Sowell in 1964
|Born||June 30, 1930|
Gastonia, North Carolina, U.S.
|Chicago school of economics|
|Service/||United States Marine Corps|
|Years of service||1951–1953|
Sowell was born in North Carolina, but grew up in Harlem, New York. He dropped out of Stuyvesant High School and served in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War. He received a bachelor's degree, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1958 and a master's degree from Columbia University in 1959. In 1968, he earned his doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago.
Sowell has served on the faculties of several universities, including Cornell University and University of California, Los Angeles. He has also worked for think tanks such as the Urban Institute. Since 1980, he has worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He writes from a libertarian conservative perspective, advocating supply-side economics. Sowell has written more than thirty books (a number of which have been reprinted in revised editions), and his work has been widely anthologized. He is a National Humanities Medal recipient for innovative scholarship which incorporated history, economics and political science.
Sowell was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, near the border with South Carolina. His father died shortly before he was born, and his mother, a housemaid, already had four children. A great-aunt and her two grown daughters adopted Sowell and raised him. In his autobiography, A Personal Odyssey, Sowell wrote that his childhood encounters with white people were so limited that he did not know that blond was a hair color. When Sowell was nine, his family moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Harlem, New York City, as part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North for greater opportunities. 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 problems in his home.
Sowell held a number of positions, including one at a machine shop and another as a delivery man for Western Union, and he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948. He was drafted into the military in 1951, during the Korean War, and was assigned to the United States Marine Corps. Because of his experience in photography, Sowell became a Marine Corps photographer.
After his discharge, Sowell worked a civil service job in Washington, DC, and attended night classes at Howard University, a historically black college. 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. He earned a Master's degree from Columbia University the following year.
Sowell has said that he was a Marxist "during the decade of my 20s"; one of his earliest professional publications was a sympathetic examination of Marxist thought vs. Marxist–Leninist practice. His experience working as a federal government intern during the summer of 1960 caused him to reject Marxian economics in favor of free market economic theory. During his work, Sowell discovered an association between the rise of mandated minimum wages for workers in the sugar industry of Puerto Rico and the rise of unemployment in that industry. Studying the patterns led Sowell to theorize that the government employees who administered the minimum wage law cared more about their own jobs than the plight of the poor.
Sowell received a Doctor of Philosophy degree in economics from the University of Chicago in 1968. His dissertation was titled Say's Law and the General Glut Controversy. Sowell had initially chosen Columbia University to study under George Stigler (who would later receive the Nobel Prize in Economics). When he learned that Stigler had moved to the University of Chicago, he followed him there.
From 1965 to 1969, Sowell was an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University. Writing thirty years later about the 1969 "violent" takeover by black Cornell students of Willard Straight Hall, Sowell characterized the students as "hoodlums" with "serious academic problems [and] 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."
Sowell has taught economics at Howard University, Rutgers, Cornell, Brandeis University, Amherst College, and the University of California, Los Angeles. 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. 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.
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."
Sowell is both a syndicated columnist and an academic economist, whose column was distributed by Creators Syndicate. 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.
While often described as a black conservative, he prefers not to be labeled, having stated, "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". He primarily writes on economic subjects, generally advocating a free market approach to capitalism. Sowell opposes the Federal Reserve, arguing that it has been unsuccessful in preventing economic depressions and limiting inflation.
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.
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.
Sowell occasionally writes on the subject of gun control, about which he has stated: "One can cherry-pick the factual studies, or cite some studies that have subsequently been discredited, but the great bulk of the studies show that gun control laws do not in fact control guns. On net balance, they do not save lives, but cost lives."
Sowell has also written a trilogy of books on ideologies and political positions, including A Conflict of Visions, where he speaks about the origins of political strife; The Vision of the Anointed, where he compares the conservative/libertarian and liberal/progressive worldviews; and The Quest for Cosmic Justice, where, as in many of his other writings, he outlines his thesis of the need for 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, in which, building on his earlier work, 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 centre Prize, was heralded as a "landmark work" and 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." F.A. 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."
Sowell challenges the notion that black progress is due to progressive government programs or policies, in The Economics and Politics of Race (1983), Ethnic America (1981), Affirmative Action Around the World (2004), and other books. He claims that many problems identified with blacks in modern society are not unique, either in terms of American ethnic groups, or in terms of a rural proletariat struggling with disruption as it became urbanized, as discussed in his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals (2005).
In Affirmative Action Around the World Sowell holds that affirmative action covers most of the American population, particularly women, and has long since ceased to favor blacks.
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.
Sowell wrote The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, a follow-up to his Late-Talking Children, discussing a condition he termed 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. He discusses late-talkers who developed prominent careers, such as physicists Albert Einstein (but it is doubtful that Einstein was a late talker), 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.
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.
Sowell comments on current issues, which include liberal media bias; judicial activism (while defending originalism); intact dilation and extraction (commonly known as, and described in U.S. federal law as, partial-birth abortion); the minimum wage; universal health care; the tension between government policies, programs, and protections and familial autonomy; affirmative action; government bureaucracy; gun control; militancy in U.S. foreign policy; the U.S. war on drugs, and multiculturalism.
Sowell was strongly critical of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and officially endorsed Ted Cruz in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries in a February article. However, he indicated that he would vote against the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the general election, due to fears about the appointments Clinton would possibly make to the Supreme Court.
Sowell announced the end of syndicated column on December 27, 2016. He wrote 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.
Classical liberals, libertarians and conservatives of different disciplines have received Sowell's work positively. Among these, he has been noted for originality, great depth and breadth, clarity of expression, and thoroughness of research.
Sowell's publications have been received positively by economists Steven Plaut and Abigail Thernstrom; political scientist Charles Murray; psychologists Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt; Josef Joffe, publisher and editor of Die Zeit; Jay Nordlinger, Senior Editor of National Review; theater critic and political commentator Kevin D. Williamson; Walter E. Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University; publishing executive Steve Forbes; and R. Bastiat, Economics Editor of the now-defunct web publication, Iconoclast.ca. Their remarks include,
[Sowell's work is] thoroughly, almost dauntingly, researched, yet it is as readable as a novel ... clearing away cant and illuminating the world as it is.
A Conflict of Visions gives us an intellectual framework that must shape an attentive reader's way of looking at the political world forever after.
The most sweeping attempt to survey the [different visions of human nature that underlie left-wing and right-wing ideologies] is Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions. Not every ideological struggle fits his scheme, but as we say in social science, he has identified a factor that can account for a large proportion of the variance. ... Sowell calls [the two 'visions' of the nature of human beings] the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision; I will refer to them as the Tragic Vision ... and the Utopian Vision. ... My own view is that the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook...
As I ... read the writings of conservative intellectuals from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I'll call moral capital. ... If you believe that people are inherently good, and that they flourish when constraints and divisions are removed, then yes, [simply linking people together into healthy, trusting relationships] may be sufficient [to improve the ethical profile of a group to achieve a moral vision for the group]. But conservatives generally take a very different view of human nature. They believe that people need external structures or constraints in order to behave well, cooperate, and thrive. These external constraints include laws, institutions, customs, traditions, nations, and religions. People who hold this "constrained view" are therefore very concerned about the health and integrity of these "outside-the-mind" coordination devices.
Thomas Sowell's work ... takes place on a breathtaking intellectual level that ought to command the respect even of those who violently disagree with him.
[Sowell is] a delight: terse, well argued and utterly convincing.
I can think of no better way for a conscientious U.S. voter to start out this election year than by reading [Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy and Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One.]
[Thomas Sowell] has written about 30 [books] and brilliant ones, or at least excellent ones. You won't find a dud in the bunch.
Thomas Sowell is that rarest of things among serious academics: plainspoken. [His work is] that of a man who knows a whole lot more about things than you do and is intent on setting you straight, at length if necessary, if you'd only listen [emphasis in original].
For those who want a short introduction to Sowell-think, Intellectuals and Race ... is a perfect place to start. His main message—amply illustrated—is that, on the subject of race, intellectuals are useless. Indeed, they don't even ask the right questions. ... His book is a primer on rigorous thinking about social and economic issues in general, here and abroad ... I didn't think I would learn much from Sowell's wonderful little book, having slogged through the literature on race since I was born—or at least it feels like it's been that long. But I did ... Intellectuals and Race is a feast of hard thinking about America's ongoing racial agony.
[Sowell's] latest is another triumph of crackling observations that underscore the ignorance of our economists and policymakers.
Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective is a true gem in terms of exposing the demagoguery and sheer ignorance of politicians and intellectuals in their claims about wealth and poverty.
Critics such as author and journalist Colin Campbell, Hampton University economist Bernadette Chachere, Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson, social scientist Richard Coughlin, Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford, and Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Pearlstein include in their remarks,
[Sowell's works] have been published, to much praise ... and a lot of criticism, some of it bitter.
To cite one article published in 1973, after controlling for age, region of residence, parents' income, father's occupation and education, place where raised, number of siblings, health, local labor, market conditions, geographic mobility, and seasonal employment, there still remained a 70% difference in the earnings of whites and nonwhites. Sowell's Markets and Minorities leaves [this] unexplained ... There is not one footnote to this chapter.
A plausible alternative to Mr. Sowell's hypothesis on women's pay differentials and occupational segregation is that women are virtually excluded from many desirable positions and therefore crowd into obtainable occupations ... [However, his work] is a brutally frank, perceptive and important contribution to the national debate over the means to achieve equality and social justice for minorities and women.
[Sowell's] absence of a coherent (much less, rigorous) comparative methodology renders the analysis less compelling than it might otherwise be ... the book's lack of methodological rigor will, I suspect, make it easy for readers holding opposing viewpoints to discount Sowell's conclusions.
Too much of Intellectuals and Race reads with overly tendentious and snide attacks on caricatured liberal theories ... Sowell insists ... that differences in productive capabilities explain the differences in outcomes ... [He] downplays the toll that American racism has taken, not only on black fortunes but on American civic culture and politics.
In 1990, Sowell won the Francis Boyer Award, presented by the American Enterprise Institute. In 1998, he received the Sydney Hook Award from the National Association of Scholars. In 2002, Sowell was awarded the National Humanities Medal for prolific scholarship melding history, economics, and political science. In 2003, he was awarded the Bradley Prize for intellectual achievement. In 2004, he was given Laissez Faire Books' Lysander Spooner Award for his book Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One. In 2008, getAbstract awarded his book Economic Facts and Fallacies its International Book Award.
Sowell has praised the knowledge and preparation of radio talk shows hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and G. Gordon Liddy. In 2007, he commented that modern television talk shows did not match the quality of David Susskind's Open End or The University of Chicago Roundtable and that Meet the Press moderated by Tim Russert was unlike the shows moderated by Lawrence Spivak or Bill Monroe. Sowell is also known for his disdain of self-promotion.
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