Gary Becker: Charge Migrants to the US $50,000

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 9/11/2009 09:54:00 AM
Recently, I visited my auntie who received her executive MBA from the University of Chicago a few years ago. While thumbing through some reading materials on her coffee table, I came across a recent issue of their b-school newsletter featuring one Gary Becker. Like many, I have taken issue with his efforts and those of many of his colleagues to extend economic thinking to all aspects of life. "Price theory" they call it.

Anyway, Becker's article in the newsletter proposes that migrants be charged $50,000 each to become US citizens. You can listen to his presentation, too. In theory, not only will this help raise revenue ($50 billion for the million immigrants the US accepts each year he says), but it will also make intake more "self-selecting" to those most talented or determined. Plus, doing so reduces the politically contentious charge that migrants sponge off Uncle Sam by providing a sizable revenue stream. His reasoning is similar to that used by those who want the US to adopt skill-based preferences alike other Anglophone countries (the UK, Australia, and Canada) as opposed to current family reunification ones. Think George Borjas.

Coincidentally, the Economist is currently running a debate on whether immigration should be limited to wealthier countries. (Actually, the sides presented there are not really for or against. The person presenting an argument for restrictions, Migration Policy Institute honcho Demetrios G. Papademetriou, is merely saying that migration which increases migrants' vulnerability should be discouraged.) What Becker is proposing is certainly novel and attention-getting in typical Chicago fashion, but I think most of what he aims for can be accomplished by moving to a skills-based system--something I am not entirely on board with, either.

What I would like to point out here are two things that you've probably come to expect. First, I take issue with unexamined statements like most people in Hong Kong probably wanting to become US citizens as I read in the newsletter article. Once more, the unspoken assumption is that America is the Greatest Place on Earth and all that rah-rah. Since these Chicago School folks are so keen on applying economic logic, why is it that Becker and Co. never mention the mounting price tag of American citizenship of $56.4 trillion and counting? If attracting the world's best and brightest is the goal, wouldn't they be quicker to figure out that they would be taking on the largest debt burden shouldered by any nation in history? Condemning your offspring and theirs to debt peonage doesn't seem like an attractive proposition.

Second, and more contemporaneously, whoever said that a country that's lost more than 6.7 million jobs in one and a half years is an attractive place to find employment? What will they do, write IPE blogs? (Har-har; it doesn't pay much of anything.) Plus, the last time I checked, temporary H-1B work visas were drawing flies. Non-farm payrolls Stateside haven't budged in a decade. Some land of opportunity.

Bottom line: It would not hurt if these Titans of Economic Thought applied "price theory" more fairly to encompass the gargantuan future costs of being American as well as the dearth of jobs at present in the decision to migrate. Spending $50,000 for both these dubious privileges is, at the end of the day, a mind-bogglingly raw deal. As Roger Waters once sang, every man has his price, bub, and yours was pretty low.

UPDATE: The more diligent Jonathan Dingel over at Trade Diversion has found an online version of the original article.