Sunday, February 16, 2014

Affirmative Action, IQ & Liberals

This post is a riff on a Slate piece by Tanner Colby entitled The Massive Liberal Failure On Race (Part I and Part II). In Mr. Colby's view, the Republicans are unequivocally the Evil Party--racist, greedy, selfish. The Stupid Party is the Democrats, and not just in the trivial sense of needlessly throwing elections. He accuses his own party of almost criminal negligence in the cause of affirmative action. They confused integration with desegregation, and suppressed the Black community's desire for agency over their own kids' education by busing Black students to white schools merely to meet statistical quotas. The whole busing thing wasted billions of dollars with no positive effect whatsoever on either educational outcomes or racial harmony.

After the 1967 race riots in Detroit and elsewhere, some bargain had to be made with Black America for the sake of public order. While Mr. Colby tendentiously attributes the terms to President Nixon's racism, his description of the bargain is generally accurate.

  • The government instituted affirmative action programs for Blacks in public employment. This led to the dramatic increase in African-Americans working in the military, the post office, police and fire departments, and to lesser extent, in public schools and universities. Millions of Blacks were pulled into the middle class by these programs.
  • On the other hand, the high crime rate had to be lowered. Crimes (then and now) were disproportionately committed by Black teenagers. Between draconian drug laws and much more aggressive policing (or some other reason), crime was brought under control. The cost was the high incarceration rate, especially for Black men.
The result has been generally successful. Black people are richer and more integrated into the American economic mainstream. Everybody (whites and, especially, Blacks) are safer--the crime rate continues its descent from the 1970s high. These days people (mostly Republicans) are beginning to discuss lowering the incarceration rate.

The problem is that this grand bargain is breaking down. Even liberals such as Mr. Colby understand that affirmative action can't work anymore, and Republicans realize you can't just lock everybody up.

Back in 1994 Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein published the controversial book The Bell Curve. I read it many years ago, but recall it as an excellent book, probably still well worth reading. But as with many other readers, some things bothered me. Notably, they never gave a very good definition of IQ.

Whatever IQ is, Murray and Herrnstein show that it correlates very strongly with income. Indeed, some claim (not necessarily convincingly) that if you correct for IQ then education makes essentially no difference in economic outcomes. You can read that whole debate on your own--I'll just point you to a game-changing article by Ron Unz. He quotes another to emphasize his main contention: 
Allow me to repeat the concluding sentence of the Abstract of this peer-reviewed academic article: 'These observations suggest a causal direction from GDP and education to IQ.'
So that leads me to this definition of IQ: IQ measures those mental traits that were most useful in the late 20th Century economy. Then by definition there is a correlation between income and IQ, but who knows which way the causal arrow goes?

So African-Americans are relatively poor, and thus do poorly on IQ tests. Affirmative Action managed to fudge that outcome by increasing their income by fiat. But this doesn't mean Blacks are stupid--it just means their skills aren't easily monetized. Or more precisely, their cultural talent is mostly in winner-take-all professions. I'm listening to Art Tatum as I write this--I think he died a poor man. But the richer sorts--Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Duke Ellington--all worked in winner-take-all markets where wealth was not widely distributed. Similarly for sports. Likewise, African-Americans have played a hugely disproportionate role in our political life, on all sides of the spectrum from W.E.B. DuBois to Martin Luther King to Herman Cain to Ray Nagin.

My definition suggests that IQ may become less important in the 21st Century, and I do indeed think that will happen. White people have not been proportionately as successful as musicians, preachers, entertainers, or even politicians. Instead they've concentrated on more mathematical, analytical pursuits--endeavors that have been much more lucrative for more people. Their median income has been correspondingly higher.

But here's the rub. Computers will steal white jobs long before they get to Black jobs. Computers can do math better than you can. Math skills will always be important, but they will increasingly lead to winner-take-all jobs. The very best computer programmers will be millionaires, the average will be shlubs, and the below average unemployed. And similarly for most other, white-dominated STEM professions.

The jobs of the future will be jobs that computers can't do, e.g., entertainment, preaching, politics, and music. Computers will raise the relative value of Black culture in the labor market. And none too soon, as the traditional sources of Black employment are drying up. The post office is increasingly automated, and shrinking in any case. The military no longer needs grunt manpower. And the government sector is (thankfully) getting ever so slightly smaller.

Here is an example of the jobs of the future: the street entertainers in New York City. Those guys (almost all Black) are very, very good, and are a major tourist attraction. Once, on a small side street in Lower Manhattan (undoubtedly chosen for its acoustic properties), I spent almost an hour listening to an a capella quartet singing old rock songs. They had a huge crowd around them and were making money like nobody's business. No microphone, no overhead, no instruments--just absolute, raw, undiluted talent. No computer can ever reproduce the human-to-human immediacy of serendipitous, live music. And likewise for preaching, politics, and athletic skill (street-side gymnasts are another NYC draw).

I think Blacks will do relatively better in the 21st Century. And new, updated IQ scores will eventually reflect that.

Blacks do need to get their propensity for crime under control. They're not deprived, nor are they depraved. But there clearly is something wrong, and unless they get it fixed the mass incarceration strategy looks set to continue.

Further Reading:

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