Issue of the Century

David Brooks Demands New, Improved Americans 2.0

January 31, 2018

In contrast to the Brooks Theory that West Virginians deserve their hard times for their sin of not having lots of immigrants, the Sailer Theory is that there isn’t much money to be made these days living on a dirt road in West Virginia, so immigrants stay away.

My rationale also explains, while Brooks’ doesn’t, why the leading economic engine of Southern California, the entertainment industry, is so much whiter than the overall population. Sure, Hollywood lets in a few talented Mexican-born elites, such as Oscar front-runner Guillermo del Toro, a Person of Pallor whose father was an industrialist.

Yet, even though Los Angeles County is home to 4.9 million Hispanics, remarkably few work in entertainment, whether in creative or even in craft jobs. When The New York Times recently ran an article calling attention to how few Latino movie stars win Oscars, it could find only three from this century, two of whom (Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem) are married Spaniards.

Similarly, Silicon Valley in Northern California has remarkably few Hispanics in important roles. For example, here is a list of the twenty most important Hispanics in the technology business, none of whom I have ever heard of. I was initially impressed to find out that the president of MIT was born in Venezuela, but then it turns out that at home in Maracaibo his parents spoke Yiddish.

The only important Mexican-American in Silicon Valley history whom I can recall was Hector Ruiz, the CEO of chipmaker AMD, which usually played the Washington Generals to Intel’s Harlem Globetrotters. He had the misfortune of having his mistress sell his pillow-talk secrets for insider trading purposes.

Similarly, Brooks argues that places without enough immigrants, such as Ohio and Kentucky, are full of heroin addicts. But according to reporter Sam Quinones’ award-winning book on the opioid epidemic in that region, Dreamland, Mexican immigrants are their prime heroin pushers.

If you’ve actually studied recent economic trends, you’ll note that many of the depressed areas of the country are among the most diverse. For example, in California, the housing crash of a decade ago barely stressed white Malibu, while it hit hard the much more less white High Desert and the Inland Empire. Indeed, the housing bubble that wiped out the economy in 2008 was focused upon the immigrant-attractive Sand States of California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida.

A recent academic study, “Immigrants and Mortgage Delinquency” by Zhenguo Lin, Yingchun Liu, and Jia Xie, found that in the crucial year 2009 Brooks’ dynamic, morally superior immigrants defaulted 3.6 times as often on their mortgages as us deplorable natives. American elites, such as George W. Bush and financier Angelo Mozilo, simply trusted immigrants too much. And judging by the effusions over the past week about how immigrants deserve this country more than Americans do, they almost certainly still do.

Yet Brooks’ assumptions about which parts of the country have been prospering aren’t even prima facie true. In this century, for instance, North Carolina, home to a huge influx of Latinos and blacks, has been economically depressed, while North Dakota has prospered.

This is a general pattern inadvertently found by Stanford economist Raj Chetty’s 2015 study of which have been the economically best and worst counties in the country for working-class people in which to raise their children.

The heroin belt is centered on the more industrial eastern half of the country that was hollowed out by outsourcing factories to China. For example, Charlotte, N.C., was Chetty’s worst big metro area in which to raise kids in part because North Carolina’s furniture industry was crushed by China.

In contrast, the underpopulated northern Great Plains, home to few immigrants due to their remote locations and bitter winters, prospered extravagantly in Chetty’s research, largely because the long China boom drove up the value of food and energy. These states have few people per acre, so they have more resources per person.

Brooks’ idea that the reason Hollywood and Silicon Valley are so rich is because they have embraced the Latino immigrants who empty their wastebaskets is reminiscent of Richard Florida’s once-popular theory that Palo Alto’s Sand Hill Road was prospering because there were a lot of gays on San Francisco’s Castro Street only 33 miles away.

Florida got hired by the city fathers of many third-tier burghs such as Spokane to lecture them at up to $35,000 per speech on how they could become the new Silicon Valley by luring more gays to town with gay pride parades and the like.

In contrast, my 2002 explanation of why rich places tended to have a lot of gay men around was much less popular than Florida’s: I argued that rather than wealth being attracted to gays, gays were attracted to wealth.

For example, when I arrived at Rice U. in Houston in 1976, I was informed that Houston now had the fourth-biggest gay population in the country. Was it because Houston had very recently become much more gay-friendly? Not really. The more direct cause was that OPEC raised the price of oil in 1973, vastly boosting the profits of Houston’s energy companies. The new spending power of oilmen’s wives brought many gay men to Houston to sell these ladies fancier products and services than they could previously afford.

So if the Spokane chamber of commerce wanted to prosper like Houston did in the 1970s, all they’d have to do is benefit from a world-historical international conspiracy to drive up the price of whatever it is they do in Spokane. (Grow potatoes? Apples?)

Interestingly, Dr. Florida recently recanted his famous theory, although I haven’t heard that he’s turning his old speaking fees over to the guy who got it right. But at least some people learn from their mistakes, unlike David Brooks.

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