Monday, May 17, 2010

Arizona's SB1070 - Fighting Stupid with Stupid

An incredible quantity of physical and virtual ink has been spilled over Arizona's SB1070, the alleged* intent of which is to help control illegal immigration and smuggling from Mexico into that state. I can certainly understand the frustration of Arizona and its citizens with the status quo. I currently live in a city that borders Mexico and, with a snarky nod to Sarah Palin, I can see Mexico from my house. While SB1070 will probably have a very minor short-term impact, it's just another example of fighting stupid government policies with even more government stupidity. It won't work because it does nothing to solve any of the underlying causes. It's like trying to hold more water in your hands by squeezing harder.

The only thing worse than the law has been the discussion of it. There are many distinct and separate causes of illegal border crossings that have been mixed-up and conflated in the dialog, as have their results. I'll untangle them here, from largest to smallest:

Group #1 - People trying to get access to better economic opportunities for themselves and their families. Most of them are reasonably honest and decent people but as with any large group there are enough bad apples to, from a demagogue's perspective, spoil the bunch. There are three major "problems" caused by this influx:

A) More crimes are committed, and these crimes would not have happened if these people were not here (the Bill O'Reilly complaint). Well, duh. Within any sufficiently large population sample, there is a certain percentage of people with sociopathic tendencies. Whenever you have an increase in a population, there will be a more or less proportional increase in the number of crimes committed. What's implied (assuming somebody is thinking this through, which is seldom the case) is that the rate of crime is increased - that illegal aliens commit more property and violent crime on average than the legal population. As far as I've been able to determine, the statistics don't bear this out. My city, San Diego, has one of the lowest crime rates of any large city in the US. Arizona's crime rates have fallen steadily over recent years. I'd be interested in seeing credible evidence stating that illegal aliens commit a significantly higher number of property or violent crimes, but so far I haven't found any. This is another one of those areas where conservatives tend to be blatantly hypocritical - progressives and liberals love to trumpet any crime (real or imagined) committed by a member of the military, especially in a war. Considering how many people are in our armed forces, and the extreme stress they're under it's an amazing testament to their discipline that we have as few problems as we do. While individual crimes must be prosecuted and punished, it's grotesquely unfair for the left to pain the military with a broad brush. It's just as grotesquely unfair for the right to make the same mistake (that they so correctly condemn in one case) against another group that they happen to disapprove of - and conservatives tend to "double-down" by conflating violent crimes by smugglers with those by these economically- and freedom-driven immigrants.

B) They are an additional drain on collectivized services (welfare, public health services, public schools, etc.). This is certainly true. If somebody needs something and is presented with a "free" solution, most of the time they will take it. This applies to illegal aliens and legal residents alike, although because they are generally poorer, the illegal aliens are more likely to be faced with these needs. A more interesting question that has not been answered (or even really asked) in this debate is whether or not the overall economic impact of illegal immigrants is positive or negative. As discussed below, they fill a niche in our economy. As to them accepting collectivized services... well, that's what you get when you collectivize things. The people providing these services (government employees and agencies) are incentivized to "serve" as many people as possible. This affects legal and illegal residents alike - the government wants to make people dependent. Blaming the illegal aliens for not taking free stuff is silly - the vast majority of people will do that. It makes far more sense to blame and hold accountable the dependency pushers (government workers and other progressives).

C) They take low-end jobs from legal residents. This is also true, but there is a bit of a twist here. Rational people want to get the best value for their money when buying goods and services. However, our government fights against this by setting minimum wages for jobs and giving disproportionate power to unions, making goods and services artificially much more expensive. There is a significant disconnect, especially on the low end of the wage scale, between the economic value produced by a worker and the amount of money their employer has to pay them (plus taxes and other mandated expenses like health care). This friction creates a niche in the labor market that the illegal aliens fill - they work for less money, and we get cheaper goods and services without having to export production out of the country.

Group #2 - Smugglers (mostly of drugs) - People want to avoid reality through intoxication. This is not new - it's been going on at least as long as history has been recorded. What is fairly new and novel is the notion that we can make them stop by outlawing intoxicants. The simple fact is that this has never worked, and never will work. The only success any government has ever had in preventing intoxication is killing off the people who get drunk or high. If you really want to stop the flow of illegal drugs, reality says that's the price you have to be willing to pay.

Group #3 - Terrorists and other criminals - This is an incredibly tiny group, but it's the one that people worry the most about. There is so much illegal border traffic in the first and second categories that this group simply disappears in the crowd.

So those are your three groups, but 99.999% of traffic is in the first two. What's really fascinating is that all of the problems (that actually exist) associated with the first two groups fall neatly into one category - the irrational belief that government can dictate supply and demand. People believe that the government can give away free or heavily subsidize stuff like welfare, health care, and schooling (artificially increase supply) and that it won't create additional demand. They believe that the government can eliminate demand for low-cost labor by passing laws against it. They believe that the government can legislate away demand for intoxicants by making them illegal. QED - none of this stuff works.

When the government artificially inflates supply, you get fraud - in everything from welfare to the credit markets. When the government artificially restricts supply, you get black markets - in labor, drugs, gambling, etc., and the crime, violence, and chaos that tend to be associated with black markets. These are the facts, and all of the wishful thinking in the world will never change them. Messing with markets creates pressure that will be relieved somewhere - whether you want it to or not, whether you pass laws against it or not - and that pressure will be relieved at the easiest place to do so. That place will usually be the border. If you want to control the borders, you have to quit messing with the markets. Once you eliminate the causes, the symptoms go away on their own.

And then spotting the last 0.001% or so (terrorists and other serious criminals) should be a much more practical task.

*I say "alleged intent," because this law is so spectacularly ill-conceived that I can't help but believe that it's more of a political stunt than it is a serious attempt to solve a problem.

(Update) - When I said the symptoms would go away on their own, I was referring to the black markets in labor and drugs that drive a very large portion of the illegal traffic. The black market in labor is especially problematic - there's only a very weak feedback from the supply to the demand ("there are jobs up north"), rather than official communication as to how many jobs are available, what they are willing to pay, etc. The black market in drugs is much more organized, but causes by far most of the violence and other crime. Making that go away would eliminate the vast majority of the day-to-day border-related compaints.