Friday, August 29, 2014

Neither Immigration nor Education are Euvoluntary.

Jessica Vaughn of the Center for Immigration Studies appeared on C-SPAN a couple of days ago talking about the hidden costs and unintended consequences of the "influx" (upper bound estimates are in the 200,000 range) of Central American migrants. Video of the discussion can be found here.

One claim that caught my attention was the cost of educating migrant children. Each additional pupil would cost the state somewhere in the neighborhood of $9,000 per year. And probably because of lunch subsidies or additional language instruction or whatever, the marginal cost of foreign-born students could be higher than for US-born students.

My training in economics makes sensitizes my ears to discussions of costs, and much like someone trying to play Mendelssohn with a broken string, the absence of any mention of benefits (or transfers) is like listening to a concerto with half the notes missing. Okay, so teaching a Honduran kid costs the Lone Star State an extra nine grand. Isn't there a concomitant boon to the welfare of Texans? Isn't the reason we have a public education system in the first place to correct for a tragedy of the commons problem?

As I understand it, the idea is this: the public is better off with a well-educated population; citizens can make better, more informed decisions in the voting booth if they understand elementary civics; citizens cooperate more for having participated in a large, 12-year national-scale team-building exercise in conformity; citizens gain basic knowledge that will spill over into their shared daily community experiences &c. Since there are (allegedly) no natural incentives for folks to become better democratic constituents, taxpayer subsidies are directed to make up for the shortfall, pushing the supply curve to the right (the demand curve is also pushed rightward, but by mandatory attendance).

I mention the standard econ arguments merely to wonder how persuasive they are in the context of the immigration debate. If anything, the marginal benefit to society for educating an immigrant must be higher than for educating a native. After all, the BATNA for the typical person born in the US is to become acculturated through the parents, friends, and communities of which they are already a part. Immigrant children tend to lack this natural advantage, so any public welfare gains must be measured against a substantially worse alternative scenario.

Of course, this leaves open two objections: 1) if your objective is deny immigrants entry altogether, the alternative scenario you're likely to reference has them deported. 2) the standard economic arguments in favor of public schooling are incorrect.

On point (1), it's perfectly valid to use deportation as a reasonable counterfactual, but the fair comparison is to measure the present value of a deported migrant against the present value of an educated permanent resident. This is the standard welfare calculus used not only in academic economics, but by government agencies like the BLS or the EPA. It's as useful for immigration as it is for live native births.

On point (2), I tend to agree that the case for public education is oversold. There are probably some good public returns to basic literacy, and perhaps there are some non-linear treatment effects for conformity (hint hint anyone looking for a good doctoral thesis), but most claims of the long-term benefits of public education don't stand up to empirical scrutiny. I am more than passing familiar with the contents of the GSS, and claims that a high school diploma improve civic literacy cannot be supported by the data. At any rate, if the CIS agrees with me that public education is wasteful, then they should agree with me that it's at least as wasteful for US citizens as it is for immigrant children. I trust they will join me in campaigning for an end to (at the very least) NCLB and the Department of Education.

I look forward to their press release to this effect.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?