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Mon, 06.30.1930

Thomas Sowell, Economist and Author

Thomas Sowell

*Thomas Sowell was born on this date in 1930. He is a Black economist, social critic, political commentator and author.

Sowell was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, his father died before he was born.   He moved to Harlem, New York City with his mother’s sister. Sowell attended Stuyvesant High School, but dropped out at age 17 because of financial difficulties and a deteriorating home environment.  To support himself he worked at various jobs, including in a machine shop and as a deliveryman for Western Union.  He was accepted into the Civil Service and was eventually accepted, which prompted a move to Washington DC.

In 1951, he was drafted into the Korean War, and was assigned to the Marine Corps. Due to prior experience in photography, he worked in a photography unit.  After discharge, Sowell passed the GED examination, enrolled at Howard University and transferred to Harvard University.  In 1958 he graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics.

In 1959, he received a Master of Arts in Economics from Columbia University and a Doctor of Philosophy in Economics from the University of Chicago studying under George Stigler.  Sowell has taught Economics at Howard University, Cornell University, Brandeis University, and UCLA.  Since 1980 he has been a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution and he holds a Rose and Milton Friedman. Fellowship.

Since the 1960’s, Sowell has been in favor of free market economic theory. The major themes and philosophies of Sowell’s writing range from social policy on race, ethnic groups, education and decision-making, to classical and Marxist economics and more.  Sowell has also extended his research from the United States to the international sphere, finding supporting data and patterns from several cultures and nations.  He has demonstrated that similar incentives and constraints often result in similar outcomes among very different peoples and cultures.  Some of his viewpoints are:

  • The importance of empirical evidence, not only in a narrow technical sense but as reflected in the broad record of history
  • The competing basic visions of policy makers, and their role in the interactions of elites versus the ordinary masses.
  • An importance of trade-offs, constraints and incentives in human decision-making.
  • The significance of human capital—attitudes, skills, and work.
  • The importance of systemic (orderly, structured) processes for decision-making—from free markets to the rule of law.

These five keys place his writings in an additional context of historical mixture and human decision-making, beyond those of a conservative pundit or “race” writer on particular contemporary social issues.

Also many of Sowell's remarks have been criticized. The work of many economists such as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and University of California, Berkeley professor and former International Monetary Fund adviser Barry Eichengreen often contradict Sowell's claims of government interference in issues.

In addition, some studies show that welfare systems often reduce poverty; Sowell has claimed that welfare generates poverty.  Furthermore, in his writings "The Vision of the Anointed" and "Economic Facts and Fallacies" and "Black Rednecks and White Liberals" he demonstrates that black families had declined from being 87% below the poverty line in 1940 to 47% below the poverty line in 1960.  This supports his position that the black community was climbing out of poverty before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the War on Poverty.

He often writes as an advocate of laissez-faire economics. He is currently a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  In 1990, he won the Francis Boyer Award, presented by the American Enterprise Institute.  In 2002 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal for prolific scholarship melding history, economics, and political science. In 2003, he was awarded the Bradley Prize for intellectual achievement.  In his autobiography, A Personal Odyssey, he recalled that his encounters with whites were so limited he did not believe that yellow was a hair color.

A Personal Odyssey,
Thomas Sowell,
Hoover Institution
434 Galvez Mall
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-6010

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