Thursday, December 14, 2006

Is the Diversity Obsession Good for the Left?

I don't link to The Nation much, but I came across (hat tip: NRO) a review of a new book there, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality by Walter Benn Michaels. Mr. Michaels argues that the left has been diverted into obsession with Race, Class, and Gender (or Sex, if you prefer, and I do), and has therefore failed to focus on social and income inequality directly.

The review is a strange one, beginning as it does with the reviewer (Robert S. Boynton, yet another professor, this time of journalism) describing the futility encountered when he tries to decode the tribal identity of the applicants to his graduate-school program. (Upon reading the review, one is reminded of the extent to which entire academic disciplines – sociology, cultural anthropology, social psychology, and especially and most absurdly literary criticism – have themselves been transformed into vehicles for ivory tower political criticism of the U.S. and the West. But leave that aside.) He knows that race is increasingly meaningless in the circle of elite applicants with whom he associates, but then goes in to say it's important everywhere else in society, so we must pay it great heed in political activism and in public policy.

But Prof. Boynton misses what makes the obsession with tribe so costly to society. People can define their identities in a variety of ways. We might think of identity choice as a financial portfolio. One can "invest" a lot or a little in various identity assets – one's ethnic or religious identity, profession, role as a parent, status as an alumnus of a particular school, etc. The decision is similar to that of picking stocks and bonds, and is done on the basis of expected return, emotionally and financially. Some forms of identity are so emotionally lucrative that they will generally loom large – few people will emphasize their role as a Nebraska fan nearly as much as their role as a father. (Although the growth in parents who abandon their children in the last forty years suggests even this most basic identity asset has lost value over time.)

But race is far from an immutable identity source. How much people choose to emphasize it depends on how lucrative they expect it to be, and how important other people tell them it is, directly (say, family members or friends) or in the culture. And if there are social groups built around the idea of tribal conflict – legal defense funds for particular ethnic groups, e.g. – they positively depend on maintaining the perceived payoff to individual investment in tribal identity. In the runup to the 2000 census, there was great deal of controversy over whether or not to include a mixed-race category on the census form. The primary objections came from representatives of minority groups who feared that their political influence would be diluted, because fewer people would check their boxes. (Ultimately people were allowed to check more than one box.)

The emphasis on the tribal-identity portion of the portfolio is a problem for two reasons. First, people can discard most other identity aspects easily, and many of them lend themselves to peaceful market trading rather than zero-sum political rent-seeking. Someone who thinks of himself as an accountant who happens to be "Asian" rather than an "Asian" who happens to be an accountant finds that most of the returns to being an accountant come from trading in the market rather than lobbying the government and filing lawsuits. Scarce resources are thus diverted from politics to the market, which is all to the good. That such identities are not genetically transmissible – most children of accountants do not grow up to be accountants themselves – means that there is no overpowering incentive to engage in political occupational-based activism for the sake of one's own offspring. For tribe, in contrast, this incentive is much larger. A "black" person who emphasizes his "blackness" and is convinced that blacks don't get a fair shake in America will divert a lot more time to angry politics not just for his own sake but his children's too.

Second, tribal identification lends itself intrinsically more to conflict, perhaps for biological reasons. There are many examples of societies where different tribes more or less get along – the U.S. and Canada now, the old Roman Empire – but there are many where the merest perturbation causes the society to completely collapse on tribal lines, with Iraq the most vivid recent example. Even when tribal differences seem trivial to the outsider, societies may place huge emphasis on them. Serbs and Croats speak the same language and are almost all Christian (the Serbs Orthodox, the Croats Catholic), but slaughtered each other mercilessly in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. To the outsider there is no obvious difference between a Japanese citizen of Japanese ancestry and a Japanese permanent resident of Korean ancestry, but the difference is huge in both Japanese society and law.

So anything that dampens tribal affiliation is likely to be good for society. The left made a Faustian bargain when it became obsessed with diversity and multiculturalism – it paid less attention to its historical concerns, and put itself in a position of seeming to condescendingly accuse most ordinary people of being closet racists for not wanting to sign on to the diversity agenda. Its class-warfare agenda has suffered as a result. Prof. Michaels’ book is part of a small but growing number from the left (I would be interested to know how many of them are written by women or non-"whites") that attempt to undo this. The positive effects this will have on the class-warfare agenda are unfortunate, but certainly a price worth paying.



Blogger Jeff said...

I dip into this blog from time to time. A phrase that has been used more than once -- "zero-sum political rent seeking" -- has me puzzled. Would it be possible to provide a brief definition?

9:48 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

"Rent-seeking" is used in a lot of different ways. I use it the way it was used in the original coinage, in Anne O. Krueger, "The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society," from The American Economic Review in 1974. Basically, I use it to mean "the expenditure of resources to get income from the enactment of government laws or regulations." People lobby the government to get trade protection, the minimum wage hiked, or other privileges that they could not get in consensual market trade.

Why "zero-sum"? Because these kinds of transfers always come at someone else's expense. A higher minimum wage redistributes income away from business owners and customers (and from low-skill workers who are now not hired), higher tariffs redistribute income from customers and the retail businesses that would otherwise benefit from cheaper imports, etc. These transfers are in contrast to trades in the market, which can't occur unless they are win-win.

I hope this helps.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Thank you, it does help.

1:09 PM  

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