What's the difference between bloggers and illegal immigrants?

You can't build a fence to stop bloggers from tearing apart the fortress of mainstream journalism. Thank goodness

Published December 17, 2007 9:52PM (EST)

Of all the bonafide economists who blog regularly, Harvard's George Borjas gets the award for Most Single-minded Focus. Borjas' issue is immigration, especially illegal immigration. If you're looking for academic support for the thesis that immigration depresses the wages of native-born American workers, he's your man. He's also concerned about the cultural impact of Mexican immigrants (legal or illegal) who he thinks are not as likely to assimilate with mainstream America as has every other previous wave of immigrants to the United States. He's very consistent -- you will have to look long and hard to hear a good word about immigration in his posts.

The current political climate provides plenty of grist for blogging on immigration-related topics so naturally "The Borjas Blog" has been hopping. But it's hard to know what to make of one recent entry comparing bloggers to illegal immigrants.

According to Borjas, there is "an important self-serving economic motive at play" when journalists decry the effect of blogging on traditional news-reporting.

It doesn't cost all that much to become a citizen journalist: a computer and your own time is about all it takes for you to start reporting your view of the world to whoever wants to read it.

The laws of supply and demand suggest that the rewards to being a Journalist would drop because anyone can now start reporting news and opinionating a la Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd. It's as if the Journalistic profession has received its own influx of illegal immigrants -- increasing competition, lowering rewards, and creating havoc along the way.

Maybe now the Journalists will learn how those workers affected by immigration have long felt.

A a former freelance writer, reporter, editor and now blogger, I found this passage interesting for a couple of reasons. Journalists -- or at least those journalists who ever competed in the freelance market or interned at a publication for laughable pay -- have always understood the challenge posed by competition from people willing to work for low wages. No one needs a license or accreditation of any kind to be a journalist, and a distressingly large number of people are willing to work for free or close to it. Just the sight of a byline in print (or online) is compensation enough for some. One result of this is that per-word pay rates for freelance journalists have hardly budged over the decades, except for the very top tier of publications.

Even more intriguing, however, are the political implications of Borjas' analogy. I would submit that most journalists who honestly accept what the Internet means for their profession understand that there is no way to go back to the way it was before. The barriers to entry, such as they were, are gone forever. Old business models are no longer applicable. Competing successfully in this environment will require being really good at whatever one does -- whether that be blogging, investigative reporting, breaking news reporting, financial analysis or what have you. And even if done well, the financial rewards may indeed be less lucrative than in ages past.

Maybe this explains why more journalists would prefer to write about single-payer national health care than border fences.*

To think that one can turn back the tide of competition unleashed by the Net is a lot like thinking that in a globalized world one can ameliorate the wage impact of illegal immigration by building a border fence or by passing laws imposing strict sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants. The work forces of China and India and eastern Europe and of course Mexico have joined the world economy just like bloggers have joined the media universe. In both cases, technology has played a huge enabling role, and, unless the world experiences a truly massive and unprecedented energy crisis, that technologically-midwifed change is not going back in the bottle. In a globalized world, massive disparities between the living standards of individual nations will create more pressure than ever before for some kind of equalization, whether that means workers finding their way from the developing to the developed world, or capital headed in the other direction. The nations that are ultimately most likely to thrive in this challenging new environment will have to be really good at whatever they do. It could just be that having a national health care system and a extensive safety net might make a county better able to compete than attempting to protect the status quo by building up walls.

Of course, I could be completely wrong. Previous waves of globalization, most notably that which crested before World War I, have receded. Maybe nationalism will triumph over the technologically mediated one-worldism. I'll tell you one thing -- a relapse into trade wars and protectionism and ethnically-based Exclusion Laws will certainly keep the bloggers busy. But the weird thing about Borjas' post is that to compare bloggers to illegal immigrants is to implicitly acknowledge that fence-building is not going to work as a long run solution for ensuring economic prosperity in the United States. And we know that can't have been Borjas' intention, because his other posts have made abundantly clear that "securing our borders" is his first priority in any discussion of immigration policy.

On the Net, some of us just chuckle at such an idea. Borders? What borders?

*(I have no statistics on which to base this assertion.)

By 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