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Former CU President Rupp Finds America's Retreat from Humanitarian Commitments Shortsighted

On April 10, hundreds of thousands of U.S. immigrants, both legal and illegal, and their supporters staged protests in 94 American cities against proposed immigration laws that would raise penalties placed on illegal aliens and classify them as felons.

Meanwhile, at Low Memorial Rotunda, a passionate crowd gathered to hear the opinions of three of the world’s top economists -- Columbia’s Jagdish Bhagwati, MIT’s Robert Solow and Princeton’s Paul Krugman -- on the forces of globalization that have so affected immigration trends, by allowing goods, technology and people to move more easily across national borders.

Sponsored by the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the International Economic Policy Concentration and the Department of Economics, the event was moderated by Sylvia Nasar, a former economics correspondent for the New York Times and author of the John Nash biography A Beautiful Mind, which inspired the eponymous Oscar-winning film.

According to Nasar, who is now Knight Professor of Journalism at Columbia, it is no coincidence that all three economists are also journalists: Bhagwati contributes regularly to the Financial Times, Solow is a columnist for the New York Review of Books, and Krugman writes a New York Times column. “The most brilliant economists of the 20th century -- from Keynes to Samuelson -- were also skillful journalists,” she observed.

Nasar further observed that brilliant economists also tend to become each other’s teachers, guides and friends. Solow was Bhagwati’s mentor, while Bhagwati had in turn been Krugman’s mentor -- evidence, she said, of the influence that great teachers can have on their students.


Solow’s mentoring skills were on full display as he began his presentation with what he called “a highly simplified example that will enable you to see the problem clearly -- and at the same time, see it my way.”

The scenario begins with the discovery of a giant pool of labor -- much like the discovery of a natural resource -- in a foreign country. This discovery, Solow said, is probably good for the world and even for the United States, where consumers will enjoy lower prices. But it might not benefit all Americans, he noted. Unskilled workers could find themselves without even low-paying jobs. Of course, the country could redistribute the wealth from those who benefit to those who don’t. “The normal answer given by economists is that there will be winners and losers, but the winners will be able to compensate the losers,” he explained.

In today’s political climate, however, that answer isn’t satisfactory, Solow said. America, he argued, is engaged in a “veritable orgy of regressive redistribution” that involves “giving the powerful more power and the wealthy more wealth.”

Having posed the problem, he joked, “I’m now going to turn to Professor Bhagwati for the solution.”

But Bhagwati, too, was “pessimistic about how much redistribution we can accomplish,” observing that even President Clinton had “dismantled the welfare state as we knew it.” Perhaps, he said, we should set our sights lower -- recognizing that while “we may not be able to help the first generation of workers affected by globalization, we may be able to help their children.”

While admitting to being a “tortured soul” on the subject of globalization, Krugman said that he nevertheless sees the phenomenon as the world’s best hope for eliminating poverty. “Several hundred million Chinese leaping into the modern world is a good thing,” he asserted.

But globalization also has its downside -- and not just in the United States. “We had believed free trade made societies more equal,” he said, “but in Latin America, the whole picture has been deeply disappointing.” In Mexico, he continued, “trade liberalization has been associated with increased inequality.”

With mention of Mexico, the focus of the discussion shifted to immigration. Importing cheap labor is not the same as importing cheap products, said Krugman. “The U.S. has an obligation to the people it brings here, if it is to remain true to its values.”

All three professors oppose the protectionist measures that some politicians advocate as a way of saving jobs in America’s domestic industries, including not only tariffs but restrictions on importing goods from countries with poor environmental records.

During the discussion period, MBA student John Nolan counter-argued that, given the “race to the bottom” that occurs when countries try to produce goods at the lowest possible cost, “I fail to understand why some degree of protectionism is a bad thing.”

Krugman replied by describing the economic benefits to developing countries of industries that can’t meet strict environmental rules. “We don’t want to be in the position of saying to other countries, ‘We’re going to require you to remain undeveloped if you can’t manage to meet our standards.’”

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Published: May 04, 2006
Last modified: May 22, 2006