Searching for Immigration Insights, Reihan Salam Finds Non Sequiturs

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The U.S. is presently importing too many cars, smartphones and computers that are manufactured in Japan and China, but isn’t importing enough in the way of way of t-shirts, shoes and socks from those countries. With an eye on balancing production and trade between the United States and Asia, it’s important that Congress institute import quotas in order to bend market forces to the betterment of the economy.

Imagine a conservative writing that, or for that matter any politician. Most who have the most basic understanding of economics would loudly criticize such an obnoxious attempt at central planning. The U.S. economy booms precisely because the infinite decisions that inform its economic direction are largely made free of government intervention. If politicians were to be given power to control globalized trading relationships involving goods and services, the economic result would be fairly disastrous. For obvious reasons.   

Despite this, few seem to blanch at commentary calling for government to plan the inflow of human capital.  This is true despite the simple truth that human capital is exponentially more important as a driver of economic progress than is physical capital. 

To understand this better, consider a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal by National Review executive editor Reihan Salam.  Seeking a fix to what he deems an immigration “crisis" (in modern times the pundit class has inflated away "crisis" to near nothingness), Salam argues that the solution is for the U.S. “to give priority to the earning potential of applicants over their family ties” in order to “ensure that new arrivals are in a position to thrive in a changing U.S. labor market and that they can provide for their children without relying on programs meant to help the poorest of the American poor…”

Of course not explained by Salam is how the feds would regulate what he deems an optimal mix of outsiders. He doesn’t explain it because he has no answer. While I think every “drug” should be fully legalized, that they’re illegal in no material way limits their availability. There’s demand for “drugs,” and as a result what’s “illegal” is easy to purchase and use right here. Immigrants are no different. Regardless of Salam’s desire to centrally plan the inflow of the humans he thinks acceptable, those whom Salam might view as undesirable will still come to the U.S. They’ll just arrive illegally.

To state what should be obvious, Salam is unintentionally calling for human nature to be made illegal. And it is human nature. The U.S. economy booms, and the world’s poorest flock here as a result. Much the same is taking place in South America right now as impoverished Venezuelans flow into Colombia. The only way to stop the inflow of people into the U.S. would be for Congress and the president to adopt the economic policies that prevail in Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea.

The problem for Salam is that he’s not just incorrect in his utopian assumptions about wise government officials planning – and controlling – the arrival of human capital. He also misses in his assumptions about people. Based on Salam’s conceit about who would and wouldn’t thrive in the United States, he would have been calling for rules meant to keep the Irish out in the 19th century, along with Koreans in the second half of the 20th. That’s the case because elite thinkers at the time thought the Irish incapable of assimilating in the 19th, while a deep thinking State Department official in the 20th observed that “There are virtually no Koreans with the technical training and experience required to take advantage of Korea’s resources and effect an improvement over its rice-economy status.” The future is hard to predict, and because it is, it’s especially hard to predict the people who will make the future. That’s what markets are for, but Salam would like for market standards to be replaced by bureaucrat standards even though markets are wiser, and even though such a policy would in no way keep out the people whom Salam wouldn’t select for admittance.

Unfortunately, Salam isn’t stopping there. Like all those comfortable with government planning, he asks for the notoriously incompetent feds to “make sure that the children of natives and the children of immigrants alike are incorporated into a common national identity and, just as importantly, that they’re in a position to lead healthy and productive lives as adults.” Salam doesn’t describe how he would achieve the latter seemingly because the offering up of feel-good platitudes apparently frees him (at least in his own mind) from actually explaining how the wise minds in Washington would decree a harmonious world. Back to reality, the “middle-class melting pot” of Salam’s dreams is an effect of values that can’t be imparted by bureaucrats, nor is it necessary. Those who risk their lives to get here are stating pretty loudly that they want to live as we do. It’s the act of coming to the U.S. that often tells the tale about people, not their re-education by people like Salam. 

Not only are Salam and his ilk incapable of divining the integration policies he deems so necessary, they’re also plainly not capable of knowing how the new arrivals will be employed. If they did know, as in if Salam knew what the jobs of the future would entail, he most certainly wouldn’t be writing essays about immigration. People who can see into the future of work are incredibly hot commodities who earn millions and billions as investors. That’s why readers can haughtily dismiss Salam’s suggestion that “today’s labor market places a higher premium on skills and social capital” such that we don’t need poor immigrants. Not only does the present rarely predict the future, the present surely doesn’t predict the future progress of those who care enough about themselves (like Salam’s very own parents) to exit what’s failed in pursuit of what’s abundant.  Markets are wise because they’re populated by people, and the world’s poorest continue to view the U.S. as the place where they can fix their poverty. For Salam to then presume that the U.S. is no longer the place for the allegedly unskilled to fix what’s wrong is for him to not just make assumptions well beyond his pay grade, it’s for him to ignore that a U.S. that’s economically unwelcoming to immigrants will soon enough not have many clamoring to come in as is. Markets work. When the U.S. economy sagged from 2008 to 2014, so did new arrivals decline. 

Salam concludes that we must “grandfather in many of those [immigrants] who have settled in the country in years past,” and having done that, “we must invest the time and money it will take to ensure that all of America’s youth can grow up to lead decent lives. If that means higher taxes on high-income professionals who have profited so mightily from immigrant labor, so be it.” Oh dear….About Salam’s solutions, it’s no major statement to say we have to accept that the past is settled. If not, as in if Salam were to call for deportation, a pundit and a movement (conservative?) supposedly in favor of limited government would have to be accepting of armed federal officials not just forcing 12 million humans out of the U.S., but also making sure that they stay out. How much government would conservatives accept in order to fail?

As for ensuring decent lives, it’s apparent that Salam knows the Constitution about as well as the natives do; as in not very. There are no guarantees in the Constitution other than a guarantee of individual freedom. People didn’t risk it all to come here for guarantees as is. It wouldn’t have been worth it. They’re here to exceed anything unimaginative bureaucrats (and those who think like they do) could come up with. 

And then the taxes? What could Salam possibly mean? First of all, the notion that America's rich have gotten that way on the backs of immigrant labor shows just how distant Salam is from the real workings of commerce of any kind. After that, what does he think the federal government would do with its extra control over the economy’s resources in order to meet the needs of the immigrants hand-picked by people like Salam? The mere mention of higher taxes gives new meaning to non sequitur, particularly for a pundit focused on the creation of “decent lives.” Yes, penalize the vital few who truly drive progress so that Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi have more money to waste....

The problem is that Salam’s whole essay is a monument to non sequitur. Though convinced he’s got solutions, Salam’s lofty ideas ignore that so long as the U.S. is largely free and booming, immigrants will continue to show up no matter what. Good. The markets will continue to work around interventionists like Salam who, despite writing a long essay about immigration, said much less than nothing about it. 

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is titled They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers. Other books by Tamny include The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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