Friday, January 20, 2012

Analogy of the day: Immigration and cookies

Wronging Rights has a thought-provoking analogy on immigration. The basic question is whether immigration is a zero-or-negative sum game or a positive sum game. Taub's analogy is that some people think of immigration like love (the more you share, the more you have - a positive sum game) while others think of immigration like a cookie (the more you share, the less everyone else has - a zero sum game). To put in an equation, which side do you think would be bigger:

      Gains to immigrants     OR    losses to recipient country + losses to the families left behind (brain drain)

So the natural answer from an economist is to try to measure the gains and losses. Barro, Card, Clemens, and many others have a slew of literature showing that the gains to immigrants are really big, the losses to host countries are small, and there may even be a brain gain instead of a brain drain. Then we even have Taub and Yglesias arguing the recipient country gains too, so that EVERY term is a gain. Conclusion: immigration is really positive sum. If we're feeling particularly wonkish, we'll even write down a social welfare function to show that if every human deserves equal attention, the gains to poor immigrants are even bigger compared to any conceivable losses to the already-wealthy recipient countries.

Unfortunately, what most people don't tend to do is actually sit down to measure gains and losses and find out empirically whether immigration is like love or a cookie. They use a substitute question, such as how they feel about immigrants, or our burgeoning welfare state, or people getting out of poverty or something else, and from there develop a line of reasoning to justify their emotions*.

This is part of the reason it is so difficult for economists to convince people of the gains from immigration. If people have at heart an assumption that the world is zero-sum because of how they feel about the question, new numbers won't resolve the issue. Put another way, if people assume there is some accounting identity out there that says

      Gains to immigrants = losses to recipient countries + brain drain

then new research showing the gains to immigrants are even larger won't convince anyone. They'll just assume that the losses must be larger too. New research on brain gain won't convince them either because it just means losses to the recipient country are even larger than they thought. Combine that with 1) the fact that Americans think there are twice as many foreigners already and 6-7 times as many illegal immigrants in the coutnry as there are and 2) new research showing that correcting that misperception doesn't change attitudes much, and we have a problem. This makes it all the more amazing that Clemens succeeded in convincing the US government to remove restrictions on Haitians coming to the US.

If the real issue is about how people feel, then what needs to change are hearts rather than minds. The research will provide evidence for them to hang their hats on once they've switched over to the Love camp, but by itself won't bring about the change we need.

* - I am not calling all people against immigration racists, though true racists would fall into that category.

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