Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Immigration, Free Trade, and the Fruits of Civilization

A comment on free trade and liberal immigration policies.

Obviously not everyone in the U.S. is happy.[citation needed]  We are far from what you might call a good society.  (I mean, not so far, seeing as how Canada is right across the border.)  But we are doing relatively well.  More than most places in the world, our government and our society have created the preconditions for a good life.  A lot of this is path-dependent and contingent, and we don't really know why it works here, much less how to make it work elsewhere.  Or if we do, we lack the...  transmission mechanism to cultivate these institutions around the world.  We try:  Jimmy Carter goes to young democracies and certifies the fairness of their elections.  We provide reduced-cost HIV drugs.  We try to induce countries to develop the institutions that we believe deserve the credit for our own success:  democracy, free markets, rule of law, pluralism, strong civic institutions, free press, freedom of conscience.  But these things don't always take root, and it's not as though the U.S. is always so pure.  Quite often we undermine the institutions to which we pay so much lip service.

Anyway my point is that we have had very limited success "exporting" our contented way of life.  But we are quite successful at "importing" people who seem to thrive here.  Again, I don't want to exaggerate how happy immigrants are.  They are probably not much happier than the rest of us, if at all.  But many of them are quite pleased to be here, which indicates that they enjoy some of the fruits of the civilization that we have stumbled into.  There are millions, maybe billions, of people who are desperate to live in a place where human life isn't cheap, where there are decent jobs, where murders are punished.  Since we can't (or at least haven't) accomplished that there, there is a compelling case to bring them here.

So that's our humanitarian situation.  It seems that by far our most effective means of sharing the benefits of this model we have inherited is to let people in.  Trade is also reasonably effective, if it is conducted within a basically decent framework.  (Our demand for narcotics has ravaged Mexico, but our demand for, say, washing machines and avocados has probably helped a lot of Mexicans escape poverty.)

All of this is why cosmopolitan leftists are relatively unsympathetic to the native-born blue-collar workers who have borne the brunt of our liberal policies.  From a political and distributional perspective, we are essentially telling our low-skill workers:  "I hear you, but it would be racist to use restrictive policies to help you enjoy the fruits of our prosperity.  Would you like maybe some food stamps?  Also, did you know our elite colleges are mostly need-blind?"  And maybe this is morally right, in some sense, but it is an awfully bitter pill to swallow while the elites in the U.S. benefit tremendously from almost every aspect of our globalized, (classical) liberal policies.

Of course one answer is social democracy, but this is not politically realistic or sufficient.  (Or maybe a better way to put it is:  what is politically feasible is insufficient, what is sufficient is politically unfeasible.)  Anyway a thorough-going social democracy really can't afford to let that many people in, unless it is willing to discriminate against the recently-arrived.

Another answer is to "compensate" the "losers" from our policies.  But how?  And why are they deserving of more help than people who were going to be impoverished either way?  Should we prop up $70,000/year jobs in Michigan (which are being destroyed by trade/immigration) but allow people in rural Kentucky to live in squalor?  The whole thing bogs down and is basically guaranteed to be unworkable and unfair.

So we live in a world of extreme global inequality, with billions of people living under terrible conditions, and no obvious way of helping them that doesn't involve extremely distasteful distributional consequences for our own citizens.  This isn't meant to be a counsel of despair, but these are the lines my mind is following as we (maybe) confront the political consequences of our mostly well-intentioned choices.


Blogger Grobstein said...

Compensating the losers isn't any more racist and unfair than compensating the winners, is it? Just being born a low-skill worker in the US isn't any great moral entitlement, no. But neither is being born a high-skill worker / capitalist in the US, I think. There is sort of an asymmetry here, is what I'm getting at. It's fine for US elites to profit tremendously from liberalization, but for non-elites to get a cut would be "racist."

Using protectionist policies to protect US workers from immigration and competition is bad, I think. But that doesn't mean most of the gains should be allowed to go to elites.

I guess if you take all the social-democratic solutions off the table, then what's left is going to be horrible in one way or another.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Zed said...

I tend to believe that most anti-immigrant sentiment in the US is straightforwardly racist and the economic impact of immigration (to the extent that this exists) is almost irrelevant. The most intensely xenophobic demographic is retirees, e.g., elderly Iowans in towns with meatpacking plants w/ heavily Mexican workforce. I am skeptical that this sort of concern has anything really to do with stagnant wages, or would magically go away if low-end wages went up -- right-wing populist parties do benefit from economic slumps but I think those effects are largely attributable to anti-incumbency effects.

I am reluctant to entertain the original thesis arguendo, because it seems to me the same sort of phantom problem as "Why is Uber so expensive compared with taxis?"

10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think the actual empirical evidence of low skilled immigration v. native wages is more complex than this post states and that its argument proceed from a flawed premise. The one sentence summary of the research is that more immigration very slightly depresses the wages of the previously most recent immigrants, and has zero to positive effects for everyone else. So poor white people aren’t poor because of Mexican immigrants or any other kind of immigrants. That’s just scapegoating.
Poor whit e people tend to be poor for 2 reasons. One is globalization. People from all over the world can compete on certain kinds of jobs. The people driving down wages aren’t Mexicans in American but Cambodians in Cambodia. Two is sentiment. Lots of poor white people live in economically unproductive regions and for sentimental reasons don’t want to migrate to productive regions. They are in essence choosing to be the Indians in the rural north rather than the Indians in New York City.
So I think this posts has good sentiments, I do think it proceeds from incomplete engagement with the economic consensus on the facts.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Wages said...

Yeah, but I feel depressed when immigrants come in.

9:01 PM  

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