Thoughts on the Caplan/Jones Debate
By David Henderson
I’ve long believed that the most interesting conflicts are not between good and evil, but between good and good. For that reason, I found the Caplan/Jones debate on immigration quite interesting. I know Bryan Caplan pretty well, though mainly at a distance. I know Garett Jones, less well, almost entirely at a distance. And I highly respect and like both of them. More important, I think they are both good people.
One of the most striking things about their debate is their honesty. Neither seemed to pull any of the standard debating tricks. I should add that, in the interest of getting this post done this evening, I didn’t listen to the first 10 minutes of Bryan’s opening statement, mainly because I know his argument so well and I wanted to focus my scarce time on his anticipation of Garett’s argument. So it’s possible that I missed 3 cheap debating tricks by Bryan. But, in the spirit of Bryan, I am willing to give 10 to 1 odds that I didn’t.
Bryan has noted Garett’s amazing admission: that the United States, which is doing well, would likely do better if it allowed over a billion people from China and to move here. I’m not even sure I, who is only somewhat more moderate than Bryan on immigration, believe that. But that kind of admission is one of the interesting kinds of thing that happens when an honest–and informed and bright–scholar like Garett is debating.
So I want to give some highlights, point out one area where I strongly disagree with both–and have the scars to prove it–and suggest, based on one of Bryan’s admissions, a compromise proposal for immigration. I will hit the highlights, including my one strong disagreement, chronologically with the debate. The times I give below, as always, are approximate.
26:50: Jones says: “Rich countries are rare treasures.”
30:30: Jones says: “We don’t build our lives around the exceptions. [Pause]. We build our lives around rules.” I like that. I hate it when people argue for policies on the grounds that we will be the exception.
35:50: Jones’s slide says that with no restrictions on immigrants coming to the United States, in 100 years our GDP per capita would decline by 30%. But his words are very different. His words are much more careful than his slide. He states that GDP per capita in 100 years would be 30% lower than otherwise. OK. But with a growth rate of per capita of only 1% annually, which is lower than it has been historically, per capita income without that drop would be 270% of what is now. So a 30% decline from that would leave us with per capita income that is “only” 90% higher than it is now. That doesn’t sound bad to me.
38:00: Jones says that if those Chinese scientists came here and voted, that would be good. Here I’m more skeptical than Garett. But he could well be right.
41:40: Bryan presses Garett on the numbers I discuss above in my comment on 35:50. Garett admits that yes, this is 30% below what it would have been, not 30% below today. I think Bryan was also trying to tease out whether a lot of that 30% was due to the immigrants who make less, thus bringing down the average. Think of the poor Mexican immigrant who mows your lawn. He is better off coming here and so are you because you got his services more cheaply. So your real income rose slightly, his rose a lot, and the average fell. But I wasn’t clear on Garett’s answer.
51:40: My big objection to both Bryan and Garett. Both stated that we have open borders for academics. The Immigration and Naturalization Service certainly didn’t know that when I applied for my green card in 1977. Indeed, the INS tried to deport me. Yes, it all worked out, but that was nothing close to “open borders.” And it hasn’t changed that much, except probably a little for the worse.
57:00: I think Garett dodged the question about whether he would let people in from high SAT countries. (See Bryan Caplan’s post for what SAT means.) I would have thought he would say yes, but he didn’t. At times he claimed he wasn’t even there to talk about what should be done but, Sergeant Friday style, to give just the facts. Yet, his tone here suggested that he would not allow them in. But maybe I missed it.
1:12:45: Bryan says that if one billion people came today with open borders, that would be bad. I agree. He goes on to say that it’s unlikely, based on past experience, that one billion people would come to today and much more likely that they come over a century.
That leads me to my compromise proposal. One billion people immigrating over 100 years is 10 million people a year. The U.S. population, at about 320 million, is about one third of the total population of rich countries. So what about taking our pro rata share of 10 million a year, which is about 3 million a year? We could insist that they come only from high SAT countries. And we could ration with prices: auction off the 3 million annual slots and then devote the revenues to deficit reduction.