Leave it to the zealously pro-Open Borders Washington Post. It chose as the reviewer of a book by two economic historians apparently unaware of the relationship in U.S. history between immigration levels and productivity improvement a business professor seemingly just slightly less clueless about this crucial link either historically and going forward.
Doubt that? Then take a look at this morning’s rave by Harvard business professor Michael Luca about a new study by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan of Stanford and Princeton Universities, respectively, titled Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success.
According to Luca, Streets of Gold “reflects an ongoing renaissance in the field of economic history fueled by technological advances — an increase in digitized records, new techniques to analyze them and the launch of platforms such as Ancestry — that are breathing new life into a range of long-standing questions about immigration. Abramitzky and Boustan are masters of this craft, and they creatively leverage the evolving data landscape to deepen our understanding of the past and present.”
And their overall conclusion (which rightly takes into account the non-economic contributions of immigrants to American life) is that (in Abamitzky’s and Boustan’s words): “Immigration contributes to a flourishing American society” – especially if you take “the long view.”
But there’s no indication in Luca’s review that the authors weigh in on a key (especially in the long view) impact of immigration on the U.S. economy – how it’s affected the progress made by the nation in boosting productivity: its best guarantee for raising living standards on a sustainable basis.
As I’ve written repeatedly, mainstream economic theory holds that one major spur to satisfactory productivity growth is the natural tendency of businesses to replace workers with various types of machinery and new technologies when those workers become too expensive. Most economists would add that although jobs may be lost on net in the short-term, they increase further down the road once these productivity advances create new companies, entire industries, and therefore employment opportunities.
By contrast, when businesses know that wages will stay low – for example, because large immigration inflows will keep pumping up the national labor supply much faster than the demand for workers rises – these companies will feel little need to buy new machinery or otherwise incorporate new technologies simply because they won’t have to.
And more important than what the theory says, abundant evidence indicates that businesses have behaved precisely this way in the past (when scarce and thus increasingly expensive labor prompted acquisitions of labor-saving devices that helped turn the United States into an economic and technology powerhouse), into the present (as industries heavily dependent on penny-wage and often illegal immigrant labor have tended to be major productivity laggards).
Reviewer Luca demonstrates some awareness that this issue matters in the here and now and going forward, writing that “Compared with the rest of the country, businesses in high-immigration areas have access to more workers and hence less incentive to invest in further automation.”
He also points out that “This has implications for today’s immigration debates.”
But his treatment of the current situation is confused at best and perverse at worst (at least if you buy the economic conventional wisdom and evidence concerning the productivity-immigration relationship).
Principally, he claims that “the United States is expected to face a dramatic labor market shortage as baby boomers retire and lower birthrates over time result in fewer young people to replace them.” Let’s assume that’s true – despite all the evidence that more and more employers are filling all the job openings they’ve been claiming by automating. (See, e.g., here, here, and here.)
Why, though , does Luca simply conclude that “Increased immigration is one approach to avoiding the crunch. Notably, the other way to avert this crisis is through further automation, enabled by rapid advances in artificial intelligence. Immigration policy will help shape the extent to which the economy relies on people vs. machines in the decades to come.”
Is he really implying that a low-productivity — and therefore low-innovation — future would be a perfectly fine one for immigration (and other) policymakers to be seeking?
Just as important, although Luca clearly recognizes that these questions have at least some importance nowadays, he provides no indication of where the book’s authors stand.
So let the reader beware. Luca clearly believes, as Post headline writers claim, that Streets of Gold makes clear “What the research really says about American immigration.” What his review makes clear is that this claim isn’t even close.