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Brookings Does Diversity, Sort Of
The premier Democrat think-tank, the Brookings Institution, has devoted the current issue of its quarterly Brookings Review to "Diversity." On most topics, Brookings produces worthy if slightly dull efforts: e.g., "Is U.S. Science Policy at Risk? Trends in Federal Support for R&D." Their "Diversity" issue may leave you rubbing your eyes, but not - this time - because they are glazing over. Instead, you'll be wondering if your eyes are playing tricks on you.
It's hard to believe some of the statements got past the editor's Chortle Test. Consider one opening paragraph:
"As the United States copes with large immigration flows and increasing diversity in these highly uncertain times, it may want to look to an unusual model country—Israel—for some fresh ideas about taking full advantage of diversity."
VP, Brookings Institution
"Diversity in Israel: Lessons for the United States"
Okay, stop giggling. What Litan is trying to say is that the Israel makes vigorous efforts to mold Jewish immigrants from around the world so that they become less diverse. In that limited sense, he has a good point.
Still, isn't it easier to assimilate immigrants to the norms of the Jewish State if you only allow Jews to immigrate? Perhaps a "fresh idea" from Israel is: select immigrants for cultural compatibility.
Or, in "Getting Uncle Sam's Ear: Will Ethnic Lobbies Cramp America's Foreign Policy Style?" by James M. Lindsay (a Senior Fellow at Brookings), you are asked to believe that
"… Cuban Americans aside, Latino organizations usually sit on the sidelines of foreign policy. Groups such as the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund have concentrated their focus on the economy, civil rights, and immigration because those are the issues that matter to their members."
The Brookings Institution evidently hasn't noticed that the domestic policy of La Raza ("The Race") is the foreign policy of Vincente Fox and Jorge G. Castaneda. And a remarkably successful team effort it has been.
Brookings essays generally are less flapdoodle-filled than the mainstream prestige press. (See William McGowan's dispassionate bombshell Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism for details on self-censorship at the New York Times and the like.) And in fact Peter Skerry's essay Beyond Sushiology: Does Diversity Work? is excellent. "Sushiology" is his term for the assumption, widespread among journalists, that since mass immigration has widened their choice in restaurants, then it must be an unqualified blessing for all. Skerry writes:
"At the end of their careful review of 40 years of research on diversity (including racial and ethnic) in organizations, psychologists Katherine Williams and Charles O'Reilly conclude: "The preponderance of empirical evidence suggests that diversity is most likely to impede group functioning"…We need to recognize that diversity is no free lunch."
Generally, however, this Brookings effort doesn't rise much above the depressing average level of American intellectual discourse about diversity.
One major problem: intellectuals seldom ask themselves whether their theories make sense in the daily life they see around them. For example, consider this widely-cited Brookings study from the current issue:
"What sets high-technology centers such as San Francisco, Boston, and New York apart from other metropolitan areas? Why have some cities—many home to some of the nation's most prestigious university research centers and college graduates—been unable to attract talented technology workers? Our theory is that a city's diversity—its level of tolerance for a wide range of people—is key to its success in attracting talented people. Diverse, inclusive communities that welcome unconventional people—gays, immigrants, artists, and free-thinking 'bohemians'—are ideal for nurturing the creativity and innovation that characterize the knowledge economy… Gays predict not only the concentration of high-tech industry, but also its growth …"
Richard Florida and Gary Gates
Technology and Tolerance: Diversity and High Tech Growth
Bunk. These research high technology centers are not actually located in the cities of San Francisco, Boston and New York at all, but in their much less diverse suburbs. The authors' methodological blunder is obvious: they use overly expansive definitions of "metropolitan areas." Thus, they label "San Francisco" both the Gay Capital and the Tech Capital, even though Castro Street in San Francisco and Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto might be 90 minutes apart - in normal traffic.
All across the country over the last 45 years, the pattern has been unmistakable: the techno-innovators congregate out in the far suburbs, a long, long way from what is normally called "diversity."
Generally, high-hip equals low-tech. I used to live in the extremely diverse Uptown neighborhood on the North lakefront of Chicago, where about 100 languages are spoken in two square miles. My wife used to live in the New Town neighborhood, complete with a 6'-4" transvestite hooker on her corner. Both neighborhoods were high in tolerance - but not high in technology. In Chicagoland, the tech firms are way out on the Silicon Prairie in the sprawling high-tech low-hip suburb of Naperville.
In Southern California, the tech districts are spread all over the map: biotech in Ventura County, aerospace in the high desert, and telecomm in posh North San Diego County. Even Hollywood (the industry) centers not around Hollywood (the place), but around the uncool suburb of Burbank. Conversely, East LA is extremely "diverse" (i.e., all Hispanic). But there's no high tech there, just lots of low-tech manufacturing. And Compton is closer to no-tech.
Obviously, colleges can play important roles in creating tech centers, as can nice weather and good scenery. Yet the Bay Area's technopolis didn't grow up around UC Berkeley, as the Florida & Gates' theory would predict, but around Stanford - the school for smart rich kids way off in the orchard-filled Santa Clara Valley. As the great Tom Wolfe painstakingly documented in a 1983 article collected in his latest book Hooking Up most of the men who pioneered the Silicon Valley were products of the much-derided Midwestern Protestant culture.
Bohemians don't invent technology. Nerds do. Perhaps because I possess many of the personality traits of the classic nerd - obsessiveness, shyness, inability to say the right thing at the right time, and so forth - but sadly few of the technical skills - I've studied the important phenomenon of nerdism in detail. (Click here for my 1998 essay.) Nerds tend to be especially devoted family men, possibly because they find chasing women so painful. And the most important component of any serious technology company's workforce is married men with children.
The suburban high tech nerdistans (to use Joel Kotkin's phrase) are diverse in the sense that they are full of not only white nerds, but also Chinese and Asian Indian nerds. But that's not exactly what most pundits mean when they talk about Diversity.
Another Brookings Review essay, "Brain Circulation: How High-Skill Immigration Makes Everyone Better Off" by AnnaLee Saxenian, implicitly suggests that nerds are found more in some parts of the world than in others. The UC Berkeley professor writes:
"More than a quarter of Silicon Valley's highly skilled workers are immigrants, including tens of thousands from lands as diverse as China, Taiwan, India, the United Kingdom, Iran, Vietnam, the Philippines, Canada, and Israel."
However, the total number of immigrants from those nine nerd-rich countries comprised less than a quarter of all legal immigrants to the U.S. in 1998. And that's not even counting illegal immigrants, who overwhelmingly come from nerd-poor countries.
Our immigration system isn't set up to bring in the best and brightest even from nerd-fertile regions like southern India. In 1998, only 11.7% of legal immigrants were admitted for "employment-based" reasons. [And that includes the workers' spouses and children!] In contrast, 72.0% got in because they were related to somebody, typically a recent immigrant.
While talent does run in families, it also fairly rapidly regresses to the mean, as the first heredity scientist, Darwin's even smarter cousin Francis Galton, pointed out in 1869. Thus, the average skill level of Indian immigrants has been dropping. American Demographics magazine reported in 1995:
"'The third segment [of Indian immigrants] is made up of relatives of earlier immigrants who have been sponsored by established family members in this country. They are often less well-educated than members of the first two segments. This is the group most likely to be running motels, small grocery stores, gas stations, or other ventures."
So a brother-in-law of an Indian chip designer at Advanced Micro Devices gets admitted solely on nepotism. He drives a cab until he saves enough to put a down payment on a motel in Biloxi. There, he fires the black maids and hires his newly arrived sisters to clean the rooms.
The economic benefits to American citizens are mixed - Americans who stay in motels get slightly cheaper and cleaner rooms; Americans who work in motels get unemployment checks.
There's also a hidden opportunity cost to nepotistically selecting undistinguished immigrants. They crowd out talented immigrants. Thus, under the current system, we end up with a lot of immigrants who outcompete African-Americans and other American citizens for taxi and motel jobs, but couldn't design a chip to save their lives.
Not that I could either. But there are people in this world who can. We are passing many of them up in order to bring in somebody's in-laws.
So Dr. Saxenian ends her article with a ringing call to make our immigrant selection system less nepotistic and more meritocratic - right?
Wrong! She doesn't a breathe one word on the subject.
For the Brookings Institution, that would be a little too intellectually diverse.
January 23, 2002