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He was a poor black boy who would be a self-proclaimed Marxist in his twenties.
He held jobs with the federal government and worked his way through Harvard University, Columbia University and the University of Chicago.
Now he’s one of the most influential scholars of our time.
No, he’s not Barack Obama.
In fact, President Obama might stand to learn a thing or two from Thomas Sowell, 83, an economics mastermind who uses simple logic and could convert even the most foolish tax-and-spend, money-printing, regulation-loving bureaucrats in Washington to the side of free-market economics.
Sowell is an intellectual, prolific author of more than 30 books and a nationally syndicated columnist with columns appearing in WND and many high-profile newspapers.
And he’s also the 2013 recipient of WND’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
He’s a spunky character who refused a request to serve in the Cabinet of former President Ronald Reagan, was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War and even slugged his own eight-grade math teacher in the face – in self-defense, of course.
But Sowell has such a cool, logical perspective on economics, politics and social problems, he leaves many of his critics reeling in the dust of his common-sense arguments. But don’t make the mistake of calling him a conservative or Republican, as Sowell asserts he is not a member of any political party.
From one of America’s most distinguished economists, a short, brilliant and revelatory book: the fundamental ideas people most commonly get wrong about economics, and how to think about the subject better. Get Sowell’s “Economic Facts and Fallacies,” available at the WND Superstore!
From Harlem’s streets to Harvard Yard
Sowell’s father died before he was born, and his mother, a maid, had four children and could not afford to raise him. So he was adopted by his great aunt, whom he called “Mom.” Afflicted with mumps and whooping cough, he was unable to attend school until he was seven.
By 1939, Sowell lived in Harlem, N.Y., and attended public schools he said “were the best in the country,” though he earned poor grades until the sixth grade.
“Nobody was concerned about giving me school lunches and stuff like that. They didn’t ask me whether my home was broken or not,” Sowell said in an interview with the Hoover Institution’s “Common Knowledge.” “They just told me what I was supposed to do and made damn sure I did it.”
However, the Harlem of Sowell’s boyhood changed over a period of decades.
“The teachers became social workers, social theorists,” he said. “They became propaganda for all kinds of new fads. I guess the test was whether they made the teachers feel that is was exciting and it made the students feel good about themselves. Of course, they ended up with no education that’s worth talking about.”
By the time Sowell reached junior high, he had received a more extensive formal education than that of anyone in his family.
“The rest of my family saw a very different symbolism in my going on to junior high school,” he wrote in his 2000 autobiography, “A Personal Odyssey.” “They informed me, very gravely, that none of them had ever reached the seventh grade.
“‘You are going further than any of us,’ I was told.”
At 16, he began his first full-time job as a Western Union messenger delivering telegrams. Amid serious family conflict, he dropped out of high school when he was just 17 and left home.
In 1951, Sowell was drafted into the Marine Corps, where he served two years as a stateside photographer during the Korean War.
Upon his discharge from the military, Sowell worked a day job and attended night school to earn his GED. By 1958, he graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He went on to earn his master’s degree at Columbia and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago.
Sowell taught at Douglass College, UCLA, Rutgers, Cornell, Howard University, Brandeis University and Amherst College. In 1980, he became a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where he continues to work today.
‘He died waiting for a doctor, in a building full of doctors’
For nearly a decade as a young man, Sowell found himself attracted to the ideas of revolutionary socialist Karl Marx.
“These ideas seemed to explain so much, and they explained it in a way to which my grim experience made me very receptive,” he recalled.
Sowell worked for the federal government as a clerk before he was drafted into the Marine Corps. After his service, he returned to his federal government work in “an almost totally black section of the General Accounting Office.”
Sowell would graduate magna cum laude from Harvard University, and he said, “Economics and Karl Marx had a lot to do with it.”
He explained, “By this time, after reading Karl Marx on my own, I knew Marxism backward and forward.”
In 1959, when Sowell worked as a clerk-typist at the headquarters of the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington, he experienced a shocking incident that soured his opinion of the bureaucratic functioning of government. In his autobiography, he wrote:
“One day, a man had a heart attack at around 5 p.m., on the sidewalk outside the Public Health Service. He was taken inside to the nurse’s room, where he was asked if he were a government employee. If he were, he would have been eligible to be taken to the medical facility there. Unfortunately, he was not, so a phone call was made to the local hospital to send an ambulance. By the time this ambulance made its way through miles of downtown Washington rush-hour traffic, the man was dead.
“He died waiting for a doctor, in a building full of doctors.
“Nothing so dramatized for me the nature of a bureaucracy and its emphasis on procedures rather than results.”
Sowell would soon arrive at the University of Chicago with economist Milton Friedman, a famous advocate of a free market, as his adviser.
“I was well aware that the University of Chicago economics department had a reputation for conservativism as they were that I was a Marxist,” he wrote.
By 1960, Sowell worked as an intern at the U.S. Department of Labor, where he studied Puerto Rico’s sugar industry. The U.S. government had set minimum wages there for various industries.
Sowell, then an advocate of the minimum wage, was soon confronted with a troubling problem: Unemployment soared as the minimum wage increased.
Some employers explained that higher wages made it too expensive to produce sugar, leaving them unable to retain needed workers, but union officials claimed hurricanes were responsible for the declining production and profits.
One day, Sowell announced that he had a plan to determine which theory was correct.
“‘What we need,’ I said, ‘are statistics on the amount of sugar cane standing in the field before the hurricanes came through Puerto Rico,’ Sowell recalled.
“There was a stunned silence, as if they were afraid I had stumbled onto something that could turn out to be embarrassing for the Labor Department.”
The government workers immediately informed him that they didn’t have the statistics he needed. When Sowell said he would seek the records from the Department of Agriculture, officials with the Department of Labor said acquiring them would be very difficult.
They told him, “That’s easier said than done. First of all, we would have to make a request, going all the way up through the channels to the Secretary of Labor. Then we would have to seek approval from the Secretary of Agriculture, who would then have to forward the request down the chain of command in the Department of Agriculture, to see if the data are available and can be released.”
That was in 1960. Sowell says he still hasn’t received an official reply to his request.
“This was more than an isolated incident,” Sowell explained. “It forced me to realize that government agencies have their own self-interest to look after, regardless of the interests of those for whom a government program has been set up.”
The experience made Sowell reconsider the larger question of the role of government and began to diminish his faith in government programs and their benefit to society.
“I had remained a Marxist, despite being at the University of Chicago, but now my experience in Washington began a process of changing my mind completely as to how to deal with social problems,” he wrote. “Fortunately, it was a gradual process, so that I was spared the traumatic conversions which some other Marxists have suffered.”
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Race in America
In his 2000 autobiography, Sowell wrote, “[W]hite people were almost hypothetical to me as a child. They were one of the things that grown-ups talked about, but they had no significant role in my daily life.”
But when he left North Carolina for New York at the age of nine, Sowell was shocked to discover that most people in the U.S. were white.
“In reading the Sunday comics, I was not bothered by the fact that the characters were almost always white, but I could not understand why some of these characters had yellow hair. I had never seen anybody with yellow hair, and doubted there were any such people.”
By the fifth grade, an anonymous white donor offered Sowell two free weeks at a summer camp. But he soon learned that all the other kids at the camp were white.
“When I asked if there were going to be any other black kids going to this camp, they assured me that there would be – but they were lying. This was in fact an experiment to put the first black kid into that camp.”
While some of the white people at the camp seemed “over-solicitous and obnoxious,” he began to make friends in what he called his “first large-scale encounter with them in more or less unstructured situations.”
“I quickly learned that [whites] varied all over the lot,” Sowell recalled.
By 1970, Sowell said, he was haunted by “what was going on, on the racial front, around the country.” He wrote an article published in the New York Times Magazine titled, “Colleges are Skipping Over Competent Blacks to Admit ‘Authentic’ Ghetto Types,” in which he condemned assumptions behind admissions policies for minority students. According to Sowell, universities had been selecting black students based on a particular sociological or ideological profile rather than choosing highly qualified black applicants.
While Cornell University was less than enthusiastic about his article, letters praising Sowell’s honesty came flooding in from across the nation.
Later, Sowell would be invited to the White House to debate the merits of affirmative-action before President Gerald Ford and his Cabinet.
Sowell explained that his life has been much different from those of many black intellectuals, activists, politicians and “spokesmen,” most importantly, because “I grew up with no fear of whites, either physically or intellectually.” He said “fear is all too often the enemy of rational thought.”
While his books on racial controversies tend to attract more attention from the media and larger sales than his other books on such subjects as economics and politics, Sowell said, “[T]he books on racial issues were not written as an intellectual outlet, but because there were things I thought needed saying and I knew that other people were reluctant to say them.”
In recent months, Sowell has addressed the current trend of black mobs randomly attacking innocent people in U.S. cities as part of what they call “the knockout game” – often brutalizing and sometimes killing their victims.
“The way the game is played, one of a number of young blacks decides to show that he can knock down some stranger on the streets, preferably with one punch, as they pass by,” Sowell explained in his column, “Glossing over black thugs’ ‘game.'” “Often some other member of the group records the event, so that a video of that ‘achievement’ is put on the Internet, to be celebrated.”
What makes these attacks so different than random violence perpetrated across the nation on a daily basis is, Sowell wrote, “[T]he mainstream media have usually suppressed news about the ‘knockout game’ or about other and larger forms of similar orchestrated racial violence in dozens of cities in every region of the country. Sometimes the attacks are reported, but only as isolated attacks by unspecified ‘teens’ or ‘young people’ against unspecified victims, without any reference to the racial makeup of the attackers or the victims – and with no mention of racial epithets by the young hoodlums exulting in their own ‘achievement.'”
While politicians and member of the media ignore this trend, Sowell said, the only way to “prevent a race war is by stopping these attacks, not trying to sanitize them.”
“If these attacks continue, and continue to grow, more and more people are going to know about them, regardless of the media or the politicians,” he said. “Responsible people of all races need to support a crackdown on these attacks, which can provoke a white backlash that can escalate into a race war. But political expediency leads in the opposite direction. …
“Apparently, political correctness trumps human lives.”
Get out of the way! Let the economy recover
In another book, “Basic Economics,” Sowell explains economics in an uncomplicated way everyone can understand – without tedious graphs and equations.
While many Americans are fond of saying Congress must do something to make the economy recover, Sowell says, “Nooo! They need to let the economy recover.”
“The economy did not get to be the biggest in the world by politicians doing things,” Sowell said. “All of the millions of other people, whose names we don’t even know, those are the people who made it the biggest economy in the world.
“If politicians would get out of their way and let the economy recover, it can do it.”
He blames the recent economic crisis on government meddling in the housing market and pushing loans to people who couldn’t afford mortgages.
During the crisis, the Federal Reserve inundated the financial markets with liquidity. Meanwhile, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations enacted stimulus and bailout packages nearing $4 trillion.
Sowell argues that the government did not react appropriately to the predicament, instead handing out taxpayers’ hard-earned money to banks and special interests – money that would never make it back into the hands of Americans in the form of loans or anything else.
Sowell has also advocated abolishing the Federal Reserve, calling it a “cancer” and saying, “The Fed represented wonderful hopes. But we’ve had so many programs that represented wonderful hopes that ended in disaster. … Overall, what was it supposed to do? It was supposed to not only prevent bank failures, it was supposed to prevent huge changes in the money supply, in particular great deflations. The greatest deflation in American history occurred under the Federal Reserve System. …
“There’s no evidence that I can see, over this vast period of time that the Federal Reserve has existed, that things on the whole have been better.”
Asked what system he would choose to replace the Fed, Sowell responded, “When somebody removes a cancer, what would you replace it with?”
Sowell warned of the sweeping, fundamental changes happening in the nation right now in his 2010 book, “Dismantling America.”
“The collapse of a civilization is not just the replacement of rulers or institutions with new rulers and new institutions,” he explained. “It is the destruction of a whole way of life and the painful, and sometimes pathetic, attempts of rebuilding amid the ruins. Is that where America is headed? I believe it is.”
Sowell also wrote, “While the Obama administration is not the root cause of the ominous dangers that face this country at home and abroad, it is the embodiment, the personification, and the culmination of dangerous trends that began decades ago.”
In an interview with the Hoover Institution’s “Common Knowledge,” Sowell explained, “I see [Obama] as someone who, all his life, has been associated and been a part of a group of people who fundamentally don’t believe in the principles of this country … people who fundamentally think that we’re on the wrong track, we have the wrong principles and we need to be changed – whether we want to be or not.”
Sowell cited Obama’s relationships with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and former Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers. Referencing Obama’s “formation” at Columbia and Harvard Law School, Sowell said, “He himself says he always sought out the most radical people.
“He worked as a community organizer. I don’t think most people stop and think, ‘What does a community organizer do?’ … He is mobilizing all the resentments, organizing them in order to put them into battle to get what they want from other people.”
But don’t put the blame for the declining nation squarely on Obama, Sowell argues, because this is a trend that began decades ago.
“Long before Barack Obama’s name became known, there was this attitude essentially repudiating the principles of the country. It started, I think, with Woodrow Wilson, who was the first president of the United States to openly say that the Constitution needed to be superseded. He didn’t mean there needed to be amendments to the Constitution, which anybody would be for, but that the courts should do this. In other words, to circumvent the voting public and put in the things that the judges think ought to be put in, irrespective of what the Constitution says.”
Nonetheless, President Obama won election in 2008 by 7 percentage points. What made him so popular?
Sowell explained why so many Americans rallied to put Obama in office.
“What they got through the media was so filtered that they pooh-poohed this man, having been a member of a church run by a ranting racist, because they wanted to believe that he was going to be a unifier,” he explained. “Community organizers don’t unify. They divide. They polarize. That’s how they get what they want.”
In the space of just two decades, how did the nation go from electing a president like Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama?
“I think it started immediately with Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, no-doubt a decent and honorable man, but one who disdained what he called ‘this vision thing.’ In other words, an overarching sense of principles you should be fighting for. …
And when President Bush Sr. took office, he began talking about a “kinder, gentler America” before raising taxes on hard-working taxpayers.
“You see that right now taken to extremes in this administration,” Sowell explained. “People who never took out a $700,000 loan in their lives now have to subsidize people who did take out a $700,000 mortgage loan and couldn’t afford it.”
Since then, he said, Americans have moved to the left “rapidly under Democrats and slowly under Republicans.”
In his 2009 column, Sowell posed the question, “Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice,’ what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?”