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Thomas Sowell Lays Into Obama and the Left

Matthew Vadum author image /

Capital Research Center alumnus David Hogberg conducted an interview with the always interesting Dr. Thomas Sowell. The three-part interview was published by FrontPage magazine.

Hogberg is now a senior analyst at the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR).

Here is the interview in its entirely:

Thomas Sowell, Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and one of America’s premier economists, has just released the 5th edition of his best-selling book, Basic Economics. He sat down recently for a lengthy interview not only on the topics in his new book, but also on current events. In part one of this three-part interview, Sowell discusses Ferguson, the Eric Garner case, and civil rights in America.

David Hogberg: Why did Ferguson and the Eric Garner cases create so much social unrest? Other people are shot by police every year, black men are shot by other black men, and none of that generates even a smidgen of interest. So why are these cases different?
Thomas Sowell: Oh, because there are professionals out there who are in the race industry, and this is an opportunity for them. It so happens a white teenager was shot and killed by a black policeman down in Alabama, during this very period, and it has practically not been heard of. Larry Elder is one of the few people who has given it any publicity.
DH: By professionals I assume you mean folks like Al Sharpton and Bill de Blasio, correct?
TS: Yes, and there is a whole army of them going right on down to the community organizer level.
DH: What do you think motivates Al Sharpton and Bill de Blasio to involve themselves in these incidents? Is it in any way really a concern for civil rights?
TS: Not in the slightest. It is obvious that for de Blasio it suits his political interests and for Sharpton it suits his power and income interests. De Blasio hopes to use this to turn out the minority vote next time around. As for Sharpton, well, he owes, I think it is literally, millions of dollars in back taxes. I have never owed millions of dollars in back taxes. Alas, I never had any reason to be owing millions of dollars. So, really, a man of fairly modest accomplishments is living very high on the hog, on the strength of his ability to exploit the guilt of white people and the gullibility of such blacks as he can get to follow him.

DH: And so involving himself in an incident like this helps keep the funds flowing?
TS: Yes and more than that. For this kind of thing to work you have to keep the black community, in this case, as worried and preferably paranoid as you can. So that you can then play on that.
DH: Do they have an incentive to keep minorities filled with resentments and even, perhaps, poor?
TS: I don’t know about poor, but insofar as you keep people focused on things that have very little to do with their poverty, the net result is they will likely remain poor longer than they would otherwise.
DH: Some of the protesters in New York City chanted, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!” To what degree are they responsible for the two cops who were shot to death?
TS: To a degree, they are. If you stir up hostility against a group, in this case police, terrible things are going to happen. Some people express their hostility in words, some in other ways. But you can be sure that across a broad spectrum of people there will be those who will use violence.
I love it when the left says that these were peaceful demonstrations in Ferguson that got out of hand. Well, going in, it’s as predictable as the swallows coming back to Capistrano: If you are going to have a mass of people whipped up by demagogues like Sharpton and others, if these people are told that the world is against them, and the protest occurs at night, somebody is going to start doing something violent. And I can’t believe that the people who organized this are so naïve that it has never occurred to them that violence might happen.
DH: To what degree, if any, are people like Al Sharpton and Bill de Blasio responsible for those dead cops?
TS: To a considerable degree because, again, they set the atmosphere. When you go out and stir all of this stuff up, of course you are responsible. You can’t turn this stuff on and off. When you open the floodgates, you can’t tell the water where to go. The ultimate responsibility, obviously, is the man who pulled the trigger. But what I’m saying is that when you set this kind of stuff in motion, you know that violence is a likely outcome.
One thing that’s so disturbing, even beyond the racial issue, are the people who act as if controversial issues should be discussed in just talking points. It doesn’t matter what the realities were. For example, the phrase, “The police shot an unarmed man.” It makes my teeth go on edge. But what is that supposed to mean? Does it mean that if you are in danger from an unarmed person and you are armed, you are supposed to wait until he’s armed before you can shoot him? The only time I ever pointed a gun at anyone, when I was in the Marines, I did not know if he was armed or unarmed. Fortunately for all concerned, he froze in his tracks. Otherwise I’d have had a lot of paperwork to do. But if I had shot him and killed him, I would not have lost one moment’s sleep over it. He created a danger, and I defended myself from the danger.
I’ve even heard conservatives like Bill O’Reilly and Charles Krauthammer say that the police were wrong in the Eric Garner case. It drives me crazy when people who have never faced a situation like that are sure what should have been done in it. Once when I was in the Marines I was corporal of the guard, and I had to take another Marine into custody. He was much bigger than me and he refused to go. Luckily for me, another Marine, who was even bigger, was nearby and must have realized that this could get very nasty. He intervened and helped. And he wasn’t anymore gentle than the police were with Eric Garner. But, in the case of Eric Garner, here is this 350-pound man telling the police he is not going to be arrested. Now, once it becomes physical, you don’t know what the hell is going to happen the next moment. With one punch, Garner could have maimed, even killed, the officer. And so many people point to the fact he was saying that he couldn’t breathe. When you are trying to bring a 350-pound man down you are not listening keenly to what he is saying. You are trying your damnedest to get him handcuffed before someone gets hurt. And to think that pundits and others will sit back in their safety and comfort and second guess this—it’s a little much.
David Hogberg: Back when President Obama was first running for President, he gave a speech in the wake of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright incident. In that speech he said, “I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.” Yet, we seem further away from that now than when he took office. Why?
Thomas Sowell: I blame, obviously, Obama. But I blame the voters too, damn it! If you can’t be bothered to look beyond someone’s glib rhetoric to his whole history, which is not hidden, and some of it revealed in his own books, then this is the result. Looking at the whole Reverend Jeremiah Wright episode, my God, Obama was in his church for 20 years, and you buy this BS that he didn’t know what Revered Jeremiah Wright was saying? There are some people today who seem so surprised that Obama has had someone like Al Sharpton visiting the White House dozens of times. Really? In just what way is Al Sharpton different from Jeremiah Wright?
DH: Finally, how has the civil rights movement gone from someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. to Al Sharpton?
TS: It is common for insurgent movements to degenerate into the opposite of what they are supposed to be. And it is perfectly logical in a sense. An insurgent movement is, by definition, opposed to the dominant forces in a society, and thus it has to fear the dominant forces in a society. And people who join that movement, at that time, are going to be very different from the people who join it after it has triumphed, gained whatever influence it has to gain, and so forth. So, for example, someone who joined Christianity in its early days, during the Roman Empire, they were letting themselves in for a lot of grief and, quite conceivably, losing their lives. They are in a sense, the crusaders. So you had a very different type of person, both in the leadership and followership, in Christianity at that time. But once it became the state religion of the Roman Empire, then it attracts very different people. Eventually, the crusaders are replaced by the opportunists.
When civil rights was a struggle, when it involved putting your life on the line in the South, you got people like Martin Luther King. But when civil rights became a political and financial bonanza, then you are going to get the Al Sharptons and the Jesse Jacksons.
DH: Why do we continue to have an illegal immigration problem in this country? And, let’s approach that question as if I asked it before Obama became President.
TS: First, from the point of view of the illegal immigrant, it’s a slam-dunk. He moves to the U.S. and his economic situation is going to be much better. But the question is why is this a political issue when it is so fundamental that a nation controls its borders? Otherwise, it has no immigration policy. It may have immigration hopes or immigration laws or immigration “words on paper,” but there is no immigration policy because people can cross the border at will. And the reason is that so many politicians are afraid of the Hispanic vote. Of course, the more amnesty you give, the larger that vote will be, and the less control of the borders you will have in the future.
Then there are some libertarians who act as if the same arguments that apply to free trade and merchandise should apply to the movement of people across an international border. Of course, people are not merchandise. When people move across the border, their cultures move across the border with them. When you import people, you import cultures and you import patterns of behavior. One hundred years ago when our nation was debating immigration, at least they got data on which children of which immigrants did well in schools, which immigrants went on welfare and which didn’t, which immigrants had which diseases, and so forth. But today, in that regard, we are just flying blind.
DH: Now, with President Obama’s recent executive order on illegal immigration, effectively legalizing possibly up to 5 million of them, is he trying to expand the base of the Democratic Party?
TS: It’s that, but I think it’s also more fundamental than that. I think he believes that the world is unfair and those who are more fortunate are just lucky—you know, “You didn’t build that”—and that his role, as he said to Joe the Plumber, is to spread the wealth around. And so he is letting people into this country so they can partake in the wealth that the existing American population has created. I think his response to the Ebola crisis was typical, sending our troops over there. He doesn’t view his role as protecting the American people from this disease. I think this is a man who has enormous resentments toward this country, especially towards those people who have flourished and prospered here.
DH: What harm does Obama’s executive order do to the rule of law—and more broadly what has Obama’s actions as chief executive done to the rule of law?
TS: They have put the rule of law in great jeopardy. And, in a sense, Obama is the culmination of a trend that began 100 years ago with Woodrow Wilson. He was the first president to say publicly that the Constitution of the U.S. was fundamentally wrong, that all these restrictions on the power of the federal government should be removed, and if that couldn’t be done by the amendment process, then it should be done by judges reinterpreting the Constitution.
Over the years that has happened, and I suspect that if Republicans had not won control of the Senate, what remains of the Constitution would have been quickly eroded by the types of people Obama would have appointed to the judiciary.
DH: Now, let’s turn to the so-called “War on Women.” Here’s a quote: “A woman is paid 59 percent of what a man receives for doing that same work,” and that is proof women are discriminated against. That seems like something a Democrat would have said recently, but it’s actually from your 1984 book Civil Rights, Rhetoric and Reality. At the time, you said that it was a non-sequitur. Why?
TS: Because there are innumerable reasons why women do not receive the same income as men, and actually it is false that women receive far less for doing the same job. They receive less because they are doing different jobs, they are working fewer hours and for other kinds of reasons. Women have often chosen different skills, very rationally from their standpoint. Women tend to specialize in fields that you can leave and enter again without any great loss, such as teaching, librarians and so forth. You can’t do that in a high-tech field. If a woman has a child, then she waits many years until the child can be put in day care before she goes back to work, and in the meantime the field is revolutionizing during those years. When you come back, you’ll be way behind the curve and while you’re trying to catch up the field is still moving ahead.
Also, when you compare women and men’s pay and you hold things constant, like work experience, type of job, etc., the more things you hold constant, the more that differential disappears.
DH: So, you discredited that statistic 30 years ago. But why do politicians and activists continue to use it?
TS: One, they don’t care what I say. Not everyone reads what I say, and not everyone who reads it believes it, so what I say is irrelevant to them.
David Hogberg: In the newest edition of Basic Economics, you include a chapter on international disparities on wealth, and right off the bat you ask in that chapter, “A more fundamental question might be: Was there ever any realistic chance that the nations of the word would have had similar prospects of economic development?” Can you expand on that?
Thomas Sowell: For starters, different races originated in different geographic settings. Those settings were never the same. There was never any reason then that the people who developed in those different places would be the same. When you look at the inhabited continents, you find rivers, plains and mountains on all of them. But those are radically different rivers, radically different mountains and radically different plains. Just one example: The Zaire River in Africa has more water and is longer than the Mississippi. But in a stretch of 150 miles on the Zaire River, there are more than 30 cataracts that result in a decline of 1,000 feet of altitude. And in the rest of the Zaire River’s course to the sea, it has to come down more thousands of feet. And this is typical of rivers all over Africa. By contrast, the Mississippi declines by a rate of four inches per mile. These are not equally navigable rivers.
And it’s not just that people in Africa can’t get to the coast of Africa. It’s that the people inside sub-Saharan Africa can’t communicate with each other. So what the rivers do is fragment the people. What I found elsewhere in research for the book is that wherever you find isolated people, you find people who are way behind everybody else. Isolated places like mountain villages, that’s not where you’re going to get the next high-tech breakthrough.
Something like ten to twelve percent of the world’s population lives in mountains. That may not sound like much, but that’s larger than the population of the United States. In fact, it’s larger than the population of any of the nations of the world except India and China. And you would be hard pressed to find any breakthrough in science, art or technology that came out of the mountains.
DH: Now, let me go back to President Obama’s speech on race for a minute. In it he states, “[W]e do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” Do you agree with that?
TS: They’re always talking about a legacy of “slavery,” and they use that as an excuse for crime and broken families and so on. Yet in the first half of the 20th century, you’d have a hard time finding five ghetto riots like that of Ferguson. In the second half of the 20th century, you can choose from at least 100. If that is a legacy of anything, it is the legacy of something that came along in the second half of the 20th century. It is the legacy of a liberal-left vision of the world and the policies based on it, both as regards law enforcement and welfare. Welfare alone has had an enormous impact. And it’s not just the welfare itself, the material goods that are provided. In a democracy you can’t have a welfare system unless you first have a welfare-state ideology that triumphs. And that ideology is non-judgmental, it makes excuses for things that are wrong, and it subsidizes things that are wrong.
People have no idea that the black community in the first half of the 20th century was from the point of view of common decency miles ahead of the ghettos of today, especially places like Ferguson. Harlem in the 1920s was a place where many whites, including many white celebrities, frequented. And it was not only for the entertainment places like the Cotton Club and so on, but places where they met with the black elite of that time. Back then, no one worried about being mugged. I was a grocery delivery boy in that area. On Saturday nights I’d work until midnight and then I’d walk home. I weighed about 100 pounds soaking wet, yet no one ever bothered me, no policeman ever stopped me. This notion that you have to be afraid of the cops, they’re out to get you and so forth, there was nothing of that sort.
The blacks in first half of the 20th century had a decency that is long since gone, but they had that at a time when they were even closer to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow than are blacks today.
DH: You talk of the importance of culture in explaining international disparities of wealth. In it, you stress the importance of human capital. What is that, and what role does it play?
TS: Human capital consists not only in the knowledge and skills people have, but also their orientations. What strikes me about people who try to explain income disparities is they tend to break into two camps: Those who say it is due to ability differences and those who think there are difference in barriers that hold some people back. And I think they both overlook the fact that orientations matter. I haven’t done any study on it, but I’d be awfully surprised if any of the guys from the Harlem neighborhood I grew up in became either a violinist or a ballet dancer. I don’t think it was because they lacked the ability, and I don’t think it’s because there were barriers against blacks becoming violinists or ballet dancers. They didn’t want to become ballet dancers, and so they didn’t become ballet dancers.
My classic example is professional football players who punt and kick field goals. I have been watching professional football for decades. I must have seen a thousand black players score a touchdown. I have never seen a black player kick an extra point. Now, if you want to attribute that to racism, you have to contend that the fans don’t mind a black man scoring a touchdown, but it really bothers them to see one kick an extra point.
DH: You also have a section there on imperialism. To what degree does conquest lead to disparities in wealth?
TS: It can, certainly. The question is, does it in each specific case? When it comes to depredations, the Spanish Empire can hold its own with anybody. The Spaniards conquered everything from the southern tip of South America up to the San Francisco Bay. And they took untold sums of gold and silver out of these areas, in the process destroying viable civilizations. So here you have all that, but the bottom line is, how much did this benefit Spain? That is, how much of this imperialism can explain disparities regarding Spain? Well, in Western Europe, Spain is one of the poorest countries. Switzerland I don’t think ever had an empire of any sort. They are way ahead of Spain.
If you compare, say, Argentina to Barbados, the gross domestic product in Barbados is forty percent higher than Argentina. Yet the population of Barbados traces back to slaves brought over from Africa while much of the population of Argentina traces back to conquerors from Spain.
One of the bad things about politics and particularly ideological politics is the tendency to mesh together causal arguments and moral arguments. It was a major, moral depredation for Spain to have done what it did. But that does not explain the economic level of Spain.
DH: Does conquest ever bring benefits to the conquered?
TS: Oh, yes. One of the arguments I make is that the descendants of people of Western Europe benefitted considerably because of the conquest of the Romans. The people who were actually there for the Roman Conquest would no doubt have passed it up if they could. But Romans brought written languages, which was a huge advance. Even Churchill, the great British patriot, said we owe London to Rome.
DH: Let’s move on to the next chapter, “Myths about Markets.” Let’s start with the phrase “dictates of the market.” What’s wrong with that phrase?
TS: The market is in no position to dictate. You can write a whole book on the misuse of the word “power” as it regards markets. The left likes to say Wal-Mart is a powerful force. There are people who have never set foot in Wal-Mart, who never will set foot in Wal-Mart, and there isn’t a thing Wal-Mart can do about it. Insofar as there are voluntary transactions, there are no dictates. People who use that phrase often want to create a situation whereby they, through the government, can dictate to the market.
DH: Let’s talk next about prices. You write about the concept of reasonable or affordable prices, and, here’s a direct quote, “It is completely unreasonable to expect reasonable prices.” Explain.
TS: Reasonable prices are prices that adjust to our budget. Prices, of course, are determined in part by what it costs to produce things and get them distributed and so on, and so there is no reason whatsoever to expect reasonable prices. There is no reason in the world to expect costs to conform to what you are willing to pay. There is no reason to expect the Hope Diamond to be affordable.
DH: How about “brand names”? You say it is commonly thought that brand names are believed to be just a way to charge higher prices by fooling people into thinking there is a quality difference between the brand name and a similar, non-brand-name product. You say that’s false. Why?
TS: A couple of things. First, for the consumer, the brand name saves on the cost of knowledge. If, say, you’re looking at hotels, all you have to know is that it is the Ritz Carlton to know that the hotel probably doesn’t have bed bugs. I use as my example in the book of the Soviet Union where they didn’t have brands, the consumers essentially created brands by learning how to read bar codes so they would know which item had been produced where in the Soviet Union. Thus, they could distinguish among the products and know which ones came from a place that produced higher quality. So, in effect, the consumers created brands in the Soviet Union where there were no brands.
The other thing is there is a belief that advertising, which is used to create a brand name, is not only false but adds to the price of the product. But with advertising you are able to sell a whole lot more of the product, which leads to economies of scale in its production, which in turn brings the price down. In any given case it is not a foregone conclusion that a product would be cheaper if there was no advertising. If no one had ever advertised the Chevrolet, there would have been a lot fewer Chevrolets built. With the fixed overhead of the machinery to produce a Chevrolet, if you spread that over fewer consumers, then the price will be higher.
DH: I think most people hear the term “non-profit” and think of a group that is selfless, works for the public good and not private gain, and embodies just about everything that is good about human nature. You don’t quite see it that way. You write, “What are called ‘non-profit organizations’ can be better understood when they are seen as institutions which are insulated, to varying degrees, from a need to respond to feedback from those who use their goods and services, or those whose money enabled them to be founded and continue operating.” Can you expand on that?
TS: The difference is that a profit-seeking organization has to please simultaneously the customers and the investors. A non-profit organization doesn’t have to do that with either one—particularly if it is a long-lived organization. Many of the people who have invested in it are already dead. Among those that are still alive it is very hard for them to monitor what is going on inside the organization.
There is overlap in the things that for-profit and non-profit organizations do, like publishing magazines and stuff like that. And so they compete. Over time, if it was true that non-profits didn’t have the problem of generating profits and had better people, the non-profits would be taking away market share from the profit sector. In point of fact, just the opposite happens. For example, it is very common for college bookstores to be taken over by a Barnes & Noble or cafeterias to be taken over by profit-seeking companies. The test of market share is usually won by the profit-seekers.
DH: Final question. The Hoover Institution is a non-profit, correct? So, can you apply what you just said to it?
TS: Actually, you have asked the one person who has the least knowledge of the Hoover Institution. From time to time I get letters from people asking how to apply to the Hoover Institution and I can’t even tell them who to write to. To give you some idea, a while back I was out on the Stanford campus going to the administration building, and the vice president of the Hoover Institution happened to be passing by, and he said, “No, no, Tom. The Hoover Institution is over here.”

The Author

Matthew Vadum

The author of Subversion Inc.: How Obama’s ACORN Red Shirts are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers (WND Books, 2011), Vadum writes and speaks widely on ACORN and other…