Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith join the show today to talk about their non‐ficton graphic novel; Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.
American policy‐makers have long been locked in a heated battle over whether, how many, and what kind of immigrants to allow to live and work in the country. Those in favor of welcoming more immigrants often cite humanitarian reasons, while those in favor of more restrictive laws argue the need to protect native citizens.
Why is immigration a horrible injustice that no one seems to be talking about? Why do we frame immigration as charity? How do you change people’s minds on immigration?
00:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Alex Norwasteh: And this is Alex Norwasteh.
00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Our guests today are Bryan Kaplan, who is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and blogger at EconLog, and Zach Weinersmith, illustrator of the Saturday Morning Breakfast Serial comic strip and York Time’s best‐selling author. Their new graphic non‐fiction book is Open Borders, The Science And Ethics of Immigration. Welcome to the show.
00:29 Zach Weinersmith: Thanks for having us.
00:30 Bryan Caplan: Thanks for having us.
00:30 Aaron Ross Powell: Why a graphic novel? Or I guess it’s not a novel, graphic non‐fiction. I don’t know what the proper term for something like this is.
00:37 Bryan Caplan: Usually people just say non‐fiction graphic novel actually, but as for why to do it this way… For one thing, I’ve been blogging on this for a long time, and just thinking about the best way to make the arguments convincing and come alive. And I notice I do a lot of thought experiments. And I just thought the thought experiments might work better if they were drawn. And then I also was just very influenced by some other great non‐fiction graphic novels like Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe. And I was just thinking if we could just do the same thing, or if I could do the same thing, it would be so much fun and it would work well, if I could just find the perfect artist. And then I got my number one pick in the world, Zach Weinersmith.
01:15 Zach Weinersmith: Yeah.
01:16 Aaron Ross Powell: So how’d do you get involved in it?
01:17 Zach Weinersmith: Bryan called me, and I told him no.
01:21 Zach Weinersmith: And it’s a long story, that’s probably too boring, but essentially, I was actually wrapping up a book my wife and I wrote together, which was very research intensive and nearly killed us, and we actually turned in the manuscript a month before our second kid was born. So he called me right in the middle of the hurricane, and said, “You wanna work on a new thing?” And I said, “Absolutely not.” And then I just ended up… A lot of things came together and I talked it over with my wife, and it just sounded like really fun and important.
01:47 Aaron Ross Powell: So, was it a topic that you were interested in ahead of this or…
01:50 Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, I had read… What was the name of the essay?
01:53 Bryan Caplan: Oh yeah, it was, Why should we restrict immigration? It was actually in the Cato journal.
01:57 Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. Good promotion. Yeah, I had read it. It was funny, I was familiar with Bryan. I just read a lot of books and Bryan was someone I liked, I’d read all his books, and somehow I bumped into that. I actually don’t remember how, I just found it very… As we’re getting from a lot of people who’ve read the comic book now, is very solidifying of a belief they were leaning toward already.
02:15 Alex Norwasteh: So Zach, in SMBC, you do all the writing and the drawing right? What was the division of labor like for this project?
02:22 Zach Weinersmith: It was really nice. Actually, Bryan, would send pretty detailed story boards that he’d made with ancient comic software.
02:28 Zach Weinersmith: And art from Google Images, and basically say, “It should look like this.” And then I would try to interpret that. And sometimes I would go pretty directly off and sometimes try to rethink it a bit. And then I would send him a very loose pencil draft and he would make a bunch of notes and then I’d go to inks and then maybe have a few more notes, and then we’d pass it to our colorist Mary Kagel who would make it look really good. And that was pretty much… Yeah.
02:52 Bryan Caplan: Yeah, it was just so much fun for me because Zach, to my mind, he has a super power. I can imagine things, and he can make them happen.
03:01 Bryan Caplan: And this was all the fun of having the super power without me having to do any of the work because…
03:05 Alex Norwasteh: We shall call it the division of labor.
03:06 Bryan Caplan: I would call and say, “Make it just like this except… ” The people should be really happy in this picture, instead of looking like they do in the actual original image and then he would do it. And like, “Wow, that’s so great that you can make that happen.”
03:18 Alex Norwasteh: So, what share of jokes though? ‘Cause there’s a lot of jokes in here, really well placed. What share of Bryan’s? What share of yours?
03:25 Zach Weinersmith: I think mostly Bryan’s. I don’t want to take too much credit. Originally there were points at which someone would say, “We need an interjection here.” And then I would offer some suggestions, but mostly Bryan. To the extent I was adding was mostly just sight gags. Little… The reason Bryan’s always wearing a tie, rain or shine. That was… I thought that would be funny.
03:42 Bryan Caplan: Yeah, I’d say anything… About a third of the true joke jokes are Zach. But the main thing about it is that I felt so good having a professional humorist say that my jokes weren’t terrible.
03:52 Bryan Caplan: ‘Cause I would go and put it “Oh, this is so funny.” And then we’re like, “Gee, what does someone who actually makes a living off of being funny have to say about this?” The fact that I think it’s funny, what does that show?
04:01 Aaron Ross Powell: So, how do you go about… So Bryan, you’ve written about immigration many times in the past. You’ve given talks about it, you’ve debated it. How different is it trying to express these arguments in this graphic format, in terms of how you shape them, and how you present them?
04:21 Bryan Caplan: Right. I would say that it’s very similar to giving a talk on immigration, because in a talk on immigration you have a very limited amount of time, you’ve gotta be sparing with your words, and you have to figure out a way to have it make sense to someone who doesn’t spend their life working on the topic. When you’re writing, you’re always kind of thinking, “Well, the most important readers are specialists.” And for this, I really wanted to make it work for a range of listeners. Now, there’s some people, when they talk to a public audience, they just say, “Who cares what professionals think? I’ll just say whatever I want.” And I don’t like to do that. When I go and explain it for a general audience, I always want there to be zero experts in the field who can go and judge me and say, “He went and said wrong things in order to appeal to the masses.” And instead, I want to have the expert saying, “Everything he said was correct.” And yet a general audience saying, “What he’s saying is not completely boring to me.”
05:16 Alex Norwasteh: So there’s a lot of injustices in the world. You both touch on them in work, in the comic strip. You, Bryan, talk about them in your books and on your blog. Why pick immigration?
05:27 Bryan Caplan: Right. So to my mind, it’s the greatest injustice that people don’t care much about. There’s a lot of horrible injustices, like a million Uyghurs being in slave labor camps in China, and yet, if you mention it, it was like, “Oh yeah, of course, that’s terrible.” But out of injustices that people in developed countries who thinks themselves as nice people, will just accept the idea that someone from Haiti who wants to move to Miami and shine shoes and he’s not allowed to ’cause he doesn’t have the right piece of paper, wasn’t born in the right country. This is… Really seems like a big injustice to me, and yet, when you go and mention it to most people it’s like, “Well that’s the way of the world. That’s just how it is. He was born in the wrong country. What’s the… What do you expect to happen?” And then of course the other thing is, it just affects so many people.
06:13 Bryan Caplan: So I guess we talk about in the book, if you go and look at international surveys, the fraction of the world that says they would like to move to another country is enormous at least a billion people would like to move to another country. Generally, of course, going from a poor country to a richer country in order to make a better life for themselves. And then in terms of the harm, it’s an enormous harm to be stuck in Haiti, it is not good. There are… People can be happy in Haiti too but still if you were someone that was not allowed to leave Haiti for your entire life. I think you would very understandably think I’m getting a raw deal here. Why is it that I can’t just go some place else just because no other country wants to have me, but there’s people on earth who wanna have me. It’s just their governments say, “I’m not worthy of receiving this piece of paper.”
07:02 Aaron Ross Powell: I’m curious about this, you’ve mentioned it’s people don’t tend to care about this and you’re right, they don’t think about it except in so far as you get the heated rhetoric about keep them out and build walls, and all that. But just in general, it’s not on most people’s radar, but it is, it’s massive as you said, and just speculating about why. So it’s not that we don’t care about things that happen to people in other countries because we care about genocide, Still though maybe not as much as we should in the example of Uyghurs, but we do. Or when there’s a tsunami, we care and we donate money and we… This can never happen again, and even, call it more passive stuff ’cause those are like active, like something is happening to these people, but even more passive stuff like just famines we tend to care about. But what’s I guess… What’s different about immigration, about the person suffering in Haiti, who’s not, there’s not genocide and there’s not a famine and they haven’t hit by a tsunami but they’re still suffering and there’s people dying, but we just don’t care.
08:09 Bryan Caplan: Right. A lot of what’s going on is that pro immigration sentiment is really driven by mis‐treatment of people who made it happen to make it into the first world and then they get bad treatment. So much more concerned about deportations than about people that weren’t allowed to come in the first place. I think in a lot of what I wanna do is to say look “Of course, deportations are bad, but it’s the people that weren’t able to get in in the first place that are in a really tough spot.” Now as to why people feel so differently about those two cases, of course, a lot of it is just the visibility of the specific victim. So with the deportation, you can see a person being taken away in chains, but with people who aren’t allowed to come, it’s just a vast number of people and as to who these people are, it’s hard to picture… To actually put a human face on it. But then I think another part is just that people think about immigration as a kind of charity and then it’s like, “Well, we can’t give everything to charity.”
09:03 Bryan Caplan: A lot of what I wanna do in the book is to say that’s just the wrong way of thinking about immigration. So I said there’s this normal frame of immigration as charity, and I think this is one that’s shared both by the right and the left in the US, where the left says, “Well why can’t you just be nice and let people in?” And the right’s saying, “Look, we just don’t have the resources in any way, we should take care of our own people first.” And I wanna say, “Look you’re just having the wrong conversation, because first of all, not letting someone in is not that you are being un‐charitable by not letting them in. It’s you’re being unjust because they’re not asking for to receive something for free, they’re not they’re just asking you to get out of the way for them to solve their own problems using the market.
09:41 Bryan Caplan: And then the other point of abundance of just what happens when you let someone move from a poor country to a rich country. And what we really try to show in the book, is that the main thing that happens is you take a person who is producing little and you transform them to someone who’s producing a lot because so much of productivity is about where you are rather than who you are. Like I said, think about how productive any of us would be in Haiti. My joke is Zach would actually be the most productive because he just makes money over the internet. So as long as he’s got electricity and internet connection, he could do SMBC from Haiti and enjoy the incredibly low cost of living there. But for the rest of us, it would be devastating to our careers to not be able to move to where the productivity is happening.
10:21 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, that raises a question then as, so one of the reasons Zach that you could… You probably don’t wanna live in Haiti but we’ll take Bryan’s point that you could do better there is because your work… Is because technology has changed in such a way that you can draw comics from anywhere in the world and you don’t have to sit there in the Marvel Studios with the big sheets of paper handing them off to the editor. But is that… Does that trend which is only going to increase make some of the arguments that you guys make in this book less pressing or eventually not entirely moot, but more moot. That the answer is not to let them in, but to say like, “Well they can work from other places and we… Free trade in services across electronic barriers versus letting them in.
11:16 Bryan Caplan: Yeah and one of the biggest puzzles of the last 25 years is how it seems like what you’re saying should have happened, but it hasn’t. So, if you go and look at how much of a raise does an Indian programmer get when he moves from India to the Bay Area, it’s something like a tripling. And you might say, Well, like why, why can’t he just do exactly the same thing in India that he would do in the Bay Area, and how can that be? And if you know much economics you gotta say, “Well I don’t understand it, but there’s gotta be a good reason here. It can’t just be that the Bay area companies are stupidly paying three times as much money as they need for the work. There has to be some way in which productivity is higher in these places.
11:56 Bryan Caplan: So it’s true that you’re, that you have got of that it’s made it a little bit less important. But still we’ve had 25 years of the Internet and your location seems to still be one of the very biggest predictors of your standard of living. So will the current trends continue? Well if that happens, then there’ll be a very, very slow change. I would say actually probably the ability to offshore things successfully and without much loss of productivity, probably actually matters less than just rising standards of living and rising productivity in the Third World, but so you do have these things that are going on and is happening at a historically rapid rate. But like I say in the book, it’s still gonna take many decades. So I just think of open borders as a way of just shaving a century off the… Hopefully or seemingly inevitable end of absolute poverty, but if we can end it in 30 years instead of 100, I think that would be a huge win.
12:52 Aaron Ross Powell: On this project then, did you guys work in person or what portion of it was entirely remote?
12:52 Zach Weinersmith: I don’t think we even met until well after the book was done.
13:04 Bryan Caplan: Yeah, yeah, we never met. Zach was in Texas.
13:05 Aaron Ross Powell: So you don’t know what kind of productivity bones you were missing out on.
13:09 Zach Weinersmith: That’s true.
13:09 Zach Weinersmith: It’s funny you mentioned that, 10 years ago I thought all the cartoonists were gonna do what I did and move to the country. None of them have. They all live in Brooklyn and San Francisco, the most expensive places to live. I assume it’s the knowledge exchange from other local people.
13:22 Alex Norwasteh: Well, that means you guys just have to make more policy books in this format so we can figure it out. Do some natural experiences here.
13:27 Zach Weinersmith: That’s right!
13:28 Bryan Caplan: That’ll be great! To me, the main thing that I lost from not having Zach in the office with me is Zach is just so much fun.
13:33 Zach Weinersmith: It’s true!
13:35 Bryan Caplan: Zach is just, like I say in the acknowledgements, He’s just pure human sunshine. You dont meet many people like Zach in academia, let me tell you! There’s a lot of sour‐pusses!
13:46 Zach Weinersmith: Yes. You don’t say!
13:48 Alex Norwasteh: What you’re laying out here Bryan and Zach, it sounds really good. We have this probably doubling of world GDP, huge increase in incomes, people being able to move where they’re more productive, but there are a lot of downsides that people bring up. What are some of the big ones?
14:04 Bryan Caplan: I try to be extremely forthright in the book. Right in the end of chapter one, I talk about the main complaints. Of course the immediate one that people think of is if anyone can get a job anywhere then it’s just gonna massively impoverish natives. Sort of the most simplest story is that we’ve got some thick pie of wealth and we let everyone in and they eat our pie. And then the more sophisticated ones, there’s labor market pressure, that kind of thing. To me that’s argument one, then argument two is that there’s going to be a big fiscal burden.
14:33 Bryan Caplan: So going back to Milton Friedman’s remark that you can not have unrestricted immigration in a welfare state. People think well given that we have all these government programs, then immigrants are going to be a burden. Then we have arguments about cultural harm of various kinds. Most obvious one being, it’s going to lead to the English language no longer being the standardly spoken language. Or maybe we won’t be able to talk to our own grandchildren because English is going to be removed or become a minority language or something like that. Then there’s of course, many other more specific cultural arguments, things about trust.
15:04 Bryan Caplan: I know Alex Norwasteh is a big fan of academic research on this. And then finally, the one that I think will probably be of greatest interest to Kato listeners, is the effect in politics. Because of course, logically speaking, if you let in a billion people that are Nazis, then what do you think’s gonna happen in a democracy? Probably the Nazis are gonna take over. It’s the kind of thing that should worry you and if you know in my first book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, I do in that book say, “Well, what’s wrong with countries with really bad policy probably is their voters are worst than voters in countries with better policies”. So I do take this argument really seriously, but it’s one where I still say we do need to calm down and just crunch the numbers and look at them.
15:43 Bryan Caplan: And also to see whether the real world really is comparable to letting in a billion people overnight or whether it’s more like letting in people in gradual waves, so that each generation gets acculturated. So if you think about the danger of English disappearing. If you really let in a billion people over night who didn’t speak English to the US, English would become a minority language and you might not really be able to talk to your grandkids if that happened overnight. But if you let in a billion over the course of a century, and if those billion people speak 100 different languages, it’s still gonna be English, because it happens in waves and there isn’t any focal alternative to English.
16:22 Bryan Caplan: And that’s a lot of where I come down on assimilation is that you have to think about how it actually happens to the real world rather than pursuing a nightmare scenario. Logically speaking, the nightmare scenarios can totally happen, but we have to look at history to see whether they do happen.
16:37 Alex Norwasteh: For a place like the United States where there’s so much pre‐assimilation, American culture for better or for worse, from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies…
16:52 Alex Norwasteh: Our former governator! It’s like we have an advantage in way, because we’re living in the Unites States. Maybe if we were Dutch, we might have a little different perspective. I know you guys get a lot of comments from people about like, “What about these terrible anecdotes?”
17:11 Bryan Caplan: Oh yeah! Someone that Alex and I have both debated is Mark Krirkorian into the Center for Immigration Studies. One of his most colorful arguments is he said, “Look, immigration is like donuts.” I’m like, “Alright, you’ve got my attention, at least immigration is like donuts”. And he says, “When you’re a teenager, you can stuff your face with all the donuts that you want, right?” “Right, that’s true! That’s true, you can stuff your face!” “But if you’re 50 and you stuff your face with donuts, you’re gonna be fat as a pig!” I’m like, “My God, he’s right! Does this mean immigration’s bad?” He says, “Well, immigration’s the same way. When you’ve got a young country with lot’s of land, you can stuff your face with immigrants and it’s fine. But when you’re a mature middle‐aged country of 50, if you try stuffing your face with immigrants, you’re gonna end up being a morbidly obese disgusting pig!” Alright.
17:51 Bryan Caplan: And it’s like “Alright. There’s something interesting about this, even if it’s wrong. And you know like if flesh that more… Back in the 19th century, immigration worked in a different way. It’s different now than it was then. And of course that’s true but, I just think, more specifically, so alright well, today when someone immigrates they can remain part of their home culture. I have a friend whose wife is from Taiwan. Every day the kids ask her, “Mom, how was Taiwan today?” Because she only reads Taiwanese media, she only talked to other people from Taiwan. So she just is checked out or never checked in to American culture and you can do that today, 100 years ago, you couldn’t live in Taiwan, in the US.
18:33 Bryan Caplan: Alright so modern communication and transportation both do make it easier to not assimilate than in the past and that’s something that Mark is right about. But I said, “Look, you’ve got to also think about ways in which immigration works better than it did in the past.” And that’s where this pre‐assimilation comes along. In 1900, if you got a Sicilian farmer who comes to Ellis Island, he probably speaks no English, has never even seen an English language newspaper, maybe never seen electricity. He’s been farming with a donkey and then he shows up a Ellis Island and it is a totally new world for him.
19:07 Alex Norwasteh: He certainly didn’t know Arnold Schwarzenegger.
19:09 Bryan Caplan: Yeah. Whereas today if you’ve got an immigrant from Sicily, he knows American culture, movies and very likely speaks the language already. In the book, we did talk about the data on how many fluent speakers of English does the world have right now. It’s something like 1.3 billion fluent speakers of English. You didn’t have any numbers like that in 1900 in the earlier age, because now people really can assimilate before they immigrate, and that is a new thing which makes immigration work better than it ever has.
19:38 Aaron Ross Powell: I wanna dig into some of the objections that you guys address in the book… But before I do… I just have a question about objections to immigration in general. Because you go through a lot of them like they, the effect is gonna have a workers and economic stuff, and cultural change, and just like these quantifiable, we can point to this and we can see is it happening, we’ll measure it and what not. But one of the things you notice is that people who oppose immigration think like all of these bad things are… They will just argue one and then you say, “Well no, it actually doesn’t affect the… It seems that it increases the wages of native workers except for those with I think it’s without a high school diploma tend to see they’re suppress a little bit but everyone else… And they’ll just move on to something else.” And it reminds me of the debates about gay marriage, before gay marriage, basically, won out.
20:29 Aaron Ross Powell: That people would have all of these like, what’s the effect on the children and all this stuff. But really what it was, was they were just, they were front for I find gay people yucky and I don’t… I think there’s something yucky about this, and so… But I can’t say that that’s not socially acceptable to say that, so what I’m gonna do instead is point to all of these things and when one doesn’t work, I’m gonna jump to another one, but I’m just gonna grasp at them. And I wonder how much of anti‐immigration, I don’t think all of it, but how much of it is something like that. Is just I’m uncomfortable around people who are different from me, people who don’t speak like me, people who have different skin color, people who watch different TV shows, whatever else, I’m uncomfortable around them.
21:17 Aaron Ross Powell: And this would seem to be supported somewhat by that the most pro‐immigrant parts of the country are the areas with the most immigrants, because people who have experience with immigrants, were sitting in DC, which is a city full of immigrants, and the surrounding areas are full of immigrants, and people, they see this it’s awesome, it’s great, and we all know people from all sorts of different countries, and that’s wonderful. It’s the places where the immigrants aren’t, where everyone’s like, “Oh my god, this is terrible.” So, how much of it… How much you arguing against arguments that aren’t dishonest but are kind of just pre‐textual? They’re sitting in the place of an underlying, just cultural attitude that has to just change over time the same way that acceptance of gay marriage did.
22:02 Bryan Caplan: Right. Your description of arguments about immigration reminds me a lot of me talking to my dad, where there is the cycle where these arguments, no, these arguments, no, and then by the time that the conversation’s gone around, we return to the first set of arguments. So, this is of course not unique immigration. This is actually a common feature of wide‐range political, social, religious, philosophic arguments where people on some level they know the conclusion better than they actually believe in the arguments. So, I think the original title of my Cato Journal piece in immigration was gonna be Immigration, a Solution Search of a Problem. So, what should we think about this? So, the racism argument is one where I think there’s something to it, although I also note that we don’t have open borders, even with Canada, right? And I have had the chance to like, “So, you don’t want immigration, how about with Canada? Can we have open borders with Canada?” And rarely do I get any like, “No, no, no, no, no, that’s terrible.” But at the same time, “Ah, maybe it’s like, well, this is your trickery and you’re trying to get a step one Canada, and before you know it, we’ll have open borders with Syria, and that we know that what your agenda is.”
23:16 Bryan Caplan: In terms of how to change people’s minds on this, there’s a long tradition of talking about how to change people’s minds, so one of course is with arguments another one is with attitude. So, lot of what I try to do in this book or we both try to do, ’cause Zach really helped with the drawings, is we’re not gonna try to go and harang people and tell them they’re bad people, and say that you’re insincere, and instead we’re gonna just going to try to be as friendly as possible to everybody and even liking ‘em. Do we have proof of this is highly effective? I guess we don’t.
23:47 Bryan Caplan: But does it seem more likely to be effective at persuading people to just assume the best of every one, and talk to them like everyone’s really well‐intentioned, than to go and start pointing fingers, and making speculations about their inner motives. I think that what we’re doing, we’re just trying to be really nice to everybody we possibly can, and just trying to find any common ground with people. I think this is the most persuasive way of doing it, even if ultimately it’s like, “Well, maybe that’s not really exactly right, and there are some just very bitter people.” Ultimately me, when I argue with people, especially the fact people I don’t want it with Canada. I think it’s not so much bigotry as pure misanthropy of just, you see a person and then think, “Hm, well, that guy, I can think of a lot of things wrong with that guy.” And people like this are hard to deal with, but it is kind of common personality.
24:38 Aaron Ross Powell: So, the techniques of persuasion was something I was thinking about as I was reading the book and particularly the format, the graphic format of it, that we know that one of the ways they persuade people is when they meet people who are of these other… So, the anti‐gay marriage until like the gay couple moves in next door and you’re like, “Oh they’re just normal people, there’s not really anything to be mad about.” And so, part of immigration is we tend to talk about immigration either in just like numbers. There’s people from other places who wanna come here, or it’s on the right, on Fox News, it’s every immigrant is like a picture of an MS-13 member, right? They’re just face tattoos all over and look like a scary person. And so, it struck me that one of the advantages of doing it in this format is that the book is full of drawings of immigrants who look like regular people and seem happy, and it just, it doesn’t… Seeing these arguments framed around, these aren’t photographs, they’re drawings, but it carries it of… We’re talking about real people, and we’re talking about real people who have real families, and real lives, and are smiling, and… There’s a power to that, that I think would be lacking if it were just the same arguments made in prose.
26:00 Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, one of the ways I think about comics is it’s almost like a hybrid between film and prose writing. The nice thing about a book that’s all words is, it’s very intimate, like the author is in your head right now. But the nice thing about a film is you can present exactly what you want. So comics have this in‐between quality where you can present exactly what you want people to see, but you’re also in their head with them, they’re doing the voices of the boxes and the characters and things. So hopefully you get that intimacy, but we’re also showing the stuff that you wanted them to see where they see immigrants as regular people. And also by the way, see the tone that Bryan takes toward them, as he narrates the story.
26:37 Bryan Caplan: Yeah, I mean to really help that, Zach was able to show the best version of me. [chuckle] So face‐to‐face I can come off as being rather strident sometimes, but in the book, I’m only like really relaxed, Mr. Joe Positive the whole time.
26:51 Aaron Ross Powell: You even made Alex look friendly and approachable. [laughter]
26:53 Alex Norwasteh: That’s very hard to do. So well done.
26:55 Zach Weinersmith: It took a lot of work, yeah a lot of practice, yeah.
26:58 Alex Norwasteh: So if I may ask a follow up about that can you give an example of when you had to tone Bryan down?
27:04 Zach Weinersmith: Oh, like a tone page down. Like what he wanted to do on the page?
27:07 Alex Norwasteh: Yeah, yeah.
27:08 Zach Weinersmith: There were a couple places, not that too much. But the example I usually give for that sort of thing is, there was a draft Bryan sent in that used that famous picture of the Syrian boy who died at sea and I just thought this is mostly a book that’s telling jokes and stuff, and I felt like this might come off as like, we’re sort of exploitive or just sort of not sensitive enough and but it was funny is I think our editor wanted to remove it completely. It was way too much and we were kind of like, Well, but it’s real, it’s what’s really happening, it’s worth displaying what the consequences are. We ended up doing a panel that that’s shot in Silhouette and I think it’s sort of familiar enough that people would know what’s going on it’s clear from context what’s going on, but just slightly toned down in a way that I hope it doesn’t lose poignancy of it.
27:54 Bryan Caplan: Yeah, if I remember correctly, I think originally we didn’t have this panel, then we added the one on why it is that you should take IQ research seriously and this is the one where there’s a baby that’s about ready to go and peel off some lead paint and eat it and I’m there desperately trying to stop the baby from doing it. And then you have the hyper‐intelligent alien that’s commenting, saying, do you really want to… If you found out that eating lead reduce children’s IQ, would you really then respond? Don’t worry about it, IQ is a myth anyway. It’s all a cultural construct, and this is one that we put in there just to emphasize that even if you don’t like it, it’s still something where you really should rethink it and just wonder, well, it’s not a measure of something like Planck’s constant and at the same time It’s not just a purely cultural thing either. It is getting at something that people care about and even people who don’t like the idea of IQ, if they found out that kids were having their IQs lowered from eating led chips, they would say, Keep the led chips away from them. Whereas if you were really consistent, you’d say, “Well this test proves nothing, so it doesn’t prove that eating led is bad”. That’s kind of odd.
29:04 Alex Norwasteh: Most of what you’ve been talking about so far is like the economic case. You have these people from desperately poor countries. I noticed in the beginning of the book, you have both your dedication page, where you both sort of tell some personal stories about your family and no doubt economics is part of the reason that explains this, but there are other things that are going on here like refugee, asylum, fleeing persecution. Do you guys wanna talk about sort of the personal?
29:32 Zach Weinersmith: Sure. Yes so I have… On my father’s side there’s a sort of classic US, Ellis Island immigration story of Polish Jews coming from Poland to make a life in New York. And I happened to find out while doing some research, that there was a sister left behind would have been left behind in the 1920s and that entire branch of the family was liquidated. And so, I don’t know why she stayed behind it may have been for boring reasons or but it’s possible they couldn’t get out, I don’t know, but you can sort of see on your own family tree that affect what effect immigration would have had. And then when you consider, if you look at places like Xinjiang or Syria today far more refugees are trying to get out like daily than were during that time, which is considered the darkest time. People talk about the damned Voyage of St. Louis but that was like a couple of hundred people trying to get here. There’s 10,000 St. Louis‐es is happening daily now, and people don’t seem moved by it.
30:26 Bryan Caplan: And for me, so my life was born in communist Romania and she had, her whole family had a very tough time, where they wanted to leave, and then finally the communist government said, “We’ll, let the mom leave only and we got your daughter behind as a hostage, so we think you’ll come back”. And the family had decided, no, we’re not gonna do that, we’re going to tough it out and we’re gonna get the whole family out. And so my mother‐in‐law came here totally on her own and then my father‐in‐law had to spend three years begging the communist government for permission to leave and finally he did get it, and he was able to go and leave with his daughter, and then they went not to the US, but Italy where they were stuck for six months because the US government was investigating them to make sure they weren’t super spies, right. So, and they’re just there to stuck there in limbo and then finally they get the green light to come.
31:16 Bryan Caplan: But at the time, I don’t remember many people saying, “Well we don’t wanna let in refugees from communist countries ’cause how do we know they’re not spies?” And yet technically speaking, it’s true, you don’t have absolute proof they weren’t spies, there must have been a few spies among them. And it’s just the question of are you really going to, go and turn away all of these people who are struggling to find freedom because you don’t have absolute proof that there no spies among them? Or are you just gonna say a free society takes chances, and as long as the risk is low, then we’re gonna… We are all about living with that risk. And if someone’s a spy there’s a law against that and we’ll catch them if we can and otherwise the other people get to come. And I am of course really happy that my wife’s family was able to make it out and get here and make a life for themselves. And when I just hear people going and assuming the worst about what will happen from immigration from is like, well why don’t we just assume that things will continue to resemble the past? How about that?
31:51 Bryan Caplan: Don’t even say assume the best, just say assume that things will be as they were. To me actually the most honest opponents of immigration are the ones who say, “Look immigrants before the 1920s were good and now they’re bad because they’re just different kind of people, right.” And that at least makes sense but the people say no, no, no, it’s not that the immigrants have changed, it’s that conditions have changed. They’ve changed so much that we’ve gone from a world where it’s the more the merrier to ones where we only wanna let in a handful of Sergey Brins and Albert Einsteins. How can the world be so different? It doesn’t make sense.
31:51 Aaron Ross Powell: That raises a question that I had. One of the arguments against is the effects that immigrants will have both economically, so if we let in waves of poor immigrants, that’s worse than letting in waves of rich immigrants. And also, the cultural change. And the book is heavy on data, but a lot of that data is looking like the future will resemble the past. So you’re looking at stats about existing immigrants, which are happening under a highly restrictive system that privileges people coming in who are wealthier, or have professional degrees, are highly skilled, and so on.
33:31 Aaron Ross Powell: And those people are… So they’re bringing in more valuable skills, they’re less likely to be a burden, but also, I think just generally, across the world like the higher educated people, more cosmopolitan people, the ones who are gonna move and have the finances to do it are less different culturally than the poor people in these same countries. And so, would going to open borders kind of change the data enough that the arguments based on the old data don’t really work, because we would be getting waves of people who were both poor and much more culturally different than the immigrants we’re getting now.
34:15 Bryan Caplan: Right. That’s a great question. That’s why I actually tried to disaggregate the data. So in the chapter on fiscal effects, I go and I actually break it down by different education levels. Where also the chapter on political views, I break it down by different education levels. So I’d say that the answer is you’re right qualitatively, it is true that right now we get immigrants that are more culturated, higher income, less likely to have different problems. But I also say that out of the immigrants that we get that are very much like the average person on earth who wants to come, there’s still great benefits of bringing them here.
34:50 Bryan Caplan: So in other words, there’s a big difference for you in saying that right now, we’re getting the very best ones and if we let in everybody, then they wouldn’t be as good, and by a lot of measures, and I’ll say, yeah, that’s true, but on the other hand, saying that the ones that aren’t as good aren’t worth having, and that’s where I really want to draw the line and say, “Look, just ’cause you’re not as good as Sergey Brin, doesn’t mean that you aren’t worth having in the country.” There’s this… This point is fairly obvious, but you think about prepping kids for the SAT, and you’re like, “I’ve got kids who’re so hard on themselves like if it’s not a 1600, then you’re a failure.” And I say, “Look, hardly anyone gets that, and you can be a huge success in life if you got less than that. I didn’t have a 1600 on my SAT, I’ve done okay.”
35:31 Bryan Caplan: So, there is sort of this tendency on the one hand to try to say, “No, no, no, there’s no difference between you people.” and that’s silly. Of course, every group is different from every other group in any way that you can measure, it would be amazing if any two groups were exactly the same, what a miracle that would be. And yet to go and say, “Because you’re not as good as the very best of you people that rank the very highest, then we don’t… Then it’s better to not have you at all.” That’s what I try to go against in the book and say, “No, no.” Like you know, letting in very low‐skilled workers, it is a tremendous gain not just to them, but to the world, and these harms that people are worried about are total… Or if they are real, they are totally livable, I mean they’re similar to things that we live with, with neighbors all the time, and it doesn’t make them to be overall a bad deal to have as neighbors. So, I mean that’s really what I wanna say.
36:20 Alex Norwasteh: And miraculously, all the arguments you used about immigrants against them prior to the 1920s, are the exact same ones used today and about the same way with slightly different numbers and about people from different places, but they’re really… There’s not any originality in this debate.
36:40 Bryan Caplan: Yeah. I think that’s pretty… I guess the main thing is just… Okay. Well, now we have the welfare state, so that does tipped the numbers a bit, but yes. Even before 1920, people could say “They’re likely to become a public charge and we don’t want them here.” But then you say we have like the numbers, like the amount you get is so trivial, like one… Not one penny. And then of course, the question will… Why not just not give them money instead and then let them in? And again, this is the kind of idea that is like “well, that would be inhuman.” Why is that inhuman? And we we’re like, “Why is it that turning people away entirely is human, but letting them in but not giving the money for during waiting period… ”
37:19 Bryan Caplan: Yeah. I mean of course, overall you’re totally right, that the same complaints have been given. Well, I guess the person could say, “Well, the fact of these arguments were wrong.” The last time doesn’t mean that they’re wrong again. I think like you said that… To me, the honest opponents of immigration are just the ones that say that the people coming today are bad, and the people coming before are good, and like line in the sand, of course, people get very nervous about making that claim. A lot of what I wanna say in the book is it’s not just that should make you nervous, but it’s just wrong, and really, these differences are quite modest at least. And in many ways, actually, today’s immigrants look better than ever.
37:53 Alex Norwasteh: So I think you have a lot of people convinced that immigration is pretty good, and we should probably have more of it. But going all the way to open borders, that’s quite a… It’s quite an ask for a lot of people. You offer them however, some keyhole solutions. What are these?
38:09 Bryan Caplan: Right. So there’s a… Big change in surgery used to be they do things like amputation, like horrible mutilations of people, then say, “well, at least you’re not dead.” And then over time, medicine evolved to try to minimize the side effects of surgery. So you have surgery just try to do very minimal non‐invasive surgery, and this is sometimes called keyhole surgery ’cause you basically cut a little key opening in a person, and you put in a very small medical tool. So like a little fiber optic camera, and you just try to not have a lot of extra harm, you just try to fix the problem while creating as few other problems as possible.
38:48 Bryan Caplan: And economist and financial writer, Tim Harford has generalized this idea to what he calls keyhole solutions as a matter of social policy. Where for any social problem, if you’re going to use government to fix it, you should try to figure out the cheapest most humane way of solving the problem rather than just hacking away. And you know seems like a very reasonable idea, and then I have a chapter that applies this to immigration where I say things like, “Look, if you’re worried that immigrants are using a lot of public services. Rather than excluding immigrants, how about we just say that immigrants aren’t eligible for a time period, there’s a waiting period, or maybe they’re not eligible for life. Or maybe they have to pay $100,000 in taxes before they’re allowed to collect benefits. There’s a lot of subtle tweaks that you can do where you will still let people in, but you answer these specific complaints. Of course, another obvious one is just guest worker programs.
39:42 Bryan Caplan: So if you’re worried about immigrants coming and changing the politics or changing the culture, guest worker programs are ones where they’re very aimed at just getting people a job and letting them work and also setting up the incentive, so once they no longer wanna work, then they go home and take their money with them. And these are all ideas where I don’t so much endorse them I just say they’re way better than what we’ve got now.
40:08 Aaron Ross Powell: On the culture side of things though, you make the case early on in the book using Michael Humer’s Starving Marvin example about kind of the immorality of just stopping someone in a border. The person wants to get across the border to buy something to get food, and you just say “No, there’s this line in the sand, and you can’t cross it,” and they starve to death, and you’ve done… You’ve committed a profound moral wrong. But that… Taking a step back from that kind of acute example of it and just looking at the overall effect, people… So citizens of a country can potentially think of it as their citizenship is an ownership stake in this thing. They’re tied to it in a certain way/They’ve committed to it, but they’re also expecting to get certain things out of it.
40:55 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s a stronger relationship than just residency. And part of that could be, this is my country, and my country has a certain set of features is the country that I want it to be, and if there are gonna be people who come in, and I know you have the data about like Well, they’re not gonna vote, they’re not gonna just overwhelmingly tip the country to Democrats or radically change our institutions, but there are cultural shifts. If a large immigrant group comes into your small town, there will be cultural shifts in that town. And people think like “Me being… America is partly mine and part of that is I should get to have a say over what kind of country this is.” And so restricted immigration doesn’t really run into that, but open borders might run into that. Open borders are saying, “Well, you don’t really have a say anymore over what kind of country this is except in so far as you’ve got a vote, and that vote declines in utility the larger the population is anyway.” Is there anything to that? Do we have to… Do people actually have some right to say, “I wanna control what my country looks like, and how it behaves?
42:05 Bryan Caplan: Right. So has great appeal, but if you really think about it, it is a rather totalitarian idea. So for example, if your country is mostly one religion, do you have a right to go and keep it that way, right? If you think you do, then you don’t believe in freedom of religion. Or of they say there are common views right now, do you have a right to have kids be in indoctrinated with those views and have pressure put on anyone who disagrees with them. Well, if you think that, you don’t believe in freedom of speech. The thought experiment that I often come back to is, what’s happened to American culture over my parents’ lifetimes. My parents were both born in the ‘30s. If you go and just read anything from the ‘30s or watching movie from the ‘30s, my parents’ culture has been destroyed. The country is just nothing like what it was like when they were growing up. We still speak English, but if you talked about gay marriage in the ‘30s, I think people would have just said, “Well, of course, marriage should be gay.”
42:58 Bryan Caplan: And then [42:58] ____. We’ve changed so much that the word gay doesn’t mean what it used to mean anymore like, “Well, what does it mean?” And then you’re like… You explain it, and then like, “What! What are you talking about?” And like, “Wait, and… ” And here’s a reaction that people would have had at the time to realize how much cultural transformation there’s been, and yet what’s going on here is just the people of kids who don’t agree with their parents, who have more kids, who agree with the grandparents even less, and culture changes, and that’s the hallmark of a free society. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to stand up for your culture or argue for it or promote it, that’s part of a free society too. But the idea that government should be there to go and try to keep things as they were culturally, to me, it really does come down to a totalitarian idea and it’s one that we don’t accept in almost any other area, thank goodness. Because if we did, we would still be trapped in this culture of the 1930s which I think had a number of admirable traits, but overall, it deserved to lose.
44:02 Alex Norwasteh: And how many of those… Everybody points to the immigrants as being the cause of all these changes and all these problems. I mean, how many… I can’t think of too many changes in my life. Perhaps cuisine, but other than that, I can’t think of too much that’s changed over the last 50 or 100 years that’s been imported.
44:19 Bryan Caplan: Yeah, I guess occasionally, I’ve had people that are upset that we can’t have national festivals like in Japan, right?
44:24 Alex Norwasteh: Did we ever have those?
44:26 Bryan Caplan: Yeah. Well, they’re not good like in Japan. In Japan, everyone’s Japanese, through and through and say, “When you have a festival, everyone’s on board, and here in the US, you try to have a national festival, but it’s just not the same, because the country’s too diverse, and there’s a bunch of people who have never heard of it. As to whether the decline in Columbus Day has anything to do with immigration, it’s not clear that it has, although maybe.
44:52 Alex Norwasteh: Well, it was created because of immigration. To honor Italian immigrants, so.
44:55 Bryan Caplan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, fair point, fair point.
44:58 Alex Norwasteh: The first law…
44:58 Bryan Caplan: Okay, I get… Interesting point, Alex. Yes, true.
45:03 Alex Norwasteh: What of the original multi‐cultural holidays I’d like to point out.
45:06 Bryan Caplan: Yes. Yeah, yes. Yeah.
45:08 Aaron Ross Powell: But we do… We have our natural holidays. I mean, we’re recording this a few days after Halloween which is our National Festival when everyone… And that’s very…
45:15 Bryan Caplan: That’s declining too, and that’s one, right? It does seem to be declining, and it does upset me. It’s my favorite holiday, and when I see people with their lights out on Halloween like, “Hmm, wait a second, your lights are supposed to be on, and you’re supposed to be giving out candy. This is our country and you owe it to Halloween.” The same time, I can’t say that I notice immigrants are particularly non‐participants here. In fact, I think a lot of them actually wanna get on the bandwagon just to show like, “I’m just as American as anybody else, and my kids have a great costumes.”
45:31 Alex Norwasteh: Well, kids like candy. It doesn’t matter where they’re from.
45:31 Bryan Caplan: Yep, that’s right.
45:50 Aaron Ross Powell: If you had the opportunity to go back and add an extra chapter now that the book is out, this is always… Every that you put out the book and then you’re like, “Oh crap, there’s all these other things I wish I could add.” So are there arguments for or against immigration that got left on the cutting room floor, that if you were doing a second addition you’d wanna put in there?
46:12 Bryan Caplan: Right. So, probably international. So right now, it’s very focused on the US partly just ’cause I already know that really well partly ’cause there is a lot more research, but people who are worried about immigration will often point to Europe and they say, “Don’t you see what a disaster Europe is? We talked about this a bit but, we could easily do a chapter on that and just talk about to the extent to which these fiscal estimates laid out for the US work for Europe too. My general view of the research just says that immigration does work a bit better in the US than in Europe but it’s not the night and day contrasts that some people will have you think it’s just 20% less good than in the US and then you wanna say, “Well why don’t you do it a bit better like we do?” But it doesn’t mean that it’s still a bad idea just ’cause it’s not as good.
46:57 Bryan Caplan: So, again probably just giving the international perspective that would be good, and then also go and put some time into refugees and things like that. I think that would have been another really worthy topic. Just the idea of how when there’s a domestic disaster striking like a hurricane coming for a city people evacuate and they’re strongly encouraged to evacuate because you know that if you get the people out the harm will be less. And yet when there’s an international disaster brewing normally, you just try to keep people in that country for as long as possible and then the disaster strikes and then people aren’t able to solve their own problems anymore. Whereas, if you had just let Syrians leave before the actual civil war was really under way then a lot of people that ended up as refugees could have landed on their feet. So, that kind of thing I think would have been really good. What about you Zach? So.
47:51 Zach Weinersmith: When we end, is a good chapter?
47:51 Bryan Caplan: Yeah, what else should we have had. More Weinersmith art.
47:55 Zach Weinersmith: The… I’m trying to think the most common argument I hear from lefty friends, is something about global warming.
48:02 Bryan Caplan: Yeah, yeah. So could easily have done a section on environmentalism and that kind of thing. We could have talked about the Kuznets curve with this general result that when countries get richer, environmental quality gets worse at first, but then when you get rich enough, then you got all the resources that you need in order to solve the problem and then it gets better. So that kind of thing. And I think we were doing another interview, where we just talking about how whatever concerns people have about the fact that you’re moving people from poor countries to rich countries which makes them rich which makes them pollute.
48:32 Bryan Caplan: It’s really just as much an argument against allowing development in poor countries and, very few people wanna bite the bullet of let’s go and solve global warming by keeping Africa mired in its current state of poverty. So just to be able to go and flesh that out, I think you could really illustrate it very nicely and to show that… And especially also for the keyhole solution. So, whenever people talk about this, I always say, You know, this whole field called environmental economics and the main point of it is that you want to go and solve environmental problems as cheaply as you can. And preventing a person’s existence or reducing their quality of life down to a low level and order solving environmental problem is a really costly and in humane way of doing it, and you can get the same solution at a much lower cost just by doing things like taxing specific pollutants and otherwise saying “Enjoy your life.”
49:25 Alex Norwasteh: So, Zach any more policy based, a graphic novels, in the future? And two would you wanna work on one?
49:33 Zach Weinersmith: That’s a good question.
49:34 Bryan Caplan: Say me. Say me.
49:37 Zach Weinersmith: I know. I just started work with my wife on another horrifying level of research book. So, not right this second but I’m open to it. The one real down side of a book like this is the amount of internet Nazis, I guess you guys are just used to internet Nazis.
49:53 Bryan Caplan: Literal Nazis, to be clear.
49:55 Zach Weinersmith: Yes, literal actual Nazis.
49:55 Bryan Caplan: Not throwing around aspersions.
50:00 Bryan Caplan: No. But…
50:00 Alex Norwasteh: And did working on this make you more of a libertarian?
50:02 Zach Weinersmith: I have no comment on that matter.
50:06 Aaron Ross Powell: This book is I think a fantastic entry in arguments for liberalized immigration. I can see this is a book, I’m gonna be recommending to a lot of people, so thank you both for writing it and illustrating it. That said, this is a uphill battle. How hopeful are you that we can get there someday?
50:33 Bryan Caplan: Well, some day is a really long time so I’m a big fan of Phil Tetlock and his work on prediction and he notes that you can make any predation reasonable just by moving the end date out a million years. So how optimistic am I that we’re gonna see liberalized immigration in the next 20 years? I think I’ll give that about two‐to‐one, because we have seen big moves in public support for immigration. As we show in the book it used to be that less than one person in 10 in America favored more immigration and now we’re up to about 30%. That’s when you’ve got more status quo or less. Of course, a lot of people said, with Trump that this shows that everything is going to change. It seems that he has totally failed to get any fundamental legislative change in this direction. He tried. Now, if I were in an opponent of immigration, I’d be so disappointed with him because I’d just say, “Why can’t you just stay on point? You had one job to restrict immigration and you’ve gone and changed a bunch of things by executive order, but do you know how long those executives orders last?”
51:38 Bryan Caplan: For as long as you stay in power and as soon as you get replaced by someone else. You got new executive orders. So if I was against immigration be very disappointed and be saying this ridiculous. Why can’t you focus on your job? But so, since he failed to do it during his first term, the standard rule of politics, I, that’s when almost all important change happens is during your first term. So, either he’ll be a lame duck if he gets reelected or someone else will come along and I think that the policies that he pushing will do even worse than they were doing before.
52:09 Bryan Caplan: Yeah, very optimistic for liberalized immigration during the next 20 years. In terms of actual open borders, that’s honestly, probably, more like 100 years. Not even a joke but not totally a joke, I think if we could just get this book into the hands of every, not just teenager, get it into the hands of every child, right? So get it in the hands of every seven‐year‐old in the country, I think that give us 20 years that would really make a big difference. This is the only book that I’ve written that could be read by a precocious child. I will still say that I think that people who are active researchers in immigration will learn from it, and be pleased with the quality and the rigor of the evidence. But at the same time, it’s one where I just used the power of Zach Weinersmith to expand the audience down to the point where my five‐year‐old daughter was looking over my shoulder when I was writing it. She’s never done that for any of my other books.
53:03 Bryan Caplan: So are things looking up? I think that in the medium term, they totally are. Are we going to actually have any kind of a full triumph in the next 100 years? That’s plausible, but of course to really get the games we gotta do it sooner because otherwise, countries will grow their way out of poverty, and then the immigration gains won’t be nearly as great although still always be nice. Alright, how optimistic are you, Zach?
53:31 Zach Weinersmith: How optimistic am I?
53:32 Bryan Caplan: Yeah.
53:33 Zach Weinersmith: I’m kind of… I’m a little more boring about this, I think. We’re having a moment right now where the left is very pro‐immigrant, which wasn’t true 30, 40 years ago. And so my hope is just to get the book to those people while they are here and give them the argument, so they stick in case things change in the future.
53:49 Bryan Caplan: Alright, yeah. I’m totally onboard with that. And of course, a lot of the theme of this book is we’re trying to reach out to people from a wide range of view points. Right now immigration is temporarily a left‐right issue, but it shouldn’t be, it never should have been. And if you go back to the age of Regan, it just wasn’t back then. So I have a page there saying, “I don’t wanna see a pro‐immigrant party fight an anti‐immigrant party, I wanna see both parties fight about who loves immigrants more. And right now that seems hard to believe and yet of course right now, there’s a whole lot of young future Republicans around to agree with a lot of that vision and yet they also have lots of friends that are born in other countries. And in the same way that Republicans have changed their mind about gay marriage, I think that young Republicans can and should and plausibly will actually re‐think their views on immigration as well.
54:53 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit @r/FreeThoughtPodcast. You can follow us on Twitter @FreeThoughtsPod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.