Leave it to a mustachioed NYT columnist...

My feelings toward Thomas Friedman are no secret, but I’m disappointed Alex Tabarrok (via Andrew) quoted this passage from Tuesday’s column without noting how problematic it was:

Leave it to a brainy Indian to come up with the cheapest and surest way to stimulate our economy: immigration.

“All you need to do is grant visas to two million Indians, Chinese and Koreans,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express newspaper. “We will buy up all the subprime homes. We will work 18 hours a day to pay for them. We will immediately improve your savings rate — no Indian bank today has more than 2 percent nonperforming loans because not paying your mortgage is considered shameful here….”

Friedman explains the quote is tongue-in-cheek. I’d like to believe the “brainy Indian” lede is tongue-in-cheek as well, except that it seems entirely in keeping with the wide-eyed exoticism with which Friedman usually treats Indian entrepreneurs. Regardless of his intentions, or those of his source, the piece takes on odd connotations.

In a best-case scenario, Friedman’s thesis — that America should welcome educated elites from the “developing world” rather than forcing them to compete with the U.S. economically — is bizarrely reverse-engineered. Indigenous elites don’t spring out of nowhere; it seems likely that Shekhar Gupta’s parents would have been as much an asset to America as he would be, but were impeded by the same regime. Is Friedman arguing that we should never have allowed such elites to develop to begin with, and used an open-door policy to maintain a monopoly on intellectual capital? Or should we use the world’s entrepreneurs as our recession cavalry?

The bigger problem is that a lot of Americans really do believe that natives of East and South Asia who come to the United States are uniquely skilled and hardworking in a way that natives of Mexico or Guatemala who come to the United States aren’t. The United States has a long history of distinguishing “good” immigrants from “bad” immigrants: Western Europeans from “radical” Eastern and Southern Europeans, asylees from economic migrants. At the moment, Mexican immigrants appear to be saddled in popular culture with the assumptions that they a) have entered illegally and b) are less intelligent or hardworking than their (particularly Asian) peers. Friedman’s invocation of a “culture” that requires fiscal responsibility helps reinforce the stereotype that an immigrant family from another region wouldn’t work 18 hours a day to pay off a mortgage. His complete omission of Latin America, when Mexico alone sent twice as many legal immigrants to the U.S. as China did from 2005-07, feeds into the assumption that such a family wouldn’t be able to get the mortgage to begin with.

It’s true that the current wave of migration from Asia is more heavily middle-class than the one from Latin America. But Friedman’s own argument implies that this discrepancy is due more to past immigration policy than some inherent cultural failing. I don’t yet know how I feel about the actual “buy a house, get a visa” policy that Tabarrok has so neatly (and compellingly) pulled out, but there’s no reason why a debate over this type of “immigration solution” should happen in such demographically different terms from the debate over the “immigration problem.”