Opinion: Pessimism colors immigration debate

May 12, 2013


— Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a gooey confection of seasonal sentiment. It also is an economic manifesto that Dickens hoped would hit with “twenty thousand times the force” of a political tract. It concerned a 19th-century debate that is pertinent to today’s argument about immigration.

Last week, a disagreement between two conservative think tanks erupted when the Heritage Foundation excoriated the immigration reform proposed by a bipartisan group of eight senators. Heritage’s analysis argues that making 11 million illegal immigrants eligible, more than a decade from now, for welfare state entitlements would have net costs (benefits received minus taxes paid) of $6.3 trillion over the next 50 years.

Fifty-year projections about this or that are not worth the paper they should never have been printed on — think of what 1963 did not know about 2013. Why, then, Heritage’s 50-year time horizon? Because 50 years of any significant expenditure is an attention-getting number. And because for more than a decade legalized immigrants would be a net fiscal plus, paying taxes but not receiving benefits.

The libertarian Cato Institute says Heritage insufficiently acknowledges immigration’s contributions to economic growth (new businesses, replenishing the workforce as baby boomers retire, etc.). This dynamism, Cato argues, will propel immigrants’ upward mobility, reducing the number eligible for means-tested entitlements.

Conservatives correctly criticize those who reject “dynamic scoring” of tax cuts. Such a calculation of the revenue effects of cuts includes assumptions about the effect on economic growth from changed behavior in response to the cuts — especially increased investment and consumption. Opponents of dynamic scoring usually are opponents of tax cuts. Similarly, opponents of increased immigration downplay what Cato stresses — immigration’s energizing effects.

Which brings us to Dickens’ revolt against Thomas Malthus’ pre-capitalist pessimism about the possibility of growth and abundance. “A Christmas Carol” expresses Dickens’ modernist rejection of Malthus’ theory that population always grows faster than the food supply, so the poor must always be numerous and miserable.

When told that many of the poor “would rather die” than go to the workhouse, Scrooge replies: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” But when Scrooge recognizes that Tiny Tim might be part of this surplus, he repents, giving Tim’s father, Bob Cratchit, a raise and a Christmas turkey. This was Dickens’ representation of the modern triumph of economics over fatalism about social stasis.

Sentimental? Certainly. But also expressive of the 19th century’s revolution of expectations. As Sylvia Nasar says in “Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius” (2011), the second half of the 19th century saw “one of the most radical discoveries of all time,” the recognition that mankind’s “circumstances were not predetermined, immutable, or utterly impervious to human intervention.” This called for “cheer and activity rather than pessimism and resignation.”

Unfortunately, today’s immigration debate occurs during an uncharacteristic American mood of pessimism. Next month, the anemic recovery from the Great Recession will be four years old, and many Americans seem resigned to slow growth, sluggish job creation and stalled social mobility. Hence their forebodings about immigration.

Economic facts matter. But the material ascent of humanity since the 19th century demonstrates that economic facts are not constants, like the law of gravity. Rather, they can respond to induced dynamism, as from immigration.

America is, however, more than an economy, it also is a civic culture. Today’s entitlement state, which encourages an entitlement mentality, may or may not be a powerful magnet for immigration; it certainly changes the context of immigration. Furthermore, European immigrants crossing the Atlantic experienced a “psychological guillotine” severing them from their homeland and encouraging Americanization. Crossing the Rio Grande from a contiguous nation is not a comparable prod toward assimilation. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a critic of the proposed reform, rightly warns of immigrants exerting downward pressure on wages at the bottom of America’s social pyramid. And Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and a supporter of liberalized policy, notes: “A huge amount of American social policy is directed to reducing the number of people in our country who have low levels of skills and education, and it would be bizarre to use our immigration policy to increase that number significantly.”

Complex and consequential, immigration policy should not be made hurriedly. But neither should it be made out of a fatalistic despair about economic dynamism that better immigration policies might foster.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

"Today’s entitlement state, which encourages an entitlement mentality,"

There goes George, getting lazy and sloppy with the term "entitlement" again, but demagoguery is very difficult without being intellectually lazy and sloppy.

Fortunately, there are contributors to the national dialogue who don't suffer from the same intellectual sloth that George and so many others suffer from.

With Ryan's Ascent, A Few Thoughts On 'Entitlement' by GEOFF NUNBERG



"You can deplore "the entitlement society" without actually having to say whether you mean the social or political sense of the word, or even acknowledging that there's any difference. It's a strategic rewriting of linguistic history, as if we call the programs entitlements simply because people feel entitled to them.

But to make that linguistic fusion work, you have to bend the meanings of the words to fit. When people rail about the cost of government entitlements, they're thinking of social benefit programs like Medicare, not the price supports or the tax breaks that some economists call hidden entitlements. And what people call the culture of entitlement is elastic enough to include both the high school senior who's been told he has a right to get into Harvard and the out-of-work plumber who isn't bothering to look for a job because he knows his unemployment check is in the mail. But it rarely stretches to include the hedge-fund manager who makes a life model of Ayn Rand's Howard Roark, who is the most conspicuous monster of entitlement in all of modern American literature.

No question, it would be useful to have an adult conversation about entitlement and entitlements. Not that politicians or pundits are about to abandon the words or the semantic sleight of hand that's built into them. But with more people paying close attention, those moves may be a little harder to get away with."

wigglwagon 5 years ago

"economic dynamism"?    That is another one of those terms like "American exceptionalism" that is used by people who have who either have absolutely no understanding of economics or they have an ulterior agenda to pursue. 

If immigration were as good for the economy as these pundits claim, America would be thriving right now instead of floundering in unemployment and debt.

One thing and only one thing governs prosperity for America. That is supply and demand. Supply is worthless without demand. The greatest entrepreneurs, job creators, or whatever they are being called today, the greatest of them are abject failures without customers with plenty of money to spend. The Democratic Party spent 50 years fighting to protect AMERICAN WORKERS from the insatiable greed of employers and in that time period America built the biggest and most prosperous economy the world has ever seen.

Unfortunately both parties have spent the last 30 years helping American businesses use immigration, free trade agreements, and deregulation to drive down wages and abolish benefits for American workers. American businesses have destroyed their own CUSTOMER base in their quest for higher profits.

Unless America returns to protecting it workers from the insatiable greed of employers, there will be no return to prosperity for America.

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