(in case it shapes the way you read any of this, both he and I are Jewish)
By the numbers, it would seem they are. US Jews have a median household income about 50% higher than US Christians, a net worth about 6x that of Christians, and are about twice as likely as Christians to make more than $100K/year. They're about twice as likely as Christians to get college degrees, and about 15x more likely to win Nobel prizes. These numbers are of about the same magnitude as the gap between blacks and whites, so if you take those numbers seriously, you should probably take these ones seriously too.
But Noah wonders if this really needs an interesting explanation, or if it's just a series of boring things on top of each other. He gives five reasons why maybe Jews could do unusually well. I’m going to concentrate on selective immigration, then briefly touch on the others.
1. Selective immigration - Maybe only the smartest/richest/go-getter-est Jews made it to the US, which makes American Jews seem extra impressive. We know something like this happens for some groups of modern immigrants - for example, Indian-Americans are very successful, earning about twice as much as whites on average. But everyone knows that it's mostly Indian elites who emigrate, so this isn't too surprising. Might Jews be the same? Noah writes:
Most Jews came to America to escape repressive regimes in Europe. It stands to reason that more successful and/or wealthier Jews would have a better chance of making it out. So American Jews are not a random sample of all Jews; they're going to be biased toward the smart, the rich, and the risk-tolerant.
This isn't the way most American Jews remember their own history; family lore usually focuses on how our ancestors were the poorest of the poor. My great-great-grandfather was a chicken farmer in Poland. He first emigrated to Germany, but felt like the German Jews were too stuck up and contemptuous of poor Polish Jews like himself, so he booked passage to America. I asked my Jewish housemate, whose family has millions of dollars and all went to Ivy League schools; she says her emigrant ancestors were "a Kosher butcher in Minsk and some guy who floated logs down the Dneiper River".
(her parents also say they might be descended from the Vilna Gaon, but every Jew says their family might be descended from the Vilna Gaon)
This also isn't how Eastern European Jews at the time saw immigration. This paper describes the situation in more depth. On first-generation Jewish immigrant Marcus Ravage:
He recalls that as a young boy in Vaslui, Romania, he had the impression that America was a place for those who had gone into bankruptcy, for deserting soldiers, absconding husbands and the like - "an exile which men fled to only in preference to going to prison". Ravage's parents relinquished him [ie let him immigrate], albeit reluctantly, because their once middle-class standing had eroded to something resembling genteel poverty. His father still made an effort to send his boy on his way in some kind of self-respecting style, to keep up appearances, although it took the sale of the family cow to do so.
Lest accounts by Ravage and other memoirists be dismissed as suspect late reconstructions, it is instructive to compare very similar accounts reported in real-time proximity to the events by disinterested sources, which tend to corroborate memoiristic accounts. One such example occurs in a 1905 study conducted by Emily Greene Balch, the American ethnographer, who did fieldwork in the Slovakian area of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Balch noted that the first Jew to emigrate from a town she visited was a Jewish cloth merchant who had gone bankrupt. Likewise, in a social survey of a shtetl in the Kiev Province (Ukraine), we read of an elderly storekeeper, once quite well off, reduced to a hole-in-the-wall shop, selling goods on consignment for a larger firm. Apart from two spinster daughters who helped out by sewing linens, all this man's children and their families (twenty-five people in all) had left for America within the space of six years.
This matches reports from native-born American Jews, who kept sending angry letters to European Jewish leaders about how all their immigrants were crap and frankly American Jewry was offended to be getting such crap immigrants and the European leaders needed to start sending higher-quality immigrants somehow. There is a whole sordid history of this kind of thing, detailed eg here. Among messages that American Jewish organizations sent European Jewish organizations:
We believe that many of these immigrants are sent over here purposely, merely to relieve the European communities.
We, as a Society, and as American citizens, cannot and will not be parties to the infliction upon our community of a class of emigrants, whose only destiny is the hospital, the infirmary, or perhaps the workhouse.
They are a bane to the country and a curse to the Jews. The Jews have earned an enviable reputation in the United States, but this has been undermined by the influx of thousands who are not ripe for the enjoyment of liberty and equal rights, and all who mean well for the Jewish name should prevent them much as possible from coming there. The experience of the charity teaches that organized immigration from Russia, Roumania, and other semi-barbarous countries is a mistake and has proved a failure. It is no relief to the Jews of Russia, Poland, etc, and it jeopardizes the well-being of the American Jews.
America is not a poor house, and that we would not be made an asylum for the paupers of Europe. They [the Jews of Europe] may ask us what they are to do with the sick and aged and infirm. This reply would be: "That is your business; we take care of our own sick, aged, and infirm, and ask assistance of no one."
Do we have hard data? There's a census of Jewish occupations in the Pale of Settlement available here, a breakdown of what occupations Jewish immigrants had before coming to the US here, and an apples-to-apples comparison in Table 2 here, but they’re hard to interpret - partly because they all draw category boundaries differently, and partly because I don't know which occupations were higher status than others in those days. It seems like about 5% of Jews in the Pale were professionals, compared to only 1% of Jews who immigrated to America, which suggests these elites were less likely to immigrate. 30% of Jews in the Pale were involved in "commerce" compared to only 10% of immigrants; "commerce" sounds high-paying, but a lot of these people were probably peddlers so I don't know what to make of this. Men who were "laborers" or "servants" were much more likely than average to come to America, but women with those descriptions were less likely. Finally, everyone involved in manufacturing, and especially garment manufacturing, was more likely to come to America - but Lederhendler warns us not to trust any of this - apparently the rumor among Jewish immigrants was that to maximize your odds of Americans letting you in the country, you should pretend to be a tailor, and so "the large majority of [Jewish immigrant] tailors had probably never before held a needle and thread in their lives".
Overall I don't feel super-confident in these data, but I think they're consistent with Jewish immigration being somewhat disproportionately from the lower classes. Also, I never hear about actual Jewish elites - Rothschilds, big-shot rabbis, etc - immigrating. As far as I can tell, it was mostly the poor.
Also, why should Jews be special here? Every immigrant group has come to America seeking a combination of economic opportunity and political/religious freedom. If Jews selectively immigrated, why didn't Germans, or Poles, or Italians, or all the other groups that didn't end up with the same kind of achievements Jews did? I think the strongest argument you could make here is that Germans/Poles/Italians were coming more for economic opportunity (and so it was mostly the poor who emigrated) whereas Jews were coming more for political/religious freedom (and so it was mostly the rich), but no, Jews mostly came for economic reasons too. Although their economic plight was in large measure caused by discrimination, it still mostly affected the lower classes, who have the least cushion for discrimination-inflicted economic costs.
Finally, selective immigration of Jews to America should only affect American Jews. Are Jews who never immigrated anywhere also unusually wealthy, educated, and successful?
There...aren't a lot of European Jews left to survey, but a lot of pre-Holocaust Europe's greatest geniuses seemed to be Jewish. The Fifth Solvay Conference was a 1927 meeting of Europe's top physicists, including Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Schrodinger, etc. 17% of attendees were from Jewish backgrounds, compared to about 3% Jews in the overall European population (and the vast majority of European Jews were very poor Jews in Russia, which was not really developed at the time, so realistically maybe 1% of the population in the kind of countries these people were coming from).
The Jewish community survived in Russia until relatively recently. Here is a list of which ethnicities produced the most Soviet scientists per capita (image has been cropped to show the top ten ethnicities only, original here, source is lost somewhere in the Russian-language blogosphere, some of the people involved are far-right Russian nationalists but if anything their incentive to lie goes the other way):
Jews are about six times more likely to end up as scientists than the average Russian.
I conclude American Jews aren't just the product of selective immigration.
Jews in Europe were famously clustered in big cities. Probably this was in part because they weren't allowed to own a lot of land. But whatever the reason, the trend persisted when Jews immigrated to America. Sure, there are some Jewish hillbillies out there (I have some cousins in Arkansas who fit the bill), but you find Jews mostly clustered in big cities like New York and L.A.
It's a well-known fact that people in cities have higher productivity and higher incomes, on average, than people outside of cities (part, but not all, of that goes to pay higher rents). Although the causality can obviously run both ways, there is evidence that simply moving people to cities gives them an immediate productivity boost. So Jews' statistical success is probably exaggerated due to their tendency to be city folk.
In 2000, the median household income of US Jews was $72,000. The median household income of people who lived in New York City was $40,000; in San Francisco, $55,000. So I don't think you can explain Jewish success by saying they are more likely to live in places like New York City and San Francisco.
About 15% of Ivy League students are Jewish (it used to be more). About 30% of top computer scientists are Jewish. But only about 5% of people in America's largest cities are Jewish. Even if only people from the top ten largest cities could go to college or become computer scientists, Jews would still be 3-6x overrepresented.
Also, 82% of Americans live in cities, and a bunch of ethnic groups are almost entirely urban (are there a lot of Haitian-American farmers?) I don't think this really makes Jews particularly special.
3. One Drop Rule
The "one-drop rule". In Jewish tradition, you're a Jew if your mom was Jewish, or if you convert to the faith. But in the modern world, that definition is often...stretched, to include people with Jewish-sounding last names, people with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, etc. That can distort the statistics in a variety of ways.
First, the "one-drop rule" may be applied selectively more to successful people than to unsuccessful people; see the footnotes in this list of "Jewish" Nobel Medicine Prize winners, for example. Or see this song by Adam Sandler ("Harrison Ford's a quarter Jewish; not too shabby!").
Second, we may engage in confirmation bias and attribution error; upon seeing a successful person with one Jewish parent, we may attribute her success to the Jewish parent, but upon seeing an unsuccessful person with one Jewish parent, we may ignore her Jewish ancestry completely.
This is possible. I confess to doing this when listing the Solvang Conference attendees above. But this is why we have objective data. The income, net worth, and education numbers all come from self-report, which shouldn't be vulnerable to this problem. Or you can look at Nobel prizes won by Israel vs. other countries, using Israeli residence as a non-one-drop-rule-biased proxy for Judaism. Or at the Russian numbers, which were presumably based on the Russian census. Really no source of data other than hand-counting Jewish high-achievers is vulnerable to this problem, and we have lots of other sources of data.
4. Temporary Group And Country Effects
Jewish "success" became noticeable mainly after 1800 (perhaps not coincidentally, when Jews started migrating to big cities in Europe). Among the famous scientists and writers and mathematicians and thinkers of pre-1800 Europe, there are notably few Jews. Who is to say that Jewish achievement is not a temporary blip? In America, Jewish achievement seems to fit the pattern of overachievement among recent high-skilled immigrant groups, Indians and Filipinos being other examples. Already, many have talked of a reversion to the mean in Jewish achievement; here's Slate in 1996, and here's Ron Unz more recently.
It would not be the first time something like this happened. The 1700s and 1800s are sometimes called the "Scottish Golden Age". Scottish people were extraordinarily over-represented in Britain and the former British colonies during that time, in science and academia, in business and industry, in politics, and even in the upper ranks of the military. Anecdotally, people in the 1800s compared Scots favorably to Jews. Today, though I suspect Scots would still stand out somewhat on average if anyone was able to track ancestries carefully, Scottish overachievement is not really a hot topic. I can easily see the same happening to Jews, especially given ultra-low Jewish fertility rates (sure to be lower among the rich and educated), and the trend toward outmarriage among non-Orthodox Jews; the Jewish upper crust will simply evaporate away from the Jewish group identity.
This is a kind of weird argument - we don't have to think about or explain something, because maybe it will stop happening in the future. Do we accept this for any other social question? For all we know, maybe in a few decades black people will earn exactly as much money as white people - does that mean it's not worth talking about racial inequality today?
And sure, maybe if Jews intermarry so much, and have very low fertility rates, they'll stop being a distinct ethnicity, and then there won't be any more interesting puzzle about Jewish achievement. This doesn't seem like an "answer" anymore than "if we bombed Stonehenge, it wouldn't be there anymore" "answers" the question of how and why Stonehenge was built.
But I guess you could also try to rephrase this into something like: there was a Scottish Golden Age for a few centuries, then the Scots stopped being so golden. Maybe sometimes groups of people just become very interesting and successful for a while, and then that dies down again. This doesn't solve the mystery of Jewish achievement, but it contextualizes it and makes it less unique.
On the one hand, I agree that this question has lots of interesting context - though I would have chosen the history of other "market minorities" like the Lebanese or the Chinese in Southeast Asia. On the other, I'm not sure that the Scottish Golden Age is really appropriate. I'm not an expert in this period, but it sounds like the kind of thing that had something to do with increased economic growth, trade, and an improving intellectual climate in Scotland. Just to randomly speculate, Scotland had just joined in a Union with England, right as England was inventing industrialization - surely a good climate for a Golden Age to start in. It's much harder to explain Jewish achievement through similar means, because Jews are so intermixed with other populations. Whatever political and economic currents were affecting Albert Einstein or Noam Chomsky or whoever else, ought to also be affecting their Gentile friends and neighbors too. How come they didn't? To me that's a much bigger mystery than whatever happened in Scotland.
Now, I'm not saying that these factors explain 100% of Jewish overachievement. I'm simply saying that A) all of these factors make the original hypothesis of Jewish special-ness seem somewhat less interesting, and B) some, though not all of these factors will tend to bias upward any statistical measures of Jewish achievement.
And I'm not saying they explain zero of it. Both of us agree that they explain somewhere above zero and less than 100% of Jewish overachievement. So how come I'm arguing with Noah?
Noah admits that his goal is to make the hypothesis of Jewish specialness sound "less interesting". I'm against this. I would like it to remain interesting and something that people pay attention to.
Why? The Standard Model of American Ethnicity says that there are whites and non-whites, whites are rich, non-whites are poor, and this is because of structural racism where whites are oppressing everyone else. Reality gets beaten and twisted until it can be shoehorned into this model - gifted programs that are 80% Asian "perpetuate whiteness", etc. The reality is that every ethnic group is different from every other ethnic group, including in socioeconomic status, with white people usually somewhere around the middle.
(source: Zach Goldberg)
If you dismiss every group that does better than whites, then you can tell a story where all inequality is caused by white people controlling everything and creating covert structures/institutions that favor whites. If you don't dismiss those groups, the story becomes harder. Anti-Semites had their own story about problems caused by Jews controlling everything and creating covert structures/institutions that favored Jews. Nowadays we rightly reject that story. But in order to continue rejecting it, we have to come up with strained explanations to make Jewish achievement less interesting, because we've already committed to using the structural racism explanation for every group difference that seems relevant to us. I’m glad most people aren't Nazis, but I would like them to be consistent, principled non-Nazis, who are able to remain non-Nazi for reasons other than that they scrupulously avoid thinking about the parts of their principles that inevitably imply Nazism.
(I realize that the people trying to maintain the Standard Model are also trying to make Nazism less attractive, by denying the existence of successful minorities that people could get angry at and try to persecute. I think this was a potentially reasonable strategy back when you could argue it would distract people away from getting too fired up about racial resentment. But at some point the cost of enshrining as dogma that all high-achieving ethnic groups are oppressors outweighs than the benefit of “they haven’t applied this to us just yet.”)
Greg Cochran explains Jewish overachievement through genetics, although his exact mechanism (individual alleles related to sphingolipidoses) is looking less promising these days. If he's right, I think it suggests genetic engineering. People act like genetic engineering would be some sort of horrifying mad science project to create freakish mutant supermen who can shoot acid out of their eyes. But I would be pretty happy if it could just make everyone do as well as Ashkenazi Jews. The Ashkenazim I know are mostly well-off, well-educated, and live decent lives. If genetic engineering could give those advantages to everyone, it would easily qualify as the most important piece of social progress in history, even before we started giving people the ability to shoot acid out of their eyes.
But maybe the Jewish advantage will turn out to be cultural. If that's true, I think it would be even more interesting - it would mean there's some set of beliefs and norms which can double your income and dectuple your chance of making an important scientific discovery. I was raised by Ashkenazi Jews and I cannot even begin to imagine what those beliefs would be - as far as I can tell, the cultural payload I received as a child was totally normal, just a completely average American worldview. But if I'm wrong, figuring out exactly what was the active ingredient of that payload would be the most important task in social science, far outstripping lesser problems like crime or education or welfare (nobody expects good policy in these areas to double average income!). Far from trying to make this sound "less interesting", we should be recognizing it as one of the most interesting (and potentially socially useful) problems in the world.