Thursday, March 25, 2010

health care and immigration

Health care reform has passed. I'm mostly ambivalent about this. I've heard of a lot of good cost-saving measures that are going to be tried, and the excise tax is good. I'm ambivalent about making universal health care the federal government's prerogative. But I'm skeptical that a giant new entitlement is going to go hand in hand with cutting health care inflation. And I also just have no idea of all of the nasty little surprises that are doubtless in the bill because, despite appearances, I'm actually a graduate student in physical chemistry and not a professional policy blogger. When congressional proponents of the bill say we'll have pass the bill to see what's in it, my confidence is not enhanced. And while everyone likes to say this isn't the last word on health care and we can fix the sundry fuck-ups later, some nasty surprises are really sticky. Of course my favorite example is the employer health insurance tax subsidy itself, which had innocuous beginnings in WWII wage and price controls and didn't start causing problems until decades later, by which time it had become politically untouchable.

I'm not inherently interested in health care policy, so when it all got very complicated my eyes started to glaze over, even though I think the health care status quo is truly lamentable. I wonder how my interest in and attitude toward all the compromises and horse-trading will differ for an issue I am deeply interested in. Murmurs around the campfire suggest that Obama wants to tackle immigration reform next. The current immigration policy is also lamentable, with 12 million or so immigrants under the radar and therefore easily taken advantage of and unable to seek legal recourse; it's my impression that immigration enforcement has become more brutal since 9/11, though it's been a couple years since I read Edward Alden's great book, Closing of the American Border. 387,790 illegal immigrants were deported by the Obama administration in fiscal year 2009, a 5% increase from Bush's last year in office. And 5,600 migrants have died crossing the border over the last fifteen years. And I just generally think it's crass that all visa applicants are treated as if they're potential terrorists instead of welcome visitors, whether they're well-regarded academics, businesspeople, or anyone else.

But the last time immigration reform was attempted, Bush's mostly laudable effort in 2007, the result was easily worse than the status quo. A 700 mile fence was commissioned and a few thousand more border guards were hired. Will the new immigration reform include stretching the fence across the whole border? Or doubling the fence? I'm sure some asshole out there has already suggested electrifying the fence. One idea for the new attempt at immigration reform includes mandatory biometric IDs for all individuals working in America. Maybe it's just my libertarian paranoia that makes me uncomfortable with getting saddled with yet more documentation to keep for perusal of the authorities. There's a general allergy to the dreaded amnesty, and any reform that has a hope of passing will include fines for current illegal immigrants and measures to make current illegal immigrants go "to the back of the line". I'm not even sure what "back of the line" means. Seeing how we always have more people wanting to immigrate than our visa caps allow, will this mean effective deportation? A fine is reasonable depending on the size of the fine. A fine too large will keep illegal immigrants in the shadows. There are many ways immigration reform could make things worse than the status quo. I hope for the best.


  1. I'm hoping for some reasonable immigration reform myself, but what will come out of the political system is probably not going to be reasonable.

    P.S. I think I saw you at BART around 6pm on Tuesday but I was on the phone

  2. Yes. I craned my head at you so you would notice, but to no avail.

  3. Interesting how you seem to view the politics of immigration almost exclusively through the lens of human rights.

    Here's a question for you. One of your favorite pundits, Matt Yglesias, is in favor of significantly increasing the rate of immigration to the U.S. in spite of the current 20% jobless rate. Do you agree?

  4. Immigrant labor is complementary to higher skilled American labor. We all benefit. Moreover, there is no right to a job, and it's cruel and callous to suggest that people arbitrarily born in other countries should not be allowed to relocate and search out a better life for themselves and their families.

  5. RofT, thanks for reading my blog. I think I more or less know most of the other commenters, so it's nice to see a stranger ambling by.

    I've never gotten much mileage out of excluding people on the basis of geography in my ethical considerations. Where you're born is 100% chance, and just as morally arbitrary as skin color, as well as I can reckon. So yes, I think of immigration as primarily about allowing people the liberty to move freely and find opportunities.

    Significantly increasing (or removing entirely) the legal limit on the rate of immigration is a great idea. The rate of immigration itself is going to roughly follow supply and demand. I could be wrong, but I thought it was the case that immigration naturally falls anyway during recession. More importantly though, I think one should be wary of the lump of labor fallacy. There isn't a fixed number of jobs in the US. Immigrants bring their own demand, their own entrepreneurial drive, their own ideas. In short, immigrants bring along with them all the ingredients that go into creating new jobs.

  6. Paul,

    Thank you for the welcome, so long as I comment on your blog I'll try to be both civil and critical.

    Curious, what is the source of your humanism? As a species are we not stupid, destructive, and easily manipulated?! Or have you been living in a different world than I have.

  7. From 1999 to 2009 our population has grown by 30 million people and yet the size of our labor force (i.e. number of workers) has remained the same.

  8. Compared to what? Other species? Rocks, nebulae, black holes? We're the most interesting thing in the universe because we are, to my knowledge, the only things who can record and reflect. We are conscious and intentional. If/when we encounter alien intelligence or create strong artificial intelligence, I will extend my humanism to include them.

    Do you really take such a dim view? Look at what we've accomplished. We have left the planet, gone a long way to understanding the universe and its physical mysteries, we've made comfortable lives possible for billions of our fellows. Violence and poverty have drastically decreased over the centuries, and we have grown more interconnected. We have achieved all this despite our dispositions to violent tribalism and other cognitive biases.

  9. We've had a bad economic decade and our current employment levels haven't recovered from the recession. 'Jobless recovery' and all.

  10. Paul @1:10,

    I take exception to your use of the word "we".

    All those great things that you catalog were not accomplished by the human race but by the creme de la creme of Western society. Notable exceptions aside, I maintain that the human family writ large is fairly unimpressive (when not downright repellent).

    With respect to aesthetics, humans continue to have nothing on mother nature. I would easily exchange the debased masses of Soweto, Mumbai, Rio, and Lagos for the natural beauty of our planet any day of the week.

    Paul @1:16,

    The consensus among economists is that there is no recovery in sight and that the jobs that were lost aren't coming back anytime soon, with current unemployment levels expected to stay relatively constant for the foreseeable future. In fact, the last ten years have proven to be such a disaster that some are beginning to call it a lost decade for the American economy. Nevertheless, it was a decade that saw unprecedented levels of immigration.