Making it safe for progressives to talk about population

An Open Letter to Senator Patrick Leahy

This is the second of two letters I sent to Senator Patrick Leahy in 2008 and 2009,  addressing my concerns about U.S. population growth.

September 29, 2009

Dear Senator Leahy,

Thanks for taking the time to reply to my earlier e-mail about immigration policy and U.S. population growth. My friends at Vermonters for Sustainable Population told me to expect a form letter, so I was pleased to find that you had given my questions such careful consideration. Still, I would like to follow up that exchange (June 30, 2009) with a few more in-depth questions regarding your views on population growth.

You speak with reverence about the American immigration tradition, and rightly so. Our willingness to accept people from around the world is clearly a component that helped to make America the great country that it is today. Although I believe that current immigration levels contribute to an unsustainable rate of U.S. population growth, I am not advocating an end to all immigration, but only a change to immigration policy to bring it in line with a broader policy that leads to a stabilization of U.S. population size. Our past immigration history does not necessarily imply that large-scale immigration, and especially not the sustained, historically unprecedented pace of immigration we have seen these past two decades, is the correct path today.

Setting aside illegal immigration for a moment, legal immigration today is numerically higher today than at any point in our history. And while circumstances of the past were such that substantial waves of immigration served our national interest, the benefits to our current and future wellbeing are much less clear today. As just one example, our nation once offered free homesteads to new arrivals, so great was the desire for a larger population to settle the agricultural lands of America’s midsection. Today, of course, we are in a much different situation, demographically, and there are many people already living in America who find it hard to make ends meet.

Long before the recession started to swell the ranks of the unemployed in America, legal immigration was occurring at a faster pace than the creation of jobs. This increase in the supply of labor reduced the likelihood of employers increasing wages, and many Americans found the cost of living rising faster than their incomes. In your letter you stated that one of the considerations of immigration policy was protecting American workers, so I wonder if you would consider a reduction in legal immigration to help raise incomes for middle and lower income families.  Consider the question as a hypothetical: If you were presented with clear evidence that the current high levels of immigration were hurting the livelihoods of substantial numbers of American workers, would you consider voting to reduce legal immigration?

When I think of the history and tradition of immigration, I compare it to the tradition of hunting in America. In the earliest days of our nation’s history, both of these practices took place without restraint or government-imposed regulations. In the case of hunting,  people were, for hundreds of years, free to hunt whatever type of animal, in whatever numbers, in any season of the year, using any type of weapon or trap. That policy made sense at that time, as the human population was low enough that the wilderness could afford a sustainable harvest that provided vital sustenance to the colonists. In time, however, our population grew, and the governments of various states and the country as a whole began to recognize that unregulated hunting was no longer sustainable. They gradually imposed restrictions: how many of each species could be killed, when they could be killed, what kind of weapons and techniques could be used in hunting. As a result, by restricting hunting in carefully considered ways, we have managed to keep the hunting tradition alive and also to make it sustainable for the foreseeable future.

On the question of hunting, just as on the question of immigration, the impact on our nation’s people and its environment is highly sensitive to the context imposed by the size of the population. A large population can cause great harm if it’s allowed to hunt without carefully considered regulation and enforcement. In the same way, a large population which allows perpetual, large-scale immigration can cause great harm to both its people and its environment. Let me emphasize again: I am not advocating a total shutdown of legal immigration. At the same time, though, you would have to admit that the Wall Street Journal approach–described in an editorial as a five-word amendment to the constitution that would read “There shall be open borders” — would lead to a dramatic decline in the American quality of life. So the question for me is not as simple as zero immigration versus totally unrestricted immigration, but rather, what numerical rate of immigration would best serve the needs of our country today?

In your letter, you acknowledged that you don’t have a number that you could use to identify an optimal-sized population for the United States of America. I appreciate your candor, and I agree that the many variables need to be taken into account in order to determine an optimal population size. Still, I think the great majority of factors that one would consider all point to the likelihood that the American population is already larger than any rational optimum. Perhaps this is better understood if we consider some of the distinct policy arenas which are impacted by the size of our population.

For starters, the U.S. is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Although we made substantial strides in the amount of fuel consumed and carbon emissions produced by individual vehicles after the oil crises of the 1970s, we clearly backslid in recent decades with the massive production of large, inefficient vehicles for use by American families. Much has been made of our unwise preference for larger vehicles, but far too little has been said, I believe, about the other key consideration in our nation’s carbon footprint: our unprecedented population increase over the past two decades. Our national production of greenhouse gases is the product, primarily, of two factors: the per-vehicle production of carbon emissions, and the number of such vehicles in use. While we have only recently remembered the importance of choosing more efficient vehicle designs in reducing fuel consumption and the resultant emissions, we have had great difficulty in acknowledging the other driving factor, the number of such cars in use, which is directly proportional to the size of our population.

If we look at our production of greenhouse gases and project how it might change in the next several decades, it is clearly misleading to consider the potential gains in fuel efficiency and pollution amelioration outside of the context of our anticipated population growth. If, for example, we reduce per-vehicle emissions by 20%, but at the same time our population increases by 30%, as it is expected to do in the next thirty years, we will have actually increased our overall production of greenhouse gases. Compounding the problem, a larger population adds to congestion, so that vehicles spend more time idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic, further amplifying vehicle inefficiencies as the population continues to grow. If, on the other hand, we reduce our per-vehicle emissions by the same 20%, but at the same time take realistic measures to stabilize our population growth, we will have a much more meaningful overall reduction in the production of greenhouse gases. I could spend a lot of time postulating various numbers and introducing other variables (public transit should obviously be encouraged, for example) but it really comes back to the question of optimum population: Does our goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions become easier or harder with a larger population?

Closely related to the question of greenhouse emissions are the challenges we face in ensuring that future generations of Americans have sufficient energy resources to meet their needs. As you are no doubt aware, many believe that the world is rapidly approaching, or might even have already passed, the point of peak oil production. Regardless of when that milestone is actually reached, there can be no doubt that petroleum is a finite resource and that our current economy is at risk of major disruptions as the price of crude oil fluctuates dramatically. Furthermore, population growth in the rest of the world, coupled with growing demand for automobiles and other luxuries, increases the likelihood that petroleum prices will continue to rise and exert substantial inflationary pressures on our economy. More efficient technologies will help some, as will efforts to develop renewable energy sources on a massive scale, but our overall energy future looks extremely problematic, even if our population were moving toward stabilization. Factor in the kind of population growth that is now expected, however, and we can expect to face substantially greater challenges in planning our energy future. If we anticipate trouble providing fuel to heat our homes, drive our industries and power our vehicles at the current level of population, how can we expect a larger population to have anything but a much more difficult time transitioning to a sustainable energy future? So again, I ask you: does the goal or ensuring our nation’s energy future become easier or harder with a larger population?

Then there is America’s increasing economic inequality. A lot of progressives argue that the current tax structure, with its highly favorable treatment of the wealthy, is contributing to a substantial disparity in America’s distribution of wealth. There is indeed much to complain about in the current tax systems, but what about the way that our current immigration policies, as well as the influx of illegal immigrants over the past decade, have led to an increasingly large underclass? Most illegal immigrants and many legal immigrants have few skills and have had little education. As such, they are swelling the ranks of available workers seeking employment in a dwindling pool of low-skilled jobs. Sure, more equitable tax treatment would make our system fairer and allow those with only minimal skills to begin to climb the economic ladder, but not enough is said about the way that the historically high influx of unskilled workers contributes to our disturbing growth in the proportion of Americans living in or near poverty. When you have a low-income population that is much larger than desirable, how can it help to continue to allow additional unskilled workers into the country and further increase competition for those unskilled jobs?

These are just a few of the policy arenas in which population growth plays a significant role. There are many others, and I believe that in each case an increase in the population size makes it harder to resolve these issues effectively. However, perhaps you have heard different views on the question of U.S. population growth. I am aware, in particular, of arguments about the generational imbalances that threaten to place a heavy burden on future workers as the very large cohort known as the baby boom enters retirement. Some people say we need high immigration levels now, as well as higher American birth rates, to better balance the needs of the baby boomers against the size of the American working population that will be called upon to support them.

This kind of thinking was best exemplified by the advocacy of economist Julian Simon, author of “The Ultimate Resource,” who lobbied aggressively for increased immigration rates in the late 1980’s. His campaign gained substantial momentum in 1989 when the Census Bureau released population projections in which the middle series anticipated a fairly stabilized population of around 300 million people in the year 2027. Simon and his allies in Washington saw a stabilized U.S. population as a bad thing, and they persuaded lawmakers to pass the 1990 immigration reform, which included substantial increases in legal immigration. As I mentioned in my earlier letter to you, the U.S. population passed the 300 million mark in late 2006. Thanks to the 1990 immigration law, our population increased to that level not in the forecasted 38 years, but in less than 17 years. This kind of growth sets us apart from the rest of the developed world, and it’s not sustainable.

While I myself am a baby boomer and don’t look forward to an impoverished lifestyle in my twilight years, I think that the retirement needs of the baby boomers do not in themselves justify policies that lead to continued growth in the American population. I believe there are too many unknowns, and far too many issues which are likely to be negatively affected by continued population growth. In fact, future generations will likely find that today’s short-sighted complacency about population growth has greatly complicated the challenges they are sure to face in a world of dwindling resources and who knows what kind of climatic upheavals. As I mentioned, however, there are others who have different views, and actually see today’s population growth as economically beneficial. I would appreciate it if you would take a minute to elaborate on your views about how continued population growth will help or harm America’s people and its environment. Do you see it, on balance, as beneficial, as harmful, or as insignificant?

Senator Leahy, I am aware of your efforts to tailor the agricultural visa system by allowing dairy farmers to hire non-natives for year-round jobs, providing them with some of the same provisions that allow temporary workers to assist with seasonal needs for temporary workers, such as seasonable work crews for harvesting fruits and vegetables. I believe that this kind of thoughtful, case-by-case adjustment to immigration policies is quite reasonable and should be supported, especially if it doesn’t lead to permanent growth in our population.

As you are probably aware, the junior senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, has been opposed to some of the various immigration reform proposals put forth in Washington over the past few years. A fellow board member of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population wrote to Senator Sanders and inquired as to his reluctance to suport these reforms. Here, in part, is the Senator’s response:

I voted against ending the debate for each of these bills because of my serious concerns, particularly regarding the effects these bills would have on the economic security of America ‘s working and middle-class. Most notably, each bill would have established a permanent temporary guest worker program.  While the intent was to provide labor support to American employers, in reality this would have created a permanent underclass and stifled wage growth, as such workers are consistently paid very low wages, let alone any benefits.  I was proud to support an amendment that was approved to decrease the number of available visas.
Additionally, I found the proposed expansion of the H1-B visa program particularly troublesome.  This program allows employers to hire foreign workers to fill “specialty occupations” when they believe a lack of qualified and available American workers.  These occupations include, but are not limited to: teachers, lawyers, engineers, financial analysts, accountants, nurses, surgeons, and others.  In reality, the H1-B program is not being used to supplement American workers, but rather to replace them with lower-cost foreign workers.  According to the Center for Immigration Studies, (emphasis added) H1-B visa workers earn, on average $12,000 less than their American counterparts.

Senator Leahy, it is no secret that the Democratic Party stands to benefit from providing a path to citizenship to the estimated 12 million or so illegal immigrants in America today. Furthermore, by increasing legal immigration quotas in the future, the Democrats stand to further their political advantage as a result of a growth in the Hispanic population, which has strongly supported Democrats in the past. I am a registered independent but have usually voted Democratic myself, because I consider myself a progressive and agree with progressive policies in most cases. When it comes to immigration, however, I don’t believe that the proposals to increase legal immigration and to provide a path to citizenship for over ten million illegal immigrants is really a progressive policy as much as it’s a policy to ensure the Democratic Party’s grip on  political power and to ensure the wealthy a steady flow of cheap labor.  At the very least, I think that the potential benefits for the Democratic Party that might arise from increases in legal immigration or from amnesty for illegal immigrants is a conflict of interest that may cause legislators to support policies that favor their party in spite of harm that those same policies might cause to American citizens and the American environment. I wonder if you would care to elaborate on your party’s support for increased legal immigration and amnesty for illegal immigrants, and in particular, do you have any insight to share about the way that political ambitions might shape policies that could lead to further growth in the U.S. population. I find you to be a thoughtful, caring individual who generally supports those policies that best serve the interests of Vermont citizens. On the question of immigration, however, I suspect that your loyalty to the Democratic Party may blind you to the implications of future population growth for the quality of life in America. Would you mind shedding some light on your priorities relative to this potential conflict of interest?

Once again, thanks for your letter in response to my earlier questions. I understand that it could take you some time to respond, and I would rather wait a few months if it means you will give careful consideration to my concerns and provide the kind of thoughtful answers you gave me earlier. Let me just add that I support a public option in the proposed measures to reform health care, and I want to thank you for your years of service to our fine nation and to the people of Vermont.

With best regards,

Mark Powell


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