Monday , September 21 2020

Sowell review

Summary:
Coleman Hughes writes a wonderful review of Thomas Sowell's life and work in City Journal. Savor it.My first Sowell book was Knowledge and Decisions, and I am heartened to see Hughes put that foremost as well. Sowell takes up where Hayek left off, how the price system is the network like our neurons communicating information across ...

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Coleman Hughes writes a wonderful review of Thomas Sowell's life and work in City Journal. Savor it.

My first Sowell book was Knowledge and Decisions, and I am heartened to see Hughes put that foremost as well. Sowell takes up where Hayek left off, how the price system is the network like our neurons communicating information across a complex economy. This remains a verbal part of the economics tradition, resisting formal modeling so far, and is thereby too often glossed over in graduate training. Read it. 

Sowell of course has written masterpieces on race, a collection of impeccably documented uncomfortable truths to the progressive left. My first, The Economics and Politics of Race is just one of nearly a dozen meticulous books, from Black Education: Myths and Tragedies (1972) to Discrimination and Disparities, second edition (2019). Hughes reviews important points in Conquests and Cultures, Migrations and Cultures, and Race and Culture.

The American Economic Association, in its instructions to its members on how to think, speak, act, and write about matters related to race tells us

We encourage all economists to seek out existing scholarship on race, stratification economics, and related topics. To get us started, our AEASP and CSMGEP colleagues and students are compiling a reading list on racism and the experience of Black Americans. Members of the AEA Executive Committee have pledged to continue to educate themselves in part by reading works from the list and to seek to integrate work by diverse authors in course syllabi, and we ask all economists to make the same pledge.

Tom Sowell appears nowhere on the American Economic Association list. Nor does Glenn Lowry. Nor does Roland Fryer, all topnotch economists who are, incidentally, Black, and who use economic tools to understand matters of race. (The list emphasizes social and political commentators, with a striking absence of economics for an AEA reading list, but no Clarence Thomas nor Shelby Steele nor ... well, you get the picture.)  One cannot escape the conclusion that the American Economic Association is commanding specific narratives, not scholarly study of racial issues or even inclusion of Black authors per se. At a minimum, it's an interesting sign of the times that our professional association no longer feels the need to even appear politically or ideologically neutral, to go through the motions of mentioning two or more sides to a scholarly question.  

By starting with and emphasizing economics and other contributions (slow learning children, for example), Hughes disclaims the stereotype advanced by so many progressive economists that, beyond the commandment that only Black authors may write about race (Gary Becker and Bob Fogel are missing from the list too),  Black authors must write about nothing else. There is something subtly denigrating about the idea that Black economists shouldn't do game theory. It implies that maybe they can't. If your department has finally been able to hire Black economists, but they are all isolated in a group that studies discrimination against African-Americans in the US, I submit we still have a problem. (How about Don Brown for a hero?)  Indeed, Sowell is greatest first and foremost as an economist. 

Sowell, at age 90, just finished another masterpiece, Charter Schools and Their Enemies. Perhaps the current moment of covid-19 school dysfunction will finally teach the progressive left that teacher's unions have devastated a generation of children, disproportionally Black and other minority, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline, and that charter schools, very popular in the Black community, offer often dramatic opportunities. Perhaps not, as they have studiously ignored Sowell's other work, but it's another uncomfortable truth. 

It is the season that the Nobel committee gets down to work. Let me humbly offer the suggestion that recognizing the extraordinary scholarly achievements and impact of this great economist might be a good, well-timed and long overdue move. 

Sadly, I have to report I don't know Tom well personally. He didn't hang out much at Hoover, and he certainly does not do so now. Maybe not wasting time chatting with people like me is how he writes so many books! 
 
(Tom's Website is a great place to lose yourself for a while.) 


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Note to blog readers. I'm still here! I've been focusing on getting a draft of the Fiscal Theory of the Price Level finished, but the blog is just dormant not dead. 

And there seems to be little point in writing about covid. America got tired of it around Memorial Day. The young went out to protest, and everyone went out to party.  We're not going to use the technology we have -- testing -- to stop the virus in its tracks, which is easily accomplished for a lot less than the $5 trillion and counting the Congress is going to spread around. Reopening schools is going to be a disaster. So we wait for Deus Ex Machina vaccine to save us, and hope that will be implemented with something like the bureaucratic competence so completely absent in testing. Ah well.  
John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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