BRIAN LAMB: Dr. Thomas Sowell, you write this at the end of 2016, "Age 86 is well past the usual retirement age, so the question is, not why I am quitting, but why I kept at it so long." Why did you?
THOMAS SOWELL: Why did I keep at it so long?
LAMB: Yes, sir.
SOWELL: There were a lot of things happening that I thought ought to be explained in a different way from the way they are explained in most of the media and I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed hearing back from people. I was sorry that I never had a chance to reply to them all, which would have taken up all the time I have.
LAMB: I have your last column and I am going to just ask you why you put this in the column and you can expand on it if you would like, "My own family did not have electricity or hot running water in my early childhood which was not unusual for blacks in the South in those days." What do you remember about those days and where was it in the south?
SOWELL: Well, I remember a lot because I didn't leave the South until I was almost nine years old and so I spent a fair amount of time down there, and in most of those places, there was no hot running water. We had cold water which many other blacks in those days did not have by the way.
But it's sort of says where I came from.
LAMB: You moved to Harlem -- what was that like and who did you live with in Harlem?
SOWELL: Well, I lived with the same family that had raised me in North Carolina. Some members had gone up ahead and had been in New York for a year or so I think before we got there. And fortunately, for me, they ran into a boy named Eddie who was quite unusual for those days. He came from a highly educated family. He was obviously a very cultured fellow. And so before I ever arrived in New York, they had decided that this was someone I needed to meet because he could tell me things that they themselves did not have the education to tell me, and that this could help me in life.
Now at that time, I myself was not by any means looking ahead that way, but thank heavens others were.
LAMB: Where is Eddie today and what did he do in his life?
SOWELL: Well, you know, as ironic last year, when -- on my birthday, I received a card from him. He is a year older than I am. He went on to become the dean of one of the colleges and he is now retired living in a very nice area, so it was quite a pleasant surprise.
But my life really could have been very different had I not been introduced to him and I would never have been introduced to him except that members of my family were older, saw immediately that this was someone who could be helpful to me.
He and I never lived within a quarter mile of each other and he was a year older so I would never have been in the same class with him in school, but he was able to tell me things that I didn't know. For example, he took me to a public library for the first time in my life and at the time, I had no idea what a public library was and was very dubious when I saw all of those books and realized I didn't have enough money to buy one of them.
But he patiently explained it all to me. And persuaded me somewhat reluctantly to take out a library card and borrow a couple of books and that was enormously important because it meant that I had begun to acquire the habit of reading on my own, you know, years before I ever would have acquired the normal course of events.
LAMB: What kind of books were you interested in, in those early days?
SOWELL: Oh heavens, I remember reading the -- all children's books, you know, "Doctor Doolittle," "Alice in Wonderland," and stuff like that, but the main thing was that I read and read and eventually simply got the habit of reading.
All the kids from the same neighborhood in which I grew up, you know, the odds were against them ever meeting someone like Eddie as they were for me, except that others saw the significance of introducing us.
LAMB: How long did you live in Harlem?
SOWELL: Oh until -- was 20 -- I was 20 years old the first time I moved out Harlem. And then I came back for a couple of years. So I grew up there from the time -- from the age of just before I was nine years old.
LAMB: Besides Eddie, what impact did Harlem and your family experience have on you other than, you know, the library?
SOWELL: Oh I think a tremendous effect; I didn't realize it at the time. For example, when I was much older and had a son of my own, like most first time parents, I wanted to know when he is supposed to do various things, and so I asked one of the surviving members of the family, "How old was I when I first began to walk?" And she said, "Oh Tommy, nobody knows when you could walk. Somebody was always carrying you."
And I was raised, you know, as an only child in a family of four adults. So you know, whenever I got too be too much for one of them, he or she could always hand me off to somebody else. And I remember one episode in particular that was recounted many times in later years that Bertie, a member of the family, took me to a movie.
And everything went fine. It was in a different part of town and was only when we got back and I saw the house where we lived; I picked up some rocks and started throwing them at Bertie. I must have been four years old at the most. And in later years, she would tell that story and just laughed. You know, I was a little angel until I got back there. And in much later years, I thought, you know, you can take that attitude when there is one child and four adults.
If it is the other way around, one mother and four children, it wouldn't have been nearly as funny.
LAMB: You know, we have talked before and you always mentioned that you liked to think things through before you either write a book or you write a column and you are not in any hurry to have those published. How about this final column? How long did you think that through and what kind of a message did you want to leave at the end?
SOWELL: Well, I did two final ones, but I don't think I took any longer than with the others. I mean, these were thoughts I had had. I had thoughts of not renewing my contract in some previous years, but my wife always told me that you know, at the very least you can blow off steam when things happened in the world which you don't like.
But I -- this particular time, I was off taking pictures in Yosemite with some photographic buddies of mine for four days. And in all that time, I never watched the television news program. We never read a newspaper and I thought, "This was the way to live." And the only way to live this way is to stop writing the column so that I don't have to be updated on all the news.
And that is the biggest benefit so that when I am watching a television program and some silliness in politics comes on air, I can simply switch to the tennis channel or to turn to classic movies or just turn the thing off because I feel no obligation now to keep track of things like that.
And those kind of things certainly don't do my blood pressure any good.
LAMB: I know, sitting on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, do you remember when you had your first solid political thought or idea?
SOWELL: Oh yes, heavens. I was ten years old and it wasn't really idea, it was what I had heard and I had heard that Willkie was for the rich and FDR was for the poor and so my first political activism was going around tearing down Willkie posters in Harlem.
Fortunately, there weren't that many Willkie posters in Harlem and so I didn't waste a great deal of time on that.
LAMB: Did you consider yourself a Democrat?
SOWELL: I don't know -- well, at that time I was a long way from voting age, but most of my -- I was a registered Democrat as late as 1970 -- the spring of 1972 and for the last time, and since then I have never been a registered member of any party.
That particular year, I was so disgusted with both candidates that I didn't vote at all. And neither of those candidates seemed to be as bad and in retrospect as the two candidates we had last year.
LAMB: Let me go back to the column and ask you about this paragraph, "Years of lying presidents," you're talking about -- could any president do anything like that today, meaning it was John F. Kennedy you had been writing about and the Soviet Union and the trust that people had in the President then, but you say then, "Years of lying Democrat, Lyndon Johnson and Republican, Richard Nixon especially destroyed not only their own credibility, but the credibility which the office itself once conferred. The loss of that credibility was a loss to the country, not just to the people holding that office in later years." Why did you consider both Johnson and Nixon presidencies as lying presidencies?
SOWELL: Well, Nixon is the easiest one. I mean, he lied obviously about Watergate, but in retrospect I think that the fact that Nixon was so obviously lying, I regard as almost a virtue because when you saw him on television, the same things that would have turned out proved to be false.
You could see him sweating and so forth, I mean, it didn't take any great insight to know that he was lying even before the evidence came out.
With Lyndon Johnson, my gosh, there were so many things he said, he got us into this -- the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution later on turned out to have been fed by something that was completely overblown in order to give him power to go to war.
But at the crucial time in that war, after the Tet offensive of 1968, the media all said that this was an uprising of communist guerillas in South Vietnam showed that our policies had failed and that the communist had won. It so happens that later evidence including statements by communist leaders themselves after they had conquered Vietnam was that the American troops had actually wiped out the Vietcong guerillas in South Vietnam.
And that they were never a serious force thereafter, but what came through to media was that the Vietcong guerillas had succeeded and that they had inflicted a terrible loss on Americans and that the war was unwinnable.
Now, if the public thinks the war is unwinnable, that will in fact make it unwinnable and Lyndon Johnson came on the air and told the truth, perhaps a real thing for him, and yet, he was not believed and all of those in the media who were putting forth was turned out to be completely false stories were believed.
And therefore, all the 50,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam winning victory after victory -- all of that went down the tubes because the president did not have credibility when he needed it.
LAMB: What has been the impact of the Vietnam War and the Watergate years on this country?
SOWELL: No question, a great cynicism about the public. If I may go back to John F. Kennedy in 1962 at the Cuban missile crisis, now I was never a big fan of President Kennedy and he won very narrowly in 1960, but when he came on the air and told us that the Russians were going to put nuclear missiles 90 miles from the United States and that he was taking us to the brink of nuclear war to stop them, I thought, you know he is president. I mean, he has got to do what he has got to do.
And it was a very tense time. I was teaching at the time and I remember when I was giving out the assignment to the students in class, I said, "You know, the assignment for next week," and I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, "If there is a next week." I know, but it was that kind of confidence. I don't recall anybody raising any fuss with this man for taking this depth that really could have been the death of millions as he well knew.
Today, I don't think any President of the United States in the last 30 to 40 years could go in the air and do that and have the public behind him. And that's not a problem for him. That's a problem for the country. If you have a president, he has to have the public support, not for his sake, but for the public's sake.
LAMB: Do you remember how you felt about the Watergate in the middle of it all?
SOWELL: Yes, someone was trying to get me to accept a presidential appointment in the Nixon administration and they asked me to send them my visa, and I have to tell you, in order to prevent you from being embarrassed that I am very disappointed of what is coming out about Watergate and at some point, I may find it necessary to criticize the President of the United States.
And the guy at the White House said to me, "Tom, if we let that stop us, we never will get these jobs filled. Send us your resume."
LAMB: And what did you do?
SOWELL: No, I decided I didn't want the job anyway.
LAMB: You know, while you're on that, we have got some video of you back in our talk in 2005 talking about an offer you had in the Ford administration and as people listen to this, they have to keep in mind when you are telling the story that there was a Democratic Senate at that time. Let's listen to this and you will see what you said back in 2005.
Which President offered you the Federal Trade Commissioner's job?
SOWELL: President Ford.
LAMB: What were the circumstances?
SOWELL: They had a vacancy. It was 1976, and they offered it to me. And I agreed to take it on condition that if there is any opposition that arises, they let me know. I will withdraw because I don't have time to play with Washington games. And I kept calling there and asking the guy at the White House who is handling this, "Is there any problem." I don't hear anything of what's going on. And he said, "Oh no, no. It's just taking time." Eventually, I was in Washington so I went up to the Hill and talked to the staff or this committee that handled this.
And he said, "We have gone over your record with a fine-toothed comb. We can find nothing to object to and therefore, we are just not going to hold hearings. Because this is an election year, we expect our guy is going to be elected and he will appoint his own men." What burned me was that -- and I said, "Did you tell the White House this?" He said, "We told the White House this months ago."
LAMB: And would you have taken that job had they cleared you in the Senate?
SOWELL: You mean, after knowing -- after learning this?
LAMB: Well, no, I mean, if the press had moved faster, had you agreed to go to the Federal Trade Commission?
SOWELL: Yes, I would have reluctantly, but in fact the first time it was offered to me, I said no. But they came back again and in the meantime, someone who I knew said, "Tom, you got -- you're always criticizing the Federal Trade Commission. Here is your chance to be one of the commissioners." And I thought, "You know, I really should then." So I would have taken it, but it was not something that I looked forward to. It meant moving. It did not mean any increase in the pay, but it did mean an increase in the cost of living and so on.
So I mean, there were many downsides for me personally, but I thought that really, as a matter of living up to what I had been saying. I would have gone and tried it.
LAMB: Your first job in government though was considerably earlier than that and what was it?
SOWELL: Oh, I was a GS2 clerk in the General Accounting Office back in 1950 and that was a big step upward for me at the time.
LAMB: That means that you were -- GS2, they started GS1 and go up to GS18, I don't know if they still do 18, but they did the senior executive service. Why had you gone in the government and what impact did those years have on your thinking today?
SOWELL: Oh you mean, the years before or the after?
LAMB: Afterwards -- yes, after you had had the experience of working in the government.
SOWELL: It was not habit forming. There was a lot of double dealing and stuff going on, but by the time -- this is before I was drafted and went into the Marine Corps, but after I came out, I went back eventually to that job.
But now, I realized that I had the GI Bill to back me up and that I would now try to go to college and so I never regarded that as a career thing. I just -- it was something I would do and that gave me a great deal of freedom because for one thing, there is one example of the freedom.
Back in those days, the General Accounting Office had a large unit that was essentially all black and it was presided over a white woman from Georgia. And they had different rules, and in the other units, if you were late, you signed a T for tardy, but in the unit that was in, if you were late, they docked you in hours annual leave and you sign for it.
Since I was planning to leave when the time was right and I was going to turn in my annual leave for money, I was not about to sign for that and I told them quite frankly that not only was I not going to sign that if they took the leave without my signing, I would take the case right up to the Civil Service Commission.
They immediately realized that they knew they were wrong to begin with, but they realized if I did that, you know, all hell would break loose.
And so -- and one of those wonderful political compromises, they would let me sign a T for tardy and everybody else had to sign for an hour's annual leave and that deprived me of any standing to bring any case.
I told the others, but they wouldn't believe me. Many of them felt I must have some secret and I must know somebody or something, but that was the way it was.
The other thing was, the other people were career civil servants and so they knew not to make waves. I really didn't care because I wasn't planning to be there that long.
LAMB: Did you ever ask anybody then when the world they would have two separate, you know, ideas about when somebody was late, why they would be one with the whites, one with the blacks?
SOWELL: No, because I mean, I think if you put a white woman from Georgia in the 1950s in charge of a black unit that is what you will expect to happen.
LAMB: In an -- talking about your last words that you wrote, at least in your columns for -- was it creative services? Creative…
SOWELL: Creative syndicate.
LAMB: Syndicate, I'm sorry. You said, "The first column I ever wrote 39 years ago," and this is -- you wrote it at the end of 2016, "Was titled, 'The Prophets of Doom.' This was long before Al Gore made millions of dollars promoting global warming hysteria back in 1970. The prevailing hysteria was the threat of new Ice Age promoted by some of the same environmentalists who are promoting global warming hysteria today." Do you -- I tried to find that column on the internet and it is not there that I could find. Is it available for any of us to read?
SOWELL: Yes, it was published in the old Washington Star, which is you know, went out of business some years ago. Hopefully, not as a result of my columns, but there is a book called, "Pink and Brown People," which is the first collection of my columns that was published by the Hoover Institution back in early 1980s, and it's in there. Whether that book is still in print, I don't know. But…
LAMB: But when you wrote your last column, did you go back and read it?
SOWELL: No, I did not. But I remembered it because it was my first column and I had no thought when I wrote it that I would be writing regularly. The Washington Star had a feature where ordinary readers could write it and send in a column and I sent that -- that was the first time that I ever tried it, and they published it as I wrote it and so that was the beginning.
LAMB: Your undergraduate degree was from what school?
LAMB: You started at Howard and then went to Harvard?
SOWELL: That is right.
LAMB: Your Masters' Degree was from Columbia?
LAMB: And then your PhD at Chicago. What was your dissertation about?
SOWELL: Oh, it was called, "Say's Law." A historical analysis and in fact, I wrote a very expanded version of that dissertation as a book published by Princeton University press.
LAMB: I counted -- I got on Amazon and counted the number of -- and did it very quickly kind of the number of opportunities to by something with your name on it, and I think I stopped at 57, but I know those are all kinds of things including essays, but how many actual books have you completed since you started writing them?
SOWELL: Oh my goodness. I have been asked that question, I have never actually counted them partly because it depends on what you mean. There are books that are original books. There are books that are collections of previous writings, and so on, and then monographs and so forth, but I have never really tried to keep track, but it's a few dozen.
LAMB: At this point, which one of all of those books sell the most?
SOWELL: Oh heavens, "Basic Economics." Not only it sells the most in English, it has been translated into seven or eight languages.
LAMB: What would you say would be the most important thing and I know this is a simple question, most important thing or things that people who read that book will learn?
SOWELL: Oh my gosh, that is tough. But I guess, they will learn what economics is all about, which is more than just the sum of the topics. And in the first chapter, I point out that economics really -- elaborate on the definition from the London School of Economics is that economics is the study of scarce resources which have alternative uses.
In other words, there was no economics in the Garden of Eden because everything was available, you know, in unlimited quantities, but I think in thinking generally whether in economics or otherwise, too many people do not begin by saying, "What are the inherent constraints of the situation we are talking about?" And they act as if they got on the first day of creation and can follow whatever policies seems to them are best.
But when each of us enters a world that is already completely elaborated and complex before we ever got here, and so you make your decisions within that context and if you don't think of that way, you can have all sorts of utopian notions.
To give one obvious example, from time to time, people complain you know that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson condoned slavery. Slavery was there for centuries before George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were ever born and neither of them thought that the office of the presidency had any powers to do anything about it.
Lincoln was able to do something about it because he did so not simply as president, but as the Commander-in-Chief in a war and what he did applied only to people who were in rebellion against the United States, but there was no basis otherwise.
And so if you can't think in terms of what were the things confronting the people who made decisions, nothing is easier than to sit in a day and say, "This should have been done, and that should have been done." And that is not taking the past as it was. It's treating the past as if it was just the present, taking place in earlier times and that is not the case.
LAMB: When Yale University took the name John Calhoun off of one of their buildings, what was your reaction?
SOWELL: Oh my gosh. By this time, I had given up all hope for the Academic world, and so practically nothing surprises me anymore. If we are going to again look retrospectively -- whatever reason his name was put on there, it was there and I don't know anything that has happened since then that has made Calhoun any better or any worse than he was when that decision was made.
If you are going to go back -- the first that you are so desperate for grievances that you have to go back into history to find them. That really says something.
LAMB: We talked about the impact of Vietnam and Watergate on the country, what about the impact of slavery on the country?
SOWELL: Great and in any number of ways, but the question is -- the thing that always gets me is that the past, whatever it is -- good, bad, or terrible -- it's irrevocable. And the only thing we have any influence over are the present and the future.
And nothing that we do, I was so pained to learn that apparently, Angela Merkel in Germany felt a need to take in these refugees in order to help Germany live down the terrible record of Hitler. Nothing is ever going to change what Hitler did. Nothing.
All you can do is do things that are going to have an effect in the present and in the future. And the effects that her policies are having in the present have been disastrous and there is no reason to believe that they are going to be any less disastrous in the future.
LAMB: I want to go back and look at some video of you in 1987 testifying before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee about Robert Bork. This is about 30 seconds.
SOWELL: This may be the most important Supreme Court nomination of our time not simply because the present court is so closely divided or even because Judge Bork is the most highly qualified nominee of this generation, but because this is in historic crossroads as regards the expanding power of judges which is to say the erosion of people's rights to govern themselves democratically.
LAMB: Why did you testify there and what impact did the rejection of Robert Bork have on the rest of the judiciary over the years?
SOWELL: Oh my. I testified because the gross distortions that were coming out. I was listening to the Congressional hearings during the day and I would hear how Bork was at the very least, racially insensitive or actually opposed to Civil Rights and so forth.
And then I would go to the Stanford Law Library and check out Judge Bork's record and his record before he became a judge. And I discovered in those files amicus curiaepapers filed by Judge Bork repeatedly on the side of Black Civil Rights organization. I learned that no Civil Rights advocate had ever lost a case in Judge Bork's court and I was already familiar with Bork's record before he even -- before I even looked under the law because I was teaching economics and I often read things that he wrote about Anti-Trust Law which were brilliant things.
And so an enormously intelligent man, an enormously decent man and all sorts of utter filth was brought up. One being for example that he had worked for big corporations you see because money was more important to him and Bork was an academic which is not a big bucks enterprise to get rich quick, and a government official of which the same could be said.
And at that particular time, he went to work at a high salary in business. His wife was dying of cancer and he wanted to have the money to make her last days as comfortable as he possibly could and for that to be turned into some kind of cheap political charge was just truly despicable.
More than that, the difference of one man on a Supreme Court that is divided is enormous and every time I read an opinion by Judge Anthony -- Justice Anthony Kennedy that is wishy-washy and incoherent in some cases, I think that that's the price of defeating Judge Bork because he was sent to replace him.
LAMB: So what else -- what is your take on the Supreme Court today just as an institution after all of these years?
SOWELL: Oh it's very dicey and what is dicey are the freedoms that depend upon whether the courts enforce the constitution or whether they go off on their own social adventures. I think the greatest disappointment with this court was just -- Chief Justice Roberts disregarding the Tenth Amendment and finding some terribly clever way of evading it and declaring Obama Care constitutional.
You know, the Tenth Amendment says that the government has only such powers that are specific -- the Federal Government has only such powers that are specifically designated to it and all other powers, either belong to state governments or belong to the people themselves. There is no power for the Federal Government to tell people what kind of medical insurance they have to buy even if they prefer something else.
But because I have no idea what terribly clever reasons the Chief Justice might have had, but once you knock down the Tenth Amendment, there is really nothing the government can't order us to do.
LAMB: Here is another clip of what we talked about in Palo Alto in 2005 and it's very brief, it's only 20 seconds and I want you to give us your reaction to what you said then.
What's the impact of 9/11 on this country and the world?
SOWELL: Oh my gosh. We will never be the same again. I am disappointed in people who seem not to realize that it is not business as usual anymore that it is really -- there are things we have to do that we don't want to do, but the alternative is far worse.
LAMB: That was actually 2005 and here we are 12 years later, what would you say today if the same question was asked.
SOWELL: I think I would give the same answer and I would more apprehensive today because the previous administration has now given Iran the go ahead to develop nuclear weapons and Iran is testing intercontinental missiles.
Now, the thing that they are supposed to be preparing to do is attack Israel. Israel is closer to Iran than Boston is to Denver, all right. You don't need intercontinental missiles to attack Israel. You need intercontinental missiles to attack people who are in another continent and there is not a great mystery as to who would likely be the target if they ever decide to go that route.
And I think right now, we are doing what was done by the Western powers in the 1930 as Hitler was building up his war machine. You are going from day to day and you are trying -- you are taking the easy path and avoiding the hard problems on the assumption that somehow rather you will muddle through.
And they came very close to not muddling through. France of course was conquered during World War II. And one of my columns recently -- it may have been one of the last ones for all I know, I suggested that people who want to understand what is happening in the world today should read a book called, "The Gathering Storm," which is not about today. It's about the 1930s, but once you see this kind of feckless drifting in the face of fatal dangers. You will understand what kind of thinking is going on or the lack of thinking that is going on today in the way that we are approaching the kinds of dangers we are facing now, which are far worse.
Most people don't understand that for the first three years of World War II, the Western powers never won a single battle literally either in Europe or in Asia. They were beaten time and time again because the pacifists had gotten their way in the 1930s and prevented an adequate buildup of military forces for which men paid their lives in those early years of World War II.
Fortunately, at some point, the West learned their lesson. The United States entered and with tremendous productive capacity and was able to supply itself -- Britain and the Soviet Union with the power of the weapons needed to defeat the Nazis and later the Japanese.
SOWELL: But we are not going to have that kind of time in a nuclear war. You're not going to have three years to muddle around and get beaten and then come back. You will lucky if we have a year to get beaten and still come back.
LAMB: "The Gathering Storm" as you said in that late column in December was written by Winston Churchill. Is there anybody today in your opinion besides what you just said that is suggesting that we ought to worry about the gathering storm in public life?
SOWELL: Oh there are people -- oh you mean, holding some official position?
LAMB: Yes, I mean, there are people that I respect…
SOWELL: Not that I have noticed. I mean, you don't get two Winston Churchill's in one century. Ronald Regan would be the closest analogy because he too is gone, but again, we never seem to look at what are the inherent constraints within which you are operating and what can you do within those constraints? I think of Regan when the Soviets started building up nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe pointing at Western Europe and Regan responded by sending in American nuclear weapons in Western Europe pointing in Eastern Europe. People were horrified.
And they said this man is going to get us into a war. We will be annihilated. And fortunately, he disregarded them completely and instead of us getting in to a war, he brought the Cold War to an end. People who have lived through the Cold War with the fear of nuclear annihilation hanging over us all that time had no idea what a feat that was and he did it without firing a single shot at the Soviet Union.
But you know, he was -- I don't think he was ever considered for Peace prize. You know, you don't get a Nobel Peace Prize for having produced peace. You get a Nobel Peace Prize for saying the kinds of things that people who are on the Nobel Committee think are going to promote peace. Even though those things such as the policies of Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Britain in the 1930s said -- which led to war.
LAMB: Since you have been retired from writing your column, how closely have you paid attention to what's going on in this country and in the world?
SOWELL: Oh not nearly as closely as before. Not of it is truly encouraging however. Well, I won't say that. I think the new administration in Washington has some very good people, better than I think most recent administrations have had in the top positions. The only question is whether the President listens to them and that we won't know until a lot more time has passed.
LAMB: I want to completely change what we are talking about to something that you seem to enjoy and it's important to you as you mentioned when you took your four days off and went to Yosemite with your friends and did your photography, how long have you been a photographer because you have this on your website and we are going to show some in a moment, but how long have you been doing photography?
SOWELL: I took my first picture in 1950. And then when the results came back from the drugstore, I was just hooked from that point on. Previously, I had been thinking of becoming an artist. I used to do a lot of sketching and so forth, and so I had a sense of you know, design and you know, art and so on.
And then when I was in the Marine Corps, the Marines sent me to the Navy's photography school at Pensacola Naval Air Station and there, I got you know, professional training in the subject and then when I got out and I was going to -- went away to Harvard, I worked for the University news office as a photographer in order to help pay the bills, and so it was the perfect job because it something I could do whenever I had the time and not just of taking pictures, but when the photographer in charge, you always had more negatives than he had time to print them.
And so if I happen to be awake at 2 a.m. for some reason, it wasn't going back to sleep. I could go over to the news office, let myself in and print the negatives that he had sitting around his desk and leave on the desk for him and tell him my time so I would be paid. So it was a great job.
LAMB: For the audience, I can see you, you can't see me. And you're not going to be able to see these pictures -- photographs, but I want to throw one up on the screen. I know you have got a list of what we are going to look at. The first one I think is Yosemite. It's a -- is that El Capitan?
SOWELL: That is El Capitan. It was taken with a 4 x 5 Linhof camera and probably a 75-mm wide angle lens.
LAMB: When did you take that?
SOWELL: That I don't remember, but it was before I went digital. So it was probably towards the end of the 1900s.
LAMB: And the next photo is a waterfall. Do you remember that from the list?
SOWELL: Oh, I think it's Yellowstone. Lower Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park.
LAMB: It appears -- it is black and white and how much…
SOWELL: Oh black and white, then it was not Yellowstone. Yellowstone was in -- oh I know, heavens, that would be Yosemite falls in the winter, I believe because I think there is snow on the ground.
LAMB: And how much of what you have -- your photography is black and white and color?
LAMB: Do you like black and white or color when you are doing your photography?
SOWELL: I like both, but when I was doing film, most of it was black and white and now that I am digital, most of it is color. A color film can be very delicate until when I travel with color film, I had to take along a cooler that I could plug into the car to keep it cool while I was traveling and then I would have to plug it into a hotel room outlet when I got there because the colors will change if you let the color film sit out in a warm weather.
But fortunately, with digital, it doesn't make any difference.
LAMB: The third photo is a young lady sitting on a chair. She looks like she is about three or four years old. Do we know who that is?
SOWELL: I know, but I am not going to mention her name, but she now a retired lady.
LAMB: When did you take this picture?
SOWELL: Oh back in the 1950s. I believe, in fact I am almost certain, it was before -- I know, but it was probably after I went into the Marine Corps because I know it was taken -- I know what camera I took it with. It was a Busch pressman and I know the lens and so on, so that would have been still in the early 1950s.
LAMB: Is there any way of calculating how much you -- I mean, I don't need to know the dollar amount, but have you spent a lot of money, a lot of your extra money that you have on photography over the years and has that been an expensive hobby?
SOWELL: It's really my only extravagance. I am not big on clothes or luxury -- my wife doesn't wear jewelry and stuff, so this is the only thing.
I will say that when I finally decided to go completely digital and sold all of my photographic equipment to a local camera store, they paid me over $10,000.00 for what was at that time used equipment, some of it obsolete. So I must have spent an awful lot more than that when I bought it originally.
LAMB: Here is a photograph of kids playing on the beach in the water.
SOWELL: Oh yes.
LAMB: Where is that?
SOWELL: That's the Santa Monica Beach in Southern California. The camera was a twin lens reflex called a Mamiya 330.
LAMB: And, and…
SOWELL: I was probably -- I was probably on the boardwalk, the Santa Monica Boardwalk looking down at them, but I saw their picture and just took it.
LAMB: What have you done with all of your photographs? Have you catalogued them all and you are going to give them to somebody?
SOWELL: No, well, I have negatives. I have a few -- I have a few that are prints. Of course, most of them, the ones that I really like, I have hanging on the walls in my home. But I have the negatives -- a tremendous number. My first negative in my file was taken in 1948 of people picketing the White House when Truman was president.
LAMB: And over the years, how many different kinds of cameras have you used?
SOWELL: Oh my gosh. At one time, I had a dozen cameras simultaneously, so this will give you an -- and has obviously been turned over. Today, I struggle along with just six.
LAMB: What kind of cameras now?
SOWELL: I do most of my pictures with two Nikon D3X's and then I have a couple of Sony cameras and then a couple of others, miscellaneous.
LAMB: Here is a photograph of a gentleman painting with a beret on and a cigar on his mouth, where is that?
SOWELL: Oh yes, that's Greenwich Village, 1952 and the camera was a Rolleicord.
LAMB: When you take a picture of somebody like this, do you have to get their permission to use it?
SOWELL: I hope not because I didn't get his permission.
LAMB: Here is an aerial shot of what looks like Niagara Falls and my first…
SOWELL: It is.
LAMB: … question is, how did you get this picture?
SOWELL: From a helicopter. Now sometimes, I have chartered a helicopter just for this purpose, but in most cases, they happen to be an already existing helicopter service and so I just got on for the heck of it and it flew around Niagara Falls, and I simply shot the picture out the window.
LAMB: Have you sold any of your photographs?
SOWELL: Not really. I have -- some of them have been published. There was a picture I took of a lady who is an Academic and someone did some kind of a feature about her and they requested a copy of this photograph. I had given it to the lady in question and when they were interviewing her, they asked if they could use it and so I said, "Sure, go ahead."
I put one on the cover of a book of mine. Unfortunately, that book was out of print inside of a year and so it got very little exposure.
LAMB: I want to show a photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge and cars coming across it and again, the same question. From what angle? How did you get this photograph?
SOWELL: Well, there is an observation area near the Golden Gate Bridge and I had my Nikon D3X and I have a 200 to 500 millimeter telephoto and I used that to take that particular picture.
LAMB: What are you looking for when you are doing photography?
SOWELL: I am looking for something that makes an interesting scene and when I see it, I simply go take it. Sometimes, I pre-plan and looking through old pictures of Yellowstone National Park, before I even went there, I saw a picture of the Lower Yellowstone Falls and I thought, "My gosh, I am sure I could take that picture better than that."
And when I went there, I set it up and I think I did take a better picture than that. My wife tells me that I was there for two hours. Fortunately, she brought along a large book to read as she does on these occasions, but I was amazed when she told me I had been there two hours because I took the picture from every conceivable position with every conceivable camera and lens combination.
LAMB: How long have you been married and where did you meet your wife?
SOWELL: I have been married 36 years and I like to say that I got my wife because of affirmative action that I had written an article about affirmative action which she read in Palo Alto and she complained to a mutual friend that she really objected to what I had said and thought I was wrong.
And he said, well, he is right here in Palo Alto. Why don't the two of you get together for lunch and work out your differences? Well, we got together for lunch. We have not worked out differences to this day, but things took a turn in other directions.
LAMB: Does she agree with you politically at all?
SOWELL: On a lot of things, but of course, no wives and husbands agree on all things.
LAMB: What would be your advice after all of these years of marriage where you have married somebody that didn't have the exact political views? How do you deal with it?
SOWELL: Oh heavens, I'm not one of those people who do things and then you go berserk because someone dares to think differently than you do.
My heavens, that doesn't make -- it is pathetic that people nowadays think that the fact that they disagree with somebody is a reason to go creating a riot and destroying property as at Berkley just recently. The latest among any number of similar incidents across the country.
LAMB: We have one last photograph and that is an aerial view that you took of Stanford University right where you are now, from what angle -- where were you when you took this picture?
SOWELL: I was in a helicopter that I chartered. And we simply flew over the campus and I took the pictures.
LAMB: And after all…
SOWELL: Obviously, a handheld camera.
LAMB: That tower that we see is the Hoover Institution.
SOWELL: Yes, it is. Yes.
LAMB: Now, you have been there how long?
SOWELL: Since 1980, which would be, oh my heavens, 30 -- my gosh.
LAMB: It's about 36 years…
LAMB: Thirty-seven years. But how has Stanford changed since you have been on that campus?
SOWELL: You know, I am one of the least informed persons you could have found on what goes on in the campus. I took the job at the Hoover Institution rather than another job that was offered to me back East mainly because by this time, I was thoroughly disgusted with the Academic world.
And I never planned to teach again. And the Hoover Institution was the perfect place for me because it would allow me a place where I could do the work that I wanted to do -- resource writing and so on and have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the campus and that has been my policy the entire time I have been here.
And it's been the happiest and most productive part of my career.
LAMB: There is something -- I wondered if you were aware of this, there is something on Twitter called @ThomasSowell that you did not start, are you aware of that?
SOWELL: Someone told me that. I have not -- I don't think I have ever gone to look at it.
LAMB: He says that it's a he. He says, "I am not Thomas Sowell, but I own all of his books and tweak quotes from them," and I am going to read back to you a couple of the quotes that he has tweeted out to the followers. He has got over 87,000 followers reading your work. Here is one, it just says, "Most people who read the Communist Manifesto probably have no idea that it was written by a couple of young men who had never worked a day in their lives and who nevertheless spoke boldly in the name of the workers. Similar offspring of inherited wealth have repeatedly provided the leadership of radical movements with similar pretenses of speaking for the people." Was that your book on Marx?
SOWELL: Oh I don't know. No, I don't think I would have put things like that in that particular book which is really a study of the history of ideas.
LAMB: Were you ever a Marxist?
SOWELL: Oh yes. During my twenties. Fortunately, unlike today's left, I never felt that I had to avoid seeing what people with different views thought and so during all of my years as a Marxist, I read everything across the political spectrum. I have to this day a book on Burque that I first read back when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and I treasure that book.
I could tell even then and so, I understood that there were reasons why people have different views, as I see even today, that's not just that it's the -- it's not just a question of being on the side of the angels against the forces of evil.
LAMB: Here is another tweet and these are the words, "Racism is not dead, but it is on life support, kept alive by politicians, race hustlers, and people who get a sense of superiority by denouncing others as racists."
SOWELL: Yes, I suspect that there are millions of Americans who would be gratified if the whole sub race simply vanished into thin air because they are sick of hearing about it.
But there are people for whom this is a very lucrative business. I am amazed at how little attention was paid to the fact that Al Sharpton owes the Federal Government millions of dollars in taxes. You don't owe millions of dollars in taxes unless you have made millions of dollars in income, and the question is, how did this man you know, able to get into a position to make millions of dollars other than by race hustling.
LAMB: One more tweet, "You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats, procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing. If you have been living in a world where outcomes are everything, you may have a very hard time understanding bureaucratic thinking or practices."
SOWELL: Yes, yes. I know from time to time, my wife is amazed at some of the foolish things that are done by the government, but if you understand bureaucracy, it makes perfect sense that -- I will give you an example, some years ago, I went on a trip in which I was -- I turned my expenses to the university for a reimbursement and no one at the university questioned any of the major expenditures, but someone decided that I should not be reimbursed for the collision damage cost of renting a car from one of the agencies because Stanford has this clause that it covers that and so on.
And I was outraged at that time that I went to the Head of the Hoover Institution and that he had better things to do than this, so he gave me a midyear raise in the amount of the collision damage waiver. So that he could get this thing all off his back.
But those people who did that never asked, you know, why did I -- was I there four days for this event? And the answer was, I had a lot of other things -- there is no need to even say that. So long as they have paper, they are happy, you know.
And so that they seize upon these little things that are utterly inconsequential and let everything else go by.
LAMB: You're not that far away from your 87th birthday, what do you intend to do with -- and this sounds like a crazy question, but for the rest of your life, what do you want to accomplish? What's your so-called bucket list for the rest of your life?
SOWELL: Oh I will be happy if I can finish up all the things that I have currently going, which will be quite a project. Right now, I have already finished up the third edition of my book, "Wealth, Poverty, and Politics." Months ago, my assistants were so busy that they haven't had a chance to work on that and to put it into print.
LAMB: So you have got a book coming out soon?
SOWELL: Not soon and I don't even have a time table because I find the easiest way for me to work is to tell no one, not even my agent that I -- what I am working on and when it is all finished, I then send a finished manuscript to my agent and then leave it with her and she knows to call me back when she has an offer.
LAMB: Our guest for the last hours has been Dr. Thomas Sowell. He is sitting on the Stanford Campus where he has an office, but he writes a lot out of his home and there is a lot to read if people are interested in reading a lot of your works through your books and we thank you very much for joining us.
SOWELL: Thank you for having me.