Jason DeParle profiles Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, the world's strongest advocate for open labor markets:
To those standard solutions, trade and aid, Pritchett would add a third: a big upset-the-applecart idea, equally offensive to the left and the right. He wants a giant guest-worker program that would put millions of the world's poorest people to work in its richest economies…
The basics are simple: The rich world has lots of well-paying jobs and an aging population that cannot fill them. The poor world has desperate workers. But while goods and capital can easily cross borders, modern labor cannot. This strikes Pritchett as bad economics and worse social justice. He likens the limits on labor mobility to "apartheid on a global scale." Think Desmond Tutu with equations.
Pritchett attacks the primacy of nationality itself, treating it as an atavistic prejudice. Modern moral theory rejects discrimination based on other conditions of birth. The name John Rawls appears on only a single page of "Let Their People Come," but Pritchett is taking Rawlsian philosophy to new lengths. If a just social order, as Rawls theorized, is one we would embrace behind a "veil of ignorance" — without knowing what traits we possess — a world that uses the trait of nationality to exclude the neediest workers from the richest job markets is deeply unjust.
DeParle, here and elsewhere in the annals of the New York Times Magazine, grasps the logic of of tradeoff, eschews condescension, and refuses to romanticize destitution. He understands that ugly options can also be the best options available; that if you have to break up a family to fill a stomach, breaking up is good to do. Pritchett is an economist with big, radical ideas who understands the expediency of small steps, the gradual expansion of moral community. He doesn't relish the idea of forcing guest workers home after a stint in the U.S., but he argues the "temporary" in "temporary guest worker program" elevates the idea to the realm of the politically possible. Not that it's proving possible just yet:
People who think migration is too high — 12 percent of Americans are foreign-born — say that Pritchett is prescribing cultural suicide…Mark Krikorian fears that immigrants are already forming parallel societies whose numbers do not even bother to learn English; adding to the 36 million already here, he said, would speed the cultural secession. "You'd have more 'Press 2 for Swahili,' no question about that," he says. "It'd be a complete catastrophe."
Pritchett, unable to get apoplectic about telephonic language options, responds with a shrug. He shouldn't, because fears of cultural fission are motivating much of his opposition. But if Pritchett doesn't have a direct response, he at least makes clear the terms of the tradeoff: He simply calculates the costs of restricting opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation in the name of slowing cultural change–a level of global poverty cemented in place by market restrictions. Pritchett isn't going to change Krikorian's mind, but he might force him to acknowledge the full price of cultural stasis.
I discussed Pritchett and labor markets earlier this month.
UPDATE: Michael Clemens, who first introduced me to Pritchett's work, has more.