Academics who call other academics “racist” usually reveal more about themselves than the person they attack. Thus I was disappointed to see someone as bright as Noah Smith post this:
One common racist characterization of East Asians is that they are hive creatures, working and thinking collectively like bees or ants, lacking individuality or creative thought. This trope has always annoyed me, but after I lived in Japan, and saw Japanese people behaving more individualistically than most of the Americans I knew, it really became my pet peeve. So you can understand why I am predisposed not to be particularly charitable toward papers with titles like “National IQ and National Productivity: The Hive Mind Across Asia“.. . .
Cooperation is what Jones labels the “hive mind”.
. . .
Anyway, in addition to making a few questionable or downright silly arguments, Jones’ paper does not do a lot to dispel the “economists are racists” stereotype. What it does do is strengthen my belief that there is a “hive mind” of a different sort at work in certain corners of the economics profession – a self-propagating set of conventional wisdoms and stereotypes that manages to leap from researcher to researcher, department to department…
Economics is certainly full of conventional wisdom that leaps from department to department, but why insinuate that Garett Jones is a racist? Noah points out that Jones’s “hive mind” metaphor refers to the alleged ability of certain groups to cooperate. Bees are also famous for cooperating. Does that comparison imply that Jones also believes Asians are like bees in all other respects? Does Jones think Asians lack creativity and individuality? Does he not know about the long and glorious history of Chinese innovation in science and the arts. Does he think they sting? Perhaps, but why leap to that conclusion?
I have to admit that I didn’t see “hive mind” as a racial insult. But what do I know? I’m a westerner. So I decided to check out the editorial board at the Asian Development Journal to see how this racist insult slipped through the process. Not in a footnote mind you, but in the title of Jones’s article! And here’s the sorts of names I came across:
At the risk of being accused of being a racist by Mr. Smith, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that at least 12 of those names sound suspiciously Asian. Funny how they didn’t notice the racial insult. But then perhaps they lack the sort of sensitive understanding of Asian culture that you find in people surnamed SMITH.
Noah seems confused on all sorts of issues. One the one hand he confuses race and culture, regarding cultural stereotypes as racism. Indeed it’s not even clear that he believes that cultures exist. After all, what defines a culture other than stereotypical differences? If all cultures were the same, then how could there be any cultures? Or perhaps he believes that only the stereotypes he recognizes are acceptable, and all others are evidence of racism:
Oh, and let’s talk about Jones’ data set. His data on national IQ comes entirely from the work of Richard Lynn. In his 2002 book, IQ and the Wealth of Nations, Lynn shows North Korea as having a higher national average IQ than Sweden. First of all, right off the bat, that tells me that Lynn’s methodology must be crap on a stick. Second of all, it strongly suggests what that methodology in fact was – it’s pretty clear Lynn just assumed that since North Koreans are the same race as South Koreans, they must have a similar national average IQ. In other words, Lynn’s “data” basically just uses “IQ” as a polite term for “race”.
That’s right, Noah believes that what unites North and South Koreans is that they are of the same race. In fact, not only are they of the same race, they were members of the exact same country until about 1945! If I assumed that the dining habits of East and West Germans in 1989 were probably similar, Noah would presumably claim I based that assumption on the fact that East and West Germans are the same race as Uzbeks. That’s not to say Lynn’s data is accurate, I haven’t read the book and have no opinion. I’ve never even been clear as to what IQ is supposed to measure. (Innate potential intelligence? Actual potential intelligence? Skill at doing IQ tests? Level of education?) But Noah’s criticism can only be described as bizarre.
Finally, Jones contends that high IQs correlate with support for free-market policies. (This is interesting, since free-market policies seem to be a sort of individualistic belief, the opposite of what you think of when you hear the words “hive mind”. Wonder why “Asian Individualism” didn’t make its way into the title?) The data here is a paper by Jones’ fellow George Mason economist, Bryan Caplan. However, that paper used data only from the United States. It is frankly absurd to argue that the results can be extended to whole nations. Why is it absurd? Because if you try, you’ll see that plain, well-known facts baldly contradict Jones’ thesis. Using Jones’ IQ data set, Scandinavian countries have higher average IQs than America. So if Jones is right, Scandinavia should be more pro-free-market than America. But the opposite is true.
There are so many problems here that I hardly know where to begin. Free market economies are not associated with “individualism,” whatever that means. They tend to thrive in economies where people cooperate with strangers. And Scandinavian economies are some of the most market-oriented on the planet. Noah is probably confusing two completely separate issues; size of government and degree of market freedom. For instance, although Denmark has a very high level of government spending on social welfare programs, if you look at the 8 out of 10 categories in the Heritage Foundation Ranking on Economic Freedom that are not related to level of taxes and spending, then Denmark is the most market-oriented country on earth. Sweden has been very aggressive in privatizing, deregulating, and having a very open policy for international trade and investment. Every single Swedish child is eligible to use vouchers to go to any school they wish. Scandinavian voters have quite rationally voted for a very free market regime, and then decided to redistribute the fruits of that system for utilitarian reasons. BTW, I have no idea whether this has anything to do with IQ, indeed I doubt their average IQ is particularly high.
But Noah is also making a much more basic error, confusing marginal effects with all or nothing claims. If one claims that IQ is one of many factors that explain a certain economic outcome in a regression equation, it does not imply that one cannot find exceptions to the rule. For instance, the vast economic difference between Taiwan and Mainland China is probably not due to cultural factors, but rather their different histories, which reflect some exceedingly complex internal and external forces. No one would claim culture explains everyone, but it does seem to play at least some role in economic outcomes. Previously commenters have argued that geography, not culture, is what’s really behind the economic similarities in specific regions like East Asia and Europe. But that doesn’t explain the success of Chinese transplanted to Singapore, Europeans Jews transplanted to Israel, or British convicts transplanted to a big island just south of New Guinea. Culture matters. Deal with it.
At one point Noah uses the fall in the Japanese savings rate to refute Jones’s claim that Asians tend to save more. And yet there is no reference to the demographics of Japan, which is aging faster than any other nation on Earth. Nor does he include business saving, only “household saving.” Does he believe that business saving doesn’t represent the preferences of households? Aren’t Japanese businesses owned by households?
Perhaps I should not have been so snarky in this post. After all, Noah has pointed out in previous posts that we should avoid being obnoxious:
In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m not a big fan of this aspect of the culture of economics. And the reason is not just that it results in more offensiveness than necessary (thus tarnishing our reputation among non-economists). It’s also that the fetishization of offensiveness reduces the quality of our economics. All too often we use offensiveness as a signal of the intellectual quality of an argument, but it’s a false signal.
That sounds like good advice. So from now on I won’t get snarky and insulting when debating bloggers with whom I disagree. I’ll follow Noah’s lead and start calling them racists instead.