A small complaint about Tuesday’s speech: President Trump seems to think the most appealing way to frame his proposed immigration reform — shifting immigration from low-skilled to higher-skilled — is as “adopting a merit-based system.”
Why use that word? If I were going to crudely describe the roots of the Trump movement, it would be as a rebellion against the idea that people without degrees or high SAT scores or complicated training are the rational and inevitable losers in the global economy. Trade sends their jobs overseas, unskilled immigrants take their jobs at home, automation may permanently remove their jobs from the face of the Earth. That’s why you got Trump!
Calling this de-selection of the unskilled “meritocracy” only adds an invidious layer of judgment, as if the winners are superior to the losers — they have the smarts, or some other virtue (but usually smarts) and can justifiably look down their noses at unemployed ex-steelworkers in small Pennsylvania towns. That’s really why you got Trump. 2016 was a revolt for social equality.
It’s especially discordant for Trump to appeal to “merit,” in other words. Let’s call people with skills people with skills. They may have “merit,” they may not! In the case of immigrants, we don’t even know how they’ll perform in their new U.S. jobs — so even if you equate career success with “merit,” the judgment is premature. Yes, there’s an argument for preferring them over the unskilled . As Trump argues, they’ll pay more taxes and consume less in various benefit programs. More important, skilled immigrants will compete with — i.e. lower the wages — of well-trained Americans rather than unemployed ex-steelworkers. But they aren’t better, any more than liberal Hollywood movie stars are better than Chris Arnade’s photo subjects.