The last word on immigration

Politicians don't listen to economists -- will New York Times readers?

Published July 10, 2006 8:43PM (EDT)

Shortly before immersing myself in World Cup mania Sunday morning (Oh Zidane, how could you?!) I glanced through the Sunday New York Times and saw that Roger Lowenstein had a cover story in the Magazine exploring the economic impacts of immigration.

I had better read that, I thought. Roger Lowenstein is the author of a very fine biography of Warren Buffett and an illuminating look at the great hedge-fund debacle of Long-Term Capital Management. He is one of the best journalists covering economic affairs alive today; precisely the kind of accessible, sensible voice you want tackling a topic as charged as immigration.

Monday morning's regular tour through the econo-blogosphere only emphasized the point: no less than three separate economists recommended the article as a must read.

So I read it, and it's darn good. A one-line summary? Immigration may end up hurting low-skilled native-born workers, but not by much, and the costs are likely outweighed by the overall benefits to the greater economy.

Sound familiar? Sure it does. From the moment in March when massive protests in Los Angeles and elsewhere greeted the House's draconian version of a new immigration bill, countless stories have been written about immigration. The econo-blogosphere has debated every angle; every study and every economist mentioned in Lowenstein's article has been linked to, promoted, and critiqued. How the World Works has even weighed in a couple of times.

But Lowenstein does what the blogosphere or a phalanx of Op-Ed columnists cannot; he weaves all the threads into a compelling narrative that is fairer than the average advocacy blog, far deeper than the average newspaper article, and infinitely more comprehensible than your average economics research paper. As someone who has been poring over such papers and blogs and articles ever since March I could only sigh in admiration while watching how the data points, personalities and news events I had become familiar with over the past three months were handled in such expert fashion.

But at the end, I had to turn cynical. What purpose did it all serve? As Lowenstein reports, the two principal protagonists in his story, Harvard's George Borjas, who believes immigration is a serious problem for native-borns, and Berkeley's David Card, who believes that the evidence for such a contention is very weak, both declined to testify before Congress to explain their views, because both believe politicians don't listen to economists.

Does anybody? Or to make it even broader -- does anyone listen to anyone whom they disagree with, particularly on a topic as charged with race and class tensions as illegal immigration? To me, one of the most telling moments in Lowenstein's piece was his glancing reference to English-only angst, in which he pointed out that 90 years ago, there were some 500 newspapers in German in the U.S. catering to German immigrants. But do I think that data point is going to make the slightest bit of difference to the loudmouths currently inveighing on the awfulness of Mexicans speaking Spanish in the United States? Not in the least.

Maybe that's too cynical. Maybe there are few people left in this country who do have open minds. If so, they would be well served by reading "The Immigration Equation."

By Andrew Leonard

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

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Globalization How The World Works Immigration The New York Times