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How Immigration Boosts Living Standards

By Matthew Yglesias  

"How Immigration Boosts Living Standards"

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Right before I left for break one of my most esteemed readers said I should try harder to explain why it is that immigration of low-skilled people boosts living standards for native born Americans. Well, via Kevin Drum and Felix Salmon you can see some hot hot statistical research that helps explain some of the microdynamics but I think the basic point can be pretty easily illustrated through a thought experiment.

Think of some classic “bad” jobs that we find a lot of immigrants doing—basically the tidying-up industries. Now imagine that tomorrow 75% of the maids, the janitors, the dishwashers, the gardeners, the people who make the beds at hotels, etc. are all teleported to Mexico. This is a class of low-income people that’s vanished, so it’s possible that their teleportation will make certain statistical sets look better. But what’s going to be the impact on the living standards of those of us Left Behind in the United States of America?

Well there are really only two things that can happen here. One is that to an extent things can just be allowed to be dirtier and the other is that to an extent people can spend less time doing things that aren’t cleaning and more time cleaning. Down the first pathway, overall living standards decline because of the increase in the overall level of filth. Down the second pathway, overall living standards decline because of the decrease in the production of other goods and services. It’s true that amidst this overall decline in living standards some specific individuals would probably benefit (the remaining 25% of cleaners, for example) which is why there’s room for empirical research like the SF Fed paper linked above, but it’s easy to see that on the whole immigration boosts living standards even before you consider the positive impact on the immigrants.

At issue is the fact that here in the developed world we’re not peasant farmers fighting to support ourselves on a fixed quantity of viable agricultural land. When new workers come onto the scene and do jobs, they create more surplus. To get the kind of zero-sum effect that people think occurs when you get rid of immigrants, what you would actually need to do is send retirees to the Death Panels and turn them into Soylent Green. But of course even there we note that the interests of elderly people matter, morally speaking, and it would be grossly wrong to simply write them off in the interests of efficiency.

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