Immigration, continued

Dean Baker comments on my recent post:

On the moral side, abstractly I would like to see everyone in the world treated equally, but that is not going to happen. Differences across countries are huge and I’m afraid that is not going to change. I have pushed lots of things that would allow for rapid improvements in living standards for people in the developing world (let’s end patent and copyright protections — huge dividends there), but i don’t think that people in Congo will on average enjoy the same living standards as people in the U.S. anytime soon.

Does that bother? Yes it does, but it also bothers me that people from privileged backgrounds in the U.S. will enjoy hugely better living standards than people from middle class and poor backgrounds in the U.S. This is true even ignoring the large inheritances than they stand to receive.


[…]I don’t see anywhere to equalize these enormous differences in opportunity by class. That bothers me morally too. I don’t have time to decide which one I find more offensive because it really doesn’t matter. The one thing I will say is that I see absolutely zero morality in improving the lot of the world’s poor at the expense of the less advantaged in the U.S. If someone can’t think of a way to help the world’s poor that either does not benefit everyone or comes at the expense of the most advantaged in the rich countries, then I suggest that they do more thinking

I completely agree that any improving international poverty at the expense of the American poor is immoral. As I’ve previously argued, I disagree that open, unskilled immigration disadvantages our own marginalized workers, but this is an argument that seems to be largely exhausted.

Though, I do wonder, by the logic that a diminishing workforce acts as a redistribution of income, of sorts, how one could not support the emigration of mass labor from Latin America to the United States. Indeed, I believe this would have a far more profound effect in labor-intensive countries than the rich, low-fertility ones concerned. Furthermore, I think if the United States moved towards open borders, the very threat of emigration would force the rich and political classes in Third World countries to better the lives of their own poor, so that they don’t run away to America.

There’s something about the message and rhetoric of “skilled” immigration today that bothers me. We were always an immigrant’s nation, but lately the intense emphasis on PhDs from India has distorted at least what I imagined to be America. By this I mean, in past eras we were the country that the underprivileged and oppressed in Europe could turn to for a better life (an “Alt Europe“, as Noah Smith calls it). Children of illiterates became corporate titans, potato farmers became professors – and somewhere, sometime, people concocted the mad idea of the “American Dream”.

I don’t want to wax eloquent  but I think there’s been a bad distortion of America as a center for the “best and brilliant”. Ellis Island, uncomfortable as it was, used to be a beacon that anyone who wanted to work hard had a place in this country.

Dean and I completely agree that charity to the world’s poor shouldn’t come from our own. There used to be a time when the vast inequality and grinding poverty didn’t inhibit social progress in the way it does today. I don’t think it’s fair to become a place for doctors and engineers while excluding farmhands because our public education system is broken.

Let’s fix tax. Let’s stop talking about myopic spending cuts and work on the systematic flaws of mired economic mobility. By restricting immigration of any kind, we’re only treating the symptom of a diseased society, not the agent itself. A complex of similarly reductionist policies might well offer temporary relief for the meat-packer or truck driver, but in the long-run it’s only a stopgap to a harmful restructuring of our economy.

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