Bohanon: Trump and the Numbers

September 21, 2015

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

Yes, he is crass. He is a protectionist, a mercantilist and anti-immigration. The GOP political class/intelligentsia uniformly condemns him. The Dem political class/intelligentsia love to hate him because they figure they can “tar” their ultimate opponent with his opprobrium. When he was at 15 percent — an amusing anomaly; at 20 percent a phenomenon; at 30 percent it’s not a joke anymore: What’s with Donald Trump?

Sandwiched between the Todd Young ads and the three-hour GOP debate was an explanation of Trump. An anti-immigration group ran an ad that featured males and females, young and old, whites, blacks and Hispanics with the tag line “It’s all about the numbers.”

The point made is that immigration is not a race issue; it is a jobs issue. The economic impact of immigration is to expand the domestic labor pool. This inevitably places downward pressure on wages. How can it not? This is Econ 101. A lot of native workers understand this, yet the political class doesn’t. Legal or illegal immigration is not the question. The illegal immigrant from Guatemala competes with the Black youth for the kitchen job. No wonder Trump’s poll numbers don’t look bad among blacks. The Indian worker on an HI-B visa competes with a second-generation Mexican-American college graduate in computer sciences.

Add to this the response of the progressive chattering class: “If you are not thrilled about this competition in the labor market, then you must be a racist.” Trump’s appeal is that he says politically incorrect things. There is a large swatch of the American public, primarily but not exclusively native whites, who don’t want immigrants taking their job, and don’t appreciate the invectives of the enlightened class and politicians and pundits intimidated by them — and I suspect they see Mr. Trump as the only one who gets it.

The concern about native wages falling as a result of immigration is nothing new. It is as old as the Republic. In the 1880s, the U.S. actually excluded all Asians from entering the United States. Was this racist? Oh, yes, certainly. There was also ethnic and religious animus against the Irish and German immigrants in the antebellum period and the Southern and Eastern Europeans who flooded into the U.S. in the four decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act. Nor is a racial, religious or ethnic animus against newcomers uniquely or particularly American. In fact, what is amazing, to paraphrase Harvard scholar Claudia Goldin, was that no substantive immigration restrictions were set up in the United States until 1920 (the Chinese Exclusion Act excepted).

Two opponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act were Massachusetts Republicans. The libertarian idealism they express would not play well with Bernie Sanders or the AFL-CIO or for that matter most Republicans. But I find it much more appealing than the current “you are a racist” cant of the left in justifying a more open immigration policy. It’s all about economic freedom.

From Congressional Record Senate p. 3265, April 25, 1882, Sen. Hoar of Massachusetts:

“. . . I will not deny to the Chinaman any more than I will to the Negro or the Irishman or the Caucasian the right to bring his labor, bring his own property to our shores, and the right to fix such a price upon it as according to his own judgement and his own interest may seem to him best.”

From Congressional Record Senate p. 3312, April 26, 1882, Sen. Dawes of Massachusetts:

“I do not know any particular difference between Asiatic labor and European labor; it is labor, and it never occurred to me that the difference between men was the difference in the places where they were born. I always supposed it was a difference in the character of men.”

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Ball State University. He wrote this for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.

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