March 20, 2006

Why don't professional economists write sense about immigration?

A reader replies:

You keep asking why economists don't write more about immigration. As a PhD student let me give you a simple answer, that is really already contained in your own text:

Because it *is* trivial Econ 101 supply and demand. Sure, you can always try to quantify the effect, as your pal Borjas does.

But if you want to be a successful economist, you can't write about a topic where the theory is already developed and known. Which top journal is going to publish something about a topic that is basic supply and demand?

You are right in your characterization that economists do not do biodiversity because they don't understand genetics, no question about that. Most students here are shocked to learn that there is such a thing as say genetic differences between whites and Asians. Some are not hostile to accepting the idea, but if you have no intuition whatsoever about a topic, how are you going to do work with it? And of course I suspect journals are going to be very reluctant to accept work in this field, so obviously it will hurt your job market prospects in reputable schools.

But immigration is another story altogether. People don't do it simply because it is not a "hot" field theoretically, the causes and mechanism seems to already be well known. I kind of agree, any decent economist can tell you the mechanism behind immigration. I cannot see the room for great theoretical advances.

What knowledge that is needed to be disseminated in the public sphere and what gets rewarded in professional economics are two completely different things, the latter must not only be important, but also innovative. However the political correctness that makes research into biodiversity impossible is *not* the cause of the lack of research into immigration.

Since I am an immigrant (from [a Third World country] to [a European country], I already have some interest in the topic, and have considered writing about it. What is stopping me is not political correctness (which is what is stopping me from doing say race or IQ), but the lack on sophistication and consequently job market reward.

OK, so 90% of non-European immigrants in Sweden voted for the left in the last election (compared to 52% of the public). Easy to explain with simple theory.

OK, so less than half the immigrants from outside Europe and America have jobs in the welfare state. Trivial economics.

Nor do I want to be a Borjas type, just estimating the numbers for basic and already known theory, and in the process typecasting myself as another minority that only does work about minorities.

The only topic where I can see some room for advanced work is the political economy of immigration, why Europe and the US keep having immigration, even though it damages their respective societies, and is not supported by the majority of voters nor any strong special interest. I suspect that the cause is information asymmetries in politicians' intentions:

Voters don't want immigration, but they also have a strong aversion towards bigoted politicians (they want "nice" guys). Anyone can cheaply claim they are not racists and love all people, so just saying it is not enough. Supporting continued immigration is costly, but the cost is obviously higher for the bigoted bad guy than the nice liberal. So by not opposing immigration politicians credibly signal they are "compassionate," and in the end the only anti-immigration politicians that are left are the bigots. If voters are somewhat averse to immigration but very averse to racism they will vote for the good guys who support, even though they and the nice guys would both prefer to stop immigration.

The end result is a bad equilibrium where harmful policies are continued. One implication is also that referendums on immigration will be more anti-immigration than elections.

I might well write the paper above, but if I want to spend my time wisely immigration is not what I would concentrate on, when there is so much interesting work to be done in entrepreneurship, labour supply, political economics etc.

I hope this gives you some idea about the intellectual atmosphere that leads to so little work about immigration, even though the topic is important for the public. (I guess eventually some good rhetorician will quit academic economics and just write a simple version of what everyone knows for the public.)

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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