David R. Henderson  

Farewell, Thomas Sowell

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At age 86, Tom Sowell has decided to retire as a regular columnist. This is his final column.

A few items in it caught my attention. Here is one:

During a stay in Yosemite National Park last May, taking photos with a couple of my buddies, there were four consecutive days without seeing a newspaper or a television news program -- and it felt wonderful. With the political news being so awful this year, it felt especially wonderful.

In a future post, I'll discuss how this relates to my own recent career decision.

Here are some other comments on material progress:

In material things, there has been almost unbelievable progress. Most Americans did not have refrigerators back in 1930, when I was born. Television was little more than an experiment, and such things as air-conditioning or air travel were only for the very rich.

Although I'm 20 years younger than Tom Sowell, I have noted some of the same things in my lifetime, only slightly less dramatically. Although we had a refrigerator all my life, we didn't have one at our cottage where we went every summer because we didn't get electricity until 1957 or 1958. So the word "icebox" meant for me what the word actually means. In January 1961, every family I knew in my town of Carman, Manitoba had a TV. Except for ours. I persuaded my father to buy one: a used Philco 21 inch (if I recall correctly) for $155. (And the Canadian $ was worth a little over 93 U.S. cents.) Remember the term "television repairman?" With our used TV, I do.
Air travel: My mother, who died at age 53 in 1969, never took a flight in her life. She had been in only two countries: Canada and the United States. And not much of those countries. She never saw Toronto. And the only U.S. state she made it to was North Dakota, and only the northern part of North Dakota. Fargo? You're dreaming.
My own family did not have electricity or hot running water, in my early childhood, which was not unusual for blacks in the South in those days.

We didn't have running water in our house (which we didn't own) in Boissevain, Manitoba, until 1957.
It is hard to convey to today's generation the fear that the paralyzing disease of polio inspired, until vaccines put an abrupt end to its long reign of terror in the 1950s.

My father had polio in 1943. My sister had it in 1952.

Tom goes on to talk about ways the country has gone downhill. On some of these, I agree with him, especially his points about black ghettoes in the 1930s and 1940s versus now.

But one item that he regards as a negative is one that I regard as a positive. And it's not small. He writes:

Back in 1962, President John F. Kennedy, a man narrowly elected just two years earlier, came on television to tell the nation that he was taking us to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, because the Soviets had secretly built bases for nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from America.

Most of us did not question what he did. He was President of the United States, and he knew things that the rest of us couldn't know -- and that was good enough for us. Fortunately, the Soviets backed down. But could any President today do anything like that and have the American people behind him?


To his last question, which he asks rhetorically, my answer is "I certainly hope not." If you want to know more about why, see my post yesterday.

To what does Tom Sowell attribute this decline in presidential credibility? He writes:

Years of lying Presidents -- Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Richard Nixon, especially -- destroyed not only their own credibility, but the credibility which the office itself once conferred. The loss of that credibility was a loss to the country, not just to the people holding that office in later years.

Notice that he singles out presidents who were in office while Tom was an adult. He brought his well-honed skepticism to the issue. But he doesn't mention one of the biggest liars in his lifetime: FDR. Even while trying to get America into World War II in 1940, FDR said in his famous Boston speech late in the 1940 presidential campaign:
And while I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance.

I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again:

Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.


Or how about Harry Truman's initial announcement of the nuclear bomb dropped on the city of Hiroshima. His statement to the press said:
Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.

There are downsides to distrust. The main downside is when the distrust is undeserved because the president is telling the truth. But there are upsides too.


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CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences




COMMENTS (12 to date)
TMC writes:

I don't disagree with you about FDR as a whole, but it unfair to recognize that this quote was from before Pearl Harbor. This attack changed everything.

Also, sad to see Sowell retiring, and sad to see that at 86, there is no one younger what can adequately fill his shoes. Maybe this is also one of the tragedies of black culture today.

David R. Henderson writes:

@TMC,
I don't disagree with you about FDR as a whole, but it unfair to recognize that this quote was from before Pearl Harbor. This attack changed everything.
I assumed that all readers would know that the attack came in late 1941, which is why I didn’t mention it. That’s why I wrote above that he was "trying to get America into World War II in 1940.” If he’s trying to do something, something big, while assuring people that he’s trying to do the opposite, that’s a big deal.
The attack certainly did change most Americans’ attitude to the war, but I was discussing FDR’s views and actions, as I thought was obvious.

Floccina writes:

People nostalgic for the politics of the past seem to prefer not knowing what the politicians are doing to us. Kennedy and LBJ where not good.

Floccina writes:

I kiss the old guys because they could remember that the past was not so great and people Sowell and Friedman could credibly say "I was poor and I know what it is like".

David R. Henderson writes:

@Floccina,
I kiss the old guys because they could remember that the past was not so great and people Sowell and Friedman could credibly say "I was poor and I know what it is like".
I think you meant “miss the old guys,” right? But I could understand “kiss,” given all they have done for us. :-)
Slightly more seriously, I guess that means, given my remittences, that, at age 66, I count as an old guy.

KevinDC writes:

You scared me! When I saw the title of this blog post, I was expecting to see that Thomas Sowell had just died. Yikes. That was a horrible few seconds waiting for this page to load.

David R. Henderson writes:

@KevinDC,
I’m sorry. Not that you should know this, but whenever I write an obit, unless it’s for a bad guy like Castro, I always put RIP after the person’s name.

TMC writes:

Sorry, I misread you about FDR. So who do you think could be a good replacement for Sowell? Will be hard to do, but the black community really needs one of it's own to tell them the other side of the story.

Alex writes:

Is not so clear that by 1940 FDR was trying to send US troops to the European war. He had committed supplies but wasn't sending soldiers, at least not on a large scale. The lend lease law is from early 1941. A few days after PH, Hitler declared war on the US, because American supplied convoys were breaking the blockade on England.
I guess you could make the case that the war was the inevitable consequence of the lend lease law, but in my view that is not so clear. My point is that the material support was done with approval from Congress and it wasn't secret to the public.

shecky writes:
Most of us did not question what he did. He was President of the United States, and he knew things that the rest of us couldn't know -- and that was good enough for us. Fortunately, the Soviets backed down. But could any President today do anything like that and have the American people behind him?

This is a very curious thing to say. Does he not remember the not very long ago decision to invade Iraq? It was an unusually popular decision, and the President got enormous support for it. Even though there were very credible sources questioning the carousel of rationales propped up on a daily basis to justify the invasion. Could a President today do something like that and have the American people support him? They did in 2003! It was a pretty toxic environment to be against it, if you recall. Only filthy hippies, possibly French, who hate America could possibly be opposed to the whole thing. The war was very popular... for a while at least. It wasn't until the end of the second GWB term when it became cool to be against the Iraqi war. Americans were for it before they were against it!

I wish Sowell well. He was a good and compelling author. But I think a mediocre columnist. And I think he's as responsible as any popular public intellectual for the sad state of political affairs he bemoans.

Steve writes:

Sad at his retiring, but sadder he did not pursue other interests until getting to an age when its harder to do so.

David's mother and I form a complementary set: North Dakota is the only state in the US which I have not visited. One year before long I'm going to hop into my car and get there.

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