Bryan Caplan  

Being Sendhil Mullainathan

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Harvard's Sendhil Mullainathan has a remarkable life story.  From a profile in Forbes:

Born in a small farming village in India, Mullainathan lived there for seven years while his father moved to the U.S. to go to graduate school. On his fifth birthday, his father sent him a three-piece suit. On the way, via oxcart, to have his photo taken, his uncle and grandfather spent the whole time arguing about whether the vest went over or under the jacket. In the photo a beaming Mullainathan proudly wears the vest on top.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1980, Mullainathan left high school without graduating and went to Clarkson University, and then on to Cornell, where he took graduate-level courses in math and computer science.
Given Sendhil's history, I was frankly surprised by his recent New York Times piece on inequality.  His high-level principles are plausible enough: "We should try to ensure that everyone has a fair opportunity to find a great life."

But despite Sendhil's early years in a small Indian village traveling by oxcart, his essay never mentions the global poor.  They're undeniably part of "everyone."  Yet First World governments do nothing to "ensure that they have a fair opportunity to find a great life."  In fact, First World governments go out of their way to forbid the global poor to accept job offers from willing First World employers.  The predictable result: The global poor earn a tiny fraction of their true value in the global marketplace.

Rather than mention the billions of people on Earth who have genuinely been denied a "fair opportunity to find a great life," Sendhil bemoans the fate of relatively poor Americans.  Yet the only evidence he presents that relatively poor Americans lack fair opportunity is their low income and high incarceration rate. 

Again, I find this hard to understand.  If Sendhil described the plight of relatively poor Americans to his childhood friends in India, would they sympathize?  I doubt it.  Instead, they'd shake their heads and say, "They had the great fortune to be born in America, and this is what they do with their lives?  Shame on them for squandering a golden opportunity."

I have enormous respect for what Sendhil has done with his life.  He's certainly come a lot further than I have.  Still, if I were him, I would have written a very different essay on inequality.  Here is me, being Sendhil Mullainathan:

I moved to America when I was seven, but I'm still shocked by Americans' moral blindness.  You overflow with high-sounding rhetoric about "equality of opportunity for all."  You wring your hands, telling each other, "We've got to do more."  The truth, though, is that the American government - like all First World governments - could greatly increase the opportunities of the truly poor by simply leaving them alone.

Billions of human beings on this planet are destitute.  But most could swiftly escape poverty by moving to the First World and getting a job from a willing employer.  Why don't they?  Because it's illegal - and contrary to what you've heard, enforcement is draconian.  When the truly poor try to solve their own problem, the American government calls them criminals.  Talk about blaming the victim.

Some economists - like my colleague George Borjas - fret that mass low-skilled immigration will make life even harder for low-skilled Americans.  The evidence is weaker than they claim.  But even if they were right, I find it impossible to sympathize.  Low-skilled Americans are wealthy by global standards.  Not only can they legally work in one of the world's best job markets.  Their incomes, education, and health care have been heavily subsidized, and they've been been shielded from global labor competition for a century.  By any objective standard, they have fantastic opportunities.  Unfortunately, they largely squander them

To be fair, the War on Drugs has hit the American poor especially hard.  We should end the drug war, and pardon everyone imprisoned for drug-related offenses.  But don't kid yourselves.  The main thing that stands between low-skilled Americans and success is a lack of the can-do spirit exemplified by immigrants - legal and illegal.

If Americans really believe in equality of opportunity, they must reverse their priorities.  Their overriding priority should be ending their international version of the Jim Crow laws.  Instead of focusing on doing more for relatively poor natives who fail to capitalize on their amazing opportunities, Americans should focus on doing less to absolutely poor foreigners whose opportunities - though improving - are abysmal.  Frankly, we should put all petty domestic disputes aside until everyone is free to take a job anywhere.

Some will no doubt condemn me, an immigrant, for base ingratitude.  America let my family in.  I should reciprocate by supporting the long-standing choices of the American people.

I beg to differ.  If America practiced the equality of opportunity it preaches, my family wouldn't have needed government permission to immigrate.  We could have moved from India to America with the same freedom that Californians move to Nevada.  Now that I'm here legally, I'm going to tell you the truth - not pander to nativist prejudices that could easily have trapped me in the Third World - and continue to trap billions today.

I love living in this country.  It's not just the standard of living.  On an individual level, most Americans are famously nice people.  Collectively, though, their behavior is atrocious - and Americans with a "social conscience" are often even worse.  We don't need a bigger, better War on Poverty to become a just society.  We just need to stop requiring discrimination against all the people without the good fortune to be born here.

Needless to say, Sendhil Mullainathan bears no responsibility for what I wish he would say.  But I really wish he would join me in saying it.  In case I've changed his mind, Sunday is Open Borders Day...

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Pajser writes:

I am not convinced that open borders now! may help to poor people generally. My favorite example is: what happens to poor Tanzanians in distant villages if half of their doctors immigrate to USA? Well, they die. Even if it is exception only, it is enough to conclude that it is better to open borders in some, but not all cases.

But, is it exception? It seems likely emigrants are more ambitious, better educated, even more intelligent than those who stay in source country. If they emigrate, those who stay - already bellow average even for poor country - will be worse off. It is particularly painful for IQ. Blogger Garett Jones claims that wealth of the nation has much stronger correlation with average IQ, than it holds for individuals. Maybe open borders can cause long-term damage to poor countries.

Other standard criticism is that open borders discourage capital from moving to poor countries. The result of open borders now! could be that the best people and capital from poor countries move to wealthy countries, relatively to closed borders. It is not good. Not that I am against open borders generally. It is valid long term goal. But it shouldn't be done on expense of the poorest people on planet.

Enial Cattesi writes:


What you are advocating is fairly close to an old medieval institution: serfdom. It reminds me of an old claim that socialism is a reactionary movement of the dark age (also known as feudalism) against capitalism.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

Can you elaborate on how open borders might actually work?

It seems to me that as a practical matter, such a scheme would destroy government as we know it. Social security, the legal system, health care, public schools, taxes, etc... all of it would be broken.

RPLong writes:
If Sendhil described the plight of relatively poor Americans to his childhood friends in India, would they sympathize? I doubt it. Instead, they'd shake their heads and say, "They had the great fortune to be born in America, and this is what they do with their lives? Shame on them for squandering a golden opportunity."
I myself know more than a few people from the Indian sub-continent who have expressed this very idea to me in private conversation. It is not conjecture, Caplan is exactly right.
Ethan writes:

@ Pajser:

Extend your reasoning out a bit more. Should native Californians not be allowed to leave California, because that would deprive poor Californians of skilled services? Should those born in San Diego not be able to leave San Diego, because their absence might harm those who cannot leave?

It seems to me that your argument is quite similar to the brain drain argument, and there is convincing evidence that the brain drain effect does not exist. As Cowen (or maybe Tabarrok?) points out, the Philippines has exported countless nurses and engineers, yet the country has not run out of skilled workers in either profession - there are still many of them in country, and many more who emigrate.


I don't see why government would break down. Can you explain in a bit more detail?

Thomas DeMeo writes:

Ethan- I asked for an explanation of how such a system might work, but one could assume that under certain circumstances, such as political instability or a natural disaster, millions of people might want to enter the country in a matter of days.

Would workers have to be invited by an employer? Sounds like a scheme that would obviously invite to unprecedented levels of abuse. Could the government tightly regulate such a thing? No, it couldn't. Can they bring their families? My impression is that Bryan thinks an agreement that they not use services like emergency healthcare would work out.

We would be overwhelmed by large numbers of people coming here with sketchy documentation, in desperate financial straights, trying to survive.

RPLong writes:

@Thomas DeMeo - It may help if you thought of it this way: "Open borders" really just means "free labor market."

It's possible that you reject free markets entirely, but assuming you do not, then it should be easy for you to see that a free market in the exchange of microprocessors (for example) hardly causes anarchy. Even if the market for microprocessors were to become suddenly flooded (as per your example), prices, and market participation, and capital allocation, etc. all adjust to restore equilibrium.

The "restoration of equilibrium" could take many forms - some positive, and some negative - and there are trade-offs involved in each scenario. But, importantly, it is impossible to know which scenario will unfold in advance. Notwithstanding that fact, advocates of free trade in microprocessors tend to believe that most of the negative consequences of free trade are short-lived and/or that the benefits outweigh the costs.

So, if you extend that logic to labor markets, then you have your answer. That's not to say that you must agree even if you believe in other kinds of free trade. But hopefully you can at least see where we're coming from with respect to open borders. We can imagine doomsday scenarios in both labor markets and microprocessor markets, but it is not necessary to do so, whether you agree with the open borders proposition or not.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

RPLong- I do believe in free markets. But human beings are different than microprocessors in that they are prone to killing each other under certain threatening conditions. "Restoring equilibrium" can produce such conditions when it involves large numbers of desperate people finding a place to work and live. There is significant historical evidence of this.

Flooding a market with microprocessors might not be a destabilizing enough shock to cause such violence, but some forms of trade, for things like oil, or food, have caused wars. At issue is whether the destabilization is sufficient to cause a critical mass of anger and desperation.

I actually would prefer a world where all nations had open borders and free labor markets. I could live that way myself. Unfortunately, wishing for that is not far from wishing for world peace, which would also be nice.

N. writes:

@Pajser -

You completely discount the one factor that in all the economic development literature (at least all the literature I've read) is held up as the one single tried and true method to bring growth to a less developed country: remittances from foreign workers to their families back home.

RPLong writes:

Thomas, understood. And I'll further add that among the other items on my wish-list, aside from world peace and a winning lottery ticket is a thoroughly persuasive argument for open borders that is immune to criticism. ;)

That said, anyone I do manage to convince is one less person who will resort to violence in the advent of a fresh influx of new labor market participants. That will have to suffice as the best I can do. :)

MingoV writes:

Many people suffer from the delusion that if the economy does X and the government does Y, the poor will become better off.

I grew up in one of the poorest counties in New York state. My family was a step up from poor. I had poor friends and knew many poor families. The number one reason why most of those families were poor: laziness or lack of ambition. The number two reason: lack of work ethic and inability to hold a job. The number three reason: substance abuse, usually alcohol. The number four reason: spending every penny earned on unnecessary junk or expensive vacations or gambling.

Not one of those reasons will be addressed by changes proposed by politicians or economists.

Pajser writes:

Ethan: "Extend your reasoning out a bit more. Should native Californians not be allowed to leave California ..."

I do not advocate that Tanzania forbid Tanzanian medical doctors to leave. It is allowed and it is how it should stay, but we talk about US, not Tanzanian decisions. I advocate that USA does not paying to Tanzanian doctors to leave.

Ethan's arguments that brain drain phenomenon is maybe not serious and N.'s critical that remittance is beneficial are good, but almost certainly partial. Almost certainly, immigration is beneficial in some cases, and not in others. It is always like that. Why simplifying? I claim very little: If one is interested in alleviating poverty then (1) the destiny of foreigners who do not immigrate (e.g. Tanzanian patients) should be taken into account and (2) there is no need to make one, uniform decision for all cases of immigration.

Floccina writes:

Weird. I lived near some Italian and Greek immigrants when I was child and I remember them chastising our lack of success seeing that we were born in the USA. It was like they expected us all to very rich which was what they intended to eventually be. I be that they grew up to be tough on their children.

MikeP writes:

I advocate that USA does not paying to Tanzanian doctors to leave.

I advocate that too.

How one gets from that to the US making it illegal for someone else to pay Tanzanian doctors to leave is beyond me.

What is not mandated will be prohibited?

Pajser writes:

MikeP: "How one gets from that to the US making it illegal for someone else to pay Tanzanian doctors to leave is beyond me... What is not mandated will be prohibited?"

From inside USA, it might look that there is a huge difference between state employee and private business owner. But from the outside, both are voluntary members of the same enterprise - USA.

WT writes:

The notion that "billions" of people could just move to the First World and "take a job" is an alarmingly delusional assumption even for an economist. Where do all these billions of jobs come from, given that we do still have unemployment here? Why wouldn't billions of people moving here simply bring their current standards of living and unemployment with them? Rather, why wouldn't they actually end up far worse off, if they moved here in such numbers that they crashed the system and could no longer find food in a familiar environment (farming, trading, hunting, etc., in a particular geography)?

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