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Thursday, December 29, 2016

An Economist’s Goodbye to Thomas Sowell

At age 86, Tom Sowell has decided to retire as a regular columnist.


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.

Reprinted from EconLog.


  • David Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund) and blogs at econlib.org.