The politics of group identities and IQ

When the Heritage Foundation published its report on the huge cost of the proposed immigration reform package, there was criticism of its methodology. (See here for the background on this story.) One was that the report’s estimated net cost to the economy of $6.3 trillion was arrived at by projecting over the next fifty years and no one takes seriously such long-term projections. Even numbers ten years out are highly iffy. The suspicion was that fifty years was chosen to get a large dollar number that was scary and/or because in the short run there would actually be net plus to the economy due to younger immigrant workers contributing more, while the costs would increase when they became older and reached retirement

What was unusual was the strong negative reaction from even reliably conservative circles (see here and here ) to a report from a staunchly conservative institution, showing how immigration reform is causing a deep divide within their ranks. These conservatives seemed to worry that this heavy-handed attempt by Heritage to stop immigration reform would further depress the already low standing of the Republican party in the immigrant community, just when they were trying to reach out to them to stem their electoral losses.

But they also criticized the fact that the report did not use ‘dynamic scoring’ in its methodology. Dynamic scoring is much beloved in conservative circles because it is the kind of magical thinking that enables them to arrive at the idea that tax cuts will actually reduce the deficit because the increased economic activity generated by the cuts will boost the size of the economy and thus generate additional revenue that would more than compensate for the loss of direct tax revenue in the short term. The problem with dynamic scoring is not necessarily with the idea itself but that the estimates of resulting growth rates can be unrealistically inflated in order to get the required results.

The unearthing of the doctoral dissertation by Jason Richwine, one of the co-authors of the report, added to the unease in conservative circles because of its claims that succeeding in the US and integrating into its society required a certain level of intelligence and that Hispanic immigrants, unlike the case of previous generations of white immigrants, seemed destined to become a permanent underclass in the US due to their low IQ that stayed low over generations and thus prevented their assimilation. The policy prescription that was proposed was that immigrants be selected on the basis of their IQ, and only those above a certain cut-off would be allowed in. Richwine is careful to point out that such a policy would be race-neutral. Any person of any color would get in provided they met the IQ cut-off, so it would be a meritocratic system. It just so happens that Hispanics and people of color (other than those from a few East Asian countries) happen to have average IQs that are much lower than those of white people from European countries. (I will look closely at this and related issues of IQ in the next post in this series.)

Richwine’s dissertation shares many common features with the 1994 book The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, which is not surprising since he profusely thanks Murray for being his primary advisor. Both documents start out with all the caveats about the difficulty of defining intelligence and race and so on. But once those preliminaries and qualifications are out of the way, they simply treat IQ tests as measures of intelligence and assume that groups of people that happen to share a group identity such as language or history or culture or nationality would also have similar levels of intelligence, even after allowing for some variation within the group. And both arrive at similar conclusions: that IQ is a major determining factor in determining the social and economic status of people, that IQ levels are largely hereditary, and hence those with low IQs and their descendants are more or less destined to become a permanent underclass.

The main difference is that in The Bell Curve, Murray and Herrnstein were largely comparing whites with the black community that is already here while Richwine is comparing them to Hispanic immigrants who can be kept out, so their policy prescriptions are different. Murray and Herrnstein say that attempts to improve the conditions of the black community by programs such as Head Start and affirmative action are a waste of time since their conditions are caused by low IQs that are largely immutable. Instead we should try to find ways to keep them from causing trouble because low IQ people have a propensity to indulge in crime and other socially negative endeavors and end up in trouble. Society would be better served by focusing our resources on those with high IQs since only they provide any real benefits to society. Richwine’s solution would keep Hispanics out by using IQ tests as the basis of admission.

This is a thesis that is congenial to well-to-do people since it validates them by suggesting that they are successful because they are intelligent and not because of wealth or family background or social connections or other forms of privilege, or just plain dumb luck which is often the most important factor in success. And it feeds their belief that they are really deserving of even more of society’s wealth and benefits and that any effort to (say) increase their taxes is a horribly unjust act by an ungrateful society. They think of themselves as society’s wealth creators and the rest as parasites living off their efforts, agreeing completely with Mitt Romney’s division of society into ‘makers and takers’. Today’s one-percenters are truly children of The Bell Curve, having completely internalized the thinking of that book.

But Richwine, who was quickly forced out by the Heritage Foundation, also has his defenders. There is deep anger in some conservative circles at what they see is the cynical abandonment of a conservative scholar by those who should be his supporters. John Derbyshire, whose comments on race were too extreme even for the National Review, says that Richwine is the victim of a witch-hunt because people can’t handle the truth.

Michelle Malkin, who wrote an entire book titled In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War 2 and the War on Terror, justifying the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and urging the profiling of Muslims now, strongly defended Richwine as a scholar saying, in her typically understated fashion, that he had suffered a ‘crucifixion’ at the hands of his enemies. Rush Limbaugh also came to Richwine’s defense. Oddly enough, both of them invoked the scholarly reputation of Harvard University and its faculty as evidence of his sterling intellectual qualities, a reversal of the normal sneering of liberal, east coast, effete, academics who are out of touch with the ‘real world’ and ‘real Americans’.

But the damage has been done and the political fallout has already started. One example is Pablo Pantoja, the State Director of Florida Hispanic Outreach for the Republican National Committee, who was charged with increasing the appeal of Republicans among Hispanics. He has quit the Republican party and switched his allegiance to the Democrats, explaining that, “It doesn’t take much to see the culture of intolerance surrounding the Republican Party today. I have wondered before about the seemingly harsh undertones about immigrants and others. Look no further; a well-known organization recently confirms the intolerance of that which seems different or strange to them.” The Heritage-Richwine episode was the last straw.

Next: Intergroup variations in IQ and the Flynn Effect


  1. slc1 says

    The late Prof. Herrnstein had a long history of “research” into the supposed IQ deficit of Afro-Americans relative to Caucasian Americans with numerous articles on the subject some in relatively respectable journals and others in Mankind Quarterly, a rather less then respectable journal. His researches long predated the publication of The Bell Curve. Much of his early work purporting to demonstrate that the supposed IQ deficit was genetic was based on the research into identical twins of Sir Cyril Burt (as was the article by Arthur Jensen in the Harvard Educational Review). Unfortunately, when Burt was exposed as a fraud, that greatly undermined the Herrnsteins and the Jensens of the world.

  2. says

    “… because low IQ people have a propensity to indulge in crime …”

    Surely the only thing one could say is that low IQ (whatever that means) people who indulge in crime might have a propensity to get caught more easily?

    Am I the only one who double-takes the guy’s name as ‘Rincewind’? (Watch out for the Luggage)

  3. brucegee1962 says

    When my stepson was in elementary school, his best friend, Pedro, lived in a trailer park, and his parents both worked in a chicken slaughterhouse. Pedro was brilliant, and always made straight A’s in all his classes. However, he was never put into Advanced or AP classes, because brown. The only way to get put into AP classes was if your parents went in and advocated for you, and Pedro’s parents didn’t have enough English for that.

    We were planning on going in and pushing on Pedro’s behalf, when the entire family moved quickly and without leaving any forwarding address. But whenever I think of this “Hispanics are underachievers” meme, I think of him, and wonder what became of him. I hope he found a school that noticed his amazing qualities, but maybe that’s wishful thinking.

  4. ollie says

    Interestingly enough, an article in The American Conservative shot down the idea that IQ is immutable. One data point: at one time, East Germans had a lower IQ than West Germans; that difference started to evaporate after reunification.

  5. bad Jim says

    Since vocabulary is typically a big part of IQ tests, it’s unsurprising that non-native speakers would do poorly. I’m sure I’d get a low score on a test administered in Spanish.

  6. says

    Unlike most racism, this actually has interesting conclusions even if wrong. Actually, in a broader sense, if an IQ test from a given society rates some combination of innate intelligence, adaptablility, and adaptedness to that specific society, then a policy like this would probably be able to rate how well people will cope as immigrants. (although I suspect it would not predict permanent underclass-ness as people would acculturate.)

  7. Mano Singham says

    I am missing something here about Rincewind and Luggage. It is clearly alluding to something of which I am unaware.

  8. Mano Singham says

    This happens all too often, that many parents do not realize how much they need to push schools to get their children treated better. In my school district that has many ambitious parents, we quickly realized that if we did not take an active interest, our children would not get tracked into the more advanced streams. We knew enough English but many parents don’t.

  9. digitalatheist says

    Rincewind and the Luggage can be found operating at their best in “The Color of Magic” by Terry Prachett

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