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April 29, 2005

What Good is Thomas Sowell?

Well that depend on who you are comparing him too. When it comes to thought leaders in the African American diaspora, it's a fair question. So I'd like to compare him to Booker T. Washington or Manning Marable. I'm not the scholarly type so I'm not going to have a definitive answer, but I think this is the right question to ask considering the kinds of answers I've seen over at Vision Circle.

So let me couch the question in the direction I would like to see discussion focused. Does Thomas Sowell give sound economic advice? I think the answer is yes, however the gripe I hear is that he is a big time basher of black culture. So the other question is what kind of economist continually belts out the same notes against poor little old black culture? Now before your knee jerks in the direction of 'Uncle Tom' rhetoric, remember this about Thomas Sowell, when half the country went berserk over that masterpiece of political propaganda known as 'The Bell Curve', Sowell was on the right side of history. Yet and still, like our friend McWhorter, Sowell seems to have it in for The Forty Percent, those African Americans on the ugly side of Cosby's verbal lickin' stick.

What I got from Sowell, way back in 82 when I first read him, was a sense of the different paths different ethnic groups took as they began their long hard slog from straight off whatever boat they came over on, to their indistinguishability from the Brady Bunch. Irish went one way, Jews went another. Sowell has made a career (well, essentially tenure) in the thesis that African Americans ought to de-emphasize the power of politics in their path to emergence. It's not really all that controversial a position, but plenty of folks have been lashed by Sowell's sharp tongue, as he has interminably flicked it on that subject for dang near 30 years now. My infatuation with him is long faded and I think he's made his point. I haven't bothered to check up on any of his new ones, but the publication of his latest book has got folks up in arms, basically I think about the same old question. Is he helpful?

The gut of the question over at Baldilocks (Fellow Conservative Brotherhood member) is whether or not race or culture is more deterministic of one's success or failure in America. Well the answer is somewhat of a no-brainer in the post Civil Rights Era, and likely a no-brainer in the post-colonial age in general. Culture is more deterministic, as much as anything can be deterministic of 'success'. But even with that non-thought in operation, clearly race has more to do with success in America than most anywhere else in the world. After all the South African Nationalists modeled Apartheid off of the Jim Crow South. So it's still a question that goes round and round in this country, despite the fact that Wilson made 'The Declining Significance of Race' point three decades ago. So long as people debate the point, Sowell's got work, which suits him and his publishers just fine, and why not?

But what I suspect is at the bottom of the hateration on Sowell is the fact that he, like so many other black academics, is not putting forth solutions for questions facing the Black Power Struggle. This remains deeply problematic for Progressives and Leftists, with whom Sowell is in an ideological battle with anyway. So this is why I bring up the question of Marable and why I said over at Vision Circle the following:

This is a self-defeating protest. Why? Because America is not a second-world nation, and socialism and left politics do not have and will not have the upper hand domestically. You can be existential partners with Nader and Fred Hampton all you like, but unless you do like Stokely and hie your ass to West Africa, you will always be in the political minority and thus relegated to the margin. The whole economic structure of the world would have to be inverted for this not to be the case, and yet those who hate on Sowell pray for that occurance.

What's ironic and indeed stupid about that hateration is that it has no better chance of attracting African American talent in the rising tide or even in a falling economic tide, nor does it have a mandate (or capability) of building economic independence from the American mainstream. So you have people who, like West, continue to rebuild blackness improvisationally, generation over generation on a premise of rebellion and resistence to the American mainstream economy who never build anything of substance capable of providing any baseline alternative, not even an all black national credit union.

Sowell dispenses economic advice at the express expense of the Black Cultural Nationalist position and therefore compromises his standing among those invested in 'The Struggle'. But his advice is not poor advice, it just doesn't have the right flavor. But to ask Sowell to be a real economist is to raise the question of who is the alternative, and this is the question Sowell's critics haven't answered.

I would appreciate somebody who argued that Sowell is bogus because Stokely Carmichael left black Americans with a far superior economic plan than does Sowell, but Stokely did not. Nor did King, X, Marable, or any dozen Hoteps you could name, especially not the Afrocentrics. So do the critics of Sowell simply not want to hear about economics or are they selling wolf tickets too?

Posted by mbowen at April 29, 2005 07:08 PM

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I've commented in other places that if people have problems with Sowell, instead of slamming him with names, counter his arguments. When I've said that, I've noted that no one ever seems to step to the plate.

I have no idea if Sowell ever published in an economics journal. If he hasn't, so what? He has published purely economic books. That is open to the same process.

Still, I think LKS brings up some good points.

I, myself, have nitpicks with some of the things he has written in his columns. The major one, to me, is that he states that the Black middle class grew at a faster rate pre-Civil Rights Act and affirmative action, than afterward. Well, I've always said that when you have a small starting base and get increases, the rate is going to be bigger than if you have a large base and get increases.

Posted by: DarkStar at April 30, 2005 06:08 AM

I haven't countered his cultural arguments because he doesn't establish them.

On pure economics, since its condition as a sicience is the same as chemistry when it was called alchemy, he's as fee to pontificate as Greenspan is,as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by: P6 at April 30, 2005 12:25 PM

Two questions come to mind in your characterization.

Is it that Sowell's being a hedgehog, or that he's being a one note orchestra? (talk about mixing metaphors!)

If one were in the position of Sowell, what would be the correct path to maximize influence and make good change happen?

Posted by: Chap at April 30, 2005 08:11 PM

Thomas Sowell is either "right" or "wrong", and this is an issue of scientific exploration, verification, and falsification.

One respondent compared economics to "alchemy". Consider that at the National Science Foundation--the primary sponsor of basic scientific research in the U.S., economics is the largest program in the social science directorate. Morevoer, many of the early and seminal contribution of a majority of economics Nobel Laureates were funded by NSF. Along these lines, economics is certainly scientific, and arguably more scientific than many natural science disciplines. Economists are dead serious about identifying causal effects--unlike medical scientists---read any issue of the New England Journal of Medicine--they seemed locked into to early 20th century classical statistical frameworks oblivious to parameter identification.

As for Sowell, I am not sure if his work was ever funded by NSF, nor does he have a Noble. Nonetheless, this does not necessarily undermine his approach. That's the beauty of science, it can be replicated, and falsified.


Posted by: dismalscientist [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2005 07:12 AM

Cobb said: ..."clearly race has more to do with success in America than most anywhere else in the world."

I strongly disagree. Britain, France, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Austrailia, New Zealand, Germany... I'd rather be a black man here than any of those places. Even the third world -- try being an ethnic minority in Nigeria or Burundi. How about a Muslim in China? Palestinian in Saudi Arabia? How about an ethnic Chinese person in Malaysia worried about getting your shop burned down? For all of it's faults, America has more social mobility than nearly any nation on earth.

Posted by: The_DA [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2005 12:53 PM

You're right. You're right.

Our own obsessive pet theories about race are a solution looking for a problem half the time. And since we are Americans, we blot out the world's drivel for paying attention to our own.

I seem to recall that a friend of mine was going to initiate some studies, a decade or so ago, in comparative racism. I think she abandoned the project when she figured out how nicely we have it.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 4, 2005 05:57 AM

Who was your friend? There are a whole host of people studying comparative racism...what's her pedigree?

There's that social mobility thing again. Have we figured out what it was exactly?

Better yet, what is the incarceration rate in Britain? The rate of black homicides? How about health? How are black health outcomes in France? What type of efforts are they making in Austrailia to deal with the Maori? I'd rather be a black man...period. End it there, and you've got something.

Posted by: Lester Spence [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 4, 2005 07:42 AM

Great comments. I am a huge soccer fan and here is a link to an article talking about European racism at soccer matches. Scary stuff:


Posted by: The_DA [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 4, 2005 08:12 AM