Home/Richwine, Biden and Me

Richwine, Biden and Me

I’ve declined to comment on the whole Richwine saga because, frankly, the whole thing struck me as tediously familiar. In fact, I tried to write something and found myself bored by my own prose.

Fortunately, Joe Biden came to my rescue:

Joe Biden spoke last night in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month. . . . The thrust of his largely unscripted monologue is that Jews have contributed enormously to the United States. That’s obviously a standard spiel for praising any ethnic group, but Biden took care to emphasize that Jews have not just contributed their share to the United States, but far more:

The Jewish people have contributed greatly to America. No group has had such an outsized influence per capita as all of you standing before you, and all of those who went before me and all of those who went before you …

You make up 11 percent of the seats in the United States Congress. You make up one-third of all Nobel laureates …

I think you, as usual, underestimate the impact of Jewish heritage. I really mean that. I think you vastly underestimate the impact you’ve had on the development of this nation.

You can add to the list, of course. Care to know the Jewish percentage of the Forbes 400? Of top Hollywood executives? Of top executives in Silicon Valley? Care to examine the lists of great mathematicians, medical doctors, scientists, composers – you know the drill.

Why this extraordinary success?

Obviously, America has, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, been an exceptionally hospitable environment for Jewish people. America has no hereditary aristocracy. We have a weaker sense of common blood origin than many European nations (though France gives us a run for our money), to say nothing of East Asian nations. We have a very broad conception of religious freedom. And we have a pervasive national mythology of self-creation.

But all of those factors should be just as beneficial to, say, Greek immigrants. Who have, indeed, done very well in America! But there’s no real comparison.

So: why the Jews?

I don’t pretend that’s an easy question to answer – and I’m not going to try to answer it. But it seems to me that the universe of possible answers fall into broadly four categories:

– Jews are doing something right. We work harder, or we value education more, or we nurture our children more effectively, or we don’t waste as much time on narishkeit.

– Jews are doing something wrong. We’re clannish and insular. We cheat and steal to get ahead. We take advantage of soft-headed and soft-hearted gentiles.

– Jews are lucky. It’s just an accident that certain economic and social trends coincided with a moment when Jewish immigrants were particularly well-positioned to take advantage of them. But it won’t last, and it probably won’t be replicated.

– Jews are naturally gifted. Ashkenazi Jews have, on average, higher IQs than non-Jewish whites, and there’s a significant (though not necessarily dispositive) genetic component to IQ.

The first category of explanation is what we’d usually call philo-Semitic and the second category what we’d usually call anti-Semitic. What they share, though, is an implication that moral qualities are attributed to a group on account of their success.

If you really believe the first kind of explanation, then you will be inclined to believe that Jews should be emulated. And a failure to replicate that success would reasonably be interpreted as a lack of effort or seriousness on the part of those doing the emulating. I hear this kind of thing – a lot.

If you really believe the second kind of explanation, then you will be inclined to believe that Jews should be, in some fashion or other, persecuted or restrained. This has been the historic anti-Semitic response to Jewish success – disproportionate success is itself deemed sufficient proof of perfidy. And the dynamic is not limited to anti-Semitism, but is more broadly applicable to “market-dominant minorities.”

By contrast, the latter two explanations don’t impute either positive or negative moral qualities to extraordinary success. Perhaps the success is “earned,” but it depends on underlying natural advantages that are, themselves, unearned. (Obviously, you can make more or less of your natural endowments – I don’t mean to suggest that nothing is ever earned.) Or perhaps the success is “unearned,” but not in a perfidious sense, only in the sense that historical events are enormously complex and chaotic, and sometimes the dice fall just right for one person or group of people. Which doesn’t itself prove the dice are loaded.

So, my question is: why is it considered a moral outrage to entertain the possibility of the last explanation, when it is an explanation with no obvious moral implications?

And so we come to Jason Richwine. Richwine is being pilloried for saying, in effect, that the relatively greater economic success of Anglos versus Latino immigrants is not due to Anglos being harder working, or more committed to education, or better at nurturing their children. Nor is it due to Latino immigrants being shiftless and lazy. Rather, he attributes it, in part, to having an unearned native genetic advantage in competing in the contemporary market economy.

I’m not saying he’s right – I don’t think anybody really knows the answer to that yet, not by a long shot. I haven’t read his dissertation, and it strikes me as entirely plausible that it’s a shoddy piece of work (I’ve heard it described by people who have read it as little better than a literature review).

I am saying that there’s something very peculiar about believing that the worst thing you can say is that one group of people was born with a somewhat less-prevalent natural gift for manipulating three-dimensional surfaces in their heads, while saying “it’s all culture” – which means, in so many words, that the group is living wrongly, and, if they want to better themselves, are obliged to emulate our superior ways of doing things – is much more socially acceptable.

I want to separate debate about human biodiversity premises from the typical conclusions drawn by hbd enthusiasts. For example, Richwine thinks that if there are enduring group differences in IQ, then we should re-tool our immigration policy to attract higher-IQ immigrants. I don’t see why that policy conclusion either depends on or follows from his premise.

Even if there are no genetic differences between groups that drive differences in IQ, there are measurable differences in IQ right now, and there’s no evidence they are going to go away soon. Saying, “all we have to do is eliminate poverty” or “all we have to do is fix education” is saying, “all we have to do is something we have no idea how to do” and then everyone will be equal. Believing that poverty causes low IQ rather than the other way around provides a really good argument for working to end poverty. It doesn’t provide much of an argument for mass unskilled immigration. The whole argument from genetics is unnecessary.

And it’s insufficient as well. Maybe we need more smart computer programmers in America. But maybe we need more spot welders. Maybe we need both – or neither. I worked for several years for a company that was a pretty good approximation of Huxley’s island of alphas, and it was very successful, but it wasn’t very successful at everything. The most efficient way to identify when it’s worth importing labor to alleviate shortages of particular skills is through the market, which is why I favor an auction system for visas rather than handing them out to politically-favored industries (and also because the revenue from the auction would offset the negative externalities of immigration which are currently socialized).

Does that mean that the argument from genetics is irrelevant in policy terms? No, I don’t think it is. But I don’t think it leads necessarily to the conclusions that either racialists hope or anti-racists fear.

If there are deep differences between groups that broadly affect job performance in a wide variety of fields (which is what differences in IQ would suggest), then some aspects of anti-discrimination law will have to be revised. If disparate impact reflects actual differences in group performance, then how can it be prima facie evidence of discrimination? On the other hand, I would argue that evidence of such differences actually makes the diversity rationale for some kinds of affirmative action more compelling. That rationale is that a diverse society requires a diverse leadership, both for political credibility and because different groups bring importantly different experiences to the table. If all differences will wash away in a generation, then perhaps that rationale isn’t terribly compelling. But if they are enduring? Even permanent?

I’m even more confident that evidence of enduring differences between groups provides a strong rationale for redistributionist economics. Actually, I think that case is pretty strong even if no such differences exist, merely on the grounds of deep differences between individuals. Why does the fact that I was born with a high IQ “entitle” me to keep the lion’s share of my earnings, however large, while somebody else born with a lower intellectual capacity struggles to make ends meet? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that, precisely because I started life with a leg up, I’m more obliged to do more for the less-fortunate? But differences between groups, if they are enduring, add another dimension to this case, particularly in the international arena.

Then there’s education. I’m a big believer in the whole different learning styles thing. And I’m also a very big believer that if you spend the time and energy to work with a population that, on its surface, looks like it has less educational potential, you’ll discover all kinds of surprises. I’ve seen it, over and over again. But: that doesn’t mean we’ll all wind up equal. And it potentially requires a great deal of time and resources, which are not necessarily available, certainly not at scale. Lots of really smart experiments are being conducted by charter schools. Meanwhile, under the pressure of education “reform,” we’re doing a lot to wreck the regular school system by making it even less responsive to the diversity – the intellectual diversity – of the student population.

Personally, I think a greater comfort with the reality of differences between people – differences in intelligence, as well as differences in the shape of that intelligence – makes it easier to think about tailoring teaching to the needs of actual students. It’s not obvious why the possibility that there are differences between groups as well makes this process worse. On the contrary, it seems to me that, at least in policy conversations (not so much at the level of an actual educator, who doesn’t have any legitimate reason to think about groups rather than individual students) that fear of stepping over that taboo line has made it harder for us to think clearly about differences between individuals.

Finally: there’s a whole other debate to be had about the validity of IQ. It’s clear to me that IQ is measuring something real, and that that something has a great deal to do with making one’s way successfully through modern life. But it doesn’t escape my notice that modern life is increasingly organized by people with high IQs. Why assume they are disinterested? Even without imputing malice, isn’t it possible that the people predominantly making the rules don’t realize how hard it is for many people to follow them? It’s just possible that we’ve long since passed the point of diminishing returns to society from sorting the population by IQ, and have moved into the realm of negative social returns – increasing the returns to having a high IQ while actually producing net costs to society as a whole. (It’s also possible that the whole system has become pervasively corrupt, and isn’t even sorting fairly by its own standards.) But how can you have that debate if “we all agree” that intelligence is determined by environment, and that therefore stratification of society by IQ is merely the just distribution of rewards?

My bottom line: in the hands of people who want to entrench inequality, of course human biodiversity arguments provide ammunition. But in the absence of that ammunition, they’ll find something else. Privilege never lacks for arguments in its defense, and when arguments are exhausted there’s always force. Meanwhile, in the hands of people who want to address inequality, the truth or falsehood of human biodiversity arguments actually does matter. Because if you want to change reality, you first have to understand it.

To me, the palpable terror of human biodiversity arguments among the elite reflects a suspicion that we don’t trust ourselves with that kind of knowledge. Not that we don’t trust the great unwashed who will undoubtedly believe what they like no matter what people at Harvard say they ought to believe, but ourselves, the meticulously-selected overclass. Why? What do we know about ourselves that we don’t want to admit?

So let me get back to Joe Biden. He’s absolutely right: Jewish people in America have achieved extraordinary levels of success. And I, like many Jews, feel ambivalent about that – but I don’t think I feel the same ambivalence that most Jews do. The ambivalence I usually hear is the one Jonathan Chait articulated: on the one hand, pride in that success, while, on the other hand, fear of how the gentiles will take it. And that’s not my ambivalence.

My ambivalence centers on what William James called “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS” – which, along with identifying success largely in monetary terms, James concluded was “our national disease.” And I hear that disease – a lot. I even hear it sometimes in shul.

I think our conviction that anyone’s success is entirely “earned” has had a widespread corrosive moral effect. Our panic about the possibility that it might be easier for some people – or some groups of people – to “earn” success is due to our knowledge that our social order is premised on bestowing moral authority on the successful. We don’t want to believe that our own success imposes moral obligations on us, and so instead we look for evil forces and individuals to blame for any inequalities we don’t feel comfortable calling just and deserved. And all the while, we get better and better at casually assuming that more and more inequalities are just, and deserved.

This is not the traditional Jewish understanding of how justice works. But I fear we, along with so many of our fellow Americans, are acclimating ourselves to it.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

leave a comment

Latest Articles