David Brooks has a Moynihanish column in which he says people overrate policy and underestimate the role of culture in determining outcomes. “The influence of politics and policy,” he writes “is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.” In the course of making the case he writes:
If you combine the influence of ethnicity and region, you get astounding lifestyle gaps. The average Asian-American in New Jersey lives an amazing 26 years longer and is 11 times more likely to have a graduate degree than the average American Indian in South Dakota.
Brad DeLong replies:
If you wanted to find a stupider example to try to support the claim that “differences in policy really do not matter very much” than comparing American Indians in South Dakota and Asian-Americans in New Jersey, I suppose you probably could.
But it would take a really long time to find one, and you would have to work really hard to do so.
I think that’s an unfair reading of Brooks’ point. Consider his example of the kind of policies that do make a difference later in the column:
Therefore, the first rule of policy-making should be, don’t promulgate a policy that will destroy social bonds. If you take tribes of people, exile them from their homelands and ship them to strange, arid lands, you’re going to produce bad outcomes for generations.
I’m not certain that’s the right analysis of poor outcomes among South Dakotan Native Americans, but it seems like a credible account.
My problem with Brooks’ argument is something else. He notes that Asians do well not only in rich states like New Jersey, but also in economically distressed areas. But obviously Asians living in South Korea and Japan (or New Jersey) do much better than Asians living in North Korea. That’s policy. Chinese people living in San Francisco or Hong King or Singapore do much better than Chinese people living in Jiangxi. That’s policy. And the China disparity is much smaller in 2010 than it was in 1980, which is also policy.
Brooks counters by noting that Swedish-Americans and people in Sweden have similar outcomes, which he characterizes as “two groups with similar historical backgrounds living in entirely different political systems.” I think the real lesson here is that Sweden and the US (especially the parts of the US where Swedes tended to settle) actually don’t have entirely different political systems. North Korea and South Korea have entirely different political systems. Sweden and Zimbabwe have entirely different political systems. The United States and Uzbekistan have entirely different political systems. The United States and Sweden are both stable democracies with market economies, substantial welfare states, and relatively low levels of public corruption. I think the real lesson of Brooks’ story is that the policy differences between stable market/welfare democracies are not that large and especially that controversies about tax levels are overblown in terms of their consequences.
Jacob T Levy says Brooks should get the history of what happened to different groups of Native Americans right.