Originally Published in The Washington Post
Matthew Yglesias - September 10, 2020
They have more people. Until we do, too, it will be hard to contain Beijing.
At the same time, President Trump has been pursuing an immigration policy supported by only his own party, seeking to foreclose the flow not just of undocumented migrants but also those who come here legally.
These two policies are at odds with each other. The best way to ensure that the United States maintains the upper hand against China is easy: It can welcome more of the tens of millions around the world who’d like to move to our shores — not as an act of charity but as an exertion of national power. To compete, we need more people.
The United States is competing with an adversary whose population is four times larger. That vast scale means China’s domestic market is already bigger than ours when “purchasing power parity” adjustments are made, and its GDP will probably pull even with ours sometime relatively soon.
True, China remains much poorer than the United States in per-person terms. But while Americans should be thankful for our prosperity, the huge gap in living standards should be a subject of geopolitical concern simply because it’s easier for a country to grow rapidly when it’s relatively poor. It’s not a coincidence that Britain had both the world’s first industrial revolution and also its slowest — everything is harder when you do it for the first time. Latecomers get to do a lot of copying, importing of foreign equipment and expertise, and leapfrogging of obsolete technology, as China (and India and other developing countries) has with mobile payments.
And with four times our population, China doesn’t need to eliminate the per-person gap in GDP — just narrow it. If it achieved the prosperity of Slovenia or the Bahamas, that would be enough to leave us in the dust by any aggregate measure. Already, the People’s Republic dictates the content of Hollywood’s global output, with studios catering to the world’s largest movie market in films like “Mulan,” according to a recent PEN America report. NBA players who loudly support social justice issues at home also criticize their colleagues who denounce China’s human rights record — worried that such remarks endanger marketing opportunities abroad. The optimists of 20 years ago predicted that globalization would spread American values to China, but because the Chinese economy is so large, the opposite has happened.
The good news is that doing so is neither difficult nor costly: According to Gallup, about 750 million people around the world say they’d like to emigrate, and more than 150 million say their ideal destination would be the United States. Only 9 million preferred China. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech this summer: “People from all over the world still want to come to open societies. They come here to study, they come here to work, they come here to build a life for their families. They’re not desperate to settle in China.”
Yet the administration Pompeo serves has nothing but disdain for the people who come here to study, work, and build lives for themselves and their families. After campaigning on vague xenophobic tropes and promises of harsher treatment of illegal immigrants, Trump has pulled every lever available to reduce legalmigration. And he’s vocally backed a bill written by congressional conservatives that would switch from America’s tradition of granting visas based on family ties to a system based on job skills — and then cut the number of visas in half.
If the administration wants to contain China, this makes no sense. Even George Borjas, the White House’s favorite immigration economist, concedes that, in the aggregate, immigrants raise incomes for the native-born. The most credible statistical analyses suggest there are no broad categories of Americans whose wages are hurt by immigration — a finding confirmed once again by studies of the impact of an influx of Puerto Ricans to Orlando after Hurricane Maria.
Migrants increase both the supply of labor and the demand for goods and services. The wage impact of that push and pull tends to balance out, but benefits emerge in the form of greater diversity of products and services. When the U.S. government eliminated the use of legal Mexican guest workers in agriculture in the 1960s, wages didn’t go up; farmers simply cut production of certain foods, including asparagus, strawberries, lettuce, celery and cucumbers, while switching to lower-quality, mechanically harvested tomatoes. Study after study finds that immigrants are disproportionately represented among entrepreneurs, including at high-growth firms. They are personally responsible for a large share of patent filings and increase the productivity of native-born inventors. Targeting immigrants with technical skills rather than family ties is fine — though research confirms that the existing stock of immigrants is actually quite skilled — but the overall finding is that we should seek more immigrants rather than fewer.
Trump is right not just in his skepticism of China but in forcefully putting the question of national greatness squarely on the table in American politics. The United States has been the world’s No. 1 power for as long as anyone can remember, which makes it easy to take preeminence for granted.
But there’s a reason the cramped nativist policies that thrill white nationalists are also antithetical to American competitiveness. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a Trump forerunner in anti-immigrant politics, infamously tweeted in 2017 that “we can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.” But there’s no tension between the goal of making it easier for Americans to have and raise children (paid parental leave, a child allowance and more vacation days would help) and the goal of making it easier for foreigners to add their talents and aspirations to our own.
The United States is distinctive in its civic culture of creedal nationalism, with founding principles that are explicitly open to all and not tied to any particular bloodline or plot of land. Wise American leaders have in the past seen immigration as a source of national strength. The early republic imposed essentially no limits on immigration, and Abraham Lincoln signed the 1864 Act to Encourage Immigration because “I regard our immigrants as one of the principal replenishing streams which are appointed by Providence.” Views like those give us a great advantage in seeking foreigners, welcoming them and incorporating them and their descendants into American life. A time of new challenges from abroad is a time to double down on those strengths rather than abandon them.