In a piece called “Robots Undercut the Case for More Immigrants” (seriously), David Frum argues that we shouldn’t let too many immigrants into the country because they will just be replaced by robots and therefore languish in intractable poverty.
The next 10 years are expected to see a revolution in the application of Artificial Intelligence to every day tasks. Cars and trucks may soon drive themselves. Just as ATMs replaced bank clerks, so too new checkout machines will hugely reduce the need for retail clerks. The need for human labor in construction, meatpacking, and food preparation seems certain to contract.
This argument seems crazy on its surface and as you think about it more and more it gets even crazier. I’m not sure where exactly to start with it, but let’s look at dishwashing as an occupation. At many American restaurants, the most likely place to find a recent immigrant is at the dish station. This is because English is not really required at all in order to be a successful dishwasher. Contra Mr. Frum, dishwashing is already a heavily-roboticized occupation: dishwashers take the dishes they receive from servers and bussers, load them up into racks, spray them, and put them on a conveyor belt to go through the dishtron 3000. Notice, the dishtron 3000 has not replaced the immigrant, but the two have a symbiotic relationship. “Unskilled” immigrants share similar symbioses with tomato slicers, trash compactors, and floor buffers.
There was also once something called the Industrial Revolution – the original robot attack against human hand-labor. This had the effect of turning previously complex tasks – like the painstakingly slow creation of one automobile by one highly-skilled engineer working in close verbal concert with several other mustachioed fellows – into a variety of heavily automated tasks that could be spread across hundreds of different individuals and directed centrally by a quasi-immutable program. This of course resulted in order-of-magnitude increases in productivity to the benefit of all, and this helped create the much, much better world we are all living in today.
Contra Frum, during the Industrial Era – when machines replaced the old ways at a pace unprecedented in world history – population growth, and especially the proportion of foreign-born population growth, was at a consistently high level we have not matched since.
Indeed, contra Frum, the economic gains afforded by technology make life better off for all. When machines come in and start grinding our meat, delivering our packages, or driving our cars, this makes those things cheaper, or it gives us more time to devote to making ourselves wealthier. This in turn gives us more money to invest in new businesses, or we can give that money to other businesses in exchange for their services, which makes those businesses wealthier. This means more jobs of all kinds, and it is what led the immigration boom of the late 1800s that brought so many of our ancestors here. Thus, if there is any effect that the impending robot invasion will have upon the human race vis-a-vis demand for immigrant labor in the United States, history tells us it will be an unequivocally outsized increase in that demand.
Nevertheless, Frum opposes Schumer-Rubio on the grounds that it will allow for too many immigrants, and that this will only increase inequality.
Schumer-Rubio dramatically accelerates family reunification immigration, now and in future far and away the largest category of migration. The people most able to make use of family reunification visas are the most recent arrivals—and recent immigrants are much more likely to be poor and unskilled than the native-born or longer-settled immigrants…
…Almost certainly, though, all else will not hold constant. If the next decade brings still heavier downward pressure on wages—and even higher returns to capital investment and to unique skills—then Schumer-Rubio will exert an even more extreme pro-poverty, pro-inequality effect.
Which leaves one wondering: what does the president think he’s accomplishing?
I’m not going to touch the idea that the most-recent arrivals will make disproportionately higher use of reunification visas. This is totally unsubstantiated, and any claims to the contrary would be equally unsubstantiated. Although, I would suspect that the lag immigrants face between entering the country and fully realizing their rights means that most applicants for reunification visas will have been here at least long enough to form social networks and establish relationships with lawyers or other specialized social workers.
Nevertheless, I do believe I can refute the idea that recent immigrants getting their family members visas will result in an epidemic of unemployed, welfare-consuming foreigners.
The above graph shows that unemployment rates for recent immigrants approach levels commensurate with their native-born counterparts within a year of immigration. Granted, these statistics are for Australia (I could not find similar ones for the US.), but I strongly suspect the pattern holds in the United States. Even if immigrants were consuming welfare at breathtakingly voracious rates – which they are not, because poor immigrants use public benefits at a lower rate than poor native-born citizens – a similar proportion of immigrants as native-born have jobs within a year of their arrival. Our visa system does not work nearly that expeditiously. These well-known, well-documented inefficiencies in our visa procurement process, combined with the fact that securing a visa for a relative usually takes a back seat to day-to-day, stability-related concerns, means it is highly likely that by the time a long lost family member finally does arrive in the United States, relatives will be able to support her. We seem to be forgetting as well that people from countries with less-robust welfare states tend to be more self-reliant and better able to spread risk over a community than our entitled selves.
Furthermore, in the past four years, the federal deficit has dropped from ten percent of GDP to four percent of GDP. This is the most dramatic drop in our nation’s history. Part of the reason for it is the sequester, but the drop is more the result of far fewer people stuck in the social safety net in 2014 than in 2009. This has all been despite consistently high immigration over that same period.
As for what the President thinks he is accomplishing with reunification visas, perhaps he believes he is reunifying families, and that this is the right thing to do. Frum’s argument here makes humanitarian concerns – in this case the reunification of families estranged by the cold cruelties of US immigration law – secondary to practical concerns: dealing with the poor and unskilled and all the nasty things that come with them. Surely we can deal with the remarkably overstated problem of immigrants seeking the support of the social safety net on an individual-to-individual basis once they are here?
I find it clarifying to think of the immigration policy of the past three decades as a massive subsidy to employers of cheap labor. They save a few dollars an hour. The rest of the country pays the associated costs of raising their workers up to an acceptable American standard of living.
It is true that immigrants are often poor, and that wealthy business leaders will often exploit them. But who does David Frum expect to disproportionately gain from the corporate-dominated US patent law system when his robots are ubiquitous? By Frum’s own logic, instead of a minimum wage being transferred to the working class, there will be nothing. If inequality is to be avoided at all costs, perhaps we should put a moratorium on any technological development.
Immigration does more than recruit the country’s future workforce. It shapes the country’s society and determines the country’s future electorate. A pro-poverty and pro-inequality immigration policy means that the America of the 2040s will have more poverty and inequality to deal with, one or another. Democrats concerned by poverty and inequality—and Republicans who resist the social welfare measures necessitated by poverty and inequality—need to think harder about this question. When they call for immigration reform, what problem are they solving? What kind of society are they building?
Caring for the world’s tired and poor and its huddled masses yearning to breathe free is the price we pay for being a destination for people who want better lives for themselves and for their families. Yet this desire for a better life fuels the American Dream, and it is the dynamo of our American culture. It is not a reason to exclude people from our country.