Placing the Blame

I ran across this quote from Tony Blair earlier today and it seemed noteworthy. The ex-Prime Minister is trying to find someone to blame for the economic dislocations that immigration inevitably creates in the receiving country. And this is what he said:

The answer to someone who is unemployed in a country like mine or anywhere else in Europe, is not to blame migrants for having taken your job, [it] is to get the education and the skills necessary in order to be able to operate in the modern world.

In short, it is not the immigrants who are causing the dislocations. The fault lies with the native workers who haven’t bothered to update and upgrade their skills. All those workers at Disney displaced from their jobs: Shut up and go back to school!

I wonder if Mr. Blair would give the same advice if the immigrants had been imported under a program that only let in politicians interested in running for public office. Somehow I doubt it.

A few questions for Mr. Blair: Who will pay for that additional education? Do the benefits that immigrants generate cover these additional costs? And how exactly would this help out workers who are say in their 40s or 50s?


Republicans and Immigration

I’ve been watching the civil war over immigration in the Republican party with ever-increasing interest. And let’s be honest–this really is a war for the soul of the party as there is almost nothing in common between some of the approaches that the candidates advocate. I’m sure that I’ll have much more to say as the year wears on. (Full disclosure: I am not affiliated with any political party).

Let me start by noting that I really liked this very insightful piece by John O’Sullivan. The article touches on how Donald Trump changed the dynamics of the immigration debate by emphasizing some of the losses from mass immigration. Inevitably, the discussion is leading to increased questioning of the parameters that should reflect the Republican Party’s immigration policy. O’Sullivan notes:

Globalization has struck the bourgeoisie. Increasing legal immigration levels and extra H1-B visas for occupations for skilled occupations mean that computer programmers are quite as likely as low-paid restaurant workers to see immigration as a threat to their jobs and pay levels. And they are more likely to be vocal about it…

One of the internal contradictions of Kemp-style ideological conservatism was the attempt to combine mass immigration with the scaling back of entitlement programs: Keeping wages down through immigrant competition is incompatible with moving away from state welfare entitlements to market provision…More widely, mass immigration builds up a large new constituency for state welfare programs of every kind. ​

As a New York Democrat once remarked, the Republicans have a choice: They can either change their policy on immigration or their policies on everything else. Trump stumbled on that insight earlier this year; it may have transformed American politics forever. Or not.

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Why Is High-Skill Immigration Beneficial?

A few days ago I was having a discussion about high-skill immigration with some people who should know better. It suddenly struck me that even though everyone favors more high-skill immigration, there is a lot of confusion about why one should be in favor of it.

Suppose all workers are alike. (This is not a trivial assumption, but the argument pretty much carries through if we allowed workers to be different; it’s just harder to explain. I’m also going to focus on the productivity effects of high-skill immigration and ignore the important fiscal impact on the welfare state).

In the textbook model of the labor market (read: supply and demand), immigrants enter the country, and the wage falls in the short run. It is this wage drop that generates the “immigration surplus”–the increase in the size of the economic pie accruing to natives. Over time, the economy adjusts–firms expand, for example–and the wage goes back to what it was in the pre-immigration era (assuming constant returns to scale), and the immigration surplus dwindles down to zero.

Note I said nothing about whether workers are low-skill or high-skill. Regardless, the wage of competing workers falls in the short run, the economy adjusts over time, the wage goes back to what it used to be, and the immigration surplus disappears.

In order for high-skill immigration to be beneficial in the long run, we need to deviate from this textbook model. The deviation that will do the trick is that high-skill immigrants generate “productivity spillovers.” In other words, “we” natives learn stuff from them, becoming more productive in the process. It is this rubbing off of what high-skill immigrants possess that makes high-skill immigration beneficial.

Is there evidence proving the existence of such spillovers? In some cases of high-skill immigration: Yes. In other cases: No. Over the next few posts, I will summarize what I think is the strongest evidence in favor of such spillovers, and why that evidence may not really say all that much about the impact of the type of high-skill immigration we have in mind when we talk about changes in immigration policy.

On Mariel

A couple of readers of early drafts of We Wanted Workers made some comments last spring that planted an idea in my head: perhaps it was time to revisit Mariel and see what we could learn from that supply shock with the hindsight of 25-years worth of additional research.

I resisted the idea for a while, as I thought it would be a complete waste of my time. But it kept nagging me. So one Sunday morning I wake up, go downstairs to my office, and start looking at the March Current Population Surveys (CPS) for the 1980s. Within an hour, my monitor was flashing a graph like this one:

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 11.03.50 AM

And I remember saying out loud “What the heck!” except I didn’t use those words. I then spent the entire summer working time-and-a-half on my Mariel paper. The paper went through several rounds. I got a lot of feedback from many friends who read early drafts. And I even did something that I had never done before: I hired someone to replicate the entire exercise from scratch just to make sure it was right!

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