Bryan Caplan  

Scratch Beginnings and the Philosophy of Immigration

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More Fantasy Testimony... Panic Puzzle...

Scratch Beginnings is a chronicle of recent college grad Adam Shephard's fascinating self-experiment:

I am going to start almost literally from scratch with one 8' by 10' tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25, and the clothes on my back. Via train, I will be dropped at a random place somewhere in the southeastern United States that is not in my home state of North Carolina. I have 365 days to become free of the realities of homelessness and become a "regular" member of society. After one year, for my project to be considered successful, I have to possess an operable automobile, live in a furnished apartment..., have $2500 in cash, and, most importantly, I have to be in a position in which I can continue to improve my circumstances by either going to school or starting my own business.
His ground rules throw away all the easy ways out:
On paper, my previous life doesn't exist for this one year. I cannot use any of my previous contacts, my college education, or my credit history... I cannot beg for money or use services that others are not at liberty to use.
He does not, however, rule out reliance on the welfare state. In fact, his initial life in a homeless shelter is the dramatic heart of the book - I couldn't put the book down until Shephard got on his own two feet. (Afterwards, it lost steam, but it's still well worth the price of admission).

My only big critique of this book: Shephard's self-experiment wasn't really necessary, because illegal immigrants have been proving his point for years. If the American economy didn't allow unskilled, unconnected people to work their way from abysmal poverty to moderate affluence (known to Americans as "relative poverty"), people wouldn't risk their lives to come here. So when Shephard ends his book with a call to action to help America's poor help themselves, it doesn't ring true. His self-experiment is another reminder that true humanitarians should focus on the world's bottom billions - and that restricting the immigration of the bottom billions for the sake of relatively poor Americans is a crime.

P.S. Another high point: Shephard independently reaches my conclusion that the poor should get roommates:

Despite my reservations, Larry was set on moving out the next week. He wasn't interested in hearing what I had to say about finding a place that was cheaper and maybe even getting a roommate. He didn't even want to listen when I told him that the second bedroom he required to house the drum set he was going to buy was just not a feasible option. He had his mind made up, so I had to let the issue lay to rest.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Kurbla writes:

Your logic "help the poorest, not barely poor" doesn't lead to legalisation of immigration - because those who are able to immigrate are not the poorest on Earth. The poorest are unable to immigrate: no money for transport, they are too weak and uneducated to survive in US (except by help of welfare state) they maybe do not even know what is USA, they have to care physically for their parents who do not want to immigrate and so forth.

So, if helping poor is your first concern, you should advocate that state allow investments only in the world poorest areas.

Steve Sailer writes:

I don't suppose you've noticed, but 50% of all mortgage defaults are in just four states with high numbers of Hispanic immigrants: California, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada. Those 4 states probably account for 70% or so of all mortgage dollars defaulted upon.

From 1999 to 2006, total mortgage lending to Hispanics almost octupled (versus about doubling for whites and tripling for Asians).

Minorities accounted for over 34% of all mortgage borrowing in 2006, and 50% of subprime borrowing in 2004-2007.

Tom West writes:

The book confirms what a lot of people already know. The poorest (homeless) are often there because of personal problems such as drug addiction, mental illness, or other 'character' issues rather than external roadblocks.

So what? An inability to prosper in modern society is an inability to prosper in modern society. Why does it matter *why* they can't prosper? Giving those around us a minimally decent standard of living (i.e. one that we could permanently accept if circumstances required it), seems a simple responsibility of any society that can afford it (which ours can).

Jesse writes:

I find it interesting that Adam Shephard did not actually accomplish his goal:

Christian Science Monitor Interview

Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family.

When real poor people face family illnesses, does the American dream let them call timeout?

Utilitarian writes:

"and that restricting the immigration of the bottom billions for the sake of relatively poor Americans is a crime."

Agreed. But what about maintaining or improving the American institutional framework and voter quality to ensure continuing technological advance that will improve global well-being to an even greater extent? Why not take fewer low-ability immigrants and far more poor high-ability ones from China and the like?

I would really appreciate a post or two on the tradeoffs between benefits to the immigrant population, effects on American institutions and contributions to technology, and the effects of high and low skill immigration on the political feasibility of more (note that Canada is the world leader in accepting immigrants, and is much happier with its influx than the United States because the flow is disproportionately able to contribute to the economy).

The Snob writes:

I will be in favor of increased unskilled immigration to the US when our native-born poor start emigrating to Oaxaca and El Salvador.

The hidden cost of your approach can be found in the bantustans that exist around nearly every population center. While we are always going to have some degree of slums and ghettos, the ones we have today are large and frighteningly violent. Like Shephard, many of the family men from down south who sneak over the border come from societies far more intact than Detroit, NOLA, or south-central.

On a pragmatic level I wonder how long we can go before we lose containment, like in the 80s in New York City when muggings were so common as to be unworthy of reporting to the police, and murders peaked at six daily.

Perhaps cutting off the flow of unskilled immigrants (legal or no) would lead to a net reduction in GDP, lowering all boats. Color me unconvinced. I think it would lead to higher prices for gardeners, restaurant dinners, and housekeepers, all of which were considered real luxuries when I was a kid in an upper-middle class family in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps someone could point me to some more rigorous analysis of what this might look like?

Tim R. Mortiss writes:

"and that restricting the immigration of the bottom billions for the sake of relatively poor Americans is a crime."

This is reminiscent of some of the arguments developed in ethicist Peter Unger's Living High and Letting Die, but with unrestricted immigration taking the place of foreign aid.

Would you say that not giving 50% or more of your own income to charity is a crime, too?

Tom West writes:

> note that Canada is the world leader in accepting immigrants

I suspect that Canadian levels of immigration do not match American levels of immigration when illegal immigrants are considered part of the total immigration. To be fair, the anti-immigration crowd in the US tends to be more for enforcement of current immigration laws than shutting down legal immigration. Of course, this may be a case of them fighting the biggest fire first.

Sadly, Canada does not optimally use the pre-existing skills of the immigrants due to difficulties with recertification, etc. It's one of Canada's shames where its immigration policy is concerned.

bjk writes:

Why do the same "live and let die" libertarians get so sanctimonious when it comes to immigration?

And is it better to have 200 Mexicans working at a meat-packing plant in Iowa or 2000 Mexicans at a plant in Mexico? Which is more Pareto optimal?

shecky writes:

It is interesting how different libertarian-ish sites attract different variety of libertarians, usually known as conservatives.

It remains a bit mysterious why "we" should be regulating immigration, and can do a better job at meeting the labor market's needs better than the actual labor market. It seems to me the illegal immigrant labor market is among the most libertarian in the US, being most subject to supply and demand.

Sailer makes, for at least the second time, an interesting contribution that is not only irrelevant, but suspiciously lacking in anything more than correlation. In fact, it seems that illegal immigrants with mortgages may may not offer any significant negative influence on mortgage default rates.

Shephard's experience is interesting, though not one I find surprising. Despite the lack of support system to fall back on, he was still primarily a bright, young man with few responsibilities. I've known many people who, as young folks, were in a very similar boat and managed to do well, not because of any experiment, but because it seems to me, it is quite normal for many young folks to go out on their own with little-to-no support from family to fall back on. It would be a more interesting experiment to see what a bright, young, single mom or substance abuser could do under the circumstances.

floccina writes:

My idea for a similar project:
I had very low income for much of my adult life and so I believe that at least in my part of the country that a family of 4 with wise parents can live a good life on minimum wage as long as one parent works 50 hours per week (the other parent should only work part time at most). I made a budget for this family that included 10% saving and health insurance (which is much cheaper than people imagine). They would have to live as I did in a mobile home, my wife and I lived in a mobile home that we bought for $3,000 and then sold for $2,700. I think it would make a great project for a book for someone to live on my devised minimum wage budget. If you do not believe this can be done look up the book “Your Money or Your Life”.

floccina writes:

@Tom West writes:
... Why does it matter *why* they can't prosper?

Becuase if the problem is not a lack of wealth giving them more wealth will not solve their problems.

Dave writes:

Jesse, He quit early, but he had already accomplished his goal:

+Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family. But by then he had moved into an apartment, bought a pickup truck, and had saved close to $5,000."

Dan Weber writes:

This sounds a lot better than Ehrenreich's horrible Nickled And Dimed, where she never even considers taking on a roommate.

N&D was funny for the section about her drug detox, although that's probably not the way she intended it.

Ruy Diaz writes:

"and that restricting the immigration of the bottom billions for the sake of relatively poor Americans is a crime."

A crime? A crime? Excuse me, but this is your libertarian faith showing. This statement is as insufferably sanctimonious as it is wrong.

"The world's poor" are not an abstraction. They are flesh-and-blood human beings with very human passions. They have vices, ideologies, enemies, and habits and aspirations--and not necessarily your aspirations. They live in their own culture that markedly differs from ours. Allowing unrestricted immigration would result in vicious cultural conflict, and with good reason. What you are implicitly advocating is the replacement of the American people.

ThomasL writes:

Tom West:
Giving those around us a minimally decent standard of living (i.e. one that we could permanently accept if circumstances required it), seems a simple responsibility of any society that can afford it (which ours can).

This is quite an argument to make for anyone on an economics blog, where the nature of incentive and disincentive is normally taken as a given. The incentive to live off the industry of others in this case should be obvious.

If the argument was meant to state that the average person doing average work should arrive at a living wage, I could accept that. However, the various parenthetical explanations do not lead me to that reading.

This is so bold an argument I'm almost struck dumb searching for a place to begin. In fact, I am currently at work in order to support those around me with the minimum standard of living I deem comfortable given my circumstances, so I can't answer it properly. I would direct, instead, attention to Tocqueville's Memoirs on Pauperism for an interesting, short essay on the subject.

I know those on the left will think critics hard-hearted, but I would argue that isn't the case at all. I simply reject the concept that compulsory public charity is superior to voluntary private charity.

Jo-Ann writes:

Jesse...you are right he did not accomplish his goal. He SURPASSED it by doing everything he wanted to do in a year but only taking 10 months to do it AND he has TWICE as much saved as he had hoped to reach.

It goes to show what determination can do. I left my father's home at 18 with the clothes on my back and a 10 year old car. I am, by no stretch of the imagination, poor. It CAN be done and it is done every day by legions of people.

Jo-Ann writes:

Dan WEber,

Nickel and Dimed was similar in that, I believe both authors set out to prove a point and then "proved" what they wanted to prove. N&D was a farce...sorry I personally know DOZENS of waitresses that have purchased their own homes and moved far away from being poor.
In 1984 I purchased my first house working 30 hours a week as a waitress. I have traded up a number of times since then. The N & D author set herself up to fail and naturally did so.

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