Tag Archives: Thomas Sowell

Sometimes I Think Thomas Sowell Is Just Trolling Us

Have you ever done one of those creative writing exercises in which you’re giving a group of wildly disparate concepts and told that your job is to tie them together? It’s sort of like that “Chopped” cooking show where the chefs have to make up dishes with mismatched ingredients, only instead of marshmallows, kale, and foie gras, you have to make up a story that somehow combines “the battle of Waterloo,” “a Swingline stapler,” and “sentient tapeworms.” It’s a fun exercise, but you probably don’t want to take it too seriously.

Reading the editorials on Townhall.com reminds me of my creative writing classes. The two main differences are: The range of topics will always include “liberals are bad” and “the market is good” plus one or two other items, and the both the writers and readers take these articles very seriously indeed despite that fact that it’s a square peg/round hole exercise.

One of my favorite practitioners of this sort of writing is the imitable Thomas Sowell. When last we visited him, he was trying to demonstrate that blame for the government shutdown should be laid at the feet of the Democrats. It wasn’t even close to true, of course, but that didn’t stop Sowell from stepping up to the plate and trying to prove it. He struck out, as you might expect, but he did take some good cuts.

Recently, he published a piece with the highly provocative title “The Left Versus Minorities.” Wow!  The left are engaged n battle against minorities? That would be a pretty big switch from conventional wisdom, but ok, I’ll took a gander to see what he had to say. Fun, right?

Honestly, it’s wasn’t as much fun as I was hoping . The first paragraph gives it away. He claims that the left’s supposed concern for minorities is a fraud because a couple of school districts have cut funding for charter schools. His reasoning is that some (but not all) charter schools have had success in teaching minority students, ergo if you cut funding for charter schools, you don’t really care about minorities.

If you want to, you can pick out several obvious formal fallacies in this proposition, but I think the key problem with his argument is that “supporting all charter schools” and “caring about minorities” are not the same thing, and if they’re not the same thing, then his proposition doesn’t hold water. That doesn’t stop him from plowing forward with some genuinely bizarre statements:

Not all charter schools are successful, of course, but the ones that are completely undermine the excuses for failure in the public school system as a whole.

Wait, what? What are the “excuses for failure” that are undermined by the existence of a single, successful charter school? The lack of context for this statement (and there is none offered in the original) lowers it from “logical or factual error” to “meaningless nonsense.” You can’t evaluate a claim this vague and ill-formed any more than you can a statement like “horse water silica drive moon!”

Sowell engages in a little mind-reading in stating that a primary reason why politicians oppose charter schools is that these politicians are beholden to teachers’ unions*, and apparently, these politicians like teachers more than minorities. Of course, that’s a false dilemma. You can be pro-teacher and pro-minority and, in fact, I think I’d argue that there’s a great deal of overlap there.  The bottom line, for me, is that Sowell is ascribing motivations to people who oppose his view that can’t be validated. If we were assholes, we cold play that game and suggest that people who support charter schools really just want to make money and if the kids get an education, great, but that’s not job one. That would be rude, though, so I won’t do it.

Since that previous paragraph was so weak, I’ll finish with the best part: Sowell cites the attempts to revoke the charter of the American Indian Model Schools in Oakland as an example of ideology trumping the educational needs of minority students. The school has, in fact, achieved terrific results. So why did the school board vote to revoke the charter? Sowell’s answer:

Why? The excuse given was that there had been suspicious financial dealings by the former — repeat, former — head of the institution. If this was the real reason, then all they had to do was indict the former head and let a court decide if he was guilty or innocent.

Gee, that sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s not exactly the whole story. The school operated under principal and chief executive Ben Chavis, who spent $3.8 million of the school’s money at businesses owned by…Ben Chavis. If that sounds like a fairly gross conflict of interest, you’re in the same boat as the state auditors. Of course, Chavis was fired…aw, who am I kidding, Chavis left on his own terms before anyone found out about this. The auditors found that the school’s governing board had been negligent in their oversight duties and were wholly ineffective at doing anything beyond letting Chavis do whatever he wanted. That same board is still in place today. The fact that none of the board have been replaced was the primary reason for the revocation of the school’s charter. It’s still controversial because the school has done a good job teaching. Things are seldom completely black and white, and the fate of the school is still very much being contested.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that from reading Sowell’s piece. He has to fit the pieces together, whether they fit or not. As to whether he was just being “misleading,” or if he somehow didn’t know anything about the subject he was writing about, or whether he was flat-out lying, well, I can’t say for certain. What I can say, though, is that once again, Sowell has gamely tried to prove something that simply is not true, and predictably, failed.





*  One of the key features of charter schools is that, as for-profit entities, they tend not to offer competitive compensation to their non-union teachers.Sowell regards this as a feature and not a bug, a conclusion with which I take serious issue. This Rand study is one of many that took a look at how teacher compensation related to student achievement. Before you say “richer districts have many other factors that favor their students,” please read the study in detail. This is a reasonably thorough study and they control for these kinds of variables. They key takeaway is:

“Districts with higher salaries, controlling for other factors, appeared to have significantly higher test scores in both reading and mathematics.”





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28/03/2014 · 7:14 pm

Thomas Sowell Tries To Prove A Falsehood (and does better than I would have expected…but still fails)

(by the way, if you’re looking for a better analysis of the causes of the shutdown, The Edge of the American West has this recent post which lays out a more convincing case than Sowell does. oh, and I apologize for the formatting. There’s something seriously wrong with this style sheet but I’m not sure exactly what and I’m not sure how to fix it.)

This piece by Thomas Sowell has been making its rounds on the Interwebs a lot lately. It’s being presented as a clear-headed, rational explanation as to why the government shutdown is the fault of the Democrats. Like most attempts to prove something that are not actually true, I’m not swayed by his argument. I am, however, impressed by his use of the forms of logic to make his argument and, because of that, I’ll spend a little time pointing out why his argument is specious rather than dismiss it out of hand.

Let me attempt to summarize Sowell’s arguments so that I can address them clearly. If I understand it correctly, his contention is that:
  1. Spending bills originate in the House.
  2. The House has offered a bill that funds all of the government except for one program.
  3. This is legal and there are precedents for this action, thus there is nothing improper about it.
  4. The Senate has rejected this spending bill because the Senate wants a bill that funds all government programs.
  5. The “clean” bill requested by the Senate is tantamount to giving Harry Reid “everything he wants,” and there is no reason the House should do that.
  6. It is, therefore, the Democrats in the Senate who are to blame for shutting down the government.
This seems reasonable on its surface, but there’s a great deal beneath the surface that undermines his argument. Let’s look at it point-by-point:
1.Spending bills originate in the House.
Well, obviously, there’s no argument here. That’s how it works. But, we’re starting from a weird place. This whole business with the “debt ceiling” is fairly novel in modern times. There was a rule in Congress that any spending that had been authorized would automatically raise the debt ceiling by whatever was required to pay for it. This rule was repealed in 1995 by the Gingrich-led Republicans, which is what gave us the strange situation we’re in. More on that in a moment, but the point I want to make is that all the government spending, even the Affordable Care Act, has already been authorized by the House. This additional hurdle is new and invites no end of mischief…
2. The House has offered a bill that funds all of the government except for one program.
…and here’s where that mischief shows up. It sounds like a small thing, but there’s a world of possibilities in that “one program,” isn’t there? Replace “Affordable Care Act” with other programs and you can see very quickly how just “one program” can be a very big deal. Medicare? Veterans Affairs? Social Security? The U.S. Army? Saying it’s just “one program” implies that it’s a very minor thing to omit, but obviously, that’s not necessarily the case.  We’ll get to how big a deal this is shortly, but for now, I just want to point out that Sowell is trying to finesse a point that doesn’t support his argument.
3. This is legal and there are precedents for this action, thus there is nothing improper about it.
Yes, this is legal. There is no question about that. There are precedents for withholding funding to create de facto legislation, but there aren’t very many that are similar to this particular situation. This maneuver is typically used in the appropriations process, wherein bills that have been passed are funded. We are well past that phase and Congress has already funded the Affordable Care Act. This is something very different and there aren’t a lot of precedents for refusing to raise the debt ceiling to pay for programs that Congress has already voted to fund. There are, in fact, two of them: 1995 and 2012. In both cases, Republican majorities in the House used the debt ceiling as a means to try to cut the overall deficit. In neither case was a single program singled out. There’s no modern precedent for using the debt ceiling to try to eliminate a single program.
4. The Senate has rejected this spending bill because the Senate wants a bill that funds all government programs.
This is true. And, in fact, there is vastly greater precedent for this stance than the one that the House is taking.
5. The “clean” bill requested by the Senate is tantamount to giving Harry Reid “everything he wants,” and there is no reason the House should do that.
This is where Sowell starts to lose the plot. He paints an unencumbered spending bill as capitulation to the Democrats. What he doesn’t mention is that the Affordable Care Act is already the result of a tremendously hard-fought compromise. It is not, and has never been everything that Harry Reid or any Democrat wants. Giving Harry Reid (or, more honestly, people like me) everything he wants would be amending the ACA to include a conversion to single-payer in 2016. The degree of misrepresentation here utterly undermines Sowell’s argument.
6. It is, therefore, the Democrats in the Senate who are to blame for shutting down the government.
Since the each of the points of the argument are either flawed, misleading, or just factually incorrect, the conclusion does not stand. I cannot read Sowell’s mind, but I suspect his instructions were similar to those of John Yoo when he wrote the infamous torture memos. I imagine that his task was not to “examine both sides of the government shutdown and determine who should shoulder the blame.” It was “find a way to justify the conclusion that we’ve already reached.”
Of course, he couldn’t let it go without sticking a hyperbolic turd on the end of what was a reasonable-seeming essay:
None of this is rocket science. But unless the Republicans get their side of the story out — and articulation has never been their strong suit — the lies will win. More important, the whole country will lose.
The whole country will lose? Really? How do you figure? Is it because, horror of horrors, a program that was created by, passed by, and funded by Congress will go into effect? A program that, and I delight in pointing this out, is popular with Republicans so long as it isn’t called “Obamacare?” Besides, Sowell and his ilk are getting the Republicans’ side of the story out; it’s just that their story isn’t convincing. The primary reason that is isn’t convincing is that it isn’t true.
It’s a thankless task, but he does an better-than-average job of at least trying to cloak a falsehood in reason.

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15/10/2013 · 3:23 pm