Immigration angst

Why does America need more people, anyway?

As Capitol Hill Republicans attempt for - what, the eighth? ninth? - time in the past two decades to jam through an amnesty that their voters have explicitly, loudly and repeatedly said they do not want, it's worth asking a question that is rarely raised: Does the United States - population 320 million and rising - need more people? If so, why?

To most ears, the question sounds blasphemous, which illustrates the rottenness of the immigration debate in the US. Actually, "debate" is far too generous. One side has made sure there is no debate. Good people want more immigration, and bad people object or raise questions. An inherently political issue has been effectively rendered religious, with the righteous on one side, sinners on the other.

The basic question remains. The pat answer over the past 20 years - "to do the jobs Americans just won't do" - may seem to have some salience with a 3.9 per cent unemployment rate. But that only further begs the question. After at least two decades of wage stagnation and even decline, now that we've finally reached the nirvana of full employment (and who knows how long it will last), why not take advantage of this tight labour market to raise wages across the board? Especially for the working and middle classes that got nowhere or even lost ground during the housing, finance and tech booms of recent years?

Just about everyone knows the answer: because the business community does not like tight labour markets and the concomitant necessity to raise wages. That's bad for the bottom line. The solution? More workers! And so the Chamber of Commerce Annex - aka Capitol Hill Republicans - dutifully attempt to do their donors' bidding at the expense of their voters' interests.

Economists in league with big business got good at torturing data to "show" that immigration benefits the economy. But as demonstrated by Harvard University's George Borjas, one of the nation's leading economists on the topic, immigration is a net economic benefit to immigrants and to their employers. To workers already here, not so much.

No matter, because the Democrats are no longer the party of labour. Back when they were - in the prelapsarian Clinton years - they sought tight labour markets precisely for their efficacy in boosting lower-end wages. But today's Democrats are the party of high class, high tech and high capital. This glamour coalition is not big enough by itself to win elections. So the left has hoodwinked some (but, as the 2016 election shows, by no means all) low-income voters into thinking that their interests align with those of Wall Street and Silicon Valley oligarchs.

It's clear what the oligarchs get out of an endless influx of cheap labour. What the Democratic Party gets is also clear: more voters, and with them the possibility of turning the country as irreversibly blue as Democratic policies have already done to many states. Democrats used to be coy about this. The 2002 blockbuster, The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John Judis, presented demographic change as an inevitability, not a deliberate plot to rig elections. But now, for the first time facing real pushback from those whose interests more immigration does not serve, the left is more open in exhorting their side and demonising the other. Hence this year's How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky, states openly that immigration favours Democrats, so the more the better. It also construes any opposition as (of course) racist.

Another argument for more people is to point to falling birth rates among the native-born. In fact, the US remains near the top of birth rates in the developed world. Regardless, consider that immigration not only lowers wages but also raises housing prices by increasing demand, and stresses public schools by adding non-English-speaking students. And as such factors worsen, research suggests that people are putting off marriage - which reduces birth rates.

Related is the claim that more people are necessary to solve our looming entitlement crisis. This quickly falls apart once you think it through. In 1967, future Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson favourably compared Social Security to a Ponzi scheme, arguing that it will be sustainable because younger people will always outnumber retirees. But does anyone really believe that the US - or any country - is capable of sustaining population growth without end? Somehow, the US needs to find a way to meet its fiscal commitments without stuffing the land beyond the bursting point.

So again: Why does the US need more people? For the extra traffic congestion? More crowded classrooms? Higher greenhouse gas emissions?

We know how more immigration benefits big business and the Democratic Party. No one has yet to convincingly explain how it benefits the American people as a whole. That's the foremost consideration that should drive the immigration debate, and that's what should determine the country's immigration policy.


• Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College and a former national security official in the Trump administration.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2018, with the headline 'Why does America need more people, anyway?'. Print Edition | Subscribe