The Dreamers and Me

President Trump just announced that he was rolling back an Obama executive order intended to give respite to illegal immigrants brought to the US by their parents when they were minors. I know what I feel about this action. I have to figure out what I think.  (I can cry with the best of them! Left-wing liars are having a field day right now. One just said on NPR that the purpose of the decision is to make America “white again,” N. S.!)

I am an immigrant. I immigrated into this country at 21. I was a high school dropout from France. I had no marketable skill but I knew English pretty well. I had no money. (That’s “Not any.”) I carried a small suitcase containing mostly some Navy clothing from my recent service. The Unites States did not need me.* No one had invited me except the late George and Rose-Marie McDaniel of Novato, California. (They had met me during my stint as a high school exchange student three years earlier, financed by others.) Don’t worry, I am not going to cram down your throat yet another heroic story of hard immigrant work and well deserved achievement.

I prospered in this country for more than fifty years. I had a very good American life. I lived well and I thrived unexpectedly from an intellectual standpoint. My wife, an artist and also an immigrant, was able to paint as we raised our children. All of this because many individuals and several institutions gave me a push and a pull, an encouraging word, and downright gifts along the way (including free tuition at both a community college and a major university). If I were given only two words to describe American society, they would be: “generous, fair.”

The American society I know does not visit upon the sons the sins of the fathers. It especially does not do so when the sins of the fathers were mostly misdemeanors at the time they were committed – entering the country illegally was only a misdemeanor. The American society I know would not throw over the fence its young neighbors to somehow manage in a foreign country they know little or not at all, in a language they may know badly or, again, not at all. Those among us who would do either must be blinded by anger. (And there are good reasons to be angry about immigration.)

In his announcement, President Trump did not throw out anybody, as the Left-leaning media made it sound. First, he gave Congress six months to do what Congress should have done in the first place: Solve through legislation the human and ethical problem posed by the presence in our country of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are technically illegal through no fault of theirs. The president is playing chicken with Congress: If you do nothing, you will be collectively responsible for a gross, un-American injustice. Keep in mind that the president retains the right to promulgate his own royal reprieve it Congress fails to act.

Second, the president is using this opportunity to prod Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to begin instituting wholesale immigration reform. It’s a reform just about everyone agrees must take place. It has not begun because it’s a political hot, hot potato for both parties. For the Republicans, there is the honest realization that our borders must, in the end, be under control lest our cherished institutions end up dissolving. Let me give you an example. How many people can we admit who believe that separation of church and state is anathema, an insult to the face of God, and still live in our constitutional republic? (And, if you think the question is Islamophobic, you are just afraid of questions!)

For the Democrats the issue is how to stem the rising anger of many of their troops about immigration without turning off the spigot of automatic Democratic voters that immigrants mostly are. (The Democratic Party is vanishing, I think. That’s why it’s so mean. Without a steady flow of poor immigrants, its death will be hastened. The Republican Party has different problems which also threaten it existence, possibly.)

Notice what I did not say here: I did not say anything about any kind of immigrants having rights as immigrants. I don’t think we do.

* Nevertheless, I have a document somewhere that certifies that my continued presence in the US serves the welfare of the country. It was earned 12 years later, another story, obviously. If I could find it, I would frame it and put it online to enrage “progressives.”


Worth a gander

  1. Zero hour for Generation X
  2. Confederate flags and Nazi swastikas together? That’s new.
  3. America at the end of all hypotheticals
  4. What’s left of libertarianism?
  5. Factual free market fairness
  6. Thinking about costs and benefits of immigration

BC’s weekend reads

  1. the Kurdish bourgeoisie is against separatism (kinda, sorta)
  2. Qatar waives visas for 80 nationalities amid Gulf boycott
  3. doesn’t Pakistan already suck? Isn’t that why this is happening in the first place?
  4. Similar moves are open to someone living in Pakistan. But those are different contexts than France or the US.
  5. I read this twice, very carefully, but am unconvinced (the use of stats is amateurish)
  6. The music was acid house, the drug: Ecstasy.
  7. The Plastic Pink Flamingo, in America [pdf]

Mexicans in Mexico

I just spent another two weeks in Mexico, in Puerto Vallarta to be specific, a town pretty much invented by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. (See the movie “Night of the Iguana.”) The more time I spend in Mexico, the more I like Mexicans. I may have to repeat myself here.

Mexican cities are clean because people sweep in front of the their doors every morning without being told. Everybody there works or is seeking hard to work. Everybody is polite and friendly. One exception: an older taxi driver showed some discrete ill humor with me. I had mistakenly given him 15 cents (American) for a tip. That’s it. Every other interaction I had was gracious or better. (It’s true that my Spanish is good and that I was accompanied most of the time by my adorable 8 year-old granddaughter modeling a broad-brim straw hat.)

Every time I am in Mexico, I notice something new. This time, I was there during the summer vacation period and Mexicans from the US were numerous and very visible. They come to Mexico to kiss old grandpa and grandma, in one case, to get married, and to a large extent, for a vacation, like everyone else. They tend to be loud and better dressed than the locals. They are brisk consumers who buy their children the best beach equipment and all the tours available, like new consumers often do. Many are garrulous and strike up a conversation with strangers easily. They know their place in the sun. I may be dreaming but I think there is something distinctively American about them.

I also bumped into a surprisingly large number of “returnees for good,” including several who got stuck on the southern side of the southern border. Many more lived in the US (legally or not, we don’t often talked about that), made their pile, and took their savings and deliberately started life anew in the old country. One bought two taxis, several built houses, another acquired a ranch where some of his less urbanized relatives live and make a living. He mentioned cows, of course, but also horses. There is a whole program of upward mobility in the simple word “horses.” Unless you have a dude ranch (unknown in Mexico, I think), horses are only for recreation. Manuel, back from short-order cooking in Los Angeles, can even afford to have his children ride. All those brief Mexican acquaintances speak well of the US; they are proud of their stay in this country but they are happy to be back in Mexico for good. In 2009, my co-author Sergey Nikiforov and I had already stated about Mexican immigrants that Mexicans, by and large, would rather live in Mexico. (“If Mexicans and Americans could cross the border freely.” [pdf])

Returnees play all kinds of bridge roles where their American experience is useful. The main “client relations specialist” in my hotel was a 23 year-old guy who had been brought up (illegally) in Colorado. Of course, his English is perfect. Soon, he will open his own business, I think.

I don’t want to give the impression that the returnees’ fate is merely to serve the needs of American tourists and visitors. It seems to me that, like many bilingual people who have lived in more than one country, they are naturally cosmopolitan types who are useful in many non-domestic business situations. (I have modest qualifications to pass judgment here because I taught international business at an elementary level for 25 years. I also worked as a consultant in that field for several years.)

The average literate Mexican is an avid student of Americana. With the help of returnee relatives, he may actually excel there. Everyone below 30 in Mexico is studying English. I have said it before: in a few years, we will be begging them to come back.

Surprisingly little talk about “the wall.” Mexicans have a sense of humor. Of course, I, myself, believe that Pres. Trump will succeed. He will build a solar electricity-producing wall, sell the electricity to Mexicans at low cost (thus making them pay for the wall) and they will thank him!

Immigration and States’ Rights

Bryan Caplan (arguing the affirmative) and Christopher Wellman recently debated whether immigration is a human right.

Wellman won the debate according to audience votes, but I think his argument was significantly weaker. He made confused arguments that, when given second thought lend credence to Caplan’s position. But through hand waving he transitioned to “and therefore states’ rights!” I am far from convinced that state’s rights are valid, but I do want to explore an interesting issue he raised: the moral weight of collective phenomena.

Markets generate economic information more intelligently than any individual participant. Competition and collaboration in cultural spaces generate more and better art than any individual on their own. Society is the outcome of individual choices, but the collective is something apart from those individuals.

We have various collectives (e.g. cultural regions, markets, local communities, families, national identities, sports fandom, science, etc.), many of which are special. They provide club goods (sometimes club bads), and require the support of their members. These networks exhibit emergent properties–the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

So surely those members should have some say in the management of the collective?

This is where Wellman went off track. Yes, these collectives are important. Yes, they require some form of governance. But that doesn’t unambiguously imply involvement of government.

Consider an excellent example Wellman gives: families. Families are an essential part of the structure of society and one we are each deeply familiar with. If there’s a collective entity with moral weight, surely it’s the family.

Wellman posed the hypothetical around the 32:45 mark: what if he returned home and found that his wife had unilaterally adopted a new child? Clearly this is freedom of association run amok! But the example doesn’t imply the need for state involvement; it implies the need for couples therapy! If he and his wife together decide to adopt, then the question remains, “why should the government have a say in this?” Currently it does, which means that whatever the median voter is cool with is acceptable, even if that means preventing this adoption that clearly doesn’t affect them. That seems untenable unless we have strong evidence that adoptions tend to create large negative spillovers.

The moral weight of a family doesn’t imply either state involvement or democratic decision making. Members can be added to a family through birth or marriage. The decision is made by the one or two individuals most directly involved (perhaps with some role for other family members). And those decisions are made non-coercively. Parents may intervene to prevent teenage Romeos and Juliettes from getting married, but adults are basically allowed to make their own decision.

I’m guessing here, but I’d bet that 90% of people would agree that the way we do freedom of association in families is basically the right way to do things.


The scope of a family does not fit neatly into the boxes drawn on a map, nor do most other collective phenomena. Red Sox Nation isn’t just Boston. Regional cultures overlap. Languages cross borders.

We want the collective decision making institutions to reflect the area of spill-overs. Decisions affecting a family should be made within the family. I shouldn’t be directly involved in decisions about how to provide local public services in San Diego. Global spillovers justify global decision making, but local spillovers don’t.

When it comes to immigration, we have to ask:

  1. What collectives will they affect? (certain labor markets, local communities)
  2. Are they likely to create large negative spillovers?
  3. What is the current form of institutions governing those collectives?

There are high stakes for many potential immigrants (especially those coming from places typical Americans are most afraid of), so we should probably go a step further: if there’s a solution to some potential spillover problem that isn’t significantly more costly than immigration restrictions, we should feel obliged to use that solution. For example, it should be easier to come here to live and work than it is to get welfare benefits (although getting that policy to work raises a host of other questions).

Rights imply action

Let’s agree on this: there are collective phenomena that are special. We want to take care of these phenomena which means figuring out the appropriate form of governance for each case.

Wellman gives another family example that blows his own argument out of the water: what if he was put in an arranged marriage? This would deny him important scope for self-determination. And therefore (he argues) states, being important collective phenomena, have a right to self-determination.

How did the audience not notice this?! Immigration restrictions deny me choice over who to voluntarily associate with and so deny me scope for self-determination.

Even if it feels weird from a rational-individualist perspective, there is something special about (e.g.) a country. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon methodological individualism. We know that only individuals make choices, even if they make those choices for the sake of collectives. A collective can have moral weight but still lack the ability to choose. To my mind, this kills the idea of states’ rights (as in “right to do x” or “right to self-determination”) in general.

What we’re left with is the original question: how do we manage the collective? What decisions do we make collectively, and what do we decide piecemeal?

For many (most?) collectives, including the most important ones, we allow freedom of (dis)association and leave the state out of it. Wellman did not answer the question of “why should immigration be different?” I suspect there are strong arguments to be made, but the closest I heard in this debate is that we can think of this as a question of governance, and that government sometimes provides governance.

As Wellman points out (around the 30:00 mark) there is (sometimes) a tension between rules favoring individual freedom and rules requiring collective decision making. There are plenty of examples of scenarios where we uncontroversially prefer to limit some individual rights–we do this automatically with negative rights by denying you the freedom to murder in support of your right to life.

It’s not clear to me that the expected effects of immigrants are widespread enough to justify as sweeping a policy as “only the following people are allowed in these particular thousands of square miles.” For immigration (but not access to the welfare state), the presumption of liberty seems the way to go.

tl;dr: We have various collective goods that are special (e.g. the “character” of a community). This calls for some form of governance to allow the individuals directly involved to manage collective goods. This frequently calls for constraints on individual freedoms for the benefit of the community, but that doesn’t mean that the special collective identity of a country justifies a presumption of closed borders.

The debate over whether the nation state is violating human rights by restricting immigration (with caveats made for “obviously” reasonable restrictions like keeping out known murderers) is not closed by pointing out that there is a collective good associated with the nation state. States can be special without having states’ rights.

On Borjas, Data and More Data

I see my craft as an economic historian as a dual mission. The first is to answer historical question by using economic theory (and in the process enliven economic theory through the use of history). The second relates to my obsessive-compulsive nature which can be observed by how much attention and care I give to getting the data right. My co-authors have often observed me “freaking out” over a possible improvement in data quality or be plagued by doubts over whether or not I had gone “one assumption too far” (pun on a bridge too far). Sometimes, I wish more economists would follow my historian-like freakouts over data quality. Why?

Because of this!

In that paper, Michael Clemens (whom I secretly admire – not so secretly now that I have written it on a blog) criticizes the recent paper produced by George Borjas showing the negative effect of immigration on wages for workers without a high school degree. Using the famous Mariel boatlift of 1980, Clemens basically shows that there were pressures on the US Census Bureau at the same time as the boatlift to add more black workers without high school degrees. This previously underrepresented group surged in importance within the survey data. However since that underrepresented group had lower wages than the average of the wider group of workers without high school degrees, there was an composition effect at play that caused wages to fall (in appearance). However, a composition effect is also a bias causing an artificial drop in wages and this drove the results produced by Borjas (and underestimated the conclusion made by David Card in his original paper to which Borjas was replying).

This is cautionary tale about the limits of econometrics. After all, a regression is only as good as the data it uses and suited to the question it seeks to answer. Sometimes, simple Ordinary Least Squares are excellent tools. When the question is broad and/or the data is excellent, an OLS can be a sufficient and necessary condition to a viable answer. However, the narrower the question (i.e. is there an effect of immigration only on unskilled and low-education workers), the better the method has to be. The problem is that the better methods often require better data as well. To obtain the latter, one must know the details of a data source. This is why I am nuts over data accuracy. Even small things matter – like a shift in the representation of blacks in survey data – in these cases. Otherwise, you end up with your results being reversed by very minor changes (see this paper in Journal of Economic Methodology for examples).

This is why I freak out over data. Maybe I can make two suggestions about sharing my freak-outs.

The first is to prefer a skewed ratio of data quality to advanced methods (i.e. simple methods with crazy-data). This reduces the chances of being criticized for relying on weak assumptions. The second is to take a leaf out of the book of the historians. While historians are often averse to advantaged data techniques (I remember a case when I had to explain panel data regressions to historians which ended terribly for me), they are very respectful of data sources. I have seen historians nurture datasets for years before being willing to present them. When published, they generally stand up to scrutiny because of the extensive wealth of details compiled.

That’s it folks.


Immigration and Jobs – Reprise

A good op-ed in the March 24 issue of the Wall Street Journal by Mark Krikorian forces me to go back to one of my recent postings on immigration: “Immigration and Jobs.”

Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C. Mr Krikorian accuses everyone in America of “not facing the facts” about current and recent immigration. He insists that some questions must be posed instead of skirted. I agree, of course, but I don’t know that it’s true that people are not facing the facts. I think instead that many busy and fair people are hearing contradictory statements and that they don’t have a good framework to think things through. Krikorian states that he rests his case on an authoritative study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The academies are a respected source. I take it seriously if Krikorian reports accurately. (Be aware that I have not read the study in question.)

Krikorian’s most troubling assertion is as follows: All Americans benefit from immigrants being in the US. This benefit is entirely extracted from the higher wages Americans competing with immigrants would receive absent wage lowering immigrants’ competition. In other words: Americans who compete with immigrants receive lower wages than they should; everyone else benefits from these lower wages.

I think that’s obviously overstating the case. There must be at least one immigrant generating product (GDP) that would not otherwise exist in the American economy. Maybe, there are two. One is in Silicon Valley, inventing a product – like the personal computer forty years ago – that will eventually cause the employment of thousands, or millions. The second is in Kansas, saving from demolition a beat-down hotel that provides immediate employment for two-to–four minimum wage-earning maids. (Both entrepreneurs are Indians, obviously). In general, immigrants might benefit all by offering additional, or better, services than do the native born. I develop this thesis below.

Krikorian seems to be operating from a standpoint where the work pie to be shared by Americans and by immigrants is of a permanently fixed size. This erroneous perspective, in turn, may well come from a respectable desire to stick close to research findings. Research that also (also) takes into account immigrants’ contribution to increasing the size of the pie is doable but it’s more difficult to perform and to integrate with previous findings than research that relies on a static representation of reality.

Let me admit that I don’t have any numbers at my disposal and that any reasonably credible set of numbers could blow out of the water everything I am going to say below.

First, it’s obvious that there are currently many unfilled jobs in the US. Organized labor and anti-immigration spokespeople will argue that all those jobs would be filled if the wages offered were high enough. I am skeptical of this argument for two reasons. First, Silicon Valley employers affirm vigorously that they just don’t find enough would-be employees with the required skills, at any price. I tend to believe them to some extent because they evidently spend energy and resources raiding each other for expensive existing personnel. This kind of practice suggests true, absolute scarcity. I have mentioned in one of the companion essays the difficulty farmers encounter in recruiting pickers even when they offer wages significantly superior to both the minimum wage and to the going wage in my job-poor area. I would argue that their difficulties are rooted in the same problem facing Silicon Valley employers: a shortage of local competence. Picking strawberries, for example, is not easy at all. And it requires a certain attitude, or fortitude, that is not common anymore among Americans, as I have argued elsewhere.

Second, presented below, a forbidden argument. But I must make a disclosure before I move to it: I am one of the 43 million foreign-born people now living in the US. I studied in the US and I was permanently admitted on a variant of a B1 visa. I had a main career as a university professor. I don’t believe that an extra teaching position was ever added in any university to accommodate me. (It happens for some foreigners, a very few, of star quality, like Einstein; I wasn’t one of them, let’s face it.) Of course, to obtain any university position, I had to possess the same credentials as native-born Americans who also wanted the position. (That’s right, there is no affirmative action track for white Europeans!) Good university positions are surprisingly competitive to obtain; earning tenure is even more competitive. Every position I obtained, I got from winning against similarly situated native-born.

Each time, I won the gold, if you will. This simple fact would seem to suggest that I was at least slightly better in conventional terms than those native-born who did not get the position. This fact implies at minimum that had I not competed for the position my students would have been served at best by a silver medalist. (I choose the Olympics language on purpose, from a surfeit of honesty. It’s not absurd to argue that the quality difference between the gold and the silver winners is insignificant or even accidental: On a different day, with a different wind, perhaps, the silver winner would have won the gold. But there is more.)

Like many but not all immigrants, I grew up in a language different from English, French in my case. So. I had to achieve the same credentials as my competitors in what was for me a second language. Forgive me for seeming to brag but doesn’t this indicate an intellectual competence over and above what the formal credentials express? If you doubt this shameless assertion, ask yourself how many native-born Americans are able to teach anything – besides the English language – in any francophone university anywhere. And I am not an extreme case of talent among immigrants to the US. I know a man, a distinguished biological scientist, who grew up in the African language Wolof, went to secondary school in French, to college and graduate school in English. Would you guess he possesses a certain mental nimbleness uncommon among determined monolinguals?

I will reluctantly take another step. I do it reluctantly because it is sure to lose me some friends. I will use my own case as an immigrant for an example because it’s the case I know best. It’s about the cultural endowment we carry around over and above, or aside from mastery of a foreign language.

Let me say right away that I don’t contend that I enjoy a 100% understanding of American culture, even after fifty years. I don’t understand the rules of baseball, for example. I never bothered to learn because the game seems boring. Yet, I must be conversant with a lot of national culture, just for having acquired my professional credentials and, even more so, for navigating everyday life in my society of adoption. The point is that the acquisition of another culture does not entail a one-for-one exchange, like changing clothes, for example. Much, most of what the immigrant brings with him, he retains, as one might easily assume. When I was learning American culture, I was not leaving French culture behind with the hat-check girl.

The first thing that immigrants, those who immigrate as adults, keep is mastery of their native language. This may sound mysterious to a monolingual person. It’s true that one can become “rusty” in a language one does not use. The quality of self-expression, for example, may deteriorate over time spent abroad. Yet, it’s very unlikely that an immigrant will lose the ability to watch the news in his native language, or to read a newspaper. So, I follow the news in English, of course, but also in French, some of the time. The reporting of the same events do not overlap perfectly, far from it. So, I am learning things I probably would not learn if I knew no French. (That’s in addition to carrying in my head much disorderly information from my society of origin. More below.) In my job as a teacher and as a scholar, I was routinely able to draw on broader information than did my native-born colleagues. I wouldn’t say (although I am tempted) that I had twice as large a store of information at my fingertips as they did but that I had definitely more than they.

So, in fact, I am arguing – with little embarrassment – that I must have been a better teacher and scholar than most (not all) of my native-born colleagues with similar credentials by virtue of being an immigrant.* There may be no metrics allowing an assessment of this outrageous claim. That’s because what college professors actually do is so mysterious. (Another story.)

It’s also true that to measure accurately the added work value of immigrants you have to find a way to factor in laziness, which varies much among individuals. In my case, I suspect strongly that if I had been native born, I could not have had the normal academic career I enjoyed, given my above-average level of laziness. In other words, the informational advantage associated with being a bilingual immigrant may have paid the fare for my laziness. Had I been the same person, with the same formal credentials, except less lazy, however, my presence would have much benefited American society. This detour supports my main argument of course: It does not make much sense to deny that competent bilingualism adds to normally credentialed efficacy. This is true in an occupation such as university teaching. It’s true though possibly to a lesser extent, for a plumber who will, at least, be a better citizen than a comparably situated monolingual. This is all common sense. No hard data are needed to give this scenario credence although hard figures might destroy it.

It should be fairly clear that a second language is like another tool in one’s personal toolbox. Immigrants have yet more, other additional tools that may be more elusive, more difficult to describe. I am giving it a try. All of us approach new situations through a filter that is made up partly of our past experiences, through the colander of past experiences if you will. Many of the experiences that compose the sifting device are repetitive, partly superfluous: The tenth car accident you witness does not have the same power to influence your driving as the first. There is often an excess of material in the sifter. This means that whatever the sifting process accomplishes would be accomplished as well, or nearly as well, on the basis of fewer past experiences.

My experiences in my society of origin do not perfectly duplicate those of a similarly situated native-born American. For example, I lived through a school system that was much more authoritarian than he experienced. I take from this the strong impression that my experiences in my society of origin adds to my experiences in my society of choice to give me a better sifter than what exists among the native-born population. It does this in a non-repetitive way (unlike, say, the 9th car accident.) I don’t mean that I have twice as large a sifter as they do but perhaps that I have 125% of what they carry in their heads.

This second extra tool in my tool box is factually associated with the first, bilingualism, but it’s not the same thing. An Australian, with a perfect command of English and perfectly innocent of knowledge of another language would carry the same extra tool as I do. The advantage gained through this second tool is difficult to express. It’s tacit. (I have never read anything about the topic.) I believe that my experience of another society – again, independently of bilingualism – acts like a second pair of glasses. I think I am able to watch events and people from one perspective, and then, to some extent, from a second perspective. I suspect it does not give me extra-depth but an edge in exercising common criticality. Possibly, it acts like a few IQ points that would be added to my measured IQ. Again, this thesis is very exploratory, supported by no real numbers. I must add that this second tool associated with being an immigrant is free from the effects of education. I think I have observed the expected extra resourcefulness among Mexican immigrants I knew to be semi-literate (in Spanish) performing ordinary manual jobs, in construction and in repair work, for example.

In conclusion: I and hundreds of other immigrants I have observed contribute to the society in which we live over and above the contributions of the native-born. Thus, we add to the general well-being even if we are paid exactly the same as the native-born.

The above is a short string of arguments in favor of immigration. None of it is a call for open borders. I subscribe to the lifeboat view of immigration. Too numerous immigrants could easily sink the boat that made them swim to developed societies in the first place. (According to retired foreign service officer Dave Seminara’s review of relevant studies – that I have not read – 150 million people world wide would like to move to the US, including 34% of Mexicans.) In addition, there are non-economic arguments against large-scale immigration that I support although they may be even more difficult to describe than what I tried to explain above. My analysis supports instead an active stance to design immigration policies that make rigorously the conceptual distinction between immigrants we need and immigrants in need. This distinction is not inimical to any refugee policy whatsoever; perhaps, the reverse is true.

* Please, don’t try to factor in a putative superior European education brought to the job of being an American academic as an alternative explanation. I am a French high school dropout.