Here’s one difference between me and Paul Krugman: He enthusiastically supports President Obama’s new immigration policy, which he calls a matter of human decency. I grudgingly support President Obama’s new immigration policy, which I call a bit less indecent than the policy it replaces.
Here’s another difference between me and Paul Krugman: I believe it’s the job of an economics journalist to call attention to unpleasant tradeoffs and offer frameworks for resolving those tradeoffs. Krugman apparently believes it’s the job of an economics journalist to sweep all tradeoffs under the rug in the name of advancing your policy agenda — appealing, if you will, to the stupidity of the American op-ed reader.
Krugman, for example, tells us that he opposes deportations because they’re cruel, but also opposes open borders because they’d make it both economically and politically impossible to maintain the modern American welfare state.
In furtherance of which, he offers this kind of claptrap:
Second, there are large numbers of children who were born here … but whose parents came illegally, and are legally subject to being deported.
What should we do about these people and their families? There are some forces in our political life who want us to … deport the undocumented parents of American children and force those children either to go into exile or to fend for themselves.
But that isn’t going to happen, partly because, as a nation, we aren’t really that cruel
Dammit, I hate this stuff. Krugman says (and I agree with him) that it’s cruel to deport people. He ignores the fact that it’s also cruel to keep other people out. Krugman says (and I agree with him) that letting more people in would put pressure on the welfare system. He ignores the fact that allowing people to stay also puts pressure on the welfare system. Why should we prioritize kindness to those who are already here over kindness to those who are clamoring to get here?
There might be a really good answer to that question, but you’d never know it from reading Krugman. In fact, the takeaway from Krugman’s column is that the cruelty of deportations is unacceptable only because Krugman says so, and the cruelty of closed borders is a necessary evil only because Krugman says that too. So the next time you want to know whether some other policy is unacceptably cruel or not, the only way to find out is to ask Paul Krugman.
And then there’s more:
The truth is that sheer self-interest says that we should do the humane thing. Today’s immigrant children are tomorrow’s workers, taxpayers and neighbors.
Ummm…Paul? They are tomorrow’s workers, taxpayers and neighbors only if we let them stay. Do you know who else are potentially among tomorrow’s workers, taxpayers and neighbors? The ones we’re not letting in.
Once again, there might be some reason why we benefit more from those who are already here than we’d benefit from those who have not yet arrived — but if Krugman knows that reason, he’s keeping it a secret. He makes absolutely no attempt to quantify his cost-benefit analysis, or even, for that matter, to be explicit about what he’s counting as a cost or a benefit. His arguments — both his moral arguments and his arguments from self-interest — apply equally well to current residents and to current non-residents. They are arguments either for mass deportations or for open borders, but not for the Obama policy.
If you want to make an honest case against open borders, you’ve got to start with this acknowledgement: Even if we grant for the sake of argument that the modern American welfare state is a good thing, and even if we grant for the sake of argument that open borders would fully undermine it, it does not follow that the enormous benefits of open borders would fail to offset that enormous cost. That requires an argument. Here’s what an argument would consist of:
1. Either a) some estimate of the benefits of open borders, a separate estimate of the costs, and a comparison between the two or b) some clever way of proving, without any actual measurement, that the costs must exceed the benefits, say by showing that each individual benefit comes packaged with a larger cost.
2. A clear statement of how much weight you’ve given to costs and benefits felt by Americans as opposed to the costs and benefits felt by Mexicans, preferably along with some justification for your weighting and a fair accounting of how your conclusions might change if you’d chosen different weights. This would, for example, lead to some arithmetic along the lines of what you see in Chapter 19 of The Big Questions. That arithmetic is surely not the last word on the matter, but that kind of arithmetic is precisely what economics can contribute to this debate.
Not only does Krugman offer no answers; he pretends the questions don’t exist. His agenda, for whatever reason, is to stop deportations without loosening up the borders. Rather than defend that agenda, he pretends that
a) It needs no defense.
b) And if you think otherwise, you’re a bad person. Sneer, sneer.
Look: The essence of Krugman’s position is that current non-residents should be treated more cruelly than current residents. That position is probably defensible. Economics teaches us that life is full of uncomfortable trade-offs, and that sometimes you’ve got to be cruel in one way to avoid being even crueler in another. But economics also teaches us that it’s important to face those trade-offs honestly, even to call attention to them, so that we don’t make our choices with blinders on.
That’s where Krugman becomes the anti-economist. As is his right, he supports the Obama policy. But he has far too much contempt for his readers to fashion an argument that might actually illuminate that policy. Instead he throws out a bunch of rhetoric that, when analyzed with an even slightly critical eye, offers exactly zero support for his position.
His arguments, after all, come down to this: “Deportations are cruel and for that reason alone must be bad policy”, or “Open borders are costly and for that reason alone must be bad policy”. But if those were valid arguments, then (as Krugman knows perfectly well), one could just as easily switch deportations with open borders and reach exactly the opposite conclusions. But Krugman doesn’t care about logic, because he’s too busy bashing the morals of anyone who dissents from his apparently random value judgments.
According to Krugman, if you support the cruelty of deportations, you’re an evil person, but if you support the cruelty of closed borders, you’re a pragmatic adult. Why? Because Paul Krugman said so. Might there be a subject — like, oh, say, economics — that can help us think more clearly and systematically about such issues? If so, you’d never learn about it by reading Krugman. He wouldn’t want to risk teaching his readers to think.