Garett Jones is associate professor of economics at George Mason University and author of The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left. City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly spoke with him about the book.

This book takes a clear-eyed look at popular ideas about immigration and assimilation, especially in the U.S. Could you tell us in brief what your research shows?

Migrants don’t fully assimilate in a generation or two: the descendants of Italian immigrants are still a lot like Italians back in Italy, and the descendants of Swedish immigrants are still a lot like Swedes in Sweden. We’ve seen this for savings rates, for views on government regulation, and for whether people say they generally trust strangers. Full assimilation is a myth.

And at the national level, it’s clear that the distant past is prologue. If you want to know how rich or how market-oriented a country is today, you’d want to know what the ancestors of the country’s current residents were doing in 1500, before the age of European exploration and violent conquest upended the world map. In a lot of ways, not much has changed since 1500, once you adjust for migration.

You suggest a connection between immigration policy and innovation and argue that the world stands to lose quite a bit from misguided U.S. immigration policy. How so?

The U.S. is the world leader in scientific publications, science Nobels, and research and development. The entire planet relies on U.S. innovation. And looking around the world, innovation appears extremely sensitive to the quality of a nation’s institutions. It’s obvious why: high-stakes research is big money, and nobody wants to put big money at risk in a corrupt, opaque, or incompetent legal and political system.

That means that if a big rise in immigration sets off an anti-immigrant populist backlash that hurts the quality of U.S. legal and political institutions, it wouldn’t just be the U.S. that loses out: the entire world would lose. For the world’s sake, we shouldn’t be taking risks with U.S. institutional quality.

Can you tell us a bit about the literature and data you delved into to make this argument?

One method is simple: find any survey that includes a question about where the respondent’s ancestors came from, and then check and see if answers to other questions—about savings rates, or religiosity, or whatever—are similar when you compare, say, the answers of Italian-American survey respondents to the answers of Italians in Italy today. UCLA’s Paola Giuliano and the late Alberto Alesina of Harvard have been key contributors to this literature.

Another method is harder: to look at the centuries-long effects of migration, David Weil and Louis Putterman of Brown University created a “migration matrix” that estimated who has migrated where over the past five centuries, and whether that migration was voluntary or, as was all too often the case, violently involuntary. They found that if you want to predict a nation’s prosperity today, you need to adjust for migration. NYU’s William Easterly has also been an important contributor to this “deep roots” research.

What does your work suggest about reforming U.S. immigration policy?

We know that all our measures of attitudes and ancestry and intergenerational persistence are subject to revision. So any policy advice should be purely suggestive. For the U.S., a simple suggestion would be a points-based migration system that gives some weight to people from countries with higher savings rates, higher private-sector, non-natural-resource GDP per capita, or a century or more of experience with liberal, market-oriented institutions. But I’d still put most of the weight on individual characteristics—good character, STEM training, and the like—since those are less controversial and better understood. We know that the descendants of migrants have been shaping economies and governments for the past five centuries, and migration policymakers should take that into account.

What are you reading now?

Jacques Bainville’s Histoire de France, which I’m using to improve my French reading skills. He was a major interwar intellectual. Like Keynes, he wrote an influential book about how the Versailles Treaty was terrible and likely to lead to something very bad. He was right, but unlike Keynes, Bainville has been largely forgotten.

Stephen Ziliak and Deirdre McCloskey’s Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives. Every applied economist has some sense that the argument in this book is right, but almost nobody comes close to fully practicing what Ziliak and McCloskey are preaching. We need to do better when it comes to empirical work, and this book is part of the way forward.

Photo: AndreyPopov/iStock


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