My inbox is full of emails touting Donald Trump’s “Time to Get Tough” book, now with Rush Limbaugh’s endorsement. He blames most of America’s problems on a “tidal wave” of illegal Hispanic immigrants and unfair Chinese trade practices. He reminds me of H.L. Mencken’s classic one-liner: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” One might add, “dangerous,” because Trump appeals to our desire to blame someone else for problems we created. If you want something to worry about, have a look at the math questions that Chinese high school students have to answer to qualify for college admission.
Let’s review the facts.
Immigration from Mexico actually fell after the 2008 crash, mainly because construction jobs disappeared.
The best data we have suggest that net immigration from Mexico was negative between 2005 and 2010–that is, more Mexicans left the U.S. than arrived. Hispanics, to be sure, are more visible in the workforce–their share of total employment has risen from about 14% 10 years ago to to 17% today–but that is due to the natural increase in the Hispanic population. In 1990, non-Hispanic whites had a fertility rate of 1.7 children per female, vs. 2.9 children for Hispanics. This bumper crop of Hispanic children has been entering the workforce for the past several years. But that has nothing to do with recent trends in immigration.
As for China: During the early 2000s, U.S. imports from China were growing at 20%-30% a year. Since 2011, imports from China have hardly grown. That’s because China’s currency has appreciated by one-third since 2005 (from 12 cents to the dollar to 16 cents), making Chinese goods pricier in the American market.
That’s not what we ought to be worrying about.
China is graduating twice as many PhDs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines as the U.S. China’s economy is way behind the U.S., but catching up fast in key areas. Chinese missiles can sink any U.S. aircraft carrier within a range of several hundred miles from its coast. China can knock out American satellites. Chinese computation capabilities are on par with America’s. China has more industrial robots installed than any country in the world. China is about to become the dominant producer of Internet communications equipment (with Huawei replacing Cisco as the global market leader). China and its periphery manufacture everything that goes into American tech products.
America used to have disruptive, innovative tech companies. Now we have corporate giants run by patent trolls rather than engineers, and their mission is to suppress innovation. Apple, a design company that relies on Asian production, now accounts for two-thirds of all profits in the S&P 500 Technology Sub-Index.
America used to have nonpareil defense technology. Now we are betting the defense budget on the F-35, a plane like the proverbial horse designed by a committee, and sold by defense industry lobbyists.
Ronald Reagan knew that America’s edge in defense technology also translated into an edge in civilian technology. The Defense Department stood godfather to most of the major innovations of the 1960s through the 1980s, from lasers to computer chips to the Internet. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative helped convince the Russians they couldn’t compete with us. Back in 1983, I was a junior researcher crunching numbers on defense spending and productivity for the then head of plans at the National Security Council, Norman A. Bailey. Why do you think China decided to break with Russia and support America de facto during the Cold War? The answer is simple: China respected and feared America’s technological prowess.
Yes, I’m for tough enforcement of immigration laws. I want a long, tall fence on the Mexican border. But Trump deserves a Darwin Award. If we obsess about Mexicans and Chinese microwave ovens, we’re going to lose, and lose bigtime.