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.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

3 thoughts on “The golden age of immigration and innovation”

  1. But it’s a very different kind of immigration than in the 19th century: much more pre-assimilated, much less of the kind of unskilled masses we were attracting then, and obviously far more government regulated. I think Vipul’s numbers, though worth noting, create a somewhat false impression, because there are a lot of people in the world today, in a way that there were not in 1910, who are practically American before they come, speaking English fluently, knowing American culture, accustomed to living standards similar to America’s, etc. For that reason, we’re more insular now than we were in 1914.

    You’d need a richer theory to judge whether there’s a link between immigration and innovation of this kind, to know what to look for. I’m working on it…

    By the way, the Great Stagnation is a retrospective judgment, going all the way back to the 1970s. I think Cowen is fairly optimistic about the future and thinks growth may accelerate again soon. So we could be living in the lag… But I don’t want to make any more guesses about possible causal links, the post is speculative enough.

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