Sunday, April 02, 2006

Jane Galt correctly focuses on the most important aspect of immigration:

I think the real limit to the number of immigrants we can accept is the rate at which America's institutions can assimilate them.

"Institutions" is the new buzzword in economics, and like all such buzzwords, it gets bandied around somewhat loosely. By "instititutions" I mean, in this case, all the hidden cultural practices that allow us to transact with strangers with such a high degree of trust and efficiency. If, for example, we allowed so many immigrants that one could no longer effectively be sure of transacting business in a single language, that would have heavy institutional costs. Or if most of the immigrants came from places where family networks were the primary economic unit, and nepotism was viewed as a cultural good, and there were enough of them to change the practice in large swathes of American business, I think that this would make both immigrants and the Americans worse off. Or if there were enough immigrants with anti-liberal (in the classical sense) values to undermine that cultural feature of America, that would be, I think, a bad thing for everyone.

But I don't think we're anywhere near that limit. Yes, there are a lot of Spanish-speaking immigrants in some urban areas (and let's be honest; paranoia about immigration is really paranoia about latinos. No one's worried about high rates of crime and illegitimacy among the Hmong). So what? Cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati were so preponderantly German that many visitors complained that more German was spoken on the streets than English; until World War I, when German abruptly became politically incorrect, most telephone operators in Cincinnati had to be bilingual, and ended up speaking more German than English. Yet they neither managed to subvert America's vital beer industry for the Kaiser, nor bequeath their cultural separatism unto the umpteenth generation.

Myself, I'm particularly partial to Cubans, Haitians, Mexicans, and Central and South American immigrants, because they work so damn hard to get here. I agree with what Ed Crane, the head of the Cato Institute (as reported by PJ O'Rourke), said about Haitians coming ashore on rafts: if someone crosses dozens of miles of open ocean on a raft made out of popsicle sticks just for a chance to be in America, we should give them their green card on the beach. These are the people we want in this country. Isn't that just the kind of pioneer spirit that we think makes America great?

Frankly, I just don't understand right-wing paranoia about immigration. I mean, aside from speaking Spanish, which seems like a pretty minor pecadillo on the scale of things, latino immigrants seem like a right-winger's dream: hard-working, family-oriented, and religious as all get out.

I'm less confident than Jane that we're nowhere near the limits of our institutions, though at the moment I can't bring myself to sound as worried as I was two years ago. Repeating another two-year-old blog complaint, my opinion of the social science stats I've seen is that they don't give nearly enough information to say where the institutional limit lies. If someone could show me some convincing numbers, I'd advocate more legal immigration, and even amnesty for current illegal immigrants. Until then, I'm sticking with the more cautious attrition strategy.

The second most important immigration issue is quality. We should do more to encourage the world's top talent to come to the U.S. and stay in the U.S. Almost all scientific and technological innovations (see figures C & D) come from a small proportion of the world's cities in which groups of extremely talented folk live and work in close proximity. Of those the select cities, the American ones are particularly reliant on immigrant talent.

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