Skip to comments.Live with TAE (Interview with Thomas Sowell) (NOT TO BE MISSED!!)
Posted on 08/02/2004 5:23:13 PM PDT by Renfield
"Live" with TAE Thomas Sowell
A senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, economist Thomas Sowell has written extensively on race, culture, and economics. While most economists focus on rational man, Sowell has shown a particular interest in irrational man--man in the grip of visions he refuses to test because he has an emotional investment in them. Among his 34 books on topics ranging from immigration to Marxism to childhood education, it is hard to know where Sowell has had the most impact. He considers his most important work to be A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, which examines the ideas that lie behind the main political controversies of the past two centuries. In it, Sowell warns that utopian views have caused much misery in our time.
Sowell's latest book is Applied Economics, a companion volume to his earlier Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy. He is currently working on two books: Affirmative Action Around the World, a study of preferential race policies, and a book on black education. Sowell was interviewed for TAE by Los Angeles journalist David Isaac in Palo Alto, California.
TAE: You started as a Marxist.
Sowell: Yes. The first time I read anything really serious about him was when I was about 19. I remember buying an old, secondhand set of encyclopedias for a dollar and 19 cents. (Amazing how you remember details from important events!) In it was a long piece about Marx with all these quotations from him, and it all seemed to ring so true. Fortunately, even during my period of Marxism I had respect for evidence and logic, so it was only a matter of time before my Marxism began to unravel as I compared what actually happened in history to what was supposed to happen.
TAE: In your 1982 book, Marxism, you show that Marx's thought has been misunderstood by followers and critics alike, but also that Marx's contribution to economics "can be readily summarized as virtually zero." What, if any, are the positive contributions of Marxist thought to other fields?
Sowell: He taught us to see changes in the social environment as influencing the political part of society. He reacted to John Stuart Mill's notion that you could explain social changes by the general progress of the human mind--the idea that as time went on, people, particularly the leading intellectuals who served as guides for the rest of society, had a better and better understanding of things.
Marx argued, "No, you need to understand the social environment in which diverse ideas flourish." Different classes, because they see the world from different angles, will believe different things. The clash of those classes will then help explain some of the changes that occur in society. The great negative aspect of all this is that it makes the surrounding environment seem almost omnipotent. It exalts external causes and extinguishes internal causes.
A simple example. Italian and Jewish immigrants arrived from Europe at about the same time, lived on the Lower East Side of New York, were side by side in the same schools. But their trajectories were completely different. Jewish kids did a lot better. More graduated from schools. The Italians, even when they rose up the socio-economic scale, as they eventually did, tended to rise in different areas, in different occupations, than Jews. The immediate surrounding environment really was no different for the two, but they had very different cultural histories that Marxism would have a hard time explaining.
TAE: Several of your books have been devoted to showing how culture has determined capabilities--you range across history, continents, and a wide variety of societies to demonstrate this.
Sowell: People compare blacks and whites, but there are many differences within the black community alone. A disproportionate number of successful black people come from the West Indies. People talk about the legacy of slavery. Well, there's just as much legacy of slavery in the West Indies as the American South. Yet West Indians do so much better in the United States. They didn't get the cultural legacy that's been such a handicap for the other blacks.
A study was done about the leading black professionals in Washington, D.C. The characteristics of these people, particularly what their grandfathers did, make it clear that these were the descendants of the half million free persons of color who were freed prior to the Civil War. They had cultural advantages. A disproportionate number of them were in fact the offspring of slave owners. One of the classic cases was Senator Blanche K. Bruce of the Reconstruction era. Bruce was educated by tutors alongside the master's son, or, as some would say, the master's other son. So even in the era of slavery there were cultural differences that showed up in later eras.
TAE: You once said that you write when you have something to say. Or you'll see something that riles you up. In your preface for The Quest for Cosmic Justice you say the impetus for the book was the sophomoric remarks of a colleague. Are your critics in this sense an asset?
Sowell: There's a lot to get riled up about these days, and I would say that half or more of the things I've written were written, one, because I thought they needed to be said, and two, because I thought most people had better sense than to believe what the experts were claiming.
TAE: You point out that the inefficiency of political control of an economy has been demonstrated more often in more places in more conditions than almost anything outside the realm of pure science. Yet such control continues to be exercised again and again. Is there any hope of reason winning out in other areas if it cannot make a dent here?
Sowell: Reason has made a dent. Ronald Reagan started to privatize. Socialists started to privatize. China--the communists--started to privatize. So if reason doesn't lead us there, experience sometimes will.
It happened with me. When I first read Friedrich Hayek's "The Use of Knowledge in Society," assigned in class by Milton Friedman, I just didn't see the relevance it had to anything. Three years later, I began my teaching career at Douglass College, and because I'd written on Marx, they thought I could teach a course on the Soviet economy. I had to start at square one. I read tons of stuff about all these weird things that happened in the Soviet economy, and I began to see the relevance of what Hayek said. Up to that moment it had just seemed like a bunch of statements, but once you begin to see the concrete links, then you say, "Oh my goodness, why are they doing this?" Such as the fact that the Soviet central planning commission actually set 24 million prices.
The problem is that the people who do these things often think only about the goals they're pursuing. I used to have a friend who was a big leftist. And when he'd propose some utopian scheme I would say, "Yes, but how would you actually do this?" And he'd say, "Tom, we'll leave that to the technocrats."
TAE: Is this your friend Al, whom you talk about in your autobiography, A Personal Odyssey?
Sowell: Yes. My radical friend Al. I remember once I was in Maryland with Al and Walter Williams. It turns out they're both from Philadelphia. Walter says, "Ah, you must know so-and-so." And Al says no. "Well, what about what's-his-name?" And Al says "No." These questions go on and I see that Al is getting more uncomfortable and Walter is getting more puzzled. Finally Walter says, "Where did you live?" Al tells him (it's a fancy neighborhood) and Walter says, "My God, I didn't know any black people lived there!"
Yet Al is regarded today as the authentic black. When he taught at Hunter College, the department chairman had to tell him to be sure to let in the regular students who needed his course to graduate, because so many fashionable housewives from Park Avenue were crowding in to hear him denounce this fascist, American society.
TAE: Have you written about that phenomenon?
Sowell: The two most controversial pieces I've written were in the Washington Post in 1981, called "Blacker Than Thou" and "Blacker Than Thou II." Oh, the fury. An entire page of the Post was devoted to letters attacking me. Patricia Roberts Harris said something like, "People like Sowell and Williams are middle class. They don't know what it is to be poor." So I proceeded to point out that not only was Patricia Roberts Harris not poor, but that I never saw Patricia Roberts Harris at Howard University when we were there at the same time because she was in a sorority that would not admit dark-skinned girls.
TAE: In one of your books you expressed your belief that double standards and political correctness are opening up a gulf between favored minorities and the rest of the population, with explosive future potential. How do you see the situation now?
Sowell: Oh, I think the resentment is there. Affirmative action and so on are great recruiting items for racist organizations. The terrible thing is that the Left doesn't seem to regard polarization as something to be avoided. Polarization enables them to be on the side of the angels. They're not going to suffer the repercussions down the road. Nor will most of the black elites. If we should ever, heaven forbid, reach some kind of race war in this country, the "black leaders" are going to be safely removed from the friction points. The people in the middle of the ghetto who never got anything out of preferences are going to be the ones left to suffer the consequences.
TAE: Your 1992 book, Inside American Education, is a devastating indictment of everything from the way we train teachers to political correctness to the deceptive way ideological fads are foisted on an unsuspecting public. Have these trends changed at all in the decade since you wrote the book? Have there been improvements?
Sowell: There's a recent case in Fairfax,
Virginia in which irate parents got one of these programs removed from their schools, something called the International Baccalaureate Curriculum. It's internationalism, socialism, the usual nonsense, which among other things, aside from being wrong, takes up a lot of time that could be spent on real subjects.
The people who are running this stuff are saying, "Our children will change the world." Well, the thought of these poorly educated people taking it upon themselves to change the world . Better I should try to rebuild the World Trade Center with my own hands.
But there are pockets here and there of people fighting back. Among blacks it is quite clear there are countertrends, though the crazies are still in charge. Someone teaching a high school class recently asked me for writings by black conservative authors so his students could hear both sides. Thirty years ago that would have been an easy question to answer because it would have been Walter Williams and me, but today there are more black conservative writers than I could possibly keep track of.
There are black talk show hosts all across the country, from Armstrong Williams in Washington to Ken Hamblin in Denver to Larry Elder in Los Angeles and all kinds of people in between. And these are typically younger individuals. I don't see many new Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons coming along. In the long run there's a good chance for a turnaround. On the other hand, between now and then, a lot, probably millions, of young blacks will go right down the tubes because of bad ideas promoted by today's black leadership.
TAE: You note in Races & Cultures the tendency of some economically triumphant minorities like Jews to favor the political Left, and suggest that it is worthy of further research. What reasons do you think account for it?
Sowell: I don't know. That's why it's worthy of further research. It's only in fairly recent times that you get a serious, politically conservative Jewish intelligentsia. Raymond Aron in France. Milton Friedman here.
TAE: How would you begin to study such a subject?
Sowell: I'd have to consult someone who's much more intimately familiar with these communities. My suspicion is that it's really the later generations that turn left. It's not the street peddler who turns left but his grandchild who's sent off to Harvard or City College of New York--partly because his parents and grandparents are a tough act to follow.
That's one of the reasons that so many heirs to fortunes bankroll left-wing movements. You can imagine the heirs of David Packard. He started in a garage rented with borrowed money. You can't get more shaky that that. And here are all these rich heirs, who will never have to work a day in their lives, finding nothing better to do than bankroll the environmental movements making life miserable for many working people.
I was talking to one of my favorite clerks down at a photography place in Palo Alto. He mentioned that he'd read a column of mine recently. I said, "Wait a minute, there's no column of mine that appears in any newspaper within 50 miles of here." He says, "I live in Tracy."
"You live in Tracy? That's a long haul from here," I observed.
"Well, I certainly can't afford to live in Palo Alto," he said.
Wealthy elites have nothing better to do than make life miserable for people like this guy, who has to spend a couple of hours each way on the congested freeway. Extreme environmentalists have helped drive people of moderate income out of the Bay Area. They've especially driven out people with children, and they've driven out blacks. All the while espousing these great pieties.
TAE: Do you think the public will turn on the environmentalists? Will there be a point where people just get fed up?
Sowell: I hope so and I'm doing everything I can. I have three columns on my Web site now on this issue. One of them features a couple who own 18 acres of land and want to build a house on it. They have jumped over many hoops in a year and a half, and they've only just recently gotten the first permit to allow them to go and get the other permit.
TAE: In San Luis Obispo in California people have to worry about some kind of federally endangered snail. If someone wants to build, and finds it in his backyard, it spells all kinds of trouble.
Sowell: I don't believe in vigilante action but I'm tempted in my daydreams to organize a group of guys in combat fatigues to go out there at night and pick up those snails so people can get on with their lives. There was some butterfly that was holding up building up in San Bruno. It's a crushing burden. In this area, from San Jose up to San Francisco, the average price of a home is over half a million dollars. We're not talking mansions. We're talking little nothing houses jammed together.
TAE: At the end of Applied Economics, you explain that it's impossible for different parts of the world to have equal development. Yet economic disparities often lead to claims of "exploitation" and solutions built on controlling people's lives.
Sowell: There's something Eric Hoffer said: "Intellectuals cannot operate at room temperature." There always has to be a crisis--some terrible reason why their superior wisdom and virtue must be imposed on the unthinking masses. It doesn't matter what the crisis is. A hundred years ago it was eugenics. At the time of the first Earth Day a generation ago, the big scare was global cooling, a big ice age. They go from one to the other. It meets their psychological needs and gives them a reason for exercising their power. Many intellectuals' preoccupation with the poor is very much the same thing. The thing that gives it all away is that after they say, "We must have this program because the poor can't afford medicine, or can't afford housing," they will splutter if you say, "OK, let's have a means test so it really goes to the poor." If they were really concerned primarily about the poor, they would agree to it. But they are bitterly opposed to that, because the poor are a lever to reach other, political, goals.
Walter Williams figured out some years ago that the amount of money needed to move the poor out of poverty would be trivial compared to the amount of money that's spent on these damn programs that are supposed to help the poor but usually don't. But the poor are being used as human shields in the political battle. You put the poor up in front of you as you march across the battlefield and enemy troops won't fire, so you can expand your power, and raise taxes, and so forth.
TAE: In a recent column, you mentioned that Democrats are running out of poor people as a useful tool.
Sowell: Yes, they inflate the numbers. One way is by counting persons who don't have real problems but temporarily lack income, like students. When I first started studying poverty some 20 years ago, I was astonished to discover how many people among the official ranks of the poor had air conditioning, which I didn't have! Thousands of poor people with swimming pools? I didn't have a swimming pool! I'm sure there were years when Donald Trump was not making money because things weren't going his way. Technically, he was down there among the poor.
TAE: Will we ever go back to a political vision that accepts mankind's limits, or will future politics be dominated by people who claim men are perfectible, and just need another program or law to bring about heaven on earth?
Sowell: That's the $64,000 question. I take heart from people who fought the good fight regardless of what the odds looked like. I often think of Whittaker Chambers, who left the communist movement at a time when he thought he was leaving the winners to go join the losers. I think of people in World War II landing in these God-forsaken islands out in the Pacific. They must have wondered, "What does anyone want with this miserable piece of land?" They went ahead and fought and many of them died for it. And eventually from those islands came the planes that put an end to World War II. But they had no way of knowing that when they were storming the beaches. They knew they had a job to do and they did it.
I'm old enough I probably won't live to be disappointed. It's just a matter of going on and fighting the fight, realizing of course that I wouldn't be here if my predecessors hadn't fought their fight. And they had a hell of a lot more to put up with than I do. I'm always embarrassed when people say that I'm courageous. Soldiers are courageous. Policemen are courageous. Firemen are courageous. I just have a thick hide and disregard what silly people say.
TAE: In A Conflict of Visions, you wrote, "the concept of 'nation building' is a fundamental misconception. Nations may grow and evolve but cannot be built." In Iraq we're attempting to build a democratic society. Is that an example of an unconstrained vision at work?
Sowell: Yes. It may be that the Bush people are trying to appeal politically to people with utopian visions. I'm not privy to what the inner circle is saying. Before the Iraq war I was quite disturbed by some of the neoconservatives, who were saying things like, "What is the point of being a superpower if you can't do such-and-such, take on these responsibilities?" The point of being a superpower is that people will leave you alone.
An argument can be made that the war in Iraq was the right thing, with or without the weapons of mass destruction, because we needed to send a message to the terrorists, and, more important, to the people who are harboring the terrorists, that we will act. Everyone knew all along that the United States had the power to wipe out any nation on the face of the earth. I remember my sister saying, "What could they be thinking coming over here and attacking the World Trade Center, knowing what the power situation was?" I said, "They knew all that. They didn't think we had the guts to do anything."
Bill Clinton, among other Presidents, had given them that impression. Our intellectuals had given them that impression. Those people who fought the hijackers and made them crash out in Pennsylvania did a great thing, not only in and of itself, but in letting people know that Americans are not a bunch of wimps. People don't know you will fight until you actually do.
TAE: You recently wrote, "If it comes down to a battle between the wimps and the barbarians, the barbarians will win." You point out that in previous periods there were far fewer members of the liberal intelligentsia in the West than we have today, and they had less impact.
Sowell: Absolutely. The tragedy is that the Left has never understood the importance of incentives in general or power in particular. That power is the only thing that deters power.
The only thing terrorists care about is their power. Depriving them of their power is the only way to change them. When they see the Taliban replaced in Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein ousted in Iraq, that's a strong message. I don't think it's coincidental that Qaddafi decided that he would try to be a little more reasonable now than he was in the past.
The Left's silly crusade against guns is another classic example--claiming that the way to stop gun crime is to disarm law-abiding people. It's hard to imagine anyone who grew up in a tough neighborhood believing that. But these people on the Left have often grown up in very sheltered environments.
I remember a highly educated man in San Francisco who didn't think police really had any effect on crime, that he would be just as safe without them. He never felt the need for police to defend him--no one bothered him! That's a vision that pervades a large section of the intelligentsia.
TAE: You have warned that the notion of justice that comes from following established processes is being replaced in our judicial system by a more cosmic and arbitrary and emotional notion of justice, and that this amounts to a silent repeal of the American Revolution.
Sowell: There are a few holdouts. With luck Justice Janice Rogers Brown may get confirmed in the next Congress. She's really a fine judge. What's ironic is that liberals say she's unqualified. The real problem is she's too qualified. She's qualified enough that she may well become a factor not only on the District Court but a candidate for the Supreme Court, so they're going to try and cut her off at the pass. And if they have to lie to do it, that's a small price to pay because they have paid it many times before. Senator Kerry's attack on Judge Charles Pickering really turned my stomach: "Pickering became an advocate for a cross burner." Pickering's objection to the sentencing was actually that the guy was not a cross burner yet got a longer sentence than the guy who was. Pickering stood up to the Ku Klux Klan when it was literally a danger to your life to do so in Mississippi. When they integrated schools down in Mississippi, Pickering sent his child to a school with black kids, which is more than most white liberals ever do today.
TAE: How would you assess your impact after these many years of writing, so much of it against the dominant orthodoxies of our time?
Sowell: I'm not sure anyone can assess his own work. I certainly wouldn't have the objectivity. I'm always pleasantly surprised by the people who have read what I've written. I remember some years ago, I was waiting in an airport in New Delhi when somebody walked by with a copy of The Economics and Politics of Race. More recently Shelby Steele came back from Poland, and said, "At the university there, people were all asking, do I know you?" Basic Economics has been translated into Polish. You just never know. I'm sure that at least 95 percent of the people in this country have never heard of me, and that's the way it should be.
Someone's impact is often hard to see. I think of Friedrich Hayek. People who never heard of him, who never read a word he wrote, are nevertheless strongly influenced by his ideas on economic liberty. There are think tanks in Australia and Jamaica and South America based on Hayek's work that are now directly reaching the public who have no idea who the source is.
TAE: What in your career are you most proud of?
Sowell: As an intellectual achievement I would say A Conflict of Visions or Say's Law. In terms of something useful to other people, Late Talking Children. The parents of children who were delayed in speaking have been very generous in their expressions of gratitude for what I've done, which really has been quite modest. The most important thing I did was put these people in touch with one another through the group that I formed.
TAE: How would you like to be remembered?
Sowell: Oh, heavens, I'm not sure I want to be particularly remembered. I would like the ideas that I've put out there to be remembered.
I just finished his APPLIED Economics. I am his groupie! what a mind!
I was thinking about him today and had a brain burp that actually caused me to confuse his name with Doug Thompson's...I'm SO embarrassed I could cry.
Ping for later
If Cheney doesn't want to run, I hereby nominate Thomas Sowell for president in 2008. I agree with you. The man has never written a syllable that wasn't simultaneously both true and profound.
Thank you for posting this. It's always a pleasure to read about Sowell's ideas.