Voice

Regarding Richwine...

So last week was a pretty interesting one in wonkworld. Whether it was a disturbing week is in the eye of the beholder.

To recap: Last Monday the Heritage Foundation released a report claiming that proposed immigration reforms would cost north of $6 trillion. This report received a lot of pushback from liberal, libertarian, and conservative policy analysts.

As the debate fragmented into myriad sub-debates, one eddy focused on one of the co-authors, Heritage senior policy analyst Jason Richwine. As the Washington Post's Dylan Matthews unearthed, Richwine's Harvard University dissertation was titled "IQ and Immigration Policy." In it, he made the arguments that 1) Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than white Americans, 2) that difference is partly due to genetic differences between the races, and 3) these differences will not dissipate with successive generations. You can figure out Richwine's policy conclusions for yourself. Dave Weigel at Slate also discovered that Richwine had contributed to a "white nationalist magazine" on the side.

Needless to say, Heritage started backpedaling as furiously as possible from Richwine. They made it clear that Richwine's dissertation was not a Heritage work product and that they didn't endorse it. Then, last Friday, the final boom came: Richwine "resigned" from Heritage. I put that in quotes because, given the circumstances, there's no earthly reason he would have resigned without some serious pressure from those above him at the think tank.

So, what does this all mean? Three thoughts:

1) Hey, so it turns out that ideas do matter in public policy. Not just any ideas either, but the quality of the ideas. This isn't to say that politics aren't involved in what happened this past week -- this is totally about political self-interest as well -- but the incomplete and distorted analysis that Heritage provided left it very vulnerable to pushback.

2) A few immigration skeptics on the right, such as Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin, have decried what they see as intellectual PC-thoughtcrime run amok. Malkin in particular decries the "smug dismissal of Richwine's credentials and scholarship." Now, to be blunt, this is just a little rich coming from someone who has not been shy when it comes to smug dismissals of Ivy League credentials in the past. That said, whenever someone goes from anonymous to the focus of a white-hot media scrum to fired inside of a week, I get queasy. Was there a rush to judgment here?

I'd break this down into two steps: First, whether Heritage acted appropriately, and second, whether Richwine's work merits the mantle of brave truth-teller. On the former, well, this is a key difference between a think tank and a university. Think tanks are trying to influence public policy, and the taint of having someone dabbling with the racist fringe on the payroll is a difficult one to erase. So, yeah, it shouldn't be all that shocking that Richwine is no longer working at Heritage, whereas university professors who say or write controversial things stay on the payroll.

As for the quality of Richwine's dissertation, the primary defense that Malkin et al. offer appears to be the caliber of Richwine's dissertation committee. From Malkin's post:

No researcher or academic institution is safe if this smear campaign succeeds. Richwine’s dissertation committee at Harvard included George Borjas, Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Economics and Social Policy. The Cuban-born scholar received his PhD in economics from Columbia. He is an award-winning labor economist, National Bureau of Economic Research research associate, and author of countless books, including a widely used labor economics textbook now in its sixth edition.

Richard J. Zeckhauser, the Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at JFK, also signed off on Richwine’s dissertation. Zeckhauser earned a PhD in economics from Harvard. He belongs to the Econometric Society, the American Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine (National Academy of Sciences).

The final member of the committee that approved Richwine’s "racist" thesis is Christopher Jencks, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard's JFK School. He is a renowned left-wing academic who has taught at Harvard, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He edited the liberal New Republic magazine in the 1960s and has written several scholarly books tackling poverty, economic inequality, affirmative action, welfare reform, and yes, racial differences (The Black White Test Score Gap).

The willingness of Republican Gang of 8'ers to allow a young conservative researcher and married father of two to be strung up by the p.c. lynch mob for the crime of unflinching social science research is chilling, sickening, and suicidal.

These are serious people doing serious work.

I must confess that Malkin's lament made me think of this:

This is not to denigrate Richwine's dissertation committee. Still, as someone all too familiar with the Ph.D. life, let's just say that an argument based solely on authority is not convincing. I've perused parts of Richwine's dissertation, and … well … hoo boy. Key terms are poorly defined, auxiliary assumptions abound, and the literature I'm familiar with that is cited as authoritative is, well, not good. It's therefore unsurprising that, until last week, Richwine's dissertation disappeared into the ether the moment after it was approved. According to Google Scholar, no one cited it in the four years since it appeared. Furthermore, Richwine apparently didn't convert any part of it into any kind of refereed or non-refereed publication. Based on the comments that Weigel and others have received from Richwine's dissertation committee, one wonders just how much supervising was going on.

3) This whole affair should be a cautionary tale to Ph.D. students and profs alike. For the grad students -- particularly those planning on going into the policy world -- your dissertation will follow you for the rest of your life. Don't think you can just grind one out barely above the bar and it won't matter. And if you're puzzled why your advisor or a member of your dissertation committee is acting all anal retentive about some aspect of your thesis, there's a good reason. Our dissertation students follow us for the rest of our careers. The last thing we want as advisors is to get a phone call from a reporter asking us why we let some dubious piece of work skate through. It's our asses on the line as well.

Am I missing anything?

Daniel W. Drezner

Oh, Niall....

Over the weekend Niall Ferguson got himself into intellectual hot water over an off-the-cuff response to a question about Keynes in which he suggested that Keynes didn't value the future too much because he was gay, had no heirs, and therefore didn't care about future generations. Now, Keynes's writings here and here would betray the claim that he didn't care about the future. And the whole "someone who's gay must have a reduced shadow of the future" stereotype is hackneyed in the extreme. So, Ferguson was doubly wrong -- and to his credit, he offered up a real apology (not an "I'm sorry if this offended anyone" variant) pretty quickly.

Critical wounds run deep, however. In response to a lot of online discourse that noted his prior observations on Keynes's sexual orientation, Ferguson penned an open letter in the Harvard Crimson. Some highlights:

I was duly attacked for my remarks and offered an immediate and unqualified apology. But this did not suffice for some critics, who insisted that I was guilty not just of stupidity but also of homophobia. I have no doubt that at least some students were influenced by these allegations. Nobody would want to study with a bigot. I therefore owe it to students—former and prospective—to make it unambiguously clear that I am no such thing.

To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays.… 

Not for one moment did I mean to suggest that Keynesian economics as a body of thought was simply a function of Keynes’ sexuality. But nor can it be true—as some of my critics apparently believe—that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man. My very first book dealt with the German hyperinflation of 1923, a historical calamity in which Keynes played a minor but important role. In that particular context, Keynes’ sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath.…

What the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere forget is that to err occasionally is an integral part of the learning process. And one of the things I learnt from my stupidity last week is that those who seek to demonize error, rather than forgive it, are among the most insidious enemies of academic freedom.

Now there are two things going on here. First, to what extent does a person's biography affect his or her role in history? And second, just who are these "self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere"?

Ferguson is correct on the first point in general, though I'm not so sure about this particular instance. I'm in the middle of Jeremy Adelman's magisterial biography Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, for example. One would be hard-pressed to suggest that Hirschman wrote what he wrote about without paying some attention to his life story. So it is entirely appropriate for a historian to talk about Keynes's personal background in trying to suss out why he argued what he argued.

The thing is, Ferguson keeps eliding important details when he talks about the effect of Keynes's sexual preferences on his policy pronouncements. Take the claim that Keynes's attraction to Melchior affected his views on Versailles. Eric Rauchway points out some additional facts not in evidence:

Keynes made early calculations for what Germany should pay in reparations in October, 1918. In “Notes on an Indemnity,” he presented two sets of figures – one “without crushing Germany” and one “with crushing Germany”. He objected to crushing Germany because seeking to extract too much from the enemy would “defeat its object by leading to a condition in which the allies would have to give [Germany] a loan to save her from starvation and general anarchy.” As he put in a revised version of the same memorandum, “If Germany is to be ‘milked’, she must not first of all be ruined.”

Keynes also worried that too large a reparations bill might distort international trade. “An indemnity so high that it can only be paid by means of a great expansion of Germany’s export trade must necessarily interfere with the export trade of other countries.”

The point of mentioning it is that Keynes developed these concerns prior to going to the negotiations and meeting Carl Melchior.

So even if Ferguson is right on general principle, he's misleading on this particular point.

It's the last paragraph of Ferguson's letter that's quite … quite … 2004 in its formulation. Just who are these "self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere" anyway? The most damning indictments of Ferguson's past discussions of Keynes's homosexuality, Ferguson's more contemporary and woefully wrong economic predictions, and Ferguson's recent intellectual dust-ups come from either Business Insider or the Atlantic. Other prominent online critics of Ferguson over the past week have been Justin Wolfers, Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Rauchway. That's three full professors of economics and a full professor of history.

Ferguson's rhetorical trick here is to try to denigrate the content of their criticisms by pointing to the medium. It's a cute gambit in public discourse, and I suspect it will make him and his acolytes feel better. Intellectually, however, that dog won't hunt.

As much fun as it is to dissect Niall Ferguson -- and I won't lie, I've had a lot of fun at his expense -- this sort of thing gets tedious after a spell. So, please, Niall, try to wade into more interesting intellectual waters the next time you make a mistake.

Oh, and stop claiming "academic freedom" as a shield to protect you from public critiques of something you said at an investment conference. That's not how academic freedom works.

Am I missing anything?