Bryan Caplan  

Debate Analysis: Unz, Wadhwa, and Me

Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere... If You're So Smart . . ....
Two of my co-debaters, Vivek Wadhwa and Ron Unz, sent out newsletters analyzing the debate. 

Opponent Ron Unz:
As a useful means of gauging the impact of the arguments, the organizers take before and after votes of the large New York City studio audience, and unsurprisingly the Open Borders proposition started off with a landslide majority in favor.  But after nearly two hours of discussion, with the arguments of both sides getting reasonable airing, there was a swing of 32 points against the idea, allowing our side to win handily.  Apparently, the swing in audience opinion may have been the sharpest for that any recent debate, perhaps illustrating the rather one-sided presentation of the issue in the major elite media.
I agree that major elite media are in favor of amnesty and somewhat more open immigration.  But who in the media elite openly favors open borders?  The editors of the Wall St. Journal have expressed support for the view, but most people in the elite media draw a sharp line between Wall St. Journal news (excellent) and Wall St. Journal editorials (right-wing ideology).  The media elite view matches closely with the views of Unz's partner, Kathleen Newland, rather than with open borders: Amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants, more generous refugee policy, and more skills-based immigration.

My question for Unz: Do you really think that most of the people who initially voted in favor of "Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere" literally favored open immigration from Haiti or Bangladesh?  I say most initially voted on their relatively pro-immigration views, then changed their minds when the debaters (myself included) alerted them to the extremism of the proposition.  In short, their "for" votes meant that they were mainstream pro-immigration Americans, not open borders radicals like myself.

Teammate Vivek Wadhwa:

My team lost by a landslide. :( On reflection, this is not surprising, given the point we ended up having to defend: that anyone, anywhere, should be allowed to take a job in the U.S. The image that our opponents very skillfully planted in the minds of the audience was of 20 million poor Haitians begging on the streets of New York City.

Brian Caplan, who is a George Mason University professor and who was on my side, strongly believes that we should let anyone go anywhere--that it is a basic human right. I have reservations about importing poverty. I believe in exporting prosperity. I agreed with our opponent Ron Unz, who is publisher of The American Conservative, that we need a much higher minimum wage--to rebuild the middle class, stop shifting the burden to government and welfare, and create market forces that limit immigration to the country's needs.

My question for Vivek: If this was your view all along, why did you agree to debate in favor of "Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere" in the first place?  "Anyone" obviously includes low-skilled immigrants - not merely the low-skilled immigrants that "the country needs."  Even the most ardent restrictionist could agree with that, then add "And the country doesn't need any low-skilled immigrants."

I acknowledge that my position is extreme.  I don't expect most people to share that extremism.  I certainly didn't expect my teammate to favor abolishing the minimum wage.  If Vivek had said, "I favor raising the minimum wage, because unlike Unz, I don't think a higher minimum wage would deter low-skilled immigration," I would have disagreed with his economics, but not his position on immigration.  But endorsing Unz's minimum wage proposal - a proposal explicitly intended to reduce low-skilled immigration below its already low level by pricing them out of the market - seems inconsistent with the role Vivek accepted in the debate. 

P.S. If anyone has URLs for the Unz or Wadhwa newsletters, please send them to me so I can link to them.  I will gladly post or link to any response either offers.

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Motoko writes:

I watched the debate and thought you dunked. I think people were turned against you because your opponents get to adopt this rhetorically abusive position where they "like" immigrants, want more immigration, but want to fix it so they don't get any of the negatives. It's a subset of the State Capitalism kind of arguments that say they want markets, but only good markets, so they're going to regulate markets so they're good. Talk about lip service...

The weakest part of this for our side is the "taking our job" arguments. I think your line that we have to focus on production is good, but if you want to convince people who are primarily worried about keeping America an exclusionary country club, you need to come up with very common sense explanation about why these people will actually create jobs and wealth for common Americans.

... or you need to press the moral argument in a more uncomfortable way. These people are basically advocating reverse-concentration camps. Even if immigration did reduce American wealth by 90%, it would still be the morally right thing to do. These people do not have the courage to admit it.

Bob Montgomery writes:

Bryan, let this go. You lost - complaining about the rules afterwards is sour grapes.

Your arguments are probably right, but rather than complaining, try to think of ways to improve next time.

Publicly calling out your (winning!) opponents to concede defeat after the fact is counter productive and just makes you look ridiculous.

Wallace Forman writes:

Bob Montgomery - You call it complaining, but it just looks like continued dialogue to me.

johnleemk writes:

I was there and I agree, Wadhwa was not an ideal person to represent the open borders side. Having said that, I think he has somewhat nuanced views: he quite clearly said during the debate that if a US employer thinks a Mexican gardener is the best person for the job, government should not stand in the way of that hiring decision.

Although I think Unz's idea is crazy (even if I shared his apocalyptic views about immigration, I don't believe it's possible to "price out" immigrants of the market with a $12/hr minimum wage and achieve anywhere close to the same artificially low immigration rates we have today), I wouldn't have bothered calling him or Wadhwa out on it that way. I would have said: this debate is about whether anyone should be able to take a job anywhere, following the same labour laws that apply to citizens. What level the minimum wage should be set at is completely orthogonal to the question of whether every human being should be allowed to compete on a level playing field for jobs in the private sector. Ultimately this is a question about labour rights, and if you really believe in fair and just labour laws, then you cannot defend arbitrary discrimination against foreigners.

I agree with comments from the earlier thread that the women analogy was extremely powerful. Unz and Newland simply had no good response to it. You doubled the labour supply -- and yet, as Unz himself said, all the fields where women entered did not see incomes go down! What happened to "converting the minimum wage into the maximum wage"? Unfortunately the debate got sidetracked chasing this pointless minimum wage red herring, in part because Wadhwa's nuanced views made him a less-than-effective partner for the open borders side.

Handle writes:

The audience found the vision of the radical open-borders position problematic. Something about that world was uncomfortable for them and they found it to be an undesirable change.

The most productive thing you could do is identify which aspects of this vision generated the most intensely negative concerns in your audience and either 1. Refute them as myths, or 2. Concede that they true effects, but generate arguments showing that these worrisome conditions have important trade-offs, materially and morally, and are therefore worthy of tolerance.

If you cannot identity and address these concerns, you will continue to lose debates, and worse, tarnish the reputation of your position. So, be practical and focus on persuasion.

Finch writes:


Or, Bryan could 3, modify his policy proposal to compensate citizens sufficiently to mollify them.

It's not Bryan's business to choose whether their concerns are valid or not. They have an endowment (the ability to make more citizenships or other forms of immigration slot), and they can choose to do what they like with it.

Sam writes:
I say most initially voted on their relatively pro-immigration views, then changed their minds when the debaters (myself included) alerted them to the extremism of the proposition.

Isn't that kind of indictment of the Overton window approach open border advocates take, at least in that kind of venue?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bob Montgomery,
What Wallace Forman said. Bryan is trying to continue the discussion. Along the way, it does make sense--and he did it gracefully--to point out that the debate turned out to be 3 against 1.

MikeP writes:
The image that our opponents very skillfully planted in the minds of the audience was of 20 million poor Haitians begging on the streets of New York City.

"Very skillfully" is an understatement, considering there are only 10 million Haitians in Haiti.

Pajser writes:

Caplan claims that audience was "pro imigration" and not "pro unlimited immigration" on the beginning of the show, but it might be that audience didn't seen the difference between these two positions so some real ground is lost. Pro unlimited immigration position is wrong, but also easily refutable, and after first Unz's answer, it was over, even without emphasize that open borders are bad for poor countries, sources of migration.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I did not watch the debate. But it sounds like one of the key debate points advocating more immigration is that wages did not go down when women entered the job market in force. Is that the argument made?

If so, it is a very poor debate point. It seems clear to me that one of the main reasons for less real growth in wages during the '80's '90's and '00's than there was in the '50's and '60's was the large increase in the labor force of so many more women. It makes perfect economic sense; when you add a lot more supply, prices go down (or up less). If we still had the same percentage of women in the labor force now as we did in 1960, every worker's wages would be much higher (households would have lower income, but individual workers' wages would be higher).

Of course in the case of immigrants, demand would increase as well as supply, so it isn't strictly comparable. But making an example of women in the workforce seems to argue against immigration, not for it.

JohnB writes:


The crystal clear lesson here is never take on a debate partner on your side. If you have to do it, at least communicate with them beforehand and make sure the two of you are on the same page. You were great in the debate but having someone on "your side" contradicting you at every turn makes your case look weaker no matter what you say.

On the minimum wage point, I think you should have made it clear to Ron Unz how much his minimum wage proposal would have hurt the low skilled Americans he was trying to help in the name of giving "working Americans a living wage." Call out his economic ignorance there.

I don't think some people in the comments are exactly clear on how obvious Caplan's case was and how much Wadhwa tried to undermine it. His case was that by allowing immigrants of ALL SKILL LEVELS global production would double. Then his own debate partner on his side of the debate proceeded to argue that this was A BAD THING. He argued that we needed high minimum wages to get the right kind of immigrants into America.

This was such an outrageous position by Vivek Wadhwa that he himself realized he should have been debating on the other side and said, at one point, "can I disown my partner?" This position would mean a complete contradiction of the idea of taking having anyone take a job anywhere as the only people who would be allowed to work in America would be people with a marginal productivity over $12 an hour, probably a small fraction of the world's population and a fraction that excludes most native Americans; particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds that the anti-immigration side was seeking to protect.

I usually love debates and think they are a great way to educate. After seeing this one, I'm not so sure that you can persuade people of reason anymore.

Brian writes:

David said "Along the way, it does make sense--and he did it gracefully--to point out that the debate turned out to be 3 against 1."

By Bryan's own admission, the debate was actually 4 against 0, since, as he says,

"most initially voted on their relatively pro-immigration views, then changed their minds when the debaters (myself included) alerted them to the extremism of the proposition."

If your debate tactic is to convince the audience that your position is right but radical, you've already conceded because the audience is going to conclude that radical is wrong. Call it status quo bias if you wish, but it's usually the right conclusion.

Think about it--the claim that a radical position is the right one implicitly argues that everyone else has gotten it wrong all these years. Yes, that happens occasionally, but it's rare. On the other hand, the false claim by individuals that they alone possess special insight is not rare at all. How could an audience conclude anything other than that a radicalist is likely to belong to the latter category?

This is where Bryan's view of open borders as a moral crusade guarantees its failure. His belief that he holds the moral high ground leads him to think that the radicalism is acceptable. (Note that this is exactly what the poster Motoko thinks too, since he says "Even if immigration did reduce American wealth by 90%, it would still be the morally right thing to do." Such a view is all too common among misguided moralists.) No audience will ever be persuaded by that position.

The better approach is to persuade by arguing for each audience member's self-interest. Such a position can never be radical and is a priori more likely to be correct.

John Smith writes:

I felt that Bryan turned in an incredible performance, as he himself thinks.

But unlike Bryan, I felt that his loss is a well deserved one for his ideas are so extreme and outrageous that it is no wonder that any representative audience would vote against him.

A tidal wave of 1 or 2 billion people would completely swarm US under, not to mention that his solutions of limiting rights of these immigrants would go out the window within a generation or two, if not less.

JohnB writes:

John Smith,

You say, "A tidal wave of 1 or 2 billion people would completely swarm US under, not to mention that his solutions of limiting rights of these immigrants would go out the window within a generation or two, if not less."

The debate was that employers would have to let immigrants in to work. People couldn't come here unless they had a job lined up first. There's no way there are just 2 billion jobs lying around at the moment, especially given that we have a minimum wage (for better or worse). IF everyone who comes here has to have a job lined up, there isn't going to be a tidal wave.

Ross Levatter writes:

Two questions, Bryan:

1. Who provided the wording of the debate topic? Was it you, the other side, the show's producers? Was there any negotiation on the wording?

2. Who chose the teams? Specifically, did YOU choose Wadawa? Were you ever in a position to offer suggestions of other partners, like, say, Huemer?

rogerrab writes:

Did the audience think allowing anyone to immigrate meant that the gangs of Mexico should be able to come to the U.S. without ID or restriction? I can imagine audience members inventing that type of scare scenario and voting against the proposition because of it.

Chris Thomas writes:

Bob Montgomery writes

"Publicly calling out your (winning!) opponents to concede defeat after the fact is counter productive and just makes you look ridiculous."

Where on earth did Bryan ask his opponents to concede defeat? Answer: he didn't. Saying that he did is counterproductive and just makes you look ridiculous.

John Smith writes:

To JohnB,

In practical terms, there wouldn't be any restrictions. As his opponent pointed out, people would simply game the system easily (Bryan did not deny this).

pyroseed13 writes:

@Mark V Anderson:

When I heard Caplan make that point, I also thought the same thing. But now that I think about it, I'm not entirely sure that women entering the workforce can be a plausible explanation for the decline in male wages and labor force participation. Are men and women actually competing for the same jobs? Most low-skilled and labor-intensive jobs are not likely to be occupied by women.

JohnB writes:

John Smith,

I doubt that there are 2 billion people in the world willing and able to uproot their lives and move here for uncertain prospects of employment. After all it is very costly both in terms of money and intangibles to move across the world to a foreign country. Unrestricted immigration would most likely mean more immigrants to America and Western Europe than now but not a rush of billions. Most of the poorest people in the world simply don't have the means or wouldn't benefit very much from the move. Provided western countries don't subsidize immigration through handouts it shouldn't be a problem.

John Smith writes:

To JohnB,

I think you greatly underestimate the economics of it. If we have global immigration in the millions even with the high barriers currently in place, with zero legal barriers, I think we can confidentially expect extremely high amount of immigration.

JohnB writes:

John Smith,

Even if there weren't the present barriers in place, it is very difficult for the poorest people in the world to get to America. For regular people in Africa, the United States might as well be on the moon. People in Latin America could get in, however, the flow of immigration into the United States has reversed from natural economic consequences. Economies are growing faster in some places in Latin America or Asia and these might be more attractive or convenient destinations for many immigrants than the U.S. If you speak Spanish, and the Mexican economy is growing as fast as the U.S. economy, you would most likely choose to live in Mexico. In addition, countries similar to the U.S. like Canada or Australia would be attractive destinations.

There isn't a strong economic pull into the United States or western Europe at the moment and it is unlikely that people making less than $2 a day are willing and able to travel across Oceans for uncertain prospects.

Julien Couvreur writes:

Tough debate. There was a lot to deconstruct in your opponents arguments.

A few things in particular seem worth addressing:

1) zero sum game idea (if poor people come here, some Americans loose as much).
You offered a study (impact on high school drop outs) and a more humane solution (tax immigrants workers to compensate), it would have been useful to reemphasize those points.
Also illustrate with the example trade of other goods.

2) it is uncivil for us to allow a society with more poor people.
This could have used more hammering.
First, it is hypocrite (it's ok for them to be poor outside of the US, as if that is not "our society").
Also, it commits the fallacy of assuming "a society", when each of us actually lives in many overlapping societies and communities. The opponents were just taking advantage of nationalist sentiment.
Finally, the right to move and the "right" to education/healthcare are quite different (negative vs. positive obligations). Your opponents are focusing on need to actively help the poor improve their life, but maybe we should start by not actively keeping them poor (force used to keep them out).

3) flood of people taking American jobs.
First, you can attack the idea of flood by illustrating that not everyone moves to NY, despite no closed border on NY.
Second, it would have been good to give some illustrations of what could happen: an American plumber expending his productivity by hiring some low-skilled assistants which he would coach, an American mom who could hire a house helper and spend her time on better things than chores.

I did feel that the different approach by your partner (focus on high skill immigrants and minimum wage) didn't make it any easier.

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