Being Sendhil Mullainathan
Born in a small farming village in India, Mullainathan lived there
for seven years while his father moved to the U.S. to go to graduate
school. On his fifth birthday, his father sent him a three-piece suit.
On the way, via oxcart, to have his photo taken, his uncle and
grandfather spent the whole time arguing about whether the vest went
over or under the jacket. In the photo a beaming Mullainathan proudly
wears the vest on top.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1980, Mullainathan left high school
without graduating and went to Clarkson University, and then on to
Cornell, where he took graduate-level courses in math and computer
Given Sendhil’s history, I was frankly surprised by his recent New York Times piece on inequality. His high-level principles are plausible enough: “We should try to ensure that everyone has a fair opportunity to find a
But despite Sendhil’s early years in a small Indian village traveling by oxcart, his essay never mentions the global poor. They’re undeniably part of “everyone.” Yet First World governments do nothing to “ensure that they have a fair opportunity to find a great life.” In fact, First World governments go out of their way to forbid the global poor to accept job offers from willing First World employers. The predictable result: The global poor earn a tiny fraction of their true value in the global marketplace.
Rather than mention the billions of people on Earth who have genuinely been denied a “fair opportunity to find a great life,” Sendhil bemoans the fate of relatively poor Americans. Yet the only evidence he presents that relatively poor Americans lack fair opportunity is their low income and high incarceration rate.
Again, I find this hard to understand. If Sendhil described the plight of relatively poor Americans to his childhood friends in India, would they sympathize? I doubt it. Instead, they’d shake their heads and say, “They had the great fortune to be born in America, and this is what they do with their lives? Shame on them for squandering a golden opportunity.”
I have enormous respect for what Sendhil has done with his life. He’s certainly come a lot further than I have. Still, if I were him, I would have written a very different essay on inequality. Here is me, being Sendhil Mullainathan:
I moved to America when I was seven, but I’m still shocked by Americans’ moral blindness. You overflow with high-sounding rhetoric about “equality of opportunity for all.” You wring your hands, telling each other, “We’ve got to do more.” The truth, though, is that the American government – like all First World governments – could greatly increase the opportunities of the truly poor by simply leaving them alone.
Billions of human beings on this planet are destitute. But most could swiftly escape poverty by moving to the First World and getting a job from a willing employer. Why don’t they? Because it’s illegal – and contrary to what you’ve heard, enforcement is draconian. When the truly poor try to solve their own problem, the American government calls them criminals. Talk about blaming the victim.
Some economists – like my colleague George Borjas – fret that mass low-skilled immigration will make life even harder for low-skilled Americans. The evidence is weaker than they claim. But even if they were right, I find it impossible to sympathize. Low-skilled Americans are wealthy by global standards. Not only can they legally work in one of the world’s best job markets. Their incomes, education, and health care have been heavily subsidized, and they’ve been been shielded from global labor competition for a century. By any objective standard, they have fantastic opportunities. Unfortunately, they largely squander them.
To be fair, the War on Drugs has hit the American poor especially hard. We should end the drug war, and pardon everyone imprisoned for drug-related offenses. But don’t kid yourselves. The main thing that stands between low-skilled Americans and success is a lack of the can-do spirit exemplified by immigrants – legal and illegal.
If Americans really believe in equality of opportunity, they must reverse their priorities. Their overriding priority should be ending their international version of the Jim Crow laws. Instead of focusing on doing more for relatively poor natives who fail to capitalize on their amazing opportunities, Americans should focus on doing less to absolutely poor foreigners whose opportunities – though improving – are abysmal. Frankly, we should put all petty domestic disputes aside until everyone is free to take a job anywhere.
Some will no doubt condemn me, an immigrant, for base ingratitude. America let my family in. I should reciprocate by supporting the long-standing choices of the American people.
I beg to differ. If America practiced the equality of opportunity it preaches, my family wouldn’t have needed government permission to immigrate. We could have moved from India to America with the same freedom that Californians move to Nevada. Now that I’m here legally, I’m going to tell you the truth – not pander to nativist prejudices that could easily have trapped me in the Third World – and continue to trap billions today.
I love living in this country. It’s not just the standard of living. On an individual level, most Americans are famously nice people. Collectively, though, their behavior is atrocious – and Americans with a “social conscience” are often even worse. We don’t need a bigger, better War on Poverty to become a just society. We just need to stop requiring discrimination against all the people without the good fortune to be born here.
Needless to say, Sendhil Mullainathan bears no responsibility for what I wish he would say. But I really wish he would join me in saying it. In case I’ve changed his mind, Sunday is Open Borders Day…