One of the eerier feelings for me is to start reading a New York Times op-ed and realize partway through that the columnist is engaging in an argument with me, even though I'm not named. That happens several times per year with David Brooks's NYT columns. (I've been told on trustworthy authority that he is a regular reader, so I'm not just being paranoid here.)
Without the Secret Decoder Ring, it's often hard to figure out what Brooks is talking about. Consider his recent column "The Luxurious Growth." (Here's John Derbyshire's reply.) Or here's his September 2007 column on "The Waning of IQ" that makes no sense at all except under the presumption that NYT subscribers are regular iSteve readers who are almost persuaded by my work. (Here's GNXP's response to it.)
As you know, my basic shtick is that, increasingly, specific government policies tend to matter less than the quantities and qualities of various populations. For example, Hong Kong became prosperous under free trade and laissez-faire, while Singapore became prosperous under protectionism and paternalism.
Thus, immigration policy is more central to the future of America than most of the controversies more welcome in the pages of the New York Times.
My impression is that Brooks finds my work highly persuasive, but also highly troubling, both from an ideological and career perspective. So, he sometimes seems to be groping around for some way to refute me, but all without mentioning my name. Thus you end up with weird columns that are structured like this:
1. The conventional wisdom is [something that only iSteve readers would dare imagine].
2. But, the latest research actually shows that this [utter heresy] isn't quite the sure thing everybody [i.e., my readers, not NYT subscribers] assume, and the reality is [pretty much what politically correct people everywhere assumed all along it was].
For example, today's column parallels my January 1, 2008 VDARE.com column on James Heckman's research on high school graduation rates, but then skids off the rails at the end. Brooks writes:
The meticulous research of Goldin and Katz is complemented by another report from James Heckman of the University of Chicago. Using his own research, Heckman also concludes that high school graduation rates peaked in the U.S. in the late 1960s, at about 80 percent. Since then they have declined.
In ”Schools, Skills and Synapses,” Heckman probes the sources of that decline. It’s not falling school quality, he argues. Nor is it primarily a shortage of funding or rising college tuition costs. Instead, Heckman directs attention at family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years.
Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.
I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists. [See my February blog posting on this second aspect of Heckman's work: "Psychology for Economists."]
I point to these two research projects because the skills slowdown is the biggest issue facing the country. Rising gas prices are bound to dominate the election because voters are slapped in the face with them every time they visit the pump. But this slow-moving problem, more than any other, will shape the destiny of the nation.
Second, there is a big debate under way over the sources of middle-class economic anxiety. Some populists emphasize the destructive forces of globalization, outsourcing and predatory capitalism. These people say we need radical labor market reforms to give the working class a chance. But the populists are going to have to grapple with the Goldin, Katz and Heckman research, which powerfully buttresses the arguments of those who emphasize human capital policies. It’s not globalization or immigration or computers per se that widen inequality. It’s the skills gap. Boosting educational attainment at the bottom is more promising than trying to reorganize the global economy.
But, obviously, the current immigration system of large amounts of unskilled illegal immigration and large amounts of highly skilled legal immigration widens "the skills gap." And, nice as it is to imagine that, after 45 years of failing, we'll suddenly somehow dream up a way for "boosting educational attainment at the bottom," the much more plausible thing that we can actually get done before hell freezes over to slow the widening of the skills gap is to fix immigration policy.