June 12, 2007


One-Fifth of an American: How much is an immigrant's life worth, exactly? (Steven E. Landsburg, June 12, 2007, Slate)

How do you justify a border fence? Why is it OK to consign millions of unskilled Mexicans to lives of desperate poverty? I'm told it's because Americans should care more about their countrymen than about a bunch of foreigners. OK, but how much more? Surely there's some limit; virtually nobody thinks, for example, that Americans should be allowed to hunt Mexicans for sport. So, exactly how much are you willing to hurt a foreigner to help an American? Is a foreigner's well-being worth three-quarters as much as an American's, or half as much, or one-quarter as much? [...]

Let's do the math: When we admit an unskilled Mexican immigrant, his wage typically rises from about $2 an hour to $9 an hour—call it a $7-per-hour gain. To justify keeping him out, we'll have to weigh that gain against the harm he does to Americans.

Right away, our calculation runs into a problem, because on balance immigrants don't harm Americans; virtually all economists agree that immigration makes us richer, not poorer. Every immigrant is a potential trading partner, a potential employee, and a potential customer. He bids down wages, but that's a two-edged sword: It's bad for his fellow workers, but it's good for employers and good for consumers.

In the very short run, most of the gains go to employers, and a substantial fraction of those gains probably go to people named Walton. In the somewhat longer run, all that excess profit gets competed away and shows up in the form of lower prices for consumer goods. At that point, even the workers who took pay cuts can come out ahead: If your wage falls by 10 percent while prices fall by 20 percent, you're a winner.

But let's ignore all that.

It's entertaining the way anti-immigration libertarians have to ignore their own economics -- admirably laid out here -- in order to justify their positions. However, they're certainly right to feel that their libertinism threatened by the prospect of 100 million new citizens of faith.

A Brief History of Economic Time (STEVEN LANDSBURG, June 9, 2007, Wall Street Journal)

Modern humans first emerged about 100,000 years ago. For the next 99,800 years or so, nothing happened. Well, not quite nothing. There were wars, political intrigue, the invention of agriculture -- but none of that stuff had much effect on the quality of people's lives. Almost everyone lived on the modern equivalent of $400 to $600 a year, just above the subsistence level. True, there were always tiny aristocracies who lived far better, but numerically they were quite insignificant.

Then -- just a couple of hundred years ago, maybe 10 generations -- people started getting richer. And richer and richer still. Per capita income, at least in the West, began to grow at the unprecedented rate of about three quarters of a percent per year. A couple of decades later, the same thing was happening around the world.

Then it got even better. By the 20th century, per capita real incomes, that is, incomes adjusted for inflation, were growing at 1.5% per year, on average, and for the past half century they've been growing at about 2.3%. If you're earning a modest middle-class income of $50,000 a year, and if you expect your children, 25 years from now, to occupy that same modest rung on the economic ladder, then with a 2.3% growth rate, they'll be earning the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $89,000 a year. Their children, another 25 years down the line, will earn $158,000 a year.

Against a backdrop like that, the temporary ups and downs of the business cycle seem fantastically minor. In the 1930s, we had a Great Depression, when income levels fell back to where they had been 20 years earlier. For a few years, people had to live the way their parents had always lived, and they found it almost intolerable. The underlying expectation -- that the present is supposed to be better than the past -- is a new phenomenon in history. No 18th-century politician would have asked "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" because it never would have occurred to anyone that they ought to be better off than they were four years ago.

Rising income is only part of the story. One hundred years ago the average American workweek was over 60 hours; today it's under 35. One hundred years ago 6% of manufacturing workers took vacations; today it's over 90%. One hundred years ago the average housekeeper spent 12 hours a day on laundry, cooking, cleaning and sewing; today it's about three hours.

As far as the quality of the goods we buy, try picking up an electronics catalogue from, oh, say, 2001 and ask yourself whether there's anything there you'd want to buy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 12, 2007 2:48 PM

Did you notice that Landsburg is pro-immigrant? Who are these anti-immigrant libertarians?

Posted by: pj at June 12, 2007 3:08 PM

Why won't these people listen?

I agree with Mr. Landsburg 100% about the economic benefits of immigrants to our society.

I'm not against immigration.
I'm against ILLEGAL immigration.

Security concerns aside, people who illegally enter the US merely encourage more people to disregard our laws. If we don't value and enforce our own laws, why should they?

Posted by: Anne Chai at June 12, 2007 3:13 PM

They shouldn't. No one should pay any attention to the immigration quotas. They're unAmerican and so won't be enforced.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2007 3:30 PM

Ms. Chai, we don't value and enforce our laws. Look at the speeding "laws" and the Tax code. If you want people to respect our laws, the Law should be respectable, not a arbitrary means of collecting taxes, or a way for the permanent government to punish people without bothering with courts.
Twelve and more years and more than twenty thousand dollars to maybe become a citizen? I wouldn't wish that on an enemy, and I certainly wouldn't want to jump through those hoops if the government "lost" my papers. I don't think you would either. Why should foreign people have to live under laws that we are unwilling to?

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at June 12, 2007 3:41 PM

Um..I believe we've always had quotas. Although now they're politically corect quotas. Skin color and cultural opposites are the main criteria today. If you're running a welfare state, you'd prefer potential dependents rather than value adding types. Of course, the assumptions regarding skin color are highly questionable, the cultural thing is not. Ted Kenndedy is no drunken fool. He hates America, but he's no drunken fool.

Posted by: sam at June 12, 2007 5:49 PM

You believe, not surprisingly, wrongly.


Posted by: oj at June 12, 2007 6:34 PM

Even if you opened the borders wide open, you wouldn't get a gigantic inflow of Mexicans or Canadians. People don't like change, they like the security of what they are used to.

My father-in-law tells a story of a family who, in the thirties, sent their Jewish relative $5000 to leave Germany with his family and come to Canada. Instead, the guy put the money into his business and you can guess his end.

The division here is between Christians and non-Christians. If the racists and libertines win, the Republican party is headed for another 50 years of wandering about the wilderness -- exactly where elitists feel most comfortable.

Posted by: Randall Voth at June 12, 2007 8:07 PM