Reihan Salam and Tim Lee have written very thoughtful posts on immigration and the whether and why that affects our the size of our collective economic pie.

Reihan defends the fixed-pie model of the economy that conservatives elsewhere reject, which Tim levels as evidence of conservative hypocrisy. If I could try and summarize Reihan’s position very succinctly, it would be that at some level, pies become fixed. Put into economics-speak, in many systems, including our economy, and it’s various micro-economies, at some scale returns diminish, and then they become negative.

I think Matt Yglesias and others might point to Manhattan and Honk Kong with their 10,000+ people per square feet and argue that we are nowhere near negative returns in the country as a whole. But Reihan, I’m guessing, would argue that Manhattan did not get to it’s level of density over night, and that it is the sustainable flow, not the sustainable level, that he is worried we would go over. In terms of what the costs, or losses the country would suffer by going “too fast” with immigration, I think Reihan lays it out nicely:

“There are, however, congestion and other costs associated with an increase in the size of the population, which vary according to the demographic characteristics of the population. Given that the United States is a mixed economy in which we devote a large share of public resources to educating children, incarcerating criminal offenders, providing health services to the indigent, etc., one can raise legitimate questions about what constitutes an economically sustainable population influx consistent with maintaining public institutions in some recognizable form.”

There are two important points to make here, one about skilled immigration, and one about immigration overall. Let me start with the latter. Unlike the more open borders people, I tend to worry that at some level of immigration, some of our cultural, legal, and economic institutions might give. I know that’s sort of a mushy and imprecise claim, and it’s not satisfying to keep millions of people from drastically improving their lives for the sake of mushy and imprecise ideas, but I think part of the reason that this country is capable of improving lives so greatly, and is such a beacon and desirable destination to so many people is precisely because of the cultural, legal, and economic institutions we have here.

My concerns about borders that open up too much or too fast is both that these institutions degrade, and that Americans will react to the degradation of these institutions by choosing to close the doors even more drastically than they are now. We are a democracy after all, and that is part of the draw of this place. This is why I propose a gradual opening of the gates, and moving them farther and farther open. To me the degradation of institutions is purely speculation at this point: America is not suffering from a blight of immigrants. At current margins I believe both skilled and unskilled immigrants are a net plus, and at the very least I think we can all agree they are no serious threat to our institutions. We’ve got an amazing, powerful, engine for freedom and wealth here, and we’re driving her around at 15 mph because we’re worried that the engine might blow out at 100 mph. Let’s open her up slowly and see what she can handle, because it’s certainly more than this.

The second point I want to make is about skilled immigration. All the reasons that Reihan argues that the pie is fixed at some level do not apply to high-skilled, english speaking immigrants. In fact the more skilled immigrants we let in the farther we can go before we encounter fixed-pieism. In other words, skilled enlglish immigrants provide us with more tax money to support the government part of our mixed economy, and they tend to not go to jail, and they tend to provide educated well-behaved children to our school systems. They grow the pie. Jose Vargas is a perfect example. He is a force that strengthens, not stretches, our institutions. If a fixed pie is what we are worried about with respect to immigration, then we need to divide the conversation into two pieces: skilled and unskilled immigrants.

A final thing I’d like to address is Reihan’s response to a comparison from Tim Lee. First, here is Tim:

Entering the country without government permission is illegal, and probably should be so. The federal government has any number of powers to enforce the law, including refusing to let you cross the border (leave the airport, etc), investigating over-stayed visas, limiting access to driver’s licenses, auditing employers, deporting people, and so forth. Objecting to any particular immigration enforcement mechanism isn’t the same thing as objecting to immigration regulations altogether. It’s perfectly coherent to say that the government should make a reasonable effort to prevent people from moving here illegally, but that certain types of particularly invasive enforcement methods (like employer verification) should be off the table. This is just how our legal system works.

But I also think speeding cameras are a bad idea because I sometimes think the posted speed limit is too low and I like the fact that I can ignore it and (mostly) not get caught. Similarly, our copyright laws are too strict; it’s a good thing that people can sometimes share content in circumstances that a strict reading of the law wouldn’t allow. In other words, the fact that people can mostly get away with breaking certain laws is a feature, not a bug, of our legal system. It provides a “safety valve” that ensures that stupid legislation doesn’t do too much damage.

The same point applies to immigration law. Obviously, we ought to enact sane immigration laws that make it easy for people like Jose Vargas to get a green card. But given that we haven’t done that, it’s a good thing—both for him and for the rest of us—that our enforcement system wasn’t effective enough to prevent him from taking a job here.

Again, there’s a huge double standard here. We American citizens take a strictly moralistic tone toward laws that we don’t personally have to follow. But “the rule of law” goes out the window when it comes to that pot you smoked in college, or the use taxes you haven’t paid on your Amazon purchases, or those pirated MP3s on your hard drive. When we’re talking about laws that actually affect us, we’re glad there’s some breathing room between the law on the books and what people actually get punished for.

And here is Reihan:

 “When we violate copyright laws or when the authorities are lax in enforcing the speed limit, we don’t create a situation in which people are forced to lead a shadow life that will contribute to larger social problems. These infractions are of a fundamentally different kind. Now, one might object that we could then just give said people in the shadows a path to citizenship, thus solving the problem. But this would mean ceding authority over our immigration laws to those who are willing to break them.”

I think Tim is exactly right, and I don’t think these are as different as Reihan suggests. When we violate the speed limit we are potentially putting people at risk. When we violate copyright laws we are potentially discouraging those artists, or other artists, from creating more output in the future that we would all benefit from. When an illegal immigrant comes here they are *potentially* contributing to larger social problems. In each of these cases there is a risk, but not a certainty, of imposing costs on someone else. In the case of Jose Vargas, the man was clearly reducing social problems through his excellent writing.

The “shadow life” part seems like a cost born strictly by the immigrant, and I’d leave it to them to decide whether their lives were improved by coming or not, and staying or leaving. But I’m not sure if living in the shadows is a cost to the immigrants is a claim Reihan was actually trying to make, or if he simply meant the shadow life is what is contributing to larger social problems. If it’s the latter I’d be interested in some more elaboration here as to what the shadow life is and how it contributes to larger social problems.

Unsurprisingly from Reihan and Tim, I find this disagreements clarifying and thought provoking, and I’m glad to be seeing this exchange.

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