Borjas for Council of Economic Advisers

Here’s why Harvard economist George Borjas would be an inspired choice to run the Council of Economic Advisers in Trump’s White House. Put aside questions of formal qualifications, of which he has plenty— Prof. Borjas may be the nation’s most prominent economist when it comes Trump’s big issue, immigration. He’s certainly the most prominent economist sympathetic to Trump’s side. Specifically, Borjas refutes the comforting “narrative” that more immigration is “good for everyone,” arguing that it helps some groups (immigrants, employers) but hurts others — especially low-skilled Americans (and immigrants already here), against whom the newcomers compete. That’s the same group most obviously hurt by global trade. And it’s the heart of Trump’s winning constituency.

What happens if Trump names Borjas? He’ll be highly controversial. Which is great. There’ll be hearings — attention-getting hearings at which Borjas will be attacked as borderline deplorable by the small industry of well-funded economists and think-tankers who argue, counterintuitively, that immigration is an area where the laws of supply and demand don’t apply. (Flooding the market with new workers doesn’t lower wages! Not a #Slatepitch.) These critics may well have some good points to make (though in his latest book, We Wanted Workers, Borjas leaves one of the more prominent critics, Giovanni Peri, for dead like Darth Vader laid out on the lava banks of Mustafar). But if there’s a real argument, so much the better for the cause of making the Dem-leaning press aware that immigration control isn’t a matter of racism, or fear of “the other,” but largely a question of hard, dollars-and-cents economics for those (lower skilled workers) already hurt by modern economic trends (automation as well as trade). Let’s have it out! It’ll be like Kellyanne Conway vs. Mitt Romney, or Kellyanne Conway vs. Jennifer Palmieri! The noisier the better. Borjas will more than hold his own.

In the process, he might also address some other confounding issues (confounding to me, anyway): how, exactly, would mass immigration cure Lawrence Summers’ “secular stagnation”, as advertised, in a way that benefited the average worker? Is there really a skills “bottleneck” holding back production, or is that a fiction devised by employers who want to bring in cheaper foreigners? Will more immigrants help save Social Security? Is there any hope of luring more Americans into the labor force? The last chapter of Borjas’ book suggests he’ll address these, and other, issues with a mixture of professional creativity and humanity. (Example: Borjas estimates every 10 percent increase in the supply of unskilled labor lowers wages 3 to 10 percent. But he still favors a “mixed-skill” policy that lets in some unskilled immigrants for non-economic, humanitarian reasons–though maybe not from the Middle East.) He’s pro-assimilation, while worried about evidence of our eroding ability to assimilate the immigrants we’re getting.

Above all, he’s learned the hard way about the conformist power of PC narratives and conventions (e.g. “today’s immigrants are just like yesterday’s!”) — and the need to upend them when they don’t match reality. On Trump’s best days, that seems to be his calling as well.