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Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue

Ponzi Economics Not a Good Case for High Immigration

Advocating high levels of immigration to boost economic activity is not a sustainable policy and is dehumanizing. This New York Times column by David Brooks is on the Wall of Shame today because of that:

The National Death Wish

Compassion for all the people of the world is a good thing. We should care about the lives of those wishing to immigrate into (over)developed areas like the U.S., Australia or Western Europe. But I don’t see any compassion in advocating high levels of immigration to drive economic growth. Brooks shows his growth booster stripes in this column about a proposed bill to cut legal immigration levels into the U.S.

Brooks uses homebuilding as an example of a business that can’t meet demand without importing cheap labor:

“Right now construction is booming in many cities. This has created high demand for workers and pervasive labor shortages.”

Brooks advocates keeping the flow of cheap labor into the country because:

“Employers have apparently decided raising wages won’t work.”

I am having a real hard time buying that one. He goes on to explain how these construction jobs are less desirable:

“Construction is hard, many families demean physical labor and construction is highly cyclical.”

We get this story about agricultural work all the time. Americans don’t want to work long, hard hours out in the sun for so little pay that they have to live on top of one another in substandard housing. My problem is with the next step in their logic: therefore we should bring in people from other parts of the world (who are willing to live in poor conditions and be paid poorly for very hard work).

I don’t find that to be a compassionate position. Nor do I find compassionate any of the talk about how immigrants are an economic necessity in the U.S. They are people; not economic pawns. I also take exception to Brooks’ hand-wringing over less overconsumption as a result of the shortage of low-wage labor:

“There’s less home buying, less furniture buying, less economic activity.”

In the (over)developed world, where we’re already consuming at a rate that is completely unfair to the rest of the world and unsustainable, we should embrace less of these activities. I know it’s hard to wrap your head around this if you’ve been programmed from birth to pursue and celebrate MORE. Memo to Brooks: more homebuilding, more furniture buying, and more economic activity are all things that push us deeper into overshoot. And exploiting people from other lands to do work we consider too demeaning is, in itself, demeaning. If people in the U.S. needing employment won’t accept the job at current pay and working conditions, then the pay and/or working conditions ought to be improved. The solution is not to import and create a sub-class.

Finally, here is the pièce de résistance:

“If the Cotton-Perdue bill became law, the working-age population would shrink, the nation would age and America would decline.”

Here Brooks’ boosterism and blind faith in the physical possibility of, and the desirability of, perpetual economic growth rears its ugly head. If we aren’t building houses at breakneck pace, increasing our footprint on the planet, then we are in “decline.” Can you spell “unsustainable,” David? I’d like to say, “Sure you can,” but that doesn’t appear to be the case. We would be well-advised to accept, even to encourage, our population to contract back to a sustainable level. We cannot grow our population or our economy forever. It’s just not physically possible.

Importing cheap labor to avoid decent pay and working conditions – fail. Importing cheap labor to boost unsustainable economic activity – fail. If we want to welcome people into this country because we love them, there’s some compassion in that (though I question whether being converted into an overconsuming growth addict improves your life). Using them to boost GDP or keep our food or houses cheap, shame on us.


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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

Comments (1)

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    Brian Sanderson


    Good analysis Dave. Sadly, economies all over the world (not just USA) are being optimized in the sense of making the economy a big as possible… “Look how big my country is!” It’s infantile…

    I’m for optimizing economies in the sense of making them congenial for people. You know, those strange two-legged primates that are reputed to be “intelligent”. No, not optimized for big banks and stock exchanges. No, not for military machines. For real people.

    A congenial economy is one where we just don’t do jobs that are not worth doing…

    The size of an economy will only be maximized when most people are effectively reduced to slavery. That is where the likes of Brooks would lead us… And the strange thing is, most people seem happy to go along for the ride. Is it a lack of intelligence? Or are people gambling that they will be the slave owners and someone else will be their slave… Whichever, it’s not dignified. It’s not befitting an “intelligent” species.

    Is it possible that humanity has diverged? I propose a name for the new species, Economo erectus


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