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Jason Richwine and the wonk gap

There's no great mystery as to why the Heritage Foundation released its widely-panned report on immigration reform this week. The goal was to give far-right
The Heritage Foundation's Jason Richwine
The Heritage Foundation's Jason Richwine

There's no great mystery as to why the Heritage Foundation released its widely-panned report on immigration reform this week. The goal was to give far-right opponents of the bipartisan proposal rhetorical ammunition: reform would cost taxpayers over $6 trillion.

Of course, that's not true, and even other conservatives consider the figure ridiculous, but Heritage -- having completed the transition from think tank to activist group -- wanted to give anti-reform Republicans an arrow for their quiver, facts be damned.

But the more Heritage's "study" is scrutinized, the bigger the problem becomes. Dylan Matthews reports this morning, for example, that the group's report was written in part by Jason Richwine, who's "relatively new to the think tank world," after having received his PhD in public policy from Harvard in 2009. You might be hearing more about him soon.

Richwine's dissertation asserts that there are deep-set differentials in intelligence between races. While it's clear he thinks it is partly due to genetics -- "the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ" -- he argues the most important thing is that the differences in group IQs are persistent, for whatever reason. He writes, "No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against."Toward the end of the thesis, Richwine writes that though he believes racial differences in IQ to be real and persistent, one need not agree with that to accept his case for basing immigration on IQ. Rather than excluding what he judges to be low-IQ races, we can just test each individual's IQ and exclude those with low scores. "I believe there is a strong case for IQ selection," he writes, "since it is theoretically a win-win for the U.S. and potential immigrants." He does caution against referring to it as IQ-based selection, saying that using the term "skill-based" would "blunt the negative reaction."

Too late.

So, the guy tasked by Heritage to help refute comprehensive immigration reform believes white people are necessarily more intelligent and Latinos may never catch up. It's as if the ostensible think tank went out of its way to create a plan to push as many Hispanic voters as possible to the left.

It also reinforces the wonk-gap thesis.

As we've discussed before, this came up in earnest during the fight over health care reform. In 2011, for example, after National Review ran a piece with obvious factual errors about health care policy, Jon Chait noted, "One of the unusual and frustrating aspects of the health care debate is the sheer imbalance of people who understand the issue at all from a technical standpoint. Even the elite policy wonks of the right make wildly incorrect claims about the issue."

Most people are not policy wonks. We really on trusted specialists to translate these details for us. This is true as well of elected officials and their advisors. Part of the extraordinary vitriol of the health care debate stems from the fact that, on the Republican side, even the specialists believe things that are simply patently untrue. As with climate change and supply-side economics, there isn't even a common reality upon which to base the discussion.

Paul Krugman added some related thoughts at the time.

First of all, I don't think this is unique to health care, or especially unusual. Monetary policy, fiscal policy, you name it, there's a gap, although not quite as large as on health.Second, I'm surprised that Chait doesn't refer to Upton Sinclair's principle: it's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. In fact, in general right-wing think tanks prefer people who genuinely can't understand the issues -- it makes them more reliable.Doesn't this apply to both sides? Not equally. There was a time when conservative think tanks employed genuine policy wonks, and when asked to devise a Republican health care plan, they came up with -- Obamacare! That is, what passes for leftist policy now is what was considered conservative 15 years ago; to meet the right's standards of political correctness now, you have to pass into another dimension, a dimension whose boundaries are that of imagination, untrammeled by things like arithmetic or logic.

The wonk gap isn't getting better. It's so bad that the Heritage Foundation released a report on immigration reform this week that couldn't withstand even minimal scrutiny from its own allies, written in part by a guy who believes Latinos, as an ethnic group, aren't as intelligent as white people.

To reiterate what Matt Yglesias said yesterday, "[E]ven ideological movement-oriented think tanks do their movements a disservice when they do bad work. As Republican members of Congress ponder what to do about immigration, possessing accurate credible information about the fiscal impact would be very useful to them. You actually want to have a team of people 'on your side' who you can trust to do good work."

That's true, but as the intellectual infrastructure on the right deteriorates, and Republican policymakers themselves place less of an emphasis on empiricism and fact-based research, the "good work" coming from the right is increasingly difficult to find.