Economist and syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell says he has lost track of how many books he’s written on economics, history, social policy, ethnicity and the history of ideas. His latest, “Economic Facts and Fallacies,” adds to his admirable record of using plain language to pass along some of the dismal science’s often ignored, often twisted truths and basic principles to everyday readers.
Professor Sowell, 77, is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution on the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. I talked to him by telephone on Thursday:
Q: Do you have any wisdom to share with us about what the politicians should or shouldn’t be doing about our current economic troubles?
A: Well, they’re two fundamentally different questions. The first is, "Is there something that the government could do that might make things better?" The second is, "Is there anything the government is likely to do that will make things better?" The second question is much easier to answer: The answer is “No.”
Q: From what they’ve done so far, are you encouraged or frightened?
A: I think I’m stoically braced for whatever disaster they create.
Q: Are the subprime credit crisis and the stock market’s swoon and the dollar’s drop in value symptoms of a deeper, larger, broader problem?
A: Well, no, they are simply the problems that they are. The government has brought on the housing problem, partly by these very low interest rates, which encouraged many people to go way out on a limb. They’ve brought it on by highly restrictive building policies, which have caused housing prices to skyrocket artificially. And they’ve brought it on by the Community Reinvestment Act, which presumes that politicians are better able to tell investors where to put their money than the investors themselves are. When you put all that together, you get something like what you have.
Q: Why did you write this latest book and who is it written for?
A: It’s written, first of all, for the general public. It’s not written specifically for economists. Most economists know most of these things -- well, they know most of the principles; they don’t know most of the facts. It’s not meant to be a breakthrough on the frontiers of analytical knowledge. But it is meant to show how so many things that look one way are in fact diametrically the opposite when you take a closer look at them -- and especially if you look at them systematically instead of just in terms of what rhetoric sets off your emotions, which is what seems to be going on in both parties these days.
Q: What’s an example of a fallacy from your book?