We are so not full

I’m a little behind on this post, but it needs to be written.  Last week, of all the dumb things Donald Trump has said, he claimed that America is “full.”  Has he been to Nebraska?  Or anywhere in the plains?  Or heck, even large parts of my home of North Carolina? Not only is this completely delusional, it is completely at odds with the fact that our country’s economic future depends on having more immigrants.  There was a great Upshot on this:

To the degree the president is addressing something broader than the recent strains on the asylum-seeking process, the line suggests the nation can’t accommodate higher immigration levels because it is already bursting at the seams. But it runs counter to the consensus among demographers and economists.

They see ample evidence of a country that is not remotely “full” — but one where an aging population and declining birthrates among the native-born population are creating underpopulated cities and towns, vacant housing and troubled public finances.

Local officials in many of those places view a shrinking population and work force as an existential problem with few obvious solutions [emphases mine]

This consensus is visible in official government projections. The Congressional Budget Office foresees the American labor force rising by only 0.5 percent a year over the coming decade, about one-third as fast as from 1950 to 2007. That is a crucial reason that economic growth is forecast to remain well below its late 20th-century levels…

And that, in turn, is reflected in the national fiscal outlook. There are now 2.8 workers for every recipient of Social Security benefits, a rate on track to fall to 2.2 by 2035, according to the program’s trustees. Many state pension plans face even greater demography-induced strains.

In smaller cities and rural areas, demographic decline is a fundamental fact of life. A recent study by the Economic Innovation Group found that 80 percent of American counties, with a combined population of 149 million, saw a decline in their number of prime working-age adults from 2007 to 2017…

Many parts of the country that are growing in population and that are more economically dynamic have depended on the arrival of immigrants for that success.

Sun Belt metros like Dallas and Phoenix have been built on the logic of rapid expansion — of quickly built homes, of poached employers, of new highways paved to ever-newer subdivisions. Their economic development strategy is growth. Their chief input is people — the more, the better…

America’s metropolitan areas remain among the least dense in the world, said Sonia Hirt, a professor of landscape architecture and planning at the University of Georgia. Nationwide, the United States has less than one-third of the population density of the European Union, and a quarter of the density of China…

Economists, too, argue that countries, or even cities, can’t really fill up. Rather, communities choose not to make the political choices necessary to accommodate more people. At the local level, that means neighbors may be unwilling to allow taller buildings or to invest in more schools or improved infrastructure. At the national level, it means that politicians may be unwilling to take up immigration reform, or to address workers who fear unemployment. The president’s comments echo such local fights.

“We’re full” has often been a motto for people to keep out poorer renters, minority households or apartment buildings, among both conservatives and liberals. The claim can be a way of disguising exclusion as practicality. It’s not that we’re unwelcoming; it’s just that we’re full.

And plenty more good stuff.  Ezra Klein also hits the same themes:

As you’d expect, low-growth places struggle across a host of economic measures. If you compare employment rates between the fastest-growing and fastest-shrinking counties, “the 12 percentage point gap between these two groups of counties is significantly larger than the 7 percentage point increase in non-employment the United States experienced during the Great Recession.”.

These communities also see weaker housing markets, higher borrowing costs, and more vacant properties. And because these communities were larger in the past, they find themselves struggling to support infrastructure built for a bigger tax base than they now have.

All of this can create a cycle of exit, in which the residents most able to find jobs elsewhere flee, leaving the economy even weaker, which drives out the next tranche of residents with the best opportunities elsewhere, and so on.

America’s political system is structured to advantage sparsely populated areas over densely populated ones. To the extent that more areas are seeing populations stagnate and even decline, and more economic growth is concentrated in the fastest-growing zip codes, turbulence is to be expected. Arguably, it’s already here…

Much of the immigration debate is about values. It’s about the kind of country you want America to be, the kind of people you’re comfortable seeing in it. Those feelings run deep, and they’re rarely changeable through political argument. But sometimes the debate is, or pretends to be, about more tangible questions. No matter what Trump says, America isn’t full. In fact, the problem facing many, many communities is that they’re emptying, with devastating consequences for the residents left behind.

Immigration is the most powerful tool we have to help those communities. The question is whether we want to use it.

Ezra is also good enough to recommend David Frum as the most reasonable case for limiting immigration.  I think Frum raises some important points, but overall I’m far from persuaded.  More importantly in this debate, I think he also presents a good-faith effort for his case.

But large-scale immigration also comes with considerable social and political costs, and those must be accounted for. In November 2018, Hillary Clinton delivered a warning to Europeans that mass immigration was weakening democracy. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration, because that is what lit the flame,” Clinton said, referring to the upsurge of far-right populism destabilizing countries such as France and Hungary. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken, particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message—‘We are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue, it will continue to roil the body politic.”…

Demagogues don’t rise by talking about irrelevant issues. Demagogues rise by talking about issues that matter to people, and that more conventional leaders appear unwilling or unable to address: unemployment in the 1930s, crime in the 1960s, mass immigration now. Voters get to decide what the country’s problems are. Political elites have to devise solutions to those problems. If difficult issues go unaddressed by responsible leaders, they will be exploited by irresponsible ones.

Frum is right, we do need better and more clear political solutions for how we currently address immigration.  But, we undoubtedly also need more immigration.  We are not full.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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