Book Review — Wealth, Poverty and Politics by Thomas Sowell

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This evening, I finished Thomas Sowell’s “Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective”.

This well-researched book deals with the subject of factors responsible for the progress of some groups and why others lag. As usual, Sowell’s main accomplishment in the book is ruthlessly reasoning to a conclusion, peeling back extraneous layers and illogical reasoning to bring out a clear, defensible, and essentially irrefutable conclusion.

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It broke down factors responsible for the success (or lack of) into Geographic, Cultural, Social and Political factors.

In the discussion about geography, you get to learn that a country may be endowed with natural resources, yet not know because it is isolated due to ‘bad’ geography and thus cannot access the knowledge it needs to know it has abundant resources, not to talk of exploiting them. Some groups like the Chinese used favourable geography to race ahead of the rest. However, geography is not deterministic. While it might be the starting point and give societies a head-start, several other groups like the Japanese have managed to be highly productive even beginning from a bad geographic position.

And some of the best ways for countries to achieve upward mobility is via a change in culture. Using solid evidence, it explains how being receptive to education (not just in quantity but in quality) has enabled minority groups like Jews and overseas Germans outpace others in development. It also mentioned the ability of some cultures to successfully change to adapt new ideas (Japan), and the fact that some cultures have failed by rejecting change and regressing (Japan again, but earlier; China in the 1400s).

Touching on social factors, he shredded Thomas Piketty assertions about inequality. Here, he took his time to explain why measuring income inequality by pretending there are two groups, “the rich” and “the poor,” by percentiles, is not smart, because the composition of those groups changes continuously, and many actual people who are “poor” at one point in their lives are “rich” later. In fact, 95% of working class people never remain at the bottom, and a lot of people who used to be at top leave in less than a decade.

As someone passionate about the plight of Black Americans, Sowell was particularly vocal about how political choices spearheaded by black politicians have led to incidences of high unemployment, high crime rate and an overall reduced income mobility for the group. Programs like affirmative actions and welfare programs have achieved the opposite of what was desired. While politicians have used these programs to achieve political success, the group has regressed economically due to these bad choices. It’s an example of how individuals tell the group what they want to hear instead of what will improve their lives.

Sowell rejects the currently fashionable attempt to ascribe success to (poorly-defined) “privilege.” Sowell believes in personal responsibility, which may be made harder or easier by the culture one comes from, but which does not excuse failure or prevent achievement.

While some may not agree with Thomas Sowell’s conclusions, they must first deal with the comprehensive historical and current facts, evidence, and sheer logic he presents in a convincing manner.

I have often said that Thomas Sowell packs more in a paragraph than some manage to pack into a book, and I had to read the book again immediately after finishing it, because some of the arguments were just so compelling.

Sowell does tend to seem repetitive in places. But he’s not. In almost all cases, he’s drawing a somewhat different conclusion but pointing to the same base material, hammering the point home. But again, to a casual reader this can seem repetitive. Neither of these are a big deal, of course, but if I had any criticism of the book, this would be it.

The book is another reminder why Thomas Sowell is my favorite economist. In each of his books he takes on conventional wisdom and tears it to shreds.

This book was no exemption.

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