September 1, 2014
Allen Barra on the Curious Case of Thomas Sowell
Posted on Mar 26, 2010
By Allen Barra
“Many intellectuals today ... find it a weighty consideration that they do not understand how corporate executives can be worth such high salaries as they receive—as if there is any inherent reason why third parties should be expected to understand, or why their understanding or acquiescence should be necessary ...” and “Many among the intelligentsia have denounced ‘greed’ among corporate executives whose incomes are a fraction of the incomes of professional athletes or entertainers who are seldom, if ever, accused of greed.” It isn’t just intellectuals who don’t understand executive compensation, and I think Sowell is well aware that the issue is not so much salaries as bonuses—particularly in regard to executives whose companies lose huge amounts of money.
Finally, if Sowell really thinks that professional athletes and entertainers aren’t widely condemned for the money they make, then he and I don’t appear on the same radio talk shows. (I’m usually on the air with Vinnie from Queens, who doesn’t understand why Alex Rodriguez should be paid his fair share of the money Vinnie helps put in his pocket.) Surely Sowell must understand that there is a world of difference between an executive given a golden parachute and an athlete or entertainer who is paid according to his or her free market value.
These are small potatoes, I admit, compared with Sowell’s sweeping reworkings of 20th century American history. For instance, “The fictitious Herbert Hoover” who was “a cold, heartless man who let millions of Americans suffer needlessly during the Great Depression of the 1930s because of his supposedly doctrinaire belief that the government should leave the economy alone.” The real Herbert Hoover was “quite aware—and proud—of the fact that he was the first President of the United States to make getting the country out of a depression a federal responsibility.” The fictitious image of Hoover was created by the “intelligentsia of the times ... and the intelligentsia of later times perpetuated that image.”
I’m sure there are many members of the intelligentsia who didn’t—and don’t—like Herbert Hoover, but the picture Sowell paints is patently false. A great many historians—including William E. Leuchtenburg, whose 1963 book “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal” was a required text when I went to college—have been quite sympathetic to Hoover and his plight. As Leuchtenburg put it, “National Democratic party leaders criticized Hoover not because he had done too little but because he had done too much. The main criticism they leveled at Hoover was that he was a profligate spender.”
Apparently Sowell’s book deadline didn’t allow him to include Kevin Baker’s cover story in the July 2009 Harper’s, in which he argued convincingly that Barack Obama is not so much the new FDR as the new Hoover. Sowell, like Archie Bunker, laments that we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again; he doesn’t seem to understand that in Barack Obama we have one.
FDR comes off even worse than Hoover, especially in comparison with the only president that Sowell approves of, RR. “The irony in this [the intelligentsia’s worship of Roosevelt] was that FDR presided over an economy with seven consecutive years of double-digit unemployment while Reagan’s policy of letting the market recover on its own, far from leading to another Great Depression, led instead to one of the country’s longest periods of sustained economic growth, low unemployment, and low inflation, lasting twenty years.”
So much is glossed over here so swiftly that one hardly knows where to reply. There is no discussion of alternative views; the possibility of alternatives isn’t even acknowledged. In his new book, “The End of Wall Street,” Roger Lowenstein makes the case that a major mistake of our financial system “was to see that the relative financial stability of the postwar era was largely the result of the regulation put in place during the New Deal and after.” As a free market ideologue, Sowell doesn’t begin to consider that the deregulation encouraged by President Ronald Reagan could have precipitated the market crash of 2009. Though the stock market crash of 1929 “has been conceived of as the ‘problem’ and government intervention as the ‘solution,’ in reality the unemployment rate following the economic problem was less than half of the unemployment rate following the political solution,” Sowell tells us.
Isn’t it possible that the political solution took so long to work because the economic problem was so vast? And if the New Deal failed to get us out of the Depression, the popular neoconservative answer that it wasn’t the New Deal but World War II that ended the economic catastrophe not only fails to answer the question but simply poses a new one. Was America’s World War II bill, after all, paid for by private contributions? The way Sowell and other conservatives posit it, the answer to how we got out of the Depression would seem to be: Massive government spending didn’t work, but more massive government spending—in the form of thousands and thousands of planes, tanks, trucks, and ships—did.
Last year’s economic crisis is not even discussed by Sowell, possibly because it occurred after his manuscript was completed. If so, the decision not to hold publication until he could at least state his case for the cause of the near disaster makes “Intellectuals and Society” not only seem dated but jarringly incomplete, especially, as Sowell writes near the end, “These places to which intellectuals tend to gravitate tend to be places where sheer intellect counts for much and where wisdom is by no means necessary, since there are few consequences to face or prices to be paid for promoting ideas that turn out be disastrous for society at large”(emphasis Sowell’s).
Precisely, but where are the wisdom and intellect in the irresponsible financial behavior that has brought us to our current desperate state? Because he does not fit Thomas Sowell’s idea of an intellectual, is Alan Greenspan off the hook for advocating ideas that turned out to be disastrous?
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