Tom Cotton Doesn’t Oppose Mass Immigration for Economic Reasons

Cotton, the fabric of our lies. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Ever since Jeff Sessions decamped for the Justice Department, Tom Cotton has been Breitbart’s favorite senator. On immigration, the Arkansas native is a hard-liner’s hard-liner: The man isn’t just passionate about deporting “illegals” (his preferred term for all undocumented immigrants, from MS-13 murderers to Dreamers) or building a wall — he also wants to slash legal immigration in half, and has the bill to prove it.

Unlike his ideological bedfellows in the House and Oval Office, however, Cotton doesn’t like to frame his position in nativist terms. You won’t hear the senator trashing “shithole countries” or insisting that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Instead, Cotton insists that his opposition to mass immigration has nothing to do with fear of foreigners, and everything to do with love of American citizens — and more specifically, those citizens who struggle to get by in today’s economy.

But the economic case for halving legal immigration doesn’t make any sense. And Tom Cotton’s broader economic philosophy is even more incoherent — as the following tweet amply demonstrates.

As Tom Cotton will eagerly tell you, the foreign-born population of the United States is currently at a record high. And yet, according to the article that he is approvingly sharing, the labor market is tight. In fact, absent a change in monetary policy, the labor market literally cannot get significantly tighter — because if it does, the Federal Reserve will deliberately loosen it to prevent inflation from rising above 2 percent by raising its benchmark interest rate.

So, Cotton’s suggestion that we need to slash immigration to tighten labor markets is facially bizarre: Our economy is demonstrably capable of producing tight labor markets and record-high immigration levels simultaneously; and, even if we were to cut immigration in half, it would be difficult to get labor markets much tighter than they are now, unless the Federal Reserve was willing to raise its target inflation rate.

If Cotton’s primary concern is to increase wage growth by keeping the labor market tight — a genuinely laudable policy goal — then he should be pushing for the Fed to keep interest rates low. But that (almost certainly) isn’t his primary goal. And so, he’s lobbied the Fed to do the opposite.

In February 2014 — with the unemployment rate sitting at 6.7 percent, and wage growth tepid — Cotton had a chance to interrogate Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen. The senator spent his allotted time spotlighting the burden that low interest rates pose to the retirees he represents. Which is to say: He spent his time pressuring Yellen to de-prioritize full employment.

Now, low interest rates are a genuine burden for America’s retirees. One could theoretically support full-employment economic policies and higher interest rates to help Americans earn more on their savings. But if you’re not going to use monetary stimulus to promote full employment in a moment of slow growth, then you need to use fiscal stimulus — i.e., government spending. And Cotton adamantly opposes that. In fact, he supports drastic decreases in federal spending.

So, there is nothing in Cotton’s record to suggest that a tight labor market is a priority for him. By contrast, there is some evidence that he has concern for the economic needs of retirees. And yet one of the primary economic effects of his immigration bill would be to starve Social Security of funding, by radically reducing the working-age population of the United States. What’s more, according to Penn Wharton’s budget model, Cotton’s bill would also dramatically reduce economic and job creation — two things he claims to care about very much.

All of which is to say: The weight of the evidence suggests that Cotton does not care about tight labor markets, and is either agnostic — or hostile to — the primary economic effects of his preferred immigration policy. So, assuming he’s not merely stupid, Cotton does not actually want to slash legal immigration for economic reasons, and only says that because he doesn’t feel comfortable making the case for his actual objections.

Tom Cotton Doesn’t Oppose Immigration for Economic Reasons