EconTalk |
Alberto Alesina on Immigration and Redistribution
Jul 30 2018

immigrants.jpg Alberto Alesina of Harvard University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about how people in the US and five European countries perceive the population and characteristics of legal immigrants. Reporting on research with Armando Miano and Stefanie Stantcheva, Alesina finds that individuals systematically overestimate the number of immigrants while underestimating their standard of living. His research also finds that support for welfare payments to the poor is related to the perception people have of the size of the immigrant population and their economic status. The conversation concludes with a discussion of why people's perceptions are so inaccurate and the implications of perception for public policy.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Jul 30 2018 at 10:08am

People’s perceptions are wacky:

On average, Americans say that 33% of the U.S. population is black.

U.S. Adults Estimate That 25% of Americans Are Gay or Lesbian


Andy McGill
Aug 4 2018 at 3:20am

Best comment of the year.

Mike Diaz
Aug 4 2018 at 12:27pm

My city is 28% black and 25% Hispanic. My neighborhood is 80% Hispanic. Perhaps respondents perception is based on what they perceive every day. People are not as wacky as you may think. Anyway, statistics that lump respondents from states like New Hampshire or Idaho with respondents from Florida or Texas are myopic.


Andy McGill
Aug 5 2018 at 6:16pm

But if you are going to debate NATIONAL policy, then you need to be aware of national demographics.  Even Econtalk discusses African Americans far more than their portion of the population.  Blacks are not even the largest minority anymore.

Doug Robinson
Jul 30 2018 at 10:35am

Re: the signing of NAFTA, Russ: “…all of the controversy was about Mexico. There are three countries: the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Canada was just not on the table as a worry, either because it isn’t a worry–whatever that means–or because people are more likely to be worried about people who are “more different” than they are–however you might define that. ”

Surprised by this oversimplification. In brief, there were so many highly significant, factual differences with respect to Mexico and Canada in terms of environmental issues, wages, exchange rates, worker rights, transportation-related concerns, and so forth that the implications of this kind of statement seem inappropriate.

Jul 31 2018 at 10:47am

Good point.

Jul 30 2018 at 11:36am

It’s not right to make refugees by bombing poor countries.
It’s not right to force emigration by peddling crushing debt.
It’s not right to sell weapons to dictators that kill people and create refugees.
It’s not right to make refugees by waging economic war against the poor through subsidies for your exports and taxes on theirs.
It’s not right to export destructive socialism and thus force economic migration
It’s not right to conduct religious persecution against all people thus making first and second class citizens (France)
It’s not right to bring in more poor slaves for the benefit of the rich
It’s not right to bring poor slaves to maintain political dynasties in power
It’s not right to advocate open borders when you live in a protective bubble (Russ)
It’s not right to outsource border control to Mexico to the detriment of immigrants from countries without a common border
It’s not right to create refugees by breeding drug violence in other countries
It’s not right to import poverty and crime rather than export wealth and rule of law

David Brisco
Jul 30 2018 at 1:35pm

Dear Russ,

Your podcast with Prof. Alesina on Immigration was of particular interest to me.  As part of my diplomatic career, I spent some years as a Canadian Immigration Officer interviewing and selecting (and some times refusing) people who wished to live permanently in Canada.

I believe that Prof. Alesina’s project is flawed, as he chose to compare the European experience with that of the United States.  No, European state has had, or currently has a program allowing individuals to apply for residence in the country, with a formal path to full citizenship.

In Canada, immigrants are chosen based on a ‘points system’; language ability, education, age, work experience, and personal suitability. Once given formal status as an immigrant, newcomers can easily make the step to full citizen ship if desired.

As far as I know, only four ‘western’ countries; The US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have such long standing formal programs.  In these four countries, an applicant, and his/her family may make formal application for immigrant status, and also find a standard path to full citizenship. 

Prof. Alesina might well look at attitudes across these four long standing immigrant receiving nations.  This group stands in contrast with the European states cited.

None of these have had, or have at present formal immigration programs.  

Germany, for example has its “guest worker” system, where even third generation Turks are formally expected to return “home” eventually. 

Many second and third generation East Indians in the UK cling to Indian citizenship.

Sweden’s immigrants are largely official refugees given formal status within the country

It is clear that in all cases, attitudes to immigrants will differ between the four immigrant receiving nations, and those in Europe who have more or less had immigration forced upon them.

Thank you Russ for this interesting episode.  As usual, your insightful questions and comments brought the episode to life.

Jul 30 2018 at 9:41pm

“No, European state has had, or currently has a program allowing individuals to apply for residence in the country, with a formal path to full citizenship.”

What does this mean? It is entirely possible to immigrate to the UK and gain citizenship. You can immigrate by being sponsored by an employer, marriage/domestic partnership of an EU citizen, being an EU citizen, getting a student visa, and a number of other routes. Once in the country for at least 2 years, this can usually be converted to indefinite leave to remain and, after 10 years, citizenship.

Earl Rodd
Jul 30 2018 at 1:57pm

I had a few thoughts on questions used in the surveys.

In a question about whether the poor were poor because they were lazy or unfortunate, I found that had I been presented this question, I could not answer. It is not an either or. Perhaps better would be a 1-10 scale of whether poor are poor due to their own actions (lazy, drugs, not study in school) vs. external events (education, discrimination, bad luck etc.).
I found the question presenting 2 names to people and asking how much each would depend on various forms of government welfare. The “correct” answer is “same.” I wonder if this is true for some of the name pairs used!  That would be an interesting study. Some names have high associations with various subgroups of natives or immigrants.
In spite of the survey saying this applies only to “legal” immigrants, I suspect that US number are heavily skewed by overriding concern of lack of enforcement of immigration laws. Many Americans believe that regardless of what may be said, politicians want to consider illegal and legal immigrants equally thus skewing American answers about legal immigrants.

Writing good questions is really hard!


Mike Diaz
Jul 30 2018 at 3:57pm

Good episode, Alberto is an interesting guest.

50% of the US population growth in the last 50 years is due directly to immigration. That may be why people legitimately overestimate it — a 10% immigration rate can dramatically change the makeup of a nation over a generation. The current percentage of the population that are immigrants may be a somewhat myopic view of the impact of immigration on the makeup of the US.

Peter Gordon
Jul 30 2018 at 4:28pm

Russ Roberts mentions (here and in last week’s monologue) the effect of social media and modern mass communications on the phobias and hostilities that characterize today’s populism. But reading Benjamin Carter Hett’s The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic, I was surprised how much blame the author places on immigration to western Europe (mainly from eastern Europe) for the rise of fascism throughout Europe in those days. I reject the Hitler analogies that so easily pop out of people’s mouths these days but I was unaware of Hett’s point about the politics of immigration in the early years if the 20th century.

Jul 30 2018 at 4:51pm

An interesting cut on the data that would likely explain the misconceptions would be to measure the percentage of immigrant concentration in the 10 largest cities in each of the countries.

Jul 30 2018 at 9:44pm

I wonder if a lot of disparities are caused by people ignoring the definition of legal immigrant used in the study, and by what people (incorrectly) consider an immigrant to be. For example, when people say “immigrant” in the UK, do they actually mean “black and brown people, and anyone with an accent”? And would that get the figures more inline with the reality?

Jul 31 2018 at 10:45am

Good point.

Jul 31 2018 at 10:45am

The main conclusion of the study is that the people are not guided by facts but by perceptions because they overestimate the share of immigrants in the population as measured by official statistics. These results are valid only if the definition of immigrant in the questionnaire and official statistics are the same. The official definition is someone who was not born in the country of respondent, while people may count also second (and even third generation) immigrants, especially if they are significantly different from local population (different clothes, language, religion etc.). If the questionnaire did not specifically ask people to estimate the share of first generation immigrants only, then you are comparing apples with pears and your conclusions are not credible.

Aug 1 2018 at 1:15am

I think the study did ask people to estimate only the legal, foreign-born people in the country. But I suspect that people essentially ignored that and estimated the number of “outsiders” instead.

Donald Fisher
Aug 1 2018 at 12:32pm

Really enjoy your podcast Russ but this edition left me unsatisfied. People develop impressions of things by looking at those things in their surroundings. If they see more of something they tend to think there is  more of it. Fold in the effect of their exposure to various types of media content (popular entertainment is highly mult-culti these days) and its no wonder that their estimates are not necessarily a true picture. This is not news. By the way, I suspect the German results being closer to the truth probably has a lot to do with the relative quality of their journalism and educational system.  So, I assume these findings will now be used to show us what fools we’ve been to concern ourselves about uncontrolled immigration, which is of course the nature of the present day version.  When everyone knows that laws are not being enforced it makes them feel vulnerable and engenders mistrust. For the individual there is no downside to overestimating this type of  risk.

Andy McGill
Aug 1 2018 at 6:20pm

The widespread misconceptions about important numbers in public debates is largely caused by the lack of objectivity in news reporting these days by most main stream media.  They rarely report the key numbers of how many immigrants, how many poor, how many minimum wage workers, etc.  Instead they choose a “scary” number like a sudden increase, or even a change in rate that sounds even scarier, to make their story more “scary” and “apparently important”.

Imagine how much it would temper debates if the news actually reported that the “bathroom bills” only affected 0.001% of the population, or that shootings of unarmed suspects was only 0.01% of all arrests.  The debates would then be in context and not thrown out like a national epidemic.


Aug 1 2018 at 8:21pm

Question for Russ: In your surveys about the percentage of people who work for minimum wage or less, do you consider how many people in the workforce earn just above minimum wage? When I worked in relatively menial jobs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was often hired at just above minimum wage and quickly received tiny raises of 15 or 20 cents an hour with good attendance, etc. Most of the comparable workforce was paid similarly. If there’s a substantial portion of the workforce that earns slightly more than minimum wage, the perception of those you surveyed might not be so inaccurate.

Glenn Mercer
Aug 2 2018 at 11:55am

One possible explanation for (e.g.) Americans estimating the immigrant population as 20% or more of the total US population, when it is more like 15% (say 12% legal and 3% illegal, I am sure my numbers are not quite right): children.  Assume a couple moves to the USA from country X.  In our statistics that means we have two immigrants.  If the couple now has 4 children, born in the USA, I think we still count only 2 immigrants.  But a person living on the same street may still see that family as “an immigrant family,” when the precise answer is “1/3 immigrant and 2/3 native born.”  Thus the American Community Survey shows 44 mm immigrants in the USA in 2016 (13.5% of our population)… but “immigrants and their US-born children” at 86 mm … 27% of the population.

Obviously there are many issues here.  If that couple has been here 30 years and their kids have grown up and moved away, the perception will be different than if they still have four small children in their original house.

But I think this issue of US-born children of immigrant parents does indeed affect how Americans perceive the “immigrant” count.

Ben Riechers
Aug 3 2018 at 5:59pm

I was surprised at how persuaded Mr. Roberts was by this study.  He has had many podcasts challenging the quality of studies and the certainty of what those studies conclude.  Even Mr. Alesina seemed less certain about conclusions that Mr. Roberts.  I agree that Mr. Alesina asked some interesting questions.  However, any inferences from the data need a lot more study.  Otherwise, we haven’t moved from perceptions to facts, but just to another narrative picking the data that supports that narrative.

Someone mentioned the either/or nature of many survey questions.  Plus, averages were often used as basis for conclusions when the distribution of data is often more informative.

Broad assumptions about conservatives and liberals undermine the study as well.  Is a conservative a libertarian, religious, and/or a strong advocate for limited government…or just a racist and a war monger?  Is a liberal someone who wants the government to create equal opportunities or equal outcomes?  I have no idea what people mean any more when those labels are used.  Any label needs some examples to know what people mean.

BTW, I think we confuse culture and ethnicity all the time…and we have many competing cultures in this country.

Mike Diaz
Aug 4 2018 at 12:30pm

I agree with your comment.

Andy McGill
Aug 5 2018 at 6:20pm

I agree with the comment.  Plus I don’t remember hearing if the political differences were even significant.

Also, people don’t tell the whole truth in surveys.  Many people will self-report different ages, sex, politics, etc. just out of boredom of stupid questions.  I know I do on phone surveys all the time because they lie to me about the time and subject of the survey.

Aug 7 2018 at 2:34am

This paper and podcast were really interesting – but they also leave so many open questions. Such as the actual composition of the immigrants in the various countries.

In Sweden, a large part of the “immigrant stock” is still a remnant from the workers that moved to Sweden back in the 1950s and 1960s.  Plus there is a lot of movement within the EU which people probably won’t notice since a German or Finn looks much like a Swede. Not sure what the situation is in Italy or France, but my impression is that Sweden and Swedish business is a lot more international than what you find in southern Europe – I mean, when you have a meeting with French people they actually talk French between themselves. When you have a meeting with Swedes, we all just talk English since there is likely a bunch of Indians, Chinese, Americans, or whatever in the office and in the room.

It would have been good to delve deeper into the aspect of traditionalism vs globalization. Once again, my personal impression is that smaller countries like Sweden tend to be a lot more internationalized and open to outside influence than the bigger countries like Germany, France, or Italy.  Just look at the kinds of restaurants you find in a smaller town – in France, you find plenty of fundamentally French restaurants, like Ross said, a bit like a museum.  In Sweden, you will find Pizzerias and Kebab places (from the immigration of workers from Italy, Turkey, and the Balkans), Thai (from the recent exchange of people with Thailand), but very rarely anything that seems very “Swedish”.

When Ross summarizes all of Europe as a single entity, it rings entirely false to me.  There are places that have changed not much at all in the last 100 years, usually in the south, and places that have embraced change and modernity like the north.  Germany in somehwere in between with its “laptop und Lederhosen”.


John McCue
Aug 7 2018 at 12:33pm

I would love it if Prof. Roberts could do an episode on (what seems to me at least to be) the tension between the following two propositions, which come across in EconTalk podcasts as being among the, shall we say, Guiding Principles of Roberts-ness:  (1) The modern, open, classical-liberal society found in most developed nations today (and in the U.S. par excellence) is a unique historical development that we need to prize and carefully husband, and (2) a high rate of immigration (i.e., more than we currently allow de jure in the U.S.) is probably on balance good for the U.S. without regard to, among other things, the cultures in which the immigrants have been socialized.

(I am a huge fan, BTW.)

Thomas Leitgeb
Aug 11 2018 at 4:51pm

Listening to this Episode while having a walk I started to question myself: am I also so wrong on the numbers?

I live in Germany, was born in Austria. My girlfriend is the same. And our little daughter has 2 citizenships – Austrian and German – because she was born here in Germany and both parents did live more than 5 years here.

That the percentage of (legal) immigrants in Germany could be single digits I could not believe while walking. I know I have a lot of colleagues here that are from Austria, France, even some English and Japanese … I know that Germany took more than 1 million refugees in 2015 while it has close to 80 million inhabitants. That is close to 2 percent immigrants in a year. And I do not consider somebody illegal, who applied for asylum here. So first thing back home I had to check.

And I am right.

This is the official statistiks page from the German government. 22.6 % of people here had immigration background in 2016. Thereof 10.9 do not hold a German passport – like me and my girlfriend. And 5.4 % of those holding a passport do so because they are born here – like my daughter.

So the number is double digit (10.9 %) – immigrants w/o a German passport.

What is beyond the numbers are the cultural aspects. I think nobody has a problem in Germany with 20+ % migrational background. Especially not from neighbour countries like Austria, France, Poland, etc. …

The problem starts, when within a year 1 % of immigrants come in. All of them with a very different culture. Most of them male and single, because those did make it on a risky trip out of war areas or failed African states.
The problem starts, when in every city in 2015/16 you have huge tents, where refugees are provided space to sleep and get feed. On my normal walking route of 10 km I have 2 such tents with 100+ people living there. And on the way to office 5 more.

My daughter is German and Austrian. It will be interesting to see for me, how she will ‘integrate’. Same language, only 2 hours of drive between her mothers place of birth and hers. In the big picture, it makes know difference whether she feels more German or Austrian. I just know, I could never feel German.

A few 100 m out there, Aisha also got the German citizenship being born here. But she might never be educated by her family towards freedom of speech, equal rights of woman, democracy. She might count as non-immigrant holding a German passport. But if we do not suceed transfering our values to her, she will never be like us.

The US claims to be the big melting pot. Still you have China Town and Little Italy. And to you, those came that aspired a new, different, better way of live. And you select – how hard to get a Green Card.
Here in Europe, a lot come not because they are willing to adopt to a different culture. They just come, because they cannot stay where they are or see no future there. Once here, they stick together, helping their kind …

So there are three challenges for Europe:
– don’t demand to much from the non-immigrants but make sure they remain open to more immigration
– become much better in integration, because it cannot be that we give up values of democracy, equal rights, free speech
– work much harder on stabilizing Africa and the Middle East to avoid huge refugee movements

And the challenge for the World:
– we had the hottes summer ever in Europe and regions in Spain, Greece, Portugal become less and less fun to live in
– Climate Change does this to many places in the world
– if we cannot do better here, we will see so much more waves of people fleeing that we can’t cope with it peacefully

Maureen Wood
Aug 14 2018 at 7:17am

I am a big fan of Prof Roberts, as a thoughtful, balanced and  honest intellectual, who is rigorous in standing up for evidence-based argumentation, and is normally always careful to disclose when his opinions are largely based on intuition and when his statements are based (and to what degree) on actual evidence.

So I was bit dismayed to hear Dr. Roberts repeat popular views about the European economy and European workers versus the U.S. economy and U.S. workers without any evidence to support it.  He indicated that it is his view that there is more job opportunity in the U.S. than Europe.  He also seemed to believe that Europeans largely acknowledged that this was true. Moreover, Dr. Roberts opined that Europeans are more likely to have a more kindly view of poverty because of the obvious lower opportunity for work in these countries and because they have greater social safety nets.

There was almost no effort to support these statements with any evidence.  I am an American working in Italy for nearly 20 years working closely with close colleagues are from countries all over the European Union.  Cultural differences enters routinely into my job as a risk management expert.  I have a keen interest in the survival and robustness of the EU economy and so I keep up to date on statistics and sentiments in that regard.

The opinion expressed by Dr. Roberts sadly reflect the vast majority of my countrymen’s views.  They are views that are widely repeated in political discourse so that they almost seem like they must be true.

The statements, in my opinion, are broadly not true at all for Europe, mostly not true for the wealthy (mostly western) countries in Europe (except for narrow segments of society) and only partly true for less wealthy countries in Europe.

My first objection to the opinions expressed above is that “Europe” is not one  country.  The countries surveyed included Italy, Sweden, France, and Germany.  These are all very different countries culturally, economically and socially.  To lump these countries.  Recently, a New York Times article ( on rising wages in Europe noted that unemployment in Germany was less than 4% and unemployment in France was greater than 9%.  I am not sure that anyone in Germany is looking for jobs in the U.S. or thinks that it has more opportunity.  The northern countries in general (including Sweden) do not have low unemployment rates and not many “poor” immigrants are emigrating to the U.S. from any of these countries.

In wealthier countries with high unemployment, such as France and Italy, I conjecture that only a certain portion of the work force see greater opportunity in the U.S. or elsewhere.  I cannot cite figures, but I see evidence.  Unlike in some countries, Italy is not exporting low educated workers to a vast degree.  Rather, in Italy, emigrants tend to be young highly educated people because the growth of jobs and wages in professional sectors has stagnated in the last decade.  However, this is  considered a post-2008 phenomenon (whereas in the U.S., I have the impression that Americans think that the differences in opportunity between Italy and the U.S. over time are much larger than in reality).  Moreover, for many Italian professionals  other parts of Europe (including Norway and Switzerland) are equally good sources of professional jobs.

I cannot speak for France, but it is very different from Italy, possibly with less barriers to growth, and a vibrant innovative economy.  Its unemployment may be less of an opportunity problem than a social policy problem.  I do know for sure, but the point is that unemployment is not necessarily so easily dismissed as a diminished lack of opportunity on a large scale in France.

The view that there is far more opportunity in the U.S. than Europe stems I think from three different circumstances.  Most Europeans of any nationality that I know would say that America has the most opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurialism.  This is not the same as having opportunities for all types of workers.  It is actually has great opportunities for businesses and for the types of workers that emerging companies might need.   The opportunities come fro culture and legal norms in America that create fewer barriers for new ideas to flourish and become profitable.  While these are important strengths, it may also be the coupling with the size of the American consumer base that makes these strengths powerful for innovation.  The United States is 80% as large as all the European Union countries put together.

As a second point, the size of the United States economy in comparison to one European country, also makes it proportionally a greater opportunity for EU nationals looking for a job elsewhere.

In various businesses and professions, it might be quite true that there is greater opportunity in the U.S. than in Italy and possibly France, but I would doubt the same for Sweden and Germany.  Their presence offers a disproportionate input to the discourse about the U.S. versus the U.S.  There are many people in other professions that stayed in their own countries because they had opportunity and American citizens generally do not hear from them.

Finally, on the opinion that EU countries have higher unemployment because they have a greater social safety net, this is completely false.  I already cited statistics that show that not all EU countries have high unemployment (certainly most northern countries do not).  Secondly, the safety net is not so very fantastic in Italy (for sure) and probably in many other EU countries as well.  (For example, I believe that social security benefits for retired people in Italy is equal to or less than in the U.S.  The national health system is currently in a state of a disarray.)

But I am surprised also at this statement because in many past interviews, Dr. Roberts and his guests have expressed the view that social safety nets do not necessarily motivate individuals to stop looking for work.  Human beings find purpose in work.  Why would this not also be the case in the European Union?

I am almost certainly not completely correct in many of my observations above because I do not have data to support them.  But Dr. Roberts cited no data to support his views either.  I only offer these views to show that the situation is somewhat different than he indicated

My main point is that, before we repeat tired popular opinions, they ought to be justified with better evidence.  Americans have a great misunderstanding about how different countries around the world really work, from what I hear, especially from journalists, economists and politicians.  Mostly they think that they are not as good as we are, especially economically, and I think that this view is true in some respects but in other respects it is very out of date.  I think there remains a bias stemming from our experience after the second world war when the U.S. was by far the most thriving economy in the world.  The world has changed since then and we should look at counterparts around the world and how they do things differently from us with new eyes.

I hope that perhaps Dr. Roberts would explore this issue further in a future program. The prejudices that he expressed are unfortunately pervasive in American politics and I think they need to be either confirmed with evidence or discarded.





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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: July 18, 2018.]

Russ Roberts: My guest is Alberto Alesina.... Our topic for today is a recent paper that you wrote with Armando Miano and Stefanie Stantcheva. And the title of the paper is "Immigration and Redistribution." And the paper looks at attitudes and knowledge that people have of immigrants, and then their attitudes toward redistribution generally. What was your goal in writing this paper?

Alberto Alesina: Well, this paper is part of a broad research project that I've been following the last several years about, given the growth of inequality in some places, what are the preference for people about the distribution? What leads them to be in favor or against redistribution? And one main theme in my research but also in that of others is that the generosity, both private generosity, say, the nation or public general, that they see it via the welfare state, travels[?] much better amongst people who are similar, of the same race, the same religion, the same culture. But it doesn't travel as well across ethnic groups, race, and so on. So, we thought that, the burst of immigration, that is, meaning in the United States and Europe, particularly in Europe in terms of burst, but also the big discussion about immigration, we thought that putting together [?] the distribution and diversity with immigration sounded interesting.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; well it's an extremely interesting paper. And I learned a great deal that I was--mostly depressed to learn about. But, we'll see. There may be some cheerier things later on in our conversation. But, the basic idea--talk about the data set. You are looking across--how many countries, is it?

Alberto Alesina: Six countries: The United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy, France, and Germany. We picked these six countries because, well, first of all, they are important countries, of course. The U.S. is the U.S. And the European countries are countries that have been particularly at the center of the debate about the immigration. Sweden, for example, has had a very large flow of immigrants, and there's a very large share of immigrants in their population. So, we thought that was a good group of countries, and go beyond 6 was getting a bit expensive, because these surveys are a bit expensive to make.

Russ Roberts: And you surveyed a fairly large number of people in each country. Thousands, right? About 4000 in each country?

Alberto Alesina: Yes. It's about 23,000 total. The number of countries--it is roughly equal across countries. There are actually slightly less in Sweden: for [?] one, Sweden was actually much more expensive for some reason, and Swedish people replied in a way which was so consistent we [?] with so little variance within them that we felt somehow we could stop the survey after--

Russ Roberts: 5 or 10 people--

Alberto Alesina: a couple of thousand. Five or ten, yeah.

Russ Roberts: Well, it's a smaller country, too, than some of the others.

Alberto Alesina: It's a smaller country.

Russ Roberts: So, you surveyed six, in 6 countries. And, the first thing you look at is attitudes towards immigration. And these are all surveys of native-born people in each country.

Alberto Alesina: Yes. All native-born. The first question is: Are you native-born? If you are not, you cannot take the survey.

Russ Roberts: And you are looking at native-born, and we start with attitudes towards immigrants--excuse me, not attitudes. Just simple knowledge about the characteristics of immigrants. And, to me--this is a huge, important point, although not as huge as I thought it was going in--you are only and very carefully and very explicitly talking about legal--legal immigrants.

Alberto Alesina: Yes. We wanted to focus on the legal immigrant, because--not because illegal immigrants are not important, but because we wanted to focus on taking away from our consideration issues having to do with illegal immigrant, that committing a crime by being in the country and therefore--we wanted to consider people who are legal but who are not your countrymen.

Russ Roberts: And a definition of an immigrant, a legal immigrant, is someone who is there legally who--?

Alberto Alesina: Who is not born in the country of the respondent. Which, by the way, is the official definition of immigrant by the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development].


Russ Roberts: Right. So that's how I would have defined it. So that's all good. The underlying question, of course--and we will maybe touch on this in the conversation--is: People may be told--and you tell them more than once that you're talking about legal immigrants. But, their attitudes and assessments may be colored by their lumping illegals and legals together. Obviously. It's one challenge. However, what I was surprised to discover was how small the estimates are of illegal immigration--relative to not illegal immigration--the proportion of the native population, of the country's population, that is legal versus illegal. So, talk about those numbers, because they are quite small in your--but even in the United States they are smaller than I would have thought.

Alberto Alesina: Well, in the United States, I wouldn't say that they had a [?] more--

Russ Roberts: They're smaller than I might have thought. That's all.

Alberto Alesina: Well, I don't know what you thought. But the number of legal immigrants is about 10%; and the number of illegal immigrants is about 3, 3.5%. I wouldn't say that's small. I am actually surprised by how big it was. But maybe we have different priors.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Alberto Alesina: For the other countries--I don't remember the actual number and I can't find them quickly. But they are not--they are very small. So they are really not something that--

Russ Roberts: Well, my memory from the paper is that in Europe, it's under 1%. In the 5 countries.

Alberto Alesina: Yeah. Under 1%. But, although there is a more subtle problem: That, there are, the number is very small, but sometimes there may legally be those that people see in the most upsetting ways. Say, they are sleeping in the park, in the middle of the city. And a mother going there with their children, they see an immigrant, who is most likely legal, that is sleeping in the garden where she usually walks with her children, and she starts thinking that, you know, there are 10,000, I mean 10% of people are illegal immigrants. That is not true; but again, maybe the legal immigrant, especially visible or a train station in Europe, is the typical example. And these people may be particularly visible and particularly affecting people's perceptions. But, the best--not much we can do other than emphasizing very often in the question that we are talking about, legal.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think the fancy political science word or psychology word is "salience." So, an illegal population could be more salient--more at the front of people's minds; more people want to be more aware. The other advantage, of course, legal, is that you can measure--that we know things about them, at least we think we do, in terms of government data. So, we have some say of at least assessing the accuracy of people's perceptions--

Alberto Alesina: Actually, not. I mean, to be honest, I was surprised--it was surprising to me: Often when you have--well, of course, you have data on numbers and some[?]. But when you have data about their income and education and what they do and whatever, those are--they are not administrative[?] data; they are survey data taken on immigrant. And sometimes those surveys, they don't quite distinguish between legal and illegal. So, it's actually harder than you think to get the data that we use in the paper distinguishing carefully between legal and illegal, because some sources are not very clear on what they do. So, I think one of the sort of minor, or for some research not so minor, part of the paper is tied, probably had the best data, at least for this country, that distinguish information about illegal versus legal.


Russ Roberts: Well, I guess the other question is, is that even, in my looking very crudely at various data on income and wages, I've often found it somewhat uneven. The sources that are more reliable don't necessarily make a distinction between legal and illegal. And, as you point out, some of the surveys are just--their overall quality might not be as high as some of the data we might use on, say, the unemployment rate or that are at the national level.

Alberto Alesina: Of course.

Russ Roberts: So, it came up in passing--I asked listeners to think about what you think the proportion of, say, the U.S. population is--about three quarters of our listeners to EconTalk are in the United States, at least, according to our crude survey at the end of the year. The rest of them are scattered in 64 or so, 65, 66 different countries. And it's interesting to think about what you as the listener would think is the population that is foreign born in your country. In the United States, Alberto, as you just said, it's about 10%. I wonder how well our listeners would have done on that. What's the range in the 6 countries, for foreign born?

Alberto Alesina: By the way, before I answer your question, I must say, when I was writing this paper, oftentime when I was going out for dinner often with colleagues or friends, but we're all alike--kind of highly--

Russ Roberts: educated. Yeah.

Alberto Alesina: educated. And I asked them your question, and every single one overestimated the number of immigrants. Not as much as the average in our sample. But, the range of answers that I was getting was about 15% rather than 10%. Anyway, going back to your question, there is, of course, a variance in answers, which we report in some online appendix of the paper. But the median--the distribution of the answer is not enormous, and the median and the average is actually around 30%, as we report in the paper. So, there are people who have crazy answers. By the way, we do all of our work excluding answers which are clearly crazy--like, you know, 100%, or zero. And we also exclude analysis people that have taken too little time in filling out the survey, because we can follow how much time they do: so people that take an unreasonable small amount of time, we exclude their answers, even though at the end of the day it doesn't make any difference. So, a large fraction of the respondents give an answer between 25 and 35, and the average answer is about 30.

Russ Roberts: That's for the United States or across all 6 countries?

Alberto Alesina: That's for the United States. For the other countries--France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom--they mistake along the same order of magnitude. The number of immigrants in the other country is not that far from that of the United States--a little higher, a little lower. And people respond in the same order of magnitude like the United States. The only country that is actually more accurate are the Swedes, who have more immigrants, but they are actually more accurate. Because there, the number of immigrants in Sweden is close to 18%, and their average answer is around 27.

Russ Roberts: And that's not close; but it's not as way off as--

Alberto Alesina: It's not close, but it's about half of the mistake of the other countries. To be honest, when we started this survey, this project, then we asked the question, we were pretty sure that it would have been overestimated because of the salience of the immigration, because everybody today is reading about immigration, and all of that. We were quite shocked by the size of the misperception, I must say.

Russ Roberts: Of course, you didn't--you were looking at immigration. I've done many surveys of--one of my favorite statistics: the proportion of the American workforce that earns the minimum wage or less. I've done it with lawyers; I've done it with law professors; I've done it with first-rate journalists. And, the median answer in those groups has always been about 20%. Actually, at the time I was doing those surveys, it was about 2. So it was off by an order of magnitude, an extraordinary misreading. So, it could be that on numerous--it has nothing to do with salience; it's just that people are very uninformed about a wide range of economic data, about the economy as a whole. But, what I thought was one of the more important things you find, of course, is that: that mis-estimate, that overestimate, across countries is not that different by various other characteristics of the respondents. By the various characteristics of the respondents. Correct?

Alberto Alesina: That is quite correct. And it was actually more surprising than we thought. The only characteristics that distinguishes people in terms of what they expect about the number of immigrants--not so much the characteristics of immigrants; we'll get to it perhaps later--but on the size or the number of immigrants, not very much makes a difference in terms of the characteristics of the respondents. Neither in the United States nor in other countries. The only thing that seemed to matter--which, I find it actually interesting--is whether the respondent works in a sector which has over-representation of immigrants. And we defined that looking at the statistic of how many immigrants work in different sectors. We come out with a list of sectors that are high or low in terms of immigrants working in that sector. And, native respondents who work in sectors with more immigrants, they tend to overestimate more than their fellow natives about the number of immigrants. And other than that, no other characteristic mattered.

Russ Roberts: And the other characteristics you have are income; you have--

Alberto Alesina: income, gender, education, and, in the United States where we had more data and more information, where the respondent lived. But these characteristics--income, gender, education--whether they know an immigrant or not, incidentally, we ask--matter for other answers but not for the number of immigrants.

Russ Roberts: Which again is somewhat--it's not that surprising that people are making some crude estimate. It's not a number that's at people's fingertips. It's just interesting that they systematic--that they overestimate it rather than just be wildly inaccurate, which can of course be the other possibility.


Russ Roberts: Did you have party or ideological identification?

Alberto Alesina: Yes, yes, yes. I was about to mention that. Part of the ideology--on this point we ask two types of questions. In this paper, we used only one answer; but we are planning to write, continue to work and write, use the other part of the question. One question was simply whether you classify yourself as right-wing or left-wing; and we used the appropriate word for the appropriate country. So, in the United States, liberal and conservative; in other countries we used the appropriate word in the language which is common for that country. But then we also asked them which party you vote for in the latest election; and we didn't use those answers yet. We may do it in another paper, because some really striking result about [?] voters and voters for populist parties in Europe; but we may get to that later. Not later in this interview because I haven't written the paper yet; but later in my career.

Russ Roberts: Or next interview.

Alberto Alesina: The left-wing makes--the left/right makes a lot of difference in just about everything except on the misperception of the number of the immigrants. Both right-wing and left-wing responders misperceive about the same level the number of the immigrants. They misperceive other things. The right-wing thinks that the immigrants are poorer, more reliant on welfare, less educated, lazier than the left-winger. And they have a bigger misperception--in fact, everybody has, but for the right-wing it's bigger--of where the immigrant comes from. Namely, there is another general misperception is that, in all countries, natives think the immigrant comes from problematic countries or problematic religion. For example, they vastly overestimate the number of Muslim immigrants; and they vastly underestimate the number of Christian immigrants.

Russ Roberts: And that's true in all countries, according to, you are saying, across--before you correct for left/right, they over overestimate the Muslim population, underestimate the Christian--

Alberto Alesina: Right. So, everybody in every country overestimates the number of, say, Muslims and underestimate the number of Christians, with the exception of France. They don't overestimate the number of Muslims; and in fact, there are lots of Muslim immigrants in France. In the other countries, they all overestimate the number of Muslims and underestimate the number of Christians. But, the right-winger, they overestimate more than the left-winger--

Russ Roberts: Got it. Correct.


Russ Roberts: So, that's the next question. Is there anything else to add about--so people systematically, across ideology and across other characteristics overestimate the proportion of their fellow country-people that are immigrants. Let's talk then about other characteristics. You mention a left/right; but how accurate do people generally do on income, sources of countries for immigration? Are they accurate at all or do they overestimate systematically?

Alberto Alesina: They tend to overestimate the origin of immigrants. I gave you the example of Islam and Christian, but there are also overestimation about North Africa and Latin America--of course, that changes depending on, if you are in the United States, of course, the key issue is Latin America; and if you are in Europe, it's North Africa. So, when you talk about regions, it becomes a bit more complicated. But, the general point is that, in every country, people tend to overestimate the immigrants that are salient and problematic for that country. As opposed to, say, immigrants from Western Europe or more similar countries to the natives.

Russ Roberts: This is similar--by the way, I just want to mention this because I want to make clear what we're talking about. When NAFTA was passed in the United States--NAFTA of course stands for the North American Free Trade Agreement--all of the controversy was about Mexico. There are three countries: the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Canada was just not on the table as a worry, either because it isn't a worry--whatever that means--or because people are more likely to be worried about people who are "more different" than they are--however you might define that. And, to be honest--I'm going to reveal some of my biases or priors right now--I do think people demonize or scare people about, you know, people who are different from them--who don't have the same skin color, don't have the same religion. And, I think the news media, going back to my recent monologue on the topic, is prone to exaggerate and intensify the feelings people have about the other--people who are not like us, in whatever dimensions people are particularly worried about. And people, I think, like to read and watch and consume information that often increases their paranoia or xenophobia or anxiety, and for whatever reason don't seem so interested in being comforted by information that's more accurate, sometimes, about the situation.

Alberto Alesina: I couldn't agree more. You said it wonderfully. I wish I could have said it as well, when I write; but that's exactly--I completely agree. And, of course, the paper that we are talking about does not have any concrete evidence of what you just said, but I would say it is a perfectly--in my view, the right explanation for this misperception and so on.


Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about a few other variables and then we'll get into some of the redistribution issues. You mention, for example, that conservatives in America are more likely to see immigrants as lazy; and liberals are more likely to see them as hard-working. How do you get at that difference? Is it a scale variable? Do you have--when you ask people?

Alberto Alesina: No. Well, this is actually--the issue of--let me open a slight, but I think this is important. The issue of laziness or not laziness is something that more broadly in my earlier research, some of it with Stefanie as well, some of it is that attitude toward redistribution, both comparing in the United States and Europe but comparing people within each country, has to do with whether people that, the poor are worthy of their[?] or not. So, if you think are poor but they are lazy, everything else the same, you are less favorable to the redistribution. If you think that the poor are unfortunate, then you are more favorable to redistribution. It turns out that there are a ton of papers that confer that these are very, very important determinants of people's preference and willing to redistribute. So, in general, so that's a fact, that we knew even [?] in this paper. So, the way these attitudes are pursued is, in general, to ask a question which is a variant of a question that is in the World Values Survey, which is a worldwide, respected survey about attitudes and about aid to countries. And the question is--I don't remember the exact wording, but it's pretty close to saying, 'Do you think that the poor are poor because of lack of effort in their work, or because they are unfortunate?' Just to give you a number, in the United States something like 70% of respondents say that the poor are poor because of lack of effort; and in Europe, that number is 30%. So, this was an important--it is an important determinant of preference for redistribution. So, in evaluating in this paper to discuss the preference for redistribution versus immigration, one issue is to say, 'Do natives believe that immigrants are lazy?' So, we asked the question, 'Do you think that immigrants are poor because they are lazy?' And the vast majority of respondents responded that the immigrants are poor because they are lazy. But then we did something which is, we thought that was actually interesting: that namely, then we ask another question along the same line, which is, we said, 'Do you think immigrants are poorer than natives because they are lazier than natives?' And, to some surprise, in all countries there is a good portion that people did not think that immigrants were that much lazier than--

Russ Roberts: native-born[?]--

Alberto Alesina: A little bit--they were a little bit. But, not that much lazier than natives. So, the natives think that the immigrants aren't lazy, but, you know, not much more than the lazy poor. So, in other words, in Sweden, they think that poorer people are not lazy, neither the natives nor the immigrant, even though the immigrant a bit more than the natives. And in the United States, lots of people think that the poor are lazy, and the immigrant a little more than the natives, but not much more.


Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to make a little confession here; this is a digression. When I was younger, I felt that, you know, the America economy was so great, that anyone can find a job here--which still might be true in some dimension. But, it's also the case, since I've gotten older, I've gotten much more sympathetic to the straits and challenges facing people who grow up in situations very different from my own. And so I'm much more open-minded and agnostic about the question of why certain people struggle to make a living, say. There's all kinds of stuff going on. There's family background; there's genetics; there's bad luck; there's the current state of the economy--could be in recession. There's our horrible education system that predictably punishes--it's not horrible for everybody; it's particularly bad though for people in America who are growing up in very poor neighborhoods. Hard to disentangle that from family issues and culture, but it's still, I think, a problem. So, I'm much more agnostic about the question. Having said that, about whose "fault" it is why people are poor. And I'm much more sympathetic to the challenges of life. But, having said that, it's kind of interesting to think about that distinction you mentioned between the United States and Europe--that 70% of Americans blame the poor for their own poverty. And, in Europe it's basically reversed. What did you say? What did you say, 20% or--

Alberto Alesina: Yeah. Basically, it's close to being reversed. These are slightly, you know, 4- or 5-year old data, but I don't think they've changed that much in 5 years.

Russ Roberts: No. So, what strikes me about that--it's a digression from our conversation, but I think it's interesting--of course, I suspect it's the case that it's easier for a poorer person in America to find work than it is in Europe. I think the American economy still is more dynamic than the European economy, especially for younger people struggling to get into the labor force, make the investments. And, of course, the welfare state in Europe is more generous--in Europe than it is in the United States--overall, at least across the board. And for certain groups, maybe, you know, one of which I'll turn to[?] is a little different. But, in general, across the board, for, say, working-age men, I think Europe is more generous. And so, it's--can you blame someone for taking a welfare payment that's more generous? So, it's reasonable that Europeans and Americans would differ. That doesn't necessarily get at the true, underlying perception they have of their situation versus, say, poor people. Now, I do agree--I think it's hard for successful people to empathize with people who are struggling. I think it's easy for successful people to credit their own merit rather than good luck. And yet, I do think there's some merit. And I do think there's some bad luck for people who are poor. But, I do think, it's not--that statement about your person in the United States--there's a lot going on there. That's what I'm trying to say, I guess.

Alberto Alesina: Yes. I mean, actually, I have a comment, a comment and an important digression, and then a related point would bring us back to the paper. The first point is that there are data on social mobility in the United States and Europe. And I actually, in a previous paper with Stefanie Stantcheva and Edoardo Teso which is published in the AER [American Economic Review] of this year, we actually do work which is somewhat related methodologically to the paper we are talking about, asking people about what they think about social mobility in the United States, and in the same countries in Europe. And what it turns out is something that I hypothesize without much data in a book with Ed Glaeser about 10 years ago, is that Americans think, as you said, that there are much more options for upward mobility in the United States than in Europe. And, Europeans think that there is much less mobility than in the United States. And, but, in reality, the data on social mobility for the United States and Europe show that, on average, there is not that much difference. Europe--in the United States, of course, there is a huge variance. There is part of the country where social mobility is very high. Parts of it are very low. But just looking at the average, which is actually [?] number, is not that different from, say, Germany, France, and Italy. But Americans think that it is much bigger than what it is. And Europeans think that it is worse than it is. And therefore Americans are more optimistic about poor can make it. And probably more optimistic than they should be. And Europeans are very pessimistic, probably more pessimistic than they should be, about whether a poor can make it or not. Especially given the generous welfare state that you just mentioned--


Russ Roberts: Can I react to that? And then you can hold that thought, your second thought, which is going to bring us back to the paper. But, my thought, when you make that point--and I've seen a lot of those papers that show that, surprisingly American mobility is not that great and there's not that much movement among groups. And, a lot of that is a little bit hard to interpret. Because, first of all, sometimes it's relative mobility--the ability to move, you know, up a number of quintiles, say--as opposed to absolutely mobility: whether you actually can do better. Which are two very different things. And, the second thing is it doesn't--there's, often, I suspect--I just could be wrong; I just don't know. But, I suspect there's this activity, a selection bias problem there. Because the people who are not mobile are not in the sample. You are typically looking at people who have income in Year 1 and you are comparing them to Year 10, and seeing where they are relative to other people in the country. But, a lot of people maybe are not working. The reason I make the point about relative mobility or relative opportunities in the two countries is that the data on unemployment, especially youth unemployment--Europe seems so much higher. Maybe it's not measured the same way. Maybe it's temporary. Maybe it's doesn't last. But, the numbers that I typically read--and maybe they are biased sources--but the numbers I typically read about, say, youth unemployment in France or youth unemployment in the United Kingdom, are shockingly high compared to the United States. And so, I always assume that's a very bad forecast, a very depressing forecast for future opportunity. Do you think that's a relevant issue, the selection bias across countries?

Alberto Alesina: It's a--that of course is not my research, but I certainly agree with you that this number about unemployment, youth unemployment, in some countries, are staggering. And, of course, when we talk about social mobility we are talking about the past--the past generation. It is perfectly possible that in future generations things will look quite different for Europe. They are certainly looking very different for Italy.

Russ Roberts: But I'm making the point that, even in the current, say, recent short-term measures of mobility, people who aren't in the labor force either at the beginning of your sample or the end, are not called stagnant. They are just not in the data. That's what I'm wondering. Because they are not observed to have an income. They are not observed to have any income. They are not treated as a zero. They are just rejected from the sample.

Alberto Alesina: Right. That is a good point. I suspect people that worked on this, like Raj Chetty[?] and company that work for the United States--

Russ Roberts: you'd think they'd worry about that, yeah--

Alberto Alesina: the issue of the--I don't know how, but they must have worried about that. But I'm not that [?]. But, certainly, if you compare the United States and Europe with very different unemployment data, employment subsidies, and treatment of unemployed, I'm not 100% sure what they do.

Russ Roberts: Okay. So, I interrupted you. Do you remember where you were going to go to bring us back to the paper?

Alberto Alesina: The paper--it's related to the transfer and social welfare and transfer to the poor, and the lazy, and so on. There is one experiment--or not experiment--one question we ask which ask which we thought was fascinating, which was: First, we ask whether the native believe that immigrants receive more, per capita, more transfer than natives. And they answer is, 'Yes. They receive more transfers than natives.' Now, you may say, 'Well, that's fine. If they think that they are poorer it's perfectly normal that they receive more transfers.' But then we asked another question, which is, 'Suppose that in your country there are two individuals. The first one is named, for the United States, say, John--typical American name. And for the other person is named,' and we choose a clearly immigrant name, say, Mohammed or Carlos, or we actually try with different names and the result doesn't make any difference. And, they have the same income, the same work[?]. We make it very clear that they are identical, except the one is native and the other one is presumably immigrant. And there are a very large number of respondents both in the United States and in other countries--I remember a number like 50% of the respondents in a few countries, particularly France and Italy were the worst offender--they answer that the immigrant gets much more than the natives. Simply because he's called Carlos and not John, or Mohammed and not Alberto. And, looking at the answer, there is like something close to 20%--I don't think this is reported in the paper but I remember the number, that about 20% of French respondents--and the number was a bit lower in the other countries but not that much lower--believe that the person named with an immigrant name received more than twice as much as the native. So, there is--

Russ Roberts: So, it's not like a dollar more.

Alberto Alesina: So, it sounds like natives perceive that the system discriminates in favor of immigrants. And, with obvious consequences for their views about the welfare state.


Russ Roberts: Now, when you say you gave them two individuals with the same income and the same characteristics except their names, did each respondent get two people to think about? Or did some people get the immigrant, versus some people got the native name?

Alberto Alesina: No, no, no. The same person. The same respondent we told: Consider two individuals. The question was, 'Consider two individuals. One is named John, and one is named Mohammed. They have the same income,'--not to make it too boring we wrote a question that was meant to make think that they were economically identical. But--they had the same number of children, where one was, [?] named John and the other one, and how much did they get? And there were varied[?] options: the same, which of course, the right answer. And, by the way, in Sweden, they, like, you know--no, actually, it was Germany, they were actually right. Like, 90% of the German respondents said they get the same. Which is, of course, the right answer. But in all the other countries there was, you know, up to 20% of people said that Mohammed gets more than twice as much.

Russ Roberts: Twenty percent said that Mohammed gets more than twice as much?

Alberto Alesina: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Wow.

Alberto Alesina: We didn't report that particular number of the twice as much in the paper; but in the paper we do report that, like, 50% of French believe, and 50% of Italian--more than 50% of French and Italians--believe that the Mohammed guy gets more than John.

Russ Roberts: That's fascinating. Kind of extraordinary. And--

Alberto Alesina: But in Italy--I live in Italy, where I--I am in Italy where, as you know, there is this crazy--where in Europe where there is this issue of emergency in the Mediterranean and all that. But, a kind of thing you read about immigrants, really blows your mind away. It is unbelievable.

Russ Roberts: Of this kind, you mean. This kind of result.

Alberto Alesina: Yeah, this kind. The idea that you read things like, 'These people come here and they become rich with our welfare, and they don't work. And we pay their taxes. And, we pay them, with their taxes.' While it turns out that in Italy, actually because the age in population, which is well known by people who believe in number and not perception that actually illegal[legal?] immigrants are helping us because they are [?] and they have more kids and they pay contribution to our pension system which is in bad shape.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I always like to point out that illegal immigrants typically are contributing to Social Security and other pensions, essentially; but are not going to collect it if they are illegal because they don't have a legitimate Social Security number of their own. They are just using a fake one. But, the other point I would make--

Alberto Alesina: But even the legal contribute more than they get. They help--they help the Social Security System in Italy because they are younger than average--

Russ Roberts: because they are working. I would point out, again, that I would guess that if you ask the average American what somebody makes on Disability or various welfare programs, they would wildly overestimate the amount. It's just interesting that they even more wildly overestimate it for someone with an immigrant name, rather than a domestic name.

Alberto Alesina: On this particular score, the Americans were not the worst offenders. I think the Italians and the French were the worst offenders. But even the Americans overestimated wildly.


Russ Roberts: Okay. So, I want to turn to redistribution now, and attitudes toward redistribution. So, you did some standard things that were looking at the relationship between people's attitudes towards immigrants and their willingness to support redistribution; expansion of or existence of the welfare state. Or even private charity. But, you also did some very creative things. Well, let's start with that. Let's start with what you found about that, and then I want to move to the priming issue.

Alberto Alesina: Okay. So, well, first of all, we started with asking people about whether redistribution in a fairly detailed way. We asked them a lot of questions, because we had the same, we used the same question we used in a previous paper. So, we are very specific about a bunch of questions; but probably similarity of the tax system, and whether you want to spend on Social Security or other stuff. And also, we asked them to make a donation. We tell them that they had some ticket for a lottery, and if they win the lottery--I forget what it were but some--

Russ Roberts: $1000, I remember. I read the paper more recently than you have.

Alberto Alesina: $1000. Yeah, yeah, right. A thousand dollars. And, but they could donate some of those dollars to a charity, and we specify for each country the charity--a couple of charities they could donate to. Which specifies to make sure that needn't pick one that was hated by most. So, the answer about the distribution was, the answer about the distribution was usually fairly standard: People would be expected in favor of the distribution where[?], and left-wing more than right-wing, and rich people less than poor people. And, you know, all perfectly normal. And then we asked, the second set of questions was about immigration: What do you think about, we should have restricted--various examples of: Do we want to have more restrictive laws about immigration? Limit the number? A bunch of many, many questions which put, classified people as those in favor of welcoming immigrants or people think, 'Let's keep them out.' So, and again, we got very reasonable response. Left-winger were more in favor of immigration. Interestingly, poor people working in immigration-intensive sector did not want immigrant. But, rich people, even though they are living in, immigration-intensive people, wanted them. So, Indian engineer[?] in Silicon Valley where more than welcome by, you know, rich people in Silicon Valley, to pick an example; but poor people did not want workers--is going to be competing with their job--in high-immigration sectors. And then we did a few things. The first experiment we did, which was, we thought the results were quite striking--

Russ Roberts: Yes, they are. It's amazing.--

Alberto Alesina: We did the following. So, half of the respondents, we first showed the, what we call redistribution blocks--a bunch of questions about redistribution. Without ever, ever mentioning immigration. And never, when they start taking the survey, they have any idea that the survey is about immigration. So, the first set of questions they get after their personal characteristic is: What do you think about the distribution? And then, we ask them about various questions about immigration. To the other half of randomly chosen people, we do the opposite: We first ask them a bunch of questions about immigration. And then, we ask them a bunch of questions about redistribution. The same question, the same to blocks, but changing the order. So, the only difference between the order is that those that see immigration first, they are prompt[?] to think about the issue of immigration, of course. In fact, we ask them maybe 15 questions about immigration. So, clearly they have been thinking about immigration. And the result is that those people who have seen the immigration question first, they are much more averse to redistribution--holding everything else constant--than people who have seen the redistribution question first. So, making people think about immigration makes them much less favorable to redistribution. And that is very, very strong--it's just there. No matter how you look at the data, it's just there: The total for every country, [?] for the countries together. And, it's just there.

Russ Roberts: And, what's the magnitude? What kind of magnitudes are we talking about, here? Because, you have to just make an aside here: You can have a statistically significant result that's not very significant. So, how much difference does--what kind of impact does it have? How important is that difference? It's imaginable, I understand, that people who are prompted might respond differently than if they weren't prompted. But, you know, how big is the difference?

Alberto Alesina: There are of course many ways of looking at the size of the difference in different countries according to different answers about different types of the distribution. One summary answer is to say that, about, a little more than 5% of the people who have seen the immigration question first are likely to say that immigration, that inequality is a problem. In other words, 3% of those, 50%[?] more of the people who see immigration first are more likely to think that immigration is a problem. Again, that number varies across countries; and it varies depending on which measure of redistribution you look at.

Russ Roberts: You say--it's a 5% change. You said?

Alberto Alesina: A 5% change. Which is 3 percentage points.

Russ Roberts: And I'm looking at the paper here--it says that's about 13% of the gap between Left- and Right-wing respondents. So, it takes you an eighth of the way toward the other ideology.

Alberto Alesina: Exactly.


Russ Roberts: So, what do we make of all this? It is very interesting work. It's extremely timely, for better or for worse: it's a huge issue. And, in a recent episode of EconTalk I had a long monologue on the issue why things seem to be so different politically in the United States and in Europe today, relative to, say, 20 years ago. And one answer is, a standard is, that the rise of populism--worries about Brexit, and the vote on Brexit, in the United Kingdom; the election of Donald Trump--that a lot of this is a response to immigration. And my claim, at least in that monologue--and I gave a one-sided view there because I wanted to hope people understand how I think about this. Whether it's right or not, I don't know. But, my claim is that a lot of our attitudes toward various political issues are being created in a very different environment for news and information. That, we are prone to find news sources because of the rise of the Internet, and Cable Television, we are prone to find news sources that confirm our biases, that get us riled up, that make us angry, that vilify our ideological opponents. And, so, the question--I do think people are much more concerned about immigration. But, what your work says, at least the part that confirms my story, is that: It's true people are more concerned about it, but part of their concern is not accurate. It's exaggerated, the impulse that people have to be worried about people who are different from them. And, that we are prone, if we are not careful, to work ourselves up about something that's not as important as we might think it is, or that we might hear it is, over and over and over again--if we watch Fox News or MSNBC, if we read the New York Times versus the Wall Street Journal. And, that this is having a serious impact on our political life. Now, your paper is not about this. Your paper is just trying to characterize how people feel about immigrants, and how they feel, understand, how accurately they understand it; and the results of their support for various forms of redistribution. But, it seems to me that the underlying problem here, whether it's the news environment that I'm thinking I'm particularly worried about these days, or the concerns that people have, are: They are not accurate. It's deeply disturbing.

Alberto Alesina: I couldn't agree more. But, let me just add that, we, in our conversation we focused about what is on about redistribution. But there is also another part of the paper in which we look at how these misperceptions about immigrant lead to different views about immigration. Immigration policies. Not redistribution. So, and there, the effect of this misperception are not surprisingly very, very large. Because, if people have complete--if people feel that in their country they are invaded by immigrants, clearly they have different views than if they do not believe that. So, the misperception about the size, type, and nature of immigration affects not only indirectly preference for distribution, but also very directly a discussion about immigration policies, which, as you said, is very divisive, both in the United States and in Europe. And I couldn't agree more with you. I mean, this paper, needless to say, this paper has no prescription for whether, what policies for immigration to have. It's very far from having any policy prescription. But, all we can say, all that this paper suggests is that this conversation should be happening with real data and not with perceived data. And not with ideological screen, but reality. And unfortunately, as you said, with examples in the United States, that's happening in other countries as well. I mean, there's one example that I always make, that is: Even in the more, in the best newspapers in Italy, when there is a crime committed, now it is perfectly normal, acceptable, to say an immigrant from country X has committed this crime. Now, this immigrant may actually be second-generation or an Italian citizen: but the news reads, 'Some guy from,' say, 'Morocco has killed an Italian woman.' And you can imagine what that kind of reaction generates. And there is a lot of it going on. And that indeed would cause many of the misperceptions. And, of course, those people who are anti-immigration, for whatever reason, even for perfectly reasonable and honest and intellectually defensible reason, they have no interest in correcting these biases.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; and I think--you know--for me, I'm very open and up front about the fact that I think immigration is generally a good--has been a good thing for America and continues to be a good thing for most Americans. And I say that out of compassion for people who live in places that are poor, who have come here; and also, their impact mostly overwhelmingly positive on American life--culturally, but also just in the fact that their opportunities to work here, to do things at lower wages than Americans would be happy to do them at, that's hard on some Americans. It's good for a lot of Americans in the money that is saved by paying less is freed up to do other things that helps create opportunities for Americans who have skills like immigrants. So, it's very unclear; and obviously it's a huge debate about who are winners or losers from a more open-border policy. But I'm generally, for a whole bunch of reasons, selfish and non-selfish, interested in having open borders. Whether they should be more open than they are now--I tend to be sympathetic that they should be more open. How open is an interesting question. I think we should get rid of the welfare state for immigrants at least right away; I think we should discourage people coming here to be beneficiaries of the welfare state. But I don't think that's a big problem right now. At least, that's my perception.


Russ Roberts: But, having said all that--so, I'm just laying my cards on the table--I think it's the case--and this is what I want to close on, and hear your reaction: It's the case that American culture generally has been something of a melting pot. We can debate how well it works, how well people assimilate in 2018 versus 1940 or 1880. And those are relevant questions. But, in general, America's identity has always been that we are open to people who aren't just like us--because there's no such thing as just like us. We are a nation of immigrants. And most Americans--of course, it depends on the time of history--but most Americans are pretty positive about that, in general. And so, they are more, in recent years not so much, but in general America I think is fairly open to immigration. Certainly we've taken a lot more immigrants than most other countries. Then you go to a place like Italy, where you are from, originally. So, the point I want to finish there on the American side is: So, somebody who has been here for two generations is not a Mexican-American. They are an American. That's what we call 'em. And you are suggesting that in Italy, and I suspect here as well, there is an intent--an increasing and somewhat disturbing, to me, identification of people with where they came from originally. Not with where they were born. Even if they've been here for 2 or 3 generations. And that, I find, scary. Not so healthy, for America. And certainly not healthy for Italy. But, having said that, my impression is that Europe is much--doesn't see itself as an assimilation, a melting-pot-kind-of-place like America does. There's a very strong Italian culture, a very strong French culture, a very strong British culture, a very strong German culture. And there's a deep concern that people who come from different places don't share that. And they don't come to share it, I think is the concern. Right? And so, you know, when I think of--I've mentioned this before--when I think of many small towns in Italy, they are a little bit like museums. They are very--they are beautifully preserved, and it's great for tourism. It's not so good if you are an immigrant hoping to find opportunity in that place. It may be--but many Italians, I assume, like it that way. They don't want the skyline of Florence to be changed. They love it the way it is. And someone who comes from somewhere else who wasn't raised to love it is not going to love it the way they do, who have lived there for 6 generations or 20 generations. So, I'm kind of rambling here. I'm sorry. But I'd like your reaction to that, in terms of just the cultural issues of identity and how you felt--I'm curious what your personal feeling is, as someone who is identifiably not born in America, because of your accent. You have a name that is not, like, John Smith. You have Alberto Alesina. It's a beautiful name, to me. But, it's different. So, I'm curious. What are your thoughts?

Alberto Alesina: Well, first of all, you were not rambling at all. I think you put--you really summarized extremely well what the issues are. And let me, before giving you an [?], let me re-summarize in a slightly different way: The United States is a country of immigrant; it was born as a country of immigrant. And it went through pain and suffering; but they developed a system which is reasonably welcoming for immigrants. And they developed a melting pot. Which is more or less working. Europe does not have that history. And they are not used to waves of immigration. And they face all the issues that you are mentioning. Not only that: They do not have even a culture or a research or a thinking about immigration. I mean, if you--in the United States, I don't know how many thousands and thousands and thousands of pages have been written on integration, immigration, affirmative action--

Russ Roberts: Diversity, multiculturalism--

Alberto Alesina: Diversity, multicul--

Russ Roberts: Tolerance--

Alberto Alesina: I could probably fill[field?] 3 libraries. If you find 10 books written about this in Europe, you'd be lucky. So, Europeans are ages behind Americans in dealing with that, one. Second, they are giving a really despicable [?], or fighting with each other about who can save boats of dying poor North Africans, which is really despicable. And, but, this is all fine. But, yes, you actually have a point: That, since European countries have not been melting pots historically, now, how do immigrants integrate in culture which are much less melting pot but little pots that don't melt? Like Italy, or France, or Portugal, or Greece? Now, to go to the little cities in, you know, even smaller than Florence, but to do in those wonderful small town in Italy, probably they don't see yet a lot of immigrants. They are mostly in big cities. But, still, what you raise is a very, very critical issue. Do I have answers? No. But the only answer I have, which is given in this paper, is that we need to start talking about this--but, with the right--with the reality from [?] and not with stereotypes and from perceptions.

Russ Roberts: I look forward to your ongoing work in the area. And I do think it's incredibly important to get the facts right. And, one of the issues that we talk about on EconTalk sometimes is--or I talk about--is how hard it is to measure things. Particularly causation in a multivariate system. And the challenge of econometric analysis. What we've been talking about today are facts. And I always argue the facts are important; that evidence matters. It's just a matter of what's reliable evidence versus what is, what looks like science versus what is science. And, of course, in this paper, you've made lots of decisions, and there are things you had to measure in certain ways. So, it's not like it's measuring the length of a stick with a ruler. But, most of what we are talking about today is just simply what is. Not anything about--not that much about interpretation. There's not that much statistical analysis. There is some in the paper, by the way; we didn't talk about it. But, what I thought was important about this paper is: It just is a window into how we look at the world and the [?] have and its implications for how we vote, and how we treat each other, and how we treat each other when we are not the same. We come from different places; and this strikes me as extremely important work, so I'm very grateful for it.

Alberto Alesina: Thank you, Russ. It's been a pleasure, as always, and I hope we can do it again.

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