When is a Worker More than a Worker?

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
George Borjas on Immigration a... Gary Taubes on the Case Agains...

immigrant.jpg As I mentioned earlier this week over at EconLog, this week's EconTalk episode, while not without controversy, was a breath of fresh air amidst the vitriolic discussion of immigration on the interwebs and in the media these days...I was heartened to listen to a reasoned, civil conversation on the topic, and it made me again optimistic that civil discourse remains possible. To be sure, host Russ Roberts and Harvard economist George Borjas didn't agree on everything, and of course that's also what made the conversation interesting.

We hope you'll join us in continuing in this civil spirit by sharing your reaction to this week's episode in the comments below. Here are some prompts to get you started:

1. What is the significance of the title of Borjas's book? How does he hope it will affect the way people think about immigration policy?

2. How can it be possible to increase the overall size of the "economic pie" through trade from globalization, at the same time that globalization through immigration decreases the size of the pie, according to Borjas?

3. Roberts, in agreement with Borjas, admits short-run costs of immigration to domestic workers. What is his response to these costs, and why does Borjas charge that Roberts is making an ideological, rather than an economic, claim? To what extent is Borjas right?

4. Benjamin Powell's 2010 Feature Article on immigration is one of Econlib's all-time most popular pieces. How would Borjas respond to Powell?

5. Roberts and Borjas spend the last part of the conversation discussing assimilation. How do immigrants' ability to assimilate affect their economic outcomes? Should assimilation be a factor in crafting immigration policy? What does is mean "to assimilate" today, anyway?

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Mike Riddiford writes:

The title is brilliant, as it captures well the limitations of a purely economic analysis of immigration (reminds me of the drunk, the keys and the lamp post joke). Many salient aspects of the immigration debate - the desire to live with ones 'own people' on one hand, the valuing of 'diversity' and 'vibrant cosmopolitanism' on the other - are not easily quantified, yet nonetheless powerful for that.

I did regard Russ's claim on the long-term benefits of immigration as more a statement of faith, as the example given (long run growth in the US) has too many possible confounders e.g. the different immigration policies applied over that period, the fact that other societies (esp in East Asia) have also enjoyed sustained economic growth over the last 40 years or so without immigration, and so on. I don't regard it as wrong, simply unproven (and even unprovable).

Assimilation is complex. My view is that it has to be disaggregated as a concept e.g. I'd see it as more important immigrants, say, become competent in English and respect civil behavioural norms, than, say, love hot dogs and baseball (as an Aussie, I would struggle with the latter, too). The really difficult question is to what extent you treat immigrants as individuals, and to what extent you treat them as a representative of their nation/culture/race etc. It seems obvious to me that, if you look at Western countries, different immigrant groups have enjoyed more or less success (as measured by a range of social indicators) in integrating into their host societies, but exactly what you do with that kind of observation is a difficult social and political question (as many countries, including the US, are now experiencing).

Tyler Wells writes:

Addressing point five, I think that both Roberts and Borjas are in agreement that immigrants today are assimilating more slowly than in the past. Roberts remarked that there are pros and cons to this while Borjas seemed to have a more negative view. However you feel about it, it seems to be an article of faith that new immigrants are assimilating less. I would very much enjoy seeing some empirical evidence of this instead of just accepting it as a given. One example is that it seems to be commonly believed that the children of immigrants aren’t learning English. My own, anecdotal, evidence is strongly against this. I have never met a child who was born in the States or who entered here before kindergarten who did not speak English perfectly well. I should add that I have met hundreds of elementary school age children through coaching soccer and through family and friends. In fact, I have never met one who did not prefer to speak English and even resist speaking the native language of his or her parents. Even further, I can testify that trying to raise your child to be bilingual is very difficult here.
As regard to question 2, I’m waiting for someone to answer because I didn’t understand Borjas to mean that. What I thought he was saying is that immigration has a net economic benefit for society but that the costs and benefits are not distributed evenly so that those with jobs that do not compete with immigrants have a net gain and that those with jobs that do compete may have a net loss. Perhaps I am not understanding the question.

Harvey Cody writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Mike Riddiford writes:

@Tyler Wells

What Prof. Borjas said was " And that's why it is entirely possible for globalization[?] from trade to actually increase the economic pie, and globalization through immigration to not increase the economic pie at all. "

I think his claim is clear. Both immigration and trade are aspects of globalization. Borjas argues that the overall economic benefits are clear(er) for trade, but not for immigration (because of offsetting factors such as increased welfare costs - see the transcript for the context)

I have no idea of whether this claim is proven or not (the subsequent discussion was inconclusive), but the claim itself seems clear: the benefits of trade are more clear cut than those of immigration.

PS Whether immigration is a net benefit or a net loss for a society was, to my mind, not directly addressed - I suspect that, like anyone sensible, Borjas would say it depends on they type and extent of that immigration

Tyler Wells writes:

Thank you for clearing that up for me @Mike Riddiford. Alas, I do not know at what minute he said that and I lack the time to listen to it again at the moment. So I am left to speculate that Professor Borjas is referring to the welfare state. In a typical north-south migration of immigrants from places with lower productivity to places of higher productivity the immigrant almost always, and certainly expects to, have an immediately higher productivity and resulting higher wage. The resulting increase in productivity of the worker would increase the "global economic pie."
With the welfare state, however, the immigrant might come into the higher productivity place and consume more welfare benefits instead of being more productive, or may not even join the workforce and be productive at all. Presuming, then, that taxes are raised or regulations are increased in order to keep benefits as their original per capita level the "global economic pie" will shrink through the loss of both the immigrants decreasing production and through the inefficiency of the redistribution system.

[N.B. Hi, Tyler. We at EconTalk provide time marks in the Highlights on our EconTalk website for the podcast episodes as a courtesy to our listeners. If you lack the time to listen or re-listen, you can always go to our Highlights to find all the time marks. In this case, I think you are referring to material around the 27-minute mark. I suppose, since you are commenting via our website, that you have and can see and access all that info. If you do not have that info, please email me at webmaster@econlib.org.--Econlib Ed.]

John Alcorn writes:

How easily we slip into an in-group calculus that neglects the fact that peaceful international migration is the fastest and surest way for people, by the millions, to escape poverty productively!

Jim writes:

I think they hypo about doubling the US population by 100% immigration of same distribution of skills would result in doubling everything - same per capita income, is missing a major limitation. The missing item is that many resources are fixed. Land, fresh water, power, space, food production. Either per capita availability would go down or price would go up because of the limited or more expensive resources. Fresh water and farm acreage have increasing costs and noneconomic costs to increase.

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