Tag: immigration

To Spur Technology Innovation, Stop Pulling on the Rope

I spent the morning at The Atlantic’s Washington Ideas Forum. Before the big names were to do their spiels during the afternoon today and tomorrow morning, there were a series of breakout sessions, among which was one on “Technology Innovation.”

Our suggested “points to ponder” were:

  1. Can our nation regain our competitive edge through innovation?
  2. Will our knowledge and information-based workforce continue to offer cutting-edge technologies to improve the way we live and work?
  3. What measures can we implement to foster creativity and encourage companies to grow intelligently? and
  4. Will the paradigm of how people work, think and communicate be meaningfully transformed as a result of technology? Or is this another short-term trend, with no long term changes?

At least one of the other participants thought the summary of the discussion I gave in the latter half was pretty good, so I’ll share my takeaway here roughly as I did there—maybe sounding just a little more “Cato-y” here.

First, note the conspicuous use of collective pronouns in the first three discussion points. They obscure the goals and actors quite nicely, summarizing to: There is an undefined group out there that we want to have do an undefined set of things amounting to innovation.

I was reminded of the metaphor for spurring economic progress (if I recall, and I don’t recall where I first heard it): Spurring economic progress is like pushing a rope. You really can’t do it. Someone has to pull it, and the job of policymakers is simply to not pull on the wrong end.

In our brainstormy session, the ideas generally focused on pushing our end of the rope. “We” need more basic research and R&D. “We” need more and better education in science and technology. “We” need more inspired leadership, the spur of a new Sputnik.

These things are all probably inputs to innovation in some sense. None of them, I don’t think, will produce innovation as a matter of course. And nobody knows where to direct these efforts so that they do produce innovation.

A few other ideas emerged, ways that public policy can stop pulling on the rope. One was letting immigrants stay in this country—particularly the ones who have just earned advanced degrees—and welcoming them to stay. Another one was reducing the role of patent strategy in tech-business decision-making. Patents seem no longer to be primarily a spur to innovation, but a strategic arsenal used offensively or defensively by tech giants. A third idea that nearly surfaced was tax cuts, but its author in the conversation pivoted from what other countries are doing with tax policy to “national competitiveness,” never actually saying that U.S. tax cuts would spur business activity and innovation.

Arriving back at the office, I chanced to come across some thinking that would have contributed mightily to the discussion: NYU professor of economics Bill Easterly talking about the relationship of individual rights to economic growth, development, and innovation:

[I]ndividual rights is also a way to mobilize all the knowledge in society that we need to make the economy work. It’s the individual that has the particular knowledge so that they know how to run their factory, to employ people, to be a worker themselves, to start new businesses.

We’ll talk later about examples—like the guy in Rwanda, who stumbled upon a very unexpected success. He figured out—this is not something anybody would have predicted—that Rwanda could prosper by exporting gourmet coffee, which you can find in New York’s best coffee shops.

One reason that worked so well for Rwanda, is they have a tremendous infrastructure problem. It’s very hard to get heavy stuff shipped abroad because they are landlocked, they’re surrounded by countries with lousy roads, lousy ports. But gourmet coffee is something that you can create with lots of labor, which Rwanda does have a lot of, and it has very high value-to-weight ratio. So you just put it on the airplane, and ship it to New York.

So, there was no expert economist that flew in and told Paul Kagame, the autocrat of Rwanda, “Here’s the plan: Identify gourmet coffee as the growth industry worldwide. That’s the recipe.” None of that happened.

These successes are always a surprise. That’s why the expert top-down plan doesn’t work. You need the entrepreneur, you need the consumer, you need the market feedback, you need the democratic feedback, and all of this is built on this large edifice at the bottom of individual rights.

Defend people’s rights to own and use their property, however they might imagine to do that, then watch them deliver their surprises. That’s innovation policy. Stop pulling on the rope.

The New York Times on Anders Breivik

My Washington Examiner column this week looks at the rush to score partisan points over the horrific slaughter in Norway last Friday.

In it, I argue that blaming Al Gore for the Unabomber, Sarah Palin for Jared Loughner, or Bruce Bawer for Anders Breivik makes about as much sense as blaming Martin Scorcese and Jodie Foster for the actions of John Hinckley. In general, “invoking the ideological meanderings of psychopaths is a stalking horse for narrowing permissible dissent.”

And right on cue, here’s today’s New York Times editorial on Breivik, decrying “inflammatory political rhetoric” about Muslim immigration in Europe:

Individuals are responsible for their actions. But they are influenced by public debate and the extent to which that debate makes ideas acceptable — or not. Even mainstream politicians in Europe, including Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France have sown doubts about the ability or willingness of Europe to absorb newcomers. Multiculturalism “has failed, utterly failed,” Mrs. Merkel said last October.

Oh, Grey Lady: you had me at “individuals are responsible for their actions,” but you lost me after “but.”

Because, maybe there are, in fact, limits to the ability or willingness of Europe to absorb newcomers. And perhaps multiculturalism has failed. I don’t know—I don’t live in Europe, and I don’t follow its immigration debates closely. But contra the Times’ editorialists, it seems to me that these ideas are “acceptable,” in the sense that they might actually be true, and that you ought to be able to debate them without thereby becoming morally responsible for the actions of lone psychotics.

Virtually every European immigration skeptic manages to participate in that debate without resort to violence, just as vanishingly few hard-core environmentalists try to promote their ideas by means of armed assault. The actions of the deranged few don’t tell us much about what’s wrong with those political stances.

As others have pointed out, the notion that you should “watch what you say” in political debates amounts to giving a sort of “heckler’s veto” to the biggest nutjobs within earshot.

As a means of avoiding horrifying—but thankfully rare—events like mass shooting sprees, it doesn’t seem terribly promising. But it might help you temporarily intimidate your ideological opponents—which is why it’s a perennially popular tactic.

SB 1070: Constitutional But Bad Policy

That’s the title of an essay I wrote for SCOTUSblog as part of their symposium on United States v. Arizona.  This is the big immigration case that will hit the Supreme Court’s doorstep later this month when Paul Clement, recently hired by Arizona, files his cert petition.

Here’s an excerpt:

…state governments, feeling tremendous pressure from their citizens to address the consequences of the federal failure to meet this nation’s immigration needs, are acting for themselves.  Arizona happens to be the “tip of the spear,” but we’ve also seen various other immigration-related laws passed in states as different as Utah, Georgia, and California.  Whether related to enforcement, expanded work permits, sanctuary cities, or other types of policy innovations, Congress’s abdication of its duty to manage our immigration system has spawned a host of federalism experiments.

And so we come to S.B. 1070 (as amended by H.B. 2162), which exemplifies the crucial distinction between law and policy that both liberals and conservatives tend to forget.  A law that is good policy might be unconstitutional or preempted by some higher law.  Here we see the converse: while S.B. 1070 is (with the exception of one provision) constitutional, it’s bad policy.

Read the whole thing.

E-Verify and Common Sense

This weekend, New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat wrote a piece full of common sense thinking about immigration control and the E-Verify federal background check system.

“Common sense”—or “what most people think”—is an interesting thing: When generations of direct experience accumulate, common sense becomes one of the soundest guides to action. Think of common law, its source deep in history, molded in tiny increments over hundreds of years. Common law rules against fraud, theft, and violence strike a brilliant balance between harm avoidance and freedom.

When most people lack first-hand knowledge of a topic, though, common sense can go quite wrong. Such is the case with ”common sense” in the immigration area, which is not a product of experience but collective surmise. Douthat, who has the unenviable task of leaping from issue to issue weekly, indulges such surmise and gets it wrong.

Take, for example, the premise that American workers lose when immigration rates are high: “Amnesty,” says Douthat, would “be folly (and a political nonstarter) in this economic climate, which has left Americans without high school diplomas (who tend to lose out from low-skilled immigration) facing a 15 percent unemployment rate.”

On the whole, American workers do not lose out in the face of immigration. To the extent some do, it is penny-wise and pound foolish to retard our economy (in which displaced workers participate) and overall well-being (which affects displaced workers, too) in the name of protecting status quo jobs for a small number of native-borns.

Full immigration reform that includes generous opportunities for new low-skill workers is not folly, whatever its political prospects may be.

But I want to focus on Douthat’s conclusion that E-Verify is the way forward for immigration control. He cites a study finding that Arizona’s adoption of an E-Verify mandate caused the non-citizen Hispanic population of Arizona to fall by roughly 92,000 persons, or 17 percent, over the 2008–2009 period, and concludes:

[M]aybe — just maybe — America’s immigration rate isn’t determined by forces beyond any lawmaker’s control. Maybe public policy can make a difference after all. Maybe we could have an immigration system that looked as if it were designed on purpose, not embraced in a fit of absence of mind.

Though tentative, his implication is that a national E-Verify mandate is the solution. Everything that came before was the product of fevered impulses.  Maybe E-Verify is the most practical solution. Douthat’s calm tone sounds like common sense.

Ah, but neither Douhtat or the authors of the study have thought that problem all the way through (and the study doesn’t claim to): The decline in Arizona was not produced simply by moving illegal immigrants from Arizona back to Mexico and Central America. They went to Washington state and other places in the United States that are less inhospitable to immigrants. A national E-Verify mandate would offer no similar refuge, and the move to underground (or “informal”) employment would occur in larger proportion than it did in Arizona.

The report also cautions that the honeymoon in Arizona may not hold:

[T]he initial effects of the legislation are unlikely to persist if actors in the labor market learn that there are no consequences from violating these laws. Hence, for long-term effectiveness, policymakers should also consider the role of employer sanctions, which have not played a large role in Arizona’s results so far. However, policymakers must weigh the sought-after drop in unauthorized employment against the costs associated with shifting workers into informal employment.

That’s antiseptic language for: investigations of employers, raids on workers, heavy penalties on both, and growth in black markets and a criminal underground. “Balmy” is a way of describing the temperature potatoes pass through in a pressure cooker.

It’s hard, on analysis, to see Arizona’s experience being replicated or improved upon by an E-Verify mandate that’s national in scale without a great deal of discomfort and cost. I surveyed the demerits of electronic employment eligibility verification in “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

There is more not to love in the Douthat piece. Take a look at this shrug-o’-the-shoulders to the deep flaws in the concept of “internal enforcement” and E-Verify:

Arizona business interests called it unfair and draconian. (An employer’s business license is suspended for the first offense and revoked for the second.) Civil liberties groups argued that the E-Verify database’s error rate is unacceptably high, and that the law creates a presumptive bias against hiring Hispanics. If these arguments sound familiar, it’s because similar critiques are always leveled against any attempt to actually enforce America’s immigration laws. From the border to the workplace, immigration enforcement is invariably depicted as terribly harsh, hopelessly expensive and probably racist into the bargain.

We should disregard these problems because they’re familiar? With regard to E-Verify, they’re familiar because they are the natural consequence of dragooning the productive sector into enforcing maladjusted laws against free movement of people from a particular ethnic category to where their labor is most productive.

Problem-solving is welcome, and columnists like Ross Douthat have to at least point to a solution with regularity. But this effort, sounding in common sense, does not rise to the challenge. The solution is not even more enforcement of laws inimical to human freedom. The solution is reforming immigration laws to comport with … common sense!

The Consequences of Our War on Low-Skilled Immigrant Labor

Credit: Chiapas state government website

Authorities in Mexico intercepted two semi-trucks on Tuesday containing more than 500 migrants being smuggled across the border from Guatemala and presumably headed for the United States. An x-ray of one of the trucks that revealed the migrants struck me for its resemblance to those 18th century woodcarvings of slave ships crossing the Atlantic.

That analogy shouldn’t be taken too far, of course. According to the news reports, the migrants voluntarily paid $7,000 each for the chance to be smuggled into the United States. But like the slave ships, the conditions in the trucks were horrific, putting the lives of the men, women and some children in real danger.

People across the spectrum will try to make hay from this, but to me it argues that the status quo is unacceptable. No respectable party is in favor of illegal immigration. The real debate is over how to reduce it and all the underground pathologies that accompany it.

We can continue to ramp up border and interior enforcement, as we have relentlessly for more than a decade, driving low-skilled migrants further underground while driving smuggling fees higher and higher. Or we can expand opportunities for legal entry into the United States, and by doing so shrink the underground network of smuggling and document fraud.

Like the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, real immigration reform would go a long way to eliminating the human bootlegging that was exposed in Mexico this week. A robust temporary worker program would allow foreign-born workers to enter the country in a safe, orderly, and legal way through established ports of entry. It would allow resources now going to smugglers to be collected as fees by our government and otherwise put to work in our economy. It would save the lives of hundreds of people who needlessly die each year trying to re-locate for a better job.

If Congress enacted the kind of immigration reform we have long advocated in my department at Cato, our economy would be stronger and the human smuggling networks a lot less busy.

Responding to Critics of Immigration Reform

President Obama is making his first visit to the U.S.-Mexican border today to deliver a speech in El Paso, Texas, on the need to reform America’s immigration laws. I’ll be eagerly awaiting the president’s plan, but in the meantime, the Cato Institute has released a new study this week that examines the major objections to comprehensive immigration reform.

Titled “Answering the Critics of Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” and authored by Cato adjunct scholar Stuart Anderson, the new study draws on the latest research to address five common objections to expanding opportunities for legal immigration. The issues addressed in the study include the effect of immigration reform on government spending, welfare use, culture and language, unemployment, and incentives for illegal immigration.

After carefully weighing all those concerns, the study concludes that the arguments continue to weigh heavily in favor of expanding legal immigration as the best way to reduce illegal immigration. Here is the study’s conclusion:

The status quo is not acceptable. There is no evidence that continuing—or expanding—the current “enforcement-only” policies on immigration will be successful. The best approach is to harness the power of the market to allow workers to fill jobs legally, rather than to rely on human smuggling operations for workers to enter the United States. Addressing the situation of those now in the country illegally will achieve both humanitarian and economic objectives, including raising the wages of those now working as illegal immigrants. The primary arguments employed against comprehensive immigration reform do not stand up to a review of recent history and predictable social and economic behavior.

Here is the short-form Cato blueprint for immigration reform, and here is the long-form version (PDF).