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The false choice between equality and globalization

David Cameron at an immigration raid
David Cameron at an immigration raid
Olli Scarf/Getty

In a July 19 New York Times column, conservative economist Tyler Cowen scolded the egalitarian left for not recognizing that on a global basis inequality has been falling thanks to growth in China and other Asian countries even as it's risen inside almost all rich countries.  In a followup dialogue with Eduardo Porter on whether inequality is really a big problem, Cowen returned to the point that "the biggest inequalities are those across borders" so a laxer attitude toward immigration "should be the number one priority for anyone concerned about income inequality."

Meanwhile, late Friday night House Republicans passed a bill to strip about 580,000 immigrants of their work permits while President Obama ponders executive action to reduce the pace of deportations and conservative columnist Ross Douthat preemptively slams the illegality of the as-yet-unknown measure.

Which is to say that while Cowen's point about the global picture is both interesting and correct, his political stance is backwards. It's not fans of Capital in the 21st Century who are pushing nationalism as an alternative to plutocracy, but its detractors. And though the recent politics in the US Congress have been driven by the somewhat odd sequence of events around the arrival of unaccompanied minors from Central America, the underlying pattern runs much deeper than that.

In the United Kingdom where the transient political factors are entirely different, the ruling Conservative Party runs on a platform of Capping Welfare and Reducing Immigration. Inside the United States, a major debate has taken place inside GOP circles as to what to do after consecutive Republican Party losses in presidential elections. An initially popular idea, especially in business circles, was that the GOP should moderate its stance on immigration and seek Latino votes. This was, of course, countered by the party's most retrograde elements — the Michele Bachmanns and the Steve Kings. But more importantly, the pro-immigration impulse was also opposed by the most forward-thinking elements in American conservative politics. Douthat, David Frum, Reihan Salam, and other "reform conservatives" have positioned themselves as leading opponents of a compromise with the White House on immigration.

It is this reformicon ideological tendency, not mainstream liberalism, that has embraced egalitarian nationalism.

And the cause of its rise is not left-wing worries about inequality, but the failure of traditional supply-side economics. Reagan-era conservatives could be for welfare state rollback and broadly pro-immigration because they promised a rising tide that would lift all boats. Now that we're decades into an era of wage stagnation, those kind of easy promises ring hollow. So for Cameron and the reformicons, a tilt against immigrants is the new answer. On this view, the big problem with trickle-down economics is that the bucket is too leaky. Let the rich get richer, but prevent them from hiring maids from Latin America, and soon enough wages for native-born maids will rise.

The moral math whereby this policy becomes more attractive than the win/win/win alternative of broadly freer movement of people paired with progressive taxation and more provision of public services has always escaped me somewhat. It appears to involve putting a negative value on the interests of foreign-born people. But it is a real movement. But it's a movement on the right of politics in the United States and other English-speaking countries. Progressives, rightly, see no need to chose between equality and cosmopolitanism.

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