The 21-Year Old: Yes. That Piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates was really good. But I notice that you didn't link to it on your weblog. Why not?
Me: Well, I'm busy. I link to a lot of stuff. I link to a lot of his stuff. I think he is really good, but... Perhaps I fear that I think he is better than he is because of residual white liberal guilt? Perhaps I fear to be patronizing? Perhaps people will think: "He's good, but not that good, so why is DeLong..."
The 21-Year-Old: You are wrong. He is that good. Link to him more.
So here we are:
The New Republic: An Appreciation: It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that black lives didn't matter much at all to the magazine. Last week, Franklin Foer resigned his editorship of The New Republic. A deep, if not broad, mourning immediately commenced as a number of influential writers lamented what occurred to them as the passing of a great American institution. The mourners have something of a case. TNR had a hand in the careers of an outsized number of prominent narrative and opinion journalists. I have never quite been able to judge the effect of literature or journalism on policy, but:
I know that in my field, if you had dreams of having a career, you had to contend with TNR. My first editor at The Atlantic came from TNR, as did the editor of the entire magazine. More than any other writer, TNR alum Andrew Sullivan taught me how to think publicly. More than any other opinion writer, Hendrik Hertzberg taught me how to write with 'thickness,' as I once heard him say. A semester in my nonfiction class is never quite complete without this piece by Michael Kinsley. TNR's legacy is so significant that I could never have avoided being drawn into the magazine's orbit. Even if I had wanted to.
Earlier this year, Foer edited an anthology of TNR writings titled Insurrections of the Mind, commemorating the magazine's 100-year history. 'This book hasn't been compiled in the name of definitiveness,' Foer wrote:
It was put together in the spirit of the magazine that it anthologizes: it is an argument about what matters.
There is only one essay in Insurrections that takes race as its subject. The volume includes only one black writer and only two writers of color. This is not an oversight. Nor does it mean that Foer is a bad human. On the contrary, if one were to attempt to capture the 'spirit' of TNR, it would be impossible to avoid the conclusion that black lives don't matter much at all.
That explains why the family rows at TNR's virtual funeral look like the 'Whites Only' section of a Jim Crow-era movie-house. For most of its modern history, TNR has been an entirely white publication, which published stories confirming white people's worst instincts. During the culture wars of the '80s and '90s, TNR regarded black people with an attitude ranging from removed disregard to blatant bigotry.
When people discuss TNR's racism, Andrew Sullivan's publication of excerpts from Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve (and a series of dissents) gets the most attention. But this fuels the lie that one infamous issue stands apart. In fact, the Bell Curve episode is remarkable for how well it fits with the rest of TNR's history.
The personal attitude of TNR's longtime owner, the bigoted Martin Peretz, should be mentioned here. Peretz's dossier of racist hits (mostly at the expense of blacks and Arabs) is shameful, and one does not have to look hard to find evidence of it in Peretz's writing or in the sensibility of the magazine during his ownership. In 1984, long before Sullivan was tapped to helm TNR, Charles Murray was dubbing affirmative action a form of 'new racism' that targeted white people.
Two years later, Washington Post writer Richard Cohen was roundly rebuked for advocating that D.C. jewelry stores discriminate against young black men—but not by TNR. The magazine took the opportunity to convene a panel to 'reflect briefly' on whether it was moral for merchants to bar black men from their stores. ('Expecting a jewelry store owner to risk his life in the service of color-blind justice is expecting too much,' the magazine concluded.)
TNR made a habit of 'reflecting briefly' on matters that were life and death to black people but were mostly abstract thought experiments to the magazine's editors. Before, during, and after Sullivan's tenure, the magazine seemed to believe that the kind of racism that mattered most was best evidenced in the evils of Afrocentrism, the excesses of multiculturalism, and the machinations of Jesse Jackson. It's true that TNR's staff roundly objected to excerpting The Bell Curve, but I was never quite sure why. Sullivan was simply exposing the dark premise that lay beneath much of the magazine's coverage of America's ancient dilemma.
What else to make of the article that made Stephen Glass's career possible, 'Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work'? The piece asserted that black people in D.C. were distinctly lacking in the work ethic best evidenced by immigrant cab drivers. A surrealist comedy, Glass's piece revels in the alleged exploits of a mythical Asian-American avenger—Kae Bang—who wreaks havoc on black criminals who'd rather rob taxi drivers than work. The article concludes with Glass, in the cab, while its driver is robbed by a black man. It was all lies.
What else to make of TNR sending Ruth Shalit to evaluate affirmative action at The Washington Post in 1995? 'She cast Post writer Kevin Merida as some kind of poster boy for affirmative action when in fact he had risen in the business for reasons far more legitimate than her own,' David Carr wrote in 1999. Shalit's piece wasn't all lies. But it wasn't all true either. Shortly after the article was published, she was revealed to be a serial plagiarist.
TNR might have been helped by having more—or merely any—black people on its staff. I spent the weekend calling around and talking to people who worked in the offices over the years. From what I can tell, in that period, TNR had a total of two black people on staff as writers or editors. When I asked former employees whether they ever looked around and wondered why the newsroom was so white, the answers ranged from 'not really' to 'not often enough.'
This is understandable.
Prioritizing diversity would have been asking TNR to not be TNR. One person recalled a meeting at the magazine's offices when the idea of excerpting The Bell Curve was first pitched. Charles Murray came to this meeting to present his findings. The meeting was very contentious. I asked if there were any black people in the room this meeting. The person could not recall.
I always knew I could never work at TNR. In the latter portion of the magazine's heyday, in the mid-'90s, I was at Howard University with aspirations toward writing. Howard has a way of inculcating its students with a sense of mission. If you are going into writing, you understand that you are not a free agent, but the bearer of heritage walking in the steps of Hurston, Morrison, Baldwin, Wright, and Ellison. None of these writers appear in Insurrections of the Mind. Howard University taught me to be unsurprised by this.
It also taught me that writing was war, and I knew, even then, that TNR represented much of what I was at war with. I knew that TNR's much celebrated 'heterodoxy' was built on a strain of erudite neo-Dixiecratism. When The Bell Curve excerpt was published, one of my professors handed out the issue to every interested student. This was not a compliment. This was knowing your enemy.
TNR did not come to racism out of evil. Very few people ever do. Many of the white people working for the magazine were very young and very smart. This is always a dangerous combination. It must have been that much more dangerous given that their boss was a racist. (Though I am told he had many black friends and protégés.) Peretz was not always a regular presence in the office. This allowed TNR's saner staff to regard him as the crazy uncle who says racist shit at Thanksgiving. But Peretz was not a crazy uncle—he was the wealthy benefactor of an influential magazine that published ideas that damaged black people.
A writer for TNR told me how, in the mid-'90s, Peretz would come down to the office from Cambridge and lobby young writers to write what turned out to be the fictional 'Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work.' The writer told me that the young interns and fact-checkers would squirm in their seats. But no one took a stand. And perhaps it is too much to expect writers in their mid 20s, with editors in their late 20s, to say to Peretz, 'Please stop shopping this racist bullshit.' But the task was made infinitely easier by a monochrome staff that could view Peretz's racism as an abstraction, and not something that directly injured their families.
If TNR's influence and importance was as outsized as its advocates claim, then the import of its racist legacy is outsized in the same measure. Things got better after Peretz was dislodged. The retrograde politics were gone, but the 'Whites Only' sign remained. I've been told that Foer was greatly pained by Peretz's racism. I believe this. White people are often sincerely and greatly pained by racism, but rarely are they pained enough. That is not true because they are white, but because they are human. I know this, too well.
Still, as of last week there were still no black writers on TNR's staff, and only one on its masthead. Magazines, in general, have an awful record on diversity. But if TNR's influence and importance was as outsized as its advocates claim, then the import of its racist legacy is outsized in the same measure. One cannot sincerely partake in heritage à la carte.
In this sense it is unfortunate to see anonymous staffers accusing TNR's owner Chris Hughes of trying to create 'another BuzzFeed.' If that is truly Hughes's ambition, then—in at least one important way—he will have created a publication significantly more moral than anything any recent TNR editor ever has. No publication has more aggressively dealt with diversity than BuzzFeed. And not unrelated to this diversity has been a stellar range of storytelling and analysis, that could rival—if not best—the journalism in the latest iteration of TNR.
No one who works in magazines is happy to hear about writers and editors losing their jobs—even when those people have the enviable luxury of walking out on principle. And when I think of TNR's history, when I flip through Insurrections, when I examine the magazine's archives, I am not so much angry as I am sad. There really was so much fine writing in its pages. But all my life I have had to take lessons from people who, in some profound way, cannot see me.
TNR billed itself as the magazine for iconoclasts. But its iconoclasm ended exactly where everyone else's does—at 110th Street. Worse, TNR encouraged incuriosity about what lay beyond the barrier. It told its readers that my world was welfare cheats, affirmative-action babies, and Jesse Jackson. And that white people—or any people—would be urged to such ignorance by their Harvard-bred intellectual leadership is deeply sad. The in-flight magazine of Air Force One should have been better. Perhaps it still can be.
And Jim Heckman on The Bell Curve:
...about equality, egalitarianism, and the malleability of human beings is long overdue. Had the authors taken more care in presenting their evidence and summarizing that of others, and had they woven their argument more closely, their book would be that challenge. Unfortunately, it is not.
The book fails for four main reasons. First, too much space is devoted to discussions of intrinsically irrelevant issues. Nothing central... hinges on... whether there is one 'true'... or... multiple abilities--as common sense, much psychometric research, and the authors' own evidence indicate is the actual state of affairs.... Admitting that persons have multiple skills does not undermine the empirical case that heterogeneity in ability is an important fact.... The authors acknowledge... the difficulty of identifying separate genetic and environmental contributions.... The authors fail to justify why it is useful to establish any particular set of weights or even a range of weights, except the special weight that assigns all credit to the genes.
This observation points to the second, more fundamental, reason why this book fails to provide an effective challenge to contemporary egalitarian social policy. One might oppose such policies on moral or ethical grounds. Instead, the authors choose an empirical approach. Yet they fail to develop the empirical case.... I [had] thought that Murray and Herrnstein would... document... the failure of many social programs designed to boost the skills of the less able.... By no means does the evidence they discuss rule out the possibility of boosting IQ through programs that enrich the learning environments of young children. Indeed, the authors acknowledge that there are strong indications that very intensive programs can be effective....
It is striking that the authors do not discuss the costs and benefits of various interventions. It is in these terms that public policy discussions regarding skill-enhancement programs are usually conducted. The authors seek to short-circuit all of the hard work required to make credible cost-benefit calculations by claiming that there is a genetic basis for skill differences. But estimates of a genetic component of skills are irrelevant to the requisite cost-benefit analysis unless it can be established that all differences are genetic.... Equally obvious is the point that knowing that all skill components are environmentally determined does not justify interventions. Knowing that we can teach calculus to a child with an IQ of 65 but only at an enormous cost would not justify a policy of doing so.... This point is particularly telling for their assessment of education....
Throughout much of the book, they equate ability and education and implicitly assume that the economic returns to ability drive the economic returns to education. On the empirical grounds chosen by the authors, this implicit assumption is false. Their own evidence (buried in Appendix 6), as well as a vast literature in empirical social science, clearly indicates that controlling for ability lowers but does not eliminate the return to schooling measured in terms of earnings. The evidence on this point is consistent across many studies. Controlling for their measure of ability, the returns to education sometimes fall by as much as 25 percent, but they never go to zero. Ability and education are not the same thing, and both have economic rewards....
What little is known indicates that ability--or IQ--is not a fixed trait for the young (persons up to age 8 or so).... Sustained high-intensity investments in the education of young children, including such parental activities as reading and responding to children, stimulate learning and further education. Good environments promote learning for young children at all levels of ability. In this sense, there is fragmentary evidence that enriched education can be a good investment even for children of low initial ability, because it stimulates cumulative learning processes and may raise ability.... The authors also disregard much recent empirical evidence by Richard Murnane and others that indicates the increasing returns to the measures used by Murray and Herrnstein account for only a small portion of the recent increase in the economic return to schooling.... It is unfortunate that the authors disregard this important evidence....
The third source of The Bell Curve's failure lies in the details of its analysis.... They pit their ability measure against a measure of the socioeconomic status of persons when they were children. The authors intend this contrast to reveal the relative importance of "genes" and "environment" in accounting for behavior.... This sort of empirical exercise prospers--or founders--on the details. The credibility of any empirical study depends on the care taken by the analyst in defining and measuring concepts, and in interpreting conclusions.... It is at this point that the book becomes a policy polemic rather than a scholarly study....
In their empirical analysis, the operational definition of IQ is the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT) score... designed to predict success in military training schools.... Most of these tests appear to be achievement tests rather than ability tests.... Ironically, the authors delete from their composite AFQT score a timed test of numerical operations because it is not highly correlated with the other tests. Yet it is well known that in the data they use, this subtest is the single best predictor of earnings of all the AFQT test components. The fact that many of the subtests are only weakly correlated with each other, and that the best predictor of earnings is only weakly correlated with their "g-loaded" score, only heightens doubts that a single-ability model is a satisfactory description of human intelligence....
More disturbing is the authors' treatment of family background. The index is based on parental education and occupational status, and on family income measured at one point in the entire life cycle of the child. For many young adults, the family-income measure is entirely missing and is omitted from the construction of the index. The IQ measure used by Murray and Herrnstein is taken rather late in the life cycle of the child.... It would be incredible if 15 to 23 years of environmental influences, including the nurturing of parents, the resources they spent on a child, their cultural environment, their interaction with their children, and the influence of the larger community could be summarized by a single measure of education, occupation, and family income in one year....
The authors present evidence that IQ rises with age and with years of schooling completed. IQ may actually be a better measure of the environment facing children than the measure of environment used by Murray and Herrnstein. They use IQ to predict schooling, but schooling produces IQ. Hence, they are especially likely to find a strong measured effect of "IQ" on schooling.
The same remarks apply to their study of racial and ethnic differentials in socioeconomic outcomes. If racial differentials in environments affect ability and influence measured test scores, evidence that racial differentials weaken when ability is controlled for using regression methods does not rule out an important role for the environment in explaining performance in society. In the presence of measurement error in the environment, the authors' analysis will overstate the "true" effect of ability on those outcomes.
There are methods for addressing these problems, but Murray and Herrnstein do not use them....
Finally, the book fails due to a lack of coherence. The argument does not cumulate in a convincing way. Too many seams are visible....
Many of the other policy goals advocated by the authors could be embraced without any consideration of the problems--or benefits--of cognitive stratification. For this reason, their advocacy of these goals is not germane to this book. Simplifying the law, eliminating regulation, providing clearer moral and social rules, and eliminating restrictions on entry into business may differentially benefit the cognitively weak, but they are likely to benefit everyone else, too.
The authors' argument in support of local neighborhoods and small communities with cognitively mixed populations cries out for clarification. For each idyllic fable about the virtues of life in small communities, one could counter with fables of Peyton Place or the narrow-mindedness of the Babbitts of Main Street.
Had the authors been more cautious, they would have told the following defensible story: They have produced very convincing evidence that by the late teenage years, essential features of the skills and motivation of persons are determined. These features strongly influence individuals' performance in schools, in the market, and in other aspects of social life. The Armed Forces Qualifying Test seems to be a good measure of the skills affecting social performance. Using the components on which the test is based, rather than one composite score, would probably capture the diversity of abilities in the population even better.
The authors have no good way to separate genetic from social influences on social behavior. Their environmental data are too crude and the AFQT score they use is obtained too late in life to make a genetic-environmental distinction meaningful. The authors would require much finer measures of environmental variables than they have at their disposal to rule out the importance of family and society in determining individual outcomes.
Nonetheless, their evidence and the evidence assembled from many government skill-remediation programs for adults suggests that persons are not very malleable after their late teens or perhaps their early 20s. Successful interventions for such people are likely to be very costly. The literature suggests a particularly poor performance of educational remediation programs for adults of low cognitive ability as measured by AFQT and other cognitive tests.
To the extent that social interventions can upgrade skills, they are most likely to be effective when they are applied to the young.... It is much easier to galvanize a young child than an illiterate young adult.... Genes may play some role, but culture and environment also contribute to ability and motivation. Much serious research in psychology indicates that motivation and attitude are as important--and possibly more important--for success than is raw IQ.