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August 29, 2007

Thomas Sowell

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Have you read any books written by the economist Thomas Sowell? I've read seven or eight of them, have found nearly all of them rewarding, and suspect that many people who haven't given Sowell a try would find him worth their time too.

If you know Sowell only through his work as a syndicated op-ed writer, though, you might not feel inclined to cut him much slack. While I've enjoyed and admired some of his columns, he's unquestionably a combative debater, as well as far more of a Republican hack, er, cheerleader than seems necessary.

But his work as an economist and a book-writer is quite different. When he isn't quarreling over what current policies should be but is instead organizing data, examining details, and analyzing processes and results, he's substantial, calm, and impressive.

I've found his books -- which tend to focus on economics, ethnic questions, and immigration-and-migration matters -- to be thoughtful, info-packed, and open to the evidence. They aren't thrilling in a literary sense or mind-bending in a visionary sense. Instead, they're solid and informative -- driven, it seems, not by a passion for political battle but for straight facts and clear understanding. In the books, at least, political conclusions (if any) follow the evidence, and not vice versa.

My mind is on his work because I've just finished reading another one of his books, the 1984 "Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?" 20 years after the Civil Rights Act and 30 years after Brown v. Board of Education, how did matters stand?

It's a short book -- yay to that -- and I found it a very helpful and interesting one as well: super-organized, and pushed along by a lowkey, rumbling, and unstoppable energy. As a book-writer, Sowell is whatever the positive opposite of "glib" is -- patient and methodical, able to herd huge numbers of facts without letting them overwhelm his narrative or his argument. He's even capable of the occasional touch of quiet and droll humor. He jokes about one proposed law, for example, that it was so badly written that it should have been called "the lawyers' full employment act."

Sowell is sometimes known as a black conservative, though he himself says he's far more libertarian than conservative. (He's often grouped with Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter.) He has been a controversial figure, as you might suspect, with some lefties and some in the race industry labeling him a traitor to his race and a dishonest scholar. Quite amazing how quick the racially sensitive can be to resort to name-calling, isn't it? (I haven't run across criticism of the factual content of his work that seemed to amount to anything.) In any case, where racial matters go, Sowell is both firm about the injustices that blacks were subjected to in America's past and pleasingly reluctant to play the racism card in the present tense.

In this book, the main questions he wrestles with are "How did the civil rights movement turn from a movement advocating equality of opportunity into one focused on enforcing results? And what have the consequences of this development been?"

He spells out the steps by which the movement to break down barriers turned into one focused on imposing quotas instead. It's striking how often and how explicitly the sponsors of the Civil Rights Act made the promise that no quota systems would result as a consequence of its passage; it's even more striking how quickly in the wake of its passage the quota systems came along. A little weakness in the wording of the Act ... Some ambitious activist judges ... Some bureaucrats eager to stake out turf ... And there you have it: affirmative action, precisely what we were promised we wouldn't wind up with.

A quick aside: Sowell is for civil rights. He cheers the accomplishments of blacks, and he's clearheaded and knowledgeable about the lousy things that have been done to them. All this is beyond question. What he discusses here -- and what he ultimately dismantles -- isn't the idea or ideal of civil rights, it's the weaknesses of the actual Civil Rights Act, as well as the history, inner logic, and limitations of what he calls the "civil rights vision" -- the single-minded determination to see everything through a civil rights lens: to explain all differences in group outcomes, in other words, by quick and easy reference to racism and/or discrimination.

Sowell -- who has done extensive studies of ethnicities, racism, slavery, and quota systems around the world -- does devastating damage to the civil rights vision. One of the things that endears Sowell to me, in fact, is his aversion to theory. You seldom catch him deducing conclusions from assumptions or abstractions; as quickly as he can, he steers the discussion towards the concrete. Here he piles on example after example of facts, stats, and trends that simply won't fit within the civil rights vision. A few of them:

  • How to account for the many ways in which blacks were making more progress before passage of the Civil Rights Act than they were after? An impressive example: College-educated black women were out-earning college-educated white women by 1960, four years before the Civil Rights Act.

  • If the U.S. is so racist, how have Asians been able to do so well? Despite being mistreated during WWII, Japanese Americans by 1959 were earning the same money whites were, and by 1969 were earning considerably more.

  • If America's racism has only to do with black-skinned people, how to account for the way that West Indian immigrants have done so well in this country? By 1980, despite having been in this country in any kind of numbers for a relatively short period, black West Indians were making 94% of what whites were. (Here's a brief Time magazine article about the successes of black West Indians in the U.S.)

  • If political action is such a terrific way to help a group advance, why is it that the groups that have been most prone to embrace politics -- the Irish are a prominent example here -- took so much longer to advance than did similar groups (Italians, say) who avoided politics?

Another digression to reassure the nervous: Sowell isn't arguing that racism doesn't exist in the U.S. He's merely arguing that, when present, it's only one of numerous factors that help in explaining certain phenomena.

Generally speaking, Sowell is working the territory between the major single-factor determinisms -- genetic determinism on the one extreme and the "racism explains everything" crowd on the other. Sowell's facts and observations nearly always complexify the picture. He takes a phenomenon, prods it, and turns it over and over. What might help explain it? Is it just racism? Perhaps there are other factors: age, experience, the time you've spent in your job, the part of the country you live in ... Perhaps the size of your family, or the age at which you had kids ... Over and over it turns out that once these or other variables are factored in, racism as an explanation either vanishes or plays at most a very minor role.

Sowell both muddies the waters and clarifies the picture. But he doesn't just play defence. He also turns the usual direction of the discussion completely around. Where the expected thing is to start with the assumption that results would be equal everywhere if only barriers were flattened and prejudices removed, Sowell says: Given the nature of life as we live it and know it, why on earth would anyone ever expect group results to be similar?

Groups aren't abstractions, after all. They come with histories and cultures -- and culture to Sowell isn't a postmodern, surfacey, or arbitrary thing that can be changed like a suit of clothes. It goes deep and its effects are long-lasting.

For example, the Dutch, the English, the Italians, and the Africans all arrived in this country with fully-formed tastes, talents, preferences, and skillsets. Why would you expect to find them equally represented in every aspect of life? Their strengths or weaknesses in a field usually hold across cultures, by the way. People of German descent, for instance, are present in large numbers in certain fields -- beer, pianos, science, farming -- in every country where they show up. People of Chinese descent are numerous in technical fields whether you look at Australia, Malaysia, or the U.S.

What this means of course is that if one group is "overrepresented" in a given field, other groups will be "underrepresented" in it. Because you'll find a lot of people of German descent in the American beer business, you'll find relatively few people from other backgrounds in it. How can this be thought to be a sign of discrimination?

Sowell's point is that irregularities aren't bizarre, let alone in need of policing. They're what's normal. The civil rights vision is based on the idea that if all barriers were removed all group outcomes would be similar. Sowell says -- convincingly, to my mind -- that that's a fantasy, and that as such it has been a terrible basis for social policy.

His conclusion: Affirmative action has been a disaster in many, many ways. For one, it has mostly benefited the already-privileged: lawyers, bureaucrats, the well-connected, and race hustlers. The really badly-off people -- poorly-educated black males, single black moms -- have in fact done worse since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. (This is as of 1984.)

For another thing, affirmative action has engendered lots of resentment, and has encouraged a pig-troughy, spoils-systemy attitude towards politics and society. Sowell shrewdly argues that much opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment -- the "women's lib" amendment that was defeated in either 1979 or 1982, depending on which expert you believe -- arose not from people feeling anti-woman, but from people feeling burned by the legacy of the Civil Rights Act.

So: thumbs up to this little book. As far as which Sowell book to begin with goes ... I confess that I was a little disappointed by Sowell's long-awaited "Basic Economics," that I was overwhelmed by his magnum opus "Knowledge and Decisions," and that I haven't cracked his trilogy on race, culture, and migrations around the world. It could well be that I'm a dimwit and that they're all great.

Of the books of his that I have finished and enjoyed, I'd nominate "Ethnic America" and "A Conflict of Visions." The first examines the histories, characteristics, and experiences of a number of America's ethnic groups: the Germans, the Puerto Ricans, the Jews, the Irish, the blacks, some others. It's an easy yet substantial read, as well as a great way to zip through American history. Especially for people like me, who were raised ethnicity-ignorant, and perhaps even ethnicity-stupid -- as a kid I genuinely had no idea what "the Irish" were supposed to be like, let alone any other group -- it's also a good way to fill in some of those blanks.

"A Conflict of Visions" plays a game I often enjoy, namely: "there are two kinds of people ..." Granted that exceptions abound, how enlightening this game can sometimes be. Here, Sowell compares what he calls the "constrained vision" with the "unconstrained vision." In brief: People with a constrained vision see life as tragic, and choices as being between competing imperfections and as nearly always involving painful tradeoffs; while people with an unconstrained vision are fixated on man's supposedly perfectible nature and are addicted to rationalist solutions to social problems. For the first group, government is at best a necessary evil, while the latter picture government as a toy or a tool, an extension of their personal will. The first are reluctant to steer or impose; the latter are always on a crusade. Sowell's book surprises by being not just a helpful way of looking at baseline political forces but also by being a really brilliant exercise in psychology. Where the mindset of the crusading lefties I spend my days around goes, I haven't read many things that I've found as enlightening as I found this book.

Interviews with Sowell can be read here and here. Here's a video "Booknotes" interview with him. Here's a fascinating excerpt from his book "Affirmative Action Around the World."



posted by Michael at August 29, 2007


I've read several of Sowell's books and If I remember correctly, they were pretty good. These days, however, his columns are so embarrassing that I have to question my memory.

Posted by: clark on August 29, 2007 6:07 PM

Given the nature of life as we live it and know it, why on earth would anyone ever expect group results to be similar?

Lets push this a little in a very un-PC direction: given the nature of life as we live it and know it, why on earth would anyone ever expect genes for mental traits to be distributed perfectly evenly among groups?

Posted by: Thursday on August 29, 2007 6:07 PM

Sowell's reluctance to face the possibility of non-cultural determinants of ethnic/racial differences is a weakness in his thought. I use the word cultural and not environmental, because I believe Sowell scants even environmental influences if they're not narrowly cultural, not just genetic ones.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 29, 2007 6:52 PM

I haven't read Sowell's books, but I read his columns regularly. I'll take your advice and read one of his books.

I think his columns are very good.

What's wrong with being a spokesman for the Republican Party? Nothing that I can think of. There is also nothing wrong with being a spokesman for the Democratic Party.

I remember a number of columns that I've particularly enjoyed. My favorites dealt with the consequences of rent control in San Francisco. Chief among these consequences was driving blacks out of the city. This was an odd consequences, Sowell noted, since leftists always profess such concern about the fate of blacks.

I have read excerpts from "Vision of the Annointed." It provides a great explanation of the megalomania and crusading of the left. They're better than the rest of us, and they want us to know it.

Just as a side note, I have to say that I'm much happier in my new job than in my old one. In my old one, I was surrounded by crusading leftists. One of the job requirements seemed to be that I have a comprehensive Plan to Save the World. Every last one of my co-workers had one. This was in the publishing business. I'm working mostly in the pharmaceutical biz now, and the people are much more down to earth. Not a single co-worker has related to me his Plan to Save the World. What a relief!

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 29, 2007 7:07 PM

I am not a conservative, but my respect for Sowell is vast. Reading him is the closest I ever come to understanding why someone would be a conservative.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on August 29, 2007 9:27 PM

I've only tried to read one of Sowell's books, "Race and Culture", which, in my opinion, was such a boring slog I coudn't finish. I'm sorry not to share your enthsuaism.

To me, conservatives such as Sowell and McWhorter are really not as socially conservative as they are marketed as being. Sowell himself has disavowed that label, and says that he is an independent. McWhorter is much the same. Both have dodged the question of low black IQ in various ways. Sowell has dodged it by trying to equate blacks with white immigrant groups at the turn of the century who also scored lower than average on IQ tests, deftly dodging the fact that american blacks have lived here their whole lives, and their families for centuries (also, how does this argument square with the fact that immigrant blacks score higher than native blacks Thomas?). McWhorter uses more eloquent language, but basically falls back on the excuse of white racism to explain black problems. I find it hard to take people seriously who avoid facts. Its interesting that such people as Sowell and McWhorter, and even the liberal Bill Cosby, are basically ridiculed and ostracized by a large number of blacks for daring to make any critical comments about blacks. For our own weak-kneed, white intellectuals, criticizing members of their own race is their bread and butter.

And the assertions that Sowell has made? I disagree with his conclusions (to say it politely).

As far as the Irish doing worse than the Italians--by what standard? There have been two Irish presidents--Kennedy and Reagan, and no Italians. I don't see any difference in the general population either.

Black women in 1960 with college degrees--what miniscule number was that? Most white women in 1960 went to college to meet a guy and get married. If the college educated women did work, the worked part-time by and large. It wasn't until the feminist movement that white women started to take their careers seriously. What's the situation now?

Affirmative Action has hurt blacks? Is that a joke? I can't tell you how many blacks I've seen who were/are hired WAY above their competence level. Government and corporations are full of unqualified blacks. If it weren't for affirmative action, there would hardly be any black middle class. I find his statement ludicrous. In the post war-era, the plentiful jobs and heavily unionized labor benfitted all americans greatly, including blacks. It was truly a tide that lifted all boats. Now the situation is that these jobs are increasingly non-union and non-american. Without affirmative action, black society would be in a free-fall. In areas where affirmative action doesn't play much of a role, and where mexicans are competing with blacks for jobs, black soceity is already in a free-fall.

As far as carribean and african blacks, several of whom I have worked with, they are more educated than american blacks, and outcompete those blacks for AA jobs. But they are not competitive with whites or asians. Their success is largely due to AA and government set-asides in some form or another.

Thomas Sowell may come closer to the mark when evaluating reality than most black intellectuals, but he is still more of an apologist than a true intellectual maverick, black or otherwise. Since most of the noise surrounding him has to do with his race, his crediblity and honesty on that issue is critical, and I find him wanting. For my money, I'm glad we are not constrained to getting our news and analysis from mainstream sources anymore. All too often we are fed pundits like Sowell who are supposed to stand as some kind of conservatives or heretical thinkers, when they are simply variations on the status quo, and pushed by the big media companies. He may be a step in the right direction, but a far cry from true conservative.

Posted by: BIOH on August 29, 2007 9:47 PM

I remember, some years ago, seeing praise about one of his books... But I didn't realize that he had written so many.

It is when reading blog entries like this that I get even more frustrated about not having any time... and behind so darn far behind!

Posted by: Aakash on August 30, 2007 12:20 AM

I have not read any of Thomas Sowell's books, but I have read some of his columns over on Townhall. I agree with much of what he has to say.

Posted by: Kurt9 on August 30, 2007 12:49 AM

Sowell's books are always rewarding. You always learn something. He writes in plain, solid English which any reasonably intelligent person can understand. I have read most of his books.

I think his best one is Knowledge and Decision, which is very Hayekian. A superb book.

Posted by: Lexington Green on August 30, 2007 10:23 AM

I agree with BIOH that the black middle and especially upper-middle class exists almost solely on the basis of AA. To expect Sowell to admit it? Ain't gonna happen.

Posted by: ricpic on August 30, 2007 10:34 AM

Clark -- Has he been bad recently? Sorry to hear it. I haven't followed the columns in maybe five years. Back then I sometimes liked 'em...

Thursday -- Let alone genes for many other traits!

PatrickH -- Could well be, though I think that's taking a glass-half-empty point of view, isn't it? Nothing wrong with that, of course. But doesn't Sowell deserve a lot of credit for saying (and backing up with tons of research) a lot of risky things already?

ST -- Yeah, ain't it a relief to spend time around solid people? I know what you mean -- I find it downright nourishing myself whenever I visit real life. The high-strung/special/dissenting/crusading crowd has a few virtues (I hope -- food, maybe ...), but they can really take it out of you.

Lester -- That's a great way of putting it, I wish I'd come up with something as good.

BIOH -- I've run across a lot of criticism of Sowell taking him to task for undermining the usual black and liberal pieties, but I've never run into anyone going after him for making excuses for black people! That's a first for me, so I'm genuinely speechless. What's with the aversion to black people, though? No reason anyone has to like anyone else, of course. But tens of millions of black people have led honorable and often inspiring lives, black people have contributed mightily to American and world culture, and besides they've been a big part of American life right from the earliest days, er, not counting all those natives. I understand being exasperated with the thought-police crowd, or the liberal-pieties crowd. But with black people generally? That baffles me.

Aakash -- That's some impressive blogging you're doing. I look forward to catching up with more of it.

Kurt9 -- He's an impressive guy, isn't he? I'd be curious to hear how you react if you give any of his books a try.

Lex -- Nice description of Sowell's virtues, tks. I wish I had a few of your spare IQ points -- Knowledge and Decisions totally defeated me. Too abstract, probably.

Ricpic -- Do you think? My impression is that Sowell would agree that AA has played a big role in the status of many blacks, though I'm sure he'd make the point that some percentage of blacks got where they are the old way. But I shouldn't try to speak for him ...

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on August 30, 2007 11:03 AM

I agree with BIOH that the black middle and especially upper-middle class exists almost solely on the basis of AA. To expect Sowell to admit it? Ain't gonna happen.

So Sowell and other highly accomplished black people are where they are because of racial preferences? (Or is "almost solely" a weasel term to allow you to backtrack from this insinuation?)

Some of the people most hurt by racial preferences are competent members of the "preferred" groups, who are unfairly tainted by suspicions that they got where they are based on more than their own abilities. The comments from you and BIOH illustrate this point perfectly.

Posted by: Jonathan on August 30, 2007 11:59 AM

Jonathan - Name me one other black, besides Sowell and Walter Williams, whose name comes up with any degree of regularity when people refer to first rate black thinkers. Okay, maybe you can name me a couple more, but that's about it. The list is short for a reason: the bell curve. Yes, there are very bright blacks, but they're few on the ground. When members of a racial group have, on average, IQ's of 85, only a tiny fraction of that group are at the very thin edge of that bell curve, with IQ's in the 120 plus range (the bright range). And since only a miniscule number of blacks have that IQ, most of those who are doctors, business executives, high level government bureaucrats, professors, wouldn't be so without AA.

Posted by: ricpic on August 30, 2007 1:22 PM

Holy smoke! I'm glad I held off on linking to this site from my blog. Not ill will for the board bosses, but the crypto-klansmen are pretty THICK on the ground here. Have fun hatin', honkeys.

Posted by: Aaron White on August 30, 2007 2:51 PM

MB: "I've run across a lot of criticism of Sowell taking him to task for undermining the usual black and liberal pieties, but I've never run into anyone going after him for making excuses for black people!"

As a fan of Steve Sailer, you might read his critique of a recent Sowell book that ascribes the social degeneracy of African Americans to behaviors picked up from American rednecks. One senses that if Sailer didn't hold Sowell in such high esteem, he would have ridiculed the thesis, instead of treating it with kid gloves.

Posted by: James M. on August 30, 2007 3:00 PM

"the crypto-klansmen are pretty THICK on the ground here."

Nothing "crypto-" about it. I think MB's post above, weak as it is, might be the first time he ever actually said anything about it.

Posted by: BP on August 30, 2007 3:30 PM

Aaron, BP -- I'm an advocate of freewheeling-but-cordial conversation, and you don't get that by playing thought-police. Lift the lid off something that's under a lot of pressure and all kinds of things are going to leap out. That's OK with me. Besides, if some commenter wants to take a hardline anti-American/Marxist p-o-v, that's OK with me too so long as she/she behaves reasonably. If you want to take BIOH (or anyone else) to task, go right ahead. Just keep it cordial, or at least fairly cordial.

James M. -- Yeah, that seems like a fair point.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 30, 2007 3:46 PM

MB, some of the commenters here are kooks. Of course it's your blog to manage (or not) as you wish, but if you tolerate kooks I think you will find that they drive off other, more reasonable, readers, which in turn makes your blog less attractive to reasonable commenters. Just a thought.

Posted by: Jonathan on August 30, 2007 6:32 PM

some of the commenters here are kooks.

Is Jonathan talking about BIOH? If so, then I have no idea why. BIOH's comments are calmy and rationally presented here, though they can sound heretical to the more insular types.

Sometimes when I read commentary from the politically correct types I feel like they simply can't be treated like rational human beings. Communicating with them is as futile as talking with a religious fanatic.

Posted by: PA on August 30, 2007 7:20 PM


Hardly. Calmly and Rationally presented? The guy who flipped his lid calling me a La Raza activist out to destroy America when I let it drop that I'm not white, despite the fact I was arguing against further immigration? Has done the same to another poster who let it be known he wasn't white? I can engage folks who take his ideological stance, as distasteful as I might find it (and before you say anything, someone stating that you and yours shouldn't be here despite being here for a damn long time is distasteful), what I can't engage with are those who can't get beyond what's on the outside of me to engage respectfully and seriously about what I have to say. I don't form my opinions on people by what they state as their beliefs but how they act, and frankly I've found BIOH wanting. That said, I'm not for banning BIOH. As I've stated before I think fools are best served by letting them hoist themselves on their own petard rather than silencing them and letting them get more of a martyr complex than they already have.

It really makes me wonder what would happen if someone like David Alexander started posting here.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on August 30, 2007 8:08 PM

Hey, I appreciate the concern and all, but this talk of banning is really getting on my nerves. Don't y'all get enough policing-of-points-of-view from the mainstream media? All those who prefer to inhabit a mental nanny state are invited to turn on the TV or pick up a copy of their local newspaper. Like it or not, the weather is a little rougher out here where people think freely.

Look: picture this place as a bar. You drop by, you don't know who you're going to encounter. With luck, the vibe is good. But you may wind up sitting next to someone you don't like. Do what you know how to do. Suck it up. Ignore him. Move on. Whatever. I really don't care. But don't look to me to play bouncer, please. As long as voices aren't raised too much and fists aren't flying, I'm behind the bar mixing drinks. Above all, I'm not going to police people's thought processes.

Jesus, I'm having flashbacks to awful days in the '70s ... Memories of caring hippies voting each other out of the co-op because they disagree with someone's point of view and someone's feelings are getting hurt ... Fuck that.

BIOH certainly owes Spike an apology. And if I happen to be aware of that kind of thing going on as it's happening I'm happy to step in and tell someone to cool it. And if someone starts grandstanding and/or sucking up too much of the air in the room, I'll be moving him on his way pronto.

But, y'know, most of the time I'm getting on with life, taking a break, or preparing the next blog posting, which (believe it or not) takes a lot of time and concentration. Shit's going to happen, and most of the time you're going to have to look out for yourselves.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 30, 2007 9:11 PM

I was given (covertly) a work memo done by a committee at my large company. It complained about some guys by name because they hold a position and they are white -- that was apparently the problem. It then recommended creating a position that would go to anyone other than a white male.

Gee, I guess I've been banned at work. Now, if only the Keystroke Kops could ban me on the Internet, my anger would be complete.

I praise this site for its many qualities and for its openness. I also enjoy the mix of comments. I have not seen such a good mix anywhere else. There are plenty of places to go on the Net where you can burn Bioh in effigy while you raise a chorus of self-congratulatory grunts. Fortunately, this is not one of them. Thanks, Blowhards.

Posted by: sN on August 30, 2007 11:31 PM

OK, so it's probably time to let this one go.

But, isn't it fascinating that a post in praise of a black writer provokes some meat head to scream that those writing it and commenting about it are "crypto-klansmen?"

Truly mind boggling.

I mean, I certainly find some of the commentary about IQ irritating. It certainly is true that blacks, as a group, test lower than whites, just as whites, as a group, test lower than Asians.

IQ isn't everything. It isn't the sole determinant of human accomplishment. Whatever Sowell's limitations might be, I doubt that IQ is explains those limitations. He's a very clear, straightforward writer.

Still, it's amazing that a post that seriously debates the merits of a black writer should elicit this meat head allegation of racism.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 31, 2007 10:32 AM

Jonathan: MB, some of the commenters here are kooks. Of course it's your blog to manage (or not) as you wish, but if you tolerate kooks I think you will find that they drive off other, more reasonable, readers, which in turn makes your blog less attractive to reasonable commenters. Just a thought.

I think this blog has been around long enough, and has attracted a stable enough population of tolerably sane commenters, that there is little danger of the comments section becoming a kook-sewer. That would have happened a long time ago, if that were going to happen.

Anyway, one man's kook...What exactly has been said in this thread that qualifies as "kooky"?

Posted by: Moira Breen on August 31, 2007 11:52 AM

I love reading Thomas Sowell. I recommend both his Basic and Applied Economics texts (and Henry Hazlitt) to anyone expressing an interest in economics. The Vision of the Anointed is excellent, and I just finished A Conflict of Visions. I like him for the same reasons most people seem to like him: he gives a fact-based analysis which requires some thinking on the part of the reader.

Posted by: Ashley on September 1, 2007 1:05 AM

I really liked the section of "Black Rednecks and White Liberals" that explained what a trailblazing thing it was for the British to fight the slave trade and how much effort they put into it.

2Blowhards doesn't attract nearly as embarrassing commenters as, say, Half Sigma. I try to evaluate IQ hypotheses separately from the people who are attracted to them...

Posted by: Noumenon on September 1, 2007 7:38 AM

Is the dispersion of African American IQ scores indeed a bell curve. I wouldn't assume that by any means. What is the evidence to support that claim?

Posted by: jult52 on September 1, 2007 8:36 AM

You want evidence? Here.

Posted by: ricpic on September 1, 2007 7:15 PM

I've read 4-5 of Dr. Sowell's books and perhaps over 100 of his columns. The man is brilliant. The problem is that he speaks of truths many don't want to hear.

Posted by: Chris Meisenzahl on September 2, 2007 11:16 AM

Sowell's recent book On Classical Economics is an excellent read.

Posted by: Josh Hendrickson on September 2, 2007 1:34 PM

"Knowledge and Decisions" is probably one of the best books ever written on economics, and inspired me to study the subject at the graduate level.

Posted by: Josh Weinberg on September 2, 2007 3:37 PM

Thomas Sowell is a national treasure.

Posted by: Max on September 2, 2007 5:35 PM

I'm generally with Michael: The books are awesome, dense with facts and clearly argued, but the columns are ... eh. A lot of folks seem to think the function of a column is to pick your side and stand up for it, but that strikes me as blowing the opportunity that a column represents. Michael, by all means get into Sowell's "Cultures" trilogy (Race/Migration/Conquests). My favorite is Conquests and Cultures. It came out around the same time as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel, and covers much of the same ground, but in Sowell's distinctive way.

Posted by: Doug in KC on September 3, 2007 11:55 AM

IMO Sowell is very gifted and has made an impressive number of truly unique contributions. But to me his books are really boring and repetitive, as most philosophy books are.

Posted by: Paul N on September 3, 2007 12:18 PM

A few things:
1) I also recommend reading Sowell's tract on civil rights--it was useful food for thought. However, one should acknowledge that it is outdated, seems ingnorant of anti-discrimination laws and their operations, and is more anecdotal than empirical. He is a clear writer, because he is overly simplistic. For a stronger, more nuanced discussion see John Donohue's articles:

2) Also, the discussions above fail to address the critically important issues related to re-segregation in schools and housing and its implications for continuing inequality and affirmative action debates. By the time we are talking about affirmative action in the workplace, inner-city minorities tend to have been dwelling in poverty and attending failing schools for years. Read "After Brown" by Charles Clotfelter for analysis.

3) Might these environmental factors have something to do with lower IQ scores (not to mention the cumulative effect of slavery and segregation)? There is a wealth of psychological and sociological research on the effects of race and economic factors on test performance (e.g. stereotype threat, etc.). It is disingenuous at best, unadulterated racism at worst, for Bell Curve supporters to argue that African-Americans are intellectual inferior. Notably, the Bell Curve has been throughly shredded as social science on theoretical and empirical grounds.

4) It is disingenuous for Sowell and others to argue that anti-discrimination laws have ceased to be effective when, since 1980, the DOJ civil rights division has been gutted and staffed by lawyers ideologically opposed to the civil rights laws they are supposed to enforce.

Posted by: EBZ on September 3, 2007 10:53 PM

I apologize for flying off the handle. I grew up in a very Klan-active community and I'm pretty jumpy about anything that sounds like thinly-veiled racism to me. I never meant to imply that I thought Michael Blowhard and company were racists or running a racist website. They run an open marketplace of ideas, and that's a noble thing. Obviously I'm too insecure to behave in this venue, though, so I'll leave you be. Take care, all!

Posted by: Aaron White on September 4, 2007 12:00 PM

Well, I'll be happy to bite the bullet and say I think the commenters above who mentioned kooks and klansmen were exactly right.

I'm not afraid to get called "PC" for saying so, and those of you who act like you are should be ashamed of yourselves.

I'll never read this blog again.

Posted by: pangea on September 4, 2007 1:42 PM

Aaron -- Nothing wrong with flying off the handle. And here's hoping you see fit to re-visit. You're an interesting and open-minded guy, and I'd certainly enjoy hearing more from you.

Pangea -- Fair enough.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 4, 2007 2:02 PM

Notably, the Bell Curve has been throughly shredded as social science on theoretical and empirical grounds.

"Shredded" by whom?

I'm not afraid to get called "PC" for saying so, and those of you who act like you are should be ashamed of yourselves.

Wow, sure takes a lot of courage to stand up for the reigning orthodoxy. I think it would take a lot more courage to stick around and actually debate the merits of PC/Multicultism/Cultural Marxism.

Posted by: expat on September 4, 2007 3:21 PM


Too bad. Don't you think it's better to engage those with unpopular ideas about race rather than pretend they don't exist, or worse consign them to their intellectual ghettos? What people said about trying to pretend that the undercurrent in modern society doesn't exist and that there are reasons for existing is quite true.

Frankly, I think there are rather unpleasant truths about race, simply put, the Bell Curve is right in the general picture (though I quibble with the details). That being said, I also believe that there are those taking the facts of the matter and making very reductionistic calls to back up social claims I don't think the data stands to support. First and foremost among those is that group differences have any ability to predict an individual person's talents and abilities (or flaws for that matter). I could go on, but hey, first an honest dialogue has to opened, right?

Posted by: Spike Gomes on September 4, 2007 3:35 PM

How to account for the many ways in which blacks were making more progress before passage of the Civil Rights Act than they were after? An impressive example: College-educated black women were out-earning college-educated white women by 1960, four years before the Civil Rights Act.

A very unimpressive example. In fact, a very foolish argument.

What percentage of black women were college graduates in 1960? What percentage of white women? Isn't it fair to guess that the percentage of black women was much lower; that only the most talented and hardest-working black women were able to attend college, whereas many somewhat above-average white woman were? Doesn't it then follow that the average female black college graduate was much smarter and conscientious than the average female white college graduate, and could be expected to be the better earner?

If, say, 1% of black women and 25% of white attended college the appropriate comparison is between the black women and the top 4% (4% of 25% is 1%) of the white graduates.

Wonder how that turns out?

Posted by: Byomtov on September 4, 2007 4:22 PM

Byomtov -- I think you're missing Sowell's point, which isn't that there was no discrimination around, or that the Civil Rights Act achieved nothing; it's that the picture is far more complicated than what it's usually made out to be (nothing but oppression and failure before the Civil Rights Act; and all the successes since owed directly to the Civil Rights Act). Sowell provides many examples of how that account is insufficient. I liked the one I included here, but maybe it was a poor choice.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 4, 2007 5:00 PM

I see that Sowell's most recent column is another installment of his "Random thoughts on the passing scene..."

The only columnist I can recall who uses this form more frequently than Sowell is that noted prose stylist, Larry King, though I don't know if his column is still running.

Not developing one's thoughts is about the laziest way a columnist can earn a paycheck; even the average blowhard on a barstool is willing to work his musings over more than one or two sentences.

Some of the random thoughts are particularly annoying in that they might make for interesting columns, such as this one from Sowell's latest:

"It is amazing how many people who want us to get out of Iraq want us to go into Darfur."

Well, yes, I've noticed that too. And???

Posted by: James M. on September 4, 2007 5:14 PM


The reason I object to the example is that it doesn't show anything at all about discrimination, and is in fact somewhat deceptive, for the reason I cited.

Further, I think that given his educational background, Sowell should have known this.

So I am unimpressed with the argument, and think less of Sowell for making it.

Posted by: Byomtov on September 4, 2007 7:30 PM

I'll add my support for _Knowledge and Decisions_, which is absolutely packed with insight into the way the world works. I also really enjoyed the Culture trilogy (Race, Migration, and Conquest).

I was a lot less impressed with _The Vision of the Annointed_, which seemed to me to be a little too much of "here's why all my opponents are self-deluded" for my tastes. Yes, people often hold their views for their own consumption ("see what a great guy I am?") or for the consumption of their neighbors ("see how enlightened I am?"). But this is definitely not just a phenomenon of the left, and Sowell paints it that way.

_Black Rednecks and White Liberals_ was interesting, but more as a "here are some additional interesting facts you might want to know" than as "here is some big new understanding of the world to try on."

Posted by: albatross on September 5, 2007 1:38 PM

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