Bryan Caplan  

Metaphorical Voting on "Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere": The Case of Vivek Wadhwa

How to Deal With Those You Dis... Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere...
At risk of sounding like a sore loser, I've claimed that many Intelligence Squared participants initially voted metaphorically.  The resolution said "Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere," but many attendees voted For simply because they are pro-immigration by mainstream American standards.  This mainstream position amounts to (a) amnesty for existing illegal immigrants, (b) more high-skilled immigration, (c) greater openness to refugees - and little else.  The debate "changed their mind" only in the sense that it convinced them to vote literally rather than metaphorically.

Do I have any actual evidence for this admittedly self-serving story?  I know of just one striking datum.  My model accurately describes my teammate, Vivek Wadhwa.  While I in no way blame Vivek for our defeat, his The Immigration Exodus explicitly opposes open borders.  I was horrified the first time I read his words:
To be clear, I am against the idea of simply stapling a green card to the diploma of every STEM graduate.  This practice would bring in the chaff with the wheat and could encourage the development of "green card diploma mills," where a student's primary purpose would be to obtain a green card.
In short, Vivek has long regarded even many foreigners with science, technology, engineering, and math degrees as undesirable "chaff" the U.S. ought to exclude from the labor market.  Anyone who sets the bar this high will obviously have little interest in admitting the vast majority of the world's would-be immigrants.  This is the kind of high-IQ misanthropy I abhor.

When I discussed this issue with Vivek before the debate, I shared many of my standard arguments for low-skilled immigration.  He never proclaimed his conversion, but neither did he demur.  In the end, we seemingly agreed on the following division of labor: Vivek covers high-skilled immigration, I cover low-skilled immigration, and Vivek refrains from opposing low-skilled immigration.  After this discussion, I was nervous, but hopeful.

One month passed.  The day of the debate arrived.  About an hour before showtime, the panelists met.  At this point, Vivek told Unz that he had read and agreed with Unz's proposal to raise the minimum wage.  Since the whole point of Unz's proposal is to drastically reduce low-skilled immigration, I was once again horrified.  Vivek did not say, "I favor a $12 minimum wage because, unlike Unz, I deny that it would disemploy low-skilled immigrants."  He endorsed Unz's proposal without qualification before the debate even started.

I haven't combed through the debate transcript, but as far as I remember Vivek never conceded that low-skilled immigration should be restricted.  Open Borders' John Lee, who attended the debate, got the impression that Vivek was on board.  But during the debate, Vivek spontaneously and repeatedly declared his support for Unz's proposal - without disputing Unz's restrictionist rationale.  The upshot: If you hadn't read Unz's piece, my teammate sounded like an open borders advocate who also liked the minimum wage.  If you had read Unz piece, however, it was plain that my teammate had reverted to the restrictionism of The Immigration Exodus.

After the debate, Vivek sent out a newsletter underscoring the fact that he never actually favored open borders:
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. I also argued that a free and unrestricted flow of talent across borders is already happening in the knowledge-based sectors of the economy--and that this is good.
In short, Vivek never actually believed that we should "Let anyone take a job anywhere."  Not before the debate.  Not during the debate.  Not after the debate.  Why then did he agree to debate on behalf of the resolution?  The only explanation that makes sense is that he considers himself "pro-immigration," and therefore readily agreed to take the "pro-immigration side" in a debate.  His true views were constant.  The only actual thing that changed was that Vivek switched from metaphorical support for "Let anyone take a job anywhere" to literal opposition.

I'm glad the world has moderately pro-immigration thinkers like Vivek.  I don't think the heretic is worse than the infidel.  Even baby steps towards open borders are steps in the right direction.  My point is simply this: If even my own teammate initially affirmed the resolution metaphorically rather than literally, many people in the audience probably did the same.

P.S. My view has a testable implication.  If I ever enter a similar debate, I will insist on the following pre-voting instructions from the moderator:
Only vote FOR if you favor ending all restrictions on migration of workers of ALL skill levels from ALL countries, including unskilled workers from impoverished counties like Haiti.  Do not vote FOR merely because you favor the DREAM Act, amnesty for existing illegal immigrants, a more generous refugee policy, or more H1-B visas.
My prediction: If the audience receives these instructions before BOTH the pre- and post-debate votes, I will gain more votes than the other side.  Consider that an offer to bet.

COMMENTS (22 to date)
Wallace Forman writes:

I can't tell if you're arguing that Wadhwa's support for a minimum wage is:

(1) Contrary to the resolution he was supposed to be supporting, or
(2) Inconsistent with supporting immigration from low-wage countries as a matter of principle.

Assuming for the sake of the argument that (2) is correct, (1) is probably not fair. The debate was framed as one about immigration, not a myriad of other considerations. You wouldn't have expected Wadhwa to argue against worker safety regulations for immigrant jobs, would you? Against sexual harassment laws? Wadhwa could defensibly say he took the resolution to allow labor regulations unrelated to employee nationality.

John Smith writes:

To Bryan Caplan:

Sorry, you are still a sore loser. Might as well man up and accept that. I agree strongly with you that your partner essentially stabbed you in the back by not abiding by the wording of the debate and to a certain extent by his agreement with you on the division of labour.

However, the outcome of the debate is as it is. Complaining about it is being a sore loser and you are complaining about it. You could have demanded your choice of wording beforehand and you didn't. You have nobody to blame but yourself and therefore should not externalise the cause of your failure. Moreover, the moderator was extremely explicit on the anybody any job anywhere points. Can he help it if in your opinion the audience are a bunch of idiots who can't listen?

As a side-note, while as a economics minor and educated person, I thought that your performance was excellent, I did think that you seemed rather smug in your body language. Can the other commenters comment on whether they agree? You also appear rather detached, as if peering down from the ivory tower your opponent accused you of being in.

BC writes:

After watching the video of the debate, I can offer a few reasons that may have contributed to Bryan's loss.

(1) The debate was nominally 2 on 2, but as Bryan has alluded, it was really more like 2.5 vs. 1.5 or even 3 vs. 1. Vivek Wadhwa only partially agreed with the resolution, and his constant reference to raising the minimum wage prior to opening the borders was not helpful since, as Bryan pointed out, the whole point of raising the minimum wage was to price low-wage immigrants out of the market.

(2) The video starts with introductory remarks by the Chairman of Intelligence-Squared that are quite favorable for the resolution. He even states that the resolution is *not* really that radical. Some of the audience may have been influenced by his remarks to vote in favor of the resolution prior to the debate, i.e., the prior vote in favor might have been too high.

Overall, I thought Bryan's arguments were strongest and most on-point. To be fair, however, Kathleen Newland made an effective finesse when she argued that their ought to be a "more thoughtful" immigration policy than open borders made in a "public policy framework". That can be an effective, though empty, argument to some audience members because there's nothing to actually debate against. (She wasn't forced to state and defend what this hypothetical "more thoughtful" policy would be.) It would have been nice to hear the reasons for why the pre-debate undecideds changed their votes to against-resolution after the debate. That would have provided more insight into what anti-open border arguments they found convincing.

The challenge would be as follows:

(1) Start with premises that are intuitive to most people (i.e. both Social Democrats and nationalists).

(2) Derive open borders in easy-to-follow steps from the premises.

(3) But not in a way that runs counter to other intuitions the same people have, like "our culture should not change" and "I am not willing to run the least risk, so if in doubt, don't do it" or "the welfare state can ensure any standard by fiat, e.g. minimum wages without effects on employment" and "I don't want to see poverty around me."

Maybe you can do (1) and (2), but that's probably already hard. I am not sure that you can do (3) as well. If so, you might challenge more than just someone's views on immigration. They would have to change their minds on a lot of other topics as well, something most people will not do, especially not on the spot (which is in itself a reasonable attitude).

The only group where you could make inroads would be libertarians in a broad sense who agree with you also on many other points (the welfare state, collectivist interpretation of nations). You could perhaps convince a libertarian who is unsure about open borders or even one with a restrictionist bent.

Put another way: Is it really possible to separate the case for open borders from a more general libertarian case? I am unsure, so this is an open question that either way I don't have an answer to.

Elmer Fike writes:


I'm apparently a bit late to the post-debate debate, but:

I would have liked to have heard more as to the lovely upshots of this proposition—especially the juicy demand-side stuff. You were just getting started when you told us to keep our eyes on a possible doubling of production. This is outstanding. A massive increase in the standard of living is very attractive. But what does it mean? Your reasoning is compelling, but make me excited!

Do businesses continue to hire as they grow, pulling millions of Americans out of unemployment? Perhaps foreign employees spend significantly in America, if only on housing and FMCGs, and after nobly generous remittances to home countries. Extraordinary network effects? New businesses formation? Superb new products? All the other great stuff that free trade can bring and birth. Etc. You can speak to this better than I can, obviously.

The notion of an uh-oh, come one, come all parasitic multibillion-immigrant bum rush entitlement buffet is nasty, hyperbolic and outlandish. We should pull the rug out from under it.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I was stunned when you first announced that Vivek would be your partner for this reason.

Anyone like Vivek who likes picking and choosing who the more desirable immigrants are with skills based visas doesn't seem close at all to an open borders perspective.

I'm not sure I'm fully on board with open borders myself. I'm not opposed to the idea per se, but I have enough lingering concerns with security and assimilation that I'm not fully in support of it and think I'd like some regulation of the border. But certainly I support liberal migration policy approaching open borders.

The key thing, though, is that aside from security concerns I don't view one group of immigrants as more desirable to have here than another. When someone is of that view, it should be a huge red flag, and Vivek is very much of that view.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Wallace makes a good point on whether the minimum wage thing really contradicts the open borders case so directly.

But the problems with Vivek being on your team are much simpler: Vivek thinks it's better to have high skill immigrants here than low skill immigrants. That is not a perspective consistent with open borders.

Being equally open to different types of labor is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for supporting open borders.

Tom Carter writes:

I didn't see the debate, but I've read (most of) the transcript, and it seems to me that one very salient point wasn't made clear. There's a big real world difference been two alternative propositions:

1. We should open all our borders immediately and allow the market to settle things.

2. Our policy should be targeted at building a world where all borders are open - at some point in the future, even if in fact it will take a few years to achieve. In an ideal world it is the best way to do things.

I suspect that the former is the position which Bryan was trying to advance, but is vulnerable to all the arguments put forth by the other three members of the panel.

The second position is eminently reasonable and I suspect that it (subconsciously at least) was one of the reasons why many people voted first time out for the proposition. However when the debaters veered towards discussing the former position a lot of the audience were put off and voted against in the second round of voting.

Jason Malloy writes:

My point is simply this: If even my own teammate initially affirmed the resolution metaphorically rather than literally, many people in the audience probably did the same ... If the audience receives these instructions before BOTH the pre- and post-debate votes, I will gain more votes than the other side

You are suggesting that Unz/Newland won because they flipped large numbers of your initial "metaphorical" supporters. But you only lost 4% of the vote. A full third of the audience voted undecided at the beginning of the debate, and U/N gained way more votes than you simply by winning over most of the undecideds.

So there is no obvious way your plan for weeding out false FORs would have helped you win this debate.

Ross Levatter writes:

I don't think that's right, Jason Malloy. It is possible, on Bryan's logic, that PRE-debate votes, misunderstanding the radical nature of the proposition, may have been "undecided" when, had they fully appreciated the radical stance of the proposition, would have been AGAINST pre-debate. Thus, the apparent large increase in the AGAINST vote post-debate may be an artifact coming not from false-positive FORs "changing" to AGAINST but from false-positive UNDECIDEDs "changing" to AGAINST.

Real life (imitates the textbooks);

James Shin is one of those immigrants. Shin, 64, owns the Quality Inn SeaTac. In 2011, he used his life savings to buy the 104-room hotel, and he would be required to pay his workers $15 an hour if Proposition 1 passes. It would, in fact, be a crippling financial blow to Shin.

He’s not the chief executive of a hotel chain. He owns one hotel. And he used to be poor.

Shin, a U.S. citizen, immigrated here from South Korea in 1975. He had a bachelor’s degree from a Korean university, but he spoke little English. His first job in the U.S.? Dishwasher. He made $2.25 an hour. In his next job he was a janitor. “When I moved to the U.S. I worked hard. Some people didn’t want to work weekends. I worked on weekends for overtime,” he said.

....In May, he said a buyer was interested in purchasing his hotel, and went as far as paying for an inspection and appraisal. The buyer withdrew the offer after finding out about Proposition 1.

Motoko writes:

Bryan has every right to be upset (not saying he is). He was baited into an unfair situation where he was essentially hung out to dry by everyone, including his partner. His opponents got to engage in cheesy fear-mongering without directly rebutting any of his points, especially the ethical ones. His opponents appear to walk away with a "win" and get to think they're in the right, when in reality they have no idea what they're talking about.

"I have never read an economics textbook, but let me give you all these economic arguments about why we can't have massive immigration and need a $12 minimum wage"

... I'd be pretty upset.

Jason Malloy writes:

" It is possible, on Bryan's logic..."

Indeed, it is possible. It's too bad Dr. Caplan himself did not make the argument or even imply it.

Granted, it is not a good argument, but at least focusing on the undecideds would have made sense, instead of implying that he somehow lost by 32% because 4% of the audience defected.

Handle writes:

Sore Loser? How about sore WINNER!? Talk about initial endowment bias.

Because that's what it looks like from the perspective of someone who disagrees with you and finds the level of support you received utterly terrifying.

Even after full exposure to your extreme, absolutist, abolitionist open-borders position, fully 42% of the audience still voted with you. Even after all the Haiti stuff. Forty-Two Percent! Almost a majority! Good grief!

That's like getting 42% in favor of gay marriage, not in 2013, but in 1913 when even the Bloomsbury group wouldn't have given that much support. And then whining about your stupid audience - the kind that attends intelligence-squared debates - being metaphorically in favor of free-love, but literally in favor of traditional marriage.

Look at it this way, let's say you would have started with your pre-voting instructions, and the initial results were 10,60,30 (for, against, undecided) and ended up the same way (42, 49, 9). You didn't do any worse than that, but I think in this case you'd perceive it as a tremendous victory.

And a tremendous victory it IS. For your side. And not for your opponents, who should be running scared.

Jacob A. Geller writes:

If it makes you feel any better, 42% voted For the motion by the end of the debate, despite the appeal to vote literally. Not bad for such a strongly worded proposition!

Vipul Naik writes:

Daniel Kuehn:

I don't view one group of immigrants as more desirable to have here than another.

I think this sort of misreads the argument for free migration and/or open borders. Bryan's case for free migration doesn't rest on immigrants being desirable as individuals, but rather, on a presumption of free movement and a claim that the (real or alleged) harms of migration do not overcome that presumption.

Holding such a belief is not inconsistent with the belief that some forms of migration are more beneficial (to the migrants themselves, or to others who are affected) than other forms of migration.

To take an analogy, a belief in free speech is certainly consistent with the view that some forms of speech are more desirable than the others. All it takes to believe in free speech is that even the less desirable forms of speech are not harmful to others, or at any rate are not harmful enough to overcome the presumption of liberty and justify the use of coercive measures to stop them.

Student writes:

Although excusing and explaining a loss may bear a great deal of superficial similarity, nevertheless they have opposite consequences for one's future performance, the latter being a necessary step on the road to improvement. Some commenters seem to believe they have evidence that Bryan is making excuses for his loss rather than explaining his loss, but I do not see this evidence.

Pajser writes:

Not only Wadhwa didn't advocate unconditional immigration, even Caplan left impression that people with plague shouldn't be allowed in. Weak condition, sure, but condition it is.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Admittedly tangential point:

Ron Unz's case for a higher minimum wage rests on the presumption that a higher minimum wage reduces the demand for low-skilled workers. While I strongly disagree with Unz's minimum-wage proposal (and much else in Unz's restrictionist views), I'm quite sure that Unz's presumption about the harmful consequence that minimum-wage legislation unleashes on the poorest of poor workers is correct. But that presumption is at odds with the fashionable-in-some-circles presumption that minimum-wage legislation is justified to correct some ill-effects of alleged monopsony power in labor markets. If the monopsony presumption is correct, then minimum-wage legislation increases (or, at least, doesn't decrease) the employment prospects of low-skilled workers.

I recognize that it's possible for Unz's presumption to operate in some circumstances and the monopsony presumption to operate in others. But it warrants recognition that Unz is very much akin to most minimum-wage proponents throughout history: these proponents recognize - or, at least, presume without question - that higher minimum wages operate precisely as basic economics predicts: to restrict the lowest-skilled of low-skilled workers from the formal labor market.

Lynn Atherton Bloxham writes:

I am late to this but certainly would have liked to have been there and voted for the Open Borders. I frequently debate with people who say, "Oh yes, I am for immigration, but just the highly skilled." On the economic front I think this reasoning has been well refuted. But another argument is the hubris exhibited by this idea that one human can foresee and know the potential of another. So in addition to all the benefits of freedom of movement --both ingress and egress -- so too is the benefit of the unknown. Much work to do to refute the restrictionist attitude.

Maciano writes:

I'll take that bet, gladly.

Please mail me.

Jay writes:

A couple of problems with your explanation.

1. The anouncers made it pretty clear that the debate was not about the mainstream American pro-immigration position, as shown by the following:

"Well, of course, as I'm sure you've said, this is not a debate about immigration. It really is an experiment and a debate about pushing free market ideas to the limit."

"And when you look at this motion language, “Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere," how literally do you think that we should expect the debaters to be arguing "anyone anywhere"?

-- Well, the motion language is pretty extreme, I must admit, and not terribly nuanced, but a motion that said, let more people take more jobs in more places would hardly have been a good debate."

2. The pre-vote totals don't match up with your metaphorical voting hypothesis:

In an IQ2 audience, only 46% favor the mainstream American pro-immigration position and 33% were undecided.

It really doesn't seem very plausible that all, or even most, of the 28% that shifted to the opposition did so for the reasons you suggest.

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