Thomas Sowell: Peerless Nerd
Thomas Sowell is that rarest of things among serious academics: plainspoken. This characteristic, a by-product of both his innate temperament and the intellectual courage for which nature does not deserve the credit, surely has been bad for his career. (Intellectual courage tends to impede the career path of an intellectual.) If he were the obfuscating sort, he might have made Harvard don; if he were the cheaply poetical sort, he might have made U.S. president. His plain speaking also makes him dangerous, and that danger is intensified by the fact that Sowell is black. And not just black, but unassailably black: He’s Southern-born, Harlem-raised, brought up poor, and the first of his family to be educated beyond the sixth grade.
If a mad scientist were to repair to his laboratory to design a machine that would make white liberals uncomfortable, that machine would be Thomas Sowell, whose input is data and whose output is socioeconomic criticism in several grades, ranging from bemused observation to thorough debunking to high-test scorn—all of which are represented in The Thomas Sowell Reader (Basic Books, 404 pages).
Now 81 years old, Sowell is known as a libertarian-leaning conservative, which he is, and he has a thriving sideline in debunking racial platitudes. But he is first an economist, which means he is first an observer and reporter of facts, and if those facts take him to uncomfortable places, so be it. No, the prevalence of black men in the NBA doesn’t mean that the NBA is racist, it means that reality is racist. Yes, Barack Obama and congressional Democrats really do practice the same kind of ethnic politics that resulted in the Rwandan genocide and the Sri Lankan civil war, even if they do not practice them to the same extent. Yes, affirmative action is naked racism. No, rent-control laws don’t control rent. No, gun-control laws don’t control guns. No, standardized exams are not culturally biased—but, yes, life is culturally biased.
Because he is black, his opinions about race are controversial. If he were white, they probably would be unpublishable. This is a rare case in which we are all beneficiaries of American racial hypocrisy. That he works in the special bubble of permissiveness extended by the liberal establishment to some conservatives who are black (in exchange for their being regarded as inauthentic, self-loathing, soulless race traitors) must be maddening to Sowell, even more so than it is for other notable black conservatives. It is plain that the core of his identity, his heart of hearts, is not that of a man who is black. It 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. Take a look at those glasses, that awkward grin, those sweater-vests, and consider his deep interest in Albert Einstein and other geniuses: Thomas Sowell is less an African American than a Nerd American.
One of the great and brilliant things about Thomas Sowell is that he, like most nerds, appears to be simply immune to certain social conventions. This is a critical thing about him—because the social conventions of modern intellectual life demand that certain things go studiously unnoticed, that certain subjects not be breached, or breached only in narrow ways approved by the proper authorities. Sowell does not seem to me to be so much a man who intentionally violates intellectual social conventions as a man who does not notice them, because he cannot be bothered to notice them, because he is in hot pursuit of data about one of the many subjects that fascinate his remarkable brain.
Sowell is a writer with many interests: international development, child development, language, law, restitution, rednecks, Marx, manners, markets, Marines, mascots, the process of growing old, and, because he is an American conservative, baseball. That comes under the heading of “Social Issues” in the Reader, and the essay is “‘Dead Ball’ Versus ‘Lively Ball’.” Baseballologists will be familiar with the debate: Relatively few home runs were hit before 1920, after which the number grew very quickly. Legend has it that the Powers That Be in MLB introduced a so-called lively ball in 1920, hoping to produce a crop of exciting new home-run hitters to distract the public from the recent scandal of the Chicago “Black Sox,” who had fixed the 1919 World Series. “Denials by baseball officials that the ball had been changed have been dismissed out of hand,” Sowell writes, “in view of the dramatic and apparently otherwise inexplicable changes in the number of home runs hit in the 1920s and thereafter.”
Sowell, as is his habit, does not accept the orthodoxy, in baseball or in politics. He goes to the data: How did specific hitters perform before and after the putative introduction of the lively ball? Did Ty Cobb and Joe Jackson start hitting more home runs? What do the statistics say? (It is easy to see why economists and nerds love baseball.)
Sowell’s answer is that in baseball, as in economics, culture matters. In this case, the culture of baseball seems to have been changed by the phenomenon of Babe Ruth, whose home-run-hitting prowess made him a baseball demigod. Batting styles changed. “Gross numbers may suggest a change in the ball,” Sowell writes, “but a finer breakdown of the statistics indicates a change in the batters.”
Baseball is only a game, of course, but Sowell brings the same analytic mind-set—and the same detached aloofness—to the most important questions of adult life, and the most emotional ones. Confronted with a New York Times report claiming that blacks are suffering from racial discrimination in mortgage lending, he begins his detective work with the observation that markets tend to work against racial discrimination rather effectively: “Empirically, it is very hard to find people who are willing to lose hard cash, in order to discriminate. Racists may prefer their own group to others, but they prefer themselves most of all.”
He considers what factors have not been accounted for and immediately identifies the missing variables: savings and credit ratings. “This is not rocket science. This is Economics 101.” But of course our American public orthodoxies are not enforced by an Inquisition but rather a Disinquisition: Thou shalt not notice certain uncomfortable things. Sowell is invaluable for being willing to talk about them, and to ask uncomfortable questions: Are blacks and whites really economically comparable in the economic comparisons we have? What about whites and Asians?
There is a sense of inevitability in Sowell’s investigations. You will not be surprised to find that Asians are approved for loans more often than whites are, and that they are offered expensive subprime loans less often. “Does that mean that whites were being discriminated against?” Sowell asks. “Or are statistics taken seriously only when they back up some preconception that is politically correct?” To ask the question is to answer it—but it is imperative that somebody ask the question, and Sowell is one of the few major intellectuals in American public life who can be counted on to do so.
And what of real, undeniable racial discrimination? Read:
When you are walking down a dark street at night and you see a shadowy figure in an alley up ahead, do you judge him as an individual—or do you cross the street and pass on the opposite side? Judging him as an individual could cost you your life….Recently, a black, middle-class professional wrote of his resentment when he was asked to pay for his meal in advance in an Asian-owned restaurant—especially after he noted that a white couple that came in was not asked to do the same. Was this arbitrary racism or self-protection based on experience in this neighborhood? That was the key question he did not ask—nor do most journalistic or even scholarly studies.
This touches upon one of Sowell’s great themes, what he calls “the vision of the anointed” (the title of one of his books, of which the Reader is the 30th published in a writing career dating back to 1972). The vision of the anointed is a complicated thing. It is part ideology, part prejudice, part ignorance, part psychological projection, and part (perhaps its biggest part) wishful thinking. The vision of the anointed is at its heart a refusal—a knowing, intentional refusal—to deal with reality on reality’s terms, or even to conscientiously encounter realities that are challenge that vision or unpleasant.
But, as Sowell reminds us, reality is not optional; facts must be accounted for. It is not as though he is in possession of secret, arcane knowledge. For instance, these facts are easily documented: Gun-control laws began to be passed during times when crime was declining, rather than climbing. Crime began climbing after gun-control laws were passed. Places with very strict gun-control laws typically have more crime than do places without them—a fact that holds true between countries and between regions of the United States. There is little or no relationship between the rigorousness of gun-control laws and criminals’ access to guns. Many countries have lots of guns but relatively few murders, while others have few guns but relatively many murders. Swimming pools kill many more people in accidents than guns do. You do not have to be a great scholar to look at those facts and ask: What is the point of gun-control laws?
Nor should you have to be a great intellectual contrarian to ask: Why is it that these programs that we are told will help blacks in fact hurt them? And what should be done about that? But there are shockingly few people who can and do ask those questions, and very few who can dissect them with the rigor of Thomas Sowell. His “‘Friends’ of Blacks,” originally published in 2004, is a miniature classic, briefly chronicling the double standards in admissions (and, in some cases, in grading) that have undermined blacks’ education in the name of helping them.
He points to the case of Dr. Patrick Chavis, a celebrated case study of affirmative action, and notes: “[Chavis was] publicly praised by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights—just two weeks before his license was suspended, after his patients died under conditions that brought the matter to the attention of the Medical Board of California. An administrative law judge referred to Chavis’s ‘inability to perform some of the most basic duties required of a physician.’ A year later, after a fuller investigation, his license was revoked.” Some years before, Sowell reports, a Harvard Medical School professor was denounced as racist for declaring that affirmative action for medical students was endangering patients. He was proved right. But that fact is inconsistent with the vision of the anointed, which holds that to even ask the question of whether black doctors are on average today less qualified than white doctors as a result of preferential treatment is to abandon the fundamentals of civilization. It is a thought that cannot be thought.
In large measure because of a path Sowell charted, the term black conservative is practically an occupational category today. It is one of the great ironies of our time that Sowell is especially poorly served by such pigeonholing. Consider his fascinating disquisition on the geography and natural environment of Africa, in which he argues that such factors as the lack of navigable interior waterways, the steepness of its rivers, the lack of pack animals due to insect-born disease, the lack of natural ports and harbors on the continent’s smooth coastline, other interior barriers to travel, the resulting isolation of group from group, and linguistic fragmentation (Africa, he points out, has 10 percent of the world’s people and a third of its languages) explain much of the continent’s socioeconomic backwardness. Such brilliant observational analysis does not fit neatly into orthodox conservative or orthodox liberal explanations of development. It is fact-intensive and based upon observable, empirical realities—which is to say, it is Sowellian.
Africa has its physical barriers, but the relevant geography in the West is mostly psychological and social. There are many cultural divides in these United States. Some of them are racial (as Sowell explored in his 2005 book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals), some are economic, some are religious. Some of the most important cultural fault lines run not through neighborhoods or income brackets but through time: Sowell often seems like an envoy from another age, which in a sense he is, given his advanced years and the circumstances of his upbringing. He is a remnant from an age when it was common to know people who had grown up in homes that did not have indoor plumbing. This contributes a certain groundedness to his criticism. When detailing the many material goods enjoyed today by people living in what we call poverty, he reports: “People today eat in restaurants more times in a month than they used to in a year—or, in some cases, a decade. As a young man, I was uneasy when I began eating in restaurants, because I had so seldom eaten in one while growing up. As for having a car, the thought never crossed my mind.”
Sowell very strongly rejects the notion that the details of his biography should add or detract from the persuasiveness of his arguments, and he is right to think so. But he does have a great deal of experience to draw on, and much of it speaks to the actual experience of the poor and the marginalized. While he never slips into cheap sentimentalism of the “Heck, we’uns didn’t know we was poor!” variety, his firsthand observations are invaluable—because he refuses to romanticize his experiences, even easily romanticized experiences such as military duty. You do not get the feeling that Thomas Sowell was much of a Marine; in fact, he plainly still resents having been drafted.
Even his gratitude is unsentimental. Consider his account of the happy coincidences that contributed to his success and how they have shaped his views:
I happened to come along right after the worst of the old discrimination was no longer there to impede me and just before racial quotas made the achievements of blacks look suspect. That kind of luck cannot be planned.
Crucial pieces of good fortune like these would have made it ridiculous for me to have offered other blacks the kind of advice which the media so often accused me of offering—to follow in my footsteps and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The addiction of the intelligentsia to catchwords like “bootstraps” has made it all but impossible to have even a rational discussion of many issues. As for following in my footsteps, many of the paths I took had since been destroyed by misguided social policy, so that the same quality of education was no longer available to most ghetto youngsters, though there was never a time in history when education was more important.
I am not Dear Abby…. Nevertheless, clever media interviewers insisted on asking me questions such as: “But what do you say to the welfare mother or to the ghetto youth?” I cannot imagine what would have led anybody to think that I was writing handbooks for welfare mothers or ghetto youths, or that either would be reading them, if I were.
That is the inimitable Thomas Sowell. His prose style, like his thinking, is economical and lucid, if not always precise. (He is not always especially conscientious about distinguishing correlation from causality.) At his bracing best—and in my view he is at his best in the long form, rather than in his newspaper columns—Sowell is dry, amused and amusing, and a rich source of useful knowledge. In his grumpier moments, his tone makes it easy to imagine him shouting at Paul Krugman to get off his lawn, damn it. But The Thomas Sowell Reader is full of his best, and its publication, like the great nerd himself, is a cause for celebration.