Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, July 21, 2004
In any event, in the latest issue, there are two pieces on immigration - one explicitly about it, and one implicitly. The first, about incipient and accelerating development of a Mexican underclass, is by the irrepressible Heather MacDonald, scourge of that same class. The second, about the economic success of immigrant-dominated Queens and the significance thereof, is by Stephen Malaga, the resident expert on urban development issues. It is a testament to City Journal as a magazine that it publishes, in the same issue, a piece that will be cheered by immigration restrictionists (and has - see here and here) and a piece that will be cheered by immigration enthusiasts.

Where do I stand on this question? Well, frankly, immigration is not my issue. But I'm not sure the two perspectives entirely contradict one another. Rather, I suspect - again, this is not my issue - that immigration is one of those questions - like environmentalism, like income inequality, like civil liberties and crime - where there are real trade-offs, gains and losses to either side that are difficult to weigh with the same scale. But some clarification of terms and illustration of geographic and class differences may be useful nonetheless.

One of the most important distinctions that is not made with respect to immigration - and whether immigration is a net benefit - is: a net benefit to whom? To immigrants? To the communities that receive the immigrants? To the employers of the immigrants? To the American citizenry as a whole? To "America" conceived as something other than or beyond the sum of the parochial interests of individual American citizens? Immigration enthusiasts are particularly loose in their language on this point, where immigration restrictionists tend to be more precise: when they say immigration is a net negative, they mean either a net negative to the communities that receive the immigrants or to the sum of the interests of all American citizens.

I am most skeptical of the macro-economic arguments against immigration, and most sympathetic to arguments about negative externalities. The social/cultural arguments are complex; some I have sympathy with and some I am skeptical of. Why am I skeptical of the macro-economic arguments? I feel like many of them are one-handed. There is no question that immigration, by providing additional labor competition, particularly at the lower end of the income scale, reduces labor bargaining power and therefore increases income inequality. But by the same token and for the same reasons, it increases productivity and reduces prices, with benefits that redound to all Americans. The biggest concerns about the economic impact of immigration, it seems to me, should be about the distributions of costs and benefits rather than the aggregate benefit.

These distributions can be unequal in terms of class, but also in terms of geography. It has not escaped my notice that the largest concentration of immigration-restrictionists is in Southern California, where the largest concentration of immigration-enthusiasts is in the New York Metro Area. Why would that be? Well, the negative externalities of immigration to Southern California are manifest and significant, while the benefits accrue primarily to employers (e.g., the agribusiness centers of the Central Valley) in terms of lower wage costs and a more flexible labor force, and to their customers (who live all over the country) in terms of lower prices. In addition to the negative externalities MacDonald cites (inreases in crime), Southern California is a relatively fragile ecology that has been profoundly - and negatively - transformed by massive overpopulation.

But everything looks the other way in New York. New York City is already a high-density area I would suspect, the highest in the nation. Immigrants are not radically transforming the landscape of New York; they are replenishing a city that otherwise steadily loses people to the surrounding suburbs and to the nation as a whole (and this is a process that has been going on for generations; New York has always depended on immigrants to maintain its population). Moreover, in New York, immigrants are present all through the economy, and perform vital functions that the entire city uses. New Yorkers - of all classes - reap a greater percentage of the economic rewards of immigration than do Californians, and some of the negative externalities in California are positive externalities in New York.

The cultural dimension is very different as well. Queens has, by one count I dimly recall, 168 different ethnic groups. At that level of diversity, Madison's wisdom about submerging faction in a large republic has considerable force. By contrast, Southern California's immigrant population is overwhelmingly from a single neighboring country. And, as noted, immigrants to New York come in all economic shapes and sizes, from Wall Street traders (looking around me, I see an immigrant from Ireland, an immigrant from South Africa, an immigrant from Taiwan, a Luxembourgeois national, an immigrant from Bangladesh, an immigrant from India, three immigrants from Canada, an immigrant from Greece and an immigrant from Cyprus), to small entrepreneurs, to retail workers, cabdrivers, construction crews and, yes, domestic servants. That's very different from an immigration picture concentrated at the lower-end of the economic spectrum.

New York and California represent two extremes in terms of local experience with immigration; I suspect that most of the country is in between. Texas, for example, has much less contentious immigration politics than California, in part because the middle class in Texas doesn't feel like they're being pushed out of their homes by a crush of newcomers (as Steve Sailer has pointed out, in Texas, if it gets too crowded where you are, you move to somewhere similar enough, whereas in California, many people feel like they've been expelled from Eden), in part because Texas has a more substantial old-Hispanic population that is thoroughly American to which new immigrants can more readily assimilate, and in part because Texas is much stingier in terms of public welfare than California is. But other states - e.g., Colorado - are developing a politics that looks much more like California's.

But what about the nation as a whole? One of the distinctions I drew above - which enthusiasts are not scrupulous about, and which restrictionists call them on frequently - is between the collective interests of the American citizenry and the interests of "America" in some abstract sense. Let's take one very basic impact of immigration: it increases America's population, and specifically America's fertile population. There is no question that population, and reasonable growth thereof, is still an important measure of national power. To that extent, and all else being equal (which it may not be, of course), immigration is a net-benefit for "America" in that it makes America more powerful. But this doesn't mean it makes America's current citizenry better off; indeed, all else being equal (which, again, it may not be), it probably makes America's current citizenry less well-off, since there will be some "transaction cost" to acquiring this new population, which will be borne by the citizenry, and their "share" in the new, more powerful America is diluted by the newcomers. (And, if you look forward in time, and consider that immigrants as a whole tend to be more fertile than the native-born population, the descendents of the current citizenry will see their "share" diluted further.)

Does this mean that the Olympian perspective that considers "America" as an abstract entity with interests somewhat distinct from the aggregate interests of its citizenry is illegitimate? Not at all - but it behooves those who take this perspective to be explicit about it. Steve Sailer, prominent restrictionist, is explicit in his perspective: he's a "citizenist" who rejects the above Olympian view. Immigration enthusiasts are less explicit, and they should be more so, for the sake of honesty as well as for the sake of clarity. For if the debate is conducted in an open spirit, and the people of the United States determine that their values are best-served by an orderly but large-scale immigration, in spite of any costs to them personally, then they have judged their interests as they see fit, and dissenters should not gainsay them. We ask immigrants to adopt our ancestors as their own, to revere Washington as the father of their country, Lincoln as the savior of their union. There is no reason why current citizens of the United States could not similarly adopt the descendents of later immigrants as their heirs. But they should freely choose to do so, and for that to be the case, immigration must be debated openly and democratically.

There is no good reason why immigration policy should not be so debated, with civility and honor. And again, I must fault the enthusiast side more than the restrictionist for attempting to stifle legitimate debate. Swear words and scare quotes are no substitute for rational argument. I do not care whether someone is called a "nativist" - if that means that the citizens of the United States get to decide the immigration policy of the United States, then I'm a nativist. And I do not see how accusations of guilt by association - with zero-population-growth groups, for example, or industrial unions - taints the arguments made by the restrictionists. Nor do I see how the provenance of immigration opponents bears on the debate; a naturalized American is as free to opine on immigration as is any other citizen, and it's repugnant of some immigration proponents to suggest otherwise, directly or indirectly.

Finally there are many matters on which even many enthusiasts can agree with the restrictionists: that massive illegal immigration is necessarily problematic; that all Americans should want to make reasonable efforts to keep criminals and terrorists out of the country; and that where immigration puts strain on the unum that our pluribus is supposed to have become, this should be addressed with policy - not excluding immigration policy. Conducted in good faith - as many restrictionists and enthusiasts alike do, but not all and not often enough - the immigration debate should be an edifying spectacle, educational for the native-born and new immigrant alike, and should strengthen our mutual bonds, not tear us asunder.