A 1972 Memory of Walter Williams

Who are those guys?

In December 1972, I was in southern Ontario for Christmas after a fairly successful first quarter in the Ph.D. program at UCLA. I had Christmas with my friend and fellow Canadian UCLAer, Harry Watson, at his mom’s (“mum’s” to Canadians) place in Brantford.

We knew that the 1972 American Economic Association meetings were being held in Toronto just after Christmas. (Economists of all ideological stripes seem to adhere to the stereotype that we’re cheap. Hotel prices are generally low between Christmas and the first few days of the new year.) So Harry and I went into Toronto to hang out, pay the student rate, and see what those meetings were like.

We ran into Clay La Force, the chairman of UCLA’s econ department, in a hotel lobby and he invited us up to the UCLA suite. We took him up on it. We were sitting on a couch with our backs to the front door of the suite, talking to someone across a coffee table. I don’t remember who.

After a few minutes we heard a conversation between two people who had entered. It was very animated. They were talking about various colleges having made a pitch to hire them. One college had made it clear that he and his colleagues didn’t like the views of one of the guys but they did like his skin color. The other told a similar story. Then the first one told another similar story about a different college. As it ramped up, the laughter among the two got louder and louder. Who are those guys, I wondered. So I turned slightly and as unobtrusively as I could to see who was talking and saw two tall handsome black guys. We knew the more handsome of the two although we hadn’t spoken to him during our first quarter at UCLA: Professor Thomas Sowell. We didn’t know the other one and asked someone, who told us it was a recent UCLA Ph.D. named Walter Williams.

What I remember is their delight in telling the stories about racist white department chairs making clear that they wanted to hire on the basis of race, not ability. It was such a fun conversation to eavesdrop on. They were talking as if there was no one else around and I wanted to keep it that way–so did Harry–so we just sat there with our backs to them listening in.

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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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Sowell on Writing

Today is Thomas Sowell’s 90th birthday. I am sure many celebrations of Sowell will be published. Not in Europe, I am afraid: in spite of his renown in America, Sowell is virtually unknown in Europe. I suspect this is at least partially due to his choice to concentrate on writing and to eschew conferences and public gatherings. He never got on the conference circuit, so to say.

It is a pity. Sowell is admirable for a number of reasons. His courage. His productivity. His work.

Knowledge and Decisions is my favorite book of his. F. A. Hayek’s insights on the role of knowledge in society are developed splendidly and presented in a scintillating and clear style.

Style is another thing to admire Sowell for. He strove for it and told his experience with writings in a little essay, a few years ago. Here are a few passages:

Learning to write by trial and error not only calls for patience on the writer’s part, it also taxes the patience of wives, landlords, and creditors. Whenever someone, especially a young person, tells me of an ambition to become a writer, my heart goes out to him or her immediately—and my spirits sink. There is seldom a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, even for those who become established writers eventually—and a lot can happen between now and eventually, like broken marriages, eviction for non-payment of rent, and the like.

Even the mechanics or logistics of writing can be a challenge to figure out. Some of the most productive writers have followed the disciplined practice of sitting down at fixed times each day and turning out the words. Anthony Trollope followed this regimen in the nineteenth century and Paul Johnson with equal (or greater) success in the twentieth century. Alas, however, human beings differ and some of us are never going to be Anthony Trollope or Paul Johnson, in this respect or any other.

Instead of trying to be someone that you are not, be the best at what you are. My own writing practices are the direct opposite of that followed by these prolific and renowned writers. I write only when I have something to say. The big disadvantage of this is that it can mean a lot of down time. There are manuscripts of mine that sat around gathering dust for years without a word being added to them. …

The big advantage of this off-beat way of working is that what I write is written when I am full of ideas and enthusiasm about the subject—even if these periods occur only at intervals, with months or even years in between for a given book. Some of my favorite books came from manuscripts that I thought would never get finished.

Now, I do not think that Sowell’s essay on writing – particularly his rant at copy-editors – will do particularly well for younger writers. But I read it as delivering three key messages: (a) writing is work, not a gift. This is clear to most people who somehow write for a living, but is typically unclear to everybody else. People tend to believe you are “good” at writing, as it is some sort of natural magic.

Yet, as virtually everything else in life, it needs exercises and constant practice. Sowell’s way of working is different than Ian Fleming, who purportedly wrote every day between 9 am and noon, in his Jamaican villa. Sowell’s way of practicing is certainly different than the one which may suit most of us, far less talented than he is: but even somebody as obviously talented need to practice and to work a modus operandi out; (b) finding your own voice is not easy. It may take years to finish a manuscript as you wanted or envisioned it. It may take more rewriting than writing. Your voice does not simply “come out;” (c) it is painful. Success in writing is a very relative thing (success for economic/political bloggers is different than success for novelists) but, with the exception of a few superstars (John Le Carré, J.K. Rowling, Paul Krugman…), you hardly find the golden pot at the end of the rainbow. If you really want to make writing (part of) your profession, start by forgetting that writing is easy.

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