Topic: Trade and Immigration

Back to Square One on Immigration

Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform are undoubtedly congratulating themselves on the apparent demise yesterday of S. 1348. The bill failed to win enough votes in the Senate for cloture and a final vote. Leading the charge to defeat the bill were a group of Republicans opposed to just about any legalization or expansion of visas for low-skilled workers.

We’ve made the case at the Center for Trade Policy Studies for an immigration system that recognizes the need of our growing economy for more foreign-born workers and the benefits we would enjoy from more legal immigration. The only alternative offered by opponents of reform is to spend more on the same enforcement efforts that have failed in the past to stop illegal immigration. Conservatives who are normally skeptical of big government place all their hope in dramatic increases in spending for border enforcement, longer fences to nowhere, more raids on U.S. workplaces, and more red tape and national ID cards for American workers.

The bill before the Senate was flawed in many ways. The number of temporary worker visas was insufficient, its interior enforcement provisions too intrusive, the point system too convoluted. But the bill was at least pointing in the right direction.

The Republicans who brought the bill down have yet to put forward any practical and principled alternative.

House Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture Does Their Bit For Fiscal Responsibility

Following on from Chris’ post yesterday, the House Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture came up with some nifty recommendations for the programs under their jurisdiction yesterday. The press release is here.

Take particular notice of the operative words in the paragraph that outlines the proposals. The clauses begin with, respectively: expands, doubles, extends, requires, funds, expands, provides, establishes, authorizes, and establishes. Nary a “cuts,” “abolishes,” “ends,” or “repeals” in sight.

I have searched thoroughly through my pocket Constitution (available here) but I can’t find the basis for these (or, for that matter, many other) government programs anywhere.

Tony Blair’s Wise Warning against ‘Isolationism and Protectionism’

In an essay published this week by the Economist magazine, outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair shared “What I’ve Learned” during his decade in office. I’ll leave it to others to dissect what he said about the transatlantic alliance, the Iraq War and the National Health Service, but his words of wisdom on the importance of an open global economy are worth quoting.

Declaring that “‘Open v closed’ is as important today in politics as ‘left v right,’” Blair wrote:

Nations do best when they are prepared to be open to the world. This means open in their economies, eschewing protectionism, welcoming foreign investment, running flexible labour markets. It means also open to the benefit of controlled immigration. For all nations this is a hugely contentious area of policy. But I have no doubt London is stronger and more successful through the encouragement of targeted migration.

Isolationism and protectionism now cut across left and right boundaries. They are easy tunes to play but pointless in anything other than the very short-term.

I wish more members of the U.S. Congress would learn the same lessons.

Robert Reich, Wrong Again

President Clinton’s secretary of labor, Robert Reich, complains on Marketplace Radio that the new immigration bill may encourage immigration by high-skilled people. He argued:

A century ago, America’s immigration policy was best summarized in Emma Goldman’s famous lines on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

It’s a lovely poem, and it’s true that America was the land of opportunity for millions of people. But as Julian Simon pointed out, on the whole immigrants in the 19th century were not tired, poor, huddled masses. He cites findings from economist P. J. Hill:

[I]mmigrants, instead of being an underpaid, exploited group, generally held an economic position that compared very favorably to that of the native born members of the society.

Reich is wrong again. But then, he’s notoriously loose with the facts.

Update: An alert reader points out that I was still half-asleep when I heard this commentary and cut-and-pasted Reich’s words. Of course it wasn’t the anarchist Emma Goldman who wrote the words on the Statue of Liberty, it was the New York City poet Emma Lazarus.

Good News on Income Mobility

Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post takes a beating around here sometimes, so I want to draw attention to his dynamite column this week on the non-disappearance of the middle class. Drawing on a new book, Social Stratification in the United States by Stephen Rose, Pearlstein demonstrates that

rumors of the demise of the American middle class are greatly exaggerated. In fact, living standards for most Americans are improving. Not everyone is flipping hamburgers or working at Wal-Mart. To the degree that the middle class is shrinking, it is because more people are rising out of it than falling from it.

Pearlstein takes pains to note that Rose “is not your standard-issue conservative market apologist – far from it. He left medical school to get his PhD in economics, then alternated between teaching and community organizing. He served on the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee and in the economics shop of the Clinton Labor Department.” So you can trust him – he worked for Clinton!

And Rose finds, as Pearlstein lays it out, that there’s a lot more good news than the “sky-is-falling rhetoric of the Democratic left” would lead you to believe. Pearlstein notes:

[I]t is often reported that the median household income in the United States is $44,500. Of course, that takes in households of varying size, from singles to the Brady Bunch. It also includes households headed by workers in the prime of their working years (29 to 59), as well as those just beginning or ending their careers, when earnings tend to be lower. So, to get a truer picture of economic well-being, Rose adjusts the data for household size and excludes those headed by people younger than 29 or older than 59. And when he does, it turns out that the median income for the “typical American family” jumps to $63,000, which in most parts of the country buys a pretty comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

This doesn’t mean the middle class isn’t shrinking. In fact, from 1979 to 2004, Rose calculates, the percentage of households in the “middle class” category – those with incomes of $30,000 to $90,000 – fell to 39 from 47 percent. But it would be hard to describe that as bad news when the proportion of well-off households – those with incomes of more than $90,000 – rose by nearly nine percentage points. During the same time frame, the percentage of households that were poor or near-poor remained about the same.

One of the favorite liberal story lines is that the only way middle class families have been able to maintain their standard of living is by forcing mom to work more hours. But that, too, turns out to be an exaggeration. By looking just at married couples at various points in the income ladder, Rose found that for all but the poorest households, inflation-adjusted income was higher in 2004 than in 1979 even after factoring out any increase in spousal work hours.

It is also a myth that the Great American Jobs Machine is producing mostly lousy, low-paying service jobs. Rose simplifies the government data by putting all jobs in three categories: “elite” jobs, encompassing managers and professionals; “good jobs,” such as those held by supervisors, skilled blue-collar workers, craft workers, police, firefighters and clerical workers; and “less skilled” jobs, such as those held by unskilled machine operators, laborers, sales clerks and waiters. Looking at it that way, it turns out that the number of lousy, low-skilled jobs has been on a long, steady decline since 1979, while the number of “elite” jobs has been growing steadily. The number of “good” jobs has declined marginally as skilled office work has replaced skilled factory work.

Rose is concerned, quite properly, about the condition of the poorest people in the American economy, though he and I would probably disagree on the best way to help them enter the economic mainstream.  But he’s also brought a healthy dose of reality to the debate over “the declining middle class.”

For more on these topics, see the recent posts by Brink Lindsey at his personal website and the award-winning Cato Institute book Cowboy Capitalism: European Myths, American Reality by Olaf Gersemann.

A Poison Pill for China?

Last week top Chinese and American economic officials met in Washington for the second “Strategic Economic Dialogue.” While trade and exchange rates grabbed all the headlines, one less publicized subject was advice from the American side on how the Chinese can promote consumption in their domestic economy.

More consumption would presumably mean the Chinese would buy more American products and send less of their excess savings to the United States, leading eventually to a smaller Chinese trade surplus with the United States and the world.

How did U.S. government officials propose to promote more consumption in China? The Chinese were advised by their American friends to “create a social safety net for its population, similar to the Social Security and Medicare programs in the United States, so Chinese residents do not need to continue to save as much as 50 percent of their income for their retirement and future medical needs,” according to one trade newsletter.

Whoa. Would China’s economic managers really want to saddle its population with the same unsustainable government promises that characterize our two biggest entitlement programs? As my Cato colleagues have long noted, and as USA Today reported on its front page this week, the unfunded liabilities wracked up by those two programs has now reached more than $45 trillion (yes, that’s trillion).

I suppose saddling the Chinese economy with a huge, unfunded government obligation would be one way to “level the playing field.”

Gov. Kaine Warns against Protectionism

Virginia’s Gov. Tim Kaine has a message for his fellow Democrats on the subject of trade: protectionism is for losers.

In an interview with Bloomberg News that was published this morning, Kaine said he disagreed with members of his party who criticize globalization and trade agreements such as NAFTA. Their attitude displays a “loser’s mentality,” Kaine countered, adding that, “The only way you’ll succeed [in the global economy] is by being an aggressive competitor rather than trying to hoard your dwindling assets.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Democratic Party’s embrace of Lou Dobbs-style populism against trade betrays the party’s historical commitment to competition and internationalism. For its own and the nation’s good, party leaders would be wise to listen to Gov. Kaine’s advice on trade.