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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Absorbing immigrants”

In my October 25th, 2005, column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I argue that, at least economically, the United States is today much better able to absorb immigrants than she was one-hundred years ago. You can read the column below the fold.

Absorbing immigrants

Each morning when I drive my son to school I pass a parking lot filled with Hispanics waiting for job offers. They are day laborers, eager to work. Their increasing presence throughout the United States is causing unease.

This unease has little to do with national security. Few people argue that Mexican immigrants are al-Qaida operatives here to kill us. Rather, the unease is economic — the same unease that has long driven anti-immigrant sentiment here in America (and in Europe). People worry that immigrants “steal” jobs from Americans, drive down wages, and, generally, impoverish us.

This concern is understandable. After all, in the short run, if the number of people competing to perform a fixed number of jobs increases, wages paid to workers in these jobs will fall. That’s a hardship for many workers, although one that’s offset somewhat by the resulting lower prices of goods and services.

In the long run, though, the economic benefits of immigration are positive. The reason is that people in a market economy are producers. Human creativity, ingenuity and labor — as the late Julian Simon brilliantly explained — are the ultimate resource. As more of this ultimate resource becomes available, we all become wealthier.

This Simon-esque view of the world, of course, isn’t the standard one in which people are seen almost exclusively as resource consumers. But think about it for a minute.

Not until after World War I did Uncle Sam impose general restrictions on immigrants. Because Americans’ standard of living increased steadily and impressively during the time of open immigration, it is almost surely the case that this immigration contributed importantly to the growth and abundance of the U.S. economy.

So why not return to more open immigration — say, admitting all immigrants who don’t threaten national security or the public health? It worked until the 1920s.

Whenever I propose this policy, I’m told that America has changed. America is less able today than back then to absorb immigrants.

I agree that America has changed. But these changes have made us better able to absorb immigrants.

Consider that in 1915 the typical dwelling in America housed 5.63 people; today it houses fewer than half that number — 2.37 people. Combined with the fact that today’s typical dwelling is about 25 percent larger than it was a century ago, our ability to “absorb” immigrants into residential living spaces is today more than twice what it was a century ago.

As for land, even today only 3 percent of the land area of the lower 48 states is devoted to urban and suburban uses. So we still have 97 percent of this land to provide space for living, working and recreation.

And note: Since 1950, the amount of land devoted to public recreation uses and wildlife refuges has increased faster than has the amount of land devoted to urban and suburban uses. Today, the land area devoted to parks and refuges is more than seven times greater than it was in 1900. America isn’t close to being crowded.

Also, we’re better able to feed ourselves today, even though the amount of land used for growing crops and pasturing animals is no larger now than in 1900. Higher agricultural productivity enables farmers and ranchers to produce more output on the same amount of land.

What about workers? A measure of ability to absorb workers is capital invested per worker. Today, the amount of capital invested per worker is nine times greater than it was just after World War I. Because a worker’s productivity rises when he has more capital to work with and his pay is tied closely to his productivity, workers today produce and earn more than workers during the open-borders era.

Don’t lose sight of our labor market’s great flexibility. It easily absorbed the 46 million women who entered the work force during the second half of the 20th century.

In many other ways America today can better absorb immigrants. For example, compared to 1920, per person today we:

  • have 10 times more miles of paved roads

  • have more than twice as many physicians

  • have three times as many teachers

  • have 540 percent more police officers

  • have twice as many firefighters

  • produce 2.4 times more oil –as known reserves of oil grow

  • produce 2.67 times more cubic feet of lumber — as America’s supply of lumber stands grows

  • have conquered most of the infectious diseases that were major killers in the past.

Fact is, America today is far wealthier, healthier, spacious and resource-rich than it was a century ago. Our ability to “absorb” immigrants is greater than ever.