Thomas Sowell turns ninety

Happy 90th birthday (June 30) to Thomas Sowell, one of the greatest living economists, which begins:

One of my two all-time most favorite economists — Thomas Sowell — turns 90 tomorrow, he was born on June 30, 1930. Here is Thomas Sowell’s webpage and here is his Wikipedia entry. Milton Friedman (my other all-time favorite economist) once said, “The word ‘genius’ is thrown around so much that it’s becoming meaningless, but nevertheless I think Tom Sowell is close to being one.”

In my opinion, there is no economist alive today who has done more to eloquently, articulately, and persuasively advance the principles of economic freedom, limited government, individual liberty, and a free society than Thomas Sowell. In terms of both his quantity of work (49 books and several thousand newspaper columns) and the consistently excellent and crystal-clear quality of his writing, I don’t think any living free-market economist even comes close to matching Sowell’s prolific record of writing about economics.

And while no one else unfortunately understands how he was able to become the economist he became, let me point out that his PhD was on Say’s Law and two of his earliest books were on Say’s Law and Classical Economic Theory. Nor was that just an early part of his career, but he came back to Classical Theory again in 2006.

Sowell, Thomas (1972), Say’s Law: A Historical Analysis, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-04166-7.

——— (1974). Classical Economics Reconsidered. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691003580.

——— (2006). On Classical Economics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12606-8.

And on this, let me add to what Currency Lad has already written on it’s always our money, via Adam Creighton. Money is a metaphor – probably actually a synecdoche – for the word resources. If you use the word “money” you can be deceived by government spending since a government can always print more of the stuff. Resources, actual labour and capital, are much harder to come by. Here is the point made by Adam Smith in 1776:

Great nations are never impoverished by private, though they sometimes are by public prodigality and misconduct. The whole, or almost the whole public revenue, is in most countries employed in maintaining unproductive hands.

That, by the way, is from the chapter “On the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labour”. There is more sense in that chapter than in the whole of a modern economics text. It is Thomas Sowell amongst a very few others who is keeping that tradition alive.

If you are looking for a modern discussion of classical economic theory, and amongst other things a discussion of productive and unproductive labour, might I recommend my own Classical Economic Theory and the Modern Economy which has just been published.

Waffle Street and Say’s Law

In re Waffle Street, Jimmy Adams has himself put up a comment in the comments thread.

While Steve may be unwilling to take an ounce of credit for it, allow me to publicly recognize his “little red book” as being the most influential of all the economic literature that I referenced in writing “Waffle Street.” Say’s Law is the transcendent and ironically, least appreciated, principle of economics. And no one explicates it better than Prof. Kates. Thanks again, Steve.

says Why is it my “little red book”? That’s why. The most astonishing part is that around once every decade or so some economist ends up stumbling onto Say’s Law and realises what it actually means and then tries to tell everyone else. The list is not that long, but includes Benjamin Anderson, Henry Hazlitt, William Hutt, Thomas Sowell, Art Laffer and Murray Rothbard. Once you see it, everything about how an economy works suddenly changes shape, and most importantly, Keynesian forms of economic management seems utterly insane. No one who understands Say’s Law is ever surprised that some Keynesian stimulus didn’t work, or that the rise in public spending ever does anything other than pull an economy down. And each of us has tried to explain as best we can why Say’s Law is so important but no one gets it. They don’t even get it to the stage where they could really answer that I see what you mean but I disagree. They do not even understand this enough to be able to explain what it is they disagree with. If you think that “supply creates its own demand” covers it, you have to ask yourself why no classical economist ever said it. The phrase comes from a book published in 1933 by a critic of Say’s Law which was then purloined by Keynes in the General Theory published in 1936. Say’s Law is not even all that hard to understand: all economic activity is driven from the supply side; none of it is driven from the demand side. What is true for an individual product is not true for the whole economy. If there had actually ever been a single Keynesian success story, there might be some case for the continuation of Y=C+I+G in our texts. But a Keynesian stimulus has failed, and failed spectacularly, on every single occasion it has been tried. Yet Keynesian macro persists in our texts. If you would like to understand the entire sordid story, my little red book will explain it, and is also the only place you can find out how the Keynesian Revolution came about.

Thomas Sowell on “the most catastrophic international agreement in the nation’s history”

Obama knows better than anyone else, just as he did with healthcare and just as he did with the economy. And now he is bringing his same non-existent analytical skills to solving the tensions in the Middle East by engineering a cave-in to every single demand the Iranians are making about building nuclear weapons. A country that literally floats on oil does not need to build a nuclear power plant. This is Thomas Sowell writing on these matters, in a column titled, Etiquette Versus Annihilation. Here is how he begins:

Recent statements from United Nations officials, that Iran is already blocking their existing efforts to keep track of what is going on in their nuclear program, should tell anyone who does not already know it that any agreement with Iran will be utterly worthless in practice. It doesn’t matter what the terms of the agreement are, if Iran can cheat.

It is amazing — indeed, staggering — that so few Americans are talking about what it would mean for the world’s biggest sponsor of international terrorism, Iran, to have nuclear bombs, and to be developing intercontinental missiles that can deliver them far beyond the Middle East.

Back during the years of the nuclear stand-off between the Soviet Union and the United States, contemplating what a nuclear war would be like was called “thinking the unthinkable.” But surely the Nazi Holocaust during World War II should tell us that what is beyond the imagination of decent people is by no means impossible for people who, as Churchill warned of Hitler before the war, had “currents of hatred so intense as to sear the souls of those who swim upon them.”

Have we not already seen that kind of hatred in the Middle East? Have we not seen it in suicide bombings there and in suicide attacks against America by people willing to sacrifice their own lives by flying planes into massive buildings, to vent their unbridled hatred?

Well, we have seen it, but Obama has not. Or if he has, he has taken a very different lesson from the rest of us. Sowell concludes:

Against the background of the Obama administration’s negotiating what can turn out to be the most catastrophic international agreement in the nation’s history, to complain about protocol is to put questions of etiquette above questions of annihilation.

Meanwhile the most intense current debate in the United States is over whether someone’s religious views should be allowed to influence how they run their business. The US is no longer the leader of the free world. It is even questionable whether Americans are any longer even a free people.

Lies, damned lies and economic theory in the hands of politicians

Trickle-down economics, to put it crudely, is the argument that you help the poor by giving money, usually in the form of tax cuts, to the not-so-poor. Their spending will create a multiplier process in which the poor are benefited as the second and later rounds of expenditure by others. At least that’s how I would interpret it although, as Thomas Sowell points out below, it is a theory never taught to anyone, shows up in no textbooks and has never been advocated. As far as it goes, it is a theory that has been created so that the left can accuse advocates of market-based solutions of not really doing things to help the poor.

Yet from the way it is usually described, the theory, to the extent that there is an associated theory, seems about as Keynesian as any notion I can think of. Let anyone increase their expenditure and the poor will be made better off. John Stuart Mill was particularly scathing about such beliefs, and certainly it would not have been part of classical theory to suggest that demand side could have a positive effect on the supply side.

What makes Thomas Sowell so extraordinary is his ability to see things that are right in front of everyone’s eyes. This is from Sowell in an article titled, “The ‘Trickle-Down’ Lie”.

New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, in his inaugural speech, denounced people ‘on the far right’ who ‘continue to preach the virtue of trickle-down economics.’ According to Mayor de Blasio, ‘They believe that the way to move forward is to give more to the most fortunate, and that somehow the benefits will work their way down to everyone else.’

If there is ever a contest for the biggest lie in politics, this one should be a top contender.

While there have been all too many lies told in politics, most have some little tiny fraction of truth in them, to make them seem plausible. But the ‘trickle-down’ lie is 100 percent lie.

It should win the contest both because of its purity — no contaminating speck of truth — and because of how many people have repeated it over the years, without any evidence being asked for or given.

Years ago, this column challenged anybody to quote any economist outside of an insane asylum who had ever advocated this ‘trickle-down’ theory. Some readers said that somebody said that somebody else had advocated a ‘trickle-down’ policy. But they could never name that somebody else and quote them.

Mayor de Blasio is by no means the first politician to denounce this non-existent theory. Back in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama attacked what he called ‘an economic philosophy’ which ‘says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.’

Let’s do something completely unexpected: Let’s stop and think. Why would anyone advocate that we ‘give’ something to A in hopes that it would trickle down to B? Why in the world would any sane person not give it to B and cut out the middleman? But all this is moot, because there was no trickle-down theory about giving something to anybody in the first place.

The ‘trickle-down’ theory cannot be found in even the most voluminous scholarly studies of economic theories — including J.A. Schumpeter’s monumental History of Economic Analysis, more than a thousand pages long and printed in very small type.

It is not just in politics that the non-existent ‘trickle-down’ theory is found.

It has been attacked in the New York Times, in the Washington Post and by professors at prestigious American universities — and even as far away as India. Yet none of those who denounce a “trickle-down” theory can quote anybody who actually advocated it.
The book ‘Winner-Take-All Politics’ refers to ‘the “trickle-down” scenario that advocates of helping the have-it-alls with tax cuts and other goodies constantly trot out.’ But no one who actually trotted out any such scenario was cited, much less quoted.

One of the things that provoke the left into bringing out the ‘trickle-down’ bogeyman is any suggestion that there are limits to how high they can push tax rates on people with high incomes, without causing repercussions that hurt the economy as a whole.

Right questions wrong answers

Thomas Sowell and I have many things in common most importantly of which was that we both did our PhDs on Say’s Law and for both of us this was the subject of our first books: here’s his and this is mine. And once you understand Say’s Law, you will never again think of economics in the same way. Rather than Keynes having disproved this law, he made it unfashionable, and thus it has remained for the past three-quarters of a century. But unfashionable or not, it is the indispensable core of economic reasoning which is why its original name was the law of markets. If you want to understand how a market economy works, you must understand Say’s Law.

Anyway. Sowell has put together a column on the nomination of Janet Yellen as the next Chairman of the Federal Reserve (found here) and structures his comments around her incorrigible Keynesian approach to matters economic in much the same way I did myself the other day. This is from Sowell.

The Keynesian economists have staged a political comeback during the Obama administration. Janet Yellen’s nomination to head the Federal Reserve is the crowning example of that comeback.

Ms. Yellen asks: ‘Do policy-makers have the knowledge and ability to improve macroeconomic outcomes rather than making matters worse?’ And she answers: ‘Yes.’

The former economics professor is certainly asking the right questions — and giving the wrong answers.

The amazing part of the way Thomas Sowell writes is how much he can pack into a few hundred words. If you can read what he writes and still not at least start to think that maybe, just maybe, there is something to that classical economic theory after all then you are as incorrigible as Janet Yellen and about as clueless on how to manage an economy as well.