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Another Reason Why Building Walls is a Bad Idea

We take the long view at Valley Vision.  Not just to make sure we anticipate how our actions today will impact us all in 5, 10 or 20 years, but so that we can anticipate the future and plan for it today.  The irony of our age is that while we all experience the rapid disruptive shifts of technology, economy and environment daily, our social institutions move and change much slower.  We have to plan ahead.

One of the less heralded reasons Valley Vision takes the “vision” part of our name seriously is so we don’t screw up.  We have a strong interest in helping our policy makers avoid shortsighted decisions that may do more harm than good, long-term.

So why is the CEO of a regional leadership organization based in Sacramento speaking out on a big global policy issue like immigration?  Because our national debate appears to be falling into the trap of short-term expediency based on old data, rather than looking ahead to the future. The result could really damage our region and state.

A wall is being built along the US-Mexico border.  The goal is to keep illegal immigrants out.  At the turn of the last century the world faced an accelerating population explosion.  The problem facing the US and other countries was what to do with an ever-increasing pool of cheap labor that tended to move to wealthy countries.  The U.S. decided to limit the entry of immigrants in order to keep wages from plunging.  America’s might was built on the backs of millions of immigrants, yet since the 1920’s there has been a national consensus that the flow of immigrants should be limited so the economy can absorb them, and to ensure that jobs are not taken away from citizens.  Building a wall seems a simple, technical answer to a complex problem.

It’s important that we recognize that the assumptions on which US immigration policy are built are no longer true.  Global population growth is slowing tremendously.  A 2014 report by the World Bank reported that in 1988 – just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, ironically – we watched the absolute peak in global population growth, and ever since it has been declining in absolute terms.  This rate of decline is expected to pick up steam through 2050.  Fewer kids are being born; people are living longer due to health advances, all leading to an older population and a dramatic thinning of the ranks of available U.S. workers.

What does this mean?  Employers will be short the workers they need in just a few years, with a severe U.S. labor shortage forecast in 2020-2030 based on existing demographic trends.  There is already a great global war for talent with U.S. employers competing with every other industrialized country to recruit them.  We will have a strong interest as a country to create very strong political and economic ties with nearby advanced economies – especially Mexico – to meet this need.

If it seems like a bad time to be building walls to keep people out, you’d be right – not just because it runs against the course of human history and equal opportunity – but because our country’s aims for long-term economic growth and prosperity are dependent on accessing talent we cannot afford to wall out.  Let’s hope the long-term view prevails.

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Bill Mueller is Chief Executive of Valley Vision, a civic leadership organization headquartered in Sacramento serving 5 million residents in Northern California.

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