The $cary $ubject

Whenever you're trying to communicate about the economy, you're talking to the terrified, about the terrifying.

Adam Davidson, a friend, had a piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, where he writes about money, regularly and well. Helping people understand more about economics is, as the teachers put it in my wife's West Side Chicago school, a job for Jesus. And it may not be rewarded here on Earth.

Adam's Sunday piece was on immigration, and how we'd all be better off economically if we realized immigration is not a zero-sum game—not just a bunch of hungry foreigners taking a finite number of jobs from a finite number of American citizens. In a growing economy, immigration can create more jobs, by creating more demand for products and services and housing!

Most of us have heard this idea before, haven't we? So why don't we embrace it? Because, even the way Adam backs it up with the work of economists, it seems a little reckless. It sounds like, "Let the hordes in, and it'll probably be fine, and it might even be better!"

But no matter what the theory, it always seems viscerally safer—even to the enlightened and relatively comfortable readers of The New York Times—not to let the hordes in. (Even if the hordes aren't quite hordes. As Adam points out, even if we doubled the number of immigrant visas we issued, immigrants would still be less than .7 percent of the workforce.)

But we're people, not animals! Why don't we get over our primal fears and smarten up and open up our society to this modest group of productive people who can fuel our economic growth?

Adam despairs. "Whenever I'm tempted by the notion that humans are rational beings, carefully evaluating the world and acting in ways that maximize our happiness, I think of our meager immigration policies. For me, it's close to proof that we are, collectively, still jealous, nervous creatures, hoarding what we have, afraid of taking even the most promising risk, displaying loyalty to our own tribe while we stare, suspiciously, at everyone else."

It pains me a bit to say it, but I guess I don't share Adam's ambition for the human race. I figure that people—actually, just like animals on the Nature Channel—will always be nervous creatures, sleeping with one eye open and protective of their own asses and the asses of their loved ones over someone else's ass and certainly over someone else's economic theory, however intellectually compelling.

When I was in my 20s and read about "white flight"—panicked people moving out of neighborhoods as minorities moved in, for fear that their property values would plummet—I held the cowardly homeowners partly to blame. Now that I am a homeowner (and a father), I understand just how overwhelmingly social virtue is beaten by gnawing fear of your own obsolescence and fond dreams for your children. Had my property value been threatened, I have very little confidence that I would have behaved any differently, and I'm not ashamed to say so despite all my enlightened attitudes about fairness and race.

Someone who wants to change immigration policy or any other economic policy, should not try to overcome people's fear and greed. Rather, he or she must use it—even if to better ends.

Because far from being a rational subject, economics brings out the very most irrational, fight or flight, self-preserving parts of people.

Economics is food and shelter and safety from harm—and all the economic education and communication in the world won't make people think intellectually about that. —DM

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