The Culture Transplant

From The Wall Street Journal:

In “The Culture Transplant,” Garett Jones argues that cultural traits can persist for generations after migrants arrive in a new country. Newcomers don’t simply assimilate to their new homes; as the book’s subtitle puts it, they “make the economies they move to a lot like the ones they left.” It’s a thesis that is at once highly provocative and a restatement of common sense: Poorly chosen immigrants can undermine a country’s success; cultures don’t disappear when people move from place to place.

If it is obvious that cultures and institutions persist when people cross national borders, the real question is: To what extent? One approach to finding the answer is to see how various attitudes endure. Trust, for instance, is one of the more commonly studied attributes: economic cooperation relies upon it, yet it varies substantially from culture to culture. Mr. Jones, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, notes that, even after four generations in the U.S., immigrants continue to hold attitudes toward trust that are significantly influenced by their home countries. On a host of other matters, such as family, abortion and the role of government, fourth-generation immigrants on average converge only about 60% of the way to the national norm. “Overall,” Mr. Jones contends, “that low level of conformity is a bad sign, unless you think most immigrants come from countries with better political attitudes than Americans currently have.”

Earnings in the U.S. also correlate with historical earnings by ancestry: In their respective home countries, for example, Norwegians outearn Poles, who outearn Filipinos; the same applies when comparing U.S. counties dominated by each of these ethnicities. How long after migration can we still detect such effects? Mr. Jones pays special attention to the Deep Roots theory of economic development, which holds that a nation’s present per capita income is strongly correlated with the state of the world in 1500, particularly as influenced by three factors: political development, farming experience and technological prowess. Using these three variables, Mr. Jones calculates a migration-adjusted state, agriculture and technology—or “SAT”—score and finds that it predicts more than 60% of modern-day income differences. He notes other research suggesting that these historical variables have a big effect on modern government quality, too.

Of the three variables, Mr. Jones tells us that the strongest predictor of income is a country’s history of technological development. Technology also seems to be the best long-run predictor of government quality. So the main story seems to be about technological development persisting over time, and of people bringing their technological capabilities to new places. Mr. Jones points out, however, that the three factors are not completely independent: “Places with centuries of organized states and a long history of settled agriculture were likely, at least by the year 1500, to be using a lot of the world’s best technology.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal