Does immigration produce economic prosperity?

There seems to be a popular narrative that says that immigration acts as a sort of economic engine. People arrive, many without skills, and get trained. They work their way up feverishly. They use their new money to educate their children. The next generation is entirely American. They know little of their parents’ homeland and have no desire to move there. They see that they would have never have been so well off if their parents had not emigrated.

The twentieth century provides a sort of glorious history with regard to labor empowerment and enrichment as long as you can live it in fast forward by reading a textbook and avoid one critical fact.

Hordes of people arrive in the 19th century and live horrible lives in poverty and misery while robber barons become rich on the back of labor’s woes. By 1910 everyone understands that the labor glut is killing any chances for labor advancement. Teddy sets up an arbitrator to rule on the coal strike of 1910. The union/labor movement is born. 

Before we continue, allow me to inject an irritating fact:

immigration

As you can see the percent of foreign born people peaked in 1910 – at the exact same time as the labor movement was born. What allowed it to succeed was the steady decline in new cheap foreign labor – until 1970. I’d like to continue my history of economic success and upward mobility by virtue of innovation, foreign wars, government stimulus and the accumulation of skills and education by the great American workforce but, unfortunately, this chart has ruined the narrative.

All those factors put the wind at the backs of labor. When we virtually stopped immigration we saw wages grow with GDP and productivity. An economist must make a hard argument to claim that everything will be fine this time just like it eventually was for our great grandparents in 1910. They have to argue for foreign wars that kill lots of people in countries we trade with and we need a sort of reverse industrialization where labor is needed to boost production rather than machines. If you can’t see either of those two things happening then there is only one way labor recovers from the hole it’s in – we must stop immigration or at least slow it to a trickle. (Need I point out that median wages peaked in 1974?)

Immigration by Another Name

But what about all those poor desperate people who just want a shot at the American dream? (You cry.) I see examples of them every night on the news. Well, there is another answer. Foreign immigrants come into the country in another way: They trade their way in. If we have no tariffs with China then we essentially allow every Chinese peasant to work here. There are hundreds of millions of them. If you want to help a poor Guatemalan immigrant you have to stop buying goods made by that Chinese peasant. Think what the chart would look like if I added in all those Chinese peasants.

This is, of course, nothing more than an argument based on supply and demand. If you expect to have a system that will benefit US labor then you have to have less labor. If you are an open border person (such as Mayor de Blasio) then you have to live with this:

Corporate-Profit-Margins

Once again, I must point out that labor’s share peaked in the 1970’s. Maybe it was too high? It couldn’t last and it wasn’t fair that an hourly worker at Ford without any education at all could make more than a college professor. True. Foreign competition and corporate outrage broke up union power but did we want it all to be completely destroyed so we could go back to the gilded age?

When I hear Silicon Valley whining about immigration bans I have no sympathy. Let the price rise and a labor shortage ensue. Let them train people and push them up the system. Sorry Mr. Zuckerberg, your costs may rise a little and your next useless feature may get delayed. Is there a foreign competitor you are worried about? I don’t hear China whining about not being able to hire Indian programmers. They buried and replaced Google and their economic growth seems to be unaffected. The arguments that begin by decrying our prospective loss of competitiveness are absurd and self- serving. If you repeat them then you have become a dupe for CEO’s desperate to pad their own pockets.

Alas, Trump the idiot has stumbled upon the correct policy of America First = less immigration and a tax system that favors “insourcing”. Beware of malevolent morons executing good policies. The policy may end up being desecrated.

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