Networked information economists

The dismal science of illegal immigration.

By Andrew Leonard
April 18, 2006 11:04PM (UTC)
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Back in late March, we noted that two economists, both of whom fall on the liberal side of the political spectrum, were disagreeing on the topic of illegal immigration. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman cited research purporting to show that immigration depresses the wages of native-born high school dropouts. Berkeley's Brad DeLong then called him "confused" and "probably wrong" but didn't present much in the way of data to support his critique, while making a subsidiary argument that as an "anti-poverty policy," spending billions of dollars in a fruitless effort to seal the border between the U.S. and Mexico was likely to be an inefficient allocation of funds.

Let's step back, and go meta. In the ensuing weeks, it has been engrossing to follow newspaper reporters and bloggers and blog commenters as they have gone at the data hammer and tongs. It's been a case study in how the Internet facilitates a level of discourse on complicated subjects that is far more fine-grained than ever before. The studies are online. The critiques of the studies are online. The critiques of the critiques ... you get the idea. If you have the time and the reading stamina, you can learn an awful lot about the economics of immigration from the Net.


DeLong has been particularly good in deepening the level of analysis via his own blog. Yesterday, he wrapped up the current state of the immigration debate by discussing two over-the-weekend newspaper analyses, one in the Washington Post, and one in the New York Times, along with a look at the two studies that are currently getting the most play: an NBER article by Harvard's George Borjas and Lawrence Katz, and a presentation to the Philadelphia Federal Reserve by U.C. Berkeley labor economist David Card.

Short summary: Borjas and Katz originally said that immigration depresses the wages of the least-educated native-born Americans by around 8 percent, although they have subsequently backed down from that number and made somewhat more modest claims. Card, after comparing the effect immigration has on wages in regions where there are a lot of immigrants with regions where there are relatively few, concludes that the overall impact is very small. (He also observes, in a part of his paper that has been discussed much less often, that the children of immigrants tend to demonstrate dramatic increases in education levels, which suggests that they are assimilating to their new home very nicely.)

But who's right? DeLong says he scores Card ahead of Borjas on points. If you generally agree with DeLong on economic matters, you may be inclined to take him on faith, although some of his own readers have been vociferous in their disagreement. Or you might be more cynical, noting that DeLong reserves the highest praise for the newspaper articles and stories that tend to concur with his original opinion.


In any event, the question here is whether after parsing the Torah-like annotation-upon-annotation accumulation of knowledge available online, we're any closer to consensus on the economic ramifications of immigration. Doesn't seem likely, does it? There's more information available than ever before on the topic, and yet, politically speaking, the lines of the debate don't seem any different now than they have been at any other time illegal immigration has become a hot topic. Economists come and go, criticizing each other's assumptions, questioning each other's data, offering counter-argument after counter-argument, and rarely, if ever, changing anyone's mind.

In the introduction to his new book, "The Wealth of Networks," Yale law professor Yochai Benkler tells us that the Internet-enabled rise of the "networked information economy ... has created new opportunities for how we make and exchange information, knowledge, and culture."

"This new freedom," he writes, "holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere."


I dearly want to believe that we are becoming more critical and self-reflective, but even as I revel in a hyperlinked architecture of analysis, commentary and research on a highly divisive topic like immigration, I'm less and less sure that we're actually getting anywhere.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Immigration Immigration Reform