This week’s New York Times Magazine attempts to introduce real economic analysis into the immigration debate (available free until Sunday, email me after that). The article is a lovely introduction to the basic theory, however the main focus is the split between George Borjas of the Kennedy School and David Card of Berkeley, which is threatening to turn ugly.* It’s a reminder that personal political biases are pervasive.
The author, Roger Lowenstein, notes, “You can find economists to substantiate the position of either chamber, but the consensus of most is that, on balance, immigration is good for the country.” The interesting thing about the debate within labor economics is the lack of distance between the camps. Everybody agrees on the theory, and the signs on the different economic analyses are all the same. As Lowenstein says, “The debate among economists is whether low-income workers are hurt a lot or just a little.” How economists come down on that question depends on their political and economic biases. Lowenstein seems to impugn Borjas the most for his anti-immigration bias, but I think Lowenstein’s own bias is towards free-market economics, as is David Card’s. Most economists are biased towards free markets (which I think is a pretty good bias to start from), but this leads them to downplay the social significance of immigration’s impact on low-income workers.
As a Native American, my own bias is strong. You might even say that I get rather pissy when I hear anti-immigration rhetoric. What, you mean the borders are closed now?** I have no love for an American culture that doesn’t welcome the striving and the downtrodden alike.
In the end the debate over immigration is a distraction from the real issue: how are we treating low-income workers in our country? Are we ensuring that they have a real opportunity to better their situation? Are we ensuring that their children have the ability move up in the world? If we address inequality of opportunity in this country—I might suggest through universal health care and better funding for education—then immigration becomes a much less important issue. The American economy has an astonishing ability to absorb immigrants, and, in my ever humble opinion, a moral imperative to do so.
*Is it only me that loves to see two labor economists have at it?
**See also the Op-Ed Contributor from July 9, on the Hispanic history of America and the “poetic justice that now the Hispanic world should return.”