Houston booster and blogger Tory Gattis has a theory of what he calls opportunity urbanism, i.e. a focus on upward mobility as the primary goal of urban policy. Responding to a post of his on The Urbanophile, in which the comment thread veered to a comparison of Houston and Vancouver, I noted that the US is actually much less upwardly mobile than Canada (follow links to studies here, e.g. this, with the father-son income elasticity on PDF-page 34), and that the Joel Kotkin report about opportunity urbanism that Tory contributed to does not, in fact, bring up any upward mobility facts arguing that Houston is at all better than the rest of the US.
The response, from both Tory and Aaron, was a series of platitudes that immigrants choose to come to the US, so it must have a lot of upward mobility: “Houston is revealed preference in action,” “America is still the brightest beacon for immigrants all over the world,” “given the huge preference for the US that international migrants show, it’s tough to believe they are all so dumb about their future prospects,” “America is such the promised land that millions risk everything to come here illegally.”
The first step in failing to combat any social problem is failing to recognize one exists. The US loves to congratulate itself about its acceptance of immigrants and to compare itself favorably with Europe’s racism; somehow, the facts that hate crimes happen on both sides of the border and that in the last few years Al Qaida has successfully recruited American-born Muslims do not count. Even the lack of visas for unskilled workers in the US, and the stingy visas for skilled ones, turn into an America-is-great argument, which is exceptionally inconsistent from someone who, on issues of domestic migration, trumpets Houston’s lack of zoning and blasts the restrictions on development on the coasts (which can be thought of as immigration restrictions, only space is auctioned by market pricing and not by quotas for immigrants). To reiterate what I said last year, good policy for integration is to treat immigrants as people rather than as either a problem or a solution to a problem.
As for what international migrants prefer, what they (we) consider when choosing where to move to is not just what the intergenerational income coefficient is. Although I did know the US was much less socially mobile than most European countries even before applying to grad school there, I had enough other reasons to want to move there. With the caveat that what I know comes from direct experience, which definitely skews toward white and Chinese professionals entering via the student route, here is a laundry list of factors that matter:
- Where we speak the language. The entire Anglosphere is a top destination for intercontinental migration, just as France is a top destination for West Africans. Observe this table of immigrant population by OECD country. A key clue that language matters is the difference between the various Scandinavian countries, which are quite similar to each other. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have very similar languages, arguably just dialects of one language, and on top of that, Finns learn Swedish in school (Finland is the top source of immigrants to Sweden). Finland has a different language, which at least locally is considered very difficult to learn; it also has a much lower foreign-born percentage than the others.
- Where our skills match up with the local business clusters. The US happens to be strong in academics and fields that come out of it, like biotech, and those tend to be very porous to international migration everywhere.
- How easily we can elbow our way into the local social networks. This is not the same as domestic mobility. For example, my experience with Ivy social networks is uniformly positive; even when I’m the only non-American in the room, which is frequently the case at the gaming groups I’m involved in, I’m treated like a human being and not like a freakshow. It’s very easy to assimilate to the educated New York subculture if one wants to. But this is not true for domestic migrants: my It’s Complicated, a Kansan Harvard student of middle-middle-class background, does not feel as welcome in this subculture as I do, and tells me that at Harvard people treat her like a Real American, i.e. not a real Bostonian or New Yorker. The correlation between social mobility for immigrants and social mobility for the native-born is far from perfect.
- The presence of a preexisting community of immigrants from the same culture (not terribly relevant to me, but critical to others). This favors large cities and traditional gateways, like New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Miami. I’ve read a few case studies and stories of Brazilians in the Boston area; once the first few come in, news of their success spreads to their hometown, and more people come in to the same area. One good reference is God Needs No Passport; there are others I no longer remember. Likewise, Turks prefer Germany, and former Yugoslavians prefer Germany or the rest of Germanic Europe.
- What’s nearby. The US has a lot of immigration, but a huge fraction of it is Mexicans (right on the border), Puerto Ricans (can come in without restriction), Central Americans (close and can speak the language as many other immigrants), and non-Hispanic Anglophone Caribbeans. Likewise, in Germany the top sources of immigrants, excluding intra-first world migration, are Turkey, Poland, the former Yugoslavia, and Russia.
- Perceptions of opportunity and wealth, which aren’t exactly the same as opportunity and wealth. The US of the imaginations of Israelis and Singaporeans is not the same as the real US. For example, until I started hanging out in American political forums in 2002, I had no idea the US didn’t have universal health care. It somewhat blurs issues like social network porousness, but those issues have a real impact on whether one can get a job, and this information is somewhat more easily available to outsiders.
- Perceptions of how welcoming the society is. The US, Canada, and Australia are more welcoming than Europe (at least if you’ve gotten a visa – in many categories it’s easier to get into the EU than into the US), and successfully pretend to be even more welcoming than they are. Many year ago, a Pakistani-Canadian commenter expressed the Canadian attitude with the saying “Other people are racist; our minorities really are lazy.”
Take all of the above with a grain of salt. Not that the numbers I bring up are wrong, but my thinking of which numbers are relevant comes from a specific set of experiences, and what someone whose primary social network is Mexican immigrants to California may have a different idea of what’s important. We’re all very confident about our knowledge about things that there’s nobody around to correct us (and I’m saying this very self-consciously).
That said, I do know these issues a lot better than the average native-born American. To me, the question of where to live was nontrivial. For political reasons, circa the height of the Iraq War, I wanted to go to Canada, but I also knew that the US had better grad schools, and now to the extent that I have control over where I live, my social network is Northeastern.
The most troubling part of the entire exchange above was the invocation of “Revealed preference.” Ordinarily, this is a matter of technical questions about people’s mode choice in real-world situation, and is great at predicting how people will behave if the transportation network changes (e.g. a new transit line is built). It’s an awful way of trying to divine, based on migration flows, whether a country offers more opportunities to people who were born poor in it. Too many intervening variables, too many things most native-born people don’t really see. For that matter, even narrowly, with transportation, it doesn’t answer the question of “What people want?” because it’s much broader than the question of how many people will actually ride a new rail link assuming no change in broader transportation and urban policy.
There’s a serious problem with a discourse about anyone who is not part of the discourse. Transit managers’ discourse about riders is at least tempered by the need to build projects that meet ridership projections. With more social and demographic questions, this is not true, because Americans can bully their way into telling themselves they are doing better than immigrants think they are; if the literature on the subject suggests otherwise, they can abuse terminology and cry “Revealed preference.”