Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What really drives Putnam?

According to Professor Putnam of Harvard University, diversity leads to a loss of trust, happiness and friendship. In diverse communities, individuals "hunker down" and become socially isolated.

And yet Professor Putnam remains a "diversiticrat". He wants to continue to extend diversity, despite the significant, negative effects that his own research uncovered.

Why? What can explain the contradiction between the research findings and the professor's continuing allegiance to the cause of diversity?

The professor himself never really gets to first principles. He does attempt to make a case for his position, but it's pitched to us as persuasive argument. So there is a frustrating sense that on such an important issue the fundamentals are being left unexamined.

Still, it's worth looking at the arguments he does put forward.


Resistance to diversity is futile, according to Professor Putnam. The most certain thing is that diversity will grow in Western countries, fuelled by immigration and immigrant birth rates. (pp.137, 139, 140)

I find it difficult to accept this argument at face value. First, it is obviously not inevitable that Western governments have to encourage ongoing large-scale immigration. There is no "force of nature" type reason that current immigration policies have to remain in place. They could definitely be changed if there were a shift in political climate.

Second, Professor Putnam is not consistent in his fatalism. He wants to extend diversity by rooting out traces of ethnic solidarity in the West (in churches, in neighbourhoods, in workplaces). He thinks that this is a difficult task and a great challenge, but reminds us (quoting Weber) that "Politics is a slow boring of hard boards".

So we are to be fatalists when the task is relatively straightforward (reducing immigration levels) but unyielding in our efforts to implement a much more difficult and intrusive policy which the professor happens to support.

Economic benefits

The professor goes on to argue that an increase in ethnic diversity is not only inevitable but also desirable. This is despite the negative effects of diversity on social capital.

The desirable benefit he points to is economic growth. Again, though, it's difficult to believe that this is the main driver behind Professor Putnam's support for diversity.

First, the professor himself admits that this is a contested area, and that some research shows a negative effect of immigration on the economy. The best he can claim is that overall a "weight of evidence" suggests the effect to be positive. (p.140)

Second, it's not reasonable to conclude that a modest positive effect on "economic capital" is enough to offset the serious damage to "social capital" that the professor outlines at length in his report.

If diversity makes us less happy and less socially connected, does a modest economic gain really justify a deliberate increase in diversity? The answer is obviously no, and therefore it's unlikely that Professor Putnam is devoted to diversity for economic reasons.

Furthermore, it's difficult to believe that a serious loss of social capital is associated with long-term economic growth. In fact, Professor Putnam tells us elsewhere in the report that, based on his own earlier research, a high level of social capital makes "the economy work better". (p.138) Therefore, if ethnic diversity destroys social capital you might expect the economy to work worse.

Professor Putnam himself details some of the negative effects that this loss of social capital has on the economy. He notes research that in workplaces diversity "is generally associated with lower group cohesion, lower satisfaction and higher turnover", and that it has also been linked to "lower investment in public goods" and "higher default rates". (pp.142-143)

Finally, it might be noted that there are plenty of examples of homogeneous societies which have managed impressive rates of economic growth. Japan, South Korea and China have all had major periods of growth as (relatively) ethnically homogeneous countries. Australia had the world's highest living standards in 1900, again with a relatively high level of homogeneity.


Professor Putnam also thinks that diverse societies are more creative. He gives as evidence the disproportionate number of American immigrants who have won Nobel prizes, who are members of the National Academy of Science and who are Academy Award film directors. (p.140)

Is he right? Not in terms of the Nobel prize. There is a Wikipedia list of American Nobel Laureates and their country of origin. Of the 169 American winners, only 20 were born outside Anglophone or northern European countries. If we then take out the southern and eastern European born winners we are left with 4 foreign born winners (a Japanese, a Chinese, and two Indians).

So there are only four American Nobel Laureates out of 169 who are of non-Western national origins.

It has to be remembered, too, that it's highly unlikely that someone will become a Nobel Laureate or a member of the National Academy of Science without a strong educational background and a capacity to work in the top professions.

But most of the current wave of immigrants into Europe and North America don't fit this category. A large majority of the Mexican immigrants to America don't have high school qualifications, let alone advanced university degrees. A disproportionate number of immigrants into Europe become welfare dependent or work in low-skilled jobs.

Furthermore, mass immigration can lead to a loss of young, middle-class professionals, who are much more likely to contribute to the arts and sciences.

Why? Imagine you live in a high-taxing, crowded, cold, northern European country, like the Netherlands, Germany, Britain or Sweden. Why would you stay? The most basic reason would be that you are bound to your country in terms of identity, culture, language and history.

But what if your government decided to make such traditional forms of attachment obsolete? Then you would no longer have the same motivation to stay. You would be more likely to find yourself tempted by warmer climes, less punitive tax levels or more living space.

According to a recent article by Paul Belien, northern European countries are already losing large numbers of young professionals, who are being replaced by low-educated and unskilled migrants. In 2006, for instance, over 130,000 Dutchmen left Holland.

There are European countries, therefore, experiencing the reverse effect to that imagined by Professor Putnam. The population transfer is likely to be negative in terms of creativity in the arts and sciences.

But anyway, I don't think that arguments about creativity or economic growth are what really motivate Professor Putnam to support diversity. It's probable that he believes in diversity as part of a political world view.

This world view is brought out to a greater degree when Professor Putnam moves on to another topic, namely how the negative effects of diversity might be overcome. But I'll leave discussion of that topic for a future post.

Part 3: Professor Putnam's challenge


  1. Another clue is on p 138/9 where Prof. Putnam says "In the medium to long run, on the other hand, successful immigrant societies create new forms of social solidarity and dampent the negative effects of diversity by constructing new, more encompassing identities. Thus the central challenge for modern, diversifying societies is to create a new, broader sense of 'we'."

    A more classical case of liberal optimism and illusions I think will be hard to find. It also suggests that governments have a role to play in stripping its citizenry of their existing identity to create this 'broader sense of 'we'.

  2. Just one comment: Let's recall why many of those immigrant Nobel Prize winners came to America back in the 1930's. Not something you'd expect to be repeated.

    Counting the refugees from Hitler's Europe as "immigrants" and then using that to justify immigration of illiterate Mexicans is beyond dishonest, don't you think?

    Hmmm... I think I see the next Einstein coming across the border right this minute! Get him a green card!

  3. Scott, exactly. It's the closest Putnam gets to revealing the political agenda behind all the second tier arguments.

    John, a good comment, thanks. The professor's arguments about creativity are so abstract, so careless of real processes, that I took them to be there for "persuasive" purposes only.

  4. Mark and Scott,

    I just wanted to alert you, in case you're not in the habit of reading this segment of the blogosphere: You might be interested in the discussion that's been going on today over at The American Scene about the Putnam findings. Here's a link:


  5. Also, Putnam is apparently busy trying to defend himself against conservatives' charges of dishonesty here, among other places:


  6. There is no "force of nature" type reason that current immigration policies have to remain in place. They could definitely be changed if there were a shift in political climate.

    Not sure what you mean, but "force of nature" to me means demographics, specifically, birthrates. It seems undisputed that certain ethnicities "outbreed" others. And your typical WASP is not in the winner's circle. From this point of view, it is a force of nature. Who will be supporting the US Baby-Boomers by Social Security contributions, when the BBs don't even reach replacement levels in their breeding habits (too busy chasing BMWs and vacation homes)? To that extent, the Prof seems correct on his force of nature observation.

  7. C Matt,

    There's nothing inevitable about birth rates. Western birth rates fell gradually during first wave feminism (from rougly the 1870s to the 1940s), then rose significantly during the feminist lull of the 1950s and 60s, then fell again with the advent of second and third wave feminism.

    No society continues on by accident. Either the conditions of life for a civilisation are fought for and won, or else they are lost.

    If we were serious about our future existence (which currently we are not) we would never allow family formation to be disrupted by political movements like feminism. We would encourage the natural instincts toward love, marriage and children, rather than move heaven and earth to discourage them.

    Here in Australia even a few words of encouragement by the treasurer seem to have spurred along a small rise in the birth rate. Imagine if we were really serious about it.

  8. I think it obvious "a" civilization will continue in the US, the question is which one? As things stand now, there is little incentive for your average white male to raise a family, and plnety of culutral pressure not to. Materialism and consumption (not just feminism) have gotten so bad that public interest groups have started putting out advertisements - yes, advertisements - to discourage people from consumer spending and to start saving instead (I found that kind of ironic in the land where consumption through debt is KING). Right now, our economy depends upon conspicuous consumption. I doubt these ads will put much of a dent in it.

    The effect of this consumption is to continuously put off responsible parenthood, often permanently. I know many professional people in their 30's that, rather than raising a family, flat out admit it would "cramp" their lifestyle and would just prefer not to.

    Not a good sign. Or maybe it is - perhaps this is simply a built-in corrective to remove the uber-selfish.

    Sure, things are not necessarily irreversible. But I see very little reason to believe they will change. More important, I see little effort to reverse things, and plenty of effort to go even further in the wrong direction.

  9. The reason that consumerism is so rife in the US is because of the relentless culture wars that have been launched on our traditional culture over the past 40 years or so. Our religion, our history, our culture, our family systems, even lately our language has been relentlessly attacked by the left. What do you do when you have nothing left? You consume and consume and consume. Consumerism has filled the vacuum where traditional Anglo-American culture used to reside.

  10. Who will be supporting the US Baby-Boomers by Social Security contributions, when the BBs don't even reach replacement levels in their breeding habits (too busy chasing BMWs and vacation homes)?

    Our current crop of immigrants are not going to want to support "old white people" so that's a red herring. And in fact the native-born US population reproduces at exactly replacement level (we American whities reproduce at a higher level than you antipodeans or the Europeans -- we don't increase, but neither do we decline). We have no need to import tens of millions of illiterate Third Worlders to prop up the Boomers. And in fact the Boomers are set to inherit something like 44 trillion dollars from the "Greatest Generation" that proceeded them -- in a very short order.

  11. Hello Susan,

    It is now late July, 2009. In just a few weeks it will be 2 years since your post.

    Uh, how is that $US44 trillion looking these days?

    I hope your flood of new inhabitants into the US over recent decades have been getting themselves an education, say in the Protestant Work Ethic for example.

    Good luck.

  12. "Thus the central challenge for modern, diversifying societies is to create a new, broader sense of 'we'."

    But Putnam does not practice what he preaches. He had a very inclusive "we" as gentile, and he converted to Judaism to get the private benefits of in-group loyalty. He wants the advantages of a narrow sense of "we" while forcing everyone else to make do with a wider, less loyal community.