Thomas Sowell as an enigma

Thomas Sowell is an enigma to me. For the most part, his books decent. All things considered, Basic Economic was an ok book. Sure, it put way too much emphasis on Econ 101 and the I didn’t like ideological flavor to it, but it’s a good book for beginners. And looking back, I enjoyed reading it. He has also written some books on applied economics that are shallow, but again, I wouldn’t call them bad books.

However, whenever he writes an internet post or newspaper article, it makes me cringe. The errors he makes are just astounding. Take this post where he attempts to critique Keynes, Keynesian economics, and government intervention. He seems to:

  1. Misunderstand basic Keynesian economic theory
  2. Seem to assert that it was government intervention (and by that I assume he means fiscal policy and the government programs of FDR) that caused the rise in unemployment when he well knows a much more plausible reason. Again, this can easily be interpreted as a failure of government and the central bank, but Sowell gives no mention of the Feds role in the crisis. The hilarious part about this is that Sowell invokes Friedman, then later ignores his monetary explanation for the Great Depression!
  3. Conflate the recession of 1921 with the Great Depression when in fact these two events had some very important differences.

I can’t believe this guy is a “prominent” economist by any standard. I don’t care if you agree with his politics, when he isn’t writing a book, his analysis on economic, political, and historical matters is terrible. When you consider the books he writes, they are far too shallow, with rare exceptions, for him to be put on the same level as other prominent economists. When you consider his status as a public intellectual, his articles are awful when compared to other economists that write for public consumption. It’s almost as if he’s some sort of intellectual that makes sweeping pronouncements and bold claims in areas where he is woefully ignorant.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Thomas Sowell as an enigma

  1. Blue Aurora

    It looks like a similar piece (or the same piece) by him also appeared in the National Review.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/361230/return-keynes-thomas-sowell

    I commented on his reference to Warren Harding and the 1920-1921 depression in that piece. I pointed people to Daniel P. Kuehn’s 2011 article in the Review of Austrian Economics in that comment.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/361230/return-keynes-thomas-sowell#comment-1083969628

  2. I’ve never read any of his books but his articles are some of the worst I’ve ever come across. He takes extreme Tea Party policies adds some insults and tries to pass it as economics. Most of the time I just bother giving him any attention.

    The article you linked is a good example. He compares two arbitrary and unsourced points and throws them together. The Philips Curve is an argument from decades ago, get over it already. The 1921 recession was nowhere as severe as as the Great Depression. The list of fallacies he commits in every article goes on and on, which ironic as one of his main books is about all the fallacies other economists supposedly commit.

    • The weird thing is that some of his books (especially on the history of economic thought) are really, really good. He even has two articles on Thorstein Veblen that as far as I can tell are excellent. It just seems to be that his article are god awful and I don’t really understand why this is. It’s like his brain just turns off.

      • Its strange but economists seem to have two sides, their public side and their academic side. Milton Friedman is highly respected for his academic side, but when he came out into the public he made some ridiculously extreme statements.

        Krugman too is fr more political on his blog than in his writings. I’m not sure why economists feel they have to dumb it down or make such wild sweeping statements in public.

      • Blue Aurora

        As Robert Nielsen pointed out, a similar thing can be said of Milton Friedman. To a certain extent, it also can be applied to Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz (as much as I like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, it is true – they have written and said things which wouldn’t be so easily accepted nor tolerated for so long in an academic context).

        In all cases, when in academic contexts, all of them are much more careful about their arguments and research. But when it comes to engagements with the wider, general public, all of them have said or written things that aren’t exactly exemplary of good intellectual and scholarly conduct or etiquette.

        Perhaps I’m more biased because my views tend to lean to the left (although I wouldsa that I have moved toward the centre in recent years), but I’ve noticed this sort of un-exemplary intellectual/scholarly conduct coming far more often from Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and other right-wing American public intellectuals than from Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.

    • IveGotSowell

      “I’ve never read any of his books…”

      “The list of fallacies…goes on and on, which [is] ironic [because] one of his main books is about all the fallacies other economists supposedly commit.”

      Passing judgement without even reading the book? You’re so thorough you could teach at Harvard (note my sarcasm). His articles are Op-Ed pieces. Much like the garbage Mr. “Man-is-born-free-but-is-everywhere-in-chains-1214” printed above. When I say “garbage,” I mean you obviously don’t even know what “government intervention” covers nor do you even cite references to support your counter arguments.

      I can learn nothing from you.

      • I’ve read several of his books. Basic Economics is very good for beginners, albeit too political for my tastes. Economics Facts and Fallacies (which you reference) isn’t a very good book and you would be better off reading the relevant empirical literature on each topic he covers. His survey of the empirical evidence is pretty bad.

        The fact that his articles are Op-Ed pieces means nothing. There terrible Op-Ed pieces. Other economists (ie good economists) write good Op-Ed pieces, so Sowell shouldn’t be excused.

        I mean you obviously don’t even know what “government intervention” covers

        Assertions are fun and all, but you’ll actually have to point out where I made a mistake on this.

        nor do you even cite references to support your counter arguments.

        Read any book on Keynes and Keynesian economics. Any book. Or any book on the history of economic thought for that matter. In fact, I recommend you start here (http://www.amazon.com/Keynes-Return-Master-Robert-Skidelsky/dp/158648897X). It’s better than the garbage that Sowell spews in his article. The reason I didn’t cite my sources is because I didn’t need to. Anyone with a basic understanding of Keynesian economics and economic history will understand that Sowell’s arguments in that article are bad. In fact, I link to several references in the post, which you obviously didn’t click on.

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