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Thursday, March 3, 2005

Give Me Your Tired...

In all the debate about reforming U.S. Social Security, everyone seems to be missing the fact that there's an obvious (if radical) solution to the problem...

The more I follow the arguments, the clearer it seems that shifting money from T-bills held by a public trust to stock market investments held in "personal accounts" is unlikely to help with the demographic problem -- it's at best a gamble (maybe stocks will do better than bonds?), at worst an expensive (both in terms of the costs of restructuring, and the inevitably higher fees from a mutual-fund like strategy compared to an all-T-bill strategy) ideological exercise in promoting an "ownership society". We may each end up with less money, though more "ownership".

I heard Alan Greenspan talking on CSPAN about other options. Well, you could raise taxes, he said. Or cut spending, asked some Congressperson? Yes, said Alan, sounding a little dubious. That seemed to be about all the ideas they had. But both raising taxes and cutting spending may well have a counterproductive, depressive effect on the economy, right? (Though either might be preferable to our current method of funding the government by selling its debt, principally to Asian governments that may soon have had their fill of dollars... but I digress...)

But let me get this straight. The problem is demographic, right? Too many retirees, not enough young workers. That's the supposed problem, right?

Why not have a national immigration policy that simply adjusts immigration based on demographic trends, so that the flow of workers is constant? If people have fewer kids, issue more Green Cards; when there's a baby boom, cut back. Whatever the right ratio of workers to retirees is, just arrange for it to be so.

Immigration to America has lots of intangible benefits beyond effortlessly saving Social Security. Though I don't have data to hand to back this up, my recollection is that immigrants -- wherever they're from -- tend to do better in school, work harder, and generally contribute more to American society than native-born Americans. No big surprise there, since they tend to come from somewhere life is harder than in the fat, happy U.S. of A. No slur against Americans there -- rather, an acknowledgement that immigration has always been America's lifeblood.

With the notable exception of the problem of brain drain, immigration to America is also good for the world. Immigrants who have gained wealth and skills in America often return to, or invest in, countries that wouldn't otherwise get much foreign attention (we saw this a lot in Eastern Europe after 1989, where a couple of national political candidates were American returnees, and you see it with Silicon Valley veterans returning to India, Taiwan, places like that, and starting tech companies). This is all good.

And -- I say this having been an immigrant, when I lived in Switzerland -- dude, immigrants just rock. By definition, they are risk-takers, people who uprooted themselves for something they wanted. America's great advantage as a nation, historically, has been being composed of people from all over the world who took the plunge -- people of courage and ambition.

(I interview a few prospective students for my alma mater, Brown University, every year. The immigrant kids, and children of immigrants, are not afflicted with the malaise of disaffection and undirected rebelliousness I, as an upper-middle-class suburban white kid, had -- the sense of having to distinguish myself somehow, the desperation, at 18, to distance myself from my family and its embarassing hold on my life. The immigrant kids are humbled by what their parents sacrificed, proud of their relationship with them, eager to succeed. They just rock.)

(It would take a lot of immigration to affect Social Security. I'm not sure how much. But so what? US population density is very low by, say, European standards. Note that until the 1880s we had no restrictions on immigration at all. )

Okay, some of what I'm saying is a reiteration of a certain kind of American myth; immigration has had its dark side, immigrants have often been exploited and deprived of any chance at streets-paved-with-gold opportunity, and certainly one grand motivation for the American immigration story was the need for more warm bodies to help with the epic land grab of America, away from its aboriginal inhabitants.

But all in all, it's not a bad myth. I far prefer the idealization of the immigrant, to his demonization -- a correspondingly old trend in American ideological history, and one on the rise again with our new Know-Nothings.

Making it much harder for people to visit and immigrate to America is not just laughably ineffective anti-terrorist policy disguising ugly xenophobia; it's also self-destructive.

Posted by benrosen at March 3, 2005 11:24 PM | Up to blog

There is one problem for the countries of origin that is particularly noticeable in Europe (no idea if it's the same in the US). It's less of a "brain" drain, and more of skills drain. Right across the developing world, medical staff are being lured away by developed countries who haven't trained enough of their own staff. I heard of one case recently where an African hospital was left with only a single doctor after all of the other medically trained staff had left to work abroad. I understand from the perspective of the individual why they would want to go abroad for better salaries and conditions, but I think developed countries need to be responsible about draining key skills from developing (or not developing) countries.

Posted by: Patrick Samphire at March 8, 2005 08:18 AM

This is a problem, and actually precisely that example -- doctors -- was what I was thinking of when I wrote "except for the problem of skills drain". The Economist recently pointed out that this is one way in which the educational systems of the Third World massively subsidize healthcare in the First World.

I'm not sure what the solution is. One idea: perhaps the First World should own up to what they're doing here. They could set aside money to explicitly train doctors, improve medical teaching, etc., in the Third World, and subsidize students with the deal being that they have to agree to remain and work in their country of origin for X years before they can immigrate! (Kind of the way you can get a college education paid for in the USA by agreeing to join the army).

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at March 8, 2005 10:15 AM
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