Toward an economics of social norms

Sep 17, JDN 2457649

It is typical in economics to assume that prices are set by perfect competition in markets with perfect information. This is obviously ridiculous, so many economists do go further and start looking into possible distortions of the market, such as externalities and monopolies. But almost always the assumption is still that human beings are neoclassical rational agents, what I call “infinite identical psychopaths”, selfish profit-maximizers with endless intelligence and zero empathy.

What happens when we recognize that human beings are not like this, but in fact are empathetic, social creatures, who care about one another and work toward the interests of (what they perceive to be) their tribe? How are prices really set? What actually decides what is made and sold? What does economics become once you understand sociology? (The good news is that experiments are now being done to find out.)

Presumably some degree of market competition is involved, and no small amount of externalities and monopolies. But one of the very strongest forces involved in setting prices in the real world is almost completely ignored, and that is social norms.

Social norms are tremendously powerful. They will drive us to bear torture, fight and die on battlefields, even detonate ourselves as suicide bombs. When we talk about “religion” or “ideology” motivating people to do things, really what we are talking about is social norms. While some weaker norms can be overridden, no amount of economic incentive can ever override a social norm at its full power. Moreover, most of our behavior in daily life is driven by social norms: How to dress, what to eat, where to live. Even the fundamental structure of our lives is written by social norms: Go to school, get a job, get married, raise a family.

Even academic economists, who imagine themselves one part purveyor of ultimate wisdom and one part perfectly rational agent, are clearly strongly driven by social norms—what problems are “interesting”, which researchers are “renowned”, what approaches are “sensible”, what statistical methods are “appropriate”. If economists were perfectly rational, dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models would be in the dustbin of history (because, like string theory, they have yet to lead to a single useful empirical prediction), research journals would not be filled with endless streams of irrelevant but impressive equations (I recently read one that basically spent half a page of calculus re-deriving the concept of GDP—and computer-generated gibberish has been published, because its math looked so impressive), and instead of frequentist p-values (and often misinterpreted at that), all the statistics would be written in the form of Bayesian logodds.

Indeed, in light of all this, I often like to say that to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms.

How does this affect buying and selling? Well, first of all, there are some things we refuse to buy and sell, or at least that most of us refuse to buy and sell, and who use social pressure, public humilitation, or even the force of law to prevent. You’re not supposed to sell children. You’re not supposed to sell your vote. You’re not even supposed to sell sexual favors (though every society has always had a large segment of people who do, and more recently people are becoming more open to the idea of at least decriminalizing it). If we were neoclassical rational agents, we would have no such qualms; if we want something and someone is willing to sell it to us, we’ll buy it. But as actual human beings with emotions and social norms, we recognize that there is something fundamentally different about selling your vote as opposed to selling a shirt or a television. It’s not always immediately obvious where to draw the line, which is why sex work can be such a complicated issue (You can’t get paid to have sex… unless someone is filming it?). Different societies may do it differently: Part of the challenge of fighting corruption in Third World countries is that much of what we call corruption—and which actually is harmful to long-run economic development—isn’t perceived as “corruption” by the people involved in it, just as social custom (“Of course I’d hire my cousin! What kind of cousin would I be if I didn’t?”). Yet despite all that, almost everyone agrees that there is a line to be drawn. So there are whole markets that theoretically could exist, but don’t, or only exist as tiny black markets most people never participate in, because we consider selling those things morally wrong. Recently a whole subfield of cognitive economics has emerged studying these repugnant markets.

Even if a transaction is not considered so repugnant as to be unacceptable, there are also other classes of goods that are in some sense unsavory; something you really shouldn’t buy, but you’re not a monster for doing so. These are often called sin goods, and they have always included drugs, alcohol, and gambling—and I do mean always, as every human civilization has had these things—they include prostitution where it is legal, and as social norms change they are now beginning to include oil and coal as well (which can only be good for the future of Earth’s climate). Sin goods are systematically more expensive than they should be for their marginal cost, because most people are unwilling to participate in selling them. As a result, the financial returns for producing sin goods are systematically higher. Actually, this could partially explain why Wall Street banks are so profitable; when the banking system is corrupt as it is—and you’re not imagining that; laundering money for terroriststhen banking becomes a sin good, and good people don’t want to participate in it. Or perhaps the effect runs the other way around: Banking has been viewed as sinful for centuries (in Medieval times, usury was punished much the same way as witchcraft), and as a result only the sort of person who doesn’t care about social and moral norms becomes a banker—and so the banking system becomes horrifically corrupt. Is this a reason for good people to force ourselves to become bankers? Or is there another way—perhaps credit unions?

There are other ways that social norms drive prices as well. We have a concept ofa “fair wage”, which is quite distinct from the economic concept of a “market-clearing wage”. When people ask whether someone’s wage is fair, they don’t look at supply and demand and try to determine whether there are too many or too few people offering that service. They ask themselves what the labor is worth—what value has it added—and how hard that person has worked to do it—what cost it bore. Now, these aren’t totally unrelated to supply and demand (people are less likely to supply harder work, people are more likely to demand higher value), so it’s conceivable that these heuristics could lead us to more or less achieve the market-clearing wage most of the time. But there are also some systematic distortions to consider.

Perhaps the most important way fairness matters in economics is necessities: Basic requirements for human life such as food, housing, and medicine. The structure of our society also makes transportation, education, and Internet access increasingly necessary for basic functioning. From the perspective of an economist, it is a bit paradoxical how angry people get when the price of something important (such as healthcare) is increased: If it’s extremely valuable, shouldn’t you be willing to pay more? Why does it bother you less when something like a Lamborghini or a Rolex rises in price, something that almost certainly wasn’t even worth its previous price? You’re going to buy the necessities anyway, right? Well, as far as most economists are concerned, that’s all that matters—what gets bought and sold. But of course as a human being I do understand why people get angry about these things, and it is because they have to buy them anyway. When someone like Martin Shkreli raises the prices on basic goods, we feel exploited. There’s even a way to make this economically formal: When demand is highly inelastic, we are rightly very sensitive to the possibility of a monopoly, because monopolies under inelastic demand can extract huge profits and cause similarly huge amounts of damage to the welfare of their customers. That isn’t quite how most people would put it, but I think that has something to do with the ultimate reason we evolved that heuristic: It’s dangerous to let someone else control your basic necessities, because that gives them enormous power to exploit you. If they control things that aren’t as important to you, that doesn’t matter so much, because you can always do without if you must. So a norm that keeps businesses from overcharging on necessities is very important—and probably not as strong anymore as it should be.

Another very important way that fairness and markets can be misaligned is talent: What if something is just easier for one person than another? If you achieve the same goal with half the work, should you be rewarded more for being more efficient, or less because you bore less cost? Neoclassical economics doesn’t concern itself with such questions, asking only if supply and demand reached equilibrium. But we as human beings do care about such things; we want to know what wage a person deserves, not just what wage they would receive in a competitive market.

Could we be wrong to do that? Might it be better if we just let the market do its work? In some cases I think that may actually be true. Part of why CEO pay is rising so fast despite being uncorrelated with corporate profitability or even negatively correlated is that CEOs have convinced us (or convinced their boards of directors) that this is fair, that they deserve more stock options. They even convince them that their pay is based on performance, by using highly distorted measures of performance. If boards thought more like economic rational agents, when a CEO asked for more pay they’d ask: “What other company gave you a higher offer?” and if the CEO didn’t have an answer, they’d laugh and refuse the raise. Because in purely economic terms, that is all a salary does: it keeps you from quitting to work somewhere else. The competitive mechanism of the market is supposed to then ensure that your wage aligns with your marginal cost and marginal productivity purely due to that.

On the other hand, there are many groups of people who simply aren’t doing very well in the market: Women, racial minorities, people with disabilities. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which might go away if markets were made more competitive—the classic argument that competitive markets reward companies that don’t discriminate—but many clearly wouldn’t. Indeed, that argument was never as strong as it at first appears; in a society where social norms are strongly in favor of bigotry, it can be completely economically rational to participate in bigotry to avoid being penalized. When Chick-Fil-A was revealed to have donated to anti-LGBT political groups, many people tried to boycott—but their sales actually increased from the publicity. Honestly it’s a bit baffling that they promised not to donate to such causes anymore; it was apparently a profitable business decision to be revealed as supporters of bigotry. And even when discrimination does hurt economic performance, companies are run by human beings, and they are still quite capable of discriminating regardless. Indeed, the best evidence we have that discrimination is inefficient comes from… businesses that persist in discriminating despite the fact that it is inefficient.

But okay, suppose we actually did manage to make everyone compensated according to their marginal productivity. (Or rather, what Rawls derided: “From each according to his marginal productivity, to each according to his threat advantage.”) The market would then clear and be highly efficient. Would that actually be a good thing? I’m not so sure.

A lot of people are highly unproductive through no fault of their own—particularly children and people with disabilities. Much of this is not discrimination; it’s just that they aren’t as good at providing services. Should we simply leave them to fend for themselves? Then there’s the key point about what marginal means in this case—it means “given what everyone else is doing”. But that means that you can be made obsolete by someone else’s actions, and in this era of rapid technological advancement, jobs become obsolete faster than ever. Unlike a lot of people, I recognize that it makes no sense to keep people working at jobs that can be automated—the machines are better. But still, what do we do with the people whose jobs have been eliminated? Do we treat them as worthless? When automated buses become affordable—and they will; I give it 20 years—do we throw the human bus drivers under them?

One way out is of course a basic income: Let the market wage be what it will, and then use the basic income to provide for what human beings deserve irrespective of their market productivity. I definitely support a basic income, of course, and this does solve the most serious problems like children and quadriplegics starving in the streets.

But as I read more of the arguments by people who favor a job guarantee instead of a basic income, I begin to understand better why they are uncomfortable with the idea: It doesn’t seem fair. A basic income breaks once and for all the link between “a fair day’s work” and “a fair day’s wage”. It runs counter to this very deep-seated intuition most people have that money is what you earn—and thereby deserve—by working, and only by working. That is an extremely powerful social norm, and breaking it will be very difficult; so it’s worth asking: Should we even try to break it? Is there a way to achieve a system where markets are both efficient and fair?

I’m honestly not sure; but I do know that we could make substantial progress from where we currently stand. Most billionaire wealth is pure rent in the economic sense: It’s received by corruption and market distortion, not by efficient market competition. Most poverty is due to failures of institutions, not lack of productivity of workers. As George Monblot famously wrote, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” Most of the income disparity between White men and others is due to discrimination, not actual skill—and what skill differences there are are largely the result of differences in education and upbringing anyway. So if we do in fact correct these huge inefficiencies, we will also be moving toward fairness at the same time. But still that nagging thought remains: When all that is done, will there come a day where we must decide whether we would rather have an efficient economy or a just society? And if it does, will we decide the right way?

The Parable of the Dishwasher

JDN 2456478

Much like free trade, technological unemployment is an issue where the consensus opinion among economists diverges quite sharply from that of the general population.

Enough people think that “robots taking our jobs” is something bad that I’ve seen a fair number of memes like this:

EVERY TIME you use the Self Checkout you are ELIMINATING JOBS!

But like almost all economists, I think that self-checkouts, robots, and automation in general are a pretty good thing. They do have a few downsides, chiefly in terms of forcing us to make transitions that are costly and painful; but in general I want more robots, not fewer.

To help turn you toward this view, I offer a parable.

Suppose we have a family, the (stereo)typical American family with a father, a mother, and two kids, a boy named Joe and a girl named Sue.

The kids do chores for their allowance, and split them as follows: Joe always does the dishes, and Sue always vacuums the carpet. They both spend about 1 hour per week and they both get paid $10 a week.

But one day, Dad decides to buy a dishwasher. This dramatically cuts down the time it takes Joe to do the dishes; where he used to spend 1 hour washing dishes, now he can load the dishwasher and get it done in 5 minutes.

  1. Mom suggests they just sell back the dishwasher to get rid of the problem.
  2. Dad says that Joe should now only be paid for the 5 minutes he works each week, so he would now be paid $0.83 per week. (He’s not buying a lot of video games on that allowance.)
  3. Joe protests that he gets the same amount of work done, so he should be paid the same $10 for doing it.
  4. Sue says it would be unfair for her to have to work so much more than Joe, and has a different solution: They’ll trade off the two sets of chores each week, and they should of course get paid the same amount of money for getting the same amount of work done—$10 per kid per week, for an average of 32.5 minutes of work each.

Which of those solutions sounds the most sensible to you?

Mom’s solution is clearly the worst, right? It’s the Luddite solution, the one that throws away technological progress and makes everything less efficient. Yet that is the solution being offered by people who say “Don’t use the self-checkout machine!” Indeed, anyone who speaks of the virtues of “hard work” is really speaking Mom’s language here; they should be talking about the virtues of getting things done. The purpose of washing dishes is to have clean dishes, not to “work hard”. And likewise, when we construct bridges or make cars or write books or solve equations, our goal should be to get that thing done—not to fulfill some sense of moral obligation to prove our worthiness through hard work.

Joe’s solution is what neoclassical economics says should happen—higher productivity should yield higher wages, so the same amount of production should yield the same pay. This seems like it could work, but empirically it rarely happens. There’s also something vaguely unfair about it; if productivity increases in your industry but not in someone else’s, you get to cut your work hours dramatically while they are stuck working just as hard as before.

Dad’s “solution” is clearly terrible, and makes no sense at all. Yet this is what we actually tend to observe—capital owners appropriate all (or nearly all) the benefits of the new technology, and workers get displaced or get ever-smaller wages. (I talked about that in a recent post.)

It’s Sue’s solution that really seems to make the most sense, isn’t it? When one type of work becomes more efficient, people should shift into different types of labor so that people can work fewer hours—and wages should rise enough that incomes remain the same. “Baumol’s disease” is not a disease—it is the primary means by which capitalism raises human welfare. (That’s why I prefer to use the term “Baumol Effect” instead.)

One problem with this in practice is that sometimes people can’t switch into other industries. That’s a little hard to imagine in this case, but let’s stipulate that for some reason Joe can’t do the vacuuming. Maybe he has some sort of injury that makes it painful to use the vacuum cleaner, but doesn’t impair his ability to wash dishes. Or maybe he has a severe dust allergy, so bad that the dust thrown up by the vacuum cleaner sends him into fits of coughing.

In that case I think we’re back to Joe’s solution; he should get paid the same for getting the same amount of work done. I’m actually tempted to say that Sue should get paid more, to compensate her for the unfairness; but in the real world there is a pretty harsh budget constraint there, so we need to essentially pretend that Dad only has $20 per week to give out in allowances. A possible compromise would be to raise Sue up to $12 and cut Joe down to $8; Joe will probably still be better off than he was, because he has that extra 55 minutes of free time each week for which he only had to “pay” $2. This also makes the incentives work out better—Joe doesn’t have a reason to malinger and exaggerate his dust allergy just to get out of doing the vacuuming, since he would actually get paid more if he were willing to do the vacuuming; but if his allergy really is that bad, he can still do okay otherwise. (There’s a lesson here for the proper structure of Social Security Disability, methinks.)

But you know what really seems like the best solution? Buy a Roomba.

Buy a Roomba, make it Sue’s job to spend 5 minutes a week keeping the Roomba working at vacuuming the carpet, and continue paying both kids $10 per week. Give them both 55 minutes more per week to hang out with their friends or play video games. Whether you think of this $10 as a “higher wage” for higher productivity or simply an allowance they get anyway—a basic income—ultimately doesn’t matter all that much. The point is that everyone gets enough money and nobody has to work very much, because the robots do everything.

And now, hopefully you see why I think we need more robots, not fewer.

Of course, like any simple analogy, this isn’t perfect; it may be difficult to reduce the hours in some jobs or move more people into them. There are a lot of additional frictions and complications that go into the real-world problem of achieving equitable labor markets. But I hope I’ve gotten across the basic idea that robots are not the problem, and could in fact be the solution–not just to our current labor market woes, but to the very problem of wage labor itself.

My ultimate goal is a world where “work” itself is fundamentally redefined—so that it always means the creative sense “This painting is some of my best work.” and not the menial sense “Sweeping this floor is so much work!”; so that human beings do things because we want to do them, because they are worth doing, and not because some employer is holding our food and housing hostage if we don’t.

But that will require our whole society to rethink a lot of our core assumptions about work, jobs, and economics in general. We’re so invested in this idea that “hard work” is inherently virtuous that we forgot the purpose of an economy was to get things done. Work is not a benefit; work is a cost. Costs are to be reduced. Puritanical sexual norms have been extremely damaging to American society, but time will tell if Puritanical work ethic actually does more damage to our long-term future.

How Reagan ruined America

JDN 2457408

Or maybe it’s Ford?

The title is intentionally hyperbolic; despite the best efforts of Reagan and his ilk, America does yet survive. Indeed, as Obama aptly pointed out in his recent State of the Union, we appear to be on an upward trajectory once more. And as you’ll see in a moment, many of the turning points actually seem to be Gerald Ford, though it was under Reagan that the trends really gained steam.

But I think it’s quite remarkable just how much damage Reaganomics did to the economy and society of the United States. It’s actually a turning point in all sorts of different economic policy measures; things were going well from the 1940s to the 1970s, and then suddenly in the 1980s they take a turn for the worse.

The clearest example is inequality. From the World Top Incomes Database, here’s the graph I featured on my Patreon page of income shares in the United States:

top_income_shares_pretty.png

Inequality was really bad during the Roaring Twenties (no surprise to anyone who has read The Great Gatsby), then after the turmoil of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War 2, inequality was reduced to a much lower level.

During this period, what I like to call the Golden Age of American Capitalism:

Instead of almost 50% in the 1920s, the top 10% now received about 33%.

Instead of over 20% in the 1920s, the top 1% now received about 10%.

Instead of almost 5% in the 1920s, the top 0.01% now received about 1%.

This pattern continued to hold, remarkably stable, until 1980. Then, it completely unraveled. Income shares of the top brackets rose, and continued to rise, ever since (fluctuating with the stock market of course). Now, we’re basically back right where we were in the 1920s; the top 10% gets 50%, the top 1% gets 20%, and the top 0.01% gets 4%.

Not coincidentally, we see the same pattern if we look at the ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay, as shown here in a graph from the Economic Policy Institute:

Snapshot_CEO_pay_main

Up until 1980, the ratio in pay between CEOs and their average workers was steady around 20 to 1. From that point forward, it began to rise—and rise, and rise. It continued to rise under every Presidential administration, and actually hit its peak in 2000, under Bill Clinton, at an astonishing 411 to 1 ratio. In the 2000s it fell to about 250 to 1 (hurray?), and has slightly declined since then to about 230 to 1.

By either measure, we can see a clear turning point in US inequality—it was low and stable, until Reagan came along, when it began to explode.

Part of this no doubt is the sudden shift in tax rates. The top marginal tax rates on income were over 90% from WW2 to the 1960s; then JFK reduced them to 70%, which is probably close to the revenue-maximizing rate. There they stayed, until—you know the refrain—along came Reagan, and by the end of his administration he had dropped the top marginal rate to 28%. It then was brought back up to about 35%, where it has basically remained, sometimes getting as high as 40%.

US_income_tax_rates

Another striking example is the ratio between worker productivity and wages. The Economic Policy Institute has a very detailed analysis of this, but I think their graph by itself is quite striking:

productivity_wages

Starting around the 1970s, and then rapidly accelerating from the 1980s onward, we see a decoupling of productivity from wages. Productivity has continued to rise at more or less the same rate, but wages flatten out completely, even falling for part of the period.

For those who still somehow think Republicans are fiscally conservative, take a look at this graph of the US national debt:

US_federal_debt

We were at a comfortable 30-40% of GDP range, actually slowly decreasing—until Reagan. We got back on track to reduce the debt during the mid-1990s—under Bill Clinton—and then went back to raising it again once George W. Bush got in office. It ballooned as a result of the Great Recession, and for the past few years Obama has been trying to bring it back under control.

Of course, national debt is not nearly as bad as most people imagine it to be. If Reagan had only raised the national debt in order to stop unemployment, that would have been fine—but he did not.

Unemployment had never been above 10% since World War 2 (and in fact reached below 4% in the 1960s!) and yet all the sudden hit almost 11%, shortly after Reagan:
US_unemployment
Let’s look at that graph a little closer. Right now the Federal Reserve uses 5% as their target unemployment rate, the supposed “natural rate of unemployment” (a lot of economists use this notion, despite there being almost no empirical support for it whatsoever). If I draw red lines at 5% unemployment and at 1981, the year Reagan took office, look at what happens.

US_unemployment_annotated

For most of the period before 1981, we spent most of our time below the 5% line, jumping above it during recessions and then coming back down; for most of the period after 1981, we spent most of our time above the 5% line, even during economic booms.

I’ve drawn another line (green) where the most natural break appears, and it actually seems to be the Ford administration; so maybe I can’t just blame Reagan. But something happened in the last quarter of the 20th century that dramatically changed the shape of unemployment in America.

Inflation is at least ambiguous; it was pretty bad in the 1940s and 1950s, and then settled down in the 1960s for awhile before picking up in the 1970s, and actually hit its worst just before Reagan took office:

US_inflation

Then there’s GDP growth.

US_GDP_growth

After World War 2, our growth rate was quite volatile, rising as high as 8% (!) in some years, but sometimes falling to zero or slightly negative. Rates over 6% were common during booms. On average GDP growth was quite good, around 4% per year.

In 1981—the year Reagan took office—we had the worst growth rate in postwar history, an awful -1.9%. Coming out of that recession we had very high growth of about 7%, but then settled into the new normal: More stable growth rates, yes, but also much lower. Never again did our growth rate exceed 4%, and on average it was more like 2%. In 2009, Reagan’s record recession was broken with the Great Recession, a drop of almost 3% in a single year.

GDP per capita tells a similar story, of volatile but fast growth before Reagan followed by stable but slow growth thereafter:

US_GDP_per_capita

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to blame Reagan for all of this. A lot of things have happened in the late 20th century, after all. In particular, the OPEC oil crisis is probably responsible for many of these 1970s shocks, and when Nixon moved us at last off the Bretton Woods gold standard, it was probably the right decision, but done at a moment of crisis instead of as the result of careful planning.

Also, while the classical gold standard was terrible, the Bretton Woods system actually had some things to recommend it. It required strict capital controls and currency exchange regulations, but the period of highest economic growth and lowest inequality in the United States—the period I’m calling the Golden Age of American Capitalism—was in fact the same period as the Bretton Woods system.

Some of these trends started before Reagan, and all of them continued in his absence—many of them worsening as much or more under Clinton. Reagan took office during a terrible recession, and either contributed to the recovery or at least did not prevent it.

The President only has very limited control over the economy in any case; he can set a policy agenda, but Congress must actually implement it, and policy can take years to show its true effects. Yet given Reagan’s agenda of cutting top tax rates, crushing unions, and generally giving large corporations whatever they want, I think he bears at least some responsibility for turning our economy in this very bad direction.

Why immigration is good

JDN 2456977 PST 12:31.

The big topic in policy news today is immigration. After years of getting nothing done on the issue, Obama has finally decided to bypass Congress and reform our immigration system by executive order. Republicans are threatening to impeach him if he does. His decision to go forward without Congressional approval may have something to do with the fact that Republicans just took control of both houses of Congress. Naturally, Fox News is predicting economic disaster due to the expansion of the welfare state. (When is that not true?) A more legitimate critique comes from the New York Times, who point out how this sudden shift demonstrates a number of serious problems in our political system and how it is financed.

So let’s talk about immigration, and why it is almost always a good thing for a society and its economy. There are a couple of downsides, but they are far outweighed by the upsides.

I’ll start with the obvious: Immigration is good for the immigrants. That’s why they’re doing it. Uprooting yourself from your home and moving thousands of miles isn’t easy under the best circumstances (like I when I moved from Michigan to California for grad school); now imagine doing it when you are in crushing poverty and you have to learn a whole new language and culture once you arrive. People are only willing to do this when the stakes are high. The most extreme example is of course the children refugees from Latin America, who are finally getting some of the asylum they so greatly deserve, but even the “ordinary” immigrants coming from Mexico are leaving a society racked with poverty, endemic with corruption, and bathed in violence—most recently erupting in riots that have set fire to government buildings. These people are desperate; they are crossing our border despite the fences and guns because they feel they have no other choice. As a fundamental question of human rights, it is not clear to me that we even have the right to turn these people away. Forget the effect on our economy; forget the rate of assimilation; what right do we have to say to these people that their suffering should go on because they were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line?

There are wealthier immigrants—many of them here, in fact, for grad schoolwhose circumstances are not so desperate; but hardly anyone even considers turning them away, because we want their money and their skills in our society. Americans who fear brain drain have it all backwards; the United States is where the brains drain to. This trend may be reversing more recently as our right-wing economic policy pulls funding away from education and science, but it would likely only reach the point where we export as many intelligent people as we import; we’re not talking about creating a deficit here, only reducing our world-dominating surplus. And anyway I’m not so concerned about those people; yes, the world needs them, but they don’t need much help from the world.

My concern is for our tired, our poor, our huddled masses yearning to breathe free. These are the people we are thinking about turning away—and these are the people who most desperately need us to take them in. That alone should be enough reason to open our borders, but apparently it isn’t for most people, so let’s talk about some of the ways that America stands to gain from such a decision.

First of all, immigration increases economic growth. Immigrants don’t just take in money; they also spend it back out, which further increases output and creates jobs. Immigrants are more likely than native citizens to be entrepreneurs, perhaps because taking the chance to start a business isn’t so scary after you’ve already taken the chance to travel thousands of miles to a new country. Our farming system is highly dependent upon cheap immigrant labor (that’s a little disturbing, but if as far as the US economy, we get cheap food by hiring immigrants on farms). On average, immigrants are younger than our current population, so they are more likely to work and less likely to retire, which has helped save the US from the economic malaise that afflicts nations like Japan where the aging population is straining the retirement system. More open immigration wouldn’t just increase the number of immigrants coming here to do these things; it would also make the immigrants who are already here more productive by opening up opportunities for education and entrepreneurship. Immigration could speed the recovery from the Second Depression and maybe even revitalize our dying Rust Belt cities.

Now, what about the downsides? By increasing the supply of labor faster than they increase the demand for labor, immigrants could reduce wages. There is some evidence that immigrants reduce wages, particularly for low-skill workers. This effect is rather small, however; in many studies it’s not even statistically significant (PDF link). A 10% increase in low-skill immigrants leads to about a 3% decrease in low-skill wages (PDF link). The total economy grows, but wages decrease at the bottom, so there is a net redistribution of wealth upward.

Immigration is one of the ways that globalization increases within-nation inequality even as it decreases between-nation inequality; you move the poor people to rich countries, and they become less poor than they were, but still poorer than most of the people in those rich countries, which increases the inequality there. On average the world becomes better off, but it can seem bad for the rich countries, especially the people in rich countries who were already relatively poor. Because they distribute wealth by birthright, national borders actually create something analogous to the privilege of feudal lords, albeit to a much larger segment of the population. (Much larger: Here’s a right-wing site trying to argue that the median American is in the top 1% of income by world standards; neat trick, because Americans comprise 4% of the world population—so our top half makes up 2% of the world’s population by themselves. Yet somehow apparently that 2% of the population is the top 1%? Also, the US isn’t the only rich country; have you heard of, say, Europe?)

There’s also a lot of variation in the literature as to the size—or even direction—of the effect of immigration on low-skill wages. But since the theory makes sense and the preponderance of the evidence is toward a moderate reduction in wages for low-skill native workers, let’s assume that this is indeed the case.

First of all I have to go back to my original point: These immigrants are getting higher wages than they would have in the countries they left. (That part is usually even true of the high-skill immigrants.) So if you’re worried about low wages for low-skill workers, why are you only worried about that for workers who were born on this side of the fence? There’s something deeply nationalistic—if not outright racist—inherent in the complaint that Americans will have lower pay or lose their jobs when Mexicans come here. Don’t Mexicans also deserve jobs and higher pay?

Aside from that, do we really want to preserve higher wages at the cost of economic efficiency? Are high wages an end in themselves? It seems to me that what we’re really concerned about is welfare—we want the people of our society to live better lives. High wages are one way to do that, but not the only way; a basic income could reverse that upward redistribution of wealth, taking the economic benefits of the immigration that normally accrue toward the top and giving them to the bottom. As I already talked about in an earlier post, a basic income is a lot more efficient than trying to mess around with wages. Markets are very powerful; we shouldn’t always accept what they do, but we should also be careful when we interfere with them. If the market is trying to drive certain wages down, that means that there is more desire to do that kind of work then there is work of that kind that needs done. The wage change creates a market incentive for people to switch to more productive kinds of work. We should also be working to create opportunities to make that switch—funding free education, for instance—because an incentive without an opportunity is a bit like pointing a gun at someone’s head and ordering them to give birth to a unicorn.

So on the one hand we have the increase in local inequality and the potential reduction in low-skill wages; those are basically the only downsides. On the other hand, we have increases in short-term and long-term economic growth, lower global inequality, more spending, more jobs, a younger population with less strain on the retirement system, more entrepreneurship, and above all, the enormous lifelong benefits to the immigrants themselves that motivated them to move in the first place. It seems pretty obvious to me: we can enact policies to reduce the downsides, but above all we must open our borders.