With immigration data missing, common sense will have to do

Some things are encouraging and a reminder of unmet goals at the same time. That’s the way it is with readers’ comments on columns. It is encouraging to find that such thoughtful people read the column and are willing to share their views, and, yes, that’s even true of readers who describe a column as “hogwash.”

Still, the reader comments also can be a reminder that a column should have clarified some issue or done a better job explaining why a particular subject is important. Columns are very much like a form of poetry, constrained by form and as limited by a fixed number of syllables and characters as a haiku or tweet. Writing them is an economics lesson in itself: Every word or thought included means a word or thought not chosen, left behind.

Some subjects draw out more readers’ comments than others. Public schools, taxes, gasoline prices and workplace issues will almost always attract readers’ thoughts on a column; and, sometimes, on its writer. The inner workings of the Federal Reserve, on the other hand, rarely get a response — not even, as far as we know, from the puppies and birds who eventually end up with the newspaper.

Immigration was the subject of a recent column and it is clear that it is a topic very much on people’s minds. It is also a subject that provides more than its share of encouraging information mixed with reminders of how much work we have to do.

A recent example can be found in a New York Times report on the good work being done by the public library there in teaching English to immigrant residents, whether legal or illegal. The really encouraging part of the story was that people are so highly motivated that hundreds of them will stand in line for hours to register for classes.

This is old-fashioned immigration with old-fashioned values like hope, ambition, hard work and an appreciation for what this country can offer.

The discouraging part is that the volume of immigration is such that it is difficult to believe that the combined best efforts of the library and the public schools can do much more than make a dent in the problem.

According to the New York Times report, a third of the city’s population was born in another country. And, there are 3.8 million city residents over the age of five who live in homes where a language other than English is spoken. That is almost half the city’s population in that age group.

New York City has always been a magnet for new immigrants to America, but these numbers are definitely sobering. The language implications alone — for public education, housing, law enforcement, workplace management, politics and, not least of all, economics — are immense. If you were not seriously committed to optimism, the numbers could be pretty discouraging.

Regarding last week’s column on immigration, some our readers’ comments reflected a failure of the column to clarify why there was no distinction made between legal and illegal immigration. This was less an oversight than a reflection of the data base economic policy analysis depends on. The Gross Domestic Product accounting system, for example, which calculates our economic output, does not separate out the production efforts of immigrants at all, let alone illegal immigrants.

The column was, in effect, describing a phantom that does not exist: a rigorous analysis of the economic impact of immigration.

It doesn’t exist because it can’t exist — until we know how many immigrants actually enter the country. And we cannot know that until we gain control of the border and employ a “defense in depth” that effectively deals with those who somehow slip through and enter our society and our economy.

We do not have these things, and cannot give proper data support for the policy decisions we need right now. That is the underlying reason why virtually all efforts at calculating the economic impact of immigration’s economic impact end up being based on estimates and reflections of reality instead of the direct, real information we need.

The result is that making our policy decisions on immigration we will have to mix in a good bit of common sense to substitute for the missing data. This will not be easy, for common sense has not been a valued ingredient as the immigration issue slowly cooked into a border crisis.

The recent column on immigration did not make this clear, and it should have. Choices in columns, like choices in economics, are often imperfect.

The perfect column on economics is still out there, though, like the perfect haiku; Seventeen clear sounds, economics in one word, a heartbeat — choices. We’re working on it.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for The Herald Business Journal.

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