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« Low-Carb Update | Main | "M" and Camera-Space »

March 18, 2004

Prosperity and Immigration

Dear Friedrich --

The Economist runs a cheery article this week, the gist of which is that Americans are economically far better-off than our anxiety levels about jobless recoveries and outsourcing would suggest. The article leans heavily on Gregg Easterbrook's recent "The Progress Paradox" and is readable here. Some of its more interesting facts:


  • "Among native-born Americans, poverty rates have declined steadily since the 1960s. In the case of black families, median incomes have recently been rising at twice the pace for the country as a whole ... Indeed, for the nine-tenths of the population that is native-born, middle-income trends continue their improvement of the 1950s and 1960s. For these people, inequality is not rising, but falling."

  • "Between 1980 and 2002 Americans in work rose by over 40%, a far brisker pace than the 26% growth in the population. Some three-quarters of the adult population are now in work, close to a record and some ten percentage points higher than in Europe."

  • "Most Americans have at least two cars and their own house, and they send their children to college. Certainly a bigger share of household income is being spent on things that did not feature 50 years ago, such as high-tech health care. But it has brought the benefit of a longer and better life, and not just for the old: since 1980, infant mortality has fallen by 45%."

  • "The typical American dwelling now has two rooms per person, double Europe's level or America's half a century ago."

  • Americans now spend $25 billion a year on boats and jetskis, and nearly half of their food dollars in restaurants.

While it appears in a magazine that's relentlessly enthusiastic about high immigration rates, the article also admits that the current "scale of immigration into America [is] outpacing all immigration in the rest of the world put together," and that the country's cheery growth picture exists only if you "strip out immigrants."

Not knowing quite what to make of this, I read the magazine's next article (not available online). Its subject: how many immigrants to the U.S. are bypassing the big cities and settling in suburbs instead. Important matters, especially seeing as how an Urban Institute study estimates that one in five children in American today is the offspring of an immigrant, and that by 2015 one in three American children will be. Suburban hospitals are stressed, suburban crime rates are rising ...

But not to worry, the Economist is quick to add. Why? Because the percentage of the country's population that is foreign-born -- about 11% -- has been bigger at other times. And didn't we manage fine then? What the article's writer doesn't see fit to acknowledge is what's obvious in the chart that accompanies the article: that the absolute number of foreign-born people in the country's population right now (over 40 million) is about three times higher than it was during previous big immigration waves. Not to mention, of course, the fact that the country's population is considerably larger than it was in, say, 1910.

What to make of all this? Do we praise the Economist for being frank about immigration-related challenges? Or do we scold them for refusing to reconsider their stance on immigration rates?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at March 18, 2004




Comments

I follow the 2Blowhards blog with interest because I started college as an Industrial Design major and finished up in Commercial Design. So, naturally, I became a demographer, wrapping up an unnecessarily advanced degree some years later at Dear Old Penn.

On to migration. I'm agnostic on this matter, and will make a technical point shortly. As to whether it is good or not--or, more precisely, just how large a good thing has to be to become a bad thing--is something people I respect (the Wall Street Journal editorial page and folks at National Review's Corner blog) take opposing views of.

I'm off from Seattle to California tomorrow and don't have time to confirm what you said about today's absolute number of immigrants being the largest in our history. I'll take it as true, for now. But please keep in mind that the U.S., at about 300 million population is almost three times larger than in was back in 1924 when severe restrictions were placed on immigration (and which remained until some point in the 1960s, as best I recall). That means I fall into the camp that holds that the *share* of the population that is comprised of immigrants is more important than the absolute number. And, I think, we tend to notice shares more than raw numbers of people of given characteristics as we go about daily life.

Numbers count, however. Certainly a (halfway competent) school administrator needs to take into account the number of kids possibly needing special treatment because it affects his staffing plans.

To me, perhaps the most serious immigration problem is the nonsense believed by too many intellectuals and opinion leaders that the USA is not and *should not be* a "melting pot". This is a proundly destructive (to this nation) belief. It has led to bilingual education classes that hurt rather than help the future job prospects of immigrant children. (Fortunately, the majority of immigrants want their kids to learn English--no matter what some of our Lousy Ivy University friends think.) If this country pushed the melting pot concept as vigorously as it did a century ago, immigration would be less of a problem.

End of screed.

Donald Pittenger

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 18, 2004 10:39 PM



Hi Donald -- That's a point well-taken. We certainly react to these things both as relative and absolutes -- in relation to each other and in relation to the finite size of the country too. And you're making a good point that even someone as sympathetic (on abstract principle) to completely free migration as Milton Friedman makes, which is that, during previous eras of large-scale immigration, the country didn't have an extensive welfare system or a deranged ethic of multiculturalism (identity politics, bilingual education, etc) either. It's all a big mess. Whatever my own personal preferences, I'm basically just glad to see the topic finally get discussed in public. Seems to me that people are finally recognizing it as an important and timely subject, and that it's possible to have differing preferences without doing too much name-calling. That's a big step, and one to be celebrated. But maybe I'm reading the public mood too optimistically. What's your impression? Is the subject opening up a bit?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 18, 2004 11:00 PM



1. Proponents of multiculturalism are not first-generation immigrants. These people want to assimilate and get ahead in society. That's why, when schools propose programs like bilingual education, naturalized immigrants are first in line to oppose them.

2. Thanks to a series of reforms during the 1990s, only native-born Americans are allowed to receive welfare.

There go your two main objections, Michael.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on March 18, 2004 11:39 PM



Tim -- 1) Why does it matter who the proponent of multiculturalism is? Multiculturalism as a semi-official doctrine exists; and even the pro-high-immigration-rates Economist admits that it wreaks havoc with assimilation.

2) There are immense welfare-state distortions affecting immigration. Illegal immigrants are quick to have kids, for instance -- they're called "anchor babies" -- to establish a native-born family member. Another instance: illegals can't be turned away at emergency rooms, which is causing financial problems at many hospitals. "Welfare" isn't just one program, it's dozens.

The point people like Friedman (who's generally supersympathetic to more rather than less open borders) are making is that, what with the many-sided welfare state we have, we're rewarding immigrants for immigrating, where during previous large waves of immigration the message was make-it-or-leave. (And in fact about a quarter to a third of people who immigrated at the turn of the 20th century returned to the country they came from.)

I think you can argue that these are problems that can be managed or overcome, but I don't think you're going to get far by arguing that they aren't problems. Even David Goodhart, editor of the lefty British magazine The Prospect, has come out and said essentially the above -- you can have large-scale immigration, or you can have a generous welfare state, but putting the two together is a recipe for disaster.

Steve Sailer's recent piece here expands helpfully on some of these topics.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 19, 2004 12:00 AM



Michael--
I think you are right that the subject of migration is being talked about a lot lately (aside from the usual complaints I hear when I'm in California). Military historian Victor Davis Hanson switched gears a few months ago with a book on the topic, and John Derbyshire at National Review Online (and others) blogged on the subject only a couple days ago.

The problem is that immigration has become (well, pehaps it always was) highly politicized. Off in one field, we can see the Democrats trying to fend off George Bush's attempt to "Italianize" migrants from Mexico and their descendents. By this I mean Italians used to be in the Democrats' hip pockets, but now often consider themselves Republicans as they have become highly assimilated. The result is that Mexicans are being heartily wooed by both parties and, I fear, this is not the best setting for calm, rational discussion of the immigration issue, nor are deeply-considered policies and laws likely to emerge.

Worse, as you noted, we still live under the regime of political correctness. In some settings, to even bring up the topic of immigration reform is to invite immediate labeling as a "racist". In that climate, calm, reasoned discussion is impossible.

What this boils down to is how much longer political correctness will dominate the minds of the intellectual, media, and political elites. As a demographer, I'm predisposed to think in terms of generations. That means my best guess is that the political correctness mafia (who absorbed the "New Left" weltanschauung between 1964 and 1975, say) will have to be living in Del Webb communities in Arizona before reason can return. (Boomers will start to retire around 2010 and it'll take 20 years before the entire crop is harvested; I guess PC crumbles around 2020.)


But I hope that I'm being too pessimistic. Trends are not forever and, in social matters, things reverse once a condition becomes unbearable or too ridiculous for even an academician to believe.

So, if there is indeed more willingness to calmly discuss immigration policy (and I'm not sure that's so), then maybe political correctness itself is starting to crumble.

Donald Pittenger

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 19, 2004 12:02 AM



The immigration debate is mostly politics. Most are resigned to the idea there is nothing to stop mass immigration so it is best to learn to love it as one writer once proposed about the prospect of nuclear annihilation. There is no relation to fairness involved because the elites are going to do whatever they think will help them not the masses.

It seems to me that if one believes a stranger and his ways are equal to his mother or father and their ways, one does not value his mother or father or their ways. The belief seems contrary to what drives any society. I suppose, with a radical belief in equality, we could dispense with parents and clone ourselves so as to create oneness, uniformity. But would we be happier? Not a chance.

Don't get me wrong. Might we discover a wonder-drug that makes us all content, docile, productive, and everlasting? Maybe. We would surely find out if there is a God. Speculation is fun but not authoritative.

Posted by: P Murgos on March 20, 2004 03:31 AM



I support limited immigration of skilled/educated/high ability immigrants. Such immigrants strengthen the tax base and speed technological innovation, a major driving force in the economy. However, I think support of mass unskilled and mass illegal immigration is foolish.

First, we should look at the costs associated with unskilled immigrants. Unskilled immigrant families are likely to have three, four, or even more children. Education costs $7,000-$9,000 per kid, per year. That means were looking at $20,000-$30,000 or more per year in education costs alone, more than many unskilled immigrant families make, much less pay in taxes. That doesn't take into account other substantial costs such as health care, housing assistance, food stamps, law enforcement, votes for increased social programs, and depressed wages for the native-born unskilled that result in higher welfare costs and lower tax payments.
It also doesn't take into account environmental strain caused by increased population, which can create other expenses (for example, it will become more expensive to meet the same clean air standards if there are more people, since there will need to be less pollution per person to meet such standards), not to mention increased traffic, strain on power and water resources, and the loss of open spaces.

One should also look at the educational acheivements of the children of unskilled immigrants. For example, even third- and fourth-generation Mexican-Americans have low education levels.

[unfortunately, that stats from FP magazine have fallen behind a subscription wall, but they are at parapundit:]
http://www.parapundit.com/archives/001952.html

Morever, the incomes of Hispanics are dismal. The median household income per household member is $24,951 for whites, $22,688 for Asians, $15,007 for blacks, and $12,158 for Hispanics. In other words, Hispanics (on average) earn nearly 20 per cent less than even blacks, and earn only about half as much as whites and Asians. The figures for Mexican-Americans and certainly for illegal aliens are likely to be even worse.

http://www.census.gov/population/pop-profile/2000/chap12.pdf

Posted by: Matt W. on March 20, 2004 02:08 PM






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