Sunday, April 30, 2017


What's the strongest argument against immigration? A commenter on my last post asked this and it's a good question.

We should restrict immigration to protect the American* worker? Does that mean we should also restrict invention to protect the American worker? Of course not - in neither case is it reasonable to prevent society at large from advancing to protect a small number whose jobs have been replaced by more efficient means of production. The overall gain is even more than enough to compensate the minority who has suffered from progress - the economy is not a zero-sum game.

We should restrict immigration to protect the American taxpayer? The fact this argument has any traction is the number one biggest downside to the welfare state. Victimless "crimes" often indirectly victimize taxpayers when the welfare state is on the hook for individuals' mistakes, and this provides much too easy of a justification to regulate individual choice, especially choices that are unpopular. Smoking causes cancer, and medicare pays for cancer treatment, so let's ban smoking. Immigrants might want to use social services, so don't let them in. Who cares where these things rank on the list of government expenditures, it provides an argument for someone who wants one. There are obvious ways around this dilemma (e.g. don't allow immigrants access to government benefits) so I don't think this is a strong argument at all.

Immigrants might be criminals and terrorists so we shouldn't let them in? I don't think anyone is arguing for open borders for al Qaeda, and existing checks already ensure that crime rates among immigrants are lower than the native population. Want more assurance? Strengthen the checks or conditions or something then. Next...

Immigrants might take over politics and vote out cherished American freedoms? I also care deeply about these cherished American freedoms and am extremely concerned by their erosion under post-911 security paranoia. But I have confidence in the U.S. constitution to withstand attacks on the rights that are clearly laid out in it** in the unbelievably unlikely scenario that hundreds of millions of immigrants decide to move to a country built on core values they disagree with. I am far more concerned with the betrayal of American values that preventing immigrants from pursuing their American dreams entails.

Immigrants will fundamentally change American culture? That might be true, and this is what I consider the strongest argument against immigration. I still don't think it's a very strong argument, but the strongest. (By the way, it's annoyingly and obtusely dismissive of Bryan for this "culture matters" argument to leave him speechless. It's not only common but the overwhelmingly dominant situation that a fact is known without all of its implications being realized. It's completely understandable to think about abstract aspects of immigration and conclude that it should be unrestricted for economic reasons, and then to finally realize that this policy would have other side-effects as well, one of which is changing culture, and to change your mind about immigration on those grounds. It perhaps means your original position wasn't too thoroughly considered, but let's face it, most people's opinions about most issues aren't very thoroughly considered. If you update your opinions only when new information arrives and you instantaneously consider all possible implications of this new information, good on you, but the rest of us are human.)

So why is this the strongest argument for immigration and why am I still not persuaded by it?

Thoroughly going into this would take me down a rabbit hole of utilitarian philosophy and I would emerge still wishy washy, so let's just start from the premise (that most would not find controversial in the first place) that people find value from living in communities that are compatible with their preferences and values. So of course people wouldn't want their towns overrun by foreigners with customs they can't relate to. I can empathize with that - I won't even give you a sermon about the value in learning from other cultures and how we're stronger together and how the only moral thing to do is to welcome those who are less fortunate than you into your community. I honestly think the Amish are heroes for forming exactly the community they want, in the midst of a hostile external world, without attempting to force anyone else to conform to their ideals. Scandinavia obviously derives benefits from being very homogeneous, and more power to them (although I would never move there myself.) It would be convenient not to believe in the utility of cohesive communities, but denying the truth would only make me feel less cognitive dissonance at the expense of my credibility.***

But that single legitimate tick in the con column of the immigration pro-con list is completely dominated by the ticks in the pro column. America and Australia are already strongly multi-cultural, but every diverse type of community can be found - you aren't forced to interact if you don't want to. There are Chinatowns you could mistake for China, neighborhoods where you can't avoid being woken up by the Muslim calls to prayer on those godawful tinny loudspeakers placed every few blocks, and suburbs where every house is occupied by WASPs. You can form your own reclusive Amish community if you want, and you don't have to hold the rest of the world hostage with your anti-immigration policies to do so. And if you can't find enough like-minded people to choose to exclude foreigners in your sub-community, surely you don't think your personal preference for homogeneity should trump everyone else's preferences to integrate?

What I think people are really afraid of when they say they don't want their culture to be overrun by foreigners is that they don't want to lose their special status as the majority (race/religion/whatever). I get that, but stating it that way makes it obvious how indefensible it is. The country was built on protecting minority groups from majority tyranny, so as long as you don't erode that foundation too successfully you'll be fine when/if the tables turn.


* I'm writing this about the U.S. specifically because I'm American but it applies equally to Australia (I am completely sure) and most of the rest of the world (I am less sure but still very confident) as well.

** Privacy is unfortunately not one of them, hence the post-911 security paranoia.

*** Ahem, libertarian climate change deniers, please take note...

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

1,470 economists on immigration

From the Open Letter from 1,470 Economists on Immigration, published last week:
We view the benefits of immigration as myriad: 
• Immigration brings entrepreneurs who start new businesses that hire American workers. 
• Immigration brings young workers who help offset the large-scale retirement of baby boomers. 
• Immigration brings diverse skill sets that keep our workforce flexible, help companies grow, and increase the productivity of American workers. 
• Immigrants are far more likely to work in innovative, job-creating fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math that create life-improving products and drive economic growth.
This is one political letter I had absolutely zero hesitations about signing.

On the heels of Trump's action against the H1-B visa program, and Turnbull's (not to be outdone) actions against the similar Australian 457 visa program, this is all the more important.

This simultaneity of anti-immigrant sentiment cropping up around the world puts a sheen of surreal hilarity on the whole issue, though. H1-B made it easier for Matt's bosses to work in California, and 457 made it easier for Matt and me to work in Australia, yet both sides somehow think that limiting immigration gives them the best of both worlds just because the other side of the mutually-beneficial trade isn't salient.*

This is also why I crack up every time I buy "Australian grown!" produce.


* Of course there are plenty of immigrants coming from places no one wants to go, but gains from trade arise in other ways than strict body swapping (not to mention the long list of other reasons to support freer immigration).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

I worry this is also happening to Australia

Cute study finding that emigrants from Scandinavia in the latter half of the 19th century were disproportionately individualistic, thus (speculatively) leaving behind a more homogeneous population amenable to Scandinavian-style social democracy.

I worry this will also happen in Australia. There are a multitude of factors preventing Australia from being as innovative as the U.S., from tax laws and regulations that discourage venture capital, startups, and small businesses more generally, to a culture that is a bit more skeptical than celebratory of the crazy people who might actually want to do a startup. But not least on this list is brain drain, in which the best university students are encouraged to go to the U.S. for graduate school and innovative engineers move to Silicon Valley if at all possible.

Anecdotes prove nothing but are memorable, so: In an ironic demonstration of this pattern, my boyfriend Matt is an American aerospace engineer who is now working for his fourth Silicon Valley startup but who had the bad luck of getting attached to someone in a much more global job market who dragged him to Brisbane. He continues to work remotely for these firms* because there are only half a dozen locations in the world where he could work for the type of company he wants to work for (he is admittedly very picky)**. But his boss at Planet was an Australian who defected to the U.S. to work in aerospace but still won the 2014 "Advance Global Australian of the Year" award. Matt left that company a year ago and now has yet another Australian boss based in California at Swift Navigation.

Unfortunately, every sensible city in the world wants to promote innovation and entrepreneurialism in the hopes of becoming Silicon Valley 2.0, and they haven't yet succeeded, so I certainly don't have the answer either. I would think that medicare and a stronger welfare system would encourage startups in Australia (because leaving your regular job is comparatively low risk) but that's obviously not enough. It's great that Australia is so open to immigrants, so hopefully that will prevent Scandinavian homogenization. In the meantime, the U.S. would be well-advised to guard this comparative advantage by embracing the immigrants who want to come put their noncomplacent energy and talent to work.

* Note to students: study STEM so you will also have a skill set that gives you this kind of leverage.

** Anyone in Denver/Boulder hiring behavioral economists? :)