Even Under Free Immigration Natives Have a Competitive Advantage


Immigration reform is a real possibility in the coming year, and it has a lot of people excited, including me (though not too excited, it is a weak bill). I believe that immigration restrictions in first world countries are one of — if not the — greatest violation of human rights in the modern world. On the other hand, it has a lot of people up in arms about the possibility of amnesty…and the trick is that these feelings of animosity toward immigrants span the political spectrum. That fact makes immigration very much a “gut issue”, dominated by availability bias.

Views on immigration (like many things) are all but impervious to factual debate. The type of pointy-nosed statistics that economists bring to the table have appeal ranging somewhere between killing grandma and worshiping satan in the minds of voters (might even be worse). The problem is that the core of the opposition to immigration itself is metaphysical.

If you have read Bowling Alone*, by Robert Putnam, you have experienced this metaphysical feeling in form of written word (though I suspect most people have felt it intimately, and that I am an outlier in this respect). It is the sinking feeling of losing identity. Suddenly waking up in a country, or community that doesn’t “feel like yours anymore”. Matthew Yglesias used an image of a dilapidated and grungy LA from Blade Runner to illustrate an extreme version of this point…but the odd thing is; the physical damage to ones living environment need not have happened. Hell, it may or may not ever happen (probably not due to immigration), but it doesn’t need to. People have already erected that scenario in their minds, and filled the hellscape with all of their greatest horrors.

But the biggest wedge issue in this theme, as it happens, can easily be turned into a net positive. That is, language (which I will use a a proxy for culture). Here is Paul Waldmann:

As a group, Americans have contradictory feelings about immigration….Most Americans acknowledge that we’re all descended from immigrants of one kind or another….They also appreciate that immigration gives our country vitality, and that immigrants are exactly the kind of hard-working, ambitious strivers that drive our economy and culture forward. But at the same time, many feel threatened when they see the character of their towns and cities change, and nothing embodies that change more than language. When people walk into a store and hear a language being spoken that they don’t understand, they suddenly feel like foreigners in their own neighborhood, alienated and insecure. I’m not putting a value judgment on that feeling, but it’s undeniable.

Now, this extends far beyond language, as subtle discrimination is literally everywhere. However, aside from outward appearance (and really more-so), language defines a person as part of your in-group. This is a fractal phenomenon that happens all the way down to subcultures and academic sciences.

I have long told people that the greatest advantage that they possess being a native of the United States (or any country, this is a real “home team advantage”) is that through no particular effort on their part, they possess an innate understanding of the nuances of language and mannerisms that provide a strong signal that they are part of “the in-group”. This probably improves peoples’ individual employment prospects (especially in high-skilled labor) more than they suspect. The reality of the situation is that first-generation immigrants do not assimilate well, and that people find it confusing and frustrating to interact with them. This raises the marginal cost of doing business with them. In the aughts, there were a lot of stories about “re-shoring” call centers, which were a culprit of this type of phenomenon. I have explained this to a few people and managed to marginally soften their views on immigration, but it was by no means a miracle transformation…but any little bit helps!

Of course, there is no such thing as sustained competitive advantage, and this is no different. Descendants of first-generation immigrants assimilate very quickly (which becomes a source of generational contention within many immigrant families)…and this becomes a wonderful driver of real improvement in peoples’ lives that truly deserve the chance. But really, it is not this group that people have a major problem with.

This “home team advantage” gets larger as more and more people specialize in interacting with other people (as opposed to interacting with machines), but as the United States becomes more accepting of multiculturalism (which we have), the advantage fades. However, it is one way to appeal to the all-important emotional side of the debate right now.

Full disclosure: I have used Bowling Alone as a foil here, but I have used data from Robert Putnam, and Bowling Alone in particular, in some of my work.

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