Thursday, February 11, 2010


The Contentless Book Review

Well maybe I need to rethink my "Matt Yglesias just misunderstands economics" theme. He enthusiastically links to this review of Thomas Sowell by Alan Wolfe. Go ahead and skim Wolfe's review; it's a Star Chamber in prose.

In his big bad book review, Wolfe (by my quick count) lets us know of about maybe three things that Sowell believes. But the majority of the post is dedicated to the tone of Sowell's writing, of how bad it is. For example:
The more interesting question is how Sowell managed the task of actually writing the thing. Even jeremiads should have their joys; there is something so wonderful about being a writer and a critic that delivering even bad news can be a source of unbearable pleasure. But Sowell takes no joy in anything he has to say: his tone is as dour and depressing as his conclusions. I understand that the man is a conservative, but can’t he crack a smile? Sowell is such a plodder that even sarcasm, conservatism’s reliable and sometimes amusing old ally, is beyond his reach.
Now you would think Wolfe might offer, say, a quotation from the book, but I think we are treated to a grand total of 31 words from Sowell's 300+-page book under review.

Before you shake your head at Wolfe (and Yglesias') intellectual dishonesty, keep in mind that I was upset when Tyler Cowen reviewed Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine and quoted from her 31 fewer words than Wolfe did of Sowell. But at least Tyler didn't dwell on what an awful writer Klein was.

I've read several of his books, and have not been disappointed yet. Although I disagree with Sowell on many things, he has put out a lot of important books. And they typically do get bad reviews!
You need to rethink your "Matt Yglesias just misunderstands economics" theme. I think he's just as dishonest as Krugman, but in his own special chirpy wonky manner.

His treatment of Sowell here is just like his treatment of Tom Woods back in May 2009:

"Hand-in-hand with this trend is, as Dave Weigel reports, Ron Paul’s success in evangelizing among congressional Republicans for the economic thought of Thomas Woods, a figure who conservative congressmen weren’t prone to listen to when he was arguing against Bush’s wartime policies. Now, however, Woods is pushing a fringe economic doctrine that tells the right what it wants to hear so he’s gaining popularity. The doctrine in question is so-called “Austrian” business cycle theory, memorably lampooned by Tyler Cowen. You can see other brief criticism from a libertarian point of view from Bryan Caplan or read Paul Krugman’s 1998 takedown.
But perhaps the pest thing to read is this recent item from John Quiggin which lays out the ways in which Austrian Business Cycle theory was, at the time, a major advance but one that’s long since been superseded."*

Tom Sowell pretty much proved that the economic effects of racism are not particularly damaging in the free market. Just as with the ABCT, Sowell's arguments on race are so definitive that the left will never debate him on the merits but instead will always mock him.

*In response to which, Tom Woods wrote:

"Note that although Yglesias himself does not know the first thing about Austrian business cycle theory, and in fact doesn’t even seem entitled to an opinion, he is certain it is incorrect."
Thoms Sowell is the man. He is a true leader for the African-American community, yet hardly anybody knows his name. Or better yet, read one of his books.

Yeah I've discussed this with Tom. (He and I are allowed to disagree with each other, believe it or not kids.) I cut Yglesias some slack on that one. It's fair enough due diligence if he's got not only Keynesians but also Austrian expert Tyler Cowen blowing up the ABCT. Obviously I think Tyler et al. are wrong, but at least Yglesias said what Tom's belief was, and then offered evidence (albeit appeal to other authorities) to refute it. But Wolfe just said, "Sowell's book is boring, why is it so boring, really Sowell why can't you smile?"
Sowell is the man. If it weren't for Sowell I never would have known who Hayek or Mises were, well got to give credit to Obama as well. If it weren't for the Stimulus talk last year, I never would have read "Applied Economics" which got me interested in Economics in the first place, then lead me to Bastiat. Somehow in reading "Applied Econimcs" I did a search for broken window fallacy, which lead me to Haslet and then to
I know Sowell isn't exactly Austrian but I hold him in high regards.
The review is typical of most progressive reviews. You can read the likes of them at amazon, usually they say, "I haven't read the book yet, but..." then they go into some partisan rant that has nothing to do with the actual material in the book.
It's all because they don't want people to read it. They know the power that is on those pages. They know when people actually read, think and decide for themselves they will no longer be beholden to the "authorities" (Krugs, Yglesias etc. They don't like that, they don't like people choosing for themselves because they know, when given all the facts and a good logical argument, their side always loses. Socialism always loses. The only way they can get people to buy into it is by controlling the message.

When you read a partisan review like that, you know that your going to get some really good stuff if you read it. When I'm reading reviews at amazon, I always go for the 1 star reviews, if they are filled with partisan rants that have nothing to do with the actual book, I go ahead and buy the book. I haven't been disappointed yet.
My conspiracy theory upon reading that review was that whoever commissioned it at TNR was a secret sympathizer of Sowell's.

What better way to indict the modern intellectual than to post Alan Wolfe as his champion. Just take a look at his recounting of his changing views on affirmative action - which, amusingly, he offers as an example of his intellectual superiority to Sowell

You might think, for example, as I once did, that affirmative action is highly suspect because it gives more weight to group membership than individual achievement. But if you teach at a university and see your classes enriched by the diversity that affirmative action brings to them, and if you then hear remarkable stories of the individual achievements made possible through the magic of the college admissions process, you may begin to change your mind.

So, he once disapproved of affirmative action because it gave more weight to group membership than individual achievement BUT he had some good personal experiences and heard some inspiring anecdotes - none of which are even related to his initial concern btw - and now he thinks its great!

This is how he thinks an 'intellectual' should evaluate policy. Not by trying to determine whether it even achieves what it is supposed to, but by how 'rich' it makes his class room experience.

Sowell = win. I by far favour sentences which are grounded on fact over those which float up somewhere in the 'air of experience'. How's that prose, al!
Whilst i'm in the mood I might as well throw a few boots into the soft and inviting torso of Yglesias.

I've never known why you see any hope for that kid. He has always struck me as someone who supports Keynesian economics simply because it is the branch of economics most amenable to his political outlook.

It is not that he misunderstands economics, it is that he has no understanding of economics and has no interest in developing one. If Mises could be cited as an authority on why the government should crisscross America with high speed rail tracks he'd quote him continuously.

As well as that I cant say I think much of his literary tastes. He bolds Wolfes statement on Sowell's book that 'There is not a single interesting idea in its more than three-hundred pages'(not surprising considering that Wolfe seems to be someone entirely uninterested in ideas) as if its destined for the pages of one of those famous quotation books rubbing shoulders with Churchill's best put downs.

It would actually be an understatement to say that Yglesias is crap from top to bottom. The truth is he's crap from side to side.
Let's not forget that the blog post starts with "I doubt anyone reading this blog was seriously considering running out to buy Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society..."

As in "none of us smart, sophisticated and trendy progressive types would ever seriously consider reading a Thomas Sowell book. So, my trendy friends, just read the non-review review, and have a good laugh."

David Henderson on Alan Wolfe on Thomas Sowell
at Econlog
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