Hostility to immigration isn’t about economics
It’s a cultural reality Democrats need to deal with anyway
I’ve recently read review copies of two different books coming out this fall, both of which argue, very much in the Slow Boring mold, that the country would benefit from a Democratic Party that moderated considerably on social, cultural, and environmental issues and focused on representing working-class material interests.
Because that’s also what I think, I’m going to give those books (which differ in important ways) the props they’re due when they come out. But today I want to talk about something they have in common that I think is both wrong and important to hash out within the larger community of people who share these concerns.
What’s at issue is immigration. This is undoubtedly a topic on which mainstream Democrats have moved left since 2012 and also a topic on which the tent has narrowed such that you see less heterodoxy inside the party. Immigration was also clearly key to Donald Trump’s primary victory in 2016 — it was part of his formula for winning over secular non-college non-southern whites that year. And I think it’s pretty clear that developments in the Hispanic vote since 2016 have debunked certain progressive notions about the politics of immigration. So the topic is one where some repositioning is needed, and I’ve written a few times about what I think might be appropriate.
But these books don’t just talk about immigration as a social/cultural political phenomenon. They argue that large-scale immigration has been a cause of working-class economic problems and that repositioning on immigration issues should be part of the substance of a working-class economic agenda.
Immigration clearly has economic implications, and any effort to construct a working-class economic agenda will need to take that into account, along with the economic implications of its social and cultural positioning. This makes it different from something like gun control, where the decision about whether to call for a ban on assault rifles has almost no substantive economic implication. It’s closer, I think, to climate change, a culturally fraught political topic that also matters a lot in terms of dollars and cents.
The key thing about immigration is that while I’m sure it’s true that the perception that immigration is economically harmful to the working class plays a role in politics, I don’t believe that perception is actually true. I also don’t believe that the putative wage impacts of immigration are, in fact, all that potent politically. I think people who worry about immigration are worried primarily about border security, about law and order, and about cultural and demographic change. And I think a political strategy that doesn’t address those concerns will fail, as will an economic strategy based on the presumption that immigration restriction will be an economic boon.
Immigration economics in a full employment economy
For the majority of my career, it was hard to have coherent discussions of almost any microeconomic issue because a weak labor market was hanging like a shadow over every conversation. Today, that’s finally not the case — unemployment is very low, labor force participation is high, and it’s pretty easy for anyone who can show up on time and do as he’s told to get an entry-level job.
Here’s how the labor force has evolved since the start of the pandemic.