I got my start in Washington in the early 1990s as a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute working for Ben Wattenberg. A self-taught demographer, Ben also happened to be - and remains - one of America's foremost champions of liberal (others would say "lax") immigration policies.
Ben is a brilliant man with many lasting accomplishments to his credit. But one legacy has always grated at me, even as it has seeped into the conventional wisdom on certain parts of the right. One of Ben's favorite rhetorical flourishes is to compare America to a giant cocktail party. He makes the comparison often, and it's caught on among congressmen and think-tankers. It goes something like this:
"Imagine you are in a giant ballroom where 1,000 people are gathered for a Washington cocktail party," he'd say (I'm paraphrasing), "and into the room walk three Mexicans. Those three Mexicans represent the proportion of the U.S. population that immigrants add each year. There is little evidence these immigrants are spoiling the party."
While I agree with Ben on many things, I think it might be worthwhile, given the current debate over immigration, to explain why this analogy is so wrong.
First and most obviously: America simply isn't a cocktail party. And it probably doesn't help the cause to tell people in Peoria to lighten up by imagining themselves at a ballroom soiree in the nation's capital. Lots of taxpayers are already overly suspicious that folks in Washington are too blasé about things "normal Americans" care about. Saying don't worry and drink your champagne doesn't make it better.
At the cocktail party, the guests don't fear a few new arrivals will take their jobs, dampen their wages or overturn their communities. The reality is quite different.
The inherent math of the analogy is deeply flawed, too. It assumes a finite time period and a single input. To be accurate, the proportion of new arrivals needs to be cumulative. So if each year equals, say, 10 minutes at the cocktail party, within an hour you've got 18 mostly poor, non-English-speaking strangers. In three hours you've got 54.
Other variables are left by the wayside as well. Native-born Americans are older than immigrants. So over the course of the cocktail party, the oldsters would start dying. And, of course, people at cocktail parties don't typically have babies.
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