The Corner

Immigration Economics

I’d be curious to know what Mark, Ramesh, Derb et al thought of the Times magazine cover story on the economics of immigration. I found it interesting, but deliberately inconclusive. The gist, if you haven’t read it, is that labor economists still don’t have a good grasp on the effects of immigration. Though there’s good reason to believe that large numbers of low wage, unskilled, uneducated immigrants may hurt native-born Americans of the same category and it probably hurts recent immigrants too. And it seems that big inflows of immigrants will be a net good for the economy over the long haul (though, again, this is hardly a firm consensus). Regardless, it seems economics don’t really provide silver-bullet answers to either side of the debate.

And that’s sort of what struck me most about the piece. I recently argued in the magazine that most public policy debates are fought on progressive terms. If “the numbers” show that policy X is good than policy X is good. As I wrote:

Consider, for example, the debate about same-sex marriage. Among those already convinced that same-sex marriage should be illegal, invocations of the Bible and natural law are common. But these arguments are useless when it comes to persuading the secular-minded. That’s why Maggie Gallagher, Stanley Kurtz, and others consistently invoke not God’s law but the laws of regression analysis and standard deviation (“deviation” in a strictly statistical sense, of course). These are useful arguments, and it’s good that someone is making them. But the implied assumption seems to be that if numbers and charts demonstrated that same-sex marriages were better for kids than “traditional” ones, conservatives — or at least many of them — would throw in the towel.

It seems to me that immigration is an exception to this trend, no doubt in part because the numbers are inconclusive. But the assumption still seems to be that if the numbers were on the side of opponents or supporters of continued high levels of Mexican immigration, that would settle the issue. “Oh it makes poor people richer? Then by all means let’s quintuple the number of poor Mexicans we import” versus “See, it makes poor people poorer, so let’s not have any more poor Mexicans.”

I kind of like the fact that the numbers are euivocal because it puts immigration issue in the realm it belongs: politics. Ultimately immigration is not primarily an economic issue, it’s a political-cultural one. And that’s every bit as legitimate as economics. The problem is that most America elites are uncomfortable or inept at making public policy on such grounds, and the press is just incompetent in covering such debates honestly. It just can’t break out of the “racism” versus “tolerance” paradigm.

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