Thomas Sowell is retiring. Well, not exactly.
Sowell, an economist, social theorist, political philosopher, author and national columnist – and a mainstay in Mid Rivers Newsmagazine since its beginning 11 years ago – won’t write his column anymore. His last column will be available online at www.midriversnewsmagazine, Dec. 23.
But Sowell, 86, said last week that he’s not fading away. There are books to write and other projects on his to-do list.
Mid Rivers Newsmagazine will announce the name of our new columnist, or columnists, soon. But before we do, we thought it was important to speak to a man whose work has graced every issue of this publication and who has addressed every major issue the nation has faced and may face. Sowell spoke to us from California, where he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.
Born in North Carolina, Sowell grew up in Harlem, New York, and was the first in his family to study beyond the sixth grade. He dropped out of high school at 17, working a number of jobs and serving in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.
Discharged, he took a civil service job in Washington, D.C., and attended night classes at Howard University, where his test scores and professors’ recommendations helped him gain entrance to Harvard University. From there, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1958. A master’s degree from Columbia University and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago followed as did teaching economics at a number of universities and becoming a syndicated columnist.
But his life is not only about teaching and writing. In 1948, he had a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He also was a Marine photographer, who attended the Navy’s photography school at the Pensacola naval air station.
“Actually I got the tryout at a semi-pro ballpark and there was an old building behind me and I could just imagine coming to the plate there and hitting home runs through those windows,” Sowell said during our interview. “But I never got to the plate because you were let go if you didn’t get through the fielding test.”
Here are other things he had to say:
MRN: The column is coming to end. Tell us why and what’s next for Thomas Sowell?
Sowell: Oh heavens, I’m going to be doing what I’ve always been doing. That is, I’ll be writing various things and they will be in various stages of completion – some of them will get completed and some won’t as always has been the case. It’s just that as I get older I don’t discover I’m getting any more energy.
The thing that really decided it for me was I was in Yosemite [National Park] with some buddies back in the spring and several days without seeing any news broadcasts or reading any single newspaper. I realized I have to put an awful lot of time in listening to an awful lot of junk on TV and reading a lot of nonsense in the New York Times in order to be informed enough to write the column. And I decided there are too many other things, and the energy is not there for that, and so I would spare myself. The question really is why I stayed at it so long, because 86 is long past the usual retirement age.
MRN: Was writing a column something you enjoyed?
Sowell: Oh yes, absolutely!
MRN: Our readers, I think, remain as enthusiastic now as when you began the column with us. Is it gratifying that you get that kind of response?
Sowell: Absolutely. And I must say if I was going to say something to it, I would say I wished I could have answered all the letters, emails and phone calls I got, but of course I would not have had time to write the column. They should not think that what they said and what they wrote was unappreciated, because it definitely was.
MRN: What would you like to be remembered for?
Sowell: I’m not so much interested in being personally remembered as I am in having the ideas that I was trying to get across to actually succeed in getting across. If, 20 years from now, people say “Thomas who?” that’s fine with me. I won’t be around one way or other. I do hope all the efforts I’ve put out there, that my research assistants have put out there, have resulted in some people understanding some things better than they did before.
MRN: You have been described as a conservative voice with libertarian tendencies, a supply side economist and an opponent of the welfare state. Is all that accurate and have your views changed or evolved over time?
Sowell: My views evolved over time from being a Marxist throughout my 20s. That was where the evolution and change was. Bit-by-bit, I moved more and more in a conservative direction as I did more and more research. Because even when I was a Marxist, I was dedicated to empirical results; I wasn’t concerned about pretty words. And the more research I did, the more I realized that things that looked one way on the surface often looked the opposite way when you dug into the realities underneath.
MRN: In a recent column you asked where we are. Are you confident that Republicans are going to exercise the power they have now to do things like repealing Obamacare, supporting the selection of conservative Supreme Court judges or curbing the welfare state?
Sowell: The answer is no. Because they have failed so many times in the past. They have so many excuses for not doing what they said they were going to do. They are well practiced in that art. And I think this could be a “last chance saloon” for them if they once more get both Houses of Congress and the White House and once more they essentially punt the ball and come up with excuses. I don’t think the excuses are going to be listened to.
MRN: Are there other issues you would like to see Republicans address other than those obvious issues?
Sowell: Oh, there are many issues. But I guess one of those is not so much an issue, I suppose, in the usual sense. They really do have to understand the importance of articulating their position to the public. The last Republican president who was good at that was Ronald Reagan.
He was good at it because he had been doing it for years as a commentator, as a speaker on the lecture circuit and in writings. I’ve seen the reproductions of what he had written and he would go back through them scratch out this and substitute different words and so forth. It was clear this man had made a study of how to do this. I think that’s also true of Rush Limbaugh. I don’t think he goes in and says whatever pops into his mind. In fact, at various times, he’s said things about giving speeches that shows he was someone who put a lot of thought into this.
MRN: Donald Trump is a communicator.
Sowell: He is, but he’s not someone who has put a lot of thought into it. He spouts off on some things that are good and not so good. I think, as president, he is talking and tweeting infinitely too much.
MRN: You haven’t been real enthusiastic about Trump.
Sowell: I think that’s a good understatement. Countries, when they align themselves with the United States internationally, know that they are making themselves targets of terrorists who make them pay for their allegiance. And therefore, they are risking their nation’s security and perhaps its survival when they align themselves to us. Now, it can’t be that none of our commitments to them is good for more than four years. When Obama came in, he immediately welshed on the pre-existing commitment to put missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.
I’m sure countries around the world, deciding whether to align themselves with the United States, did not let that go unnoticed. We have yet another president who just says this and says that or who knows; who walks back Tuesday on what he said on Monday. I don’t know how many people are willing to stand with us. And we need them, no matter if they are small countries, because the international flow of money goes through a lot of places. You have to have people who can help you stop that flow of money to terrorists.
MRN: Is there anything that you’re heartened about regarding Trump and his administration as they are prepared to take office? Do you like his cabinet choices?
Sowell: I think that, on the whole, the people he’s going to put in power or will try to put in office, are better than you normally get and certainly better than we’ve been getting for the last eight years. So, in that sense, that’s encouraging; but the real question is not whether he’s surrounded himself with knowledgeable competent and dedicated people, the question is whether he listens to them. I’m not sure he’s that good a listener.
MRN: Does Trump have some good ideas?
Sowell: One of the best ideas I think he has is that, for the first time, a Republican has taken on the cause of charter schools, which I think is a huge issue for the black population, particularly for that part of the black population that wants their kids to learn in school and get ahead in the world. It’s one of the great untold stories – how some of those charter schools – I’m thinking of the KIPP [Public Charter] schools and other success academies – they’re taking kids out of the heart of the ghetto, kids who normally score down on the 10th percentile or lower on tests, and they are coming out of these schools and scoring in the 80s and 90s percentiles.
MRN: In your latest book, “Wealth, Poverty & Politics 2,” you talk about the need for developing “human capital.” Is that human capital? Getting a proper education?
Sowell: Absolutely. It’s one of the key forms for people who are poor and don’t have a lot of other opportunities to get ahead.
MRN: Are you worried about the changing forms of communications and journalism?
Sowell: I guess it’s the qualitative thing most – about what’s being said and about, heaven help us, about what’s been said on television. Just recently, some, I can’t use the word I want to use, anchor on CNN, for example, said they [police] shot this man – it’s true he was armed and they [police] told him repeatedly to drop the gun. And he [the anchor] said the man put the gun down at his side and he wasn’t pointing it at police. I thought, “my God, do you realize that if someone has a gun in his hand down by his side in less than a second you could be dead?”
We have people who think in talking points rather than trying to get at any reality. The reality is they asked him 10 times to drop the gun. I must tell you if it had been me I would have never asked him 10 times. Maybe two or three at the most. Otherwise he’s in a position to kill you and he knows it.
It tells you that there are people out there who are so committed to a certain position ideologically, or whatever that they are thinking; of talking points to defend that position, rather than addressing the reality faced by people at the time, namely the cop out there who could be killed by that gun that was supposedly harmlessly at that other guy’s side.
MRN: Are there solutions? Are you optimistic about how people in the future will address issues such as poverty, race relations and other issues?
Sowell: No, because the best predictor of the future is the past. There are too many people who have too heavy a vested interest in doing things a certain way and have too little interest in checking the empirical record of what has actually happened when they’ve done things that way.
There were a number of things that were getting better in the 1960s until the new ideas took over and suddenly reversed everything from teenage pregnancy to the homicide rate among black males, all of which were going down.
People today would have a hard time believing that the great majority of black children in 1960 were raised by two parents and that had been the case all the way back to the days of slavery. And then, suddenly, these bright ideas come in and, within one generation, you have the majority – a large majority – of black kids being raised by one parent or no parent.
MRN: Are you worried about how people are behaving publicly these days?
Sowell: You first have to understand that there have to be rules, including law and order. Law and order is not a deprivation of freedom, and anarchy is definitely not a liberation. It [anarchy] simply means you subjected to the local bullies rather than established institutions.
MRN: Are you worried about what some are saying is a rise in nationalism around the world?
Sowell: No, I think the rise of internationalism worried me greatly, because what that often means is that you’re moving the decisions that affect people’s lives away to other people elsewhere who are insulated from any feedback from reality.
If you’re in Britain, you don’t want major parts of your life determined by what someone in Brussels thinks. Or the case recently where there was some tax deal in Ireland involving a multi-national corporation and the international authorities took it upon themselves to have it negated, because it does not fit what they think. But they are not in Ireland and they’re not part of that multi-national corporation.
MRN: Do you enjoy taking photographs?
Sowell: Oh yes. That was the happiest time I spent in the military. When I was in college, I helped pay my way through college by being a photographer for the Harvard University news office.
MRN: Could you have been a professional photographer?
Sowell: You know what? The first month I was at Harvard, I received an offer for a job as a photographer, [a job] that I had been seeking for a long time. I was tempted for a moment to just drop out and go take it, and I must say, if I knew then what I know now about the academic world, I would have taken that job.