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?