A Look at 'Hillbilly Elegy', news the Times Finds Unfit to Print, and the Backlash Against Stifling Lefty Orthodoxy

By Jerry Kammer on September 27, 2016

The remarkable new book Hillbilly Elegy is receiving rave reviews for its depiction of a large segment of the white working class. Liberal columnist Leonard Pitts, comparing the book to Ralph Ellison's classic about black America titled Invisible Man, called it "a compelling and compassionate portrait of a people politicians seldom address and media seldom reflect."

Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance eloquently describes the chasm of distrust and incomprehension that divides the people he knows so well from the media that so badly ignores them. Last week, Ross Douthat, a lonely voice of conservatism on the editorial pages of the New York Times, described an even broader current of public alienation from over-bearing cultural forces on left — think Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and Seth Meyers — whose programs push "an overtly left-wing party line."

Douthat sees the backlash against lefty hectoring as part of the explanation for Donald Trump's popularity. He finds that "the new cultural orthodoxy is sufficiently stifling to leave many Americans looking to the voting booth as a way to register dissent."

Last week, New York Times reporter Julia Preston provided a depressing example of liberal indifference to immigration's effects on the American working class. It came in her story about a 550-page, 300,000-word report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) titled The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration.

Preston's story was headlined "Immigrants Aren't Taking Americans' Jobs, New Study Finds". That was the gist of her account, which she put into the current political context by noting: "The question is at the heart of the furious debate over immigration that has divided the country and polarized the presidential race. Many American workers, struggling to recover from the recession, have said they feel squeezed out by immigrants."

To dismiss that concern, Preston quoted Cornell economics professor Francine D. Blau, who was on the panel that prepared the NAS report. "'We found little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term,' said Blau."

Preston's story was received with delight at America's Voice, the activist group created with funding from the ultra-liberal Carnegie foundation to advocate for mass immigration and demonize those of us who want to limit it. Quoting Preston's account, America's Voice hailed the report as a "definitive, fact-based study — that Trump and his nativist allies will undoubtedly reject in favor of lies, distortions, and fear-mongering."

Such language from America's Voice is no big deal. The real damage of Julia Preston's story is that it will undoubtedly be cited in coming weeks and months to denigrate concerns that low-skilled immigrants have displaced American workers.

Preston twice quoted immigration enthusiast Blau to advance the narrative that immigration has scant effects on American workers. In an oblique acknowledgement that there are heavyweights on the side of the counter-narrative, she wrote that Harvard economist George Borjas is "skeptical".

Anyone who wants to understand how badly the Times distorted the NAS report will need to look to Borjas's blog, where he writes: "There is a lot of temptation, particularly in the middle of a presidential campaign in which immigration is one of the core issues ... to spin aspects of the NAS report in ways that will further a particular narrative."

Borjas quotes what he calls the NAS "key conclusion", which was ignored by the Times account even though — or perhaps because — it acknowledged a painful truth for American workers:

When measured over a period of ten years or more, the impact of immigration on the wages of natives overall is very small. However, estimates for subgroups span a comparatively wider range. ... To the extent that negative wage effects are found, prior immigrants — who are often the closest substitutes for new immigrants — are most likely to experience them, followed by native-born high-school dropouts, who share job qualifications similar to the large share of low skilled workers among immigrants to the United States.


Borjas comes to the provocative conclusion that the labor-force participation of millions of immigrant workers — many of them unauthorized — has resulted in an enormous upward redistribution of wealth. "Those who compete with immigrants are effectively sending billions and billions of dollars annually to those who use immigrants," he writes.

So if you want to understand why working-class Americans have no trust in the American press, as Hillbilly Elegy notes, just take a look at the newspaper dedicated to publishing all the news that's fit to print.

And if you want to see a more careful and nuanced look at the NAS, you can read the work of my colleague Steven Camarota here and a detailed critique of the Times story by NumbersUSA here.