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Four years ago I (and others) got in a dispute with Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (DL) about their claim that birth month had a meaningful impact on later success in professional sports because kids born in January were “old” for their age group and were, therefore, more likely to make elite travel, national teams for U-17 tournaments and the like. These athletes benefited from the better coaching and competition that they faced relative to the kids who were born later in the same calendar year but with the same natural ability. DL predicted that

If you were to examine the birth certificates of every soccer player in next month’s [2006] World Cup tournament, you would most likely find a noteworthy quirk: elite soccer players are more likely to have been born in the earlier months of the year than in the later months.

But this turned out not to be true. Yet the worst part was that Levitt, through some peculiar post-hoc reasoning, tried to claim that it was, in fact, true, that birth month mattered.

The larger debate here goes back to nature-versus-nurture. DL (and/or their readers) and Malcolm Gladwell (and/or his readers) want to believe that stars are made not born. Spend enough on your kids coaching and he too can play in the World Cup or the NHL! The GNXP perspective would probably be that, while training obviously matters, the more incentives there are for high performance and the more open/democratic the pipeline, the more that genetics matter.

Luge stars are made but not born because so few kids have access to a luge track. Soccer stars are born but not made because millions of children around the world have extensive exposure to soccer. If they have the genetics to star, the system will find them and cultivate their talents. Without the genetics, they have no chance. The more equal the opportunities, the more that genetics matter. This is not the story that your typical American soccer parent wants to read about in the New York Times or The New Yorker.

But enough random speculation! Let’s look at the data (text file hand-collected by me from the FIFA site) for the current World Cup. I will add some code later in the comments, but here is the key chart.

If you squint, you can try to claim that players are less likely to be born later in the year than earlier. But a chi-square test of randomness gives a p-value of 16% and a binomial test of the 72 players born in January versus the expected value of about 61 (given a total player population of 736) yields a p-value of 10%. In other words, there is no/little evidence that birth month matters to your chances of playing in the World Cup.

And, to the extent that you think it does (and looking at the first three months of the year does pop up as statistically significant), the much more likely explanation (exercise left for the reader) is not age cut-offs in wealthy countries with extensive junior soccer programs but birth date fraud in poor countries seeking an advantage in international U-17 and U-20 competitions.

• Category: Science 
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In 1997, Sports Illustrated asked “What Ever Happened To The White Athlete?”

Unsure of his place in a sports world dominated by blacks who are hungrier, harder-working and perhaps physiologically superior, the young white male is dropping out of the athletic mainstream to pursue success elsewhere

Read the whole thing. Some excerpts and comments below.

What do you do for a living?” Each time Kevin Little hears the question, he suffers a small crisis. He would love to say straight out, “I run fast. I am a sprinter.” But Little is tired of facing disbelief, tired of the skeptical sputter that always follows such a statement. So he often just mentions his part-time job for U.S. West and moves on. Why bother?

“People do not understand,” Little says. “They look at me like, But you’re white.”

Little is one of the fastest men in the world. His winning time of 20.40 seconds at the world championships in Paris last March tied the American indoor record in the 200 meters. That victory—over a field that lacked world-record holder Michael Johnson but included 1997 outdoor world champ Ato Boldon—made him the first white American since 1956 to win a major international sprint title. At 29, Little is in his prime, but the confidence he displays took too long to earn. Thai’s because, aside from suffering the usual self-doubts, he matured in an age when the white sprinter is about as common as the horse and buggy.

Have any white done as well as Little in international sprinting in the last 13 years? Not that I am aware of. (Pointers welcome.)

The white athlete is getting out. The white athlete—and here we speak of the young men in team sports who ruled the American athletic scene for much of the century—doesn’t want to play anymore. Distracted by other leisure-time pursuits and discouraged by the success of black athletes, who have come to dominate sports in spectacular fashion, the white athlete is now less interested in playing certain mainstream games, most notably basketball and football, than are his black counterparts. He is increasingly drawn to sports that in the U.S. are played primarily by whites, such as soccer, or to alternative athletic pursuits that are overwhelmingly white, such as mountain biking or rock climbing.

This seems wrong, both as a matter of historical fact and as a description of current events. There is huge white participation in sports, including team sports. The young (white) male athletes in my normal suburban town play organized sports all year round. They would do anything to make the elite travel teams in basketball, to be a starter in high school football, to get a college scholarship in baseball. To the extent that the racial balance changes as you move up the competitive ladder, it has nothing to do with a lack of white desire.

What goes on in your town?

The New York Giants’ Jason Sehorn, the only white starting at cornerback in the NFL, runs a 4.4 40 and led his team with five interceptions last season.

There hasn’t been a white starting cornerback since Sehorn. When will there be another? If you believe that, at the elite level, certain athletic-related traits are correlated with race, you would believe that it might be decades before a white cornerback starts for most of an NFL season. If you think that this is more cultural than genetic, you would bet the other way. How would GNXP readers bet?

“I’m told by lots of coaches that you can’t get white kids to go out for basketball teams in urban areas,” says Richard Lapchick, head of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Boston’s Northeastern University. “If you’re fielding a team in Boston, the white kids just aren’t going to go out, whether they can make the team or not. I hear that around the country, too.”

I don’t believe it. Also, Lapchick is a charlatan who refuses to release the underlying data for his studies. (I tried to get it.) But, he tells a story that the US media/people want to hear, so he gets plenty of grant money and exposure.

All of which leads to a question that’s often at the heart of the discussion of race and achievement: Does one group outperform another because of innate ability or outside influences? Is it nature or nurture (page 52)? Cespedes chimes in with those who argue that, in this case, economic forces are responsible—that black males, like some Italians and Irish in the first half of the century, are using sports as a way to a better life. SI’s poll found that young African-American males see sports as a rare opportunity for advancement: Some 51% of them agreed that blacks “care more about sports because sports are one of the few ways in America that blacks can make a lot of money,” and by almost a 3-to-1 margin over whites they said that one of the most important reasons to play is “If I am successful at sports, I can make a lot of money.”

But many people find it hard to believe that economic incentives alone account for black athletic dominance. These observers offer a simple theory: Blacks dominate sports because they are faster, quicker, better. “If you want a gauge, go to the track meets,” says Bowden. “Who’s winning all those track meets?” Certainly there is a chuckling acceptance, among both blacks and whites, of the inability of whites to leap high and run fast. It’s not that whites won’t play anymore, the thinking goes: It’s that they can’t.

Though open discussion of inherent black athletic superiority remains taboo, few deem it offensive to joke about “white man’s disease” or to make a movie called White Men Can’t Jump.

One way to settle the dispute would be to make some competing forecasts. Consider the future of the European soccer leagues. There is lots of money and lots of competition. So, if it is true that black athletes have an advantage in soccer (and certainly speed is the single most important talent for soccer), you would expect these leagues to become much blacker over time, especially via an influx of players from Africa. That has happened to some extent already. If you believe in HBD, you would expect starting players to be of majority African descent in the next decade or so. Would anyone take the other side of that bet?

• Category: Science 
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What is the single best reference for refuting the notion that “race is only a social construct” for a non-scientist? I don’t know. (Suggestions welcome in the comments.) But Neven Sesardic (previously praised here) does a marvelous job in “Race: A Social Destruction of a Biological Concept,” (pdf) Biology and Philosophy (2010, forthcoming).

It is nowadays a dominant opinion in a number of disciplines (anthropology, genetics, psychology, philosophy of science) that the taxonomy of human races does not make much biological sense. My aim is to challenge the arguments that are usually thought to invalidate the biological concept of race. I will try to show that the way ‘‘race’’ was defined by biologists several decades ago (by Dobzhansky and others) is in no way discredited by conceptual criticisms that are now fashionable and widely regarded as cogent. These criticisms often arbitrarily burden the biological category of race with some implausible connotations, which then opens the path for a quick eliminative move. However, when properly understood, the biological notion of race proves remarkably resistant to these deconstructive attempts. Moreover, by analyzing statements of some leading contemporary scholars who support social constructivism about race, I hope to demonstrate that their eliminativist views are actually in conflict with what the best contemporary science tells us about human genetic variation.

Nothing new for the GNXP faithful, but the presentation is clear and compelling throughout. He opens with “Those who subscribe to the opinion that there are no human races are obviously ignorant of modern biology.” — Ernst Mayr, 2002. Great quote!

• Category: Science 
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The debate over global warming is relevant to GNXP (previous posts here and here) not so much because our readers are interested in climate science but because the dynamics of the debate — scientific “consensus” versus politically incorrect minority view — have relevance to various debates over human biodiversity. With that background, I would be curious to know what posts/arguments/sites other GNXPers find most relevant and compelling. My three favorites are:

1) Willis Eschenbach on his attempts to use the Freedom Of Information Act to access CRU data and model details.

2) Eric Raymond on details of the released code. When serious software experts like Raymond start accusing climate scientists of “blatant data-cooking,” the “consensus” started to looks much weaker.

3) Gavin Schmidt at Real Climate in defense of the scientists at CRU. Whatever the criticisms of Schmidt from folks like Steve McIntyre, you have to be impressed with his willingness to take on all comers.

In the spirit of (United States) Thanksgiving, I am thankful that the human genetics community seems to have a much broader diversity of opinion and greater committment to transparency and reproducible research than the climate science community.

• Category: Science 
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The cover story for Sports Illustrated two weeks ago described the dominance of the South Eastern Conference (SEC) in US college football.

“More players are invited to the NFL combine each year from the SEC than from any other conference,” Ole Miss’s [Head Coach] Nutt says when asked about the quality of the athletes who compete in the league. “The most players drafted just about every year going back 10 years come from the SEC.” Indeed, dating to the 2000 NFL draft, the conference has had 400 players selected; the next-best league is the ACC, with 364.

It’s no mystery to Nutt why an SEC team has won the BCS national championship each of the last three years (Florida in 2006 and 2008, LSU in 2007) and is favored to produce the champ again this season. “I watch [teams in] other conferences all the time and I think, Boy, I’d like to play them,” Nutt says.

But, for GNXP readers, this is the most fun comment.

It all starts with recruiting. Nutt says that players from the South, particularly those who reside in Florida, become better college players than kids from other parts of the country, though he can’t explain why. “Maybe it’s the sunshine,” he says. “In any given year an average of 335 young men [from Florida] sign with Division I schools. When I was coaching at Murray State [in Kentucky], I remember going to Florida and seeing, maybe, coaches from Wake Forest down there. But now? You’ve got Wisconsin, Minnesota, Purdue, Virginia, Virginia Tech. You’ve got schools from North Carolina. They’re all down there, and they’re coming for the speed. We signed nine from Florida this year. Nine!”

Yeah! It’s the “sunshine” that causes the “quality of the athletes” in the SEC. Caste Football calculates that the percentage of white starters at SEC teams is 25%, lower than any other major conference.

Of course, from a GNXP point of view, sunshine may be actually have played a role, but not in the way that Nutt implies . . .

• Category: Science 
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Bruce Lahn and Lanny Ebenstein write (pdf) in Nature: “Let’s celebrate human genetic diversity.” (Hat tip: Steve Sailer.)

The current moral position is a sort of ‘biological egalitarianism’. This dominant position emerged in recent decades largely to correct grave historical injustices, including genocide, that were committed with the support of pseudo scientific understandings of group diversity. The racial-hygiene theory promoted by German geneticists Fritz Lenz, Imbler Fischer and others during the Nazi era is one notorious example of such pseudoscience. Biological egalitarianism is the view that no or almost no meaningful genetically based biological differences exist among human groups, with the exception of a few superficial traits such as skin colour. Proponents of this view seem to hope that, by promoting biological sameness, discrimination against groups or individuals will become groundless.

We believe that this position, although well intentioned, is illogical and even dangerous, as it implies that if significant group diversity were established, discrimination might thereby be justified. We reject this position.

Agreed. I have made this same argument with regard to debates over higher education, although I prefer the terminology “genetic egalitarianism” since it better captures the fundamental assumption that genetics don’t matter.

• Category: Science 
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Tyler Cowen explains “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong.” For regular readers of GNXP, the resulting discussion is neither new nor interesting, but I thought it valuable to go through Cowen’s post in detail. Cowen is a smart guy with interesting things to say about many topics. Why is he so flummoxed by this one?

Cowen begins:

That’s a request I received and probably the reader is referring to IQ and race.

Let me first say that I am not the Steve Sailer oracle. On such a sensitive matter I don’t wish to misrepresent anyone, so I’ll simply tell you what I think of the issues, without suggesting that he or anyone else necessarily disagrees.

That’s a reasonable way to begin the conversation, but if you are going to mention Sailer’s name in this context, a) You ought to give a brief summary of his views and b) Provide a link or two.

Sailer believes that “race” and “IQ” — like “atom” and “species” — are scientifically meaningful concepts and that human races differ, on average, on many dimensions of interest, including IQ. Why couldn’t Cowen begin with that simple sentence?

Cowen continues:

There is a belief that progress in genetics will resurrect old, now-unpopular claims about race and IQ, namely that some races are intrinsically inferior in terms of IQ. I very much expect that we will instead learn more about the importance of the individual genome and that variations within “groups” (whether defined in terms of race or not) are where the traction lies. So I don’t expect “old style eugenics views” to make a comeback as applied to race, quite the contrary. On that point, here is more.

1) It is good to see that Cowen does not deny the reality and usefulness of “race” as a scientific concept. Recruiting folks like Cowen should be a high priority for believers in human biodiversity (HBD).

2) The phrase “intrinsically inferior” is about the worst possible phrasing. Why can’t Cowen use simpler language? Sailer thinks that average IQ differs by race. East Asians have, for example, higher average IQs than whites. Using the word “inferior” is misleading since it implies distributions that don’t even overlap. Sailer believes that the averages differ. He acknowledges that many, many individual whites are smarter than many, many individual East Asians.

The adverb “intrinsically” is also unhelpful. Does Cowen define “intrinsically” to mean “genetically?” Although I am no Sailer expert, I suspect that his position would be that the genetics of the issue are largely besides the point. Even if the causes of racial differences in IQ are 100% environmental, those differences are still there and, at least by adulthood, they are unalterable. So, public policy needs to take account of those differences.

And, if anything, Sailer seems to be more environmentalist than many in the HBD community, recommending policy changes like increased iodine and other micro-nutrients in the food supply of African countries.

3) Cowen’s usage of the term “now-unpopular” is interesting. It depends a lot on the unstated “among whom.” Certainly, Sailer’s views are highly unpopular among, say, the George Mason faculty. But Cowen is, if nothing else, a globalist. Does he think that Sailer’s views are unpopular in China? If anything, Sailer would be a moderate among the Chinese.

4) Cowen writes as if there is a conflict between the within and between races decomposition of IQ differences. Note the use of “instead.” But he offers no evidence that he and Sailer disagree. And what is the nonsense about “traction?”

I also think that IQ will be shown to be more multi-dimensional than we now think.

As josh notes in the thread:

Sprinting ability is also quite “multidimensional” as is distance running. Want to guess which part of the world the ancestors of the next olympic 100m and 5000m gold medal winners will be from?

Cowen is too smart to take that bet, or a bet about the racial distribution of SAT or GRE scores next year, or even decades from now. Cowen thinks IQ is “multi-dimensional.” So say we all. The results of an IQ test are not marked on an iron bar in Paris, like the original definition of a meter. They are imperfect.

Yet this is a post that is supposed to explain “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong,” and yet Cowen offers no evidence that he and Sailer disagree about the meaning or dimensionality of IQ!


If you wish to understand the role of IQ in human affairs, you would do better to study autism and ADHD than race (by the way, I discuss the importance of neurodiversity in much greater detail in my forthcoming book Create Your Own Economy.)

So what? This is more irrelevant hand-waving. Cowen is supposed to be arguing that Sailer is wrong about race and IQ, not that Sailer is wrong about “the role of IQ” or “neurodiversity.”

You may know that some nations — basically the wealthy ones — have higher IQs than the poor nations.

What do you mean by “you,” white man? Notice the strange second person construction, quite unlike the rest of Cowen’s prose. He is able to address almost all other topics by describing either what is true or what he thinks. Why bring “you” into it? Why can’t he just tell us what he thinks? Some nations have higher average IQ than other nations. Cowen is unlikely to make progress in his case against Sailer if he can’t even manage to describe reality in simple declarative sentences.

And, although there is a high correlation between IQ and GDP, this was less so in, say, 1960. Does the rise in economic wealth is Asia support or refute Sailer? Cowen declines to discuss that natural experiment.

Moreover, Cowen can’t even seem to suggest the obvious long term bets that a serious consideration of Sailer’s position would suggest. There has been minimal economic progress in sub-Saharan Africa since the end of colonialization. Those who believe, like Sailer, that the average IQ in many of these countries is 85 or so would argue that there is unlikely to be any progress in the next 4 decades either. Indeed, it is hard to see how any country can avoid utter ruin. Sailer might forecast that South Africa will go the way of Zimbabwe. Or perhaps not.

The key point is that if Cowen wanted to take seriously the notion that countries differ by IQ and that this fact matters for the future, there are all sorts of bets he might offer. Instead, he gives us nothing of substance. Cowen continues:

But IQ is endogenous to environment, as evidenced by the Flynn Effect, namely the general rise in IQ scores with each generation. It is sometimes noted that some racial IQ gaps are not closing but I find it more significant that scores can continue to rise.

“It is sometimes noted” by whom? Again, the entire style of this post is quite different from Cowen’s typical contribution to Marginal Revolution. If someone is noting something, why do
esn’t Cowen provide a link or at least tell us their names? It almost seems like Cowen is familiar with the relevant literature but does not want his readers to know just how familiar. The easiest way to get Watsonized is to make too clear how deeply you have drunk at the fountain of forbidden knowledge.

Note, also, that the fact that scores can continue to rise is largely besides the point. Sailer does not dispute the Flynn effect! So, whether or not Cowen finds it more (or less) significant than Sailer is irrelevant.

For instance it is quite possible that groups with higher measured IQs simply have been on an “improvement track” for a longer period of time. More generally I think we should consider the Flynn Effect a bit of a mystery and that suggests an overall tone of caution on these issues rather than polemicism.

1) There is some evidence that the Flynn effect has stopped, so talk of time on an “improvement track” may be pointless. Further discussion here.

2) But, again, Sailer agrees with all of this! (Or, at least, he can grant all of this without backing down on his main thesis.) When is Cowen going to explain “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong?”

Most importantly, there is a critical distinction between hypocritical discourse on race and racism itself. Hypocritical discourse on race is harmful and often Sailer does a very good job skewering it. But racism itself is far, far more harmful, whether in the course of previous history or still today.

So what? Sailer does not deny that racism exists or that it is harmful. This sounds like more throat-cleaning to preserve Cowen’s place in the commentariat. As “tom” in the comment thread notes:

Would you say it if you thought that there were group differences? You would probably lose your NYT column. You would probably be protested on campus. You would probably be called a racist by young bloggers and liberal bloggers to whom you frequently link. Publishers of the type that put out your books would recoil.

I am not saying that you are incorrect. I am saying that you could not realistically answer the other way and keep your life the same as it is now.

Can you answer my question? Would you say if you thought Sailer was right?

Good question. Back to Cowen:

It is fine if a given individual, for reasons of division of labor, spends his or her time attacking hypocritical discourse about race rather than attacking racism itself. (For instance we shouldn’t all focus on condemning Hitler and Stalin, simply because they were among the most evil men; there are other battles to fight.) But I still wish that specified individual to ardently believe that racism is the far greater problem. Insofar as that individual holds such a belief about racism, I am much happier than if not.

So, the key issue is comparing the harm caused by “hypocritical discourse about race” versus the harm caused by racism? What relevance does this have to the issue at hand?

Another Marginal Revolution commentator notes that “This thread is almost a rehash of one at Brad DeLong’s blog back in 2005! Brad was caught censoring comments, including ones by Greg Cochran and Steve Hsu.” Indeed, see the provided links here, here and here.

Summary: Cowen’s post about “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong” is pathetic. He fails to clearly explain what Sailer believes or to offer arguments against those beliefs. He seems familiar with some of the relevant scientific literature, but declines to mention any of it. Cowen is trapped. He is too intellectual honest and open-minded to ignore the issue completely but too aware of the dangers of being Watsonized to dare to address the topic of race and IQ directly.

• Category: Science 
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Via Steve Sailer and Half Sigma, we have this New York Times op-ed by David Brooks on work (pdf) by Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer on the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). Brooks writes:

The fight against poverty produces great programs but disappointing results. You go visit an inner-city school, job-training program or community youth center and you meet incredible people doing wonderful things. Then you look at the results from the serious evaluations and you find that these inspiring places are only producing incremental gains.

That’s why I was startled when I received an e-mail message from Roland Fryer, a meticulous Harvard economist. It included this sentence: “The attached study has changed my life as a scientist.”

No one else seems to have linked to (read?) the study itself. Here are the key graphics:

Extremely impressive, if true.

Note, however, that there is no way (that I could find) to tell from the paper just how many observations make up the blue and red dots for 8th grade mean math scores in Fig 3A. Key paragraph:

We use two separate statistical strategies to account for the fact that students who attend HCZ schools are not likely to be a random sample. First, we exploit the fact that HCZ charter schools are required to select students by lottery when the number of applicants exceeds the number of available slots for admission. In this scenario, the treatment group is composed of students who are lottery winners and the control group consists of students who are lottery losers. This allows us to provide a set of causal estimates of the effect of being offered admission into the HCZ charter schools on a range of outcomes, including test scores, attendance, and grade completion.

Using a lottery as a method of randomly assigning students to treatment and control groups is far-and-away the best method for estimating causal effects. Their second statistical strategy, instrumental variables, is much less reliable. If the authors were merely reporting some regression-based estimates, few would take the results that seriously. Teasing out causal effects from a regression is very hard. That the authors do not use a propensity score approach (at least as a check against their estimates) makes me doubt their statistical chops.

Anyway, the lottery aspect is key. To their credit, the authors are upfront in admitting that:

[T]he HCZ middle school was not significantly oversubscribed in their first year of operation, and the HCZ elementary schools have never been significantly oversubscribed, making it more difficult to estimate the effect of being offered admission for these groups.

I think that the first year of operation refers to 2005, so the number of observations in the 8th grade loser category might be very low. Still, the authors report that “The effect of receiving a winning lottery number is generally larger for students in the 2006 cohort, though we only observe sixth and seventh grade scores for these students and so decided not to show it in our figures.” So, I expect that the 8th grade numbers reported here are not a fluke.

If you really started with 1,000 5th graders, randomly assigned 500 to HCZ and 500 to their local (lousy) public schools and then saw these huge differences in math scores, you would have discovered just about the biggest causal effect in the history of education research.

Have Dobbie and Fryer made that discovery? I don’t know. Their write-up and tables make it very hard to understand what is going on. What is the mean difference (without any “adjustments”) in 8th grade math scores between students who won the lottery and those who did not? It would certainly be useful if someone were to replicate these results.

The notes to Table 2 report that “Each regression controls for the gender, race, lunch status, and predetermined values of the dependent variable.” How do you control for “predetermined values of the dependent variable” in a regression? I have no idea.

Summary: There are many subtle issues in any study like this one. How do you handle missing data? What about students who win the lottery but decide, for whatever reason, not to attend an HCZ school? The authors mention several of these issues and their approach is reasonable. Still, a lot more focus on the lottery results and a lot less of the instrumental variables would have made for a stronger paper.

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Brad Delong reports that Yale professor Chris Blattman is looking for suggested readings for his class “Why is Africa poor and what (if anything) can the West do about it?” Blattman’s syllabus (pdf) seems excellent but includes nothing on IQ. What reading(s) would the GNXP crowd suggest he add? I expect that your suggestions will be different from the ones that Professor Blattman has received on his own blog.

• Category: Science 
The “war hero” candidate buried information about POWs left behind in Vietnam.
Are elite university admissions based on meritocracy and diversity as claimed?
The sources of America’s immigration problems—and a possible solution