Bizarre Conservative Ideas About Immigration

2/7/14

This old posting is suddenly relevant again. Go to bolded paragraph directly if you are in a hurry.

 

I have told several people on the Internet that Gov. Perry was inaccurate in calling Social Security (SS) a “Ponzi scheme.” That’s because what’s morally and also legally objectionable in a Ponzi scheme is that sooner or later the scheme runs out of late investors, or rather, investments, to pay off early investors. Whether SS will so run out depends entirely on two things: 1 Whether fewer late investors may provide large investments to pay off early investors. This may even happen painlessly given high economic growth. 2 Whether there will be many more late investors in SS than mechanically (dumbly) prolonging demographic trends would predict.

The US population may rise much faster than it is now growing through natural increase, including through natural increase fomented by deliberate economic measures. Or the American population may rise suddenly and healthily because our immigration policy is transformed. This could happen overnight and the beneficial effects on SS could be nearly instantaneous. Let me concentrate on this scenario.

Imagine that Congress and the President (not this one, maybe another) decide to admit each year for ten years 100,000 additional healthy and literate foreigners age 20 to 35. Solid research suggests that such a selective opening of borders might aggravate unemployment initially but that it would shortly spur economic growth. The effect of adding one million new people in the best of their working years over ten years would make the fear that we are running out of workers to support the non-working population considerably less relevant. Of course, I am selecting the low number of 100,000 per year deliberately to avoid causing panic without a name. (Numbers admitted legally each year in recent years were about 1,1million.) In fact, there is no obvious reason why the new immigration could not comprise 200,000, or even 500,000 people annually. Certainly there are sufficient reservoirs of potential immigrants worldwide to achieve such numbers.

My monitoring of talk-show radio leads me to suspect that many conservatives think that if this could happen it would already have happened. This misconception in turn is rooted in the bizarre ideas conservatives tend to entertain with respect to our immigration system.

There are two main bizarre ideas: One regards who is allowed to come into this country (legally, I mean); the other strange misconception has to do with how aliens become US citizens.

The system by which the US admits immigrants is a little complicated and its description relied on a specialized legal jargon. In my considerable experience, few people have the patience to sit through a lecture on American immigration policy. So, let me cut to the chase:

There is no way, zero way, the average married Mexican can legally immigrate into this country.

There is only one way the average married Irish man or woman may immigrate into this country: Winning a lottery. In 2008, only about 48,000 people, all from Europe and Africa, gained admission on the basis of winning that lottery.

That’s it, folks. If you want to know more about the raw numbers, study the relevant pages in the Statistical Abstract of the US.

So, contrary to what I suspect is a widespread idea among conservatives, it is not the case that there is an orderly, wide-open legal way to immigrate into this country that illegal immigrants perversely ignore. Illegal immigrants are not rudely jumping to the head of the line; they come in trough a side-door we don’t seem able to close.

Instead of the present  admission policies (plural)  based on viciously absurd selection we have, we could take a page from the Australian and from the Canadian playbooks. That is, we could coolly decide what kind of immigrants we want and tailor a door to those precise dimensions. Presently, we are doing very little of this, however unbelievable it may sound.

Incidentally, I am a product of a rational immigration policy myself.  I was admitted on merit alone. I rest my case!

On to the next misconstrued idea: In fact, in reality, to be allowed to become a US citizen, to take American citizenship, requires several years of residence in this country after being legally admitted.

Hence, personal preference plays little role in determining which immigrant does not become a US citizen. I don’t have the numbers but I am sure that, as a rule, the vast majority of legal immigrants adopt American citizenship shortly after they are legally empowered to do so. It is true that, in theory, some hesitation, some problems may arise in connection with some countries of origin who do not wish to recognize dual nationality. In practice, depriving anyone of his passport is low on the list of priorities of all countries from which new US citizens originate.

The consequence of this scenario is that, contrary to what I think is a widespread notion, there is no horde of legal immigrants living in this country and peevishly and disloyally refusing to take American citizenship.

It also follows that there is no mass of illegal immigrants who obstinately refuse American citizenship. It’s not available to them, period.

If follows from these simple observations that with simple changes in the laws governing immigration, you can modify profoundly the prospects of SS. Conservatives have given this solution essentially not consideration. Yet, contemplating significant policy changes is more dignified and more in line with conservative seriousness than are gross and self-defeating exaggerations as employed by Governor Perry.

Incidentally, at this point, hours before the third Republican debate, I would vote for Perry.

If you want more thinking material about immigration, there is a direct link on this blog to my co-authored article on immigration published in The Independent Review: “If Mexicans and Americans….”

About jacquesdelacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
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13 Responses to Bizarre Conservative Ideas About Immigration

  1. Terry Amburgey says:

    A sidenote on Canadian immigration. Ontario has discovered that encouraging immigration of skilled people doesn’t work as well as we would like if there are barriers to the employment of those skills. Engineers driving taxi cabs doesn’t really help that much.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Some native-born engineers drive taxicabs in this country. Neither immigration nor economics are based on exact sciences. Having an immigrant engineer drive a cab sure beats letting in a grandmother who does not know the language and never will learn. At least, he is probably literate. Anyway, Professor, I was talking about Social Security’s survival, doing my bit to help conservatives get off their mindless anti-immigration posture.

  2. David says:

    In the worse case scenario that the large investments to growth don’t happen before SS runs out of it’s trust fund (assuming outlays continue to exceed contributions) and that we don’t bring in enough late contributors, could it be described as a Ponzi scheme, in the worst case scenario?

    I’d like to start by saying that Social Security has a Ponzi-esk structure to it. It pays people who are already in the program from people who are paying into it. It relies on the assumption that there will always be more funds (read: growth/contributors/higher withholding rate) to cover the outlays. Which becomes a glaring problem during recessions, especially extended downturn. Recessions seem to happen at least once every decade or so. Sometimes more often. (During my lifetime at any rate…I haven’t taken the time to get specific info on that.) Given the current rate of Deficit spending, there isn’t going to be much, if any, general funding left to cover any overages from Social Security by the General Fund. Which means that once the trust fund IOU’s are spent through (which I suspect will happen faster than government projections; because, most government projections tend to miss the mark. i.e. The stimulus will keep unemployment under 8 percent, a modest income tax will fund the government (back when they instituted the income tax); and, hell, the social security withholding has gone up over the years and we’re STILL not solvent with it.) The biggest problem I see with Social Security is that an exponential number of contributors is needed to cover current recipients. And that kind of growth is, as a practical matter, impossible over the long term. As more contributors retire, more contributors are needed to cover the expenses of the retiring contributors become recipients. To top it off, these recipients can, and often do, vote, in large numbers. So recipients, in their own best interests, will vote in people who will represent their interests (i.e. bigger checks, more benefits). While it’s not impossible that people, en masse, would vote against their best interests, I find it to be less and less likely as more and more “entitlement” minded people start retiring. I may be wrong (and I kind of hope I am), but i doubt it. In any case, I’m not planning on relying on Social Security for my retirement.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      David: YOou deal with many more things at once than I am willing to do. First things first: SS will turn out like a Ponzi scheme if you extrapolate from present trends. This means: moderate or low economic growth and an ever worsening ratio of investors (workers) to beneficiaries. It’s not a Ponzi scheme because it was never intended to be like this and thus, there was no intention to defraud. What happened mostly is that life expectancy increased much faster since the thirties than anyone expected. Who are you going to blame?

      As to the question of whether it was a poorly planned scheme here is the answer:It has done its job well for more than seventy years. The retirement part is probably going to do well for another twenty years. That will be a minimum of 90 years total. Not bad!

      Going back to my third sentence above: We don’t have to extrapolate the present trends. Doing so is a political decision. Refusing to do so is another political decision. Let me repeat two statement that no one, including you, David, has refuted so far: First: If our economic growth increase a great deal, there is no SS problem at all. We have come to believe that 3.5% annual growth is great there is no principled reason to hold this belief. 4% is possible so is 4.5%, so is 5%. Any of these rates would be enough to eliminate the problem.

      Second, that ratio of investors (workers) to beneficiaries does not have to continue falling. If you bring in more shovel-ready immigrants, the trend may reverse itself immediately.

      None of this is absurd or unrealistic. It’s just uncomfortable because conservatives are almost as mired in ignorant, unimaginative magical thinking as are left-libs and progressives. As for Libertarians, they should be ashamed of their silence: Their political doctrine clearly implies that immigration controls are intrinsically bad and therefore, to be minimized.

      And, here we go. I dearly hope to start a fight.

      PS I have not said or implied in any way that I supported federal social security as a retirement program.

  3. David says:

    I’m going to blame every congressperson since these little problems starting rearing their ugly little heads, not that it would be even remotely enforceable/prudent/moral to levy penalties upon them. WIth an increase in the life expectancy the age to receive benefits ought to have increased. It still needs to increase. Social security was never intended to take care of people for decades after retirement. But that’s what has happened because social security is a political pathogen, politicians don’t touch it for fear of causing their own political death.

    And I would still argue that it was poorly planned and I would add that it has been poorly maintained. Yes it will have served it’s purpose for 90ish years, however, it was intended to be a permanent solution, not just a long lasting temporary program. (That’s what my textbooks would have me think, at any rate.) When the program was instituted one of the basic assumptions was a continuing increase in contributors/economic growth that would remain fairly consistent as time went on. (Kind of odd thinking during the Great Depression, no?) When history and current events told them that it wouldn’t necessarily work out that way. Then poor management came in, having bad/ill conceived immigration policy, not making small incremental changes to deal with new information (longer lifespan, increase in birthrates, increase in payments, etc) and just not wanting to touch the issue and here we are today.

    It is true that there was no intention to defraud people when they passed Social Security, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result isn’t just as bad, if not worse, (and entire country on the hook?) than a more traditional Ponzi scheme. Not that Social Security was illegal, so none can be prosecuted in any case. Though some might say it fell outside of the Constitutional responsibilities of the Federal Government.

    And you are correct, I haven’t, nor am likely to, refute that an increase in economic growth would go a long way to solving the problem of Social Security, because I think you are quite correct in that assertion. However, I do have questions regarding the likelihood of that kind of sustained growth happening soon enough, over a long enough period of time to rescue the program, which by all accounts is speculation at best.

    I have no qualms on your immigration stance as is written.

    As far as a fight…I don’t think you’ve said enough to get me swinging yet. Arm wrestling maybe…thumb war, certainly…but not fighting.

    P.S. I haven’t said or implied that I supported Social Security as a program either.

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