Senate Amendment Guts Immigration Reform

The Senate’s vote yesterday to cut the number of temporary worker visas in half knocks a big hole in the comprehensive immigration reform proposal now being debated in Congress. As I’ve written in a recent Free Trade Bulletin, allowing a sufficient number of foreign-born workers to enter the country legally to meet the obvious demand of our labor market is absolutely necessary if we want to reduce illegal immigration.

Ignoring our policy advice, the Senate voted 74-24 to adopt an amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that would cut the number of annual temporary “Y visas” from 400,000 to 200,000. That number is almost certainly too low to provide the workers that our growing economy needs to fill jobs at the lower end the skill ladder for which there simply are not enough Americans available to fill them. The result, if the lower cap stands, will be continued illegal immigration.

The irony is that many of the senators voting to drastically reduce temporary visas are the same senators who warn that we should not repeat the mistake of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. That bill legalized 2.7 million illegal immigrants but was unable to stop more immigrants from entering the country illegally despite beefed-up enforcement. The real flaw of the 1986 law, however, was its complete lack of any temporary worker program to provide for future, legal workers.

By adopting the Bingaman amendment, a majority of senators have turned the current reform effort into something much more like the failed 1986 law. They have kicked the illegal immigration can down the road, leaving it to a future Congress to find a lasting solution.

Gore Outrage on Larry King: Some Inconvenient Facts

Here’s the transcript of a Q/A by Al Gore last night on Larry King Live

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Vice President Al Gore, what issues caused by climate change globally are likely to affect the United States security in the next 10 years?


GORE: You know, even a one-meter increase, even a three-foot increase in sea level would cause tens of millions of climate refugees.

If Greenland were to break up and slip into the sea or West Antarctica, or half of either and half of both, it would be a 20-feet increase, and that would lead to more than 450 million climate refugees.

The direct impacts on the U.S. have already begun. Today, 49 percent of America is in conditions of drought or near drought. And we have had droughts in the past, but the odds of serious droughts increase when the average temperatures go up, as they have been going up.

We have fires in California, in Florida, in other states, unprecedented fire season last year, directly correlated with higher temperatures, which dry out the soils, dry out the vegetation.

We have a very serious threat of losing enough soil moisture in a hotter world that agriculture here in the United States would be greatly affected. Now, the list is too long to give you here, but look, these issues are more important that Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton, and they are not being talked about.

FACT 1. There is not one shred of evidence in the refereed scientific literature speaking of a three-foot increase in sea level in ten years. The best estimates from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change range from 0.8 to 1.7 INCHES.

FACT 2. There is no trend towards increasing drought area in the United States that is related to planetary warming. We have good data on drought area back to 1895. The correlation between the area of the U.S. under drought and planetary temperature is statistically ZERO.

FACT 3. As the mean planetary temperature has warmed since 1975, U.S. crop yields have INCREASED significantly, just as they did during the period of cooling from 1945 through 1975, or during the warming from 1910 to 1945.

It is a true outrage that Gore can get away with this on live television and not be called out by the inconvenient facts.

Pet Rocks, Leisure Suits, and Oil Companies

The often sensible business columnist at the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein, has a really bad idea today: “Put the government into the oil business.” He wants to create a federal oil company that would be required to “operate at only a modest profit, while doing everything in its power to expand supply, smooth prices and expose collusive behavior.”

I can only wonder if the maid cleaned his desk and accidentally left a 1970s folder on top. Back in the ’70s Democrats kept talking about creating a national oil company to “use as a yardstick” to measure the performance of the oil companies. One wag noted at the time that Gulf Oil was going to buy Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to use as a yardstick by which to measure the federal government.

Gas prices go up and down, as Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren have discussed. If prices are being held above market levels by some sort of collusion, then you wouldn’t need a tax-funded government company to offer lower prices; profit-seeking entrepreneurs could do it. Let’s leave the 70s be, and watch for high prices to stimulate conservation, exploration, and alternative sources of energy.

Care to Wager on That?

We are hearing a lot about presidential polling these days. It’s easy to doubt the results of these polls: few respondents have focused at all this early on the presidential elections.

But there’s a better way to get information about how the presidential election is going: the Iowa Electronic Markets. These markets allow people to invest in futures contracts on specific events like the outcome of a presidential election or nomination. For example, if you own a futures contract on Hillary Clinton, and she wins the Democratic nomination, your receive $1 (and zero if she does not get the nomination). The relative prices of these contracts aggregate investor predictions about the outcome of the presidential races. Such predictions should be better than alternative forecasts since people in the markets have every reason to be as well informed as possible and have the chance to make money if they have superior information about the outcome of an election. Indeed, such markets have done better than traditional polling in predicting electoral outcomes.

How are things going these days at IEM? On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looked to be in trouble in early April; Barack Obama’s contract had drawn even in value. Since then, however, Hillary’s contract has steadily gained about 20 percent in price while Obama’s has lost about a quarter of its value. Obama did close a similar gap in contract value during the first two weeks of March so the Illinois senator is hardly out of the game. But the trend should be disconcerting for Obama. It looks like he needed the New Hampshire primary to fall ten months earlier than it will.

On the Republican side, the leader for the past two months has been “none of the above” or more specifically, an unnamed candidate other than Giuliani, McCain or Romney. Giuliani has generally and slowly trended downward over the past two months. McCain fell rapidly in March and stayed down until early May when he rose rapidly, passing Giuliani briefly last week. Now, however, McCain is falling as rapidly as he rose. He now trails both Romney and Giuliani. Romney has experienced three sharp upward spurts followed by equally rapid declines. Unlike Hillary, none of the top three seem to be gaining ground toward the nomination. The IEM strongly suggests that someone other than Giuliani, McCain or Romney will be the eventual nominee.

You can also buy a contract on the November 2008 result. Currently a Democratic winner-take-all contract goes for sixty cents; the GOP one goes for forty cents. Both contracts have gained (or lost) about ten cents since the end of the 2006.

In sum, there’s money to be made here if you believe Obama or John Edwards will get the Democratic presidential nomination. There’s even more money to be made buying a futures contract on a Republican victory in 2008. As a great investor once said (to paraphrase): “the moment to invest everything is the moment of absolute and complete pessimism.” The smart money is saying we are going to have our first female president in 2009. So there’s money to be made betting (um, investing) against that result.

A final thought: Shouldn’t someone check the White House accounts to make sure the president isn’t buying every DEM08 winner-take-all contract on offer? That would explain a lot.

Smoke on Your Pipe and Put That In!

Harvard economist George Borjas, perhaps the leading academic skeptic of increased immigration, has started a blog. In a West Side Story-themed post this morning, Borjas argues that the failure of Puerto Rico’s per capita GDP to converge fully with the United States’, despite the fact that the flow of people and capital between the two countries is completely unrestricted, challenges the idea that a liberal migration policy can make people in the developing world better off.

There are also no restrictions that hamper the flow of capital between the two places. Yet despite all these unrestricted labor and capital flows, there is still a sizable income differential between the United States and Puerto Rico. By 2003, price-adjusted per-capita GDP in Puerto Rico was still only two-thirds that of the United States (according to the Penn World Table). Whatever happened to the factor price equalization theorem? If 60 years is not the “long run,” maybe Keynes was right after all.

The fact that migration entails very high costs if an important–and often ignored–part of the economics of migration. The fact that wages don’t equalize even when a “country” loses a large chunk of its population and there are unrestricted capital flows is both interesting and important. It should give some food for thought to those who view migration as a policy tool that can help alleviate many of the developing world’s problems.

I think this is misleading. Mississippi, the U.S.’s poorest state, has a per capita gross state product of about $28,000 per person, which is not quite 2/3 of the overall U.S. per capita GDP, $43,500. The relevant comparison would seem to be the per capita GDP of Puerto Rico next to that of other Caribbean islands. Puerto Rico’s PPP-adjusted GDP per capita for 2006 was about $19,000.

First, it should be pointed out that the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose inhabitants have been U.S. citizens since 1927, does even less well, at about $14,500 per capita. (That’s a 2004 number, so it’s probably a bit higher than that.) But this isn’t a very good comparison, either; the Virgin Islands has a population slightly bigger than Davenport, Iowa, the economy basically runs on tourism, and the people who own the resorts don’t live there. Cuba, with a population about three times Puerto Rico’s, comes in with a GDP per capita of around $3900, less than a quarter of Puerto Rico’s. But we already knew that communism is terrible. The best comparison is probably the nearby Dominican Republic, which is neither a socialist dystopia nor a U.S. territory. GDP per capita in the Dominican Republic is $8000, less than half Puerto Rico’s.

But who cares about Puerto Rico, the territorial jurisidiction? How are Puerto Ricans doing? According to Wikipedia’s entry on Puerto Ricans in the United States, slightly more Puerto Ricans now live Stateside than on the island, and, “in 2002, the average individual income for Stateside Puerto Ricans was $33,927.”

I find it pretty hard to see this as anything less than a slam dunk for the humanitarian benefit of the freedom of movement.

On a more technical note, why would one really expect wages to fully equalize in the absence of the idealized conditions of the economic model? First, there’s the obvious fact that an island in the Caribbean is “off the grid” of the main U.S. trade infrastructure. Second, as Borjas points out, there is a high cost to immigration. Those able to foot the bill are likely the most productive workers with the greatest capacity to save. And those with higher levels of skill are likely to see a bigger relative returns from participation with U.S. labor markets, reinforcing the incentive for the more skilled to move. If that’s true, and Puerto Rico has lost disproportionately many higher-skilled workers to the U.S., then the fact that GDP per capita is still so high compared to neighboring democracies is really a slam dunk.

To drive the point home, a fun quotation from the the CIA World Factbook entry on the Dominican Republic:

Haitian migrants cross the porous border into the Dominican Republic to find work; illegal migrants from the Dominican Republic cross the Mona Passage each year to Puerto Rico to find better work.

And Puerto Ricans who can afford it “like to be in America.”

[Lyrics to Bernstein and Sondheim’s “America” here.]

German Finance Minister Endorses Flat tax

Sounds like a great headline, but the details leave a lot to be desired. As a matter of fact, the German concept of a “flat tax” is an additional daily levy imposed on prostitutes, not a simple and fair system for all taxpayers. As a news report explains, German politicians are motivated by a desire to capture more revenue:

Germany’s Finance Minister Peer Stein [Ed. note: error in original report. the name should be “Peer Steinbrück”] wants prostitutes to pay a flat tax of 25 euros a day, according to a report in Tuesday’s edition of the daily newspaper Bild. Sex workers would still file an annual tax declaration and, according to the number of clients, the tax authorities would either reimburse them part of the daily tax – or oblige them to pay more, said the paper. … Prostitution has been legal in Germany since the beginning of 2002, and prostitutes in theory have social security cover, but like taxation, the system does not work well in practice. According to a 2003 report, the German taxman misses out on about 2 billion euros from prostitution.

Advice for Cash-Paying Patients: Just Walk up to the Desk and Demand Your 50 Percent Discount

When I received an MRI on my knee back in October, I knew I wasn’t going to hit my health savings account (HSA) plan’s $2,600 deductible. In other words, I knew I would be paying for the MRI myself, in cash.

The radiologist charged me $1,500. But my PPO negotiated that price all the way down to $1,300.

I wasn’t impressed. An imaging center near my home quoted me a list price of $1,275 for one knee, which they were glad to reduce to $637 for cash-paying patients. I mentioned this to the radiologist, and they dropped the price to $1,035.

I still wasn’t impressed. So today, seven months later, the radiologist and I finally settled on a price of $700. That’s 53 percent less than what they originally charged me.

The woman I negotiated with has handled this radiologist’s billing for the last 20 years. She told me that if – God forbid – I ever need another MRI, I should just walk up to the front desk and demand a 50 percent discount.

She described insurance companies as “evil” and “rich,” and said, “I don’t mind making the insurance companies miserable, but we don’t do that to our customers.”