A perennial assertion of open borders skeptics is that they are the voice of reason and empirics in the immigration debate, while open borders advocates are soft-headed people thinking with their hearts instead of their brains. So this humble blogger spent a Friday lunch hour in Washington, D.C. attending a Cato Institute panel titled What Economists Think About Immigration. Incidentally, the panel was broadcast on C-SPAN, and thanks to them, you can also view the full panel online.
Of the four people on stage, only one was a new face to me:
- Alex Nowrasteh (moderator of the panel, Cato Institute researcher, and an Open Borders blogger)
- Madeline Zavodny (panelist, chair of the Agnes Scott College economics department)
- Ethan Lewis (panelist, associate professor of economics at Dartmouth, and my former econometrics professor)
- Michael Clemens (panelist, Center for Global Development researcher, and the man who single-handedly changed the way I think about immigration)
Zavogny presented first, talking about high-skilled immigrants to the US and how they contribute economically to the US. I think even open borders skeptics tend to favour high-skilled immigration. Those who don’t are either unmoored from reality, or openly admit that they don’t have a hard empirical reason for their belief that high-skilled immigrants should be banned from taking good jobs. So I won’t cover Zavogny’s presentation in depth.
Clemens presented third, but similar to Zavogny, I don’t think he covered much terribly new ground in the debate (at least, that would be new to someone already familiar with the academic debate on immigration’s empirical impacts). Clemens presented a version of his double world GDP lecture, covering the usual ground: immense gains to migrants, doubling world GDP, banning “brain drain” dehumanises immigrants and doesn’t help anyone, and ending restrictions on freedom of movement may seem crazy, but crazier things have happened (see: the abolition of slavery).
Lewis, on the other hand, presented some really compelling and new material. To me, one of the new things was how strongly he feels about immigration! I suppose econometrics does not lend itself to very passionate lectures, but although I knew he studied immigration while I was a student of his, I had no inkling of the depth of his support for reducing immigration restrictions. (Full disclosure: I was also a student of his wife, Elizabeth Cascio, who supervised my senior seminar and final economics paper.) Even more new and exciting to me: Lewis presented some of his latest work, which finds that immigration has boosted the income of Americans across the board — even low-income Americans.
Perhaps the most commonly-cited harm of immigration is its impact on the wages and employment of natives. Immigration supposedly reduces wages across the board. This is a complete myth, which no economist would sign on to (at least, none that I’ve read, including prominent skeptics). There is concern among a few economists that immigration harms income and employment for low-earning natives. However, few find this result, and most that do have been subject to various criticisms: the impact they find is extremely small (the most popular estimate here would suggest that 20 years of immigration to the US resulted in a cumulative 3% decline in low-earning natives’ wages); it’s sensitive to the removal of a few data points; it doesn’t account for how capital investments react to the influx of labour; it relies on data from a period when other things driving reduction in wages, such as the decline of trade unions, could be confounding the results.
Lewis presents a slide (at roughly the 25:30 mark in the C-SPAN recording) suggesting that not only has immigration increased the wages of high-skilled natives, as you would expect — it has also increased the wages of low-skilled natives. Why does the wage data suggest this? What plausible mechanisms are there? Lewis suggests two major things:
- Changes in the use of capital — firms respond to an influx of immigrants by investing less in capital than they had planned, creating jobs for low-skilled natives as well as immigrants and ameliorating the potential negative wage impacts for low-skilled natives
- Immigrants compete in a different labour market than natives — immigrants whose English fluency is limited or non-existent will compete among one another for jobs, and natives emerge unscathed thanks to their English skills
Lewis presents the arguments for these mechanisms quite well, so I’d urge you to watch his talk yourself. In particular, he has a number of interesting charts backing all these points up. My understanding is he has a forthcoming paper that will fully flesh out the ideas in his presentation. My take is this is just one data point, but if you’re analytically evaluating the likely outcomes of more immigration, seeing this ought to make you revise upward your assessment of the probability that immigration helps or doesn’t harm natives. And given the existing literature, that assessment should already have been assigned a fairly high probability in the first place — certainly not the 0% chance that so often seems to be assumed in immigration debates.
Lewis wraps up his talk by urging the audience to think beyond the current policy debate in Washington, which focuses today primarily on whether to regularise the 11 million unauthorised immigrants currently living in the US. He points out that it makes absolutely no sense to ban people from migrating in the first place, and given the immense gains to the migrants, even if you don’t believe his estimates, you should be happy to enforce a tax or fee on them that captures some of those gains, to ensure all natives benefit from immigration.
Economists overwhelmingly reject popular myths that immigrants are economic harms. Yet these myths refuse to die. We no longer believe that Jews drink the blood of babies, that Chinese eat rats, or that Irish are just drunk beggars. Why do we believe that people born on the other side of an invisible line called the national border are an incredible harm to us, while people born on the other side of an invisible line demarcating a county or province are perfectly guiltless? Both types of people are as likely to “steal” our jobs and drive down our wages. But one person we call a criminal for crossing that invisible line; the other, we call a good citizen.
I can’t echo my former professor’s words enough. We need to think beyond today’s debates about immigration. The fact is, today’s debates rely on ignorant assumptions about immigration. They assume immigrants are “job thieves”. Having a debate on these terms is like arguing whether we should let more Jews in or hold back lest they start drinking our children’s blood or poisoning our wells. We’re starting from premises so utterly wrong that there’s no point having the debate.
Of course the US should have a process for legalising people who’ve lived in the US for a long period of time. If they ever did any harm by crossing an invisible line 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, as long as they aren’t committing any crimes and harming anyone today, we should live and let live. This is so basic that as Lewis says, we need to think bigger. We need to reject the myths of the past, and adopt a reality-based immigration policy — one that embraces all human beings as people with dreams and goals and potential and contributions that will enrich us all and build our communities.