Tag Archives: immigration

Some issues aren’t national

…and imagine a country that didn’t know this. Imagine if Alaskans and Hawaiians could vote on whether Maryland should allow gambling to raise money for its school system. Imagine if Idaho and Wisconsin could vote on marijuana laws in Colorado. Imagine if New York and California could vote on the governance of public utilities in Wyoming. A New Yorker knows nothing about Wyoming; she can’t form an educated opinion on its public utilies; and what happens in Wyoming won’t affect her at all—so she shouldn’t be able to vote on it, she has no grounds to say anything about it, and it would be absurd to suggest otherwise. Everyone knows this.

But if someone in Rutland, which is whiter than Japan is Japanese, wants to vote on immigration…

An overabundance of labor

Unless other forces intervene, an overabundance of labour will tend to drive down its price, which naturally means that workers and their families have less to live on. One of the most important forces affecting the labour supply in the US has been immigration, and it turns out that immigration, as measured by the proportion of the population who were born abroad, has changed in a cyclical manner just like inequality. In fact, the periods of high immigration coincided with the periods of stagnating wages. The Great Compression, meanwhile, unfolded under a low-immigration regime. This tallies with work by the Harvard economist George Borjas, who argues that immigration plays an important role in depressing wages, especially for those unskilled workers who compete most directly with new arrivals.

Immigration is only one part of a complex story. Another reason why the labour supply in the US went up in the 19th century is, not to put too fine a point on it, sex. The native-born population was growing at what were, at the time, unprecedented rates: a 2.9 per cent growth per year in the 1800s, only gradually declining after that. By 1850 there was no available farmland in Eastern Seaboard states. Many from that ‘population surplus’ moved west, but others ended up in eastern cities where, of course, they competed for jobs with new immigrants.

This connection between the oversupply of labour and plummeting living standards for the poor is one of the more robust generalisations in history. Consider the case of medieval England. The population of England doubled between 1150 and 1300. There was little possibility of overseas emigration, so the ‘surplus’ peasants flocked to the cities, causing the population of London to balloon from 20,000 to 80,000. Too many hungry mouths and too many idle hands resulted in a fourfold increase in food prices and a halving of real wages.


But don’t the economists disagree?