The New Yorker on We Wanted Workers

The New Yorker just published a very thoughtful review of We Wanted Workers. This is how the review introduces one of my key themes.

Instead of asking what we owe immigrants, he wants us to think more clearly about what we’re likely to get in return. Unlike Trump, he isn’t convinced that immigration is an existential threat to America, but he is not convinced, either, by politicians’ constant assurances that immigration is what makes America great. He believes that we should take up a question that is sometimes considered taboo: What if immigration isn’t good for us, after all?

Some Thoughts on the H-1B Program

Today’s Room for Debate section of the New York Times has a discussion about the increasingly important role that Silicon Valley plays in Washington politics. I contributed a short article arguing that “Silicon Valley pushes for immigration reform for its own purposes.”

The WSJ Reviews We Wanted Workers

The Wall Street Journal just published the first major review of my new book, We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative. The review presents a very interesting take on what the book is about and how it relates to the political debate over immigration. George Melloan says that the book gives:

a readable and detailed historical tour of America’s immigration debates and policies…Agree or disagree with his conclusions, the reader will encounter a level of seriousness that has been lacking in this campaign year.

And EJMR aficionados will find a little something to smile about towards the end of the review when Melloan touches on the thorny problem of what to do about the undocumented immigrants already in the United States:

Mr. Borjas ends his tour with a refreshing remark seldom heard from an economist. “Amazingly enough, sometimes inaction is the best action. And benign neglect of this sensitive issue is probably best as long as we take concurrent steps to ensure that we need not revisit this problem in the future with an even larger undocumented population.”

We Wanted Workers is now available

My new book, We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative, was published today.


In case you need a little encouragement to read it, here are a few reactions from early readers:

Reihan Salam: “We Wanted Workers is essential to understanding America’s future. Drawing on decades of research, Borjas cuts through the myths and obfuscations plaguing our immigration debate. This is the most lucid, powerful work of social science I’ve ever read.”

Glenn Loury: “An invaluable addition to the literature on U.S. immigration policy. A model of lucid exposition, it delves deeply into the subtle complexities of a subject that has been rife with sloppy and wishful thinking. Borjas reviews a mountain of evidence in support of a forceful argument for the position that, while there are benefits, one needs also to be mindful of the considerable costs associated with the liberalization of immigration policies.”

Daniel Hamermesh: “Borjas, the world’s leading economic expert on immigration, has penned a nontechnical, nearly conversational book pointing out all the issues in immigration’s effects on an economy―particularly the American economy. The central message is ‘it depends’―impacts are positive or negative for different natives, different kinds of immigrants, and at different times.”

Christian Dustmann: “‘Wir riefen Arbeitskräfte, es kamen Menschen―We wanted workers, people came.’ Max Frisch’s comment on the economically motivated after-war migrations from Southern Europe and Turkey into Northern Europe lends this fascinating book its title, and points at the core of what distinguishes movement of people from movement of goods…This excellent book is also very personal, telling the story of the migrant George Borjas who arrives as a child refugee from Castro’s Cuba and the life’s work of the economist George Borjas, pointing at how personal experience has influenced highly acclaimed academic work. A captivating, insightful and easily accessible book that makes great reading for everyone interested in the subject.”

Charles Murray Changes His Mind on Low-Skill Immigration

This sounds like big news to me. I’ve always found libertarians to be the most unpersuadable people when it comes to immigration; their religious-like attachment to open borders seems totally impervious to facts. So it was a bit of a shock to come across this news article describing Charles Murray’s change of heart when it comes to low-skill immigration:

Charles Murray announced his support for a moratorium on low-skilled immigration…“I want to shut down low-skilled immigration for awhile,” Murray said, explaining it was the only way to find out if it would actually help native low-skilled workers…”I have had to undergo a great deal of re-thinking…The thing that has gotten to me over the course of this year… has been the idea, the very simple idea, that the citizens of a nation owe something to each other that is over and above our general obligations to our fellow human beings. That there is a sense that we should take care of our own, our own in this case being Americans.”

Doesn’t this sound an awful lot like the responsible nationalism now advocated by Larry Summers:

A new approach has to begin from the idea that the basic responsibility of government is to maximize the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good. Closely related to this is the idea that people want to feel that they are shaping the societies in which they live.

Who would have thought it would take the rise of Donald Trump for these very wise men to see the obvious?

I Say High, You Say Low…

The immediate reactions to the National Academy immigration report are in, and the media is having a field day. The reactions already range from mindless pablum lifted straight out of a press release to apocalyptic warnings that the sky is falling. Are these journalists reading looking at the same report? How many have actually laid eyes on a single table or figure in the 500-page virtual book, rather than buying verbatim a vague description of what’s in it?

I think it is crucial that if one is going to talk about what the report says, at the very least take some time to browse the key tables that document the report’s findings. This is one of the reasons that I thought my User’s Guide might be helpful. National Review asked me to help clarify the process even more by writing an essay that briefly summarizes what the key findings are, and that allows the reader to see the exact source of those findings. In an ideal world, this type of documentation would help reduce the discrepancies in what people claim the report says. But, let’s face it, the chance of that happening in the world we live in is trivially small.


A User’s Guide to the 2016 NAS Immigration Report

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has just published a major report on The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of ImmigrationThe National Academy panel that prepared the report consisted of about 20 social scientists, including economists, sociologists, and demographers. The project was led by Francine Blau, a professor of economics at Cornell, and Christopher Mackie, who is a study director with the Committee on National Statistics at the NAS. Fran and Chris did an amazing job bringing this very complicated project to fruition over a three-year period. They were (very) patient, fair, professional, and made sure that all the work done by the members of the panel was somehow weaved into a cohesive whole–and that’s no small feat! And did I say they were very patient?

Full disclosure: I was a member of the NAS panel that prepared the report, but anything I say in this series of posts reflects only my take about what is in the report and what, I think, is important. These posts have not been read or vetted by anyone in the panel.

I think the report has four major conclusions. But it is near 300,000 words long with big chunks of it written in “technical-ese,” comprehensible only to trained economists and likely to appeal only to immigration geeks. So I’m going to write five posts that together make up “A User’s Guide.” The User’s Guide will link to the main tables and figures in the report that document those conclusions. (The entire User’s Guide is available as a pdf here).

Let me start by giving a brief outline of my User’s Guide. All quotes below are from the report’s summary:

  1. There has been a slowdown in assimilation during the immigrants’ lifetime (User’s Guide, 1). “As time spent in the United States lengthens, immigrants’ wages increase relative to those of natives and the initial wage gap narrows. However, this process of economic integration appears to have slowed somewhat in recent decades; the rate of relative wage growth and English language acquisition among the foreign-born is now slightly slower than it was for earlier immigrant waves.”
  2. Immigration has a harmful effect on the earnings of low-skill workers (User’s Guide, 2):”When measured over a period of 10 years or more, the impact of immigration on the wages of natives overall is very small. However, estimates for subgroups span a comparatively wider range, indicating a revised and somewhat more detailed understanding of the wage impact of immigration since the 1990s. To the extent that negative wage effects are found, prior immigrants—who are often the closest substitutes for new immigrants—are most likely to experience them, followed by native-born high-school dropouts, who share job qualifications similar to the large share of low-skilled workers among immigrants to the United States.”
  3. Immigrants and their dependent children create a fiscal burden (User’s Guide, 3; and User’s Guide, 4): “On average, individuals in the first generation are more costly to governments, mainly at the state and local levels, than are the native-born generations…For 2013, the total fiscal shortfall (i.e., the excess of government expenditures over taxes) was $279 billion for the first generation group…Viewed over a long time horizon (75 years in our estimates), the fiscal impacts of immigrants are generally positive at the federal level and negative at the state and local levels.” But these fiscal impact estimates are, rightly, stamped with a Consumer Warning label: “Assumptions play a central role in analyses of the fiscal impacts of immigration.”
  4. The bottom line (User’s Guide, 5): The NAS report does not conduct the final (and obvious) calculation that adds up the  economic gains and compares that number with the fiscal burden. But anyone with a pencil and a proverbial back-of-an-envelope can do so using the numbers in the report. The only time the NAS comes close to estimating the total gains is when it reports the “immigration surplus”–the increase in the aggregate wealth of natives resulting from the productive contributions of immigrants. Although much is left out when calculating this theory-based surplus, it seems evident (at least to me) that the bottom line is very simple: The economic impact of immigration is, at best, a net wash for the average native-born person. The gains accruing from the immigrants’ productive contributions are probably offset by the fiscal burden. But even though the mythical average person is unaffected, some groups gain a lot and some groups lose a lot.

Finally, let me re-emphasize that this User’s Guide focuses on topics that I personally find interesting and important. There’s much more in the report, including (long and dense) discussions of immigration, innovation, and economic growth, where the foundational research is still a work in progress. Nevertheless, they provide an excellent introduction to many research and policy questions.