One Nation, Inhospitable?Round Two -- Selected Reader Responses
Posted November 20, 1996
From the Society conference of Post & Riposte:
From: Charles Atkinson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Topic: One Nation, Inhospitable?
Date: Wednesday, November 06, 1996 05:08 PM
I expect that there will be a lot of comments which fall into the category of what Borjas would call "externalities," of which he is so dismissive in his article.
Externalities, as I understand them, are benefits or encumbrances an economic entity delivers to or imposes on the marketplace without being compensated or charged. I believe Borjas is describing a positive externality when he notes that a good supply of unskilled workers (actually, often, skilled workers doing unskilled work) allows the large majority of American workers to more fully focus on the skilled side of their jobs. Other positive externalities may include spice to our food, literature, and so on.
It surprises me that Borjas, as an economist, does not seem to like analyzing externalities, because the concept is a useful one. For example, it is already rationalizing the way we issue permits to polluting industries: these industries impose an external cost on the environment, internalized by the price of the pollution permit. While similar success is unlikely in the immigration arena (although I'm tempted to suggest auctioning transferable immigration permits to industries and Nativists alike), the approach might at least provide a good metaphor for looking at the issues, and making a full accounting of costs and benefits.
Consider some costs not normally included in the social-services burden (negative externalities): the enormous management distraction imposed on many schools as they attempt to educate children who don't speak English; the need to hire government workers conversant in immigrant languages; the loss of control over some local governments which many natives sense.
One way economists studying pollution costs have approached similar intangibles has been to study real-estate prices, on the very valid theory that people vote on the cost or value of externalities with their feet. We would simply statistically adjust changes in the prices of real estate for a variety of factors known to influence those prices, including changes in the local economy, native demographics, pollution level -- and immigrant composition. If increasing numbers of immigrants of one type were associated with a rise in price, we would say they had a predominantly positive set of externalities; if their presence caused prices to fall, we would say they represented a net negative externality to their new neighbors. Hopefully, our observations would be detailed enough to discern the different effects of different cohorts. But even if they were not, the study could shed some light on the dimensions of the social cost to places like California. Incidentally, if this smacks of "there goes the neighborhood" thinking to some people, I would remind everyone that there cannot possibly be a "Black problem" in the sense that there might be an "immigrant problem": African-Americans are native Americans and are entitled by civil right to live wherever they please -- an assumption we are not making for prospective immigrants.
I am not, however, hopeful that this study or one like it will ever be done in the United States. There is simply too strong a notion in this country that the marketplace should not be allowed to value some things, including the presence of various groups of people from other countries. Although we have come a long way in understanding that government manipulations of most markets is inherently bad (no one suggests price freezes anymore as an option for controlling inflation), the same progress has not extended to most social-policy thinking. What a shame.
From: Martin Burch (email@example.com)
. . . This month's discussion on immigration is so much academic pabulum, ignoring the root cause of the problem, which is overpopulation, and the resultant overcrowding.
From: Greg Norton (firstname.lastname@example.org)
. . . I fear, and resent, foreign nationals who camp in our country without ever making the psychological commitment to become Americans (and forsake their home country) yet want to take full advantage of benefits offered citizens. I see them as invaders, not immigrants.
From: Charles Atkinson (email@example.com)
Like you, Greg, it's tough for me to make general statements about immigrants/resident aliens. I know too many types. Even a fairly bland statement, like, "They should all want to become Americans" would catch several terrific friends I have who are making unambiguously positive contributions here without intending to give up their foreign citizenship -- for now, anyway. These include scientists, professors, businessmen and other professionals. They don't make up a large percentage of the immigrant waves, but boy are they sensitive to the tone of the immigration debate. We would be a lot poorer if they left, so I hope we can take it as a given that we want them to stay, and feel welcome.
Why are these long-term expatriates so sensitive to the immigration issue? Because they view our use of illegal immigrants as abusive, and they don't want to be abused themselves. Many of us are happy to have illegals work here for years at subsistence wages, then we ship them off when they become inconvenient. The expats think, reasonably, that if a person or group makes an enormous contribution to a country over time, they should be permitted a share in the long-term wealth they produce, regardless of whether they signed on for a full tour the moment they came aboard.
The expats are also suspicious of talk about psychological commitment. They have plenty of professional commitment, are productive because of it, and think that should be enough. They especially don't want to have to participate in the somewhat humiliating breast-beating that so many political refugees seem to feel they must do.
It will be tricky to convince these expat professionals that we aren't coming after them when we write a new immigration code. Even Borjas, himself an immigrant, has been pilloried by many immigrant intellectuals who accuse him of forgetting his roots. But I think Borjas is on the right path, by distinguishing between different cohorts (or "waves" if you will), then nailing down the numbers with painstaking research. We just have to stay within that research when proposing a new immigration code (which Borjas, as far as I know, has not yet done).
From: Chipmunk (firstname.lastname@example.org)
My regards to the participants in the forum. By reading your positions and responses I have learned more about immigration than in all my previous exposure to the subject from TV and print. I address myself mainly to Mr. Beatty's response.
True, Asian-Americans are overachievers, but Mr. Brimelow was addressing immigration in general, which has been composed more and more by low-skill workers. As far as the hugely successful Mr. Soros is concerned, it is no more valid to justify immigration on the grounds of one successful example than to undermine it with one unsuccessful example. Both are equally unfair. The fact that Mr. Soros's success cancels out an awful lot of welfare does not address the net benefit or harm of immigration on the economy as a whole. That is the main point. Exceptions do not disprove the rule.
The question of the identity of this country should not be decided over trivialities like a few extra good movies or novels. As far as the richness of our food (a serious topic indeed), if there is a market for Chinese food could not an American cook make it from a recipe, or do we need a Chinese person to cook it? Only Chinese people can cook Chinese food? And who, other than Mr. Beatty, would seriously consider something like the "drama of our skylines" when pondering the fate of the culture of the most powerful nation on earth?
As for our language being sparer, to judge by Mr. Beatty's response that would be an improvement. Poetry should be used to reveal hidden truths that ordinary language cannot, not to obscure facts or the lack of them.
. . . .
One force now in place to help an immigrant keep his memories alive stems from the Ford Foundation and the Department of Commerce. It is the elite effort to forge a 'Hispanic Ethnic Identity'. You see, in order to know how much aid to give to minorities they have to be counted, and in order to be counted they have to be identified. It is arguable that Latin-American immigrants are mainly of color and discriminated against, but given their many nationalities and racial designations a new way was needed to identify and count them, and for this purpose came about the Hispanic identifier. But using the term Hispanic for heuristic purposes was not enough. It seems that in order for Latin Americans to have any hope for a decent future in this country it has been deemed necessary by the 'Chosen' that they should be proclaimed of one ethnic group. But if it is essential for a fifth generation Spanish-Basque American, a Spanish-Catalan, a Black Cuban, a New Yorican, a German-Argentinian, and a Bolivian Indian to declare themselves of one ethnic identity how can that not be so for Irish and Black New Yorkers?
. . . .
Mr. Brimelow, here in New York I live with peoples of many national origins and I have found them to be decent people, as expected. Is there not a core in our culture and beliefs that calls out to all people of decent character so that cultural and ethnic trappings like food and looks can recede into the background once we have set reasonably moderate immigration levels and have headed off those forces at home that are intent on eroding our moral and national fiber? Your answer so far has been no, but I would like you to think about it a little longer.
-- David Lopez-Zayas
E-mail from: "Carlos A. Benito" <email@example.com>
According to George Borjas:
"The large-scale migration of less-skilled workers has done harm to the economic opportunities of less-skilled natives. Immigration may account for perhaps a third of the recent decline in the relative wages of less-educated native workers."
This statement is based on the assumption that the USA has a closed economy. What George ignores is that if we don't allow Asians or Mexicans to migrate into the USA they will arrive here in the form of inexpensive soaps, CDs, computers, textiles, and so on, imported from abroad. These imports compete with our production of tradeable goods, and the wage rate of American workers goes down relative to the interest of capital. This is the factor-equalization theorem of international trade.
Shall we close the American economy? NO! We all gain from trade, and we can compensate losers within our country: easier access to education, subsidies for health care, and other services for the less-skilled natives workers.
Forum Overview Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty
Round One -- Posted November 6, 1996
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.