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Friday, March 31, 2006

Paul Krugman: The Road to Dubai

Paul Krugman continues with the subject of his last column, immigration, and then explains an additional concern with proposals to increase immigration, the effect of creating a large class of workers without political representation, something contrary to our basic democratic principles:

The Road to Dubai, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: For now, at least, the immigration issue is mainly hurting the Republican Party, which is divided between those who want to expel immigrants and those who want to exploit them. The only thing the two factions seem to have in common is mean-spiritedness.

But immigration remains a difficult issue for liberals. Let me say a bit more about the ... uncomfortable economics of immigration, then turn to what really worries me: the political implications of a large nonvoting work force. About the economics: the crucial divide isn't between legal and illegal immigration; it's between high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants. High-skilled immigrants ... are, by any criterion I can think of, good for America.

But the effects of low-skilled immigration are mixed at best. ... All of these effects, except for the gains for the immigrants themselves, are fairly small. Some of my friends say that's the point I should stress: immigration is a wonderful thing for the immigrants, and claims that immigrants are undermining ... workers and taxpayers are hugely overblown — end of story. But it's important to be intellectually honest, even when it hurts. Moreover, what really worries me  ...[is] the effects of having a disenfranchised labor force.

Imagine ... a future in which America becomes like Kuwait or Dubai, a country where a large fraction of the work force consists of illegal immigrants or foreigners on temporary visas — and neither group has the right to vote. Surely this would be a betrayal of our democratic ideals, of government of the people, by the people. Moreover, a political system in which many workers don't count is likely to ... have a weak social safety net and to spend too little on services like health care and education.

This isn't idle speculation. Countries with high immigration tend ... to have less generous welfare states... U.S. cities with ethnically diverse populations — often the result of immigration — tend to have worse public services...

Of course, America isn't Dubai. But we're moving in that direction. As of 2002, ... 14 percent of U.S. workers, and 20 percent of low-wage workers, were immigrants. Only a third ... were naturalized citizens. So we already have a large disenfranchised work force, and it's growing rapidly. The goal of immigration reform should be to reverse that trend.

So what do I think of the Senate ... proposal ... derived from a plan sponsored by John McCain and Ted Kennedy? I'm all in favor of ... offering those already here a possible route to permanent residency and citizenship. ... we aren't going to deport more than 10 million people ... But I'm puzzled by the plan to create a permanent guest-worker program, one that would admit 400,000 more workers a year (and you know that business interests would immediately start lobbying for an increase...). Isn't institutionalizing a disenfranchised work force a big step away from democracy?

For a hard-line economic conservative like Mr. McCain, the advantages to employers of a cheap work force may be more important than the violation of democratic principles. But why would someone like Mr. Kennedy go along? Is the point to help potential immigrants, or is it to buy support from business interests?

Either way, it's a dangerous route to go down. America's political system is already a lot less democratic in practice than it is on paper, and creating a permanent nonvoting working class would make things worse. The road to Dubai may be paved with good intentions.

Previous (3/27) column: Paul Krugman: North of the Border
Next (4/3) column: Paul Krugman: John and Jerry

    Posted by on Friday, March 31, 2006 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (22)


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