Now let us praise labour-market integration
Jul 8th 2011, 13:21 by W.W. | IOWA CITY
HOW do you keep Mexicans on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande? Narrow the gap between American and Mexican living standards. An important article in the New York Times reports that illegal Mexican migration to America has “sputtered to a trickle”. According to Douglass Massey, a professor of sociology who co-directs Princeton’s Mexican Migration Project, “a trickle” may overstate it:
“No one wants to hear it, but the flow has already stopped,” Mr. Massey said, referring to illegal traffic. “For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.”
Why? Lots of reasons. Ramped-up border policing and harsher treatment of undocumented Mexicans living in the US has probably had some effect. But, much more importantly, Mexico has become a better place to live. Here’s the Times:
Over the past 15 years, this country once defined by poverty and beaches has progressed politically and economically in ways rarely acknowledged by Americans debating immigration. Even far from the coasts or the manufacturing sector at the border, democracy is better established, incomes have generally risen and poverty has declined.
Circumstances in Jalisco, a state in west-central Mexico, are illustrative:
The recession cut into immigrant earnings in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, even as wages have risen in Mexico, according to World Bank figures. Jalisco’s quality of life has improved in other ways, too. About a decade ago, the cluster of the Orozco ranches on Agua Negra’s outskirts received electricity and running water. New census data shows a broad expansion of such services: water and trash collection, once unheard of outside cities, are now available to more than 90 percent of Jalisco’s homes. Dirt floors can now be found in only 3 percent of the state’s houses, down from 12 percent in 1990.
Still, education represents the most meaningful change. The census shows that throughout Jalisco, the number of senior high schools or preparatory schools for students aged 15 to 18 increased to 724 in 2009, from 360 in 2000, far outpacing population growth.
I was recently admiring Walker Evans’s photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, his masterpiece with the writer James Agee. The pictures of dirty-faced families in tattered clothes and tumbledown shacks reminded me that within my grandparents’ lifetime America was to a large extent a “second-world” country (if that), by today’s standards. In the broad sweep of history, American standards of living have come a long way in an amazingly short period of time.
America may have, per Tyler Cowen’s “great stagnation” thesis, picked most of its “low-hanging fruit”, but in Mexico low-hanging fruit has for decades rusted on the vine. As Mexico continues to improve its physical and institutional infrastructure, educate its populace, and put productivity-enhancing technology to better and more widespread use, its standard of living will swiftly approach America’s. “Catch-up” growth is swift. When a typical Mexican can expect to live at a level of comfort comparable to a typical 1960s American, the “problem” of Mexican immigration will be no more. An overwhelming majority of Mexicans want to stay in Mexico and, as we are seeing, they do stay when Mexico offers even a relatively middling level of opportunity and material welfare.
That Mexican development is the main solution to America’s complaints about Mexican immigration suggests that American immigration reform should focus on speeding Mexican development. That means seeking a level of economic integration with Mexico that goes well beyond NAFTA. I would prefer an EU-like common North American labour market, as well as expanded Mexican access to American colleges and universities. But I would happily settle for a large guest-worker programme that would make it much easier for Mexicans to legally live and work in America, as well as taking the risk out of cycling back home.
Walker Evans’ Alabama now looks pretty much like the rest of America in no small part because of the guarantees of free interstate trade and migration built into the constitution. America’s big northern cities no longer struggle with the problem of assimilating a massive influx of impoverished, poorly-educated, low-skill workers from the south. The once large regional gap in opportunity and income has largely disappeared. Indeed, the trend in American in-migration has shifted toward the south and the southwest. To be sure, immigration reform focused on accelerating Mexican development by facilitating labour-market integration might have some unintended consequences. For example, 30 years from now, Mexicans may be hotly debating what to do with the tens of millions of Americans thronging their sunny shores.