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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Nope, Mormons aren't successful because of their legacy of nineteenth-century wealth

Unless you live in a remote cabin without an internet connection you’ve heard that Amy Chua and Jeb Rubenfeld have authored a book, The Triple Package, that purports to explain the economic success of certain ethnic and religious groups – Cubans, Nigerians, Mormons, Jews, some Asian groups, south Asian Indians, and Iranians – in terms of a particular constellation of culturally ingrained outlooks that lead to successful striving.  By and large respectable liberal opinion is outraged.  The consensus is that Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument is silly and probably racist in some way.

I have no particular sympathy for The Triple Package.  I haven’t read the book, but from what I’ve seen it strikes me as a pop-psychology gimmick rather than a serious social explanation.  I am sympathetic to the idea that culture matters when it comes to economic outcomes, but I find it’s often invoked as a kind of deus ex machina.  I have much stronger sympathies with thinkers like Douglas North, who give explanatory pride of place to institutions.  So, I’ve no brief for Chua and Rubenfeld, even though my knees don’t jerk in synch with respectable liberal opinion. 

I am, however, both a practicing Latter-day Saint and a student (of sorts) of Mormon history.  Hence, what has been most interesting to me about The Triple Package has been the way that Mormonism has played out in the argument over the book’s thesis.  Enter Daria Roithmayr.  In a hostile review on Slate, she argues that the true explanation for differing economic outcomes across groups lies largely in their initial endowment of wealth, although she is willing to admit room for other factors at the margins.  On the Mormons, she writes:

It’s not just that Mormons have developed a “pioneer spirit” or that they believe that they can receive divine revelations, as Triple Package would have us believe. It’s more that the first Mormons started with enough money to buy a great deal of land in Missouri and Illinois. They then migrated to Utah, where Brigham Young and his followers essentially stole land from the Shoshone and Ute tribes, refusing to pay what the tribes demanded, and petitioning for the government to remove them. Beyond thousands of acres of free land, early political control over Utah was helpful.

Hence, Mormon success, such as it is, is due mainly, according to Roithmayr, to the Mormons’ initial endowment of wealth.  The problem with this claim is that it is wrong.  Roithmayr’s review is not primarily about Mormons, of course, and within a 1600-word article historical nuance goes out the window.  The problem with Roithmayr’s claim, however, is not that it lacks nuance.  It’s that it is flat wrong. 

Roithmayer invokes nineteenth-century Mormon history, which can be divided into two periods. From 1830 to 1847, the Mormons were centered in the eastern United States, first in New York, then Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.  The second period spans 1847-1890, when the Mormons moved en mass to the Great Basin, settled Utah and the surrounding territories, and fought a long battle with the federal government over polygamy that they eventually lost.  So during these periods did the Mormons benefit from huge windfalls of wealth that set future Latter-day Saints on the road to economic success?


The early coverts to Mormonism tended to be very poor.  Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder, came from an impoverished family of New Englanders trying desperately and ultimately unsuccessfully to make it in upstate New York.  Their creditors got the family farm, to which they never had clear title.  Most converts came from similar backgrounds.  In Missouri the Mormons tried to create their own settlements by squatting on federal land, improving it, and then hoping to purchase it from the federal government when Congress passed one of its periodic pre-emption statutes.  (Prior to the Homestead Act of 1862 the federal government demanded payment from those who wished to get title to government land.)  When it became apparent that Congress was going to pass a pre-emption statute, non-Mormon elites in Missouri organized mob violence against the Mormons, who were driven from the state.  Their improved land ended up in the hands of the leaders of the mob who in due course bought the land from the federal government.

In Illinois, the foundation for Mormon settlement was laid by a large purchase of land from a land speculator.  This purchase was financed on credit by non-Mormon investors on the east coast that were betting (unsuccessfully as it turned out) on the long-term success of Mormons in Illinois. The initial speculator, however, did not have good title to much of the land that he “sold,” the Mormons were unable to repay the accrued debt, and Joseph Smith and the church were driven into bankruptcy.  To be sure, some Mormons in outlying settlements were able to acquire property independently, but Mormon settlment in Illinois ultimately floated on sea of debt rather than resting on a foundation of wealth.  In 1844, a non-Mormon mob murdered Joseph Smith, and thereafter violence against the Mormons increased.  Eventually the bulk of the Mormons abandoned Illinois, in most cases selling what property they had in fire sales to finance the purchase of a few wagons.  The failure of the Illinois period to produce a pool of Mormon wealth was exacerbated by the fact that after Smith’s murder the Mormon church splintered.  Many Mormons remained in Illinois, ultimately leaving Mormonism altogether or founding various splinter sects, the largest of which is now called the Community of Christ.  The Mormons that followed Brigham Young west were disproportionately English converts from the slums of Birmingham and were likely to be among the poorest Latter-day Saints. 

But what about Utah?  Didn’t the Mormons get all this wealth out there?

Not really. 

It is true that the Mormons, like all white American settlers, benefited at the expense of Native Americans.  However, the land that they acquired in the Great Basin was extremely marginal.  It’s a very arid region that is difficult to farm.  Indeed, the Mormons were only able to farm it because their intensely cooperative approach to settlement allowed them to create extensive irrigation networks and provided risk pooling in a marginal setting.  Even so, the early settlement of Utah was marked by extreme poverty on the part of the Mormons (something frequently remarked upon by non-Mormon visitors) and periodic brushes with starvation.  If the value of land acquired in 1850 by one’s ancestors was a primary determinant of economic performance today the descendants of Mormon pioneers should be impoverished relative to those descended from settlers in Iowa or Kansas. 

What about Mormon political power in Utah?  Didn’t that translate into wealth in the nineteenth century? 


Mormons tried to use their dominance of Utah territory to create a utopian religious commonwealth that they called Deseret or Zion.  In the early stages of settlement this intense cooperative ethos benefited Mormons greatly.  It allowed them to settle very marginal land and fend off starvation.  However, for much the period it probably operated as an impediment to economic growth.  The central goal of Brigham Young and his successors was economic self-sufficiency.  As is generally the case, however, the push for autarky probably exacerbated poverty rather than alleviating it.  The Mormons poured tremendous effort into ultimately doomed projects like growing cotton in the red-rock country of Southern Utah, introducing silk culture along the Wasatch Front, and trying to compete with the furniture manufacturing centers in the East after the coming of the railroad.  To support these efforts, the church tried to cartelize the Mormon economy and pushed for boycotts of “Gentile” businesses.  These efforts, coupled with polygamy, created chronic political and legal conflict in Utah, which tended to suppress investment and development.

In fairness to Roithmayr, I have spent nearly as many words in this blog post responding to a paragraph or two about Mormonism as she spent in her entire review of Chua and Rubenfeld’s book.  Still, Mormon history is one of my interests, and I think Roithmayr gets it wrong, not just in terms of the nuances but in terms of the central claims that need to be true to support her argument.  I know nothing about the economic history of Nigerian or Cuban immigrants, but to the extent that one wishes to explain current economic outcomes in terms of economic endowments a century or more previous, Mormons are not a good example.  On this point, I suspect that Roithmayr’s argument is driven mainly by the assumptions of luck egalitarianism and critical race theory rather than a clear reading of Mormon economic history.

Posted by Nate Oman on February 16, 2014 at 08:03 PM in Property, Religion | Permalink


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Great post. I would also add that much of the "wealth" to be had in Utah was actually taken from the Mormons when the official state borders were drawn. Huge chunks of the original Utah Territory were given to neighboring states and territories, and they just happened to be the chunks that had all the precious metals and minerals.

As the descendant of an original Mormon convert from Illinois that emigrated to Utah with the Saints, I can say for myself that I inherited no economic wealth from my family, but I inherited a great wealth of values that have helped me prosper. My great-great-great grandfather was a poor blacksmith, and my grandfather was a poor dairy farmer.

Posted by: Andrew Kartchner | Apr 28, 2014 8:39:51 PM

Once you begin talking about networks, you're talking about social capital, which is a complex topic. It's important to point out that it takes cultural capital to acquire social capital:

"considerable cultural capital is needed to participate in most organizations, and this capital depends greatly on what people bring with them, rather than simply being learned once they arrive. Leadership skills, the ability to speak comfortably in medium-sized groups, familiarity with organizational rules, and the capacity to make small talk about the right subjects are all examples of such capital. The rise in levels of education that has taken place over the past half century is but one important development that may have established implicit norms in organizations that inadvertently exclude potential members who do not have the kinds of cultural capital that is associated with higher education." (Robert Wuthnow, "Bridging the Privileged and the Marginalized?" in Robert D. Putnam, ed. Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society.)

So if we're arguing that Mormons enjoy a higher than average degree of social capital, then it must be emphasized that this social capital plays just as important a role in selecting who joins as it plays in enabling their success. In other words, as an organization that requires leadership skills, frequent public speaking to large groups, and organization competence, the LDS church is likely to attract people who either already have these aptitudes or are willing to strengthen them, and it is less likely to attract people who lack them and are averse to improving them.

When it comes to trying to explain the continuity of Mormon wealth in spite of the newness of its membership, the explanation that new members suddenly discover a Mormon network that advances their material wealth reminds me of the very funny Eddie Murphy skit on Saturday Night Live titled "White Like Me." In it Murphy goes undercover to "experience America as a white man" by wearing elaborate white makeup, watching Dynasty, and practicing reading Hallmark cards aloud. Much to his surprise, Murphy finds that when white people think that there are no black people around, they "give things to each other for free," from newspapers at newsstands to cocktail parties on public busses to free money at banks.

An explanation that new Mormons continue the trend of overall Mormon wealth because potential members self-select in or out based partly on their own cultural capital is much more plausible. Furthermore, it makes no appeal to Neo-Lamarkian notions of wealth continuity that trace origins back over the centuries.

Posted by: DKL | Apr 6, 2014 4:51:59 PM

The argument on continuity is an interesting one, as is the argument on control. With regard to both, land ownership seems pretty central, and the connection between the church and land ownership seems pretty key. The well-being of the church is one of Chua and Rubenfeld's main points, and they mention land in particular. With regard to continuity, part of the argument that I make in the book and in my review has to do with earlier waves creating networks for later waves. Indeed, the notion of the Mormon mafia (their words not mine) appears to connect people by way of social networks via their identity as Mormons. It isn't a simple family wealth story--it's a community wealth story, with the church as a central player. Given the Mormon commitment to communitarian wealth (broadly defined) sharing, what benefits the church benefits the community, and what benefits the community early on benefits the church later on. Of course, it's not a solid upward progression--economic well-being never is. But again, the idea that well-being is wholly unrelated seems far less plausible. (I was away, so sorry for the delay.)

Posted by: Daria Roithmayr | Apr 4, 2014 2:36:21 PM

And thank you for continuing to respond. I'm quite enjoying this exchange.

Posted by: DKL | Mar 17, 2014 12:50:02 AM

I think that you're taking Arrington to be less controversial than he is. Nate Oman has pointed to thoughtful critiques of Arrington's work and has provided some informed and insightful critiques of his own. People are loath to criticize Arrington, because he was the mentor of almost an entire generation of real Mormon historians -- a category of scholar that didn't exist before 1940. But truth be told, of the original three groundbreaking scholars who deserve credit for kicking off the era of Mormon historical studies that transcended both Sunday School teaching and anti-Mormon polemics (Arrington, Juanita Brooks, and Fawn Brodie), Arrington's works have aged the worse over time -- by quite a lot. As an appeal to authority, Arrington engenders a great deal of good will, but he is a pretty weak leg to stand on nowadays.

Now, whether you're using Arrington's definition or not remains beside the point. Arrington's definition over-determines the characteristics of specific monopolies to the point that it renders reasonable generalization impossible (though unreasonable generalizations are always available for to those willing to equivocate). Even the notion of "political control" is extremely complicated. Your point regarding the UAW illustrates this quite nicely. In places that have been historically dominated by union-based automobile production, it is very difficult to maintain that there was not a great deal of political control exercised by the UAW both inside and outside of the constraints of the law.

Getting to the heart of the matter, you state, "The notion that group ownership of land in Utah and political control over the state government machinery can exist for a time period but have absolutely no connection to a group's well-being seems quite unlikely."

Since we're talking about advantages that occurred more than a century ago, you're assuming a notion of continuity of individual wealth across generations that is generally untenable, and something that can only be arrived at via the fallacy of division -- something I've already brought up in my comments. Nevertheless, a rhetorically charged case can remain persuasive in spite of its argumentative bankruptcy so long as one is willing to equivocate on the right words.

With regards to Mormonism in particular, your notion of wealth continuity is especially untenable. Mormonism is a proselyting church. Approximately 50% to 60% of Mormons are 1st generation Mormons (i.e., converts, as Mormon call them). Approximately 40% to 50% are 2nd generation Mormons (i.e., their parents were converts). At most, only about 10% of Mormons are 3rd generation or beyond. Unless you can explain how people benefited by joining the LDS church nearly a century after it enjoyed the bounties of its Utah monopoly, trying to trace the wealth of the members of the Mormon church back to 19th century advantages is a futile effort.

Posted by: DKL | Mar 17, 2014 12:47:15 AM

I think we agree on your last point, though I see the arguments as in the alternative. As in (a) only by some metrics (slightly more likely to make an income between $50-$100k, no more likely to make over $100k) [I should note that this 50-100k is nothing to sneeze at; and (b) there are explanations for that income bracket that are tied to history.

I think you would likely need to read my book to understand the way I am using the word monopoly, and invoking Arrington (yes) and his use. But much of it has to do with political control. Not to put too fine a point on it, but UAW is an organization that engages in collective action but does not have political control. Arrington's use of the word describes the connection between political control and other benefits that come by way of that political control. Even though that level of control ends long before now, the benefits of that control can become self-reinforcing over time. Because it takes money to make money, because them that has usually (not always) gets.

The notion that group ownership of land in Utah and political control over the state government machinery can exist for a time period but have absolutely no connection to a group's well-being seems quite unlikely.

In any event, I want to thank you for this more measured discussion, which is far more enjoyable than parrying accusations of being too much like Hegel. ;-)

Posted by: ProfWOC | Mar 13, 2014 7:00:53 PM

Best I can tell, nobody here has a quarrel with Flander's $32K number for money pooled among Mormons to buy land in Nauvoo. But you've repeated this number without acknowledging the fact that this investment was a total loss due to the Mormon expulsion from Illinois in 1846. Those Mormons who remained in Illinois did not end up affiliated with the Utah church, so their wealth cannot be accrued to its historical benefit. Consequently, with Flanders, this is an instance of taking an isolated reference out of its historical context to create a contrived narrative.

But I think that you mean to say that Arrington (not Flanders) used the word "monopoly." It's your connection of the situations that he described with other narratives that use the word "monopoly," that is what constitutes the equivocation. You seem to think that his mere use of the word justifies your tying it to other usages of the word, come what may. Why not draw a parallel between Mormon activities and the UAW, who also could be said to have held a monopoly of sorts. Your last reply illustrates perfectly how you latch onto the use of words in order to connect them to disparate narratives to draw tenuous parallels, the exact sort of verbal intuitionism I've described.

I have nothing to offer by way of defense of Chua and Rubenfeld.

However, you're implication that if one disagrees with your outlook, then she believes that Mormon wealth came from nothing runs afoul of the either/or fallacy; i.e., it presents a false dichotomy. As I've stated repeatedly, it's not at all obvious to me that Mormons are wealthier than non-Mormons. If there is no special Mormon wealth, then I will not admit that a special explanation is called for.

Posted by: DKL | Mar 13, 2014 2:39:03 AM

I'm not alone in using the word monopoly: as I keep repeating, apparently to no effect, I took it from Flanders. Harder to accuse me of shoehorning as a result. Perhaps your quarrel is with him, but maybe he's one of the Mormon historians you don't know, or more probably, don't like, given that he uses the word monopoly. Confront Flanders with your own counterhistorian, rather than letting this be a disagreement between you and me on the basis of what you are saying is my verbal intuition.

Interesting, that one of the arguments that Chua/Rubenfeld make is a deep investment in the Mormon narrative of coming from nothing. I might be more sympathetic to that argument, given this thread. ;-)

Posted by: ProfWOC | Mar 12, 2014 5:50:25 PM

Rest assured, both Nate Oman and I know many, many more Mormon historians than you do, have read a lot more of their published works, and have a much clearer grasp on the past and current trends within the field of Mormon studies. It's a story that is still being told, and in many ways it is still in its infancy. But who knows? Maybe I'll see you at the next Mormon History Association conference. It's in San Antonio this year (June 5-8).

I'm a bit surprised to hear you say that I've offered anything at all in place of a critique. You acknowledge my identification of the fallacy of equivocation, and even try to respond to to it, asserting that the examples of the term "monopoly" that you point to in Mormon studies literature are understood fairly simply. This is, of course, beside the point, because what is at issue is the generalizations that you bring to bear from other instances of the term "monopoly." Nor is the concept of "real competition" (the absence of which you offer as a clarification of the term "monopoly") a simple notion. Thus, you're simply connecting the dots with words (like "monopoly") using a kind of verbal intuition and then imposing a story over the whole without any substantive argumentation to justify it, the same error Julius Kraft described.

So in the end, it's a little troubling how determined you are to shoehorn every narrative into something that suits your prejudices. That includes this discussion, wherein you claim to be the spokesperson for the full story told by Mormon historians, which you claim Mormons fail to see due to their prejudice. In fact, you're dealing with at least a few people here who are actually quite well versed in Mormon history compared to yourself, and you are the one who has a vested interest in telling a story that aligns with a specific theory wealth development.

Posted by: DKL | Mar 9, 2014 3:39:31 AM

Just to close out the thread, DKL and others never fully came to grips with scholarly research and historical argument. Most people understand the word monopoly in a relatively simple way, and the Mormon historians who used the word whom I cite above are the ones who make clear the absence of real competition for land ownership and governance. DKL likes to quote others who are criticizing continental philosophers in place of real critique. But unhappily, neither he nor Chua and Rubenfeld have acknowledged what intuitively makes sense: that one cannot divorce any consideration of a group's "cultural" traits (like communal ownership of property) from the history of the group. I understand that many Mormons are deeply invested in a particular history of the group that downplays some aspects of that history, but Mormon historians tell the full story.

Posted by: Daria Roithmayr | Mar 5, 2014 2:27:42 PM

This thread is pretty much dead, but it's worth pointing out that there's a great deal of equivocation going on in Daria's thesis. She latches onto a word in order to push a narrative similar to other instances in which the same word is used.

An example of this is how she's latched onto the terms "monopoly" and "political control" and "land ownership" as though they are simple, singular concepts, so that as long as she can validly associate Utah Mormon institutions with the terms "monopoly" or "political control" and "land ownership" she is justified in drawing all sorts of conclusions based on other narrative instances in which the word occurs.

Moreover, there's an important sense in which the narratives that use instances of these words are cherry picked to play into the desired narrative. For example, these sorts of discussions of the advantages of past monopolies will never include the UAW, which held a monopoly on US automobile labor for decades.

All of this reminds me of Julius Kraft's criticism of Martin Heidegger's philosophy, whose approach

"is no longer anything like an argument, a justification, which consists in giving us reasons in accordance with the rules of logic; it is, rather, something that may be characterized as a verbalization, which is the art of giving us words. The art of giving us words [instead of reasons] consists in substituting new designations for old ones, in order to link old associations with new ones, and to make them interchangeable. [The verbalizing philosopher]... believes that, in this way, he can obtain new philosophic insight."

And this gets at what is most troubling about the how Daria advances her thesis: It turns the practice of rational criticism on its head, replacing it with a verbal intuition that is divorced from the logical and empirical concepts under consideration. It is distressing that in much of academia this is considered a viable -- even laudible -- approach.

Posted by: DKL | Feb 25, 2014 11:29:53 AM

Two comments:

First, it's been pointed out that the story of greater Mormon wealth and prosperity assumes that Mormons have greater wealth and prosperity. This is now on my list of first things to investigate when investigating myths.

Second, this is a sweeeeeeeeet phrase by Western Dave: "Mormons became white at a time when the could reap the maximum benefits from that: in time to get homeownership subsidies, college education for little to no cost, etc. etc." Something to keep in mind that there was an incredible boom in post-WWII USA which was (a) in a large part engineered, and (b) almost entirely engineered so that some groups were quite deliberately excluded.

Posted by: Barry | Feb 20, 2014 12:44:53 PM

Okay, this thread is dead, but I did want to make one point on the off chance that someone Googles or stumbles across this in the future:

The appreciation in Utah real estate does not account for the current value of the holdings of the LDS Church. It is true that the Church owns substantial land in Utah. Some of this is a legacy of pioneer holdings and some of it has been purchased. The huge reserves of the LDS Church, however, are a relatively recent phenomena. In the mid-twentieth century the Church spent beyond its income on buildings as part of its post-war international missionary efforts. By the late 1960s it was in serious financial difficulties. N. Eldon Tanner, a Canadian Mormon, was tapped by the President of the Church to solve the problem. He instituted a policy of setting aside a portion of the Church's revenues -- almost all of which come from tithing donations by members -- as a reserve against future expenses. The Church has consistently followed this policy now for nearly half a century. During the same period, the number of Mormons has been increasing as has their income. As a result the revenues of the Church have increased, leading to the piling up of reserves. It is this relatively recent, late twentieth-century development -- not the appreciation of pioneer era assets -- that accounts for the Church's current wealth. A nice illustration of this is the fact that the largest real estate holding of the Church is not actually located in Utah at all. It is the Deseret Ranches in Florida, a swath of agricultural land acquired since World War II, beginning in 1952. Getting good information on current holdings and recent economic history on the Church is difficult, but the story of the building crisis and it's aftermath is told in Greg Prince & Wm Robert Price, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (University of Utah Press, 2005)

Posted by: Nate Oman | Feb 19, 2014 9:59:47 PM

Well then let me be more precise: I have a theory about how the communal nature of Mormon culture tends to fuel less authentic forms of expression among Mormons. I have a theory about how Mormon teachings lead to systematic moral character defects among its members. I have a theory that the disaffection that Mormons frequently feel when they encounter uncomfortable elements of Mormon church history is caused by the too strong identification that they feel with the Mormon church as an organization.

If you'd like to hear them, I'm happy to expound. If gay people subscribed to a single set of teachings and had a single set of leaders and had a group history that many of them felt that they needed to answer for, then you could probably make some pretty interesting theories about gay people. But in these respects, they are in no way comparable to Mormons.

You're trying to parse my words here to extract some sort of diabolical, broad-stroked swipe at Mormonism. So far, you've written several paragraphs speculating on what I intended in a few throw-away sentences at the start of an Internet comment. I'm not sure what exactly set you off, but it does strike me as bit strange.

Posted by: DKL | Feb 17, 2014 7:18:24 PM


Perhaps I read your post wrong - in which case, I apologize. What I understood you to be saying is "I have detailed theories that explain why Mormons tend to be inauthentic, aloof, disloyal, and lacking empathy." I would be interested to have you explain to me how I might have misunderstood your post.

If that is what you're saying, then I'm not judging your theories based on the fact that they exist. Had you written, "I have a theory about Mormons," I could hardly judge that as good or bad, right or wrong. But I'm judging your theories based on what you seem to purport that they explain, and I think that is appropriate in any forum. If I say, "I have a theory about why the sky is red," I'm taking the fact that the sky is red as a given, and my theory explains why. I can already argue with you that the sky is blue, even if I don't know the details of your theory. If I say, "I have a theory about why Jews are inauthentic, aloof, disloyal, and lacking in empathy," I appear to be taking it as a given that this accurately describes Jews, and my theory explains why. I don't need to know the specifics of the theory to have a problem with what it purports to show.

If I said, "I have a theory about why gay people are cruel," it would be appropriate to judge that statement, not because I have a theory, but because I'm claiming the theory explains something that is highly questionable, very subjective, and understandably offensive.

I think that one of the main problems with Chua and Rubenstein's inclusion of Mormons in their book is that they seem to be taking it as a given that Mormons are relatively "successful" and then have a theory to explain why, when it's very much in question whether "successful" is an accurate descriptor (at least for purposes of wealth). It's frustrating enough to have someone claim they have a theory that explains something that flies in the face of both data and personal experience. It's worse when that "something" appears to call into the question the character of an entire group of people.

I agree that it is a fair characterization to say that Mormonism is not "mainstream." To the extent "not mainstream" means "marginal", I'd accept the label of "marginal" as applied to Mormonism. You noted, rightly in my opinion, that people often have skewed perceptions about a marginal group because of the characteristics of the few people from that group they know or are aware of ("The only Mormon I know of is Mitt Romney, so I guess Mormons are rich.") Yet, any theory purporting to explain why a marginal group tends to be inauthentic, aloof, disloyal, and lacking empathy, must invariably be similarly skewed. You cannot know enough Mormons to conclusively say that they tend to be anything as a group, particularly something as impossibly subjective as loyal or empathetic.

Posted by: Chase | Feb 17, 2014 6:30:06 PM

Chase, I think that you're judging my theories based on a mere reference to the fact that they exist. That's inappropriate in any forum.

I'm an active, believing Mormon. I consider it an objective fact that on the continuity of marginal vs mainstream religions, Mormonism is not a religion that most people would place on the "mainstream" end of the scale, as much as I'd personally like it to be otherwise. I'd be interested in hearing evidence to the contrary.

Posted by: DKL | Feb 17, 2014 3:56:38 PM


"I'm brimming with detailed theories about Mormons, why they tend to be inauthentic an aloof, what tend to be their consistent moral failings (e.g., disloyalty, lack of empathy, distorted view of friendship) that are papered over by their clean living, how their tendency to collapse the natural tension between the group and the individual presents an obstacle when individuals must come to grips with the group's (i.e., the Mormon church's) failings, and more."

"That said, I do think that the stereotype of the successful Mormon is overblown. Mormonism is a marginal enough religion that it prompts comment in a way that other religions do not."

Would a comparably broad negative stereotype like this be a socially or morally acceptable statement if directed at Jewish people, or Muslims, or Catholics, or atheists (for example, "I'm brimming with detailed theories about Jews, why they tend to be inauthentic and aloof... disloyal, lack of empathy... consistent moral failings")? If not, is that because Mormons are "marginal enough," whereas Jewish people or Muslims are not? What does it means to be "marginal enough" to allow for making socially or morally acceptable stereotypes of 15 million people? Why would your stereotype of Mormons (disloyal, lacking empathy, etc.)not be overblown, when you believe the "successful Mormon" stereotype is? Why do you presumably believe it is possible to develop cogent "detailed theories" of the consistent moral failings of 15 million people, but "it is not possible to create a single successful theory that answers all questions in all contexts" with respect to group wealth? Can you really say anything useful about what a group of 15 million people "tend" to do, when you admit that your assertion is "fragmented" and "based on personal experience"? Is it possible that, rather than requiring detailed theories to explain the consistent moral failings of Mormons, you've simply met some Mormons who are jerks, in the same way that many people have a skewed perception of Mormon success because the only Mormon they can think of is Mitt Romney?

To the other commenters and posters here at Prawfsblawg - are DKL's statements regarding Mormons' consistent moral failing the kind of dialogue you want in what is typically an enlightening, engaging, and respectful forum?

Posted by: Chase | Feb 17, 2014 3:40:07 PM

I have enjoyed this exchange very much. I am not Mormon, but I have many Mormon friends who are uniformly hardworking.

But I want to return to a point that Prof. Roithmayr made earlier, namely that Mormons median income and education levels only very modestly exceed those of the general population (and the difference is not statistically significant). Moreover, the fat tail is less fat among Mormons than the general population: 16% of Mormon households earn >$100K while 18% of the general population households do. (link: http://www.pewforum.org/2009/07/24/a-portrait-of-mormons-in-the-us/#4)

So I don't understand Chua & Rubenfeld's decision to include Mormons, but exclude Koreans, for example. It seems to me they are trying to pick friends and those groups most likely to buy their book. Ka-ching!

Posted by: Friend of Mormons | Feb 17, 2014 2:36:37 PM

I should add that I believe that there are an indefinite number of theories that offer plausible explanations of group wealth, because I follow Quine's belief that theories are always underdetermined by facts. Moreover, I do not hold that there is an all-encompassing basis for explaining everything. For example, a computer's move in a software chess game can be explained as a computer program, as a series of electrical pulses, or in terms of classical chess strategy. Which one is "correct" depends on the context in which the explanation is offered; not even neo-Kantian epistemological primitives can resolve this sort of relativism.

So while it is certainly possible to demonstrate that some theories of group wealth are mistaken, it is not possible to create a single successful theory that answers all questions in all contexts.

Posted by: DKL | Feb 17, 2014 2:31:30 PM

"dispute this claim by arguing that nineteenth-century Mormons received much less endowment than most nineteenth-century settlers of the American West."

Ah, I don't know that this is true. Most squatters either got moved out or squatted on marginal land. Railroads got the best land and sold to speculators who then resold. I don't think LDS settlers were particularly worse or better off than other 19th century rural western migrants as a whole except that a) LDS tended to wind up in possession of their land (in this case land marginality helped them get some land). Settlement patterns tended to be more permanent and less migrant on the whole than 19th century norms. And of course, compared to 19th century Chinese, or African Americans, or Mexican migrants they did far better,

Posted by: Western Dave | Feb 17, 2014 2:19:14 PM

Daria, I'm brimming with detailed theories about Mormons, why they tend to be inauthentic an aloof, what tend to be their consistent moral failings (e.g., disloyalty, lack of empathy, distorted view of friendship) that are papered over by their clean living, how their tendency to collapse the natural tension between the group and the individual presents an obstacle when individuals must come to grips with the group's (i.e., the Mormon church's) failings, and more. I do not have any theory of Mormon wealth, but I'll offer a few thoughts.

It is especially difficult to discuss theories of group wealth for several reasons. Most such discussions tend to slide between the fallacy of composition and the fallacy of division in ways that make the arguments very slippery. The conversation starts with aggregate measures and large historical trends, and then it begins to discuss the individuals and small groups as though they are beholden to these measures and trends (as opposed to examples of data points that form the aggregate), and then it moves back to the aggregate to use the beholden individual to describe the impact or significance of the aggregate. And it's worth noting that the individual seldom experiences her life as the convergence of aggregate measures and historical trends.

Furthermore, it's very difficult to discuss why some group is wealthier or poorer than another and escape the notion of credit and blame, and by extension the normative presuppositions that people should and should not do certain things. Even deterministic frameworks, whose very purpose is to eliminate the notion of credit and blame, have the effect of robbing people of credit and blame, and therefore have the peripheral effect of telling people that they shouldn't be taking credit or assigning blame with regard to wealth accumulation (Elizabeth Warren's campaign statements come to mind, or Barack Obama's "You didn't build this," or your own theories as expressed in the Slate article). When a conversation becomes about who deserves credit or blame for achievements or failures, it becomes quite dicey.

What I do have to offer in terms of explanation is fragmentary and based on personal experience: Mormons tend to view wealth and prestige as blessings from God, affirmations of God's approval. As a corollary to this belief, Mormons tend to equate failure with unworthiness or as lessons offered by God. Since Mormon cosmology places the individual's spiritual worthiness within the framework of a cosmic battle between good and evil, Mormon's tend to place their own economic success and failure as key indicators of how they stand in this cosmic battle. This results in an odd sort of economic materialism that differs from what we understand as consumerism or conspicuous consumption, and it is immune from the standard religious critiques relating to greed. I believe this lies at the heart of the Mormon drive for success.

That said, I do think that the stereotype of the successful Mormon is overblown. Mormonism is a marginal enough religion that it prompts comment in a way that other religions do not. One had to live in a cave to miss the fact that Mitt Romney was a Mormon; only a tiny fraction of voters were aware of John McCain's religious affiliation. As a consequence, successful Mormons are overrepresented in most people's sample of known Mormons.

Posted by: DKL | Feb 17, 2014 1:49:54 PM

My apologies that you believe I've misrepresented your argument, and that you feel I've turned this into an argument about emotion and family stories. That may be true of my first post, but not of my second, which is about interrogating the logical coherence of your argument (a perfectly scholarly thing to do, though I'll grant that I have not necessarily done it in a perfectly scholarly fashion).

Further, to be clear: at no point am I defending Chua and Rubenfeld, and I'm fully persuaded that your criticism of them is sound and eminently deserved. I am also not committed to the idea that Mormons succeed purely for cultural reasons or that we do in fact succeed economically at above-average rates; it is entirely plausible to me that such statistics are artifacts of varying self-identification rates and other difficulties that arise when you study this sort of thing.

That said, your theory is that Mormons in the nineteenth century received some endowment--perhaps worthless then--that has led Mormons to above-average success today. Nate's posts, and my first post, dispute this claim by arguing that nineteenth-century Mormons received much less endowment than most nineteenth-century settlers of the American West. No matter how valuable Utah land is now, the income everybody else got from their superior land, adjusted for time, is almost certainly more valuable.

My second post simply argues that although you can point to an asset that nineteenth-century Mormons received (land in Utah that was not very agriculturally valuable) and a perceived present-day effect (Mormons' supposed higher-than-average economic performance), you have presented no causal account of how the first endowment led to the second. I have tried to develop such an account out of your Slate post, and I have pointed out what I consider huge holes in it: Utah land was not valuable until quite recently and still isn't all that valuable, Utahns (the beneficiaries of Utah land values) are have below-average wages and per capita income and are thus unlikely drivers of Mormons' supposed success, most Mormons are not Utahns and do not own land in Utah, many (perhaps most) American Mormons are not descended from Utahns, most Utahns who have emigrated to the rest of the country likely did so because they could make more money elsewhere for reasons wholly unrelated to their Mormonism, and so forth.

And your response to this is simply to reiterate that Mormons got land then that's giving them gold now (an ironic way of phrasing it, since the actual mineral wealth in Utah was exploited by and large by non-Mormons). In response to which I must now reiterate: where's the gold? How have rising Utah land values and long-defunct nineteenth-century cooperatives contributed to Mormons' above-average present-day economic success (if it even exists)? I don't care if you buy my explanations (self-identification disparities and self-selection into and out of the faith), but the fact is, you haven't actually given me yours.

Posted by: Alan Hurst | Feb 17, 2014 12:09:04 PM

A couple (okay more than a couple) of points here: 1) The importance of language skills in the 20th and 21st century economy ended up benefiting the Mormon community for reasons that do correlate to economic success and have nothing to do with "pioneer spirit". This is, what we call in the history biz, an accident that ended up benefiting Mormons. 2) A cultural emphasis on agriculture as opposed to mining benefited Mormons by helping LDS communities avoid boom and bust mining cycles that plagued the less stable West. 3) The infusion of capital and skills by religious immigrants into Utah in both the 19th and 20 the century aided Utah and the margins of the Great Basin Kingdon in comparison to places like New Mexico. 4). Mormons avoided church leadership advice and embraced and benefited from the New Deal in ways typical of white people. Remember that the argument here isn't about Mormons compared to other whites. It's Mormons compared to Appalachia, Blacks and Chicanos (that is non-recent Latino immigrants). In other words, Mormons became white at a time when the could reap the maximum benefits from that: in time to get homeownership subsidies, college education for little to no cost, etc. etc. .

Posted by: Western Dave | Feb 17, 2014 11:27:45 AM

I think that to continue to argue against my review, you all ought to read Triple Package in order understand the argument. You've disconnected the arguments from the review, and then perverted (not intentionally but perhaps because of this disconnection) my point.

So the idea that the land is valuable today fits precisely with the Chua and Rubenfeld story about recent Mormon success today and the worth of the Church's land holdings. This is a story about early beginnings and early assets explaining contemporary success, not early WEALTH, a point that you seem to repeatedly ignore to try to make your shoehorning argument. So to simplify, if a group steals acres of unusually crappy land that they can't farm to save their lives but the land then produces gold in the twentieth century, and the TP book makes the point that the Mormons are successful in the twentieth century because of their pioneer spirit and their belief in divine revelation but not because of that land or the gold, then it is totally fair to call them and you all on it.

Most of my history is backed by historical sources that no one except Nate impugns, and Nate impugns them with those same sources and his own argument. The argument about regional monopoly comes from Arrington, not just me. The counterarguments you are all presenting are simple assertions in which you all just says it isn't so. Where are the sources that back up your argument that this wasn't monopoly or control of land but hard work and thriftiness? The notion that land had nothing to do with success and political control was irrelevant but that this was all about working hard just flies in the face of basic principles of political economy.

Speaking of which, that second part of the argument that this was all about hard work and thriftiness and not at all about assets like land is as poorly supported by any serious scholarship as your history arguments and as Chua and Rubenfeld's argument, though they at least try by citing to cherry-picked sociology. Without sources, you all have to resort to comparisons to Hegel or personal family anecdote and strong emotions of being offended and infuriated to make your points.

One final point. I am not discounting at all that Mormons were driven from Illinois and Missouri to Utah, or that there was poverty, or that there were economic failures and new beginnings. I am not arguing that culture did not play any role at all. But to pretend that political control actually was a disadvantage and all that land didn't end up being an asset in modern times simply because it was hard to farm back then seems a bit simplistic.

Tell you what, let's have a scholarly exchange on Prawfsblog. Find scholarly resources to back your points--historical and sociological both. Otherwise this isn't a Prawfsblog exchange, it's just assertion, family anecdote and strong emotion to counter my supported view of history (Nate this isn't true for you.)

And now I will really leave the thread to go do other scholarship, but if you can find some good scholarly sources to support your stories or counterhistories, and ONLY if you supply those good scholarly sources will I come back to play! ;-)

Posted by: Daria Roithmayr | Feb 17, 2014 10:23:41 AM

I never heard of this book until now but thanks for an interesting discussion on something a bit off the beaten path.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 17, 2014 10:01:48 AM

Now to respond to two other problems with your arguments:

1) You keep coming back to this idea that Utah land is valuable now, to which I have two responses. First, you're using the present value of Utah land as a way of deflecting Nate's argument that the land Mormons took from Native Americans was unusually crappy land and thus hardly an explanation for present-day wealth. I don't think that works. Yes, some (though by no means all) of the land Mormons claimed in nineteenth-century Utah is more valuable than some (though by no means all) of the land other nineteenth-century Americans got for free around the same time. But to use an investment analogy, you're only looking at present-day stock price and ignoring past dividends. The superior profits of farming for more than a century on land that's actually arable, adjusted to reflect the time value of money, are vastly greater than the difference in current real-estate prices.

Second and more simply, Utah land being valuable is a very recent phenomenon. If your argument is that today's Mormons are successful because their ancestors were rich, you can hardly use the current price of a condo in Park City to refute Nate's argument that our nineteenth-century ancestors were poor.

2) If I understand you correctly, you're arguing that early Mormons were wealthy and that they formed social networks that have given later generations of Mormons "social assistance, job referrals, financial opportunities, information, and other kinds of goodies not available to people outside the group." I think Nate has argued persuasively that early Mormons were not actually wealthy, but even if they were, I think you'd have some problems explaining how their wealth has translated into above-average success for Mormons today.

First off, if it's domination of Utah that has made us wealthy, it seems odd that Utah's per capita income and wage levels are substantially below the national average. It seems still odder that Utah's richest county (Summit) is also (by far) its least Mormon county. Rather than Mormons being a privileged overclass in a privileged state, in Utah we've historically been the middle class of a lower-middle-class state, where it's actually non-Mormons who have been overrepresented among the elite because of non-Mormons' mining fortunes, mercantile fortunes, dominance in higher education, etc.

Outside of Utah, the story gets even stranger, given the large number of members without Utah ancestry. The best case I can make for your position is that as Utah Mormons have migrated out into other states, they've taken their Utah wealth with them and become a privileged minority that then distributes benefits to Mormons without direct Utah ties. But I'm not at all sure that they had Utah wealth to begin with, or, if they did, why they left. It seems more likely that the Mormons who have moved away from Utah have done so because Utah is poor and they could make more money elsewhere. Maybe the class of people who are willing to move away from Utah for money is disproportionately likely to make good money elsewhere? Very possible, but if so, it has nothing to do with the supposed wealth of early Mormons.

In short, I think you've got a story that fits some ethnic minorities pretty well, and you're trying to apply it to a religious minority without doing the homework necessary to see whether it fits and whether other stories might explain Mormons' success better. Here's my best guess: unlike ethnicities, Mormonism gains people through conversion and loses them through apostasy. Because the church puts such a heavy emphasis on middle class virtues--hard work, temperance, stable families--its converts tend disproportionately to be people who possess or at least aspire to those virtues, and its apostates tend disproportionately to be people who reject them. Voila: Mormonism's middle class success explained, without having to pretend that a bunch of penniless sheepherders were actually rich.

Posted by: Alan Hurst | Feb 17, 2014 8:26:09 AM

Daria: The Mormons-used-power-to-create-monopolies-and-get-rich story doesn't hold up. First, the Church never got a monopoly in any industry. Second, even if they had got a monopoly it might explain the wealth of the Church as an institution but wouldn't explain the economic success of Mormons. Indeed, Mormons would have been the main customers of the monopoly and would have suffered accordingly. Third, the main problem with this story, however, is that it isn't true. It is true that in the nineteenth-century anti-Mormon rhetoric borrowed heavily the rhetorical tropes of anti-trust populism, attempting to portray the Mormon Church as a kind of theocratic version of U.S. Steel or Standard Oil. Unsurprisingly, however, religious polemic is a poor guide to economic fact. The reality is that by the 1890s the Mormon Church was insolvent, deeply in debt to financiers in New York and San Francisco with apparently no means of paying its creditors.

As for the roots of Mormon economic success, such as it is, I think that there are probably four factors. First, there is probably some lingering cultural inheritance from thrifty and hard working nineteenth-century pioneers. These cultural traits, if anything, are a legacy of nineteenth century poverty rather than wealth. Second, I think that there is the church as an institution, which creates a set of powerful incentives that tend to generate upward economic mobility, these include refraining from self-destructive behavior -- e.g. drugs and alcohol, etc. -- an emphasis on education, missionary service, which inculcates self-discipline and other important skills at an key age, etc. This is why, incidentally, I suspect that you have to cherry pick your Mormons to find strong evidence of Mormon economic success. Only about half to a third of Mormons actively participate in the church. If the explanation is institutional, then at most only half of the Mormon population is subject to the independent variable. For example, I would expect that second generation converts to Mormonism that have no roots of any kind in Utah are likely to reap greater economic benefits from Mormonism than are lapsed Mormons living in Utah descended from LDS pioneers. Third, I think that membership in the Church embeds Mormons in a set of networks that provide them with professional connections, etc. Finally, I suspect that the Church's very strong emphasis on marriage helps. My understanding is that strong healthy marriages tend to make people more economically productive, and the Church lavishes an enormous amount of energy on encouraging and strengthening the marriages of its members.

None of this has much to do with some initial wealth endowment in the nineteenth century. You have repeatedly talked about the value of Utah real estate, but if anything I suspect that the causation goes the other way. Mormon economic success doesn't result from the rise of Utah real estate values, it causes it. While most Mormons don't live in Utah or have economic connections with the state, there are a lot of Mormons that live in Utah and/or want to live in Utah. They have the economic means to bid up relatively scarce land. (Utah is still mostly empty.)

Posted by: Nate Oman | Feb 17, 2014 8:13:04 AM

Daria, I don't know anything about the history here that Nate doesn't, but I will add a bit about my own family's experience and explain why I find your claim... well, offensive and infuriating.

The story of my Mormon ancestors is that they converted in the U.K. or Scandinavia and gave up everything they had in order to join the Saints in Nauvoo or Utah. Those who put down roots in Nauvoo were then forced by mob violence to abandon everything and move to Utah. Many of those who put down roots in Utah were then forced by federal prosecution to abandon everything yet again and move to even crappier land in Mexico, which their descendants were quick to abandon once persecution was no longer an issue because we'd finally capitulated to the federal gun in our face. Those of my descendants who did survive the nineteenth century with land holdings intact sold them long before they had significant value--generally because, as Nate has correctly pointed out, making a living in Utah through agriculture is only slightly easier than making a living in Florida as a snowboard instructor.

To me, this is a story of people who made immense sacrifices for their faith, repeatedly, over the course of several generations, often because of violence or the threat of violence. And what you're telling me is that no, in fact these were privileged people, and that I'm successful today because they were privileged then. It's as preposterous as it is appalling, a (distant) cousin of saying that today's African Americans are better off because of slavery or that Native Americans should be grateful for the smallpox blankets. Mormons didn't suffer as badly as blacks and Indians at the hand of nineteenth-century American colonialism, but that doesn't mean we didn't suffer.

To put that last point less emotionally: lots of nineteenth-century Americans got free land and self-governance. And for most of them, the land was much better, and the self-governance came without a massive military-backed persecution campaign, disenfranchisement, etc. And yet you're saying that today's Mormons are (moderately) more successful than those other Americans' descendants because we got free land and self-governance in the nineteenth century. How does that work, exactly?

Posted by: Alan Hurst | Feb 17, 2014 5:59:56 AM

...come on, mysterious DKL, you have to contribute more than a cite to BYU studies literature and a pithy takedown comparing me to Bertrand Rusell. Pay to play. ;-)

Posted by: Daria Roithmayr | Feb 17, 2014 3:46:49 AM

One more question for Nate. If Chua and Rubenfeld's story isn't your story about Mormons and success, what is your story? Same to ask of DKL...

Posted by: Daria Roithmayr | Feb 17, 2014 3:36:36 AM

After reading the article, the comments here, and the comments on Daria's Facebook thread about this, it seems to me that Daria's entire argument hinges on her determination to shoehorn Mormon history into a narrative that aligns with her thesis on the sources of wealth. This reminds me of something Bertrand Russell once said of Hegel's approach to history:

"It was an interesting thesis, giving unity and meaning to the revolutions of human affairs. Like other historical theories, it required, if it was to be made plausible, some distortion of facts and considerable ignorance."

Posted by: DKL | Feb 17, 2014 3:28:40 AM

If the place we end on is that I have to have a non-Marxist story about how political power leads to wealth, then I'll count this as a win. ;-) Arrington writes about the operation of the church in connection with political control of state machinery as a sort of giant holding company controlling the strategic industries of the region, and Ostling and Ostling describe the early political control as a kind of regional monopoly. Mention is made of land ownership and control in this regard, and the way in which political control enables control of land in ways that might not have happened were there not such a close union of church and state early on. It's very important to note, of course, that as both sources point out, this sort of theocratic control of an economically independent and self-sufficient kingdom begins to wind down at the turn of the century. But the whole point of my book, Reproducing Racism, is to explain how early monopoly behavior can generate persistent and ongoing benefits even when the monopoly comes to an end. Certainly in understanding the wealth of the church, one can understand how the early monopoly story might play a role; Chua and Rubenfeld cite the church's land holdings as one of the crown jewels of the success story. The unusually crappy land is worth a bundle at the moment. Thanks so much for the exchange, Nate. Unhappily, I have a couple of paper deadlines that I am scrambling on and must turn to for the next week, but will try to return to this when I have time!

Posted by: Daria Roithmayr | Feb 17, 2014 3:07:37 AM


Insofar as we might accord a plausible, non-pejorative meaning to the phrase "Marxist folk psychology," it surely has nothing whatsoever do with the proposition "that political power leads to wealth" (indeed, as in the base-superstructure metaphor, quite the converse). As to what a more-than-plausible Marxist folk psychology implicitly and explicitly involves or entails, I'll provide several samples of same on request. (And I have no idea how those might apply to Mormon history.)

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 17, 2014 2:15:39 AM

Daria: Final point and then I'm off to bed --

You repeat that Mormons got lots of land in Utah and lots of political control. Lots of people in nineteenth-century America got lots of land, however, and comparatively speaking the Mormons got unusually crappy land. Accordingly, if initial material endowments are what is really "driving the bus" you need to explain why Mormons are not dramatically behind those who got much more valuable land elsewhere. Second, you assume that political control translates into wealth, but you don't have any particular story about how Mormon political power turned into wealth. It is possible to use power in economically destructive ways. I think that this is a pretty good summary of the Mormon quest for autarky in Utah, especially after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Other than an appeal to Marxist folk psychology, there is no reason to suppose that political power leads to wealth, especially when the political power is harnessed to other ideological agendas, like insuring that Zion can stand independent of a wicked world, which is how Brigham Young would have articulated his economic policy goals.

Posted by: Nate Oman | Feb 16, 2014 10:24:03 PM

Daria: If you look at Mormons circa 1846, the start with nothing statement isn't too far from the truth. They had know how and organization but not much in the way of material resources. What resources they'd had in Missouri and Illinois had been mostly lost and the residue transformed into very basic necessities like wagons, teams, and seed corn. On Missouri, the understanding of Mormon land holding has been subject to pretty significant revisionist research by Jeff Walker. Flanders wrote nearly 50 years ago, and is likely out of date on anything on Missouri.

The best source in support of my critique of Arrington is Arrington. Set aside his peans to irrigation ditches and look at the actual economic outcomes for the communal economic activities that he documents. If you are interested in revisionist readings of some of the stuff that Arrington covers, check out Thomas G. Alexander, ed., Great Basin Kingdom Revisited.

Posted by: Nate Oman | Feb 16, 2014 10:15:18 PM

See above with regard to the initial claim--that in contradiction to the Triple Package claim that the Mormon pioneer spirit explains their success, the history reflects that they began with enough money to buy land in Illinois and Missouri (go and look at Flanders). This part of the history contradicts the book's "began with nothing" narrative. The history also reflects that Mormons acquired thousands of acres of free land and political control over Utah, and my argument is that this history more than their belief in their own superiority or sense of inadequacy explains their modest success.

The argument about the modest degree of their success is an argument that again is connected to the review. First, Mormons aren't as successful as Chua and Rubenfeld make them out to be (they ignore the median stats, which they cite for all other groups). Second, to the extent that the group is more successful than other groups like blacks and Latinos, their early history looks quite different. The implicit comparison is important here, as my review reflects.

I am not sure what to say about your disagreement with Arrington, except this where we are likely going to have to agree to disagree. I'm sure you are a quite able historian, and it'd be great to see other historians who agree with you, though I credit your argument even without requiring you to enlist published others to support you against Arrington. But again, to return to my original claim, we are now arguing about whose version of history is better, yours or Arrington's, and this is a conversation that already is leaps and bounds over the one that Chua and Rubenfeld encourage.

Finally (I think I've said this already), Chua and Rubenfeld cite median statistics for almost all their groups except Mormons, and so your point about tails doesn't really work for the review. Tails are dangerous to use if the argument is about group culture, and one runs into the sub-sub-sub group point I made in the review.

DKL, I'll check out your source, thanks.

Btw, I am very much enjoying this exchange.

Posted by: Daria Roithmayr | Feb 16, 2014 10:05:31 PM

"I was also careful to say that culture plays a role, but one that must be set against the backdrop of what drives the bus, which is material assets and history, and Nate proves my point here in his discussion about the land in Utah (which is quite valuable at the moment.)"

I am not quite sure what "history" refers to in this story. I am also not sure what Utah real estate values have to do with Mormon economic performance. Most Mormons don't live in Utah. Most Mormons who live in Utah have not inherited land or wealth based on land. My own family settled in central Utah in the 1850s as farmers. The next generation left central Utah for eastern Utah because there was no arable land left. In eastern Utah they became cattle ranchers are very marginal land. During the Great Depression, their ranch went bust and they lost everything. My grandfather ended up in a small town in eastern Washington, where he sold insurance for State Farm. My father eventually moved back to Utah, where I was born. We lived in a modest house in Salt Lake City. Neither the house nor the money used to purchase it was inherited from wealthy nineteenth-century ancestors. Rather, it was paid for by my father's salary and the money generated from my step mother's import business. There may be some story about Mormonism that can be told about this economic trajectory, but I'm pretty sure that the appreciation of real estate values on the Wasatch Front has nothing to do with it.

Posted by: Nate Oman | Feb 16, 2014 9:59:33 PM

Regarding preemption and the acquisition of Mormon land in Missouri, I think the most well-informed source on the intricacies of the US Federal law regarding Federal land acquisition is Jeffrey N. Walker's "Mormon Land Rights in Caldwell and Davies Counties and the Mormon Conflict of 1838: New Findings and New Understandings" in BYU Studies 47:1 (2008), 4-56.

Posted by: DKL | Feb 16, 2014 9:38:27 PM

Daria: I'll take a look at Flanders tomorrow morning when I get into the office, but the fact that you can find some Mormons with savings to purchase some land doesn't undermine the basic problem with your claim. You use Mormon land ownership in Missouri and Illinois as evidence of Mormon wealth. The problem is that most of this land was not purchased and most of it was never even owned in the sense of having clear and clean title. Mainly Mormons, like other frontier settlers of their time, were buying land on credit (or sometimes just improving land in the hope of being given a chance later to try to buy it on credit) and hoping future income would pay the debts when they came due. Debt is not wealth. You also ignore the fact that the Mormons LOST their homes in Missouri and Illinois. By 1846 most Mormons who remained loyal to the Mormon Church were literally starving and dying in mud huts in a wilderness on the banks of the Missouri River in present day Nebraska, having lost everything in Illinois except for the insufficient supplies and equipment they were able to drag through the mud and snows of Iowa. The fact that you found evidence that some Mormon farmer was able to buy a farm in Hancock County, Illinois in the late 1830s does not negate the basic fact that the Mormons accumulated virtually no wealth in the 1830-1846 period and what little they did manage to scrape together was poured into buying wagons and teams to take them on a thousand mile trek to a barren desert in the middle of nowhere. This is not how one accumulates wealth.

I don't dispute Mormon political power in Utah. What I dispute is whether that power translated into wealth. Arrington tends to speak pretty optimistically about Mormon communal projects even as he documents their repeated economic failures. This is because Arrington is trying to nest Mormon economic history within progressive historiograpy. He's drawing on folks like Herbert Croly and the New Dealers to argue that centrally planned bureaucracies out perform wasteful market competition. He wants to present Brigham Young as a kind of precursor to Franklin Roosevelt. The problem with this story is that virtually all of the communal economic projects outside of irrigation systems sponsored by the Mormons were economic flops. In other words, Mormons at times used their local political power in economically destructive ways. .

Your final modification of the argument, namely that Mormons aren't that economically successful, undermines your broader point. You are now in the position of arguing that modest variations in the endowment of wealth of one's ancestors can account for modest variations in economic outcomes a century and a half later. This claim strikes me as having the double problem of being too ideologically weak to be provocative and too methodologically grandiose to be believed.

(Also, for what it's worth, I am not sure that what matters for the kind of high achievement that Chua and Rubenfeld want to talk about is the median. It seems to me that you are looking a tail events -- very successful people -- and then looking for groups with fat tails. I've no idea if Mormons have fat tails here, but the median doesn't seem to tell us much one way or the other.)

I've no links, as my information here comes from books. On Mormon economic history, the classic studies are Leonard Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom and Arrington & Fox, Building the Kingdom of God. I can, however, provide a link to a book review I did of Arrington's biography, which lays out some of the difficulties with his interpretive framework for Mormon economic history:


Posted by: Nate Oman | Feb 16, 2014 9:23:23 PM

The idea matters in the context of the book's arguments, which argues that Mormons' pioneer spirit is responsible for their current success. So then the point becomes that even at the outset, Mormons did not begin with absolutely nothing, and then in the move to Utah, they acquired a great deal of land and political control over Utah and that this history plays a role in their (relatively modest) success. Nate says he hasn't read the book, and perhaps you have not either Bryan, but it becomes difficult to isolate a factoid and disconnect it from the review and have it make sense.

Posted by: Daria Roithmayr | Feb 16, 2014 9:20:48 PM

"First, as to land purchases: I was careful to say that Mormons had enough money to buy land, not that they were rolling in dough. And buy land they did. According to Robert Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom of the Mississippi (pp 31-39), some of the land was purchased on speculation, but other land was purchased with actual money, some purchases as high as $32,000 (which discounting for inflation, was a fair chunk of change.)"

I still think this doesn't fit the narrative that an initial endowment is what drives Mormon success, particularly because that endowment was eviscerated by the emigration of Mormons away from Nauvoo. Now, if the argument is, "Mormons were a group of rich people and the genetics of those rich people make it more likely that their descendants will become rich," then the factoid matters. But I imagine you would find that a fairly deplorable and definitely tenuous point. Am I missing some nuance to your argument that explains why the ability to purchase something as fleeting as Mormon's Nauvoo lands is relevant?

Posted by: Bryan G. | Feb 16, 2014 8:54:11 PM

Excellent! Now we have a real debate going, one that wouldn't happen if we were to accept Chua and Rubenfeld's simplistic explanation that culture explains all. Am glad that Nate acknowledges the brevity of my description, but I stand by it all, brief or not.

First, as to land purchases: I was careful to say that Mormons had enough money to buy land, not that they were rolling in dough. And buy land they did. According to Robert Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom of the Mississippi (pp 31-39), some of the land was purchased on speculation, but other land was purchased with actual money, some purchases as high as $32,000 (which discounting for inflation, was a fair chunk of change.)

Political control of the Utah territory and then Utah is fairly well established, according to Leonard Arrington, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter Day Saints, who writes about the group's struggle to assimilate in order to qualify for statehood. Arrington also argues for the importance of local governance to the group.

It's worth repeating that culture plays a role in this history, and Nate doesn't mention one of the most important cultural factors, which is a tendency towards communal forms of property, as Arrington discusses. The point I made in my review is that these are the sorts of cultural vectors one ought to discuss, rather than simplistic notions of belief in the receipt of divine revelation.

One more point worth making. By Chua and Rubenfeld's own statistics, Mormon success at the median has been modest. They are slightly less likely to go to college than average, and no more likely to make over $100,000. I mention this to point out that the initial conditions I have discussed need not be so grandiose as windfalls of wealth to explain modest success in the mid-income range.

It would have been quite helpful for Nate to post links to the history that he recounts, as I have here. But again, I mark it as a great success that we are actually talking about history and culture rather than anecdote about Mitt Romney, as Triple Package is wont to do!

I was also careful to say that culture plays a role, but one that must be set against the backdrop of what drives the bus, which is material assets and history, and Nate proves my point here in his discussion about the land in Utah (which is quite valuable at the moment.)

Posted by: Daria Roithmayr | Feb 16, 2014 8:29:36 PM

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