Quote Of The Day: Thomas Sowell Edition

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 24, 2009

I think in the U.S. and in most of the world the public understanding of economics is abysmal. But it’s one thing not to understand something. I don’t understand brain surgery. It’s another to want to form policies on things on which you are ignorant. I hear the wonderful phrase “I want to make a difference” when it comes to policy. I would be horrified if I wanted to make a difference in brain surgery. The only difference is more people would die on the operating table. The only encouraging thing about public reaction to the crisis is that going by polls citizens seem to have more misgivings about some of these policies than politicians or the media. Still, though there have been studies that indicate the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression by years, what is also clear is it was enormously popular. FDR was elected four straight times, and more than once without ever having brought unemployment down to single digits. An economic disaster does not necessarily mean a political disaster. If we could raise the average level of understanding of economics to what Alfred Marshall had in 1890, the vast majority of politicians would be voted out of office.

Thomas Sowell. (Via Samizdata.)

  • Richard J. Garfunkel

    Just because Thomas Sowell doesn’t understand brain surgery it doesn’t preclude that he understands history or economics. There is an old saying “those who can do, those who can’t, teach.” I have seen no evidence that Professor Sowell, who supported George W. Bush to the hilt or his idiotic policies, of “guns and butter” and the trashing of the Constitution, has any creditability on practically anything. In the paraphrased words of FDR, when he was talking about “his little dog Fala,” if Thomas Sowell and the Republican fiction writers, in, and out of Congress, believe that FDR, and the New Deal, prolonged the Depression he deserves to go back to school and trash his degrees. That argument is specious and is promulgated by his Hoover Institute friends and Amity Schlaes whose been wrong way more than she has been right.

    This is a letter I wrote to the Baltimore Sun over two years ago.

    To: ‘letters@baltsun.com’
    Subject: Sowell Column
    April 5, 2007

    As usual with the Republicans and their sycophants, another attack is made on the Democrats. Thomas Sowell chirps in with his criticism of Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria. He makes a comparison with FDR and the use of Wendell Willkie as a comparison. Unfortunately the circumstances were and are quite different. Willkie was not the typical isolationist Republican, but actually was a registered life-long Democrat and an internationalist before becoming the GOP standard bearer in 1940. By the time Willkie was asked to help with FDR’s foreign policy, we had been attacked, Congress declared war, and the country was unified behind the great leadership of the late President. Willkie was asked to speak for the President, as was Averill Harriman, Harry Hopkins and others.

    Unlike his illustrious predecessor, George W. Bush has embarked on an ill-fated, poorly planned, and disastrous adventure in a land that did not attack the United States. We all know that the late and unlamented Sadaam Hussein was a horror and a bully in a rotten neighborhood. But it was Bush 41 that had the power to remove him and normalize Iraq, but didn’t. Hussein had been contained for years and yes; he should have been squeezed harder. Our real effort should have focused on Afghanistan where the Taliban and their Al Quieda guests and collaborators were centered. If George Bush had concentrated our forces there with a quick strike, rather than the slow and undermanned, poor strategy of General Tommy Franks, our antagonists would have been rounded up and destroyed.

    But Sowell and other Bush acolytes have conveniently ignored the Bush-Cheney-Rove policies of “cooking the books” on WMD along with other fables and fantasies about Iraq. Now we are in the fifth year of this disaster. It has now escalated and widened to a civil insurrection pitting Sunni versus Shiite along with terrorists and foreign forces adding to the damage. They are all struggling both for power and the continued hemorrhaging of America.

    Speaker Pelosi is not a defeated opponent of George W. Bush! She represents the result of the American people’s wish for change. Positive change, not go it alone adventurism that has led to our current wallowing in the quagmire of death, destruction and domestic disunity. She went there to stimulate talk, openness and the desire for a change. We certainly need a change. Over three thousand of our sons and daughters have paid the ultimate price for Bush’s miscalculations and lies. We have spent hundreds of billions going nowhere fast, but Sowell bemoans Pelosi’s effort. She went into the lion’s den where Ms. Rice and her department should be. She has made the effort that is long overdue by confronting one of the major players in the region. I note, when a Republican contingent ventured to Syria, nary a peep was heard from Bush, the State Department, and the President’s dwindling minority of supporters.

    I say to Thomas Sowell, “wake up and smell the roses!” Bush and his administration has been an abject failure at home and abroad. The people spoke in 2006 and they will again speak loud and clear in 2008. At least the Democrats, after much criticism, have placed the onus on Bush to start fulfilling his empty promises to finish our effort, and get out before we have no friends left in the world and our nation is in chaos.

    Richard J. Garfunkel

    Of course this was written before our economic meltdown, before the idiotic McCain/Pail campaign, before all the revelations about torture, before the Cheney road show and before the public really understood the gravity of the Bush legacy!

    Richard J. Garfunkel
    Host of The Advocates
    WVOX 1460 AM Radio, NY

    • http://www.chequer-board.net Pejman Yousefzadeh

      Thank you for the argument by assertion, which you must have cut and pasted from elsewhere, and which constitutes a debating fallacy no matter whence the source. Of course, your collection of shibboleths and your obvious misunderstand of the Sowell quote speak more to unintended points than your assertions speak to intended political arguments. Sowell did not say that just because he doesn’t understand brain surgery, he understands economics. What he said, was that wanting to make a difference is not a desired quality when one tries to make a difference concerning a subject one knows nothing about.

      For example, Richard Garfunkel wants to make a difference concerning understanding the thoughts of Thomas Sowell. But since he doesn’t understand what Thomas Sowell is saying, he can’t make much of a difference by providing commentary of his own.

      I trust that makes matters clear to you.

  • Richard J. Garfunkel

    To Mr. Pejman Y…

    I understand completely what Thomas Sowell had and has to say. My letter was sent to the Baltimore Sun two years ago, and therefore it is not a “cut and paste” job! He has been constantly wrong, and his last assertion about economics and politicians means very little. In fact, the leading economist of FDR’s time, John Maynard Keynes recommended many of the policies that FDR followed. In fact, the early economic recommendations of the New Deal were offered by Columbia professors, Adolph Berle, Rexford Tugwell, and Raymond Moley. Whether they were right or wrong is a matter of historical debate, but they weren’t lightweights. I am sure Mr. Sowell would like to have 1/10th of their reputation.

    As to the New Deal not lowering the unemployment rate to single digists, if one took into acocunt the millions that were hired by the WPA the employment rate would have been close to the average unemployement rate we “enjoyed” under the eight long Ronald Reagan years, a Sowell icon.

    The GOP/Right has encouraged the lowering of taxes, the conglomeration of industry, the exporting of jobs overseas, the deregulation of industry, and the accumulation of greater money in fewer hands. Now, as in 1929, less people own more of America! In the midst of this incredible increase in executive compensation, Ronald Reagan’s administration lowered the highest tax brackets by more than 60% from 71% to 28% in 1986, while raising the bottom tax rate from 11 to 15%. In reality the Reagan Administration created two tax brackets. The poorest earners paid up to 15% and multi-millionaires paid a little more than double? Did this increase revenue to the Treasury? No! No wonder we experienced record deficits. Did it increase wealth to the wealthiest? Yes! Recent articles have debunked the “urban myth” promulgated by the flat-taxer’s and other anti-tax groups that tax cuts increase revenues. In fact, tax cuts without expense reductions create greater deficits. With that in mind, the Reagan years offered some of the biggest deficits, (tripling the National Debt), continued high unemployment, averaging over 7% in his tenure, and great private sector increases in wealth.

    In fact, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1981, Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, the U.S. average unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent. During Reagan’s presidency, it reached a high of 9.7 percent, and had declined to a level of 5.5 percent when Reagan left office. The rate from when Reagan entered office through his last year decline 2.1%. (Besides that obvious reality in November of 1981, ten months into the Reagan Administration, unemployment had risen to 8.5% and continued to rise to almost 10% through February of 1983.)

    By the way the myth regarding unemployment: Courtesy the United States Bureau of Statistics

    Since 1928 there have been 13 presidents, 7 Republicans (Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr, and Bush Jr) and 6 Democrats (FDR, Truman, JFK, Johnson, Carter and Clinton).
    Six of the seven Republican Presidents had unemployment increase while in office. Ronald Reagan is the only Republican President since 1928 to leave office with a lower unemployment rate.
    All six Democratic Presidents had unemployment decrease or stay the same while in office. The worst Democratic performance was Jimmy Carter, who had the same unemployment rate when he left office as when he entered.

    I have “cut and pasted” an article about Reaganomics!

    By James K. Galbraith
    June 8, 2004

    One cannot begrudge Ronald Reagan’s personal admirers their moment of eulogy. And particularly not in view of the man’s wise embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev late in his term, his gallant departure into Alzheimer’s 10 years ago, and Nancy Reagan’s noble advocacy since then of government support for stem-cell research. There were moments beyond politics when those of us who opposed Reagan the most could, and did, tip our hats to him.
    But let’s talk economics. It is not too early to contradict those who would elevate Reagan above Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, or even Bill Clinton, on this score. Yes, Reagan did change the course of history. But his economic legacy was mainly destructive, and especially so for the world’s poor and our own working class.

    Among postwar administrations, who had the best record on economic growth? The answer is Kennedy-Johnson (49 percent over eight years), followed by Clinton (34 percent), followed by Reagan (32 percent). Among postwar two-term presidencies, Reagan beats out only Eisenhower (21 percent) and Nixon-Ford (24 percent). Call him the best of the Republicans, if you want.
    The unemployment rate stood at 6.6 percent when Kennedy took office and at 3.4 percent when Johnson left it. The average over their eight years was 4.8 percent. When Clinton came in, unemployment was at 7.4 percent; it averaged 5.2 percent during his two terms and fell to 3.9 percent by the end. And for Reagan? Unemployment stood at 7.5 percent at his inauguration, and it averaged that same 7.5 percent during his entire eight years. The jobless rate was 5.4 percent when Reagan left office.
    Inflation did come down — from just over 10 percent in the oil crisis year of 1980 to just over 3 percent in 1983. But at whose expense? Here the correct contrast is with FDR, who controlled inflation while doubling output over four years in World War II. In the process, Roosevelt leveled the pay distribution and created the modern American middle class.

    Reagan’s disinflation came from unemployment over 10 percent, from his attack on unions, and from high interest rates, which drove up the dollar and cheapened imports. Those measures bankrupted much of the manufacturing belt. They damaged the middle class. And they created a vast trade imbalance and a rising external debt whose consequences haunt us still. Precisely what Roosevelt built, in other words, Reagan did much to destroy.

    Mythmaking especially surrounds Reagan’s economic ideas, where memory blurs reality into romance. In truth Reagan’s economic team was a shotgun marriage between ideologues, monetarists and supply-siders who couldn’t stand one another. There was even a good-humored (though conservative) Keynesian mixed in — Murray Weidenbaum, the first chairman of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors.

    I remember Murray sidling over to me at a meeting of a deplorable group called the Gold Commission — an official assembly of nut cases, to be blunt about it — in the Cash Room of Donald Regan’s Treasury Department, on the day in 1982 when the CEA’s first “Economic Report of the President” for Reagan’s presidency was published.

    American Economist- The son of renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith and of Catherine (Kitty) Atwater Galbraith, he earned his BA from Harvard in 1974 and Ph.D from Yale in 1981, both in economics. From 1974 to 1975, Galbraith studied at King’s College, Cambridge.

    As to Thomas Sowell, his belief that FDR’s New Deal prolonged the Depression is hogwash, and any other’s who drink that Kool-Aid are kidding themselves!

    Richard J. Garfunkel
    Host of The Advocates
    WVOX 1460 Radio

    • http://www.chequer-board.net Pejman Yousefzadeh

      Actually, your latest opus–such as it is–means exceedingly little, seeing as how it is all assertion and no argument. You haven’t shown Sowell to be wrong in any way, shape or form–you just spill an ocean of pixels trying to claim that he is without any kind of proof or logic to back up your assertions. Of course, argument by assertion is a fallacy of the first order, but if you didn’t have fallacies, you would have nothing at all.

      Unemployment and underemployment during the New Deal were chronic (http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/11/unemployment-du.html) and would constitute a scandal if practiced by any Administration whatsoever, your logorrhoeic commentary (devoid of proof and derived solely and exclusively from cut and pasted talking points you probably got from the latest Democratic National Committee press release) notwithstanding. As for your claims concerning unemployment, Republican Presidents, and Democratic Presidents, you provide no causative relationship or commentary, which makes me think that this post (http://meganmcardle.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/04/department_of_awful_statistics_6.php) was created for the likes of you. Concerning Reagan, you seem to forget that he had to pull the economy out of the double-digit inflationary, unemployment and interest rate Hell of the Carter Administration, and the Galbraith article you cite makes the traditional errors concerning FDR’s economic legacy, such as it is. What’s next? A cut-and-paste job from Das Kapital? In the event that you were considering giving it to us, please don’t.

      I could go on, but I think you have gotten my point. I can’t make it much simpler. I provided evidence for my arguments, whereas all you did was to cut-and-paste an article from Galbraith that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Sowell quote, and write a War and Peace-length comment about how bad Sowell is, without providing any evidence to back up your playground name-calling. This is shoddy writing, at best, and no one’s definition of a persuasive argument. Sowell would likely have a good laugh at your claims, if he bothered to notice them at all.

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