David Brat has crash landed into the spotlight after a surprising and underfunded victory over Eric Cantor in the Virginia primary. The economics-professor-turned-politico, an image that brings a vivid recollection of that time Mr. Smith went to Washington, has garnered both praise and criticism from free market advocates.
But Brat's politics aren't always compatible with his profession.
Brat's stance on one issue in particular -- immigration -- has left some scratching their heads. His critics point out that his anti-amnesty position doesn't mesh with the free market philosophy the college professor seems to embody. But Brat's newfound popularity coupled with the majority of Americans supporting immigration reform means that now is a good time to ask: Is it so unusual to be against immigration as an economist? And what does current research on immigration conclude?
To the first question, yes. Economics is undoubtedly a field filled with debate amongst even the closest of allies, as Pikettymania has so recently reminded us. However, many of the major issues facing policymakers today have general consensuses in the economic literature. In a survey of members of the American Economic Association, Robert Whaples found that 83 percent of economists agreed that the U.S. should eliminate all barriers to trade. In 1996, Whaples also found that 96 percent of economists surveyed agreed that the "overall gains to American society from immigration exceed the losses."
More recently, and perhaps most compelling, an open letter on the benefits of immigration to President George W. Bush was signed by over 500 economists.
Brat, not surprisingly, was not one of them.
To the second question, migration or the movement of people, is arguably one of the most overlooked economic tools in alleviating poverty around the world. As Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development has pointed out, there is a relatively and surprisingly small amount of research dedicated to the economic benefits of emigration.
Instead, the movement of goods and capital has dominated the academic scene. This work is significant for its own reasons. But existing work on labor mobility shows that the economic gains from the migration of just five percent of citizens of low-income countries would add up to trillions of dollars each year.
How does this compare with goods and capital? If all trade and capital flow barriers were removed, the world would see an annual economic gain around $3 trillion. This is a substantial improvement on its own, but when compared with the larger benefits to be had from a much smaller change in policy, it becomes clear why migration deserves a closer look. And while free trade is met with little controversy over its benefits, migration has yet to receive the same treatment.
But what is the impact of immigrants on native workers? Commonly cited work shows how wages decrease slightly for low-skill native workers. However, allowing immigrants to acquire temporary work visas has crucial benefits to the destination country: certain industries, such as farming, are dependent on low-skill positions that U.S. workers aren't able to adequately fill. Immigrants expand rather than replace jobs in various industries.
Immigrants also take jobs that provide household services that allow spouses to re-enter the workforce. Not only does allowing a foreign worker to take a low-skill job fill worker demand that is estimated to grow by millions in less than a decade, it also creates the need for more managerial positions. Again, this benefits American workers.
Finally, the role of migration in humanitarian aid is crucial. The effectiveness of a liberal migration policy does more to help the world's poor than perhaps any amount of foreign aid to date. A 2005 World Bank study showed how an increase in the labor force of just 3 percent for rich countries amounts to a $300 billion gain for the poor workers coming in. For reference, as of 2012, the U.S. gives roughly $50 billion a year in foreign aid to various countries.
Countries have been and forever will be concerned with territory and who is or is not allowed to work within drawn borders, but the massive gains to be had from liberalizing immigration policy are too large to ignore.
The movement of people has the potential to change the face of global poverty for the much better. Yet, even if Brat believed in open borders, he would not be able to accomplish such reform by himself. Perhaps it's time to utilize the migration research in the debate on immigration reform rather than focusing on a single political race.
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