In Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation, he points to three main types of low-hanging fruit that helped drive America’s earlier economic growth but are now drying up:
In a figurative sense, the American economy has enjoyed lots of low-hanging fruit since at least the seventeenth century, whether it be free land, lots of immigrant labor, or powerful new technologies. Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there.
Yet while real limiting factors may have caused free land and powerful new technologies to start disappearing over the past 40 years, the only thing that has made “lots of immigrant labor” go away is our political choice to let in less immigrants. I think Tyler is wrong to largely neglect more and better immigration as a way to reverse our Great Stagnation. One could argue that changing opinions about immigration is very difficult, but so too is his crusade to raise the status of scientists, one of his main recommendations for stagnation reversal. Read this quote from his book, for instance, and you decide whether it could just as easily apply to immigration:
That’s going to be hard to achieve, but it’s not a question of lacking the resources. We simply need to will it, and change our collective attitudes, for it to happen. It’s a potential free lunch sitting right in front of us.
I’ve sort of made this point somewhat before, but I think it bears repeating, especially given our current political debates. If Tyler is right, and lots of immigrant labor was one of the most important drivers of our early growth, and a crucial low-hanging fruit, then our subsequent Great Stagnation should be regarded, at least in part, as a choice.