On Slate today, Steven Landsburg alleges that opponents of illegal immigration must deem immigrants’ lives as worth less than one-fifth the value of Americans’ lives. Here’s his reasoning:
–Assume illegal immigrants’ wages rise, roughly, from $2 to $9 an hour. For each immigrant who comes in, an American’s wages drop $3, from $10 to $7.
–Since Mexicans are poor, even relative to low-wage Americans, they value each dollar more. As he puts it, “The most conservative standard assumption is that the value of an extra dollar is inversely proportional to your income, so an extra dollar is worth five times as much to a $2-an-hour Mexican as it is to a $10-an-hour American. The immigrant’s second dollar is worth a little less, and the third a little less than that.” Therefore, the immigrant’s $7 gain is worth more than five times the American’s $3 loss.
He makes a number of crucial errors here. For one, he claims to be calculating how much we value the lives of “immigrants,” which by definition means people who’ve already come to another country. But his calculations apply to additional immigrants. The question he meant to ask was, “How much do we value people who live in other countries?”
The answer can only be, “Not much, beyond the right to sovereignty.” To value other countries’ citizens as equal (or close to equal) to our own would mean buying other nations out of poverty and intervening in every country’s problems. There may be situations where we should indeed do that (the recent tsunami, Rwanda), but it’s simply not practical to do for every person worldwide what we do for our own people. It’s arguable we should do more than we do now, but by and large our problems are ours, and their problems are theirs.
Two, his calculations of immigration’s costs are remarkably stupid. Yes, wages are a big part of the problem, but the fact is that immigrants also use government social services and cause increases in crime (for Mexicans, the latter increase is mainly among the children of immigrants, not the immigrants themselves). Some studies do indeed show immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take out, but it’s very difficult to add every transaction together. Landsburg doesn’t even try; he just ignores these factors altogether.
Three, there’s the idea of marginal utility — that $1 means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person. He applies that principle between poor Americans and poor Mexicans, but he doesn’t consider it between rich and poor Americans:
[An immigrant] bids down wages, but that’s a two-edged sword: It’s bad for his fellow workers, but it’s good for employers and good for consumers…In the very short run, most of the gains go to employers, and a substantial fraction of those gains probably go to people named Walton.
So doesn’t that hurt the workers more than it helps the employers and consumers? People who compete with illegal immigrants value each dollar more than their employers and most of their consumers do.
Finally, there’s this ridiculous statement:
In the somewhat longer run, all that excess profit gets competed away and shows up in the form of lower prices for consumer goods. At that point, even the workers who took pay cuts can come out ahead: If your wage falls by 10 percent while prices fall by 20 percent, you’re a winner.
Sure. But if your wages fall 10 percent and prices fall 1 or 2 percent, you’re a loser. I made those numbers up, but I’d bet they’re a heck of a lot closer than Landsburg’s. Steve Sailer once cited a Seattle Times article saying:
You might assume that the plentiful supply of low-wage illegal workers would translate into significantly lower prices for the goods and services they produce. In fact, their impact on consumer prices – call it the “illegal-worker discount” – is surprisingly small.The bag of Washington state apples you bought last weekend? Probably a few cents cheaper than it otherwise would have been, economists estimate. That steak dinner at a downtown restaurant? Maybe a buck off. Your new house in Subdivision Estates? Hard to say, but perhaps a few thousand dollars less expensive.The underlying reason, economists say, is that for most goods the labor – whether legal or illegal, native- or foreign-born – represents only a sliver of the retail price.
The bottom line is that immigration proponents have to make their arguments based on the American national interest. It’s cute to act like anti-immigration pundits are actually dehumanizing other people, but it’s not constructive.
I’m not going to say much about Linda Chavez’s NRO article, in which she apologizes for calling many conservatives racists, and instead calls a few specific conservatives racists. I think the responses do a good job of debunking it, particularly John Derbyshire’s and Heather Mac Donald’s.
The point I’d like to make is this: Why do immigration proponents argue their opponents are prejudiced? Obviously, it’s to tar the enemy, but let’s follow it out logically. Aren’t they saying “America is a bigoted society, and even many of its top intellectuals are racists. Therefore, we should bring in a bunch of minorities and see what happens!”?