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May 08, 2013 9:02 AM According to David Brooks, Staying Out of Jail Is a Conservative Value

By Andrew Gelman

The New York Times columnist writes:

First, immigration opponents are effectively trying to restrict the flow of conservatives into this country. In survey after survey, immigrants are found to have more traditional ideas about family structure and community than comparable Americans. They have lower incarceration rates. They place higher emphasis on career success. They have stronger work ethics. Immigrants go into poor neighborhoods and infuse them with traditional values.
When immigrant areas go bad, it’s not because they have infected America with bad values. It’s because America has infected them with bad values already present… .

I know what he means—-kind of. But this is also seems a bit weird to me, like he’s drawing up a list of everything he likes and putting all these things in the same column. Does he really think that people are virtuous innocents just by virtue of being born elsewhere and then crossing the border into the USA? What exactly are “bad values” that are already present here? Suppose an impoverished immigrant has Brooks’s traditional ideals and wants to feed his family, and the way he does it is to work hard every day and sell drugs (after all, occupations such as “newspaper columnist” and “statistics professor” are not so easy to reach if you’re a low-income immigrant). The trouble is, then he might go to jail, wrecking that “lower incarceration rates” statistic.

It does seem reasonable that if you have a group of people with low but above-subsistence incomes, who are afraid of being deported, and who speak other languages, that they might keep to themselves and not bother the rest of us. Which, I suppose, looks a lot like “traditional values.” But it’s not so clear why immigration opponents should be so happy about this.

I’m not saying that all of Brooks’s arguments are wrong, I just think he may be a bit too clever by half on this whole immigrants-are-conservatives thing.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.
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