The dismal state of the economy has caused economists to revive the Keynesian notion of “animal spirits,” the concept that the economy is not merely understood through the study of charts, metrics and data, but also from psychological factors that move people to invest, build, lend, buy and sell. A new book by economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism, drills down and expands on the concept. Akerlof and Shiller offer five psychological motivations that can explain the workings of the economy: “confidence, corruption and bad faith (or ‘snake oil’), fairness, money illusion, and stories.”
Insight into America’s dysfunctional immigration system can also be gained through these five prismatic animal spirits:
Confidence: Our citizens, and the foreign nationals and businesses seeking entry to America, must be given reason to believe that the system functions. Today, the immigration system functions like a metal Rube Goldberg contraption left too long in the rain. It creaks, squeaks, shakes and shudders, but does not produce good outcomes for far too many people.
Corruption and Bad Faith: The prize of the American Dream, regrettably, is far too alluring and precious for a substantial number of people on all sides of the immigration debate. Just as there are people willing to break the rules to get in, there are people with sinister motives within the bureaucratic system, in the media and in hate groups who cross the line of legality or pour snake oil on a gullible populace, both domestic and foreign, to prevent the system from working. They are like the tax oppositionists who espoused the elimination of government social welfare programs by “starving the beast.”
Fairness: There is little equity in the system today. Skimpy quotas punish those who wait for immigration benefits to arrive. Adjudication procedures fail to provide legal standing to all parties in interest, e.g., in an adjustment portability case, the new employer and the foreign applicant have no meaningful way to respond to a request for evidence sent to the former employer. Visa applicants receive about a minute or two to carry the difficult burden of establishing eligibility to come to the U.S. before the consular officer makes a snap judgment and moves on to the next person in line.
Money Illusion: The unresolved question of whether immigrants grow the economy and create jobs or snatch work that Americans are willing and able to perform is a form of loco-weed that prevents one from seeing the other side of the argument, when in truth each proposition is sometimes true and sometimes false.
Stories: Yes, stories, at bottom, are really what immigration is all about. Human beings living lives that are swept up, and sometimes swept away, by the failure to fix our broken immigration system.
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Until the five animal spirits of immigration are understood, and intelligently addressed, comprehensive reform efforts, however worthy and urgently needed, will founder.