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Adam Ozimek: What “You Didn’t Build That” Tells Us About Immigration

Mexican immigration

Adam Ozimek has a new post agreeing with my take on immigration in my post "You Didn’t Build That: American Edition."  He begins:

University of Michigan economist Miles Kimball has a novel and important and take on President Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” statement and the ensuing debate.

What Adam adds is to the moral case that I make is to point out how small the costs to current citizens are of allowing additional immigration:

I think this is one of the most important and underemphasized ideas right now. I am constantly humbled at how fortunate any of us are to have been born here, and disappointed at how shamefully entitled we act towards this luck. The idea, for instance, that we should block millions from moving here and vastly bettering their lives because there may be a small statistical impact on some subset of us. On the basis of a 5% wage premium for high school dropouts (who we otherwise neglect in so many other ways) we’re going to exclude others from a privilege we did nothing to inherit? Just as egregious is excluding them because we refuse to either design a policy that allows low-skilled workers to enter and pay their on way (which they could!) or just let them enter and bear the minor cost like we do for low-income natives. (Of course we don’t exempt the high-skilled from paying more than their share, which they do).

It is hard to reconcile the selfish attitudes embodied in the kind of mindset that would lock someone out of this unbelievable American system for the sake protecting an unearned privilege, and for the sake of trying to capture every last ounce of luck for themselves…

And I interpret the following passage from Adam’s post as making the point that the cost to current citizens of allowing additional immigration is especially low, or nonexistent if one includes the dynamic benefits to the economy from immigration:

Ironically it is this open, free, and welcoming attitude we turn our backs on that in large part has made us a great and powerful nation. Where would we be if we pulled up the drawbridge in 1800? Or in 1900? This country would be a shadow of itself, and would’ve turned away many of the great Americans, or their parents or grandparents, who made us who we are.

I do not have the expertise to comment as knowledgeably as I would like on what the actual costs and benefits of immigration to current citizens are, so I very much hope that others in the economic blogosphere will continue to clarify these costs and benefits, so that misconceptions can be dispelled. But I also hope that in talking about the evidence about those costs and benefits that we don’t lose sight of the ethical point that those who desperately want to immigrate to the United States are human beings too, whose welfare counts just as much, ethically, as the welfare of citizens of the United States. Here is the comment I made to Adam’s post on the Modeled Behavior blog

Thanks, Adam! 

In my post, I didn’t emphasize how small the costs to current citizens are from immigration, because I wanted to make a full-throated moral argument that we should allow open immigration even if the costs to current citizens were relatively large: even substantial costs to current citizens could not possibly be anywhere close to the magnitude of the benefit to those allowed to immigrate. Also, I understand that there are many who will never be convinced that the costs of additional immigration to current citizens are modest.

But of course the fact that the costs to current citizens are relatively modest makes the case that much stronger. I have thought about what I would say if someone said to me “But you are a well-off professor, you aren’t the one who would bear the costs of additional immigration.” Given how many times greater the benefits to the immigrants are compared to the costs to current citizens (10, 100, or more times greater, I would think, for immigrants from very poor countries), I would say it was as if my challenger were saying “But it wouldn’t be your suit that would get wet if I jumped in to save the drowning man!” 

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