about the 1969 seizure of Willard Straight Hall by black students at Cornell, Sowell characterized the students as "hoodlums" with "serious academic problems [who were] admitted under lower academic standards", and noted "it so happens that the pervasive racism that black students supposedly encountered at every turn on campus and in town was not apparent to me during the four years that I taught at Cornell and lived in Ithaca." [34]

Sowell has taught economics at Howard University, Rutgers, Cornell, Brandeis University, Amherst College, and the University of California, Los Angeles. [28] At Howard, Sowell wrote, he was offered the position as head of the economics department, but he declined. [35] Since 1980, he has been a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he holds a fellowship named after Rose and Milton Friedman, his mentor. [30] [36] The Hoover appointment, because it did not involve teaching, gave him more time for his numerous writings. [12] In addition, Sowell appeared several times on William F. Buckley Jr.'s show Firing Line , during which he discussed the economics of race and privatization. Sowell has written that he gradually lost faith in the academic system, citing low academic standards and counterproductive university bureaucracy, and he resolved to leave teaching after his time at the University of California, Los Angeles. [35] In A Personal Odyssey, he recounts, "I had come to Amherst, basically, to find reasons to continue teaching. What I found instead were more reasons to abandon an academic career.” [35]

Sowell was offered a position in the Nixon administration [ verification needed ] and a position as Federal Trade Commissioner by the Ford administration in 1976. He declined the offers. [11] Similarly, he was offered the post of United States Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, but declined. [13] [ verification needed ] In 1980, after Reagan's election, Sowell and Henry Lucas organized the Black Alternatives Conference to bring together black and white conservatives; one attendee was a young Clarence Thomas, then a congressional aide. [37] [38] Sowell was appointed as a member of the Economic Policy Advisory Committee of the Reagan administration, [39] but resigned after the first meeting, disliking travel from the West Coast and lengthy discussions in Washington; of his decision to resign, Sowell cited "the opinion (and the example) of Milton Friedman, that some individuals can contribute more by staying out of government". [40]

In 1987, Sowell testified in favor of federal appeals court judge Robert Bork during the hearings for Bork's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his testimony, Sowell said that Bork was "the most highly qualified nominee of this generation" and that what he viewed as judicial activism, a concept that Bork opposed as a self-described originalist and textualist, "has not been beneficial to minorities." [41]

In a review of Sowell's 1987 book, A Conflict of Visions , Larry D. Nachman in Commentary magazine described Sowell as a leading representative of the Chicago school of economics. [42]

Writings and thought

Themes of Sowell's writing range from social policy on race, ethnic groups, education, and decision-making, to classical and Marxian economics, to the problems of children perceived as having disabilities.

Sowell had a nationally syndicated column distributed by Creators Syndicate that was published in Forbes magazine, National Review , The Wall Street Journal , The Washington Times , The New York Post , and other major newspapers, as well as online on websites such as RealClearPolitics , Townhall , WorldNetDaily , and the Jewish World Review . [43] Sowell commented on current issues, which include liberal media bias; [44] judicial activism and originalism; [45] abortion; [46] minimum wage; universal health care; the tension between government policies, programs, and protections and familial autonomy; affirmative action; government bureaucracy; [47] gun control; [48] militancy in U.S. foreign policy; the war on drugs; multiculturalism; [49] mob rule and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. [50] According to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education , Sowell was the most cited black economist between 1991 and 1995, and second most cited between 1971 and 1990. [51]

He was a frequent guest on The Rush Limbaugh Show , in conversations with Walter E. Williams, who was a substitute host for Limbaugh. [16]

On December 27, 2016, Sowell announced the end of his syndicated column, writing that, at age 86, "the question is not why I am quitting, but why I kept at it so long," and cited a desire to focus on his photography hobby. [15]

A documentary detailing his career entitled "Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World" was released on January 25, 2021, by the Free to Choose Network. [52] [53]

Economic and political ideology

Until the Spring of 1972, Sowell was a registered Democrat, after which he then left the Democratic Party and resolved not to associate with any political party again, stating "I was so disgusted with both candidates that I didn't vote at all." [11] Though he is often described as a black conservative, Sowell said, "I prefer not to have labels, but I suspect that 'libertarian' would suit me better than many others, although I disagree with the libertarian movement on a number of things." [22] He has been described as one of the most prominent advocates of contemporary classical liberalism along with Friedrich Hayek and Larry Arnhart. [54] Sowell primarily writes on economic subjects, generally advocating a free market approach to capitalism. [55] Sowell opposes the Federal Reserve, arguing that it has been unsuccessful in preventing economic depressions and limiting inflation. [56] Sowell described his study of Karl Marx in his autobiography; as a former Marxist who early in his career became disillusioned with it, he emphatically opposes Marxism, providing a critique in his book Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (1985).

Sowell has also written a trilogy of books on ideologies and political positions, including A Conflict of Visions , in which he speaks on the origins of political strife; The Vision of the Anointed , in which he compares the conservative/libertarian and liberal/progressive worldviews; and The Quest for Cosmic Justice, in which, as in many of his other writings, he outlines his thesis of the need felt by intellectuals, politicians, and leaders to fix and perfect the world in utopian and ultimately, he posits, disastrous fashions. Separate from the trilogy, but also in discussion of the subject, he wrote Intellectuals and Society , building on his earlier work, in which he discusses what he argues to be the blind hubris and follies of intellectuals in a variety of areas.

His book Knowledge and Decisions , a winner of the 1980 Law and Economics Center Prize, was heralded as a "landmark work," selected for this prize "because of its cogent contribution to our understanding of the differences between the market process and the process of government." In announcing the award, the centre acclaimed Sowell, whose "contribution to our understanding of the process of regulation alone would make the book important, but in reemphasizing the diversity and efficiency that the market makes possible, [his] work goes deeper and becomes even more significant." [57] Friedrich Hayek wrote: "In a wholly original manner [Sowell] succeeds in translating abstract and theoretical argument into highly concrete and realistic discussion of the central problems of contemporary economic policy." [58]

Sowell opposes the imposition of minimum wages by governments, arguing in his book Basic Economics that "Unfortunately, the real minimum wage is always zero, regardless of the laws, and that is the wage that many workers receive in the wake of the creation or escalation of a government-mandated minimum wage, because they either lose their jobs or fail to find jobs when they enter the labor force." [59] He goes further to argue that minimum wages disproportionately affect "members of racial or ethnic minority groups" that have been discriminated against. He asserts that "Before federal minimum wage laws were instituted in the 1930s, the black unemployment rate was slightly lower than the white unemployment rate in 1930. But then followed the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933 and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 – all of which imposed government-mandated minimum wages, either on a particular sector or more broadly... By 1954, black unemployment rates were double those of whites and have continued to be at that level or higher. Those particularly hard hit by the resulting unemployment have been black teenage males." [60]

Sowell also favors decriminalization of all drugs. [61] He opposes gun control laws, arguing, "On net balance, they do not save lives, but cost lives." [48]

Race and ethnicity

Sowell has supported conservative political positions on race, and is known for caustic, sarcastic criticism of liberal black civil rights figures. [62] [4] Sowell has argued that systemic racism is an untested, questionable hypothesis, writing, "I don't think even the people who use it have any clear idea what they're saying", and compared it to propaganda tactics used by Joseph Goebbels because if it is "repeated long enough and loud enough", people "cave in" to it. [63] [64]

In several of his works—including The Economics and Politics of Race (1983), Ethnic America (1981), Affirmative Action Around the World (2004), and other books—Sowell challenges the notion that black progress is due to progressive government programs or policies. He claims that many problems identified with blacks in modern society are not unique, neither in terms of American ethnic groups, nor in terms of a rural proletariat struggling with disruption as it became urbanized, as discussed in his Black Rednecks and White Liberals (2005).[ citation needed ] He is critical of affirmative action and race-based quotas. [65] [66] He takes strong issue with the notion of government as a helper or savior of minorities, arguing that the historical record shows quite the opposite. In Affirmative Action Around the World, [67] Sowell holds that affirmative action affects more groups than is commonly understood, though its impacts occur through different mechanisms, and has long since ceased to favor blacks.

One of the few policies that can be said to harm virtually every group in a different way. … Obviously, whites and Asians lose out when you have preferential admission for black students or Hispanic students—but blacks and Hispanics lose out because what typically happens is the students who have all the credentials to succeed in college are admitted to colleges where the standards are so much higher that they fail. [68]

In Intellectuals and Race (2013), Sowell argues that intelligence quotient (IQ) gaps are hardly startling or unusual between, or within, ethnic groups. He notes that the roughly 15-point gap in contemporary black–white IQ scores is similar to that between the national average and the scores of certain ethnic white groups in years past, in periods when the nation was absorbing new immigrants. [69]

Late-talking and the Einstein syndrome

Sowell wrote The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, a follow-up to his Late-Talking Children, discussing a condition he termed the Einstein syndrome . This book investigates the phenomenon of late-talking children, frequently misdiagnosed with autism or pervasive developmental disorder. He includes the research of Stephen Camarata and Steven Pinker, among others, in this overview of a poorly understood developmental trait. It is a trait which he says affected many historical figures who developed prominent careers, such as physicists Albert Einstein, [70] Edward Teller, and Richard Feynman; mathematician Julia Robinson; and musicians Arthur Rubinstein and Clara Schumann. He makes the 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. This may temporarily "rob resources" from neighboring functions such as language development. Sowell disagrees with Simon Baron-Cohen's speculation that Einstein may have had Asperger syndrome. [71]

Politics

In a 2009 column titled "The Bush Legacy", Sowell assessed President George W. Bush as "a mixed bag" but "an honorable man." [72] Sowell was strongly critical of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and begrudgingly endorsed Ted Cruz in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, criticizing him as well, and stating that "we can only make our choices among those actually available". [73] Sowell indicated that he would vote in the general election against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, due to fears about the appointments Clinton would possibly make to the Supreme Court.[ citation needed ]

In 2018, he named George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Calvin Coolidge as presidents he liked. [74]

In 2020, Sowell wrote that if the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, it could signal a point of no return for the United States, a tipping point akin to the fall of the Roman Empire. In an interview in July 2020, he stated that "the Roman Empire overcame many problems in its long history but eventually it reached a point where it could no longer continue, and much of that was from within, not just the barbarians attacking from outside." Sowell wrote that if Biden became president, the Democratic Party would have an enormous amount of control over the nation, and if this happened, they could twin with the "radical left" and ideas such as defunding the police could come to fruition. [64] [75]

Donald Trump

During the Republican primary of the 2016 presidential election, Sowell criticized Donald Trump, questioning whether Trump had "any principles at all, other than promoting Donald Trump?" [76] Two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Sowell recommended voters to vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton. In 2018, when asked on his thoughts of Trump's presidency, Sowell replied, "I think he's better than the previous president." [17]

During interviews in 2019, Sowell defended Trump against charges of racism. [77] [78]

Education

Sowell has written about education throughout his career. He has argued for the need for reform of the school system in the United States. In his latest book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies (2020), Sowell compares the educational outcomes of school children educated at charter schools with those at conventional public schools. In his research, Sowell first explains the need and his methodology for choosing comparable students—both ethnically and socioeconomically—before listing his findings. He presents the case that charter schools on the whole do significantly better in terms of educational outcomes than conventional schools. [79] [80] [81]

Sowell argues that many U.S. schools are failing children; contends that "indoctrination" has taken the place of proper education; and argues that teachers' unions have promoted harmful education policies. Sowell contends that many schools have become monopolies for educational bureaucracies. [82]

In his book Education: Assumptions Versus History (1986), Sowell analyzes the state of education in U.S. schools and universities. In particular, he examines the experiences of blacks and other ethnic groups in the American education system and identifies the factors and patterns behind both success and failure. [83]

Reception

Classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives [ third-party source needed ] of different disciplines have received Sowell's work positively. [84] [85] [86] [87] Among these, he has been noted for originality, depth and breadth, [88] [89] clarity of expression, and thoroughness of research. [90] [89] [91] Sowell's publications have been received positively by economists Steven Plaut, [91] Steve H. Hanke [92] James M. Buchanan; [74] and John B. Taylor; [93] philosophers Carl Cohen [94] and Tibor Machan; [95] science historian Michael Shermer; [96] essayist Gerald Early; [3] political scientists Abigail Thernstrom [97] and Charles Murray; [88] psychologists Steven Pinker [98] [99] and Jonathan Haidt; [100] [101] Josef Joffe, publisher and editor of Die Zeit ; [89] and Walter E. Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University. [86] Steve Forbes, in a 2015 column, stated that "it’s a scandal that economist Thomas Sowell has not been awarded the Nobel Prize. No one alive has turned out so many insightful, richly researched books." [102]

Economist James B. Stewart wrote a critical review of Black Rednecks and White Liberals, calling it "the latest salvo in Thomas Sowell's continuing crusade to represent allegedly dysfunctional value orientations and behavioral characteristics of African Americans as the principal reasons for persistent economic and social disparities." He also criticized it for downplaying the impact of slavery. [103] Particularly in black communities in the 1980s Sowell became, in historian Michael Ondaatje's words, "persona non grata, someone known to talk about, rather than with, African Americans". [104] Economist Bernadette Chachere, [105] law professor Richard Thompson Ford, [106] and sociologists William Julius Wilson [107] and Richard Coughlin [108] have criticized some of his work. Criticisms include neglecting discrimination against women in the workforce in Rhetoric or Reality?, [107] the methodology of Race and Culture: A World View, [108] and portrayal of opposing theories in Intellectuals and Race. [106] Economist Jennifer Doleac criticized Discrimination and Disparities, arguing that statistical discrimination is real and pervasive (Sowell argues that existing racial disparities are due to accurate sorting based on underlying characteristics, such as education) and that government intervention can achieve societal goals and make markets work more efficiently. [109] Columnist Steven Pearlstein criticized Wealth, Poverty and Politics. [18]

Personal life

Previously married to Alma Jean Parr from 1964 to 1975, Sowell married Mary Ash in 1981. [110] He has two children. [11] [111] [112]

Legacy and honors

Clarence Thomas (last on right) accepting the 2002 National Humanities Medal on Sowell's behalf National Humanities Medal Winners for 2003.jpg
Clarence Thomas (last on right) accepting the 2002 National Humanities Medal on Sowell's behalf

Career chronology

Bibliography

Books

Selected essays

Footnotes

  1. Sowell declined to be awarded the National Humanities Medal in person. Justice Clarence Thomas received it on his behalf on February 23, 2003.

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Jason L. Riley is an American conservative commentator and author. He is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and has appeared on the Journal Editorial Report, other Fox News programs and C-SPAN. He is Black and writes about his Black experience in America as a Conservative.

<i>Basic Economics</i> 2000 book by Thomas Sowell

Basic Economics is a non-fiction book by American economist Thomas Sowell published by Basic Books in 2000. The original subtitle was A Citizen's Guide to the Economy, but from the third edition in 2007 on it was subtitled A Common Sense Guide to the Economy.

References

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Further reading