Bryan Caplan  

Ancestry and Long-Run Growth Reading Club: Concluding Thoughts

The Trump and Bush Phenomena... Uber for welfare?...
Garett Jones inspired my intellectual journey through the literature on ancestry and long-run growth.  When we debated last semester, I initially expected him to base his case on the economic importance of average national IQ.  He alerted me upfront, however, that he had other plans.  Instead of hailing the power of IQ, he heavily relied on the power of ancestral "SAT scores" - state history (S), agriculture (A), and technology (T).  I read the key papers before the debate, and revisited them for the reading club.  What's my takeaway?

1. If you want to understand why some countries are rich and others are poor, ancestry research is a major advance.  Like it or not, countries inhabited by the descendants of relatively economically successful societies tend to remain relatively economically successful today.  Transplanting advanced civilizations has proven easier than transforming backwards civilizations.

2. Still, ancestry research has weighty shortcomings.  Overall, Europeans have been far more successful than their ancestry predicts.  Their SAT scores are mediocre, but European civilization has economically conquered the globe.  Ancestry scores don't explain the leading role of the United States, or the lingering poverty of China and India.  And you can't credibly dismiss the three most populous countries on Earth as irrelevant "outliers."  Any theory that badly fits China, India, and the U.S. has serious problems.

3. In 1950, Asia and Africa were both desperately poor.  An ahistorical thinker would therefore expect the two regions to remain in their unfortunate situation.  An historical thinker, knowing the two regions' radically different SAT scores, would make a rather different prediction: Asia will regain its former glory, but Africa will stay poor because it has little former glory to regain.  Both historically-informed stories have proven strikingly accurate.

4. But: In 1950, an historical thinker would also have predicted the economic resurgence of the Middle East, the cradle of civilization.  Oil aside, this didn't remotely happen.  For the Middle East, it's the ahistorical thinker who wins, hands down.  Given the antiquity of Middle Eastern civilizations and the size of the region, this is a deep failing for ancestry research.

5. As far as I know, Garett is the only thinker who openly uses ancestry research to justify immigration restrictions.  It's not clear any of the authors of the papers we covered draw any connection at all.  But on the surface, it's the natural interpretation of their results - especially if, like most humans, you're a nationalist at heart.  If I were Garett, I wouldn't be swayed by the original researchers' reticence.  Hyper-cautiously refusing to explore the broader implications of your research is a classic academic failure - especially if the broader implications offend left-wing sensibilities.

6. Garett is nevertheless deeply mistaken to base his case against low-skilled immigration on ancestry research.  Basic fact: The people of the United States are below the world average for both state and agricultural history.  The people of Europe are better, but not by that much. As a result, the regressions Garett emphasizes literally predict that open borders will be even more productive than its fans previously calculated.

7. An added problem: ancestry research treats all migration as equivalent.  It doesn't matter how national ancestry changes as long as it does.  On the surface, though, it's hard to believe that conquest, genocide, transportation of slaves, differential fertility, and what I call "civilized migration" have equivalent long-run cultural effects, holding ancestry constant.  When people voluntarily move from backwards to advanced countries to peacefully create new lives for themselves, they typically leap to a new and better equilibrium.  The immigrants largely escape the dysfunctional hand of the countries of origin; their children escape it almost entirely. 

Garett may call this wishful thinking, but these are hard, happy facts most of have directly experienced - or lived.  My wife, for example, migrated from Romania to the United States when she was 7.  Culturally, this made her 95% American, and our children 99.5% American.  I've see the same transformation in virtually every immigrant family I've ever known - including many hundreds of immigrant students I've taught at GMU.  Insisting that their ancestry remains a worrying concern frankly seems silly - even though I expect their home countries to continue on their generally disappointing ancestral trajectories. 

8. But what about what Garett calls the "Open Borders Sacrifice" - the possibility that open borders will impoverish your descendants while enriching mankind?  For starters, the moral subtext is absurd.  Ending state-imposed discrimination against blacks wasn't a "sacrifice" for U.S. whites; it was minimal decency.  The same goes for ending state-imposed discrimination against foreigners.  Even a moral relativist should appreciate the parallel.

9. Moral subtext aside, though, are Garett's fears credible?  Distribution is tricky, but if you buy the ballpark prediction that open borders will double global GDP, it's nearly impossible to believe any sizable group will lose on net.  Oil consumers may gain more than 100% of the benefit of increased oil production, but that hinges on highly inelastic supply and demand for oil.  When migration dramatically increases global production virtually across the board, there is every reason to think the benefits will be broadly shared.  Unconvinced?  When was the last time a sharp rise in global production made the average American poorer?  Non-economists may point to the rise of China, but they'll struggle to find an economist who backs them up.

10.Now that I've finished my intellectual journey through ancestry research, one thing deeply puzzles me: Why did Garett appeal to the power of ancestry, instead of focusing on his own research on national IQ?  Convincing people ancient history matters is an uphill battle.  And since the ancient history of Americans' ancestors is nothing special, it's a red herring anyway.  It would have made a lot more sense for Garett to focus on intelligence, where people of European stock are near the top - a smidge below Eastern Asians - and the people of Latin America, India, Africa, and almost the whole Muslim world do very poorly.  Why he didn't take this route to immigration restriction is a great mystery to me.  In a few months, perhaps I'll try to solve it.

COMMENTS (7 to date)
E. Harding writes:

"Oil aside, this didn't remotely happen."

-You sure? Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, etc., did experience some catch-up between 1973 and 2013. Also, you're excluding Israel, which did about as well as Portugal.

"Basic fact: The people of the United States are below the world average for both state and agricultural history."

-Shows how much those measures are worth, then.

Romania isn't that genetically different from the rest of Europe.

"Insisting that their ancestry remains a worrying concern frankly seems silly"

-Not when you look at rust belt U.S. inner cities.

"Non-economists may point to the rise of China, but they'll struggle to find an economist who backs them up."

-There are a reasonable number of studies showing the rise of China has hurt lots of U.S. workers; whether it has hurt the average U.S. worker is less clear.

"Why he didn't take this route to immigration restriction is a great mystery to me."

-Same here.

Caplan, what would be the minimum evidence needed for you to be convinced that Open Borders is inferior to the Status Quo?

David R. Henderson writes:

Excellent post, Bryan. This could be an article.

Jon writes:

Being statistically illiterate, I expect I'm just confused, but I got the impression that at least some of the ancestry research was was interpreted to show that institutions don't matter, or, don't matter very much. That seems implausible to me, if only because of the contrast between North and South Korea. Can someone please straigten me out? Thanks.

jxrjxr writes:

Great post. You're one of my favorite bloggers, Bryan. A while back, you really opened my eyes to how important immigration policy is in the grand scheme of human happiness.

Bryan said...

It would have made a lot more sense for Garett to focus on intelligence, where people of European stock are near the top - a smidge below Eastern Asians - and the people of Latin America, India, Africa, and almost the whole Muslim world do very poorly. Why he didn't take this route to immigration restriction is a great mystery to me.

My first gut reaction was "perhaps because Garett's afraid of being labeled a racist", swiftly followed by, "but he wrote a whole book about national IQ distributions". Maybe he's trying to walk a fine line, which is something that people said he was doing in his book. A lot of times you can say statement A and statement B, but people don't attack you until you publicly announce a connection between A and B. Also, you can say a lot of things as long as you properly soften your words so as to not evoke an emotional response.

Think about how you, Bryan, (who is not hostile to Garett) phrased Garett's potential argument. You said Garett's argument for certain immigration restrictions would be better founded on the fact that whites and east Asians are smarter in general than blacks, Indians, and muslims. Your words surprised me. Haven't we seen people suffer a lot of grief for saying things tamer and subtler than that?

You could say, "but that's not actually racist because [some excellent argument]..."

Unfortunately, [some excellent argument] does not significantly reduce the risk of being accused of racism.

Garett Jones writes:


The Deep Roots literature has looked at how ancestry shapes institutions. The paper to look at is this one, which is linked in my name as well:

It's James B Ang's "Institutions and the Long-run Impact of Early Development," and everyone interested in economic liberty should read it. The free market movement has long cared about good economic institutions, so it's important to search for information about where good institutions come from. A quote from the paper:

"The significance of these migration-adjusted estimates also suggests that the diffusion of knowledge or innovation through cross-border migration has been crucial for institutional development."

New People = New Policies. That's likely one reason why migration shapes institutions, but of course not the only one: New People = New Politicians, and New People = New Bureaucrats likely also matter. Bryan's excellent book Myth of the Rational Voter is useful for showing that voters really do change policy, so new voters really should matter for policy.

Slide 14 here from my Deep Roots powerpoints has a great image from Ang's published paper, it's not in the working paper. It does a good job illustrating the correlation between ancestry-adjusted factors and modern institutional quality:

Floccina writes:

On #8 is that most white South Africans seem to be doing OK post apartheid. Whites in Bermuda do well.

Also one would expect many above average IQ Chinese and Vietnamese to come to USA if they were allowed to. Quite a few above average IQ Argentines, Greeks, Portuguese and Italians might also come.

Floccina writes:

And BTW black democrats are not voting for Bernie meaning hey may not be so socialist.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top