Thomas Sowell, a writer and economist, announced in his last column that he is retiring at 86 years of age. Having written for the Creators Syndicate for 25 years, Sowell wrote: “Age 86 is well past the usual retirement age, so the question is not why I am quitting, but why I kept at it so long.”
Born in poverty in North Carolina, he was adopted by relatives who raised him New York City. After being forced to drop out of high school because of financial circumstances, he served his country in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War. He also tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and was employed variously, including as a Western Union telegram messenger. Sowell then earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude. He eventually earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago.
Sowell went on to write dozens of books on economics and social issues, championing a libertarian/conservative perspective while advocating supply-side economics. He was long associated with famed economist Milton Friedman and is also a National Humanities Medal recipient.
In his last column, Sowell mused on the changes he has seen since his birth in 1930. Noting the advances in “material things” such as refrigerators and microwave ovens, he said that most Americans did not have those things until well into the 1980s. “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. 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.”
Sowell has long questioned the notion that progress on the part of black Americans is due to liberal programs and welfare.
However, Sowell also spoke to a loss of citizens’ trust in government. He said that when John F. Kennedy spoke on television to say that he “was taking us to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union,” most Americans “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.”
“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.”
Sowell mourned the changes he saw among his fellow black Americans. A visit to a high school in Harlem highlighted what he called “social degeneration in black ghettoes.” When he told the children in the school that he once walked his dog in a park across the street, they reacted with horror because of the danger that visits the place nowadays. The students were equally amazed when he said that he used to sleep on the fire escape at his family’s apartment on hot summer nights. “But blacks and whites alike had been sleeping out on fire escapes in New York since the 19th century. They did not have to contend with gunshots flying around during the night. We cannot return to the past, even if we wanted to, but let us hope that we can learn something from the past to make for a better present and future.”
Among his 30 books, Sowell has written a trilogy on ideologies and political positions, including A Conflict of Visions, where he speaks about the origins of political strife; The Vision of the Anointed, where he compares the conservative/libertarian and liberal/progressive worldviews; and The Quest for Cosmic Justice, where he outlines his thesis of the need for intellectuals, politicians, and leaders to fix and perfect the world in utopian, and ultimately disastrous fashions.
His other books include: The Economics and Politics of Race, Ethnic America, Affirmative Action Around the World, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Affirmative Action Around the World, In Intellectuals and Race, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, and Late-Talking Children.
In 2005, Jay Nordlinger reviewed Sowell's Black Rednecks and White Liberals, writing in the National Review, "What a surprise, Thomas Sowell has written another brilliant book. He's written about 30 of them—books, that is, and brilliant ones, or at least excellent ones. You won't find a dud in the bunch. His books are on race, education, history, economics—and there is a quirky autobiography befitting the man. Sowell has also written hundreds of scholarly essays, magazine pieces, and reviews. He has done a newspaper column almost continually since the late 1970s. He is a model of the public intellectual, to use a term he probably doesn't like."