Malcolm Gladwell Blinks Again

Malcolm Gladwell, one of the highest-paid print journalists in America, has just been awarded the supreme MSM accolade: a 2600-word profile in today's New York Times entitled the The Gladwell Effect. [by Rachel Donadio, February 5 2005]

So I am naturally honored to find he has posted on his Gladwell.com website a 1000 word response (scroll down) to my 2005 critique of his humongous bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

VDARE.com readers may recall that I summarized Blink as contradictorily advising:

  • Go with your gut reactions, but only when they are right.

  • And even when your gut reactions are factually correct, ignore them when they are politically incorrect.

In his response, Gladwell is baffled and offended that both Judge Richard A. Posner, the distinguished leader of the Law and Economics school of thought, and myself had scoffed at his theory that, as he puts it, the reason "car salesmen quote higher prices to otherwise identical black shoppers is because of unconscious discrimination. They don't realize what they are doing. But buried prejudices are changing their responses in the moment."

Posner and I had pointed out that auto dealers aren't tragic victims of their own hidden bigotry. Instead, they are relying on their years of experience at milking different kinds of customers for the highest possible price.

Thus, they make higher offers to blacks and women because they've found they can often manipulate them into paying more.

Gladwell sniffed: "Sailer and Poser [sic] have a very low opinion of car salesmen."

Now, that's a killer comeback!

I'll return below to Gladwell's rebuttal and toss in my own snide comments. But let's first review both the magnitude and meaning of "the Gladwell Effect."

Gladwell's $250,000 salary with The New Yorker, for 40,000 to 50,000 words annually, comes out to about five dollars per word. But that's just the beginning of the Gladwell financial empire. His books The Tipping Point and Blink earned seven-figure advances and have sold three million copies between them. And he charges corporations roughly $40,000 per speech on topics like "The Intuitive Manager" and "The Laws of Cool."

Most remarkably, even though Blink is a nonfiction book with no plot, Gladwell sold its movie rights for a million dollars. He is slated to be played by, of all people, Leonardo DiCaprio, the pretty boy star of Titanic.

This is even odder because DiCaprio has lank dark blond hair, while Gladwell, who has some black ancestry, claims that he was inspired to write Blink when he grew a vast Afro and suddenly started getting hassled by The Man.

Gladwell is important, however, because he's pioneering a new hybrid genre.

There are three obvious ways to get rich as a nonfiction writer.

  • Flatter conservatives that they are more moral, patriotic, and practical-minded than liberals.

  • Flatter liberals that they are more ethical, cosmopolitan, and high-minded than conservatives.

Although once a conservative, briefly working for The American Spectator, in recent years the Canadian-born Gladwell has been perfecting a spiel that unites the latter two approaches: he appeals simultaneously to his audience's liberal snobbery and capitalist greed.

His reply to me, quoted above, is a perfect example of this. He asserts that car salesmen would make even more money if they overcame their primitive biases and started to offer blacks and women lower prices.

In other words, become more politically correct and wealthier at the same time.

Hey, it sure worked for Gladwell!

This is a good strategy for snagging lucrative corporate speaking gigs, from which Gladwell earns approximately one million dollars each year. Every large organization in America is constantly battling discrimination lawsuits from disgruntled minority and female employees. Big companies definitely don't want to take the chance of a plaintiff in a bias suit pointing out to the jury that they hired a speaker who publicly engages in crimethink.

You can imagine the restraining effect that being able to make $40,000 for a day's work would have on anybody: a single publicized "gaffe" where you tell the truth about some taboo topic and your annual corporate speaking engagement income suddenly drops to zip.

Before Gladwell got into the lecture racket, his net worth was no doubt smaller but his courage was definitely larger. Back in 1997, for instance, he published an article in The New Yorker called The Sports Taboo: Why blacks are like boys and whites are like girls. (May 19).

It made the same heretical argument about the genetic origin of sex differences in mathematic performance that got Harvard President Larry Summers in so much trouble last year: that men have a larger variance on many traits, so there are more men at the top (and bottom) of the bell curves.

And then Gladwell bravely went ahead and applied the same logic to the biology of race differences to try to explain why blacks are faster Olympic runners and dominate in football and basketball.

He wrote that blacks are more genetically diverse than whites, so

"… you would expect to see more really fast blacks-and more really slow blacks-than whites but far fewer Africans of merely average speed. Blacks are like boys. Whites are like girls."

Unfortunately, Gladwell's theory of the genetics of race was based on a common fallacy: that blacks are more genetically variable than other races. But this is only true for junk genes that don't do anything.

A little bit of observation would have shown Gladwell that the real world doesn't look at all like his pet theory predicts. Gladwell is unmarried, but I've spent lots of time shepherding my kids at playgrounds and sports fields. The average racial difference in running speed is apparent from toddlerhood up. There simply is no question that average sprinting ability is higher among African-American kids than white kids.

Similarly, if black IQ is more variable than white IQ, as Gladwell suggests, then blacks should be over-represented in high IQ positions, such as Ivy League physics departments. They aren't. (The reality, incidentally, is that blacks have a slightly smaller IQ variance than whites.)

The big racial difference in both running speed and intelligence is not in variance but in the mean. For IQ, the means for blacks and whites differs by a full standard deviation.

So Gladwell's theory about the genetics of racial differences was self-evidently absurd. But at least you could say that he was trying—back in 1997.

By 2005, though, Gladwell cravenly failed to come to the defense of Summers for saying exactly what he'd said about sex differences eight years before.

Now, Gladwell merely attempts to bolster the political pieties reigning among New Yorker subscribers, as demonstrated in the Feb. 6th New Yorker by his disingenuous attack on the efficacy of racial profiling: The Problem with Profiling: Is there any accurate way to determine who is going to behave badly? To make it seem as if profiling wouldn't work, Gladwell constructs a Rube Goldberg analogy to the controversy over outlawing pit bulls that has to be read to be believed. You can find my debunking here.

Last year in VDARE.com, I accused Gladwell of wielding Occam's Butterknife in his interpretation in Blink of a well-known 1995 study by law professor Ian Ayres of racial discrimination by Chicago car dealers.

Ayres sent matched testers into auto show rooms where they found that car dealers gave the lowest initial offers to white men, then to white women, then to black women, and then finally black men. Even after 40 minutes of negotiating, the black guy shoppers were still being offered prices nearly $800 higher than the initial offer made to the white guys.

(Although Gladwell didn't mention this, the race or sex of the salesperson didn't matter—e.g., on average, black saleswomen quote higher prices to black women than to white men.)

I pointed out that in a scathing review of Blink in The New Republic, the celebrated Judge Richard A. Posner explained:

"It would not occur to Gladwell, a good liberal, that an auto salesman's discriminating on the basis of race or sex might be a rational form of the "rapid cognition" that he admires... [It] may be sensible to ascribe the group's average characteristics to each member of the group, even though one knows that many members deviate from the average. An individual's characteristics may be difficult to determine in a brief encounter, and a salesman cannot afford to waste his time in a protracted one, and so he may quote a high price to every black shopper even though he knows that some blacks are just as shrewd and experienced car shoppers as the average white, or more so. Economists use the term 'statistical discrimination' to describe this behavior."

Here's what Gladwell had to say on his website:

"One of the most bizarre reactions that I received from reviewers of Blink is an absolute inability to accept the notion of unconscious prejudice. Here is an example from a fairly well known writer named Steve Sailer. Sailer, in turns, quotes from a very hostile review of Blink in The New Republic by Richard Posner."

Let me butt in here. Malcolm, I get the impression that you don't really know who Posner is, or you would have left out mentioning that Posner agrees with me. Here's the intro to an interview with Posner:

"Richard Posner has been showered with superlatives by fans and critics alike. He's been called the most prolific, the most outspoken, the most intelligent, and the most controversial judge in the country. Along with his job as a Federal Appeals Court judge, he's a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and he has published over 40 books."

Back in 2005, I explained what was really happening in the showrooms:

"Women dislike hurting other people's feelings more than men do, and car salesmen are very good at acting emotionally hurt when you try to lowball them. … Black men, for whatever complicated reasons, enjoy being seen as big spenders. And car salesmen are all too willing to help them spend big."

Malcolm, you could only sputter in shock and repeat yourself:

"It's hard to know just what to say in the face of arguments like this. … My interpretation is that the reason the car salesmen quote higher prices to otherwise identical black shoppers is because of unconscious discrimination. They don't realize what they are doing…

That's naive to the point of hilarity. Some of these guys have been selling cars for as long as you have been alive. And, believe it or not, they pay close attention not just to what makes the most money for themselves but to what works for other salesmen as well.

Further, if the salesman's unconscious prejudice is costing the dealership money, his manager will make him highly conscious of it quickly, or the salesman will be out on the street.

You go on, working up an impressive display of righteous indignation:

"Sailer and Posner, by contrast, think that the discrimination is conscious and, what's more, that it's rational. The salesmen, in Posner's words, 'ascribe the group's average characteristics to each member of the group, even though one knows that many members deviate from the average.' And what is the 'group's average characteristic' in this case? That, as Sailer puts it, black men "enjoy being seen as big spenders." Am I wrong or is that an utterly ludicrous (not to mention offensive) statement? Where does this idea come from?"

Uh, from 10,000 rap videos? From the fact that the world's #1 market for cognac is Detroit, which is 80% black? The mouths of black stand-up comedians? Decades of marketing research? 100 years of car buying experience?

Malcolm, you go on:

"How is it possible that when it comes to buying things black men--magically--all take on the same personality?"

Uh, because they don't all take on the same personality. Go reread the line from Judge Posner that you yourself quoted above: we're talking about the "average"—a concept you may have heard of?

You say:

"… I refuse to believe that all of the car salesmen of Chicago are so stupid as to believe that by virtue of having a slightly darker skin color a human being becomes somehow predisposed towards higher prices." 

But Malcolm, saying "I refuse to believe" when you have no evidence bespeaks desperation.

We're talking about an ethnic cultural trait. And the simple fact is that the urge to drive a hard bargain famously varies between ethnic groups. As Dave Barry notes in his new book Dave Barry's Money Secrets (Like: Why Is There a Giant Eyeball on the Dollar?):

"I'm the world's worst car buyer. I come from a long line of Presbyterians, who get their name from the Greek words pre, meaning 'people,' and sbyterian, meaning 'who always pay retail.' … My idea of an opening tactical salvo is to look at the car's sticker price and say to the salesperson, 'This looks like a good deal! Are you sure you're making enough profit on this?'"

As for your coup de grace"Sailer and Poser [sic] have a very low opinion of car salesmen"—you must be one of the few people in the country who claims not to have a low opinion of car salesmen. A 2005 Gallup poll asked 1002 adults nationwide to rate the honesty and ethical standards of 21 occupations. Nurses came in first, with 82% rating them high or very high. Last were telemarketers at 7%. Next to last were car salesmen at 8%.

You say:

"Nor do I believe that this ridiculous prejudice is rational. The point of the chapter is that prejudices that rely on people's appearance don't help salesmen make money."

Yeah, Malcolm, Judge Posner and I know that's the point of your chapter. We just think that when it comes to the specific example you chose to illustrate it, it's a stupid point.

This stems not from an "absolute inability to accept the notion of unconscious prejudice" on the part of Judge Posner and myself. Instead, it flows both from our familiarity with economic theory and our many years of exposure to Chicago car dealers and customers. We think that after a century of selling cars, Chicago car salesmen know more about how to make money in their business than you do.

You say:

"A salesman makes money on volume—"

No, he makes money on volume times profit margin. It's a good thing you don't run a car dealership—your strategy would be to lose money on every car sold, but make up for it on volume!

"…and anything that has the potential to stigmatize or scare off a specific kind of customer is a really bad idea."

Yes, so the advantage in higher profit margins from price discriminating by race and sex must be quite lucrative. Otherwise, the nondiscriminating dealerships would have driven the discriminating dealerships out of business over the last century.

You go on:

"The reason the notion of unconscious prejudice is so important is that there are certain kinds of behavior that are so inexplicable that this is the only way to explain them."

No, as Judge Posner explained, this behavior is explicable—by the well-established economic concept of "statistical discrimination."

Malcolm, I'm not the world's biggest fan of your buddy Steven D. "The Freakonomist" Levitt, but call him up—I'm sure he could help you grasp the meaning of "statistical discrimination."

Economist Robert J. Stonebraker writes:

"While dealers and/or salespeople may know little or nothing about a particular customer, they know quite a bit about statistical differences among races and genders. They know that women and African-Americans typically enter the showroom with less information and less proclivity to bargain. Although white males often salivate at the chance to lock horns with car dealers in a bargaining struggle, females and African-Americans may be unaware that bargaining is even possible. Ayres and Siegelman cite a Consumer Federation of America survey that discovered that many female respondents, and more than one-half of African-American respondents, believed that sticker prices were non-negotiable. Armed with such knowledge, salespeople will rationally adopt a more stubborn stance while bargaining with female and African-American customers."

In summary, Malcolm, I have to scratch my head: You get paid $40,000 per speech to corporate sales forces?

Obviously, you don't want to insult salesmen, who butter your bread.

But I've spent a lot more years in the corporate trenches with sales guys than you have, and most of them have a good sense of humor about what they do. They can put up with some ribbing.

What gets on their nerves is a pompous fool.

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]