The conservative social welfare function

“Social welfare functions” are a good example of the payoff to thinking abstractly. They are answers to a very large question, which might be put: How should human beings live together in society, and what should society’s goals be? If you want to focus on the government, you could frame the question as: What should the government’s objective be? How should it decide between alternative policies? Not every answer to this question lends itself to being summarized in a social welfare function, but many do, some rather precisely, some loosely.

Thus, the political philosophy of John Rawls might be summarized in the social welfare function V=min(U1, U2, U3, …, Un), where V is what society is trying to maximize, and U1, U2, … Un represent the utilities of individuals 1, 2, …, n, where n is the population. Similarly, the utilitarian political philosophy might be summarized in the social welfare function V = U1 + U2 + … + Un. From these social welfare functions, with a little bit of careful further thinking, one can make several deductions. First, both Rawlsians and utilitarians will tolerate some inequality, basically for the same reason: allowing some individuals to get ahead of others gives them the incentive to create wealth. A utilitarian values the self-enrichment of individuals per se. A Rawlsian doesn’t, but he will value it indirectly if the wealth creation spills over and benefits the poorest. Second, both Rawlsians and utilitarians almost certainly would support some redistribution. The Rawlsian does so because he only values the welfare of the poorest, and no matter how much he reduces the welfare of everyone else, if he can benefit the poorest at all, he will do so. The utilitarian will support some redistribution, even if, as is probably the case, it is inefficient and reduces the total wealth of society, because the marginal utility of a dollar is higher for the poorest individuals. But the Rawlsian will support more redistribution than the utilitarian. If we call the amount of redistribution T, there will be some T’>0 that maximizes total utility, and some T”>T’ that maximizes the welfare of the poorest. The utilitarian will prefer redistribution T’, the Rawlsian, T”.

There are more games you can play with social welfare functions (SWFs). You could call democratic any SWF that places equal value on all individuals’ utility, and aristocratic any SWF that places much greater weight on some individuals’ utility than others. (Both the Rawlsian and utilitarian SWFs are democratic, by this definition.) You could call an SWF relatively socialistic if it imputes to individuals highly risk-averse utility functions: that is, a socialistic society will tolerate fairly low average living standards, in exchange for an equitable distribution of income. By the same token, a relatively capitalistic SWF would impute to individuals utility function much closer to risk-neutrality, maximizing incentives for wealth creation while tolerating extreme destitution for some members of society. Now, I want to introduce the concept of a conservative social welfare function. While I thought it up myself, I’m not surprised that a Google Scholar search reveals it has been thought of before, and with the same motivation that made me think of it a few years ago: trade policy. The concept applies directly to immigration. But first, let me try to state it mathematically. Imagine a society which seeks to maximize:

(1)  V(t+1) = f(U1(t+1) – U1(t)) + f(U2(t+1) – U2(t)) + … + f(Un(t+1) – Un(t))

That is, in choosing how to allocate resources at time t+1 it takes into account how resources were allocated at time t. Thus the conservative SWF is backward-looking. But of course, you don’t really know anything about the conservative SWF until you know something about f(). So here’s a bit of characterization of f():

(2) (a)  f(0)=0, (b) f(x)>0 if x>0, (c) f(x)<0 if x<0, and most subtly, (d) f(x) + f(-x) <<0

Conditions 2(a) through 2(c) are rather obvious. Society likes it when people’s utility improves, dislikes it when people’s utility deteriorates, is indifferent when it stays the same. The really defining feature of a conservative SWF is condition 2(d), which implies that society is much more opposed to anyone seeing their utility fall, than it is in favor of seeing people’s utility rise. If a policy harms A while benefiting B by an equal amount, under a conservative SWF, the policy will be rejected. Even if a policy raises A’s utility by considerably more than it reduces B’s, the policy is likely to be rejected.

Now, if you believe that open borders would have an economic impact anything like what, say, John Kennan’s model predicts, then they should pass a Rawlsian or utilitarian test very easily. But open borders might still be rejected from the perspective of a conservative SWF, since in Kennan’s model it reduces wages of all non-migrant workers, while roughly doubling world GDP through huge gains to owners of capital and migrants. Whether this is the “real” reason (if that means anything) for migration restrictions, I don’t know. However, I do have a sort of hunch that conservative SWFs are an important part of the way democratic politics operate. Continue reading “The conservative social welfare function” »

Open borders: what to do about it (part 3)

This is a guest post by Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University. Rojas maintains his personal webpage here and is one of the bloggers at the orgtheory.net blog.

This guest post is the third in a three-post series on how one could achieve open borders. The series focuses on public opinion and immigration policy in the United States, but its insights may apply to other nations as well. The first two post of the series can be found here and here.

This is the last installment of a three part series on open borders. My initial post offered some personal thoughts on why I believe in free movement between countries. The second and third posts focus on how open borders might happen. While there is much to be gained in discussing the merits of open borders, it is just as important to think how we can pursue change in concrete terms. I argued that open borders proponents should think more carefully about how we frame, or talk about, open borders. Free migration will require massive social change and advocates should develop ways of presenting their ideas that would appeal to many people, as well as more specific groups, such as jurists, who influence how laws are made and enacted.

Even more important than framing is politics, which simply means the effort that we expend to influence other people and reform our institutions. In writing this post, I do not assume that there is a single way to promote change. History shows us that change happens in many ways and that it is impossible to know in advance how things will change. What we can know for certain, though, is that history favors those who are prepared. The purpose of this post is to describe what open borders advocates might have to do if they want to see their ideas turn into practice.

My discussion is drawn from a recent book, The Making of Pro-Life Activists by Ziad Munson. This scholarly book contains a succinct analysis of the different branches of that movement. Munson notes that most activists focus on one of three activities: public outreach, electoral politics/lobbying and “direct action,” which denotes protest and other actions designed to prevent abortions from being performed in medical clinics. Similarly, the “political” side of open borders will have to address public opinion, elected officials, and forms of protest. Each has an important role that I discuss below.

Public Outreach

I’ll begin with “public outreach” because it is important and relatively easy to do. Public opinion is extremely important because politicians in a democracy won’t promote a policy if they know that the public opposes it. Academic research on social changes has often found that public opinion often changes before the government enacts major new legislation. For example, see Taeku Lee’s book on the civil rights movement. Savvy politicians know that they exploit shifting cultural currents and rarely initiate major change by themselves. That is why open borders advocates should think about the ways to change hearts and minds.

We should look to other movements for ideas about promoting open border to the public. The gay rights movement, for example, found that if enough people “come out of the closet,” then everybody will recognize that gay people are a group, even those that dislike them. Eventually, the presence of this group may be viewed as normal. If the hidden group can achieve some degree of “normality,” then they can become part of a broader social conversation. If enough gay people come out of the closet, then others will realize that their children, or parents, or friends might be gay. It is very difficult to sustain open bigotry if your relatives are openly gay. The lesson is that there is safety in numbers.

Open borders advocates should consider some version of this strategy. At the very least, we should develop a symbol, like the pink triangle for gay rights, that represents our view that people should be free to move as they wish between countries. This is a form of branding and it is important. Continue reading “Open borders: what to do about it (part 3)” »

Secure the US-Mexico border: open it

The Associated Press has a great story out on what a “secure” US-Mexico border would look like. It covers perspectives from various stakeholders on border security, with opinions running the gamut from “The border is as secure as it can ever be” to “It’s obviously incredibly unsafe.” I am not sure if the AP is fairly representing opinions on the border issue, but the reporting of how life on the border has evolved over time is fascinating.

One thing that strikes me in this reporting is how casually drug smugglers/slave traffickers and good-faith immigrants are easily-conflated. Is a secure border one where people who want to move contraband goods or human slaves illegally cannot easily enter? Or is it one where well-meaning people can be indefinitely kept at bay for an arbitrary accident of birth? This passage juxtaposes the two quite different situations:

And nearly all of more than 70 drug smuggling tunnels found along the border since October 2008 have been discovered in the clay-like soil of San Diego and Tijuana, some complete with hydraulic lifts and rail cars. They’ve produced some of the largest marijuana seizures in U.S. history.

Still, few attempt to cross what was once the nation’s busiest corridor for illegal immigration. As he waited for breakfast at a Tijuana migrant shelter, Jose de Jesus Scott nodded toward a roommate who did. He was caught within seconds and badly injured his legs jumping the fence.

Scott, who crossed the border with relative ease until 2006, said he and a cousin tried a three-day mountain trek to San Diego in January and were caught twice. Scott, 31, was tempted to return to his wife and two young daughters near Guadalajara. But, with deep roots in suburban Los Angeles and cooking jobs that pay up to $1,200 a week, he will likely try the same route a third time.

The main thing that strikes me about the previously “unsecure” border near San Diego is that border patrol agents were overwhelmed by a mass of people until more staff and walls were brought to bear. But these masses of people almost certainly were comprised in large part, if not near-entirely, of good-faith immigrants. Smugglers and traffickers merely take advantage of the confusion to sneak in with the immigrants. If the immigrants had a legal path to entry, if they did not have to cross the border unlawfully, the traffickers would be naked without human crowds to hide in. If border security advocates just want to reduce illegal trafficking, demanding “border security” before loosening immigration controls may well be putting the cart before the horse.

Even so, as I’ve said before, the physical reality of a long border means that human movement across it can never be fully controlled. Demanding totalitarian control as “true border security” is about as unrealistic as, if not even more so than an open borders advocate demanding the abolition of the nation-state.

The AP covers some damning stories of peaceful Americans murdered by drug traffickers in the same breath as it covers someone trying to get to a job in suburban LA. Even if one insists that murdering smugglers and restaurant cooks should be treated identically on account of being born Mexican, it is difficult to see how one can demand that the US border patrol prioritise detaining them both equally. Yet as long as US visa policy makes it near-impossible for most good-faith Mexicans who can find work in the US to do so, the reality of the border means that thousands of Mexicans just looking to work will risk their lives crossing the border, alongside smugglers and murderers.

The more reasonable policy has to be one that will allow US border patrol to focus on catching the most egregious criminals. That means giving the good-faith immigrants a legal channel to enter the US on a reasonable timeframe, reducing the flow of unlawful border crossings. This is not just my opinion, but that of even a former (Republican) US Ambassador to Mexico (emphasis added):

Tony Garza remembers watching the flow of pedestrian traffic between Brownsville and Matamoros from his father’s filling station just steps from the international bridge. He recalls migrant workers crossing the fairway on the 11th hole of a golf course – northbound in the morning, southbound in the afternoon. And during an annual celebration between the sister cities, no one was asked for their papers at the bridge. People were just expected to go home.

Garza, a Republican who served as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2002 to 2009, said it’s easy to become nostalgic for those times, but he reminds himself that he grew up in a border town of fewer than 50,000 people that has grown into a city of more than 200,000.

The border here is more secure for the massive investment in recent years but feels less safe because the crime has changed, he said. Some of that has to do with transnational criminal organizations in Mexico and some of it is just the crime of a larger city.

Reform, he said, “would allow you to focus your resources on those activities that truly make the border less safe today.”

It’s the view of those sheriffs who places themselves in harm’s way to fight those murderers and smugglers (emphasis added):

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino points out that drug, gun and human smuggling is nothing new to the border. The difference is the attention that the drug-related violence in Mexico has drawn to the region in recent years.

He insists his county, which includes McAllen, is safe. The crime rate is falling, and illegal immigrants account for small numbers in his jail. But asked if the border is “secure,” Trevino doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely not.”

“When you’re busting human trafficking stash houses with 60 to 100 people that are stashed in a two, three-bedroom home for weeks at a time, how can you say you’ve secured the border?” he said.

Trevino’s view, however, is that those people might not be there if they had a legal path to work in the U.S.

Immigration reform is the first thing we have to accomplish before we can say that we have secured the border,” he said.

In Nogales, Sheriff Tony Estrada has a unique perspective on both border security and more comprehensive immigration reform. Born in Nogales, Mexico, Estrada grew up in Nogales, Ariz., after migrating to the U.S. with his parents. He has served as a lawman in the community since 1966.

He blames border security issues not only on the cartels but on the American demand for drugs. Until that wanes, he said, nothing will change. And securing the border, he added, must be a constant, ever-changing effort that blends security and political support – because the effort will never end.

“The drugs are going to keep coming. The people are going to keep coming. The only thing you can do is contain it as much as possible.

I say the border is as safe and secure as it can be, but I think people are asking for us to seal the border, and that’s unrealistic,” he said.

Asked why, he said simply: “That’s the nature of the border.”

Simply put, if you want a secure US-Mexico border, one where law enforcement can focus on rooting out murderers and smugglers, you need open borders. You need a visa regime that lets those looking to feed their families and looking for a better life to enter legally, with a minimum of muss and fuss. When only those who cross the border unlawfully are those who have no good business being in the US, then you can have a secure border.

The image featured in the header of this post depicts the Puente Viejo bridge connecting Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Via the University of Texas at Brownsville.

An Apology, Not a Fine

During the last week in January, frameworks for American immigration policy changes were unveiled by both President Obama and a group of senators from both parties. Both frameworks propose legalizing the status of millions of undocumented immigrants, which would be wonderful for these individuals. However, both involve the payment of a fine as part of the application for legal status. While legalization with a fine is preferable to the status quo, imposing a fine is inappropriate.  Undocumented immigrants deserve an apology with their legalization, not a fine.

These fines of unspecified amounts are apparently meant to punish immigrants for violating the law by either entering the country without permission or staying beyond the period of time permitted by their visas. Mr. Obama’s framework states that “immigrants living here illegally must be held responsible for their actions by passing national security and criminal background checks, paying taxes and a penalty…” The senators’ framework states that their legalization process would involve undocumented immigrants “… settling their debt to society by paying a fine and back taxes…”

But haven’t undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. been punished enough? Many have had to endure the expense and hardship of sneaking across the U.S. border, paying smugglers large amounts for their services, and exposing themselves to harsh terrain, weather, and criminals. Once in the U.S., they have faced limited employment opportunities, often having to work for low wages under abusive employers who ignore labor laws. They have had to live with the constant fear of apprehension, detention, and deportation of either themselves or family members. Some have been separated from family members who have been detained or deported.

Moreover, prohibiting their entry or ability to stay was immoral in the first place. The Open Borders site offers a number of arguments showing that restricting immigration is unjust.

Another argument against restrictions which is germane to American policy can be added.  While the argument on its own does not make a complete case for an open borders immigration policy, it does create a presumption in favor of such a policy in which the burden is on opponents of the policy to prove that it would not be not morally correct.  The argument is founded on the concept that a large portion, probably a majority, of today’s Americans are the beneficiaries of largely open immigration policies for Europeans and Canadians which existed before restrictionist laws were instituted in the 1920s. Until the federal government took control of immigration in the late 19th century, colonies and then the states had some restrictions on the immigration of some groups, such as paupers. However, Mae Ngai of the University of Chicago states in Impossible Subjects: Illegal Immigrants and the Making of Modern America that “until the late nineteenth century in the United States, immigration was encouraged and virtually unfettered.” Even after the federal government assumed control of immigration in the late 19th century, Ms. Ngai notes that “as a practical matter mass immigration from Europe faced few legal impediments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century… Despite the growing list of excludable categories, the Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived in the United States from 1880 to World War I.” Before the 1920s, immigrants did not face the maze of requirements that exist today, such as having family in the U.S., particular skills, or a job offer, nor were there annual limits on the number of immigrants.

How many Americans today are U.S. citizens because their European or Canadian ancestors were able to easily immigrate before the 1920s? Probably a majority. About 63% of the current U.S. population is non-Hispanic white. It is difficult to precisely determine the percentage of this group whose ancestors came before the 1920s, but some estimates can be made. In 1920, before the restrictive immigration laws, about 95 million out of the about 106 million people in the U.S. were counted as “white,” which one can safely assume were the immigrants or descendants of immigrants who benefitted from the open immigration laws. While about 13 million European, Canadian, and Oceanian immigrants have arrived since then, it is safe to conclude that a large majority of today’s European Americans, perhaps about 90%, are the descendants of the 95 million “white” Americans from 1920. European Americans are still the largest demographic group in the U.S. today, and most of them (myself included) are citizens today due to the much more open pre-1920s immigration systems.

There are other fortunate European Americans who owe their citizenship to ancestors who broke the immigration laws of the 1920s or the restrictionist laws that replaced them. Attesting to the fact that many European immigrants have been illegally in the U.S. since the 1920s, the Immigration Policy Center states that about 200 thousand Europeans illegally present in the U.S. received amnesties from 1925 to 1965. One illegal entrant was the grandfather of Frank Bruni. Mr. Bruni, a columnist for the New York Times, writes that his Italian grandfather entered the U.S. illegally in 1929 and that “… for a long time, like the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants at the center of our current political debate, Mauro Bruni wasn’t supposed to be here. He was trespassing in the country he came to love more fiercely than the one he’d left, the country in which his children and their children would lead highly productive lives, pay many millions of dollars in taxes over time, and get to be a small part of the decision, as voters, about how we were going to treat his spiritual descendants, who traveled here as he did: without explicit invitations or official authorization but with such ferocious energy, such enormous hope.” While not advocating for open immigration, Mr. Bruni adds that “more Americans than admit or even know it have roots like mine and are the flowers of illegal immigration… it must inform our understanding of the people whose tomorrows are in the balance.”

The Immigration Policy Center notes that “many people assume that their family immigrated to the U.S. legally, or did it ‘the right way.’ In most cases, this statement does not reflect the fact that the U.S. immigration system was very different when their families arrived, and that their families might not have been allowed to enter had today’s laws been in effect.” Most of today’s Americans should recognize that their citizenship is due to the good fortune that their forebears entered when America was mostly open to immigrants or that when the gates were later mostly closed their predecessors broke the law to get here. The implication is that the imposition of harsh immigration laws by these Americans on today’s immigrants may be unjust, and, in cases where the ancestor broke the law, hypocritical.  Unless there is strong evidence that an open immigration policy is not morally correct (other arguments show that an open borders policy is indeed the only moral policy), current immigrants should be allowed to move as freely (or more freely) into America as did the ancestors of most European Americans.

Almost twenty years ago, after undocumented immigrants from China arrived on a ship named the Golden Venture that ran aground off Queens, New York, A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times wrote in a column entitled “Give Them a Parade”: “Let them in, those heroes from China, those men and women who sought the beautiful land, let them out of detention as swiftly as possible and then treat them with the courtesy, dignity and respect their brave hearts merit — that is what America should do for its own soul’s sake…we can show we remember who we are — a city that was made in large part by immigrants and refugees — by opening ourselves to their spiritual descendants, the Chinese of the Golden Venture.” A parade for the millions of undocumented in the U.S. today might not be feasible. But legalization without fines would be. So would an apology, for unjustly imposing immense suffering on a group that came to America with the same dreams as immigrants of past centuries.

The golden age of immigration and innovation

Tyler Cowen writes, in The Great Stagnation:

The period from 1880 to 1940 brought numerous major technological advances into our lives. The long list of new developments includes electricity, electric lights, powerful motors, automobiles, airplanes, household appliances, the telephone, indoor plumbing, pharmaceuticals, mass production, the typewriter, the tape recorder, the phonograph, and radio, to name just a few, with television coming at the end of that period. The railroad and fast international ships were not completely new, but they expanded rapidly during this period, tying together the world economy. Within a somewhat longer time frame, agriculture saw the introduction of the harvester, the reaper, and the mowing machine, and the development of highly effective fertilizers. A lot of these gains resulted from playing out the idea of advanced machines combined with powerful fossil fuels, a mix that was fundamentally new to human history, and which we have since exploited to a remarkable degree.

Today, in contrast, apart from the seemingly magical internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different from what it was in 1953. We still drive cars, use refrigerators, and turn on the light switch, even if dimmers are more common these days. The wonders portrayed in The Jetsons, the space-age television cartoon from the 1960s, have not come to pass. You don’t have a jet pack. You won’t live forever or visit a Mars colony. Life is better and we have more stuff, but the pace of change has slowed down compared to what people saw two or three generations ago.

It would make my life a lot better to have a teleportation machine. It makes my life only slightly better to have a larger refrigerator that makes ice in cubed or crushed form. We all understand that difference from a personal point of view, yet somehow we are reluctant to apply it to the economy writ large. But that’s the truth behind our crisis today– the low-hanging fruit has been mostly plucked, at least for the time being.

It’s worth noting that the period Cowen designates as the high-water mark of technological change has a very large overlap with the heyday of open borders, which extended roughly from the Civil War to World War I. (Prior to the Civil War, the borders were just as open, but transportation was a bigger barrier.) If you figure that open borders affect the rate of technological change / economic growth with a lag, the overlap is even more impressive.  And it makes sense that it would. After all, new ideas are like yeast: they take time to leaven the loaf of the economy. The automobile was invented in the 1890s and mass produced before World War I, but its economic growth payoff may have peaked in the 1930s and continued for decades after. The airplane was invented in 1903, but only in the past thirty years has long-distance plane travel become commonplace for the middle class. Flush toilets were still a novelty for many people in the 1930s: Steinbeck has a touching scene where two Joad children flush a toilet and are frightened, thinking they’ve broken it. Electrification was far from universal in the 1930s. It seems plausible to say that the technological momentum that carried the US forward through the first half of the 20th century was the legacy of the age of open borders.

From this list of inventors at Wikipedia, it doesn’t stand out that there are particularly a lot of immigrants: Nikola Tesla (and more recently, Sergey Brin) are the most important, and Andrew Carnegie is the outstanding example of an immigrant captain of industry. But the contribution of open borders to booming innovation may be more indirect. Henry Ford’s innovation in manufacturing was, it is too rarely observed, a human capital saving technology change: it allowed unskilled workers to make cars, and for that matter, to buy them, too. The car, actually, is among other things a human capital saving technology: it’s easier to drive a car than to ride a horse. Mass manufacture tended to aim at cheapness, at bringing things within reach of the masses, who in those days were just out in the streets. If you’re an innovator, your incentives to develop cheap vs. expensive innovations are much influenced by the volume of low-income people. If there’s a huge mass market of impoverished day laborers, cheap pays. Nowadays, we associate frugal innovation with India. But US firms could probably do it if they had the right kind of domestic market. Indeed, they could probably do it much better, since the US is a lot more productive, in general, than India.

Tyler Cowen isn’t the only economist to see a big historical slowdown in technological progress: Paul Krugman has been saying so since the 1990s; and there’s Robert Gordon’s well-publicized paper “Is US Economic Growth Over?” which includes the following intriguing suggestion:

Much more controversial is the question of unskilled immigration, which suggests a provocative question. Why was unlimited immigration into the US so successful throughout the 19th century, until it was stopped by restrictive legislation in the 1920s, yet could not be considered as a plausible public policy today? Unlimited immigration before 1913 did not cause mass unemployment. Immigrants were extremely well-informed about the availability of employment in the US economy. They arrived when the economy was strong and postponed their arrival (or returned to their home countries) when the economy was weak.16

This is one of the suggestions under the heading “What to do about it?” and Gordon, who is strongly of the opinion that the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century was the golden age of growth, seems to be suggesting that we might revive the golden age success in technological progress if we revived the immigration policies of the golden age. A very crude model of this is that you’re much likely to find the right man for the job if you can recruit from the whole world than if you can recruit from the, say, 20% of humanity that probably has real access to the US. But as I say, it doesn’t seem that the inventors themselves are particularly likely to be immigrants.

Just what moves the economic frontier forward is a vexed question. But past economic growth has consisted in large measure of making the goods enjoyed by privileged classes cheaper and available to the poor, and also, in destroying the jobs of the moderately-skilled through human-capital-saving machinery that allows the hardly-skilled-at-all to take their jobs. This suggests it might be technologically stultifying to have a society where everyone is middle class, so that there’s no further democratization of luxury to be done, nor any cheap unskilled labor to substitute for skilled middle-class workers by empowering them with the right gadgets. Open borders, if it could be combined with the euthanasia of the territorialist social safety net, might be just what is needed to launch a new golden age of immigration and innovation.