Tyler Cowen’s not too convincing argument against open borders

Tyler Cowen’s capacious mind prioritizes input over synthesis. He is a compulsive moderate, happiest in the mainstream, always glad to have an excuse not to rock the boat. I respect him tremendously. I am a happy user of his Principles of Economics textbook, and his blog, Marginal Revolution, is in my top five. Better yet is MR University. I haven’t listened to all of it yet, but I listened for hours last Friday to their brief profiles of many development economists, while doing the more mechanical parts of exam grading. I’ve rarely encountered such great content in a course distributed online, and never in economics. It’s amazing that this stuff is free. Three cheers for Cowen and Tabarrok’s two-man crusade to educate the world in economics. Cowen isn’t as dazzlingly lucid as Bryan Caplan as his best, but his judgment is probably more reliable precisely because of his prejudice for moderation. I sympathize with Cowen’s conservatism, his deference to consensus views. But of course, that’s also why I wouldn’t expect him to favor open borders, though he is pro-immigration. Open borders is too radical an idea for him. Still, he’s not one to dismiss a position without argument. Here’s Cowen on “Why open borders won’t work”:

The first issue is to pin down what we mean by open borders.

Land use restrictions are often a more important “”immigration policy” than border control per se.  It is not just how many people getin at what cost, but who can afford to live here.  This includes zoning laws, restrictions on the number of people allowed to live in an apartment, policies toward “squatters,” and rules for the homesteading of public property.  So by “open borders” I mean also liberal land use policies; nominally open borders would matter far less if unskilled laborers couldn’t also afford to live in the U.S.  (Note to anti-immigration types: you are focusing too much on the ease of crossing the border and not enough on the costs of living here.  How much the best immigration restrictions involve land use policy or border policy is a curiously underexplored question.)

Now, it’s true that immigration could be controlled indirectly through land use policies. But I think these questions are more separable than Cowen implies. Even if land use restrictions placed an absolutely binding ceiling on how many people could live in the US, so that even under borders no net immigration were possible, open borders would still make a huge difference. Land values would soar, and many US citizens whose value of living in the US is relatively low would sell out and emigrate. Since some of those who don’t own real estate would, I suppose, find themselves effectively evicted from the country, which is bad, but of course this whole scenario is counter-factual. In practice, whatever limit land use regulations notionally place on the number of people who can live in the US are not even close to binding, and if they threatened to become binding, they could be relaxed. A few metropolitan downtowns might be blocked by law from increasing their populations, and open borders would just drive up rents, but plenty of other places would allow developers to house the new people.

If both the border and land use were free, markets would be very powerful in organizing mass migration.  Consider Hyderabad.  Many of the very poor live either at or right next to garbage dumps.  They live in tents or ramshackle lean-tos.  Their jobs often involve scavenging the garbage dump for potentially useful scraps.  Why do they live there?  Do they like the short commute?  Is it because they love the Indian culture one finds right next to the garbage dump?  No, no, and no.  They live there because they will put up with almost anything to have a chance of survival.

How many of these people would book passage on a slow ship to Baltimore, with the hope of living in a richer garbage dump?  The ship would serve cheap rice and lentils, make them sew garments while sailing, and collect further payment five years after arrival, tagging them with GPS if need be or “monitoring” relatives back home.  Or perhaps the Indian government would pay their way.

How about the nine or so million Haitians — almost all living in extreme poverty — who face a much shorter and cheaper boat trip?

I like Cowen’s imaginative filling out of the picture of what open borders would look like. I think it would turn out something like this. But he hasn’t gotten to the downside yet. After all, probably these people would find a richer garbage dump to live on, and since he hasn’t given any reason to expect natives to be harmed by it, the changes envisioned may be Pareto-improving.

I can imagine the U.S. staying a high-quality capitalist democracy with some percentage of the population living in garbage dumps and shantytowns.  While I think we are underinvesting in shantytowns, the permissible percentage is not very high and almost certainly falls short of fifteen percent.  (Btw, there is much complaining about the Mexicans, but in fact we share a long land border with a relatively wealthy third world country; this is rarely appreciated.)

OK, but given how important the issue is, I’d appreciate a little more theory here. What exactly would prevent the US from being a high-quality capitalist democracy with 20% of the population living in shantytowns? Would the shantytown dwellers stage a revolution? Would they vote for redistributionist politicians? But of course, that assumes they’re given the franchise, and that doesn’t have to happen automatically. Cowen would be the first to agree that the golden age of US-led innovation was the golden age of open borders. Capitalist democracy was thriving then, too. Things have changed a lot since then, and yes, global income gaps are larger and the relative poverty of immigrants might be more severe than in the 19th century. But the world is also more Americanized, democratic, English-speaking, etc., than it was in the 19th century, and anyway, is there any evidence that America was pushing the limits of its absorptive capacity in 1914? With all due respect to Burkean conservatism and the precautionary principle, the humanitarian stakes are very high here. It’s fair to ask for a clearer argument of what exactly Cowen means by “high-quality capitalist democracy,” and how it’s threatened by open borders, and if so, whether “high-quality capitalist democracy” in Cowen’s sense (whatever that is) is really so valuable as to justify shutting out so many tens or hundreds of millions from a great chance at a better life.

That is why I do not favor unlimited immigration.  To the extent that nominally “open borders” would be tolerable, it is because we already impose implicit immigration restrictions through land use policies.

That all said, I will reiterate my view that we could take in many more immigrants than we are doing now, both skilled and unskilled.

Maybe Cowen and I aren’t so far apart. Cowen’s not sure what the upper bound on absorptive capacity is, but it’s certainly higher than what the US permits now. Raise it, see what happens, repeat. I wonder if he could be persuaded to position himself as an open borders skeptic rather than nailing his flag to “open borders won’t work.” Also, I wonder whether he’d endorse my DRITI scheme, which seeks to safeguard natives’ living standards and the integrity of existing institutions while retiring discretionary migration restrictions.

My marching orders

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, wrote:

People say, “The Church ought to give us a lead.” That is true if they mean it in the right way, but false if they mean it in the wrong way. By the Church they ought to mean the whole body of practicing Christians. And when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians- those who happen to have the right talents- should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting “Do as you would be done by” into action.

That’s what I’m trying to do here.

World poverty

If there is a single worthiest cause, a goal most deserving of our best efforts, that goal may be the alleviation of world poverty. That is not the only reason I favor open borders, but it is the biggest. It was to try to do something about world poverty that I enrolled in the MPA/ID program at the Kennedy School of Government ten years ago. I had lived in Prague, far from the poorest place in the world but certainly poorer than the US, and traveled through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Turkey. I felt the guilt of privilege. I had a very high opinion of my own intelligence then, and when I was admitted to the MPA/ID program, I was confident I could be useful, somehow, though I had no idea how. Afterwards, I went to the World Bank, and spent a couple of months, in the spring of 2004, on a project in Malawi.

It may be that by the time I’m an old man, such poverty as I saw in Malawi will have vanished from the world for good. Malawi has improved since I was there (nothing to do with my work), though it’s still one of the poorest countries in the world. At that time, it was chronically on the brink of hunger. There had been, not quite a famine, but a food shortage in 2002. I was there in the spring, and my colleagues would look at the maize fields and say it wasn’t enough, they foresaw hunger coming. A Peace Corps volunteer I met, who had been there during the hunger in 2002, said she had seen someone dead in the road, dead simply of hunger. I was told that people from the cities visiting their relatives in the villages in those days would bring food, but with a layer of clothes on top. If stopped, they would claim they were delivering clothes. Food would be stolen. That’s hearsay, but I saw plenty with my own eyes. There were beggars everywhere. That seems to be a cultural difference, in part, for even well-off Malawians would ask you for stuff. One group of young people we met and spent an evening with had jobs in government ministries, yet afterwards they sent us an e-mail explaining their problems and asking for a few hundred dollars. But most of the beggars really were desperate.

There was a general lack of professionalism. I was working with people from the Malawian statistical agency. We would work 9am to 4pm, at a leisurely pace, which I was always pushing, and then they’d go home and I’d go back to the World Bank offices and keep working. The culture is relaxed. Indeed, the people were as friendly and pleasant as the weather. Americans, by contrast, seem much busier and more stressed. This is only an impression, and I don’t want to give offense, but it seemed to me that Malawians exhibit a good deal less forethought than Americans, or Europeans, or Russians do. It’s not an American thing, nor even a Western thing: in China, I had a very different impression, and I suspect that the Chinese practice forethought as much as Americans do. And doubtless there are exceptions among Malawians; but that did seem to be the pattern. If a Malawian had a full belly– again, take it with a grain of salt, but it was my impression– he was happy. That’s good in a way, but it doesn’t contribute to the long-term planning that grows the economy. Continue reading World poverty

How Does Immigration Impact Wages?

This post was originally published on the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is republished with the permission of the author.

Many Americans are curious about the impact of immigration on the wages of other Americans.  The best research on this focuses on the period between 1990 and 2006, when almost 17 million people immigrated to the U.S. lawfully and a net 12 million came unlawfully.  The first major study is by Borjas and Katz (B&K) and the second is by Ottaviano and Peri (O&P).  O&P borrowed much of B&K’s methodology.  Here are the long run findings:

B&K draw a more negative conclusion than O&P.  The main differences are that O&P assume capital adjusts quicker to increased labor abundance and immigrants are more complementary.  B&K’s paper reflects their assumptions about native-immigrant substitutability.  Since immigrants are more likely to have less than a high school degree and more likely to have a graduate or professional degree than natives, B&K’s model assumes natives in those categories are competing with immigrants for jobs and therefore experience wage declines. 

Both O&P and B&K found that increased immigration has a larger affect on immigrants than natives.  Depending on their level of education, longer settled immigrants experience greater wage declines and smaller wage gains from more recent immigration compared to natives:

Both sets of authors rightly assume that more recent waves of immigrants are most similar to immigrants from older waves, making the two arrival cohorts of immigrants substitutes in the workplace.  Recent papers by Ethan Lewis and Giovanni Peri and Sparber make convincing argument that language ability of recent immigrants makes them more similar and, thus, substitutable with previous waves of immigrants.  Language ability also makes immigrants complements to natives, partly explaining why O&P and B&K found wage increases for so many American workers as a result of immigration.

Here is a comparison of the long run wages effects on immigrants and natives from the O&P and B&K study:

These charts merely explain the results of previous waves of immigration on the American labor market.  If immigration increases in the future these numbers will likely be different but the past is always a useful guide for anticipating the effects of future policy changes.


Borjas, George, “The Labor Demand Curve Is Downward Sloping: Reexamining the Impact of Immigration on the Labor Market.”

Borjas, George and Lawrence Katz, “The Evolution of the Mexican-Born Workforce in the United States.”

Ottaviano, Gianmarco and Giovanni Peri, “Immigration and National Wages: Clarifying the Theory and the Empirics.”

Peri, Giovanni and Chard Sparber, “Task Specialization, Immigration, and Wages.”

Lewis, Ethan, “Immigrant-Native Substitutability: The Role of Language Ability.”  

America Does Not Have A ‘Genius Glut’

This post was originally published on the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is republished with the permission of the author.

On Friday, Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled “America’s Genius Glut,” in which he argued that highly-skilled immigrants make highly skilled Americans poorer. 

A common way for highly-skilled immigrants to enter the United States is on the H-1B temporary worker visa. 58 percent of workers who received their H-1B in 2011 had either a masters, professional, or doctorate degree. The unemployment rate for all workers in America with a college degree or greater in January 2013 is 3.7 percent, lower than the 4 percent average unemployment rate for that educational cohort in 2012. That unemployment rate is also the lowest of all the educational cohorts recorded. 

Just over half of all H-1B workers are employed in the computer industry. There is a 3.9 percent unemployment rate for computer and mathematical occupations in January 2013, and an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent for all professional and related occupations. For selected computer-related occupations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages,” real wage growth from 2001 to 2011 has been fairly steady:   


 11 percent of H-1B visas go to engineers and architects but wage growth in those occupations has been fairly steady too:


Mr. Eisenbrey concludes that those rising incomes would rise faster if there were fewer highly-skilled immigrants. 

The unemployment rates for engineers and computer professionals are low but not as low as they used to be. There are a whole host of factors explaining that, but highly-skilled immigration is not likely to be one.  

Mr. Eisenbrey also claims that American firms hire H-1B visa workers because they are paid lower wages. Complying with certain regulations prior to hiring an H-1B can cost a firm $10,000, filing and other fees can cost additional thousands of dollars, and legal fees can be steep. The cost of hiring H-1Bs is high.

Contradicting Mr. Eisenbrey’s story about H-1Bs lowering American wages, IT workers on H-1Bs actually earn more than similarly skilled Americans. According to survey data, H-1B workers are more willing to work long hours and relocate to a job, making them more productive and raising their wages. Additionally, H-1B engineers are paid $5,000 more a year than American born engineers. If the goal of employers was to hire cheaper workers through the H-1B visa, they’re going about it in an odd way. The high regulatory costs and wages of employing H-1B workers incentivizes firms to hire foreign workers when they are expanding and can’t find American workers fast enough.  

Mr. Eisenbrey’s doesn’t touch on other characteristics of highly-skilled immigrants such as their high rates of entrepreneurship, inventiveness, or skill complementarity. If the New York Times chooses not to run one of my letters to the editor about those topics, I will be writing about them in the upcoming weeks.