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Why Do Migrants Change Culture?
A review Garett Jones' The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left
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Written by George Francis.
In an apocryphal story, Milton Friedman debates a Swedish economist. The Swede says “In Scandinavia, we have no poverty”. Without skipping a beat, Friedman replies, “That’s interesting, because in America, among Scandinavians, we have no poverty, either.”
Discussion of that great question, the wealth of nations, has typically revolved around institutions, technology, capital accumulation, and occasionally even geography. By contrast, the role of culture has rarely been taken seriously. Go to the Wikipedia page on economic growth and you’ll see that ‘culture’ is only mentioned twice. Garett Jones’ new book, The Culture Transplant, tries to put culture on the map as a key ingredient for prosperity. Along the way, he also makes a call for pragmatism on immigration.
The real meat of the book are chapters 2-4, describing the Deep Roots literature of economic growth. This group of papers on economic growth hypothesises that aspects of culture are key to prosperity and that culture is shared, and inherited amongst peoples, leading to long-run persistence in prosperity over decades, centuries, and even millennia.
The mass movements of people act as a kind of experiment. From this, we can observe whether immigrants from certain countries tend to bring prosperity or poverty with them. To do this scientifically, the economists Putterman and Weil estimated the ethnic ancestry of each country in terms of where their ancestors were circa 1500. For example, they estimate that the genetic ancestry of the United States is 20% of people living in the United Kingdom as of 1500.
With this data, economists create migration-adjusted indicators of cultural quality. These include State History (the number of years a nation’s ancestors had lived under an organised state prior to 1500), Agricultural History (the time since starting agriculture), and Technological History (people’s technological knowledge in 1500). Jones dubs these three measures SATs (State, Agricultural and Technological history). These measures, when you adjust for migration, can explain 75% of the variation in GDP! Jones states that it is peoples, not places, that cause prosperity. Ancient, inherited differences are the main cause of national differences in prosperity.
There’s much more depth to the Deep Root’s literature than I can report in a book review. For example, Jones also discusses work using genetic distance as a proxy for cultural distance. That too can predict GDP. What is valuable about the book is that it brings this large and powerful academic topic out of the ivory towers and into public discussion. The book is extremely accessible, running to a short but sweet 150 pages and with none of the usual jargon or mathematics typical of economists; you won’t find the terms panel regression, p-value, or spatial autocorrelation casually dropped. Jones’ writing style is a breeze.
Luckily accessibility does not come at the expense of reliability. Jones fairly considers all criticism and goes into some depth to dismiss counter-arguments to his view. What if deep roots only seem to matter because rich groups were able to exploit natives for their wealth? Nope, even when you ignore places where Europeans settled the results are robust. What if the wealthy peoples were the ones with the resources to move to productive land? Nope, even after controlling for geographic factors like latitude and the agricultural productivity of the land, deep roots are robust.
Bryan Caplan claims Jones does not properly deal with the biggest problem for the Deep Roots literature — India and China. With billions of people, these countries are large outliers doing much worse than their SATs would predict. Jones points out that China is rapidly growing and recovering from communism, back to where it should be given its success prior to 1500, but that still means China has been an outlier to the Deep Roots Theory for a few hundred years! I think the right response to Caplan is much simpler; we are interested in the wealth of nations, and the correct unit of analysis is the nation. Whilst China has a larger population, we are interested in the factors shared within populations that cause their collective success.
From Jones’ sturdy bedrock of the Deep Roots theory, he applies his results to the problem of migration. In an apparent paradox, Jones starts the book with a call for more Chinese migration and ends with a call for less immigration overall. You see Jones is neither an immigration hawk, nor an open-borders idealist, but a secret third thing — a pragmatist. His book simply suggests that immigration is good when it improves upon a country’s culture. We should want nations to send us their best.
To exemplify his view, Jones focuses on arguing for Chinese migration noting that they bring wealth and prosperity wherever they go - be it in Singapore, Thailand, or the United States. Despite the Chinese making up only 33% of Malaysia’s population, they are responsible for owning 61% of the companies.
Jones’ suggestion is hardly original, it struck me that many similar proposals had been made before. The title of the chapter The Chinese Diaspora: Building the Capitalist Road alludes to the current large-scale migration of Chinese along the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative. But the idea goes back further to Sir Francis Galton’s 1873 essay in the Times, Africa for the Chinese, in which he argues that the Chinese character could make Africa prosperous. Whilst Galton was an incredible scientist, it is hard to read his work without seeing it as a justification for imperialism. By contrast, Jones’ work is carefully reassuring. He tells us that the Deep Roots literature shows migration makes a massive change without the need for a forceful invasion. He only supports voluntary migration or what Wikipedia calls replacement migration, freely accepted mass migration to achieve socio-economic goals. What about the possibility of violent ethnic strife? Jones reminds us that poverty kills many more people.
Thus, Jones’ book is very thought-provoking. Unfortunately, sometimes this is because he leaves the big questions unanswered. We are told many times that the distance from the equator can reliably predict GDP, and yet he also notes that it does not seem to hold back nations with the right deep roots! Why? Jones does not speculate. We are informed for the first time at the end of the book that it is in fact part of a trilogy, the first two focussing on cognitive skills and democracy. Their common link? Singapore. All three focus on a particular area of policy that the country got right. However, a great trilogy builds and extends a narrative to become more than the sum of its parts. How do democracy, cognitive skills, and immigration fit together into a coherent ideology? What does it mean to be a Jonesian? For The Culture Transplant, context is that which is scarce.
The core question left unanswered was which aspects of culture matter to GDP? For that matter, what even is culture? Although it is clear from the Deep Roots literature that something is being transmitted across generations, it is far from clear what that is.
In chapter two Jones suggests attitudes matter, but the examples given are unconvincing. First, he relies on a narrative, a story about Argentina becoming poor from importing migrants with socialist attitudes. But could there not be more to the story of Argentina’s decline? His next example of culture was social trust. But social trust does not predict prosperity after cognitive skills are controlled for. Likewise, Jones claims patience and savings matter, but, again, countries measured as being more patient do not seem to be more developed once you control for cognitive skills.
Jones attempts to explain culture using culinary analogies, but it is rather ham-fisted. In particular, he coins The Spaghetti Theory of Cultural Change. Culture is shared beyond its ethnic origin; for example, 6% of Americans have Italian ancestry, yet apparently 12% of restaurants serve spaghetti. Culture involves ideas that ethnic groups can share and appropriate as they wish. But as Rowan Atkinson once joked, if we can learn the recipe, do we really need the immigrants? Jones’ idea of culture seems to be akin to Friedrich Hayek’s concept of tacit knowledge, ideas relevant to production which are not easily articulated, quantified or spoken, only to be shared through intimate relations.
Just to prove my point that Jones is too ambiguous regarding the nature of culture, let us return to his SATs indicators. If we want to know what good culture is made of we can look at what else it correlates with. In the book’s appendix, Jones gives us his best SAT measure (labelled SAT* in the book) alongside GDP estimates from 2002. I did some preliminary analyses and found that it correlates extremely well with national IQ. The national IQ measure I use is produced by psychologist Heiner Rindermann to measure learning outcomes. It is derived from aptitude tests, including those given by the OECD. In fact, when I run my own ‘horse race’, controlling for national IQ, SATs are not a statistically significant predictor of GDP. Well, unless you weight by population, then it has a positive significant effect size. Maybe the SAT really does just measure IQ? It is not obvious that any aspect of culture matters other than studiousness.
Garett Jones seems to make a confession for his loose ends in a rather coy way. Like a hidden track in an album or an easter egg in a game, Jones has a secret chapter for the real fans who read all the way through. Just before the conclusion there is a numberless chapter, without capitalisation and encased in calligraphic bullet points. It is titled Je ne sais quoi.
Here, Jones tells us that we should not worry too much about why some theories are true, what matters is that they work. Aspirin was prescribed for over a hundred years before the mechanism was discovered in 1971. And yet Jones tells us that “people love a good story [emphasis added].” Wrong explanations were simply made up for aspirin as they are for many mysteries. By contrast, Jones, as a careful analytic scientist, sticks only to the reliable facts of culture without speculating on excessive theory.
Yet I’m not convinced that theory is so unnecessary. Dr Semmelweiss proposed using soap in hospitals, where he showed from experiment that it could radically reduce mortality in birth clinics. Alas, without a theory for why soap worked, Semmelweiss’ colleagues mocked him and refused to use his life-saving soap. He suffered a nervous breakdown before his colleagues sent him to an asylum. Ironically, it was there that he died from an infected wound. Soap would become used 14 years later when a justification (germ theory) was created. Perhaps Dr Semmelweiss should just have made something up!
Wittgenstein broke ground with his careful, analytic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Moving philosophy away from speculation and metaphysics he stated “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should remain silent”. But the early Wittgenstein would be outdone by the later Wittgenstein, who remade philosophy once again by embracing speculation and eschewing his early reductionism. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the trilogy of the early Jones, but I hope and wonder whether we will see a later Jones, one who is bolder, braver and embraces the challenge of theory.
Supplementary materials can be found here.
Buy the book here.
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