Transcript edited for clarity.
Hello and welcome to Time Well Spent—a place where the most brilliant minds in the world take on the toughest questions in science, politics, technology, and much more.
My guest today often appears under the heading “The Wisdom of Garett Jones” and he is one of the very best people to follow on Twitter for insight into public choice and macroeconomics. Garett is the author of three excellent books, all of which address the biggest question in economics—why some nations are rich, while others are poor. Today we will focus our discussion on his latest release—“The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move to a Lot Like the Ones They Left”. Garett, thank you for joining me!
Garett Jones 00:35
Thanks for having me, great to be here.
A central claim in your book is that populations have “deep roots”, a cultural heritage that continues to meaningfully influence attitudes and behaviors long after migrants relocate. To make things concrete for the audience, what kinds of attitudes are we talking about here? And why are they so important for national prosperity?
Garett Jones 01:39
Well, the attitudes that have been best measured by economists would be attitudes toward trust, towards savings rates and frugality, and attitudes toward the proper role of government in life. Those are three big areas that have big economic implications where economists know from theory and other research that these traits matter a lot.
And they've been able to find, not just for the US, but for countries in Western Europe, Australia, and Canada that for these traits migrants from the second through fourth generation seem to carry maybe half or a little bit less than that of their attitudes from their old country to their new country. So Italian Americans are in terms of attitudes a lot like Italians in Italy, German Americans are a lot like Germans in Germany. This is economically important, and it's underappreciated. It's been sitting in the academic journals for a long time. And I decided it was time to write a book that brings these well documented facts to the masses.
So a lot of times when I tune into these debates, it seems like even people who are maybe a little bit skeptical of the open borders position mostly emphasize that “well, it would be great to have lots of immigration, really open borders, but you're going to have nativist backlash.” The problem is not so much the attitudes that the immigrants bring themselves, it's the reaction to those attitudes.
How much is that a part of the story or are you kind of diverging from that and emphasizing that really it's the cultural attitudes themselves that matter?
Garett Jones 02:56
Well I'm a big believer that the nativist backlash is important, and it's a huge negative we can't ignore. I wrote an essay about this for the Independent Institute a few years ago. And so Donald Trump should be counted as one of the costs of a migration of American migration policy, unfortunately. We probably have to count Brexit as a cost of EU migration policy.
Indirect effects are still effects. This is something that economists are trained on. Effects are not moral choices, they're not morality. They are effects that people should be taking account of when they're deciding what policy path to go down. But that's not the whole story. I do think that ethnic diversity is associated with conflict in rich countries, poor countries, middle income countries. We all know about wars that have been caused by ethnic conflicts. It's just a routine, horrifying finding of international politics and domestic politics.
But I'm saying something beyond that. I'm saying that basically the fact that migrants carry cultural attitudes from their home country to the new country and make the places they come from a lot like the place they left means that if you're an Effective Altruist, if you're a long-termist, you should be thinking about the long-run effects of your migration policy. “Past is prologue”, or past is at least half of the prologue. And so migration policies that focus on having migrants come from countries that are more successful than your own is a good idea. That's why I kick off the book by saying that poor and middle income countries should really consider a long-run pro-Chinese immigration policy.
Gotcha. So speaking of long-term consequences, one of the things you point out is just how dependent the world really is on the innovation of just seven major innovating countries and you say that because these countries are so important, there's a really strong case to be made for being extra careful about immigrating a lot of people with attitudes who might disrupt that climate in the long-run.
But I wonder if given fertility rates in these nations, whether we pretty much have to find some way to make substantial immigration work. Otherwise, these places will become depopulated and it'll be bad anyway.
Garett Jones 05:14
Oh, this is an interesting point worth thinking about right? So there's seven countries, I call them the I-7, and they're the most innovative seven countries in the world. They tend to create the vast majority of patentable ideas and scientific research. They do the vast majority of the world's R&D. And so I argue for a kind of conservatism is sort of cautiousness about choosing migration policies that would really hurt the institutional quality there.
But you're right, if they shrink enough that's a huge cost of the world. But that at least means we need to think through that trade-off. I'm open to the idea that basically, taking some risks with the most innovative countries in order to keep their populations from going to zero is a risk worth taking. But quantifying that risk is well worth thinking about. Really what I want to do here is start a debate by getting people to realize that there's a huge globally important factor that the whole world should be thinking about when it comes to migration policy to the rich countries. And if we lose these geese that are laying golden eggs for the whole planet, that'd be a real loss for everyone.
The whole world has an interest in America's migration policy, and the whole world has an interest in Japanese migration policy. And changing that debate helps us get away from these sterile debates about whether pre-existing Americans are helped or hurt by low-skilled migration to the US. That's an issue that's been debated a lot, and I tend to think they're not hurt very much in the short-run at all. But the whole world will lose if the I-7 substantially lose their level of innovation.
So let's focus in on America specifically for a second. They're one of the seven most innovative nations, probably they're either first or second depending on how you measure it. And yet America is a nation of immigrants. It's an extremely diverse place. When people have tried to measure the contribution to American innovation from various groups, a lot of it comes from immigrants, either directly or indirectly through spillover effects.
Is America just a huge outlier here? Or does that push against your theory at all?
Garett Jones 08:37
America has been a huge outlier in a lot of ways, right?
So in the old days for instance, a lot of progressives used to tell this story where you couldn't compare America to Europe when it comes to say, tax policy. You couldn’t say America has a smaller welfare state, and they're richer, so maybe the smaller welfare state is causing it. They just would say, America is just kind of exogenously richer. We're not going to explain why. But it just seems like it's just exogenously richer. And so America is a big outlier.
But I'll stick to a quote that I have from Barack Obama where he says something to the effect of “America is running this experiment in having an ethnically diverse democracy, and we don't really know if that's going to work.” So he treated our experiment as new and part of the reason he's right to treat that as new is because until about the 1960s, America was a multiethnic democracy on paper only right? We know that American institutions were unwelcoming to widespread political participation from non-whites right? And so to treat America as a big outlier institutionally when it basically governed itself with the electorate of Western Europe for the first two centuries, and for about 60 years now we've been making halting steps toward a true multiethnic democracy, that means that we do not have a century of multiethnic democracy success to look back on and say, “Oh yeah, this will work just fine.”
Social conflict between ethnically diverse groups, including that backlash effect, is very real and probably is putting some sand in the gears of our institutional quality.
How well do you think that experiment is going more recently? Do you think that it was kind of inevitable that moving so far in the direction of the Barack Obama ideal of progress was going to cause institutional challenges, and now we have to back off or maybe insulate our institutions in some way from diversity or from a purely democratic process?
Garett Jones 10:37
I think when it comes to cultural questions, nothing is necessarily so. I do think that culture has a lot of focal points as we call them in game theory, where there's just multiple equilibria. And it's poorly understood how cultures choose one equilibrium rather than another, whether it's about fashion or vastly more important things like politics or economic and cultural norms. But I do think the risk of bad outcomes has grown. Part of the reason is because of this white fragility backlash, which is institution weakening, and I think that deserves real attention as a cost of America's migration policy over the last 60 years.
Gotcha. So maybe thinking back to some of the 90s era conceptions of what defines America, how true do you think it is this idea of the “melting pot”, that maybe at some point assimilation was uniquely good in America in a way that it wasn't in other countries? Do you think that was ever true? And if so is that becoming less true over time?
Garett Jones 12:03
Well, you know, I think the the attitude persistence literature, which the late Alberto Alesina was a key figure in, shows that a lot of the melting pot stuff was never happening that much in the first place. It's just the mere fact that most Americans sort of set aside some of their detectors for noticing the difference between say Italians and Germans and English people and Swedes, the fact that a lot of those detectors faded away in cultural importance does not mean that Swedish Americans became the same as Italian Americans. They're still statistically detectable! They're still distinctly discernible from each other. So a lot of that melting pot was a metaphor that was used for European American integration, which fortunately did not lead to large levels of ethnic conflict.
Ultimately in the 19th century, the Know Nothing Party was anti-German and anti-Irish, so going after my ancestors. That sort of conflict has faded among those groups, but the melting pot we can tell from the attitude persistence literature maybe worked half-way. But not just that it worked halfway, instead I think it was a two-way street. And this is something where I really think further research is needed. A lot of what happened probably, when we say migrants have become a lot like other Americans is that maybe the Americans became a lot like the migrants.
I call this the “Spaghetti Theory” of cultural change. If you were a fancy statistician and you said, “I'm going to check and see whether Italian Americans assimilated to becoming more like other Americans” and said “here’s my statistical test—I’m going to check and see what foods they eat.” If you checked the foods Italian Americans and other Americans ate, you could make a list and say they ate pizza and hamburgers and spaghetti. And you could say, “yeah everybody eats pizza and hamburgers and spaghetti, so I guess the Italians assimilated.” But of course, part of what happens is that the Italians assimilated us. Italian Americans assimilated other Americans. So meeting in the middle is part of assimilation.
There's this belief that a lot of libertarian open borders optimists have that migrants will move to a new country and overwhelmingly move their norms in the direction of the country they moved to. And they never really consider the possibility that people who were there originally will move a bit in the direction of the migrants. But it's probable that a lot of life is a two-way street and norms are negotiated. I would love to see formal statistical tests of this, there are ways one could do it. But Spaghetti Theory is I think an important way of explaining why it is that attitudes converge about half the way in the ways we can statistically detect. But what's the other half? The other half is that a lot of Swedes move to America, Swedes are really trusting, and we became more like the Swedes, thank goodness. I'm not Swedish, but I think I get some of the benefit of their high trust attitudes because it's probably affected me other people I've known.
Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. It's kind of hard to reconcile that image of assimilation moving only one way when if you spend any time in Los Angeles for example, there are a lot of billboards in Spanish and the food that people eat is very different from traditional American food whether they're originally from Latin America or native born American.
Garett Jones 16:11
Right. Migrants are assimilating us to some degree and many of these features are fantastic, right? And we should try to see if all of them are fantastic.
Even if there is a lot of two-way assimilation going on, that still seems broadly consistent with the idea of the melting pot. Because a melting pot kind of implies that everything is melting together and meeting halfway. With the evidence you provide in your book, looking at the persistence of cultural attitudes based on where people originally migrated from in America and comparing different counties that have different amounts of various ethnic groups, it's still not really getting at… it’s hard to do a cross-country comparison and see how much more two-way assimilation is going on in America than other places. Do you have maybe at least some sense whether America was doing a lot more of that and if maybe that's why they were able to bring in a lot of people without a ton of explicit conflict relative to other places?
Garett Jones 17:03
This is a case where I don't have econometrics to back this up. But I will say that just based on the experience of many migrants to the US, they felt like America was welcoming to them. And they felt like if they assimilated to a moderate degree, they could be treated as part of the group to a moderate degree. If that's happening for half of the migrants, that's huge. And it seems as though the norms of people who are careful, non-statistical observers is that America was just better. That's right. I think it's a side effect of American openness. I think that's a lot of what it is, that Americans historically had a relatively high degree of openness.
If I wanted to point to one study that is quite consistent with that openness story, it's actually one of the unconventional “deep roots” papers. The Financial Times discussed it years ago, and it’s about Swedes who migrated to the US. It turns out that the Swedes who migrated to the US tended to have more unusual names. And so this is one of our statistical indicators of individualism and openness to try new things. The Swedes who stayed behind were different statistically than the Swedes who left, and this is one argument for why Swedes chose the welfare state—because a lot of the individualists who would tend to be high in openness left. So I don't want to say that this is conclusive proof that all migrants to the US, at least all voluntary migrants, had the same bundle of traits but it's at least suggestive.
I think that fortunately Americans have had a little bit higher openness to treating newcomers well than a lot of other countries in the world. But you know, what's important for my story is not just this diversity question. I see that as a smaller thing. And I emphasize that the conflict created by diversity is a smaller thing. I think the more important question is, if a lot of folks moved to your country who support bad policies and if those attitudes are relatively persistent, then things are probably going to get worse. And this is why I kicked off chapter one with a story about Argentina.
Argentine migrants, according to mainstream histories of Argentina, were disproportionately folks who were interested in strong trade unions, socialism, political radicalism, and anarchism—which was a left-wing movement at that time. And within a couple of decades, you had first and second generation migrants who were pushing hard for progressive politics. Not just mild welfare state stuff, but full-on direct action. And this is part of what landed us in the end with “Don't Cry For Me, Argentina.” It's a complicated history, I'm just giving a potted version of it. But mainstream Argentine history says they imported attitudes by bringing in new workers who carried those attitudes with them. Traditional progressive historians are proud of that. I think those of us who care about institutional quality and prosperity can learn from those lessons, even if we draw different policy lessons than they did.
Do you think there are any meaningful differences between legal and illegal immigration with respect to assimilation and the attitudes that migrants bring with them?
Garett Jones 21:03
If I wanted to just speculate without having tested it, it would be that illegal immigrants are probably more likely to want to assimilate. Because your goal is to stay below the radar so that you're not likely to draw the attention of authorities. So that would be my uninformed hunch, without having econometric data that I can put to this. I would suspect that illegal immigrants are probably more interested in assimilating… on the condition that they are planning to stick around, conditional on expected long-term duration. If some folks are overstaying their visas or coming over to work for a few years to make money and then go back, I'd say that one would expect those folks to be less interested in assimilation. And maybe they would teach their kids to be less interested because they'd be thinking, I'm gonna raise my kids back home and I want to teach my kids in the cultural norms of where they're gonna live. So I think the bigger distinction is long-term versus short-term. But because people are longer term there, they're probably going to push in that direction.
What I'm really interested in is the second and third generation because I think of it as a book about the long-run, not about the short-run. And so if we're thinking about long-run immigration, I would expect undocumented, or as they say in Europe, irregular migrants to be more interested in assimilating.
On 10% Less Democracy
I'd like to ask a few questions that more explicitly tie in this discussion to your previous books.
On balance, who is more right about immigration, voters or elites?
Garett Jones 23:00
Oh, that's a great question.
I think of our political elites as mostly trying to imitate, or trying to read the views of what they think the voters really want. And I think that voters hold very confused views on immigration. People on the right are happy to show you polls saying people want less migration across many rich countries, and especially in the US where I see more data. But it also appears strongly that those same voters want lower immigration only as long as there are no bad headlines that will make them feel uncomfortable in any way. So I think politicians have to weigh not just what voters say they want, but whether voters will want the consequences of the thing they say they want.
So you can find many voters saying that Americans should tighten the border and have lower rates of immigration. But are you actually in favor of having a dramatically militarized border that hurts a lot of people? Are you really in favor of deporting large numbers of people who've been here five, ten, twenty years? And all of a sudden voters are like, “No, no, I didn't mean that.” So politicians have to be aggregators, and in that respect they have to think through the consequences of what will happen if they give the voters what they say they want.
Now on the broader question of non-political elites, I do think that these elites overall are too optimistic about the costs of ethnic diversity because they're living in bubbles where they can screen out the costs and only get the benefits. They're living in affluent neighborhoods, where poor and lower skilled first generation migrants have to drive half an hour, forty-five minutes, maybe more than an hour just to get there. So they're getting all of what they think of as the benefits of diversity, which is like a lot of ethnic food and people to take care of their homes and engage in what they think of as menial low skilled labor, which is often quite grueling. And they're not paying the costs. That's over in somebody else's neighborhood. Those are somebody else's school districts. I don't have to think about that. So I think that's a big problem.
There's a salience element of the costs of ethnic diversity that even if they're not overwhelming as I emphasize in the book, there's something still that elites do not see. They live in a filtered world, and so they screen out the costs to get the benefits and that makes their views unfortunately biased. I think they would do better to actually read the academic literature.
I think the core question I was kind of wrestling back and forth with in my mind is, how would “10% Less Democracy” affect these issues?
It seems like on the one hand, a lot of elites who would presumably have more power in a 10% less democracy society are kind of out of touch from some of these downsides of immigration that they don't internalize. But on the other hand, if you insulate your well-functioning institutions from the will of the people, then that could potentially reduce a lot of the biggest costs that you point to in your book where the populist attitudes of the people, the anti-institutional attitudes, are going to have less influence.
Garett Jones 26:49
So I talked a little about this in 10%. The European Union had this major migration crisis in 2015, some of which involved refugees. And the Western European saw for the first time just large numbers of people coming across, often in boats, and often large numbers walking through mountain passes to get to countries where they can claim asylum. And for the first couple of months, treating the migrants well polled very well with the voters. And then after about six months it started polling really negatively with the average European voter. So if I thought that the out of touch elites could just ignore what the masses wanted, I would expect that migration would just continue. But once the once the European politicians saw what voters wanted, they actually created an effective border control agency that reduced irregular flows of migrants by 90%. And it stayed that way for years.
They created Frontex, which had been sort of in an embryonic state beforehand, and they snapped it up dramatically. EU leaders started holding press conferences basically celebrating how effectively they were protecting the border. I tend to think that European elites created a border control policy that Donald Trump could have only dreamed of. But because European elites speak in the idiom of Brussels, in this sort of neutral technocratic way that doesn't have the rage of a Donald Trump they accomplished what Donald Trump wanted without actually…
Without the friction.
Garett Jones 27:50
Exactly. So the populist parties of course hold many very bad views, but they got many things that were on their wish list. And they won't celebrate it because the people who accomplished their goals didn't talk the way they wanted them to on Twitter.
So European elites both respond to voters and are effective at giving the voters what they want. So this is something where I think I am one of the few people in the world interested in talking about this to people because the right doesn't want to give Brussels credit for implementing largely a right-wing policy. And the left doesn't want to say “Oh, we did something really right-wing, look at how good we are at this.”
So mood affiliation aside, you basically have a situation where if you have too much democracy, too much populism, then you can't even effectively implement the parts of the immigration skeptical worldview that is correct. And by giving just a little bit less power to the people, you're allowing technocrats to be just a little bit more effective at doing the things that actually kind of make sense on the margin.
Garett Jones 29:54
I think that's a fair summary as I understood it, yes. The technocrats can implement things without giving the voters the mood affiliation they crave. You could say that's the downside of technocracy, right?
Voters crave mood affiliation. They crave seeing the memes that they love. But maybe they should just take their 90% policy win and move on to the next issue to get mad about.
On Hive Mind
So your other book in the Singapore trilogy is The Hive Mind. And there you emphasize national IQ as distinct from the impact of culture. How are the two things related in your view?
Garett Jones 30:38
I would actually tweak that a little bit. I tend to think of my book as describing what a high IQ culture looks like or what a culture with high cognitive test scores tends to look like.
Intelligence tests tend to predict individual levels of trustingness and trustworthiness. And they tend to predict higher levels of group cooperation in an important cooperation game called the repeated prisoner’s dilemma. And when you think about what high trust cultures are like, they're distinct from lower trust cultures. And I think it's not that IQ is the only thing that is an important causal factor here, but it certainly predicts it and it certainly has a higher effect than many other traits people have tried to look at. So I tend to think both books are in a way doing what economists call looking under the lamppost for your keys, even if your keys are somewhere else, because the light is better under the lamppost.
So Hive Mind is my short to medium run book and Culture Transplant is my medium to long run book. But while you can say a lot from economic theory and experimental research about where IQ takes you, it's a lot harder to say where IQ comes from— there just hasn't been enough research that I find to be high enough quality to be confident about that. So I can be pretty confident about forward causation, a little iffy about how much reverse causation is going on.
This is kind of the way monetary policy works, right? I can say don't do this monetary policy and do that monetary policy, but if you asked me why some countries have different monetary policies than others, then I don't know. I just want to tell you what to do, I don't know whether you're gonna listen to me or not. So I tend to think that these cultural traits are certainly going to correlate with IQ to some degree—it's going to be far, far, far from perfect—but what I can say about culture is that because this intergenerational persistence has been so well documented, I can say something that's much more relevant to migration policy. Hive Mind isn't built for that, it's just not a book that lets me address those questions in a credible way.
So Hive Mind is more about forward causation and the precise channels of forward causation. Why is it that higher IQ people are more patient or better at saving or better at cooperation? The Culture Transplant is a book that says, if you want to get trusting people I know how to do it: bring in a lot of people from Sweden.
Bryan Caplan had a big review of your book, and one thing that made him really upset is basically that you didn't just throw IQ into the regressions. And my reading of your response to that was “well, we can't just throw IQ into the regression, because quite plausibly culture is actually causing IQ to develop in the long run.” Is that an accurate assessment?
Garett Jones 33:44
Yes and that is something that even his own comic book would suggest, right?
So if you think of culture as not quite an ultimate cause, but a long-run cause of prosperity and if you think that IQ is one of multiple medium-run causes of prosperity, one of the rules of good statistics is that you don't control for medium-run causes if you're trying to learn about long-run causes. If you're trying to understand what makes a car go faster, you could look at how powerful the engine is. And then somebody else could say, well why would you want to look at how powerful the engine is when you can just look at how fast the wheels turn? If you look at how fast the wheels turn, that'll tell you how fast the car goes. But it would be a statistical mistake to control for wheel speed if you're trying to find out whether an engine is important for making the car go faster.
So I think that's part of why statistically it's a mistake to control for IQ when you're trying to find out whether these deep roots or other long-run cultural factors matter. In multivariate regressions, you don't control for mediators. That's the jargony version of what I just said. Controlling for mediators is a mistake, and you shouldn't make that mistake. So it's unfortunate to see Caplan making a well known mistake in that essay, but he can always correct it I guess. You don't control for mediators.
Gotcha. And so, if culture is its own thing, distinct from genetics in some sense, how much do you think adoptive culture should matter? So for instance, in New Zealand many more people identify as Maori than is likely to actually be the case biologically.1 But maybe identifying with an ethnicity is important and meaningful in and of itself?
Garett Jones 35:53
That's a great question that is really outside the scope of my book. And I'm adopted myself. My parents adopted me at six weeks, and I know that changed my life in many ways.
The thing I was just thinking about the other day, one of the things I'm most sure of about how adoption affected me is that it's the reason I drive pickup trucks. My dad was a pipefitter, an industrial construction worker. And he always drove real big pickup trucks. And so I drive a pickup truck. I'm sure that as a college professor, there's no way I would have done that.
So this question of how much adoption matters and how much that long run experience of being put into a new environment matters is a great question. The normal result from behavioral genetics, as you know, from adoption and twin studies is that on most things adoption doesn't matter much in the long run. Being adopted into a smart family doesn't seem to make you that much smarter in the long run. But one place it does matter is education. It turns out that the effect of adoption on your education level, being being adopted into a high education versus a low education family has a moderate correlation. Usually I think people say .3, with your adult level of education.
And we know that culture gets transmitted through education. Most famously, the best evidence is that cultural attitudes—not political attitudes, but cultural attitudes—towards social tolerance for instance seem to be transmitted through education. The one thing that it seems you can say is just that college makes students more left-wing, not on economics, but probably does make them more left-wing in terms of social tolerance and cosmopolitanism, which is a form of adoption effect I totally welcome.
So you can call those soft effects. I mean, if one wanted to call it a soft effect, I'd say okay, fine. But a lot of those things can add up and matter for a lot of people over time. Again, some of this is outside of my area of expertise, but modern behavioral genetics as summed up by Caplan's very good book, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” is a good place to learn about how being adopted into a certain family affects a few things, but not as many as you think.
So it's interesting you mentioned the adoptive effect of education, the nurturing effect, because I actually thought about that in relation to one of the most interesting facts you mentioned in passing in your book. You note that apparently, at least according to the one study that really closely looked at this, mothers pass on much more of their cultural heritage than fathers do. And I believe that's also true in the education literature, that mothers’ education is much more closely related to child education than that of fathers. It seems like both of those things suggest that there's some sort of not exactly genetic effect there.
Garett Jones 39:01
Exactly. There are things that we think of as the softer side of life that might be transmitted, especially through our mothers, at least for the average person, right? And do those things matter a lot? Without further information, it's hard to say what what counts as a lot. But that one study that looked at the effects on trust of your mother versus your father's level of trust, or the ancestral level of trust, that was really one of the striking things where I hope an enterprising grad student goes and does like five studies of this in seven different countries because it's not something where you need new data. The data are already sitting there in these datasets and someone who did this, who just pressed a button and did it for 20 countries and made that a project, that would certainly be publishable in a good journal.
So maybe to try and punch holes in this just a little bit, I think one thing I've heard economists say is that of course mothers have more influence than fathers just because the father is much more likely to not be around at all. Is that the same thing that’s going on here in this other study? Or do they have pretty uniform involvement from both parents?
Garett Jones 40:24
No, this is something where there's no detail that lets you know this. These folks are very likely using World Value Survey measures and something like the General Social Survey, perhaps Eurobarometer, something like that. And so the detail level just probably isn't going to be high enough for this. I mean, I'm glad to be wrong. The US GSS has a lot of questions, but then you're still just relying on survey responses, which are always a noisy indicator.
It is worth noting though that if you're using noisy indicators and you get a small effect, that's a sign that the true effect is probably bigger, not smaller. A lot of people think that if your measure is noisy and you find something it's just a fluke. It's not impossible, but best guess is that if you get a small effect with a crummy statistical proxy, you'd get a bigger effect with a better one. That's known as the errors-in-variables finding.
It seems like that might be another reason why you would never ever want to control for IQ against these cultural measures, because IQ is just measured much more precisely than a lot of cultural things that we care about.
Garett Jones 41:32
That's right yeah. It's not as important as the mediator channel that I suggested before, but you're right. When you have a choice between the thing that's measured better and the thing that's measured worse, the thing that's measured better is just going to win naturally, even if it's intrinsically less important. Even if you knew hypothetically that it was causally less important.
We're always using mediocre proxies. As a monetary economist by training, that's something you know with money, right? All of our measures of money are terrible, and somehow we can still say something useful.
I was thinking about this when you find that there are very strong positive effects of bringing in immigrants with Chinese heritage. And you find actually negative effects for Protestantism, despite a lot of things in the more general sociological history…
Garett Jones 42:45
Yeah I just wonder whether maybe the Chinese indicator is just a much better measure of culture. And if you had a really good way to distinguish between like, “true Protestantism” as opposed to a lot of different things you might see something different. I get the sense that there's a lot more cross-migration throughout all of the Protestant countries that kind of mixes things in a way that makes it hard to really identify what Protestantism might be doing.
Garett Jones 43:02
I'm open to that possibility. It might just be that the particular study that I know of that I mentioned that discusses this is looking at 1962-1996. At that point, I don't think updating the numbers have changed that noticeably. But in that period Protestantism was a different thing than it was when Max Weber was writing, and certainly Protestantism was a different thing than the period he was writing about. He's thinking about the 1600s and 1700s. So what we call Protestantism is a different creature than it was when Weber wrote and in turn it's different than the day he was writing about.
The Garett Jones Cultural Production Function
Make sense, yeah. So I'd like to close with just one or two more questions.
You alluded to this previously a little bit, but what did growing up in the LDS church teach you about the importance and persistence of culture?
Garett Jones 44:01
Oh, yeah. So my Mormon ancestors came to Utah, and at some point Brigham Young told most of them to go to Wyoming actually. So my ancestors are from Wyoming.
And you know Mormons brought a lot of English Northeastern culture to what we now call Utah. So when one is doing genetic studies and wants to learn what founding era Americans were like, one would want to actually do some studies in Utah. Because a lot of English folks moved there, Joseph Smith and all his family were English.
I believe Utah is still the most English state in the nation.
Garett Jones 44:49
I'm not certain of that, but I'm open to that because I know it's between them and basically the far northeast—Maine, upper New England.
So you've got the English, you've got the Swedes, you've got the Welsh, which is where I come in as a Jones. And it does really seem like they imported the cultures of their homelands to a sizable extent out to Utah. So you know, I would not be surprised if one could statistically distinguish fifth generation English Mormons from fifth generation Swedish Mormons statistically. But at the same time Mormon culture seems to be its own independent force.
Though it has changed a lot. I can use Mormonism to make both points because it captures this diversity of cultural persistence and change. Mormons used to be a theocratic, polygamous, communist cult essentially right in the mountains. And they became pro-democracy, pro-monogamy, and pro-capitalism. I mean all it took was one invasion by the United States government, and they just completely changed their story, right? So that's a reminder that a culture can change in what all of us would think are important ways, and yet still keep other attitudes, other traits of cultural persistence that are there for anyone to see. So it does capture, as I've mentioned to someone on Twitter a couple of months ago, how I could have called my book “The 40% Culture Transplant” and that would have captured a lot of my story. There's a lot of both, and when it comes to persistence and change my Mormon ancestors are obviously carrying the traits of their original countries and then they're able through the repeated environment of an LDS ward, an LDS congregation, by meeting so regularly and spending a few hours a week with the same folks, week after week and year after year, they're conveying the culture of Mormonism and transmitting it kind of persistently from generation to generation.
It's a really effective culture. I think Mormons have created something fantastic that the world should study more. I was lucky to work for an LDS politician, Orrin Hatch. And they are a sign of how culture can be transplanted, and they give evidence that some of this really is just preaching norms, implementing them, and practicing them on a regular basis.
Don't Mormons also exemplify this two-way street of assimilation because they really actively proselytize? And so you have this persistence on the one hand because there are a lot of selection mechanisms that filter who is going to join the church and who's going to stay in the church and that creates persistence, but at the same time you do have a lot of new people flowing in all the time, and that's naturally going to change the culture of the church.
Garett Jones 47:59
Yeah so the economics of religion literature, has thought through this a lot, and if you're going to be a religion that is successful according to Stark and Iannaccone, they say you have to stay in medium tension with the society around you. So the Mormons have had to learn to adapt all the time. And because a lot of it is top down, the leaders have to keep an eye out on cultural changes that they don't want to get too far away from right there. I mean, in a way their goal is always to stay about a generation and a half behind the times probably. And so the leaders are steering to the extent they can the culture of the faith, so that it doesn't get too out of touch with the surrounding society.
On the question of whether their acculturation is changing, the people who joined that's tougher, right? I mean obviously in outward ways, they're going to change. But there's so much selection going on, right? This is one of the standard Scott Alexander points, which is that, in so many areas selection must be driving everything. So the people who are joining Mormonism are the people who think, yeah, I can hack it. I can give up smoking, I can give 10% of my money to these folks, I can go to church every Sunday, right? Mormons lose the vast majority of their converts within a year. And so that's all got to be selection right there, 80% just selection. So basically having a tough filter is one of the ways to make sure that you get people who are going to stick to your cultural norms. So I hope that we encourage the Mormons to keep their tough cultural filter so they can continue to have their fantastic cultural contribution to the world.
Looking at George Mason Economics more generally, quite a few of the professors have strong ties to a religious tradition of some kind. Usually they're not practicing themselves, but within one or two generations there's a pretty clear, significant link there for some of the most influential people that come to mind. What influence do you think that has on department culture and the ideas that come out of it?
Garett Jones 50:14
I do think it means that we want to talk to people. It means we want to share our message with folks. I think George Mason University economists have a proselytizing, even prophetic bent that a lot of academic economists lack. A lot of academic economists are happy to toil away at their journal articles, get them published, and get accolades from their elite peers. And those are great things to do—I've been happy to have some success there myself.
But what GMU professors want to do, and it may be related to their ancestral exposure to strong religious traditions, is that we really want to explain things to others, both in and outside the profession, and bring them around to our views. So the need to persuade, the need to sort of sincerely have people look at your stuff and say I'm actually going to come around to your point of view, that seems to be a passion that many of us share.
And I wish more academic economists had it, because academic econ has so much to bring to the world. And I hope we can find ways to get more of the great ideas of economics, both those that are GMU friendly and those that are not, shared with the world as a whole.
I wonder if that's related at all to the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners there are. Everyone fixates on high average IQ, but it seems to me like a really important factor in winning a Nobel Prize is just really pounding home again and again a really important idea and doing everything you possibly can to thoroughly convince the entire community of it. Is that related at all? Or do you not think so?
Garett Jones 52:09
This is something that I don't know enough about to say, because I don't think of…
You don't think of it as the same evangelism.
Garett Jones 52:18
Yeah, it's not quite the same evangelism. And I actually don't think of 20th century Judaism as having this strong prophetic bent as much as Judaism inheriting a historic prophetic bent. So that's something where I'm open to learning more about that, but I probably have to say I don't know if that's true at all.
But of course if you have really deep roots, and they're well preserved, it could be that you're tapping into something that goes back to a time when Judaism was actually maybe more evangelical in some ways.
Garett Jones 52:59
It’s a prophetic religion, right? So I mean, I think that the book of Isaiah still deserves to rise in status. It’s just a fantastic book, and not just because it has so much of an influence on Joseph Smith but because it has great messages of what a moral society looks like and what morality has to wrestle with.
You know, every culture that seriously wrestles with the prophetic message of the Old Testament I think ends up coming away the better for it. I wish we were in a culture where a greater portion of the American population were being exposed to the prophetic voices, especially the Old Testament. Because it would elevate our national discourse in a really important way.
Garett Jones, thank you so much for joining me. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet you.
Garett Jones 53:49
Again thanks for having me.
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