Bryan Caplan  

Reflections on the Caplan-Jones Immigration Debate

Could Gramm, Leach, Bliley (19... The Brexit debate...
If you missed the Caplan-Jones debate, you can watch a slick version here.  The best part: We each had five minutes to "grill" each other.  I learned a lot during those minutes.  Main thoughts:

1. Garett neatly boils down research on migration-adjusted measures of "deep history."  I'll blog the papers later, but one key finding is that countries now inhabited by the descendants of historically advanced civilizations do much better than countries now inhabited by descendants of historically backwards civilizations.  How do they measure "advanced" and "backward"?  Several ways, especially state history (S), dawn of agriculture (A), and technology in 1500 AD (T).  Garett, going for a double entendre, calls this the SAT score.

2. Garett was coy about the immigration policies that he does favor.  But his talk suggested - and grilling confirmed - that he has no objection to open borders with countries with high SAT scores - including China and India!  That's billions of people.  Thus, while opponents of immigration might like Garett's tone, he offers no argument against radically more open immigration than currently exists.  Indeed, it's fair to say that Garett is about halfway between the mainstream American view and me. 

3. Garett opened his statement by claiming that economists urge us to focus on the very long-run - the consequences of policies a century or more in the future.  He's mistaken.  The essence of the economic approach to intertemporal choice is not focusing on the distant future, but relying on a consistent social discount rate.  Economists tend to favor relatively low discount rates or 2-3%.  But that still implies that we should largely ignore consequences a century or more in the future.  With a 2.5% discount rate, $1 in 2125 is only worth $.08 today.

Garett could reply that we should use a much lower social discount rate - say 1%.  But this has all sorts of bizarre implications.  It implies, for example, that governments are investing too little in almost everything.  Government should dramatically curtail our current consumption to enrich our great-grandchildren.  At minimum, governments should heavily raise taxes, and use the money to invest in sovereign wealth funds.  Earning more than 1% a year is easy.  As far as I know, Garett has never advocated such policies.

Rhetorically, Garett did a good job of selling the importance of the future by reminding audience members to think of their "children and grandchildren."  But he didn't mention that people who care about their descendants needn't rely on government policy.  Anyone who wants to help their children and grandchildren can simply spend less money, invest the savings, then provide a bigger inheritance.  If you aren't already doing this, you don't actually care very much how your descendants will be doing a century hence.  Nor should you - there's every reason to think they'll be a lot richer than you are.

4. Why is there such a chasm between Garett's tone and his substance?  I'm frankly baffled.  In person, Garett is one of the nicest people I know, so I'd expect him to at least stand up for the billions of immigrants that - in his own view - the First World brutally excludes for no good reason.   But he chooses to leave them hanging.

What's my least-bad guess about Garett's thinking?   Well, it's no secret that he's a meta-ethical moral relativist.  Speculation: As a result of this position, Garett is (a) uncomfortable making moral judgments,  (b) disinclined to make his own moral judgments internally consistent, and (c) reluctant to condemn positions that intuitively seem deeply evil.  Logically speaking, of course, a meta-ethical moral relativist could be an enthusiastic moralist.  But psychologically speaking, moralizing weighs on the conscience of a relativist.

P.S. Garett's Hive Mind is now in stores.  It's a wonderful book in every way, Garett at his very best.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
ECharles writes:

Enjoyed the debate thanks. One piece of communication advice. Try to avoid starting sentences with "sooooo....". It gets annoying quick.

E. Harding writes:

"But his talk suggested - and grilling confirmed - that he has no objection to open borders with countries with high SAT scores - including China and India!"

-India may have a high SAT score, but it has very low measured PISA scores. Lower than even Indonesia. Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Mauritus are not at all first-world. Open borders with India would be a disaster to the U.S. Open borders with Japan, the Republic of China, and Korea, I wouldn't much object to, as long as there's no pathway to citizenship until a 25-year-long direct stay. Open borders with China is a wildcard, and might be dangerous.

E. Harding writes:

Caplan, have you ever written much on the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act? It may have been the most important piece of immigration legislation in U.S. history.

Gene writes:

It's always taken for granted that foreigners couldn't possibly vote as well as natives would, without a whole lot of evidence to support it. Right E. Harding? (25 years treated as a lesser person, really?) I feel the urge to remind you that Donald Trump is leading the polls for the party that supposedly favors limited government. Maybe a little more foreign born voters is exactly what this country needs.

Ross Levatter writes:

Enjoyed the debate. One question I thought you might ask Garett but didn't hear was his claim about 30% GDP drop over a century due to immigration of those from lower SAT countries. But the baseline, as you tried to pull out of him, wasn't clear. SPECIFICALLY, if YOUR point that world GDP would DOUBLE holds up, than a 30% drop from a 100% increase is not bad at all. Or am I misunderstanding his argument? [And of course your 100% increase is ON TOP OF the natural expected increase that would typically occur over a century from capital investment and ensuring increases in productivity, right? That's why we expect our descendants to be richer even without open borders.]

Jameson writes:
"In person, Garett is one of the nicest people I know..."

This is one of the most overrated personality traits. It's very easy for someone raised with middle or upper class habits to be "nice" in person. It's much less common to see people take universal moral principles to their logical conclusions.

If we use hyperbolic discounting, the appropriate discount rate for long-term projects will be very low.

E. Harding writes:

"It's always taken for granted that foreigners couldn't possibly vote as well as natives would"

-I don't take it for granted. I look at how non-White foreigners actually vote, both here and in their home countries. Hint: on average, it's almost always for one party. For almost every non-White immigrant ethnic group.

"25 years treated as a lesser person, really?"

-A vote is a use of force. You're saying that every person in the world should come here in order to forcibly shape the environment of those who have actually lived in this country throughout their lives without restriction, without needing to having any connections to this country. That's a lifetime of being treated as a greater person than a voter who has lived in the U.S. for her whole life. It's even worse than arguing that children should vote, as children typically actually have some connection to this country. Think about what you're saying. You're arguing for imperialism by the rest of the world.

E. Harding writes:

The "almost always for one party" rule applies to the U.S., not to "their home countries". Curiously enough, though, the Japanese and Singaporean Chinese also, on average, almost always vote for one party in their home countries.

Jeff writes:
Anyone who wants to help their children and grandchildren can simply spend less money, invest the savings, then provide a bigger inheritance. If you aren't already doing this, you don't actually care very much how your descendants will be doing a century hence. Nor should you - there's every reason to think they'll be a lot richer than you are.

Wouldn't GJ's retort to this be that your grandchildren probably aren't going to be a lot richer than you are if there is a lot of low-SAT immigration into your polity? Thus, if you care about your grandchildren's standard of living, it is actually far more important to support the selective immigration policies he advocates than it is to set aside money for them.

Peter Schaeffer writes:

Jones is the guy opposing Open Borders? Really? Jones (apparently) claims that unskilled immigrants impose only minor costs on society (and the sun orbits the earth). How about a real opponent of Open Borders. Ron Unz and Kathleen Newland wiped Caplan off the floor back in 2013. Apparently Open Borders can only be “debated” if both sides favor Open Borders. Useful quote from “Open Borders Debate: Let the Recriminations Begin!” (

“After the debate, pro-Open Borders dropped from 46% to 42%, undecideds dropped from 33% to 9%, and Against soared from 21% to 49%.”

A few more good choices for the anti-Open Borders position would be Mark Krikorian, Steven A. Camarota, or Stephen Steinlight. All three are associated with CIS. Fredo Arias-King would be another interesting choice as would Steve Sailer. Roy Beck is highly recommended as well.

Gene writes:

E Harding - you're saying non white foreigners that vote (a small portion of them) tend to favor democrats? That may be, but have you heard Republican rhetoric about them? It's as bad as saying Latino's won't support Trump because of his ideas for economic policy. You don't see another potential reason?

Gene writes:

Peter Schaeffer

In one of these debates (let anyone take a job anywhere) the poll before the debate was a joke. Either the audience didn't understand the motion, or it was outright an attempt at sabotage. Brian's own debate partner didn't know he was arguing for open borders.

But the more common reason it's hard to win an Open borders debate is because it's the most extreme version of the position. it's a 10, on a 1-10 scale of openness to immigration. All opponents have to do is argue for 9 or less. It's as difficult as arguing for closed borders, a 0, and all we have to convince you of is that some immigration is acceptable.
A more interesting debate would be more immigration or less from the status quo.

Peter Schaeffer writes:

PARIS (AP) — At least 35 people are killed in shootings and explosions around Paris, many of them in a popular concert hall where patrons are taken hostage, police and medical officials say. Yahoo News is following the latest in the live blog below.

The joys of Open Borders

E. Harding writes:

To my knowledge, the only major group of non-whites in America that tend to favor the Republicans are the Vietnamese, and even those by a small margin. And I think immigration policy has only a small amount to do with it. If you look closely, you'll see a lot of SJW-leaning Indians and Chinese, and many fewer mainstream-conservative leaning ones. It's not just about immigration. Curiously, I don't see many SJW-leaning Mestizos, at least, online. Wonder why that is.

And do you renounce your support for the imperial conquest of the country you live in by the rest of the world?

Peter Schaeffer writes:

The death toll is now at 153. The Open Borders diehards will never give in. Perhaps the people of France will show more sense.

Immigration isn’t fundamentally about economics, its about people. People who bring their flaws, failings, burdens, and weaknesses with them. The Swiss author Max Frisch once wrote

“We imported workers and got people instead”

France got people too. People who now drench the streets in blood.

In response to an attack that cannot happen effectively in an area where the right to keep and bear arms is recognized ... why should we do anything?

Gene writes:

Peter Schaeffer - thats about as good of an argument as "sandy hook death toll is 27 - therefore we need gun control." and just as opportunistic.

Christopher Brown writes:


Randall Parker writes:

You can't leave money to dumb kids and expect them to keep it for long. If they are smart kids they can earn their own money.

If Garrett Jones sees the benefit of immigration from India or China as coming from smarter immigrants then the smarter thing to do would be to let in only smarter immigrants.

Still waiting for the GMU econ faculty to fully grasp the ramifications of human evolution.

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