Happy Birthday, Thomas Sowell

The one constant on display through all these topics is an irrepressible mind digging through the data in order to understand the complex reality underneath. His intellectual process, plus his ability to write quickly, have resulted in dozens of books and hundreds upon hundreds of newspaper columns that have helped many of us learn. When I handed out my biography to students the first day of the class I taught at the Naval Postgraduate School (from 1984 to 2017)—with my Hoover Institution affiliation on it—a question I got from many was, “Do you know Thomas Sowell?” They mispronounced his last name, evidence that they knew about him from reading him rather than hearing about him.

This is from David R. Henderson, “Thomas Sowell, An Intellectual Giant,” Defining Ideas, July 1, my encomium to Tom, published on the day after his 90th birthday. The editor chose the title and it’s better than the one I gave it. Just choosing great punchy quotes from his work could easily made the piece 50% longer.

Another excerpt:

In The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective, published in 1983, Sowell took the next step, looking at race, ethnicity, and culture across the world. He wasted no time in getting to the issues. On the first page of the first chapter, titled “The Role of Race,” he wrote, “The most ghastly example of racial fanaticism in history was the Nazi extermination of millions of defenseless men, women, and children who were so similar to themselves in appearance that insignia, tattoos, or documents had to be used to tell the victims from their murderers.” In that one sentence can be seen the passion, power, and clarity of Sowell’s writing.

And one of the important economic geography insights I learned while researching for the article:

“Geography is not egalitarian,” he wrote and then went on to show how true that is. The Sahara, the largest desert in the world, has isolated black people in sub-Saharan Africa. That makes economic growth harder to achieve than otherwise. He also pointed out that Africa, with twice the area of Europe, has a shorter coastline than Europe. It lacks the nooks and crannies that make for good harbors. Incidentally, that’s probably why my uncle and aunt, on their way to the Belgian Congo in 1941 to be medical missionaries, had to travel to to Cape Town first, rather than directly to the Congo. (They were captured by the German Navy, but that’s another story.)

Read the whole thing.



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Why American lockdown exceptionalism?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and here is part of the explanation: The danger lies in the potential for ratchet effects. If hardly anyone is eating out or going to bars, you might be able to endure the deprivation. But once others have started doing something, you will probably feel compelled […]

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Wednesday assorted links

1. The debate culture that is Charles Plott. 2. If you read these arguments in some other context, you might almost think higher education does not deserve all of the massive subsidies it receives (NYT). 3. Beware the average treatment effect. 4. California accuses Cisco of job discrimination based on Indian employee’s caste. 5. Further […]

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The Opportunity Costs of J. Alfred Prufock

Steve Horwitz and I have been teaching an online class about economics and literature, pairing core economic concepts with literary works that demonstrate those concepts. This past week, we talked with the students about opportunity cost (see Steve’s thoughts on Buchanan’s Cost and Choice here), using Thomas Grey’s “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” and T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as our literary texts.

Using poetry, I told the students, helps us think about opportunity costs in ways that travel alongside, but are not the same, as the ways that economists think about them. For economists, the important thing is that a choice is made. In the most reductive version of this, the moment of choice, the moment where opportunity costs are weighed, disappears into something called “revealed preference.” A choice is made. Results follow. The economist moves on. For poets, particularly for Eliot, and particularly in “Prufrock,” the moment of choice, the weighing of opportunity cost, is everything.


“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is five pages of glorious poetry about the moment when we decide that a choice must be made, but we are caught on the tenterhooks of opportunity cost. The poem begins with the speaker inviting himself and us to walk out into the evening with him as he contemplates a life-altering decision. Although the nature of the decision is never directly stated, most readers agree that he is debating whether or not to ask someone to marry him. He decides not to, and the poem ends. The most reductive economic reading of the poem would be to say “Revealed preference. He never wanted to propose marriage anyway. He obviously got what he wanted, because otherwise he would have chosen something different. End of story.”

Horwitz describes James Buchanan as seeing, not “homo economicus” but “richly understood humans who experience that agony of choice and face uncertainty about the future.” This is certainly true when one contrasts Buchanan to the simple predictive choice economics models. But when one has the expansive playing field poetry offers for thought and exploration, there can be even more to the story than Buchanan gives us.

With “Prufrock,” we are invited to travel “you and I” alongside one particular human as he grapples with one particular decision. While Prufock is absolutely considering opportunity costs, his decision process is no sterile totting up of pros and cons followed by a simple choice of the least costly option. 

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea.


Opportunity cost, for Prufrock, means a torturous understanding that choices define who we are. Every choice requires that we remake ourselves and “prepare a face” that goes with whatever choice we make. Choices “murder and create” different selves we might be and different lives we might lead. With all that hanging in the balance, no wonder Prufrock finds time “for a hundred indecisions/ And for a hundred visions and revisions.” 

The unrelenting “should I/shall I” constructions of Eliot’s verse help us feel each of those individual moments that make up this thing we call a “choice.” And for Prufock, the actual choice passes almost unnoticed amidst all this debate. “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker…in short, I was afraid.”

But while most economists would say “That’s the end of the story. Choice made. Preference revealed, moving on,” and while even Buchanan would say “A choice has been made and that experience will carry forward into Prufrock’s future choices,” Eliot shows us that–despite the fact that a choice has been made–the moment of choice is not over for Prufrock. Prufrock, human that he is, cannot stop thinking about it. Indeed, he still seems to be living in that moment of choice.

The poem’s “should I/ shall I” constructions transform into the phrase “would it have been worth it” as Prufrock returns obsessively to the moment of choice, thinking over what he could have done, might have done, did not do. The choice is made, but Prufrock is still endlessly, obsessively making it. The pain of Eliot’s poem comes not only from his obsessive titivating, but from his final realization that he has trapped himself in a world of unending “decisions and revisions,” growing ever older, but never wiser, and cutting himself off from the wonder and beauty he might have found through other choices.

Economists aren’t wrong to shrink the moment of choice to near invisibility. Poets aren’t wrong to expand it until it is so large it might “disturb the universe.” They are using different sets of tools to explore the same questions. We are wrong to think that using only one set–whichever set it is–gives us the real story. 



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The Scientific Look-and-Feel of Public Health

An individual with a human brain can make the following value judgments: (1) maximum health is the most important thing in human life; (2) health must be as equal among individuals as physically possible; and (3) these two value judgments should be imposed on everybody. Once this is done, the most efficient means to pursue these goals can be scientifically studied, using both the medical sciences, economics (including, at the first rank, public choice analysis), and possibly other sciences. (I take a science to be a body of logical theories not disproved by observable facts.)

Of course, it will likely be found that the presence of two objective functions—maximize health and maximize equality—requires trade-offs. For example, some academics and government bureaucrats might have to eschew maximum health in order to equalize their health opportunities with ordinary people. But let’s ignore this complication.

As often, a comment in The Lancet, the venerable British medical and social-justice-warrior journal, can serve as an illustration: see Colin Angus, “Taking Public Health Policy Models Upstream,” March 1, 2020. Once value judgments like those above are accepted, the article does have a scientific look and feel. But, as far as I can see (and I am willing to be proven wrong if I am), it’s merely a look and feel. The medical sciences behind which it hides are of course scientific in any serious meaning of the term but they have nothing to say about how individuals make trade-offs on the basis of their preferences (or biases), how individual choices can be compatible in a social context, and how individual preferences can or cannot be aggregated in any sort of egalitarian way.

The article starts with the moral goal of “the reduction of societal inequalities.” The goal of reducing inequalities is certainly a value judgment that Professor Angus is free to espouse. The word “societal,” though, has no scientific meaning. It can be traced to a Minor Hugo, probably the pen name of Luke James Hansard, a utopian communist and follower of French theorist Charles Fourier. In 1843, Minor Hugo wrote:

Our monetary system, like that of trade, or any other societal occupation, is unfair from first to last.

The term “societal” does not convey anything useful that “social” doesn’t incorporate, except that it looks more serious, gnostic, more like scientific socialism. Still very rare (hence its alchemic value), the term really took off only in the 1960s, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer (see chart below). At that time, scientific students of society and the economy were and still are content with “social”—including in the scientific analysis of welfare economics and social choice. Interestingly, “societal” seems on the wane, but perhaps not in The Lancet.

Interestingly, “societal” is often used by corporations as a PR term to boast of their contributions to “society,” meaning mainly noisy and politically correct “stakeholders.”

The Lancet article also speaks of “economical, cultural, or environmental policies.” “Economical policies”? One might think that the author and his editors want to make tabula rasa of what has been learned before them, but looking scientific and obscure may be a better hypothesis. Later in the piece, though, we encounter the standard expression of “economic policies.”

A minor point also fuels an impression of confusion: the author seems to assume that “financial” and “economic” are synonyms when he mentions some “policies’ redistributive financial effects.” “Economic” normally refers to the use of resources while “financial” refers to claims on those resources—claims of which money is one sort. If the author thinks that economics deals primarily with money and Wall Street matters, he is mistaken, as reading Adam Smith or Jean-Baptiste Say (for example) would show him. Perhaps he should use “financietal”?

The medical sciences are true sciences that have much to say on physical phenomena—the biology of epidemics for example—but nothing on how individuals should make trade-offs between different good things, and very little on how they actually make them.

Academic figureheads of “public health” as we know it sometimes admit that it is a political movement more than anything else. In the fifth edition of his textbook Public Health: What It Is and How It Works (2012), Bernard Turnock writes:

In many respects, it is more reasonable to view public health as a movement than as a profession.

Similarly, the late Elizabeth Fee wrote, in her introduction to George Rosen’s A History of Public Health (2015):

Public health is not just a set of disciplines, information, and techniques but is, above all, a shared social vision.

The public health movement aims to use state force to impose its participants’ moral intuitions on everybody else—or, at best, to persuade some electoral majority to impose their shared values and lifestyles on minorities. No wonder why, when a real epidemic comes, public health is so underwhelming. Of science, public health only has the look and feel.


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