Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Immigration, Dynamism, and the Sort of Country We Want to Be

David Brooks has put all his talents to work in crafting the strongest possible case for immigration. He has, he says, tried several times to write a moderate essay on immigration, because it is his general belief that in any major political dispute there is something to be said for both sides. But in the case of immigration he has been unable to do it:
That’s because when you wade into the evidence you find that the case for restricting immigration is pathetically weak. The only people who have less actual data on their side are the people who deny climate change.

You don’t have to rely on pointy-headed academics. Get in your car. If you start in rural New England and drive down into Appalachia or across into the Upper Midwest you will be driving through county after county with few immigrants. These rural places are often 95 percent white. These places lack the diversity restrictionists say is straining the social fabric.

Are these counties marked by high social cohesion, economic dynamism, surging wages and healthy family values? No. Quite the opposite. They are often marked by economic stagnation, social isolation, family breakdown and high opioid addiction. Charles Murray wrote a whole book, Coming Apart, on the social breakdown among working-class whites, many of whom live in these low immigrant areas.

One of Murray’s points is that “the feasibility of the American project has historically been based on industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity.” It is a blunt fact of life that, these days, immigrants show more of these virtues than the native-born. It’s not genetic. The process of immigration demands and nurtures these virtues.

Over all, America is suffering from a loss of dynamism. New business formation is down. Interstate mobility is down. Americans switch jobs less frequently and more Americans go through the day without ever leaving the house.

But these trends are largely within the native population. Immigrants provide the antidote. They start new businesses at twice the rate of nonimmigrants. Roughly 70 percent of immigrants express confidence in the American dream, compared with only 50 percent of the native-born.

Immigrants have much more traditional views on family structure than the native-born and much lower rates of out-of-wedlock births. They commit much less crime than the native-born. Roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males between 18 and 39 wind up incarcerated compared with 3.3 percent of the native-born.
I consider this argument irrefutable. If what you want is a dynamic, exciting, economically thriving nation, you should support more immigration.

What Brooks misses is that not everybody wants to live in a fast-paced, fast-changing country. Some people mainly want things to be the way they always have, even at the price of being poorer and having less cool stuff. Some people think it's great that we move less than we used to, because they think being home with your family and the other people you grew up with is much better than going to the city and getting rich among strangers. Some people think not changing jobs is also great, and mourn for the days when men could work all their lives in the same factories where their fathers worked. Some people don't want to work twelve hours a day and scrimp and save like immigrant shopkeepers, but want ease and comfort. They think that all the hard-working immigrants are just bidding down the price of labor, making it impossible to earn a decent living at a regular old job. And they suspect that the surge of immigrants and the troubles of the white working class are related, maybe even two sides of the same coin.

Me, I'm on the side of dynamism. I have a miserable daily commute down to Washington, but I have never tried to get out of it. I get a charge of coming down into the Metropolis where a hundred kinds of people are doing a thousand different things, where the person you chat with in the line at an ethnic food truck might be a coder from Serbia or a truck driver from Somalia or a lawyer from Rochester. It feels exciting and alive, and we all have to work a little harder to share in that dynamism, that seems to me a price worth paying.

But I do understand that not everybody wants this, so I have never been able to feel any anger against immigration restrictionists. They want what they want, and it is what half or so of humanity has always wanted. There is nothing inherently evil or racist in wanting to stay home in a place that feels familiar. Brooks' argument does not even touch this whole side of politics, of life. He could write that moderate column if he would glance away form the economic statistics and ask himself instead what it is that people really want, and what really makes them happy.

6 comments:

G. Verloren said...

"What Brooks misses is that not everybody wants to live in a fast-paced, fast-changing country. Some people mainly want things to be the way they always have, even at the price of being poorer and having less cool stuff. Some people think it's great that we move less than we used to, because they think being home with your family and the other people you grew up with is much better than going to the city and getting rich among strangers. Some people think not changing jobs is also great, and mourn for the days when men could work all their lives in the same factories where their fathers worked. Some people don't want to work twelve hours a day and scrimp and save like immigrant shopkeepers, but want ease and comfort. They think that all the hard-working immigrants are just bidding down the price of labor, making it impossible to earn a decent living at a regular old job. And they suspect that the surge of immigrants and the troubles of the white working class are related, maybe even two sides of the same coin."

But as Brooks points out, the rural areas that tend to think this way are almost utterly devoid of immigrants. Cities might have the price of labor driven down by immigrants, but huge swathes of rural areas do not.

It is true that there's an indirect effect. If labor is cheaper in cities, then that does apply certain economic pressures on rural areas. But labor is always cheaper in cities, even without large populations of immigrants. It's just the nature of urban centers that they have more people, and therefor larger labor pools, and therefor less valuable labor per person.

Cities aren't going away any time soon. And they aren't going to stop influencing rural areas around them. Yet more and more, it sounds like the rural parts of the country just want to pretend cities don't exist, except to inconvenience them and deprive them of the idyllic lifestyles they imagine they could potentially have and somehow deserve.

The truth, however, is that cities create both positive and negative effects. But people don't care to notice the positive side of things. They view their little corner of the world in isolation, and forget that it actually exists within a larger context and framework.

But a coal town can only boom when there are cities demanding massive amounts of power. A farming or ranching town can only boom when there are cities demanding massive amounts of food. An automotive factory town can only boom when there are cities demanding massive numbers of cars.

There has to be a large external demand for these products for them to be worth anything. Without that, the economies of scale work against you. We've become almost too efficient at producing things like coal, food, and automobiles. If Rural America didn't have Urban America to sell blue-collar-labor products to, their economies would collapse. They could mine all the coal they wanted, but it'd just be worthless rocks. They could grow all the food they wanted, but it would just sit around slowly spoiling in warehouses. They could make all the cars they wanted, but they'd just sit around slowly rusting in parking lots.

If we let Rural America have their way, and let them delusionally try to shut out the rest of the world world, they would have plenty of staple crops and dirty fuel to survive on, but they'd have almost nothing else of any value, and they'd revert to living like medieval peasants, subsisting off the land, but living squalid and unpleasant lives of ignorance, sickness, and toil.

David said...

I'm ambivalent about the issues that you (John) and Brooks raise--but I think that if these were the real issues, immigration would be easy to solve through compromise. I think the issue that gets Trump and his followers going, that enrages his opponents, and that makes this such a potentially dark time in our national life, isn't dynamism vs. security. It's ethnic nationalism. And on this issue, I have no ambivalence: I don't like ethnic nationalism, I think it's a low, false, and blood-drenched philosophy, and I don't want it to have any legitimate place in American government policy or public life. I'm open to all sorts of ideas, more or less subtle, more or less temporizing, more or less indirect, about how to drain this movement of its vitality (although I am highly skeptical that ignoring it is the way to overcome it). But this is only a matter of tactics. On the issue of principle, I have no compromise to offer.

G. Verloren said...

@David

You raise an excellent point. Economics isn't REALLY what motivates people - it's just the rhetoric that gets trotted out to distract from the true motivations of tribalistic identity politics. (And I suppose I'm proof of it's effectiveness as a distraction. Hrrm.)

Personally, I very much agree with how the late great George Carlin viewed ethnic nationalism:

"I could never understand ethnic or national pride, because to me, pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own; not something that happens by accident of birth. Being Irish isn't a skill - it's a fucking genetic accident. You wouldn't say, 'I'm proud to be 5' 11" ; I'm proud to have a predisposition for colon cancer.' So why the fuck would you be proud to be Irish? Or proud to be Italian or American or whatever? Hey - if you're happy with it, that's fine. Do that - put that on your car. 'Happy to be an American'. Be happy. Don't be proud. Too much pride as it is. Pride goeth before a fall. Never forget proverbs."

szopen said...

A here is an ironic take on Brooks' piece by someone who actually thinks there is a case against increased immigration (a warning: Steve Sailer is considered by many an evil racist).

"In contrast to the Brooks Theory that West Virginians deserve their hard times for their sin of not having lots of immigrants, the Sailer Theory is that there isn’t much money to be made these days living on a dirt road in West Virginia, so immigrants stay away. "

http://takimag.com/article/david_brooks_demands_new_improved_americans_20_steve_sailer

G. Verloren said...

@szopen

So... basically he's arguing that even foreigners coming from some of the poorest places on earth, with little to no education, and with no experience with life in America at all, still somehow know better than to try to make a living in places like the backwoods of West Virginia?

Doesn't that then mean that the people who do try to make a living there are a bunch of morons for choosing to stay there? If the poorest, most desperate, least educated, and most underprivileged people in the country wouldn't dare set foot in Podunk Hollow for fear of not able to make ends meet, then just how stupid do you have to be to willingly stay there when you're a privileged white citizen?

Also, it's worth asking - just how did things get so bad in these places to begin with? Sailer seems to be angry that the backwoods of West Virginia are so poor and miserable, but whose fault is that? Because it sure wasn't immigrants! What are these rural communities so mad about? The fact that, left entirely to their own devices, free of the influence of foreign immigrants, they nevertheless can't manage to make ends meet? But meanwhile, immigrants are doing well for themselves elsewhere, and that angers them?

These people want a better life? Why, exactly, do they deserve one, but immigrants don't? Immigrants are smart enough and dedicated enough to move the cities and work their asses off to succeed. But white rural Americans refuse to be sensible.

They're suffering because they won't get up and leave their dead-end lives in their little dead-end hometowns, and that pisses them off because they feel the world owes them comfort and success. But at the same time, they're also jealous of the comfort and success of people who actually did bother to leave their own lives and their own hometowns behind. They can't be bothered to seek their own fortunes in nearby cities, but they bitterly resent people who crossed entire oceans and left behind entire ways of life for the mere chance of a better life.

Personally, I'd like to see more time, money, and effort spent on helping everyone in this country who is suffering from poverty. We could be spending so much less on guns and bombs, and so much more on rescuing all Americans, both Rural and Urban, from economic hardships.

But if in the end, I'm forced to choose one group to succeed over another, my allegiances lie with the humble immigrants who give up everything to try to create a life for themselves in this country - not with the selfish and hateful die hards who refuse to change and insist on living in the past. I have no sympathy for people who demand special compensation for their own failings (which they blame on others) at the direct expense of innocent people who worked far harder, sacrificed much more, and actually earned their success, and indeed more still due to them and as yet unpaid.

szopen said...

@G. Verloren
"I'm forced to choose one group to succeed over another, my allegiances lie with the humble immigrants"

Really? That's a position which is almost inconceivable for me. Choosing foreign people to which you have no obligations over your own, to which you have obligation.