The Nobel Prize and the Cocaine Gold Rush

This week’s awarding of the (quasi-) Nobel Prize in economics to David Card for, in part, an immigration study that I definitively undermined way back in 2006 raises a nagging question in my mind: As cancel culture gets ever more pervasive, are my better insights tending, perversely, to dumb down the world by ruling ever larger chunks of reality off-limits to the ambitious?

Card’s celebrated research into the impact on Miami wages of the 1980 Mariel boatlift of immigrants is such a sitting duck that it’s hard otherwise to explain why nobody respectable has dared call it out in the last decade and a half.

Is my productivity and prescience keeping more respectable thinkers from later either:

—Citing me for a discovery, and thus risk being tarred by guilt with association for having heard of me, or

—Stealing a discovery of mine and thus risking guilt by association that way?

It appears that the poorly thought-out ideas, such as Card’s Nobel Prize winner, that I’ve mercilessly deconstructed have increasingly become sacralized because it’s not in anybody’s career interest to criticize what I’ve already criticized.

One exception to this growing rule I recalled last week is Malcolm Gladwell’s 2009 effort to have Steven Pinker canceled for citing data I’d compiled on the seemingly nonpolitical topic of NFL quarterback draft picks that debunked one of Malcolm’s New Yorker articles. Pinker, being Pinker, survived, and it was Gladwell’s reputation that took a permanent hit instead. But less august personages than Pinker appear to be not unreasonably worried about the career consequences of following up on one of my findings.

I must say…when I got started writing three decades ago, I never expected things to work out this way. I am, by nature, rather optimistic about humanity’s ability to make use of good ideas once somebody (such as me) points them out. I like to endorse, sincerely, the motto of Faber College in Animal House: Knowledge is good. I am by nature not a conquistador, but a staffer who likes explaining to the decider the trade-offs he must choose among.

When I started opining, I found that I could come up with interesting and reasonably documentable new ideas more readily than the great majority of academics. But I’m not a professor or a grad student, so I’m perfectly happy for them to use my ideas for their laborious papers and either credit me with the original insight or not.

What I never expected was that my breakthroughs would somehow subtract from the sum of knowledge in the world by rendering numerous good ideas increasingly off-limits to those who would, understandably, rather publish than perish.

Therefore, even I am surprised that my evisceration of Card’s Mariel boatlift essay has had no public impact on the field of economics over the last decade and a half.

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