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420 of 448 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
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316 of 350 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 4, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
A book with the title Intellectuals and Society can be expected to range widely, and Thomas Sowell's latest does not disappoint, covering ground from economics to criminology and foreign policy.

In each area, Mr. Sowell's complaint is that intellectuals -- "people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas - writers, academics, and the like" - are having negative effects. And, maddeningly, these intellectuals are "unaccountable to the external world," immune from sanction, insulated even from the loss of reputation that those in other fields suffer after having been proven wrong.

The reputation of certain intellectuals may not be quite so immune after Mr. Sowell has finished with them, because he is withering in assessing and recording their failures.

The newspapers take it particularly hard from Mr. Sowell, and not just the American ones. There was the Daily Telegraph's prediction that Hitler would be gone before the end of 1932, and the Times of London's description of the Nazi dictator as a "moderate." Add to this a New York Times column issued by Tom Wicker on the collapse of the Communist bloc, cautioning, "that Communism has failed does not make the Western alternative perfect, or even satisfying for millions of those who live under it."

This book does a wonderful job at marshalling facts to puncture commonly held notions of intellectuals and others who tend to be political liberals. It'd be hard to think the same way about income inequality ever again after reading Mr. Sowell's tremendously clear explanation of confusion between income and wealth and "confusion between statistical categories and flesh-and-blood human beings." By the time Mr. Sowell is done, the confusion is gone.

He does the same job on gun control, on the supposed epidemic of arson fires at black churches in 1996, and on various topics related to crime and punishment. Mr. Sowell can turn phrases back around at left-wing intellectuals like boomerangs. "What is called 'planning' is the forcible suppression of millions of people's plans by a government-imposed plan," he writes. "Many of what are called social problems are differences between the theories of intellectuals and the realities of the world - differences which many intellectuals interpret to mean that it is the real world that is wrong and needs changing."

Even those already steeped in free-market economic thinking will find new facts and perspectives here. Who knew, for example, that restrictions on land use have so artificially inflated housing prices in San Francisco that "the black population has been cut in half since 1970"?

"The power of arbitrary regulation is the power to extort," Mr. Sowell writes, giving as an example a San Mateo, Calif., housing development whose approval was contingent on the builders turning over to local authorities 12 acres for a park, contributing $350,000 for public art, and selling about 15% of the homes below their market value.

Some of these historical facts may be relevant to our own times, such as Mr. Sowell's observation that, "As President, Hoover responded to a growing federal deficit during the depression by proposing, and later signing into law, a large increase in tax rates - from the existing rate of between 20 and 30 percent for people in the top income brackets to new rates of more than 60 percent in those brackets."

Mr. Sowell does sometime tilts his facts to favor his thesis. For example, there's a whole scathing section about intellectuals who opposed President Bush's "surge" in Iraq, but there's no mention of the fact that the idea for the surge came from a right-of-center policy intellectual, Frederick Kagan. While Mr. Sowell faults "intellectuals" for all kinds of bad thinking, in so doing he relies on and cites approvingly a string of other intellectuals -- Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Eric Hoffer, Paul Johnson, Robert Bartley, James Q. Wilson, Victor Davis Hanson. Mr. Sowell himself, by his own definition, qualifies as an intellectual.

If Mr. Sowell is angry at intellectuals, one reason is for covering up the progress and prosperity of his own country and the open-mindedness of its people. "Data showing the poverty rate among black married couples in America to have been in single digits for every year since 1994 are unlikely to get much, if any, attention in most of the media. Still less is it likely to lead to any consideration of the implications of such data for the view that the high poverty rate among blacks reflects the larger society's racism, even though married blacks are of the same race as unmarried mothers living in the ghetto on welfare, and would therefore be just as subject to racism, if that was the main reason for poverty," he writes.

Intellectuals and Society seems to have been written by Mr. Sowell out of a belief, or a hope, that the society will ultimately outsmart the intellectuals. Armed with Mr. Sowell's book, readers will be in a better position to help do that.
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217 of 250 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Intellectuals and Society is the latest in a series of books on Western `intellectuals', by Thomas Sowell. Intellectuals deal with ideas, but may not do so intelligently. Sowell is mainly concerned with the verifiability of ideas. The social visions of intellectuals like Rousseau, Marx and Engels, Galbraith, and Keynes have had dire consequences.

This book contains a plethora of examples of how many high profile intellectuals in the media and academia have been proven wrong- but without losing credibility among their peers or target audience. This is a serious problem because intellectuals affect public opinion, and with it public policy. Intellectuals of the past successfully agitated for defective policies: for so-called protectionism, living wages, and social justice has hindered economic progress. The naïve attitude that some intellectuals have had towards totalitarian movements proved disastrous. Yet many of the same defective arguments from earlier periods are still in use by today's intellectuals.

Sowell does a good job of illustrating the pernicious influence of leftist intellectuals. What is less clear is why opposing intellectuals, like Sowell himself, have not been more successful. Is there a simple lack of data among certain people? Does ideology cause a lack of cognitive dissonance? Are there self-serving reasons for spreading faulty theories, visions, or data? These are an important question, the answers to which will tell us if we need better education or a better vision (or maybe both). The fact of the matter is that this book does help to discredit certain intellectuals, and this is an important next step. Unfortunately, it will be read least by those who need to most urgently: those who are routinely swayed by defective ideas need to read this book, but how many of them will?
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59 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Let me start by first taking issue with the reviewer that gave this book a single star review. I suspect that the author of that review either didn't read the book or simply shut his mind off during the first chapter, where Mr. Thomas Sowell clearly defines what he means by Intellectuals. We could postulate that all intelligent people that effectively use their minds in the pursuit of their professions, be them scientists, engineers, doctors, or newspaper columnists, are intellectuals. However, Mr. Sowell is very careful to narrow the definition to those "people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas--writers, academics, and the like." He is not talking about people whose end products or services are tangible, such as inventors and doctors. That this person (the one-star reviewer) so misunderstood the definition leads me to believe that his post here is solely to attack a man whose logic is a clear and present danger to his own ideological leanings.

Mr. Sowell is further very careful to credit intellectuals who have made a mark in their specific core knowledge or field and only faults them when (believing themselves intellectually superior and apparently all-knowing) they opine on things over which they have no expertise (in some cases) or on which they are wholy ignorant (in others). Therefore, scientists that have created or discovered cures for previously deadly diseases are to be commended; similarly, writers whose "verbal virtuosity" separates them from the rest ought to be commended for their cleverness. When they apply that cleverness to mistaken notions is when they become dangerous.

It is precisely those notions that this book sets out to examine.* In the process, undeniably, Mr. Sowell slaughters many of the Left's sacred cows. Nowhere is he more effective at that than in Chapter 3 (Intellectuals and Economics) where he not only manages to slay some of the left's most sacred cows--the notions surrounding "Income Distribution"--but also grounds them, cooks them, and makes juicy hamburgers out of them. After several well-substantiated examples of intellectuals disregarding and/or ignoring proven (even basic) economic principles, Sowell concludes that many of the intellectuals who have sincerely and passionately supported economic re-distribution are simply economically illiterate!

Mr. Obama would definitely benefit (and the country along with him) from an earnest reading of this book.

*(In the interest of truth, let me state the obvious. Dr. Sowell himself fits the definition of an Intellectual as he defines them in his book--except when he is talking about Economics, as he is an expert in that field. But this is beside the point. There are (were) intellectuals (from the left, the middle, and the right) whose ideas may be valid, whose input does benefit society, and whose influence is still inspiring others to generate beneficent ideas. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln (to name just three), come to mind. The whole point of the book is not to deny that some intellectuals are brilliant. The point is to examine those ideas that did not work, and why even though they did not work, they're still permeating society).
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Dr. Sowell has written a very interesting and informative book about intellectuals and their role and effect in society. Sowell defines an intellectual as someone who works in ideas. According to Dr. Sowell persons in such mentally demanding occupations as medicine and engineering are not intellectuals because these occupations are result driven. The fault line is that such occupations are subject to external criteria of success or failure. For example a complex medical operation either succeeds or fails regardless of how the surgeon states his ideas or how nuanced the language the surgeon uses. Intellectuals operate in a difference situation. Their ideas are only internally verified. Intellectuals are not subject to penalty or loss of credibility for the failure of their ideas. Intellectuals are most often judged by their "verbal virtuosity".

Dr. Sowell then describes the effect of the ideas of leading intellectuals in economics, law, social issues, and matters of war and peace. In most cases the ideas of the intellectuals turned out to be disasters. Yet the intellectuals suffered no consequences. In essence the intellectuals are sealed off from feedback of the negative outcomes of their ideas.

Dr. Sowell points out that the work of scientists, medical doctors, engineers and other mentally demanding occupations have added vastly to human health and well being. He questions whether the impact of intellectuals in toto is in its net effect is positive at all, or whether the intellectuals in general caused much more hurt than benefit.

I do have some quibbles with the book. For example I do not think Herbert Hoover, even if a decent man otherwise, was anything but an abject failure as President. Hoover did not go off the gold standard when such a move was a matter of necessity. However this work is still excellent. The book is one of the better treatment of the intellectual class and is very well written in the bargain. The book should be read by everyone with a interest in the modern world.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Arguments about ideas are the bread and butter of the academic, journalism and think tank worlds. That is as it should be. Honest intellectual debate benefits any society where its practice is allowed. The key element is honesty.

Today, someone is always looking to take out the fastest gun, and in the battles over the hearts and minds of the public, many weapons are brought to bear. Unfortunately, and too often, among the artillery deployed by both sides in an argument are rhetorical deception, misleading statistics and an air of authority, which can immediately bury facts in the Boot Hill of honest debate.

Seldom held accountable for the violence brought to bear on the verifiable when their ideas lead to long-lasting negative effects, many of these intellectual gunslingers head into battle confident that their wits will save the world from another perceived plight.

Fortunately, Thomas Sowell is one of the fastest intellectual guns in the proverbial corral. His latest, Intellectuals and Society, finds the erudite economist turning his guns on the so-called intellectuals who attempt and too often succeed in swaying public opinion and political policy, where the arrogance of intellect too often is the smart bomb dropped squarely on empirical evidence.

Indeed, intellectual folly knows no ideological parameters. However, Sowell divides intellectuals into two classes, where ideological divides are readily identifiable. The first is comprised of those with a constrained, or tragic, view of the world. To a conservative sympathetic to writers such as Russell Kirk and T.S. Eliot, there is an understanding that humankind is fallen and that there can be no heaven on Earth. Eliot and Kirk held that a worldview is only viable inasmuch as it reflects what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination, which he defined as, "the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment ..."

Sowell, however, forgoes the transcendent definition in favor of a quotidian, earthbound understanding:

In the tragic vision, social contrivances seek to restrict behavior that leads to unhappiness, even though these restrictions themselves cause a certain amount of unhappiness. It is a vision of trade-offs, rather than solutions, and a vision of wisdom distilled from the experiences of the many, rather than the brilliance of a few. ... In the constrained vision, there are especially severe limits on how much any given individual can know and truly understand, which is why this vision puts such emphasis on systemic processes whose economic and social transactions draw upon the knowledge and experience of millions, past and present. (p. 78)

The other class of intellectual, according to Sowell, possesses an anointed vision, which is a belief that humanity is perfectible and the world is one large Petri dish where superior intellects can craft an earthly paradise through bold experiments:

"[S]ocial contrivances are the root cause of human unhappiness and explain the fact that the world we see around us differs so greatly from the world we would like to see. In this vision, oppression, poverty, injustice and war are all products of existing institutions--problems whose solutions require changing these institutions, which in turn require changing the ideas behind those institutions. In short, the ills of society are seen as ultimately an intellectual and moral problem, for which intellectuals are especially equipped to provide answers, by virtue of their greater knowledge and insight, as well as their not having vested economic interests to bias them in favor of the existing order and still the voice of conscience. ... This vision of society, in which there are many 'problems' to be 'solved' by applying the ideas of morally anointed intellectual elites is by no means the only vision, however much that vision may be prevalent among today's intellectuals." (pp. 76, 77)

Sowell presents specific examples of the anointed urge throughout several chapters respectively dedicated to media and academia; economics; law; social planning; and war. His rogues' gallery includes twentieth century leaders and thinkers such as Woodrow Wilson, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Dewey, Neville Chamberlain, John Maynard Keynes and Rachel Carson. Wilson's academic background is credited by Sowell as providing him with the intellectual arrogance to allow American shipping in German blockaded water, giving him an easy excuse to seek war against Germany when those ships inevitably were attacked. Russell, Dewey and Chamberlain are all taken to task for their illtimed and irresolute pacifism at a time when stern diplomacy and a big stick approach would've yielded better results prior to World War II. The furor against the pesticide DDT caused by Carson's research is credited by Sowell (and many others) as causing the subsequent deaths of millions from malaria and dengue fever.

Rather than engage in simple character assassination, however, Sowell gives his devils their respective dues. No one doubts, for instance, Carson's correct conclusion that unchecked application of DDT was causing softening of shells for eagles and other raptors. What is questionable is the subsequent overstatement that all levels of pesticides had detrimental impacts on all wildlife. Likewise, Sowell praises the linguistic work of Noam Chomsky while lamenting Chomsky's straying from the fields of language to the swamps of political debate, where his ideas provide succor to other intellectual elites.

While characterizing the anointed as individuals besotted with their own intellect, Sowell argues that their ideas would not gain traction without the use of rhetorical parlor tricks. Here, Sowell shines as he offers his own "guide to talking to intellectuals." Often the first shot over the bow of a constrained thinker's argument is the anointed's charge that it is "simplistic." Sowell explains why this dismissal is, more often than not, dishonest as it expands the original "question to unanswerable dimensions" and derides "the now inadequate answer as simplistic."

Sowell is perhaps more convincing when he identifies the demonization of opponents as the favorite rebuttal of the anointed. The refusal to accept the goodwill of one's opponents - as a starting point for honest debate -- is an all too common device employed by the anointed, according to Sowell and this writer's personal experience. This often leads right away to personal attacks. From John Stuart Mills' admonition of Conservatives as the Party of Stupid to pacifist J.B. Priestley's assertion that the British public favored war only out of ennui and the desire for patriotic displays, Sowell portrays the ad hominem as a first line of attack.

Should insults fail, the assumption of the moral high ground is the second wave of attack: How can one defeat an opponent who presents him or herself as more compassionate toward fellow humans or presents themselves as more caring about the beauty of nature and the state of the environment? As Sowell aptly puts it:

"While the conflicts between the tragic vision and the vision of the anointed can lead to innumerable arguments on a wide range of issues, these can also lead to presentations of views that take the outward form of an argument without the inner substance of facts or analysis - in other words, arguments without arguments."

Elsewhere, Sowell's prodigious knowledge is brought to bear on his discussion of intellectual claims for rights where none exist, including the supposed "rights" to affordable health care, living wages and other social justice issues. In each instance, he concisely eviscerates the intellectual arguments for the necessity to enact change. And he does so in a fresh way, without a hint that he might be simply rehashing his weekly columns.

Sowell's book is a handy compendium of point/counterpoints. For every John Dewey who claims, "Having the knowledge we may set hopefully at work upon a course of social invention and experimental engineering," Sowell quotes the wisdom of a Friedrich Hayek:

"Not all knowledge in this sense is part of our intellect, nor is our intellect the whole of our knowledge. Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions-- all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct. They are as much an indispensable foundation of successful action as is our conscious knowledge." (p. 14)

Intellectuals and Society is a great read for those who increasingly engage in debate on the polarizing issues of today. Had Sowell not finished writing the book prior to the recent release of the Climategate emails, one can imagine the firepower he would've brought to bear on that topic. His defense of common sense and empirical facts over intellectual arrogance and rhetorical sleight-of-hand should serve as a handbook for anyone interested in engaging in honest debate.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book is a must have for undergrad and graduate students. It will give insight into your own professors biases and help you understand where they are coming from. From there you can start to take what they tell you, weigh it, and come to your own conclusions. Word of advice to students, especially undergrads: as a graduate student and former teaching assistant, always remember that your professors are only human and they have their own biases, formed by their experiences and what they have been exposed to during their own lives. DO NOT TAKE EVERYTHING THEY SAY AS FACT AND LITERAL. Even if you do not question them in class, analyze what you already know with what they say, maybe even do your own research. Most of all form your own opinion. This book really helps give you invaluable insight into how intellectuals see themselves, their biases, and beliefs. It will also help you to understand the "ivory tower." I too have struggled in the "ivory tower" because I fear that not having the "correct" opinion or a "politically correct" thesis will keep me from getting a job later in my career. Like Sowell explains, the "Ivory Tower" does not allow for outside opinions or opinions that differ from the status quo. Being conservative is something you keep to your yourself and I have met quite a few conservative professors who have told me they fear being found out as conservatives. The book helps you see all this. Even conservative scholars have to tow the line or face not getting a job at a college in a very competitive line of work. Only 40% of those who graduate with a PhD get hired and your dissertation can make or break your career. It almost forces you to write as a liberal to get a job meaning scholarship always trends liberal. In my department even the older conservative liberals on the faculty hate conservative leaning historian Amity Shlaes and her book, "The Forgotten Man" and it may be why she does not work at a college.
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31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on January 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Another feather in the cap of the aggresive conservative wave of authors. While most liberals have spent much of the past decade writing blistering criticisms of a single war not yet concluded, Sowell pours more energy yet into the conservative command of economics and rational thought on society, ethics, and tradition.

Reading his work, I truly believe that Sowell would have found a place at any of the Founders' tables. That old brand of intellectualism has all but been severed from our current schools of thought. A cord ran through our Founders' ideas that began generations before and stretched on into a future strengthened by common wisdom. It was the intellectualism of a man congizant of the tempered wisdom that his own ideas and visions are built upon. Americans must be thankful that such bold and principled thinkers like Mr. Sowell still have a platform in our increasingly myopic culture.

Another addition to the canon of great Sowell writings.

"Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it." ~JFK
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46 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Thomas Sowell's Intellectuals and Society is about the intellectuals, their pursuit of their vision, and how pervasive their vision was in society. This book analyzes the attitudes, behaviors, and the vision of the intellectuals. It is somewhat a historical book on the intellectuals and the direction they have taken for society.

I was going give a 4-star rating because it was a tough read. However, I was so ticked-off after reading this book, I gave it a 5-star. The first 100 pages were tough reading but the rest of the book got a little easier. It was sickening reading the devastations and failures society incurred by following the visions of the intellectuals. If you're a previous reader of Sowell's book, the intellectuals and the anointed are pretty much the same.

Here are the highlights and my takeaway:
- The distinction between the tragic vision and the anointed vision.
- The intelligentsia had put society in very precarious situations.
- Unlike those from hard sciences, the intelligentsia lives and breathes on unconstrained ideas without accountability. The intelligentsia places a lot of weight on their ideas regardless of the efficacy of those ideas: vision first, everything else second. Hence, the history of intellectualism is wrought with failure. Unfortunate for society: the invalidated ideas are cheap.
- Since WWI, one could say that dictators' best friends have been intellectuals.
- Members of the intelligentsia might be knowledgeable in their fields of expertise, but by no means experts in all fields. Yet, the intelligentsia is driven to chart the destinies of the populace by means of government regulation and directives.
- Intelligence is a subset of wisdom.
- Intellectuals are very good with verbal virtuosity. So much so that the intellectuals are wowed by their own brilliance and take their own verbal virtuosity as faith without having to validate their arguments. As a result, they believe in unproven and unsubstantiated notions.
- Intellectualism and free markets do not go together.
- Disagree with the right, the right might you are on left-base. Disagree with the left and the left might think you're sub-human. The intellectuals take their beliefs quite personally and their egos can be provoked by questioning the beliefs. Intellectuals seem to have a lot of skin in their beliefs. Competing ideas must fall within acceptable parameters of the collective vision, otherwise it will be dismissed regardless if the idea was beneficial to society or not.

In simple terms, the distinction between the right (conservatives) and the left (the intellectuals) is the difference between living based on individual interests, goals, and pursuits (the right) and living based on limits imposed by a small collective (the left). Attaining individual pursuits, by definition, does not require collective imposition.

This is probably why the right and the left are so polarizing. The fundamentals behind the visions of the left and right are polar opposites. It is like comparing apples and oranges. It is like trying to get polar bears and penguins to get along.

Intellectuals have little faith on the self-reliance of society; probably because of the perceived view that society lacks the cognitive faculties to appreciate intellectualism that the intellectuals endear. Thinking that there is a better world than what the unsophisticated society is currently living and believing that they know more than society, intellectuals try to steer society towards that better world.

Unfortunately, intellectuals mistake intellect for knowledge, and as a result intellectuals try to piece together a solution given the limited scope of their knowledge. This mistake leads intellectuals and society to dangerous times.

I used to think that having intellect requires logic and reason; hence intellectual thought would be full of logic and reason. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. The intellectual thought is a vision based on notions that are derived from a limited scope of knowledge.

After reading this book, I think I know why Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News have made an indelible mark on modern American society. It is because they are the antithesis of intellectualism, which have pervaded the media for about 80 years. They provide an alternative view which is without the intellectual vision and makes the point about flaws in the intellectual vision.

There was a lot more details that I could have added to this review, but I decided to limit the size of the review. I would recommend this book to anyone want to understand the history of intellectualism, their influence on global societies, and how pervasive intellectualism is and was. In a strange way, it is a good antithesis of conservatism.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I need to preface this by saying that I am a big fan of Sowell's works. But at this point I believe he has been over-published, and much of his work is now repetitive. Intellectuals and Society bears too much similarity to previous works of his such as A Conflict of Visions, and those works are shorter, which means that much of this work will be a waste of time.

Most of the content is superb. Some of his examples of where intellectuals attempt to make pretentious and dubious claims to the right to impose their vision on others best be noted; Sowell is no doubt right in much of what he says. There are a few places where what is written is questionable, however, as in Sowell's chapters on intellectuals and the law. One almost senses that he would do away with the concept of judicial review altogether, arguing that it is unconstitutional (in theory this is true, since there is no mention in the constitution of this as the role of the courts, but few people really question john Marshall's assertion of judicial review as the court's prerogative starting with Marbury v. Madison). While there is good value in rejecting judicial activism, I feel that Sowell does not make a careful distinction between the two, which may have provided this book with a fresher approach than some of his previous work. Additionally, Sowell repeats himself over and over again, so the book at 540-some-odd pages appears as though it could have been written with more impact at no more than and possibly substantially less than 400 pages. There is nothing so insulting to a reader--or which wastes so much of a reader's time, which is his greatest asset--as redundancy. Ultimately that is my biggest problem with this work.

Better to read Knowledge and Decisions, A Conflict of Visions, The Housing Boom and Bust, A Personal Odyssey, and much of Sowell's other work.
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