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July 21, 2014

Ignoring the Science, Immigration/Welfare State Edition

During the Evil Bu$Hitler Era, the plaintive cri de coeur of the Enlightened Progressive was often heard throughout the land. "Why, oh why! do those horrid conservatives ignore what Science tells us?"

Now, of course, we live in a more respectful age, when public servants obligingly decide which scientific debates are "settled" and which should simply be ignored:

Many young progressives think they have found a fail-safe way to end poverty: a universal basic income (UBI). The idea is very simple, they say: Every month, the government cuts a check to everyone. Period. That way, no one has to fall below the poverty line.

The UBI is an old idea, which also has a storied history on the right. Many conservatives like the idea of a simple welfare system that would replace arcane programs and nosy bureaucracies.

And indeed, right-winger that I am, I was for a very long time a strong proponent of a UBI. But now I oppose it.

What happened? I looked at the best science, and changed my mind.

Social science has been plagued with amateurish studies featuring non-random samples, missing control groups, and dubious attempts to conflate correlation with causation. Only one method - repeated, randomized field trials - addresses these deficiencies. And the repeated conclusion of numerous randomized field trials is that the guaranteed basic income creates dependency and dysfunction, weakens economic growth, and erodes the work ethic:

...the UBI is one of the very few, if not the only, domains of social science policy where we have exactly that: extensive, long-term, repeated RFTs, which are the gold standard of evidence in social science.

As RFT expert Jim Manzi writes, these experiments "tested a wide variety of program variants among the urban and rural poor, in better and worse macroeconomic periods, and in geographies from New Jersey to Seattle"; more than 30 experiments were done in the U.S. from the '60s to the '90s and there was another set of experiments done in Canada in the '90s. The universal basic income is one of the few areas of social policy where we can say with some confidence "science says..."

And science says the UBI doesn't work.

As Manzi writes, one of the few consistent findings across all these experiments is simply this: the only type of welfare policy that reliably gets people who can work into work is a welfare policy with work requirements. All the evidence strongly suggests that if you have a UBI, the outcome is exactly what many conservatives fear will happen: millions of people who could work won't, just listing away in socially destructive idleness (with the consequences of this lost productivity reverberating throughout the society in lower growth and, probably, lower employment, in a UBI-enabled vicious cycle).

This is not a minor concern. As Megan McArdle has noted, the latest research suggests that work is a central part of human flourishing. Long-term unemployment is worse for self-reported well-being than divorce or the death of a spouse.

A related study finds that countries with less generous social welfare programs benefit more from immigration than those with more generous programs. Why? Because relatively weaker social safety nets encourage immigrants to become net contributors to the economies of their adopted countries:

Life can be tough for immigrants in America … And if you can’t find work, don’t expect the taxpayer to bail you out. Unlike in some European countries, it is extremely hard for an able-bodied immigrant to live off the state. A law passed in 1996 explicitly bars most immigrants, even those with legal status, from receiving almost any federal benefits. That is one reason why America absorbs immigrants better than many other rich countries. … The opposite was true in some countries with generous or ill-designed welfare states, however. A one-point rise in immigration made the native-born slightly worse off in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. In Belgium, immigrants who lose jobs can receive almost two-thirds of their most recent wage in state benefits, which must make the hunt for a new job less urgent.

Part of the reason progressive public policy is so popular is that - in theory at least - it sounds so kind and caring. But at some point, it has to matter whether these policies actually produce the intended results. What results has this administration's announced refusal to vigorously enforce our immigration laws produced? Ignoring repeated warnings didn't make the problem go away:

During the president's 2012 reelection campaign he announced plans to defer the deportations of certain immigrants brought to the country illegally as children before June 2007.

Critics now argue that the administration chose to ignore reports about the growing number of immigrant children and instead focused on trying to push his reform bill through Congress.

'Was the White House told there were huge flows of Central Americans coming? Of course they were told. A lot of times,' one former government official told the Post.

As many have noted, this problem is neither new nor unique to this administration:

The U.S. faced a similar challenge in the mid-2000s, when border patrol was caught unawares by a surge of Brazilian illegals. The Bush administration determined that word had gotten back to Brazil that people apprehended at the border would be released and able to stay, so the Department of Homeland Security initiated an operation dubbed "Texas Hold 'Em."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff explained the results during a Senate hearing in 2005. "We prioritized the existing space, dedicated bed space and began detaining and removing all of the illegal Brazilians we apprehended," said Mr. Chertoff. "The word spread surprisingly swiftly; within its first thirty days, the operation had already begun to deter illegal border crossings by Brazilians. In fact, the number of Brazilians apprehended dropped by 50%. After 60 days, the rate of Brazilian illegal immigration through this sector was down 90%, and it is still significantly depressed all across the border. In short, we learned that a concentrated effort of removal can actually discourage illegal entries by non-Mexicans on the southwest border."

What is the kinder policy in the long run? To stubbornly ignore the tragic consequences of well meaning but completely unrealistic public policy decisions on the real people they were designed to help? To craft policies that encourage people to lie to and cheat each other? Is it socialism itself that encourages the erosion of reciprocity and social trust? Or is it the poverty and scarcity endemic to life in these so-called worker's paradises?

The authors found that, on average, those who had East German roots cheated twice as much as those who had grown up in West Germany under capitalism. They also looked at how much time people had spent in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The longer the participants had been exposed to socialism, the greater the likelihood that they would claim improbable numbers of high rolls.

The study reveals nothing about the nature of the link between socialism and dishonesty. It might be a function of the relative poverty of East Germans, for example. All the same, when it comes to ethics, a capitalist upbringing appears to trump a socialist one.

As Hillary Clinton is wont to say, "What difference does it make?". The outcome is the same.

Posted by Cassandra at July 21, 2014 07:12 AM

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Comments

It's almost as if you thought results were more important than good intentions.

Besides, it's important to ensure that each resident has a UBI, so he won't become a burden on the rest of us.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 21, 2014 02:10 PM

It's almost as if you thought results were more important than good intentions.

Or talking about it endlessly :p

Besides, it's important to ensure that each resident has a UBI, so he won't become a burden on the rest of us.

Yanno, if they'd just shut up for 20 seconds I might even be able to reconcile myself to this nonsense. But it never ends. We can't just "end poverty" (?) - now we have to ensure that no one has more than anyone else because that's "unfair".

Personally I think there are people who deserve to have a LOT more than I do b/c I'm simply not willing to do what it takes to be extremely wealthy. That wouldn't make me happy. I don't want what they have. I want what I want, and I want the freedom to pursue my own values.

/sorry - end rant

Posted by: Cassandra at July 21, 2014 02:27 PM

Those who want equal outcomes are blind to the fact that not everything has equal costs. It beggars belief that the very people who want "income equality" cannot imagine that true income equality would eliminate life saving jobs such as "Doctor" or "Police" save for the rare individuals who feel a calling. Because without pay incentive, who but the most selfless would choose years of schooling (in the case of doctors) or extreme hazards (such as faced by police) when they could have the exact same rewards being a barista in a coffee shop, or dilettante for that matter. When "performance artists" receive the same pay as "Alaskan crab fisherman", we just lose access to crabs. But when they make the same as "doctors" we lose access to medical care.

Posted by: MikeD at July 22, 2014 09:38 AM

It beggars belief that the very people who want "income equality" cannot imagine that true income equality would eliminate life saving jobs such as "Doctor" or "Police" save for the rare individuals who feel a calling. Because without pay incentive, who but the most selfless would choose years of schooling (in the case of doctors) or extreme hazards (such as faced by police) when they could have the exact same rewards being a barista in a coffee shop, or dilettante for that matter.

Bingo.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 22, 2014 08:24 PM

Ever notice it's usually the dilettantes (and/or loafers & 'soft' college majors) demanding less income 'inequality?'

Posted by: CAPT Mike at July 26, 2014 01:28 PM

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