On Calling a Pie a Pie

Two quick responses to Reihan’s latest. First:

It is by no means obvious to me that it is morally sound for us to treat “criminals and deadbeats” who’ve lived in the United States from, say, the age of 2-3 days differently from “criminals and deadbeats” who were born on American soil. Tim seems to believe that there is an obvious bright line between immigrants who make positive contributions to our economy and those who do not.

To be clear, I don’t believe this at all. Rather, my point is a more narrow one: there are a lot of immigrants (like Vargas) we can easily tell are likely to be on the positive side of the line. For these immigrants—strong English speakers with marketable skills and no criminal record, say—the pie is clearly not fixed. The American economy could easily absorb millions of them.

And yet we do a poor job of admitting even these obviously meritorious applicants. Look at the arbitrary cap on H1-B visas, for example. This suggests to me that our current immigration system is driven by irrational anti-foreigner bias rather than plausible concerns like crime, welfare, assimilation, or the like.

My point isn’t to endorse immigration restrictions based on these particular criteria. For example, I’m not worried about assimilation and would rather not see English fluency as a criteria for entry. But if that’s what you’re worried about, then you should have no objection to admitting people who speak fluent English, which isn’t hard to test.

Reihan again:

So what we are dealing with is a difference of opinion regarding which kinds of exclusion are more morally problematic. Is it better to protect the interests of would-be beneficiaries of the DREAM Act or potential migrants from HIPCs? The inevitable answer — why can’t we do both? — leads us back to the fixed pie question. By accepting that there should be any form of immigration restriction at all, one is already conceding the point that the pie, a constructed, political pie determined through a process of legislative deliberation, is and ought to be fixed.

This is mixing apples and oranges. The “fixed pie” question I care about is the empirical economic question: does the US economy have a maximum “capacity” beyond which admitting more immigrants will cause net harms to those of us already here? My answer to this question (call it “economic fixed-pieism”) is “no,” and I don’t think Reihan disagrees with me.

Reihan seems to be making a different claim, that we might call political fixed-pieism. That is, he thinks passing the DREAM Act will consume political capital that could otherwise have been deployed to expanding immigration from Senegal or Malaysia. This might be an accurate description of the political constraints facing Congress at the moment. But if so, it’s crucial to remember that political fixed-pieism is a consequence of the public’s erroneous economic fixed-pieism. And so in addition to debating how best to spend the limited political capital immigration reformers have right now, we should also be thinking about ways to change the public’s fallacious beliefs about immigrants over the long run so that the public becomes more supportive of immigration liberalization in general.

My view is that re-framing the immigration debate to focus on injustices to individual immigrants (like Vargas) is going to be more effective than dry economics lectures about gains to trade. But I’m happy to see more of both. Either way, it’s important that those of us who know economic fixed-pieism is false (which again, I think includes Reihan) say so.

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One Response to On Calling a Pie a Pie

  1. Mercer says:

    “re-framing the immigration debate to focus on injustices to individual immigrants (like Vargas) is going to be more effective”

    You think you can focus on Vargas and ignore the millions of low skilled immigrants. There is an African immigrant in New York who is getting in the way of your plans and is receiving far more media attention then Vargas will ever get:

    “her credibility as a witness crumbled — she had lied about her immigration, about being gang raped in Guinea, about her experiences in her homeland and about her finances, according to two law enforcement officials. She had been linked to people suspected of crimes. ”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/02/nyregion/one-revelation-after-another-undercut-strauss-kahn-accusers-credibility.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

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