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The Sinatra of Social Science

Friday, January 6, 2012

Pat Moynihan once encountered Nixon in the hall of the White House and said ‘Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States. The president of the United States should pay attention to what he has to say.’

Editor’s note: These remarks were delivered at the American Enterprise Institute's recent chairman’s dinner in Washington D.C. AEI President Arthur Brooks, AEI scholar Charles Murray, and Washington Post columnist George Will spoke in recognition of James Q. Wilson.

Arthur Brooks: Since 1938, AEI has had the motto that the competition of ideas is fundamental to a free society. There are very few individuals that have been central to the competition of ideas in America—truly a man of ideas—as the one we’re honoring here tonight. One of the nation’s leading public intellectuals, an AEI trustee, the chairman of the council of AEI’s academic advisors, and a great American patriot: James Q. Wilson.

Jim is a man who casts a long intellectual shadow. In the estimation of one of our dinner speakers tonight, George Will, to be a political commentator in James Q. Wilson’s era is to know how Mel Torme must have felt being a singer in Frank Sinatra’s era. We’re all competing for the silver medal; Wilson has won the gold. We’re going to hear tonight and celebrate the contributions to the intellectual world from our gold medal winner.

The prescience of the man is astonishing, partly because everything we’re arguing about today, he has argued already.

A consummate social scientist, Jim has offered insights on issues of central concern to all of us as Americans. For decades, he has analyzed the change in the political and cultural landscape of our nation with complete clarity and with unfailing honesty. He’s brought his wisdom to bear on all facets of American government and society, and he’s done so with passion, conviction, principle, and unfailing love of his country.

Jim is the author of more than a dozen books. One reviewer has described his 1993 seminal book The Moral Sense as “the most significant reflection on this matter since Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Book reviews just don’t get better than that. He’s had an enormously distinguished academic career. Currently, he’s a professor at Boston College’s Department of Political Science, but before that he has served as the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine, the James Collins Professor of Management at UCLA, and the Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, the Bradley Prize from the Bradley Foundation, and a lifetime achievement award by the American Political Science Association. Jim has been an intellectual hero and mentor to me and to many people of AEI for many years. At one point in my academic career, I was citing Jim so much that my colleagues said I should change my name to Arthur Q. Brooks.

I met Jim because he sat in on my Ph.D. dissertation defense lo these many years ago. Several years after that, I got an email from Jim. He knew that I was doing work on charitable giving at that time. I was an untenured assistant professor, and he asked me a research question about charitable giving, saying that he was thinking of writing a book on the subject.

I took the opportunity to send the great man an outline of a book that I was working on, on charitable giving. It was a pretty audacious thing to do, but I did it anyway. Quickly, within a few minutes, I got an email back from him saying, “I enjoyed your outline. I don’t think I need to write my book now, but I’d be delighted to help you with yours.” He carefully reviewed each one of the chapters in that book. He wrote the book’s foreword. He made the book immeasurably better, and that project quite literally changed the trajectory of my career. That’s a little bit of insight into the man and to the character of the man. A giant intellect with the convictions of a patriot and with a servant’s heart, that’s why he’s a hero to so many of us in this room tonight.

If you do good research on how the world really works, if you have the right data and the right assumptions, and you make the right arguments, and (even) if you do this in a nonpartisan and objective way, it will lead in the great majority of cases to conservative conclusions.

The Board of Trustees of AEI has decided unanimously to honor Jim by establishing a chair in his name—the James Q. Wilson Chair in American Politics and Culture. In 2012, we’ll raise the funds for the chair, which will support the research and writing of a senior AEI scholar. The occupant of this chair will be somebody who shares Jim’s commitment to the highest standards of empirical research as well as his abiding passion for human freedom.

The new chair at AEI will further enshrine the contribution of this preeminent thinker—a man of ideas who has done so much to help the rest of us to truly understand America. Now, to help us understand James Q. Wilson a little bit more, we’re going to hear from two men who know his work very well and to whom I’m going to turn over the podium, George Will and Charles Murray. Let’s start with George Will.

George Will: On January 9, 1969, 11 days before Richard Nixon became president, he received a memo from Pat Moynihan, who was about to go to Washington to be his domestic policy adviser. The memo advised the president that the disintegration of “private sub-systems of authority” might presage the—and I quote Moynihan again—“the ultimate destructive working out of the telos of the liberal thought.” I cherished in my mind’s eye the picture of Nixon holding that memo with John Ehrlichman to one side and H.R. Haldeman to the other and John Mitchell peering over his shoulder, the pre-presidential brow furrowed worrying about the telos of the liberal idea.

In spite of that memo, not because of it, Moynihan did indeed go to Washington, where he became somewhat dismayed at the Republican resistance to engagement with the American intelligentsia, until in his exasperation one day he encountered Nixon in the hall of the White House and said, “Mr. president, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States. The president of the United States should pay attention to what he has to say.”

Nixon did. Not enough, the Lord knows, but he did pay some attention. James Q. Wilson’s name became sufficiently well-known to the Nixon reelection campaign that they solicited Jim’s name to be included on an ad—Democrats, I believe, for Nixon. I may be wrong; I take this from Moynihan’s letters. At this point, Jim Wilson was being considered for membership on a presidential commission on drug abuse, which he cared much about, and the president cared much about, and he wanted to have this.

To be a political commentator in James Q. Wilson’s era is to know how Mel Torme must have felt being a singer in Frank Sinatra’s era.

But Jim said to this Nixon campaign apparatchik, he says, well, I might allow my name to be on that. In which case, of course, you would have to withdraw my name as a nominee to the drug panel and not consider me for any other position lest it seemed that my name is for sale. It was a kind of nicety not normally seen in Washington and probably unexpected on the part of the Nixon people, who were that not used to dealing with professors.

In 1976, on the night that Pat Moynihan won the primary—the Democratic primary—narrowly beating Bella Abzug by 10,000 votes for the right to run against the sainted Jim Buckley, over at Jim Buckley’s headquarters when he accepted the Republican nomination, he says, I look forward to running against Professor Moynihan. I’m sure that Professor Moynihan will conduct a kind of high level campaign we can expect of a Harvard professor.

Back over at Moynihan’s headquarters they said, “Pat, Jim Buckley is referring to you as Professor Moynihan.” Pat drew himself up to his considerable height and said, “Oh, the mudslinging has begun.”

But professors actually had more than their fair share of representation on the Nixon administration. In some ways, the Republican Party became the party of professors, at least the more distinguished ones, because as Moynihan and others noted, something momentous happened in the 1970s when the Republican Party became the party of ideas.

And the social sciences represented among this were important, not because social science is supposed to teach us what to do, but because social sciences instead teach us what is not working. It is steady work. And important work because, as Michael Oakeshott said, there is nothing more inherently corrupting than government attempting to do something that is inherently impossible.

A giant intellect with the convictions of a patriot and with a servant’s heart, that’s why he’s a hero to so many of us in this room tonight.

Republicans today continue to handle ideas with mixed success. Can I see just a show of hands—how many of you have read the book End the Fed? Not many. That’s too bad. You probably then don’t know the name of the one person whose blurb is on the back of that book. Those of you who have read it, don’t tell them.

Not one of you who’d be given a million guesses would guess that the one blurb on the back of the End the Fed is from Arlo Guthrie. You cannot make this country up. I mentioned Ron Paul because he is among those Republicans who are now channeling their inner Karl Marx in the sense that they argue the way Marxists used to begin their sentences—it is no accident, comrade, that…

For example, in End the Fed Ron Paul says, in 1913 the United States passed the Federal Reserve Act, and in 1914 Europe went to war. Well, Paul and others in the Republican side and the conservative movement are in a serious relitigating of the New Deal and relitigating, therefore, the constitutional settlement or unsettlement of 1937. They are in fact walking where James Q. Wilson has walked before and better. But then again, it’s hard to walk anywhere that James Q. Wilson hasn’t walked.

The argument now is about what he has called the legitimacy barrier, which used to be important in this town. Until about the mid-1960s, when something came before Congress the first and often the decisive argument was, is this within the purview of the federal government, does it accord with the proper constitutional scope, and then came the question of the actual competence of the government.

We are, perhaps, some of us think, in the coming healthcare case before the Supreme Court, going to have the decisive argument as to whether there is any legitimacy barrier remaining as to what can or where the federal government can sweep. Jim has said that 1965 was a crucial year, not just even primarily because that was the year of Medicare, although that will eventually swallow the country, more important because that was the first iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, wherein the federal government became decisively involved with a quintessentially state and local responsibility.

My view is that the main role of a social scientist is not to predict the future but to explain what happened in the past.

But wherever Republicans go, and certainly I feel the same way, we feel sooner or later we have a Robinson Crusoe experience. We look down and we see footprints in the sand of someone who’s there ahead of us, and it’s always James Q. Wilson. It’s very discouraging, frankly. The prescience of the man is astonishing, partly because, as I say, everything we’re arguing about today, he has argued already.

Prescience is a funny thing in politics. In 1964, the Oxford University Press published the third and final volume of Isaac Deutscher’s hymn to his hero Trotsky and the Oxford Marxist Society held a tea for Isaac Deutscher. They being my kind of people, I went around to enjoy the remarks from Isaac Deutscher, who at one point in celebrating Trotsky said, proof of Trotsky’s farsightedness is that none of his predictions have come true yet.

I would suggest that proof of James Q. Wilson’s farsightedness is that all of us—including those of us competing, as was said, for the silver medal—are trying to keep up with the conclusions he reached well before we did and for better reasons than we could have found. For that reason, I’m delighted to be here and I ask you to join me in a toast to the Sinatra of the social sciences, James Q. Wilson.

Charles Murray: Back in 1975 when I was a newly minted Ph.D., I picked up the New York Times magazine and therein found an article entitled, “Lock Them Up and Other Thoughts on Crime.” In the first place, I just loved the title because in 1975 no academic said lock them up. Imprisonment was barbarous and we ought to be rehabilitating people. That you would entitle an article like that struck me as something audacious.

But then I read the article and I fell in love even more because, as all of you who have read Jim Wilson know, you have this mastery of the literature. You have this calm, wry voice, and you have this person who is speaking to you as an adult, who expects you to understand nuanced arguments, and respects you for your ability to do so. He became my hero.

All of us are trying to keep up with the conclusions Wilson reached well before we did and for better reasons than we could have found.

Four or five years later, I wrote an evaluation of a program in Cook County, Chicago, for chronic juvenile delinquents, so obscure that no one could possibly have found it except, somehow, James Q. Wilson did. He called me up on the phone and said, I’m going to be in Washington, let’s have lunch. It was as if a parish priest in some village in Galway had gotten a call from the pope: I’m in the neighborhood, let’s have a drink.

So Jim came to Washington and I, quivering, went to the lunch where he quizzed me on the article and treated me as if he were chatting with Harvey Mansfield in the Harvard faculty club. It was an immensely gratifying experience for me, but that’s not why I’m telling the story. It’s because of what it says about Jim Wilson. First as a scholar, because if he knew about that evaluation of that program in Chicago, he knew everything there was to know about his topic, which has been characteristic of all of his work. The second is the person—unassuming, treating people not according to their status but simply as colleagues, a man who warrants the term gentleman in a way that is seldom used anymore.

When Jim Wilson began his career in the early 1960s, it’s hard to remember, but in fact, this thing we called policy analysis—the analysis of data and trends and the rest in ways that bear on how the country ought to be governed—was in its infancy. We were just beginning to develop the quantitative tools that have since become so common. Nobody knew how to do this at that time.

Jim himself was not a participant. Forgive me, Jim, if I don’t do you justice in this. I don’t think that Jim Wilson has ever committed a regression equation in his entire life on his own. He will correct me if I’m wrong. But that is not what he focused on.

It was not the development of the tools. It was the task of taking the welter of information that was being produced by those tools and drawing from that a mosaic which presented some things that were both useful and true about what was going on. It was made especially hard because these articles that were being produced, as any of you who have ever tried to read them know, are often torturously arcane. They are written by scholars who often have tunnel vision about their own findings.

In short, James Q. Wilson taught us how to do policy analysis that is true and useful.

It was Jim who was in the vanguard of understanding how you weave that mosaic together. Thinking About Crime, his book in 1975, was a seminal work as an example of how to do that. It was followed by books, like Crime and Human Nature and The Moral Sense, all of which said, this is how you take a complex set of findings and balance them, digest them, present them in ways that can be used.

He, at the same time, was writing books in a more traditional genre including the most widely used book on American government and American colleges. But it was this contribution—understanding how to do policy analysis—that was to me his signal contribution. He did it with dismayingly little apparent sweat. Our mutual and beloved friend Dick Herrnstein once told me that Jim wrote on legal pads and that he hardly ever crossed anything out. I choose not to believe that story. For those of us who don’t have anything readable until the fifth draft, it’s just simply too painful.

In short, James Q. Wilson taught us how to do policy analysis that is true and useful. I—and, I suspect, many of my AEI colleagues here tonight—do not think first of Jim Wilson as the Medal of Freedom winner, and we don’t think of him primarily as the adviser to presidents. He is the prototype and the exemplar for what we do. Please join me in a toast to James Q. Wilson, the master craftsman of our trade. Now it is my honor to invite James Q. Wilson to the podium to present us with his thoughts.

James Q. Wilson: The last time everyone stood up in a room when I was in it was because there was an archbishop standing behind me. I’m immensely grateful for this honor. Nothing could possibly mean more to me than to have a chair named in my honor at an organization of which I have been a part for 35 years. You may wonder why I would spend 35 years here, and I’m going to spend a few minutes talking about that.

I do want, however, to make one correction. Charles, I did commit a two-stage least squares regression equation which I thought was quite powerful until the first person who looked at it said, but you haven’t talked about rehabilitation. At that point, I realized doing regression equations is not something that is advancing the cause of knowledge.

Wilson called me up on the phone and said, I’m going to be in Washington, let’s have lunch. It was as if a parish priest in some village in Galway had gotten a call from the pope.

I also want to recognize that this is not the first time something has been named in my honor. In the third grade, I was asked to dedicate a birdbath at Ulysses S. Grant Elementary School in North Long Beach, California. For a brief period of time, the birdbath was known as the Jim Wilson birdbath. It didn’t last long, in part I think because no birds landed in it, but also because time passes quickly when you’re of that age.

AEI has made a great deal of difference to me, in large measure because I have met so many people who have become cherished friends and colleagues. The staff, members of the board of trustees now and in the past, and all of the scholars here—with many of whom I have become close friends and whose ideas I have drawn on religiously and in many cases without due thanks to advance my own. It is, as I once said, the substitute for a graduate university in public policy. If this place ever decided to offer an advanced degree, it will be the best advanced degree in policy analysis one can hope to find.

I want to talk a little bit about the history of AEI and what it stood for. Let me begin by making some remarks about things that it has not stood for as much as you might suspect.

Let me direct your attention to a book called Expert Political Judgment by Philip Tetlock, published four years ago. Professor Tetlock, a psychologist, interviewed 284 experts and asked them to make, among the group as a whole, predictions—80,000 predictions in total. Some about matters on which they are expert, some about matters about which they’d heard a great deal but did not claim to be an expert. These 80,000 predictions were made over a 15-year period, and then Mr. Tetlock analyzed the results.

He discovered that they did only slightly better than chimpanzees. Now, that’s because for each prediction there are three possible outcomes: things are going to get better; things will get worse; or things will remain the same. If you have chimpanzees throwing darts at a dartboard, they will equally distribute the darts among these three outcomes. The experts Tetlock interviewed did slightly better than chimpanzees, but not enough to justify their appearance on television.

Another scholar, Terry Odean, studied 10,000 brokerage accounts over a seven-year period and analyzed what had happened to the stocks they sold and the stocks they purchased. These 10,000 brokerage accounts produced the following results: the stocks they sold rose in value by 3.25 percent per year; the stocks they purchased declined in value. All of you who have dealt with your own stockbrokers probably are fully aware of this pattern. I hope you personally have done better than the 10,000 brokerage accounts Professor Odean studied.

Let me turn to my own field, political science. In 2008, despite up-to-date polling, despite the results of countless debates, political scientists were persuaded that the candidates for the presidency would be Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani. There were two other people whom nobody spent any time talking about. Now, this is the background for people who try to guess about the future. It reinforces my view that the main role of a social scientist is not to predict the future but to explain what happened in the past.

As all of you who have read Jim Wilson know, you have this mastery of the literature. You have this calm, wry voice, and you have this person who is speaking to you as an adult, who expects you to understand nuanced arguments, and respects you for your ability to do so.

My old thesis adviser, Edward C. Banfield of the University of Chicago, looked at me once and said, Wilson, stop trying to predict the future. You’re having enough difficulty predicting the past. He was quite right. But as I look at AEI, I’ve discovered one thing that is quite remarkable. By and large, AEI scholars have done better at predicting the future than the people interviewed by Philip Tetlock or these brokerage accounts analyzed by Terry Odeon.

Fred Kagan and his wife predicted that the surge would work in Iraq and described how to make it work, and they were absolutely correct. Peter Wallison, in an early piece published in The New York Times on September 30, 1999, explained that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were disastrous and would become bankrupt. Within a few years, they proved to be disasters and became bankrupt, meanwhile having spent many millions of dollars on persons who, though not lobbyists, were busy advising them. In 2010, Des Lachman explained that Greece was going to (heading for) a crisis that would make it threaten to leave the European Union.

Now, why did these scholars do better than the ones interviewed by Tetlock? I think part of it is good management. Chris DeMuth and Arthur Brooks have been extraordinarily good at picking people who, despite the odds against them, do better than the averages and make statements that, though they may not value predicting the future, do better at predicting the future than anyone else.

I think that that’s true. If that’s all AEI had done it would have been a worthwhile endeavor. But there’s much more to AEI than its occasional ability to make a good prediction. We have two much larger, two much more important roles to play. One is to add a neglected voice to public debate and to make sure that the arguments in favor of personal liberty, market enterprises, and military strength are heard in this town and heard nationally. AEI has done a very good job on that score.

Secondly, it has the role of explaining how the world really works. Most scholars here don’t make predictions. The few that do, do better than the average, but most of them try to explain how the world works so that you will understand how to make policy. Why is this important?

It’s important, I think, because if you do good research on how the world really works, if you have the right data and the right assumptions, and you make the right arguments, and (even) if you do this in a nonpartisan and objective way, it will lead in the great majority of cases to conservative conclusions, because good research amplifies that the world operates, when it operates successfully, on principles that conservatives embrace. It reinforces our commitment to free enterprise, personal freedom, and military strength. I look forward to continuing my association with AEI because to me those are the great principles for which it stands. Thank you so much.

FURTHER READING: James Q. Wilson authors “Will Washington Pay for the Terror Trials?” “Addressing the Problems That Lead to Prison,” “The Evolution of Art,” and “Crime and Economy Don't Tell Whole Story.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group

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