In My Opinion, Thomas Sowell is a Hack

Forgive the long post. But in this post, I’m going to show why I think Thomas Sowell is a hack. I want to be deliberate and methodical, so there is no mistake. And that takes up a bit of time and a bit of space.

One of the definitions for the word “hack” in is:

“a professional who renounces or surrenders individual independence, integrity, belief, etc., in return for money or other reward in the performance of a task normally thought of as involving a strong personal commitment: a political hack”

Now, consider the following Sowell quote from July 2003.

“Tax rates were cut. Tax revenues were not. More tax revenue was collected during every year of the two Reagan administrations than had ever been collected in any previous year in the history of the country.”

Or this one from October 2004:

“After Ronald Reagan’s tax rate cuts in the 1980s first brought out anguished cries of “tax cuts for the rich,” it turned out that the federal government collected more tax revenue than ever and that people in upper income brackets not only paid a larger amount of taxes than before, but even paid a higher share of all taxes than before.”

What about this from May 2006:

“Years later, Ronald Reagan made the same argument and his “tax cuts for the rich” produced the same result. Tax receipts during every year of the 1980s were higher than they had ever been in any year before. Moreover, taxes paid specifically by “the rich” were higher than before, because their incomes rose so much as the economy boomed that they paid more total taxes despite the reduced tax rate.”

I found these three quotes using Google in less than 3 minutes. There were plenty more examples of stating essentially the same thing, and doing so over a period of many years. So we can assume that this is not something he wrote by mistake or which he phrased poorly at one point and has since been misinterpreted. Instead, we can assume that one of the Sowell talking points (and one that gets repeated a lot – I’ve seen it in the comments section of this blog a few times) is that cutting tax rates leads to more tax revenue coming in, and exhibit A is the fact that federal tax receipts were higher in every year of the Reagan administration than in any year before the Reagan administration. (In fairness to Sowell, he often points to the Kennedy tax cuts as a good thing too.)

Now, let’s examine this quote. I pulled data on tax collections going back to 1950 from OMB table 1.3. Guess what. It turns out that “taxes collected during the administration of President X were higher than taxes collected in all years previous to the administration of President X” is a statement that is true for every President in the sample, except one.

Long time readers of this blog, not to mention anyone who pays more attention to world events than a stone, can easily guess that the one President for whom it isn’t true is GW. Sowell, presumably knows that it isn’t true about GW. Otherwise, when he writes about Reagan (and occasionally JFK), he’d also mention GW, given that GW was the other big tax cutter. Sowell’s big evidence for cutting taxes also works for raising taxes, but it doesn’t always work for cutting taxes as GW has demonstrated. I’m sure Sowell knows this – the quotes above, and many others, while leading the reader to a conclusion different from what the facts show, are precise enough not to be a mistruth. To me, this seems pretty clear evidence that this whole process is deliberate. Since the rewards for doing so are obvious (Sowell seems to be adored by folks who have certain political beliefs), I would think this by itself is enough to qualify Sowell as a hack.

But I will go on. I assume Sowell knows, and most of his readers, know why “tax revenue was collected during every year of the two Reagan administrations than had ever been collected in any previous year in the history of the country,” and one reason is inflation. I assume Sowell knows that according to his method of defining success, Argentina during the hyperinflation years would look spectacular. Until you took into account inflation. The same is true of St. Ronald the Reagan.

When you look at data going back through 1950 (data also available in OMB table 1.3), “real revenues collected during the administration of President X were higher than real revenues collected in all years previous to the administration of President X” is true for the following Presidents: Ike, LBJ, Carter, GHW, and Clinton. Funny… Reagan isn’t on the list. I believe Sowell knows this. If he truly is an economist, I have a hard time understanding how he wouldn’t have checked. After all, this “analysis” I just performed isn’t rocket science – it’s a matter of checking which numbers are bigger and which are smaller, a process that can be performed by a child in elementary school.

But because I’m interested in more than making a point – in other words, I like to think I’m more than a hack – I’ll take the next logical step and adjust for population. After all, the more people, the more taxes will be collected.

(Population data from 1962 on from OMB Table 17.5, prior to that, used 3rd quarter population from NIPA Table 7.1) A rising population means real taxes have a tendency to rise over time. Despite that, there is enough variability in collections that for none of the presidents can you say (without lying) that “real tax revenue per capita was higher during the administration of President X than it was in all years prior to the administration X.”

So to recap… I believe Sowell uses a statement that is misleading, and he does it often and deliberately. (This isn’t exactly a paid gig, so I’m not going to waste my time going through other things that Sowell regularly writes, but I’m fairly confident, from my memory of Sowell’s work, that I can write a similar post about a few other things the guy regularly states.) I don’t know how you, the reader feels, but to me, its enough to conclude the guy is a hack.

But I’m on a roll, and I don’t feel like ending this post quite yet. So…. I’m going to put in two more quotes. One, I think, is a little bit more evidence of hackdom on Sowell’s part:

“Now that President Bush has twice gotten himself to the White House, the question is whether he wants to try for Mount Rushmore.”

(I note… By the time Sowell had written that, it was evident that not only was GW the only President since 1950 to fail what one might term the “Sowell condition” (i.e., collected more taxes in every year of his presidency than was collected in all years before his presidency), but he had actually failed it four years running. Let it not be said that when GW fails at something everyone else succeeds at, he does it spectacularly, and let it not be said that Sowell won’t mention GW’s name and Mount Rushmore in the same sentence.)

And one more, which he wrote about something else, but which I think applies very nicely to this whole discussion of tax cuts:

“Costs don’t go away because you refuse to pay them, any more than gravity goes away if you refuse to acknowledge it…. But the lure of the free lunch goes on.”

Ah yes, Sowell believes that the lure of the free lunch goes on. That’s one thing Sowell writes that I can believe – I think Sowell is pretty good evidence of that.

Anyway, as always, my spreadsheets are available to anyone who wants them, even Thomas Sowell.

Update. Grammatical error corrected, courtesy of reader Bobby Corcoran.