Zeitgeist

Rhetorical Momentum

March 02, 2016

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Granted, Goolsbee immediately turned out to be completely wrong”€”the mortgage market hadn”€™t “€œbecome more perfect”€”€”about the most important economic policy of the decade. But his career turned out to be right about the personal politics, with Goolsbee serving as senior economic adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign. In 2010, the President rewarded him by making him Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

The mortgage meltdown that Goolsbee failed to anticipate was intimately related to the similar confidence among orthodox economists that if massive immigration hadn”€™t been catastrophic in the past, the future should be nothing to worry about either. Sure, home prices in the Sand States of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida seemed a little high in 2007, but there”€™d no doubt be lots of illegal immigrants rushing in to buy them with the new zero-down subprime adjustable mortgages. So what could go wrong?

But it’s worth reiterating that people can change their minds about policy for the future without necessarily admitting they were wrong about the past.

For example, consider the argument that mass immigration is a good idea because it brings us more ethnic restaurants, an idea that was long promoted, ironically enough, by the blog Marginal Revolution.

I, personally, found that thought pretty persuasive around 1981. Immigration really did make American restaurants better in 1981 than they had been in 1971, when only Mexican and Chinese restaurants were common.

And maybe that was still true in 1991 compared with 1981, but the incremental benefits were clearly declining. Americans had gotten pretty good at cuisine by 25 years ago, and thus less and less needed to import culinary skills to get even better. Moreover, every extra immigrant by 1991 was less of a novelty than in 1981.

Today, with 56,000,000 Hispanics, it’s hard to be confident that the 56,000,001st Hispanic will make our dining-out experience so much better that he”€™ll be worth all the other hassles that come with him. And the Census Bureau is predicting there will be an incremental 50,000,000 Hispanics within 34 years, which sounds awfully marginal indeed.

But thinking marginally about immigration just isn”€™t done. It seems racist to use logic when it comes to the Dreamers.

Of course, that’s exactly why our immigration policy should be extremely cautious. There’s a nasty political ratchet effect to immigration.

First, it’s much harder to kick people out than to not let them in in the first place, so it’s important to be judicious.

Second, the media is quick to tell immigrants that anybody who isn”€™t ecstatic about adding an indefinitely enormous number of their people to the population is a vicious bigot who can only prove his goodness by inviting in even more of them. As each new group floods in, they are encouraged by the establishment to view anyone advocating moderation as promulgating a blood libel against their beloved ancestors.

Sensible countries like our Northeast Asian economic rivals have had the good judgment to not even start down this path. But one European country has demonstrated that it’s politically possible to pull back. An article in the current New York Review of Books, “€œLiberal, Harsh Denmark,”€ points out for the benefit of Americans that ultraprogressive Denmark has implemented “€œfar right”€ ideas on immigration for the past decade and a half with a sizable degree of success. Hugh Eakin concludes:

As the advanced democracies of Europe reconsider their physical and psychological borders with the Muslim world, the restrictive Danish approach to immigration and the welfare state offers a stark alternative. Brought into the political process far earlier than its counterparts elsewhere, the Danish People’s Party is a good deal more moderate than, say, the National Front in France; but it also has succeeded in shaping, to an extraordinary degree, the Danish immigration debate…. In limiting the kind of social turmoil now playing out in Germany, Sweden, and France, the Danes may yet come through the current crisis a more stable, united, and open society than any of their neighbors. But they may also have shown that this openness extends no farther than the Danish frontier.

In contrast to Denmark’s restrictionist sophistication, the current American conventional wisdom of Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio is both self-destructive and just plain stupid.

That might have something to do with explaining the mystery of the day: Why are Americans voting for change?

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