Sunday, October 24, 2010

Challenging Russ Roberts and Bryan Caplan on why the US should have open borders

A few weeks ago, GMU's Ross Roberts hosted colleague Bryan Caplan on EconTalk to refute arguments against open borders. Roberts putatively played devil's advocate, challenging Caplan from a restrictionist's perspective, but both guys are clearly in favor of unfettered immigration into the US (Roberts demonstrates his lack of familiarity with restrictionist thought by being unable to recall the term "coyote" as one that refers to those who assist immigrants illegally entering the country). To the extent that population differences were acknowledged at all, it was only in reference to differences in levels of education and skills.

Population differences in intelligence and personality went unmentioned, referred to only indirectly by Roberts who frames the discussion as one in which arguments against open borders "that have intellectual standing... that are legitimate arguments" will be considered. Presumably those un-intellectual, illegitimate arguments made by HBDers will not be. With human biodiversity preemptively exiled, the hour-plus long discussion suffers from ignoring the elephant in the room, and consequently shouldn't be taken too seriously by realists.

I do not materially change the excerpts in any way, although I did try to clean them up a bit grammatically, as verbal exchanges never conform exactly to written standards. There are still a few instances where [sic] should probably be employed, but that would merely be distracting without adding any value to the post.

Caplan starts by employing a thought experiment:
Suppose that moved by the plight of Haitians after the earthquake, you decide to take a trip down there to engage in some relief work. You help out for a few weeks and you're about to go home, when you go up to the desk at the airport and the person behind the counter says, "I'm sorry, you're not authorized to return."

You think that's very strange, so you go and talk to the US representative and he says, "That's right, you can't come back."

You say, "I don't understand. Why not?"

And the representative says, "The United States government does not have to answer questions. We don't give reasons."
Caplan argues that the fact that most Americans would oppose the US government restricting reentry of citizens in this way shows that there is an inherit moral presumption against restricting the movement of all people into the US.

Caplan is acting as the ecumenical humanist here. He is taking for granted that citizenship confers no meaningful distinction from non-citizenship, moral or otherwise. A person, by virtue of being human, deserves the same consideration as any other human. Nationality doesn't matter, ancestry doesn't matter, individual capabilities don't matter, etc. Given this assumption, if the well being of any given individual not currently living in the US but wishing to is the only consideration made, then Caplan's argument makes sense. If the totality of consequences are considered, it's more complicated.

If the well-being of citizens of the US are granted primacy, Caplan's argument is absurd. Consider a similar thought experiment using Caplan's home instead of his home country as the desired destination. To think that he would refuse entry to his son after a day of working at a soup kitchen in downtown Washington DC is appalling. But is it similarly appalling to think he would refuse to let one of those soup kitchen 'clients' take up residency in his guest room? Assuming the place is commodious enough to accommodate more people living in it, why keep out someone who wants to live there and who will be better off in so doing?

The retort that Caplan's house is his private property and he is thus entitled to allow and restrict entry into it is similarly applicable at the national level as well, unless the idea of national sovereignty is deemed illegitimate.

Tweak the thought experiment again, using a business firm as the restricting entity. An employee is not allowed to return to work (ie, is fired). An explanation will be offered, not just for legal reasons, but for practical reasons as well. If the employee receives no explanation, the sentiment of most observers will be one of disapproval at the firm's actions. But if someone solicits employment with the firm and the firm turns him down because it is perceived that he will be a liability rather than an asset to the firm, most observers will understandably claim that there is nothing wrong with the firm acting in this manner, even if being employed by the firm would be a good thing for the aspiring employee.

Does Caplan take issue with this distinction as well? Competition at the individual and company levels are great, but competition at the national level is not? I’d wager that most Americans see their nation as being more analogous to a big family than to a competitive enterprise competing against other countries, but both are accurate to some extent.

Ten minutes in, Roberts has largely ditched his role as an opposing voice. His thought process in determining what constitutes net benefit to the country:
There are subtle differences in the immigration argument. There are some people who say it's okay to let in the "right kind"--which is Borjas' position--he's okay with letting in highly educated workers who supposedly contribute more than they take away, which I don't agree with. I mean, I think they do contribute, but I think [all immigrants] contribute.
So everyone contributes. Presumably he is referring to a net contribution, however exactly that is defined. If every immigrant goes on the asset side of the ledger, then what we need more than anything is simply more people. I say we just annex Mexico! Instantaneously we'll have another 112 million people contributing to this great nation of ours. That’s the ticket!

Caplan continues, making the following assertion:
Immigrants are typically better at what are called "non-language jobs", or jobs that don't require such great knowledge of English. Americans, of course, have an advantage in these kinds of jobs [that require English proficiency].
Uh huh. Moving on. Concerning the effects on real estate, says Caplan:
Immigrants require housing, and when they come here they raise the demand for housing which means that real estate prices increase. And while there are Americans who don't own real estate and don't benefit from it, on average, American real estate is generally owned by Americans.
Bringing as many warm bodies as possible to an area is a great idea. They'll need a place to live, which means the people who already own places to live will see those places appreciate in value. Having those new arrivals earn the money to rent and buy those places to live by building more houses and then taking out loans that'll pay for themselves when the places the loans are going for are lifted up in the rising tide of perennial real estate value appreciation will keep the cycle going, and as long as people keep coming, everyone who is already there will get ever-wealthier in the process. What could possibly go wrong?

If only property values would simply cooperate and increase forever due solely to an increase in population density! This being 2010 rather than 2007, that wish seems hopelessly quixotic, though. In March of last year, I found the correlation between a state's illegal immigrants per capita and its foreclosure rate to be a rigorous .72 (p=0). A state's estimated average IQ, by contrast, was far less related, correlating with the foreclosure rate at .32 (p=.02). If those who come to an area are unable or unwilling to support themselves there over an extended period of time, the temporary spike in property values they cause creates painful distortions (namely property owners believing themselves to be much wealthier than they actually are), as the economic environment of the last couple of years illustrates.

Roberts argues that unfettered unskilled immigration is beneficial because:
A humane policy would be to try to improve the productivity of those high school dropouts we're worried about. ... I don't think people would argue that because labor-saving devices are hard on people who have limited skills, who used to be employed as people who wash dishes or wash clothing, that therefore we shouldn't allow people to create new devices. The argument would be, "Let's encourage people to get those skills", which [increased unskilled immigration] would!
Because the guy who went into construction after high school could have earned a PhD in engineering and designed a device that would've made his efforts obsolete, but he chose not to because the earnings differential between what he makes as a construction worker and what he could've made as an inventor are not wide enough now. But increased illegal immigration will drive down his construction wages and thus send him packing from Missouri to MIT on the double, where every person’s inner genius is brought to light.

This line of reasoning appears to be the same one that leads some libertarians (Caplan among them) to argue that increasing the size of the unskilled, low IQ population is a good idea because in a more intelligent world, somebody still has to pick up trash and sweep parking lots.

In actuality, though, only the conclusions--that unskilled immigration is beneficial--are the same. Roberts argues that the presence of lowly skilled immigrants will push unskilled natives into college, which will give them the intelligence to invent things that will make these immigrants' modest skill sets obsolete. Caplan, in contrast, thinks that the unskilled are still able to create a situation of comparative advantage by specializing in things that people with low IQs are good at (whatever those are, since even in occupations like truck driving, higher intelligence tends to correspond with better, more reliable truckers).

To some extent, Caplan accepts IQ differences, while Roberts bases his assumptions on more education leading to greater intelligence. If the average street sweeper, with an extra eight years of college, has the potential to be a successful chemical engineer, Roberts argument might be convincing. Unfortunately, most people lack the aptitude required to be a chemical engineer. And even if it were true that education raises intelligence, it runs into real-life observations that restricting businesses access to cheap, unskilled labor creates incentives for them to mechanize away from needing that unskilled labor in the first place.

Agriculture is both a relevant and great example of the options businesses have with regards to labor. They may either pursue cheap labor or, if labor becomes prohibitively expensive, will instead try to find technologically-advanced alternatives to that labor. Giving them access to unskilled peasants who can be paid a pittance in cash makes the former option appear far more appealing than it does with a tighter, more demanding labor supply.

Humorously, Roberts and Caplan go on to talk about how immigration likely hurts natives in academia more than it hurts most other Americans. Caplan is for open borders for the common good even at great personal sacrifice, whereas restrictionists are just looking out for number one:
If there is any industry in the United States that currently does face open immigration and full competition from every worker in the world, it's academia. Right now, there is a loophole that basically makes it possible for universities to hire any professor from anywhere on earth, and right now Russ and I are competing with them. ... If foreign-born professors had never been allowed in, I think Russ and I would be at much more highly ranked schools and we would be earning much higher wages. Actually, we are people who are suffering more than almost anyone.
Uh, so logically extending the argument Roberts made previously about unskilled immigration prodding natives into pursuing more education, this means increasing immigration among the highly skilled will cause more natives to forego college and drop out of high school, as competition with foreigners at the high end will tend to lower wages, which is exactly the opposite of what Roberts and Caplan would like to see happen! Being aware of individual differences in intelligence and other work-related capabilities, this side of Roberts argument (that he doesn't actually make, but I'm so graciously making for him) is more important, since intelligent people are more likely to do less demanding work (and do it effectively) if they are compensated well for it than are unintelligent people to do cognitively demanding work because they are incapable of doing that work, irrespective of the potential compensation they would receive.

Roberts raises the issue of welfare parasitism. He makes no note of it, but immigrant welfare usage rates are considerably higher than are those of natives, among those of Mexican descent in particular. Caplan then anecdotally argues that immigrants work harder than natives do:
Look at any hard work being done in Los Angeles, it's almost always being done by people from Latin America.
Granted, Montana and South Dakota are on the brink of financial implosion, unlike the sound, sturdy state of California, but in those places Americans somehow manage to get by with Americans doing the jobs that Americans won't do.

Caplan then downplays concern over welfare usage by pointing out that more government spending goes to the elderly than to the poor:
One very common misconception about the welfare state that makes people think that immigrants are worse than they really are is that we imagine that the welfare state is mainly about helping the poor. We take a look and we say, “Hey, there are all these poor immigrants coming here so obviously they’re going to be a net drain.” This is actually just factually wrong. If you go and take a look at the numbers on the budget, while the poor do get a fair amount—maybe 10% of the federal budget—they are a very distant runner-up against the group that actually gets the most money from the welfare state, which is the elderly.
As someone who thinks the healthcare expenditures made on behalf of the elderly to keep them undead for a couple of months or years longer than they would otherwise be around is extremely wasteful, I'm sympathetic to concerns about Medicare and Social Security spending. But that's a deflection, not an argument that addresses restrictionist concerns. While it is factually incorrect to assert that the poor receive more in benefits than the elderly do, it is not factually incorrect to assert that illegal immigrants are a net drain on American society.

Caplan takes on the argument that immigration has adverse consequences on American culture:
If this argument were made in France, I'd at least kind of understand what they're talking about, saying we need to preserve French culture. But culture seems to be so low down on Americans' priorities that it's odd to me. Like, the immigrants are not going to know about Friends or they're not going to appreciate Seinfield? I'm baffled about what kind of culture Americans do know that immigrants don't know.
If culture is merely shorthand for popular culture, then these concerns have more to do with things like the Virginia Department of Health putting out comics (Mexicans don't read many books) in an effort to combat statutory rape against Latinas because of Latin American "cultural mores condoning May-December relationships."

When it comes to aspects of mid- and high-brow culture, the restrictionist argument tends to be that we're fighting an uphill battle as it is, and we should not make it any worse by allowing unfettered immigration of those who have an average educational attainment equivalent to 'graduation' from the eighth grade and who read fewer than two books per year.

The discussion moves on to politics. Characterizing the restrictionist argument that immigrants, on net, tend to vote for larger government and tighter restrictions on personal liberties, Caplan says:
The fact that you come from countries [that aren't free] probably means that you don't like freedom, and if you come here, you're going to turn our politics into your politics. ... But there is the question of how hell bent immigrants are on turning America into Mexico or Congo? It may be that there opinions are moderately less pro-freedom than those of the people who grew up here. But it seems unlikely that this is that big of a deal for them.
The GSS contains a few items are relevant to the issue. The following tables show how the foreign-born compare to natives, first on political orientation:


Partisan affiliation:


"What is your opinion of the following statement? It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes" (those with no opinion are not included):


Racists should be allowed to speak in public:


Homosexuals should be allowed to speak in public:


Atheists should be allowed to speak in public:


Caplan could be accused of minimizing the concerns that immigrants, on net, tend to be leftist, statist, and authoritarian in their political views relative to natives (keep in mind, too, that in all of these cases, "natives" includes blacks--if only whites are considered, the differences between natives and the foreign-born are wider on every item). He appears to be generally correct in noting that the differences are not uniformly enormous, however.

Roberts errantly argues that the children of immigrants actually tend to do better than their native peers do:
The studies I've seen show [no studies are cited] that not only do second-generation immigrants learn English, but that they thrive. They thrive relative to their parents, and very soon, of course, they're not immigrants anymore. They're like you and I, whose ancestors moved here at some point in the distant past, and how well they do in our society is not a function of what country they were born in [he's unknowingly on the money when it comes to the second-generation children of immigrants; it's more a function of the country their parents were born in!], it's a function of how much education they have, how hard they work, and luck. But education works, it's very powerful.

Immigrants who come here, uneducated, who can't speak English, give birth to children who end up speaking English, graduate from high school and go to college--or don't--but do better than their parents and eventually do as well as or better than native Americans.
Caplan, who is clearly more well versed in the issues surrounding immigration into the US than Roberts is, gently points out to Roberts that he is incorrect and that the second-generation does not perform as well as natives do. Parenthetically, he could have also pointed out that when it comes to Mexican immigrants and their progeny, even through the fourth generation they still fare far worse than natives do. Caplan brushes this aside, saying that even though the children of immigrants learn less and earn less than the children of natives do, they still contribute to the economy and "pull their own weight and more".

Directly after this, Caplan lets restrictionists know how he feels about them:
A lot of hostility to immigration is that every immigrant is reproached by every native-born American who didn't do more with his life. It's a little bit hard, but it's true.
Given that immigrants tend to do worse than natives do--especially white natives (who are more restrictionist than blacks are)--that's an interesting standard for what constitutes truth. Restrictionism wins out over support for open immigration across both the political and economic spectrums, so Caplan's characterization is untrue, but it does illustrate how being for unfettered immigration is a SWPL status marker worth multiple moral posturing points.

As he continued in that vein, I couldn't help but wonder if he would have so earnestly stated the following to a group of grassroots NAACP boosters:
Look, someone came here not speaking English, they worked their way up from the bottom, and now look at them. You were born here, you speak English as your
native language, you had an education paid for by American taxpayers for free, and these immigrants have done as well as you. How do you explain that? Why is it that we should be so worried about you when there are people like this in the world who have done so well with so little?
They touch briefly on crime, with Caplan noting that the foreign-born are less criminally prone than natives are at comparable ages. Statistics on immigration and crime are all inherently difficult to be certain about, especially when it comes to illegal immigrants, since they are by virtue of their illegality more shrouded in their activities than American citizens are and those they live around, who also tend to be illegal, are more apprehensive about reporting criminal activity than natives are. But even with underreported criminal activity among immigrants, Latin American migrants are, on the whole, more criminally prone than native whites are (see table 1).

If blacks are thrown into the mix, things change, of course. When it comes to comparisons of criminal activity, America's black population inevitably pulls the nation down. However, since bringing in Juan does not mean Julian disappears, that Mexican immigrants are less criminally prone than black Americans are is not on its own much of an argument for open borders.

Roberts suggests people living in Portland, where obstacles to new construction and perceived overcrowding keep out immigrants from other countries as well as from other states within the US, like their lives and the city they live in as is. He asks Caplan why they should open themselves up to more immigration. Caplan answers that even if denizens of Portland don't like the greater population density and cultural changes that will result if the city opens itself up, it would increase their property values and they would then be able to sell at a gain and move somewhere else in the US that is similar to how Portland had been before those changes (I'm not making that up). He then let's those in Portland what they're missing out on--being like Manhattan! Not Los Angeles or San Antonio, which would be more relevant comparisons, but Manhattan, a glorified, snazzy part of a much larger metropolitan area in the Northeast.

As they bring the discussion to a close, Caplan expresses how the personal relationships with immigrants influence his opinions on the subject:
When I really think about the immigrants that I know--and I know many immigrants--immigrants are my friends, my neighbors. My wife is an immigrant. These are all human beings who, if we all listened to the opponents of immigration, they wouldn't be here. They wouldn't be allowed to be here. We'd have erred on the side of caution and said "let's not let them in." And because we didn't error on the side of caution, we let them in, they're here enjoying their lives and these are people I care about.
Replace each instance of "immigrant" with "former fetus" or the like, and Caplan is pitching himself for a narration gig in a pro-life TV spot!


* Only for the questions on political orientation and partisan affiliation, which are asked every year. For the other items, I included the entire timeframe over which the question was asked.


TGGP said...

"Caplan, in contrast, thinks that the unskilled are still able to create a situation of comparative advantage by specializing in things that people with low IQs are good at (whatever those are, since even in occupations like truck driving, higher intelligence tends to correspond with better, more reliable truckers)"
Most comparative advantage examples involve one side being worse at both things, just to show the strength of the argument. The idea is that even if Einstein could drive a truck better than anyone, it's a waste of his time and he's better off hiring others to drive trucks while he does more important things.

Your "factually incorrect" and "more criminally prone" links are broken.

Underachiever said...

Excellent rebuttals. I was surprised that so many people were against letting gays and atheists speak.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic Post, AE. One of the best I've seen since I started reading your blog.

I truly hate these people. I hate them infinitely more than I hate any immigrants, even the illegals.

Nanonymous said...

Disgusting. Fscking leeches these "scholars". I hate the sound of it but that's just what it is: Russ Roberts, Bryan Caplan and their ilk are the enemy of America.

OneSTDV said...

Damn, that is long. I will digest this likely fantastic post later.

Audacious Epigone said...


Thanks for the catches. They're fixed now.


That's the reaction a lot of readers have had when I've looked at those questions previously (and that I initially had myself). It's a product of the intellectual circles we operate in, though, I think. For all respondents (natives and otherwise), more than 90% of those with wordsum scores of 9 or 10 (roughly IQs of 120+) favor allowing atheists to speak. Among those with wordsum scores of 0-3 (IQs of 80 and below), it's fewer than 50%.

For racists, where hostility to free speech is higher across the board, more than 70% of 9-10 wordsum scorers are for allowing the speech, while only about one-third of 0-3 are. In both cases, tolerance for free speech and wordsum scores track almost perfectly.

Anon and Nanon,

I understand your sentiment entirely. I thought the second time through wouldn't get me so heated, but I was on fire. Our future really does hang in the balance on this issue, and I don't give a shit if that sounds "alarmist" or paranoid or whatever.

coldequation said...

Wait - Caplan's own numbers show that a plurality of immigrants support gov't redistribution of wealth, and this is supposed to be making the case that immigration is not a problem? This reminds me of the old joke about the accountant who tells his boss that the company is losing $10 on every sale, so the boss thinks for a minute and says "That's OK, we'll make it up on volume!"

It would also be more relevant to look at what the second generation of entitled "Americans" thinks. I'll bet they're more liberal, as well as worse in almost every way other than their English skills, than their immigrant parents. When you bring in an immigrant, you're also bringing all of his descendants, forever.

silly girl said...

US Census reports 106 non marital births per 1000 hispanic women in 2006 beating even blacks at only 72 per 1000.

Figure 3

Anonymous said...

I was thinking today... the American people generally oppose mass immigration. These people want to impose it on us against our will, and so they bombard us with dubious studies that explain why it's really going to be good for us.

Kind of like having a girl turn you down for sex, showing her that study that said 90% of women orgasm during rape, and going ahead anyway.

No means no, assholes.

B Lode said...

Thanks for writing this. I am glad someone is refuting these guys, and you do it well ... and I am too tired and distracted to write anything half this good.

Audacious Epigone said...


When you bring in an immigrant, you're also bringing all of his descendants, forever.

Exactly why the question of immigration should take precedence over every other policy, cultural, economic, etc consideration.

Silly girl,

Look at the change over the last four decades in terms of the ages of unmarried mothers at the time of their children's births (figure 5).


Pillaging the American village, indeed.


Eternal vigilance brother.

Jody said...

One would think that an economist would recognize the property analogies to citizenship, specifically if you don't have a stake in something, you don't invest in it.

Sure you'll invest in yourself, but not so much in the social institutions that make the country work.

Perhaps the point would be clearer if we referred to transnationalists as communal citizens.

Anonymous said...

I haven't listened to the podcast, but from the excerpts Roberts comes off as well-intentioned but ignorant, whereas Caplan sounds downright evil.

silly girl said...

"Look at the change over the last four decades in terms of the ages of unmarried mothers at the time of their children's births (figure 5)."

Yeah, I figure the teens who couldn't get the guy to marry them, have just become the 20 somethings that can't get the guy to marry them. Now, they abort the first couple, but eventually they still have an illegitimate kid or two. Physical, mental and emotional characteristics likely quite similar.

tommy said...

You say, "I don't understand. Why not?"

And the representative says, "The United States government does not have to answer questions. We don't give reasons."

Once again, Caplan is driven to demonstrate his intellectual autism.

Open-borders libertarians are incapable of thinking in terms of externalities when it comes to immigration. They love to point to externalities when showing why so many liberal policies have failed but, where immigration is concerned, they pretend not to have ever heard of the term. Comparative advantage is all that exists. "We simply can't say much about externalities and, therefore, we must imagine they didn't matter." Naturally, they must limit debate to their own straw men, scream "I can't hear you!" a lot, and shift goalposts as needed.

Of course, Lynn and Vanhanen have demonstrated that we know enough about IQ to say more than they would like to acknowledge.

Incidentally, this may be a case where Caplan reveals his Jewishness. I've noticed that Jews aren't particularly interested in discovering truth through argument. I think Udolpho has mentioned such amoral argumentation as characteristic of the Chosen People. You might think a guy like Caplan would be able to see the flaws in his own example, but Jews tend to develop fixations with ideas and then defend them with any number of arguments, no matter how specious. They often go through so many of them that even after they abandon an argument as invalid in one instance, they will resurrect the same failed argument in another. I suspect it's because they spend more time devising yet another argument than they do pondering why the previous one wasn't convincing.

Having to seriously entertain to the other side of a debate seems to be as painful and humiliating as conceding defeat for most Jews. It's a mentality perfectly adapted to debates between rabbinical students--getting a one-up on the other guy is all that counts. It works well enough in mathematics or the sciences, where inductive and empirical proofs are required to move forward, but it's ill-suited toward figuring out fuzzy social issues with no clear standards of proof.

Audacious Epigone said...


Yes, Caplan is clearly familiar with real, contemporary restrictionist arguments. Roberts, on the other hand, is clueless, offering the platitudes and knocking down the strawmen that you'd find any standard libertarian political platform doing.