Posted: May 24, 2001
A review of A Personal Odyssey and Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell.
f we lived in the sensible world that Thomas Sowell argues for so eloquently, it's quite possible he wouldn't have much of an audience today. Of course, Sowell would be known by educated readers for his brilliant trilogy on culture and societies (Race and Culture, Migrations and Culture, and Conquests and Culture). And Sowell would be recognized by his peers in the economics profession as a sound technical economist, a student of George Stigler and Milton Friedman who has written on Say's Law and on Marx.
But as respected as his work may be in both of those areas, that is not the reason why Sowell is widely known. His stature must be attributed to his ability to bring light where there is darkness and logic where there is confusion to public policy in general and economics in particular.
Now Sowell offers two new and very different books for the general reader. A very private public figure, Sowell tells his unique story in A Personal Odyssey, and he explains his discipline without charts or higher mathematics in Basic Economics.
A Personal Odyssey is a memoir of Sowell's 70 years. But the book does a secondary service by offering a glimpse into the subtleties and realities of segregation and racial discrimination in the days before "racism" became a code word for political opportunists.
Liberals delight in portraying any black person who supports free-market policies as a hypocrite who benefited from government quotas and preference policies, then gained easy fame by turning and attacking those very policies. Nothing could be further from the personal experience of Thomas Sowell. Sowell was born into the world of ironclad segregation that decades of one-party Democratic rule brought about in the South, a segregation so thorough that I was not until Sowell's family moved north that he found out that most Americans were white. He advanced on the strength of his own talent, without benefit of quotas or preferences, and in spite of his own refusal to play any of the games that can be so helpful climbing the greasy pole of academia.
Sowell's tale is not to be missed. The reader sees a side of the man not often visible—poignant, inspiring, revealing. We also see in practice the traits that have marked his public writing: intellectual honesty, relentless logic, and a keen eye for distinguishing unpopular fact from popular superstition.
Sowell's father died before Tom's birth in North Carolina in 1930. Tom's mother, already supporting four children on a maid's wages, put him in the care of a great-aunt who moved the family to Harlem when he was nine-years-old. Sowell recounts his travails in getting a basic education in the face of strained finances and a family hostile to his desire to go to decent schools. It is a remarkable personal achievement that Sowell even reached high school, much less earned an honors undergraduate degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.
Sowell's account of his service in the Marine Corps calls to mind A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, so alien where this particular draftee's logical habits of mind to the world of regimented governmental organization.
Sowell's most scalding passages blast not racism, the military, or even liberalism, but academic administrators. Sowell tells of teaching at places as various as Douglass College in New Jersey, Cornell, and UCLA. Few are the administrators who did not lie to him outright, renege on solemn promises made to induce him to take jobs, or turn tail and run from radical students trying to bully their opponents into silence. Sowell's aversion to lowering academic standards in order to 'help' students from disadvantaged backgrounds seems to have been galvanized by his experience teaching at Howard University, where a slothful and disingenuous administration wasted on opportunity to build up a first rate black-run university because of what a U.S. presidential candidate would later call "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
By Sowell's own account, his period of greatest professional productivity and happiness has been his continuing tenure at the Hoover Institution, which started in 1980. For the last two decades, he has been able to devote himself to research, producing most of the work for which he is known, including Culture series; The Quest for Cosmic Justice; and Vision of the Anointed, a merciless tweaking of the politically correct elites.
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Almost simultaneously, Sowell has brought out quite a different book, the badly needed Basic Economics.
Until the early 20th century, it was the norm for economists to write so that the educated laymen could understand them. Ricardo, Smith, Mill, and other pioneers in economic thinking wrote that way. With the 20th century came the systematic application of the scientific method and hypothesis testing to the way economics is practiced by academics. And with that change came statistical methods of ever higher mathematics. Today the pages of peer-reviewed economics journals are unintelligible to anyone not fluent in stochastic calculus. With the Basic Economics, Sowell does what the dominant quantitative thinkers believe to be either impossible or irresponsible: he writes an introductory economics book without charts or graphs.
Economic illiteracy is the rule rather than the exception in popular media, even in publications that promote themselves as media "of record." Hence we read about the crisis caused by California's "deregulation" of the electric utilities industry, when it fact California's power problems have been caused by price controls that have ruined the state's power companies and by a multitude of state regulatory barriers to the construction of new generating plants.
Such economic illogic and illiteracy are Sowell's target in this volume, and he scores a bullseye. Anyone who hasn't studied economics formally should read Basic Economics to learn it in a logical, straightforward way. Anyone who has been subjected to biased and dreary economics textbooks should read Basic Economics as a bracing corrective.
Two intertwined themes recur in the book. First, the quantity and dispersion of information in a society doom central-economic planning to failure. Second, the intentions of government economic policies are usually very different from the outcomes of those policies, which are really all that matter.
It is worth noting that Sowell does not jump in and take sides on big economic issues where serious economists still have legitimate disagreements, such as the relative efficacy of fiscal and monetary policy, or whether a fixed or floating exchange rate leads to great prosperity. The things he does deal with at length—e.g., the consequences of rent controls, price controls, international trade—are basically settled issues, as the title suggests.
Reflecting on his life, Sowell cites one of his favorite quotations, from English economist David Ricardo:
I wish that I may never think the smiles of the great and powerful a sufficient inducement to turn aside from the straight path of honesty and the convictions of my own mind.
In this regard, Sowell had met and exceeded the standards he set for himself.