Topic: Trade and Immigration

Build a Wall around the Welfare State, Not around the Country

Most of the members of the conference committee on the immigration bill seem to have forgotten our own heritage.

Compared to the present, the United States had a higher rate of immigration just prior to World War I when we had no significant immigration controls (except against the Chinese) and no federal welfare programs. Most of these immigrants were from Ireland, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and other poor European countries; most spoke no English and had only crude manual skills. Many Americans from families who had been here for more than a few generations were prone to speak disparagingly about the status and prospect of the new immigrants. For all that, almost all of these new immigrants (including my grandfather) were work-oriented, family-oriented, no burden to others, and, within a generation, fully assimilated Americans.

Most current immigrants, other than being Hispanic, are very much like those who chose to make their future in the United States a century ago. The record of recent immigrants is impressive: a relatively high employment rate, a relatively low rate of birth to single mothers, and an unusually low incarceration rate. So far, the one major difference from prior immigrants is that the Hispanics are less education-oriented. Given the opportunity, there is every reason to expect them to be good workers, good neighbors, and fully assimilated Americans within a generation. 

The one major difference from a century ago that affects this issue is that the United States is now a substantial welfare state. Illegal immigrants appear to be net taxpayers to the federal government but net tax burdens to state and local governments, especially if they have children in school. 

The primary solution to this problem is to build a wall around the welfare state, not the U.S. nation-state. For new immigrants, access to social services could be limited to emergency health care. Access to public schooling could be limited to those children born in the United States. Access to the full range of social services could be limited, for example, to those who have four years of legal work experience, a record of full payment of taxes, and no felony conviction. 

A supplementary solution to this problem would be a federal transfer to those states and local governments with an unusual number of immigrants. This approach should substantially reduce the opposition to immigration by residents of the border states.

Building a wall around the country, in contrast, is unnecessary, futile, and offensive.

Minimum Wage Wizardry

Ezra Klein over at TAPPED, the American Prospect blog, takes William Niskanen to task for his opposition to the minimum wage below. “[W]hile reasonable people can disagree on the impact of minimum wage laws,” Klein writes, “it’s time they stopped.”

Wow! Why? What’s the debate stopper?! Klein says, “Just crosscheck this list of state minimum wage laws with this rundown of state unemployment rates.” Turns out that there is an inverse eyeball correlation between high minimum wage and high unemployment rates. QED? Well, no. This factoid might help Klein’s case if it wasn’t totally meaningless in isolation from auxiliary assumptions.

That pattern is perfectly consistent with Niskanen’s claim, which is, after all, just an application of the bedrock Economics 101 principle that if the price of something goes up, consumers will tend to buy less of it. In fact, Klein’s pattern might be evidence in favor of Niskanen’s claim. Here’s some more Economics 101 to explain why high minimum wages and low unemployment rates might be expected to go together.

A high unemployment rate indicates a significant oversupply of labor relative to available jobs. In that case, you expect the price of labor to be low, since it is so abundant. If there is already a minimum wage—a lowest legal price—high unemployment will tend to drive wages toward that floor. Let’s say it’s $4 an hour. Now, if there is already high unemployment, and you raise it to $5 an hour, lots of people will have to get a raise, since lots of workers are probably being paid something close to the lowest legal wage. Employers will not be able to afford to give all those people raises. So unemployment would increase further. Now, the effect is quite different in places that have low unemployment rates. In a tight labor market, wages will be higher. So fewer people’s wages will be near the price floor. And so if you raise the floor, fewer workers will be affected. If the labor market is tight enough, and almost no one is getting a wage even close to the floor, raising the floor a little may have no detectable effect at all—like a law mandating breathing.

Now, suppose legislators more or less understand this (or that key constituencies pressure them to act like they do). You’d then expect that states with high unemployment rates and low wages to be least likely to raise their minimum wage, since it would have a relatively large adverse effect for them. And you’d expect states with low unemployment and high wages to be most likely to raise their minimum wage, since it is least likely to make a difference for the worse. And so you end up with high unemployment states with low minimum wages, and low unemployment states with high minimum wages.

Now, I have no idea whether this reasoning in fact explains the pattern Klein observes. But then, neither does he. He’s just a victim of confirmation bias, seeing what he wants to see in an inkblot of ambiguous data. But the pattern he points to might be evidence in favor of the idea that minimum wages increase unemployment. Hardly a debate stopper, is it? Perhaps Klein will grant reasonable people the privilege to continue disagreeing.

It’s worth nothing that Klein admits “And yes, if you jack the wage up to $16 an hour, jobs will be lost. But up to $7 over a period of years?” So what weird science reveals the “no effect” point between $7 and $16? $16 an hour? Unemployment for sure. But not at $7! So what about $8? How about $12? $15.75?

Of course, a bump up to $7 will push fewer people out of the legal labor market than a bump up to $16. But why Klein thinks that a bump up to $7 will push zero people out, when he has already conceded the general point, is mysterious.

Voluntary Charity vs. Government Charity

Chris Edwards’ post on FEMA brought to mind a 2002 New York Times article, which I recently found on FreeRepublic.com. The article concerned fiscal shenanigans at the United Way, and FreeRepublic.com allowed readers to post comments. The following were representative:

“Why anyone would give money to (through) the United Way so they can skim their take is beyond me. Pick your favorite charity or cause, and give to them.”

“If anyone at work asks you to give through United Way, point them to the Salvation Army. The difference is like night and day.”

Pity we never see comments like:

Why anyone would give money to FEMA is beyond me. Pick your favorite charity or cause, and give to them.

If anyone at work asks you to contribute to Medicaid or Food Stamps, point them to the Salvation Army. The difference is like night and day.

As I told a (hostile) room of graduate social work students this morning, when charity is coerced, charities don’t have to try nearly as hard.

Long-Term Costs of a Minimum Wage

Greg Mankiw blogs an NBER study by David Neumark and Olena Nizalovaof on the minimum wage, including this finding by Neumark and Nizalovaof:

The evidence indicates that even as individuals reach their late 20’s, they work less and earn less the longer they were exposed to a higher minimum wage, especially as a teenager. The adverse longer-run effects of facing high minimum wages as a teenager are stronger for blacks. From a policy perspective, these longer-run effects of minimum wages are likely more significant than the contemporaneous effects of minimum wages on youths that are the focus of most research and policy debate.

House Faces the Dumbest Bill of the Year (So Far): A $2.10 Increase in the Minimum Wage

House Republicans have one last chance to demonstrate that they have any remaining intelligence or principles. On June 13, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour over the next three years. This bill, with the support of seven Republicans on the committee, would implement one of the highest priorities of the congressional Democratic leadership.

An increase in the minimum wage is one of the dumbest possible policies for the following reasons:

  1. The employment of the least-skilled members of the labor force—often new entrants—would be reduced.
  2. The non-wage benefits and working conditions of those who keep their jobs at the higher wage would probably be reduced.
  3. Most of those who keep their jobs at the higher wage would be secondary workers in non-poor families.

An increase in the minimum wage has long been a symbolic issue for the Democrats, however inconsistent with their other professed political values. House Republicans should challenge the Democrats on this issue, pointing out that an increase in the minimum wage would most hurt those that they claim to help. To do this, the House Republicans should split off the minimum wage provision from the appropriation bill, allow a separate floor vote on this provision, and demonstrate the absurdity of this proposal by a defeating this measure by a large margin. I’m waiting for a demonstration of good sense, in part, to determine whether there is any remaining reason to favor a Republican majority in the House.

Local Musician Tired of Being Hassled by the Man

A recent article on the new Massachusetts health insurance law quotes an aspiring young musician who is skeptical of both the individual mandate and the subsidies designed to help low-income individuals satisfy the mandate:

“I’m aware that I lead a lifestyle where you have to live really cheaply. So something I think about is what if I tried to do something to make a little more money?” said Crosby. “What if I get a job and I start having to pay several hundreds of dollars for health insurance just because I come out of making a low income? Sometimes I think the state does things that encourage people to stay poor.”

Rock on, Ryan Crosby.  Rock on.