This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with Manhattan Institute president and leading policy thinker Reihan Salam on urban policy, immigration and identity, the state of American conservatism, and his well-informed views about Canadian policy and politics.
SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor at large at The Hub. I’m honored to be joined today by Reihan Salam, the president of the Manhattan Institute, a public policy think tank based in New York City, and a regular commentator on Anglo-American culture and politics in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and National Review, where he served for several years as a senior editor.
Let me just say that Reihan is one of the most consistently interesting, insightful people that I’ve ever met. He’s thinking on the intersection between immigration, culture, and economics in particular, including his 2018 book, Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders has had a profound effect on me. He’s recently published a new essay in Foreign Policy entitled “Why Skills-Based Immigration Is the Best Option for America.”
I’m grateful to speak with him about the essay as well as various other topics including his extraordinarily well-informed views on Canadian policy and politics. Reihan, thank you for joining me at Hub Dialogues.
REIHAN SALAM: Sean, it is an honour and a delight to be here. I am an avid listener to the Hub Dialogues podcast. I’m a huge, huge fan, and I really believe that The Hub is a breath of fresh air in North American media at large. I know that Sean does not like this kind of aggressive flattery, but I really am a huge, huge fan, and really this is such pleasure.
SEAN SPEER: If we can start by way of background, you were, as I mentioned in my introduction, a leading thinker and writer at National Review, which is one of the most important institutions in the world of American conservatism. You were someone who had earned an audience with the broader policy and political establishment because of the rigor and analytical nature of your commentary.
A few years ago though, you made an interesting career choice. You decided to become the president of the Manhattan Institute, and in so doing went from the world of individual commentary to institutional policy research, analysis, and dissemination. What caused you to make that jump and what’s your experience been like so far?
REIHAN SALAM: The truth is that though I certainly did devote a lot of my early career to writing and thinking in public, what I’ve always really loved doing is identifying talented people and really helping them develop their careers; helping them get their voice out in the world. I’ve always been very interested in being part of a larger movement, part of a larger coalition, part of a larger effort to change public policy for the better and that was really always a consistent theme, though it wasn’t always reflected in my job title, let’s say, it’s just something that I always really enjoyed and prized.
I also found as I got older that though—again, I was quite happy to write, I still am happy to write when I can—it really is more that idea of assembling a really talented, thoughtful, creative group of people together and seeing what are the ways that I can complement their efforts. What are the ways that I can support them? What are the ways that I can find people with complementary skills and make them a more effective team?
That’s the stuff that I’ve always really loved and appreciated, and the Manhattan Institute is an organization that I’ve long admired. It is an organization that had a pretty central role in my own political formation. Your listeners ought to know, played a really vital role in the urban renaissance in America’s cities in the 1990s and 2000s by advancing a bunch of common-sense reforms to policing and public safety, public finance, just a number of other domains. I really felt like this was an opportunity for me to see, can I take this organization that did so much for me and did so much to enrich American public life? Can I continue that tradition and can I also just take the fact that the things that I’ve always really loved are this institution-building, community-building work, and make it my full-time job?
I was just immensely grateful to have that opportunity and really grateful to work with people who are exceptionally bright, exceptionally capable, and were better at the things that I was doing than I ever was. Just at that work of writing, reporting analysis, and I get to be among people that I just always admired.
SEAN SPEER: As you mentioned, the Manhattan Institute has earned its reputation over the years for having a direct and positive influence over urban policy, I think, for instance, of the “broken windows” theory, which was conceived and popularized by James Q. Wilson and his work associated with the institute that has since produced positive results in reducing crime in New York City and other major cities. The institute has been a leader on a whole host of issues including housing, transit, etcetera.
It’s fair to say though, Reihan, that at least in most major cities, a progressive policy orthodoxy has taken shape. Why don’t you talk a bit about the current municipal policy landscape and if there any reasons to feel optimistic that the Manhattan Institute’s perspective and ideas might find a renewed audience amongst policymakers and the general public?
REIHAN SALAM: This is a very big persistent challenge, not just in the United States, but in virtually all market democracies, but let’s limit ourselves to the English-speaking market. There’s this very tight association between density and support for the political left. Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford, has done some really fascinating work on this question.
When you’re looking at Britain, for example, you really see these very striking relationships between areas where, for example, there was a coal mine 100 plus years ago, and still that area votes in a very distinctive way. Also, this pattern is fractal because, for example, even at a rural county, if you look at the way the county seat votes versus the outlying corners, the counties that are much lower in population density, you will see a political gradient as well in terms of the support for the political left.
This is a really striking and persistent pattern. Now, it also maps onto some developments that, I won’t say are unique to the United States but are particularly pronounced in the United States, namely that what we’ve seen in the U.S. is a very intense nationalization of our political discourse. This follows a number of different other developments, one of which is the nationalization of our media landscape. Also, some of the particular structural properties of our political system, but the upshot of it is that if you are an ambitious politician, you will oftentimes look to what are these nationalized political controversies. Oftentimes they’re cultural in character. Oftentimes they rest on what you might call identity cleavages within the wider population, and you vote on those issues and you’re not necessarily voting on the issues that are most salient at the state or local level, or that you’d think would be most salient at the state or local level.
As in Canada, as in many other market democracies, different levels of government have different responsibilities, but of course, those have been blurred. You had a recent Hub Dialogues episode talking about this concept of “watertight federalism” and needless to say, in the United States, we do not have watertight federalism. We have a system of cooperative federalism in which federal officials more and more try to play in what were traditionally state and local domains.
There’s a real blurring of these lines of authority and so oftentimes, what you’ll see in the U.S. is when you have partisan elections at the municipal level, which is not uncommon, people will vote exactly the same way in local elections as they do in federal elections, partly because they don’t necessarily know exactly what’s going on and, by the way, that’s no crime. They don’t have a reliable heuristic tied to local issues specifically. So, you will have voters who are cross-pressured, who might be Democratic voters at the federal level, who might actually have what you might call small-c conservative instincts, fiscally conservative instincts, pro-growth instincts, call it what you will, on issues of local importance, but that’s overridden by the fact that it’s the nationalized party label that matters most.
Now, if you look to Canada, it is an interesting case because you do have different parties at the provincial level, partly through happenstance and partly through tradition. At the local level, it’s not uncommon to have local political parties and I think that in theory, that would give you a little bit of purchase, a little bit of wiggle room. It’s not obvious to me that that always plays out in terms of political outcomes, but I will say that given the low salience of these issues, sometimes that means that you can have a mayor, let’s say, of a—whether they have a D next to their name or an R next to their name—they can pursue policies that have a different ideological orientation than you’d expect from their national party label and that creates some opportunities.
I know there’s a lot there, but I think that that is a big, big dilemma for those who want conservative reform at the local level. Then, of course, there’s the role of unionized public sector employees, and that stuff varies from place to place, but there are many other factors that really contribute to that, call it, progressive hegemony in urban America.
SEAN SPEER: In a really thoughtful interview that you did with New York Times columnist Ezra Klein in the spring, you talked about what you called “quality of life conservatism.” At the foundation of such an agenda, you didn’t put education or housing or health care. Instead you placed public safety. That message certainly resonates with me. New York City where we both reside has, according to virtually any metric, become less safe in recent years. Can I ask you just to reflect on the importance of public safety, including the extent to which we seem to have forgotten the hard-earned lessons of previous decades?
REIHAN SALAM: This is a very fraught issue, particularly among educated professionals including educated policy professionals. There has been a real normative shift in how people think about these issues from roughly the 1990s. Even if you look, overall, at a larger sweep of American history—as you well know, Sean, not unique to the United States, but was particularly pronounced in the U.S.— you saw a really sharp increase in violent crime in the 1960s that persisted through the ’70s and ’80s. In the ’80s, it entered a new phase, and I’m generalizing here, but it entered a new phase with the crack epidemic.
Basically, there was such a dramatic surge in violent crime over this long period. It had many, many consequences both for the economic and social geography of the country. For example, there’s a lot of talk in modern U.S. history about the phenomenon of white flight or middle-class flight. There’s a lot of interesting work to suggest that: was there some degree of racial prejudice involved in people moving from urban cores that were being transformed by the black migration from the deep south to cities in the north and west? Yes.
Actually, there’s a lot of work suggests that a big driver of this was what the economist Leo Bursztyn calls the “fiscal-demographic channel.” That is even people living in neighborhoods that were not going through an ethnic transition, because of basically this changing balance in the tax base in service provision, including, of course, policing, it just basically became a bad deal for a lot of people to live in these urban cores that were experiencing this rapid change in their fiscal-demographic balance.
Again, a lot of that’s driven by crime. Many of the things that I personally believe in, and here I’m speaking in a personal rather than institutional capacity, I’m a big believer in dense, walkable cities, I believe that there’s a lot to be said for traditional neighborhood design, the vitality that flows from mixed-use communities. Again, I have a lot of personal preferences about this.
There’s a way in which, yes, there are people who want more land, there are people who really embrace that suburban or exurban lifestyle, but there’s a real way in which that sharp increase in violent crime greatly contributed to those outflows and I think really diminished the quality of life for a lot of people. It also, I think, in some ways, diminished our productive potential. It diminished the possibility for all the more integrated social networks in which people from different groups could rub shoulders and form deep and meaningful relationships.
My view is that violent crime actually engenders this deep suspicion of your neighbours, of people who belong to different groups. You start to think in terms of group categories and group averages in a way that can be very corrosive of the idea of building a successful vibrant, multi-ethnic society. That’s one reason why I’m so zealous about public safety and what violent crime does. In fact, there’s so much evidence that, actually, it would really be pretty darn cost-effective to spend a lot more on public safety.
Now, what exactly that means is contested politically. Someone like me might place more of an emphasis on literally investing more in proactive policing and in incarceration. Again, these are things that are very contentious. Others might say, “Hey, let’s spend more on summer youth employment programs. Let’s spend more on literally the design of our streets, our lighting, and what have you.” By the way, I’m actually quite friendly to some of those ideas too. I’m more of a both-end person when it comes to fighting violent crime, but I really believe that we neglect this at our peril.
I would argue that one issue that I have with some folks, I won’t say it’s just on the Left, it’s also someone on the libertarian Right, but who say let’s move away from a punitive approach. Let’s disinvest in proactive policing, et cetera. What I fear is that you’ve seen a progressive “starve the beast” in which you are actually draining some of these crucial institutions that endeavour to provide public safety of resources. Then one of the knock-on consequences of that is that they are less effective, you have longer backlogs, they’re less responsive.
In some cases, when you’re talking about incarceration, conditions can be worse, indeed less humane, because you’re not actually investing in them properly. I would believe that this is an area where I’m a big government conservative. I’m big government when it comes to making sure that we keep our streets safe, making sure that we’re investing in a system that is responsive, effective, humane, fair, transparent, that cares about recidivism. Really, that is saying that we do not want egregious, grave inequalities about how physically safe you are just based on the neighbourhood you live in.
When you think of that in those terms, it really is a scandal. If you want to talk about racial equity, interethnic equity, and justice, just to me the fact that there are some people who are just way more likely to be victimized, to me is a moral scandal and something that merits much more attention-focused seriousness.
SEAN SPEER: I want to shift the subject now to immigration policy. As I mentioned, this is a subject for which I’ve benefited immensely from your thinking and writing, including your very well-regarded 2018 book, Melting Pot or Civil War? At the risk of oversimplifying its complexity, how would you describe the book’s main thesis or idea?
REIHAN SALAM: The main idea is that when we think about immigrants, we should not think of them just as individuals, we should not just think of them as workers, we should not just think of them as people who might be dangerous or bad, or causing all sorts of problems, nor should we just think of them as saints, people who by virtue of the fact that they’re seeking opportunity, they’re seeking refuge. We want to think about this issue critically and thoughtfully in multi-generational terms.
If somehow, immigration only involved people who would never form families for whatever reason, some mysterious reason, the only people are those who have sworn off the idea of ever raising children, ever becoming grandparents, the issue would be drastically different. You see this reflected in the fact that the immigration discourse in the Gulf Arab States, for example, or in a society like Singapore, where you have very stringent, indeed aggressive regulation of temporary worker status. These are places where you have massive, massive inflows of migrants where—the case of Singapore, for example—there will literally be stringent restrictions governing whether or not you can become pregnant.
If you’re a temporary worker in one of these categories, guess what, you’re pregnant, you’re out of there. These are things that will strike your listeners, North American listeners, as deeply illiberal, indeed unthinkable. You could argue that it reflects a clarity of purpose, which is that we see migrant workers as an economic tool, in order to enrich our society for the benefit of our citizens. They are not thinking about migration in terms of the driver of the future of our society, future generations that will flow from the migrants that we welcome and admit. So, in a way that was really core for me.
When I looked at the immigration debate, when I looked at the way that it played out, when I looked at my frustrations with immigration discourse both on the Left and Right, that really was the heart of it. It was the idea that you either have this sentimentality on the one side that almost tries to suppress any dissenting views or any, I don’t know, kind of thoughtfulness about actually there are real costs here, there are costs here for the migrants themselves. Actually, those costs imply that there are obligations on the part of the society.
I think that immigration advocates, for example, will tend to, let’s say, de-emphasize the obligations at the front end. Let’s de-emphasize those costs. Let’s de-emphasize the idea that this is a serious relationship you’re undertaking by welcoming newcomers to your society. They fear the bad old restrictionists, the xenophobes, and they think, “Well, we don’t want to focus on that.”
Then once you welcome people, once you have this newcomer population that faces struggles, faces deficits, faces challenges, then suddenly those same immigration advocates flipped to a very different discourse. Then it suddenly becomes, “We’re not doing enough. This is outrageous. We are a racist society.” You have first and second-generation people who are far behind, old stock folks, people with deep multigenerational roots, and these ways they’re underrepresented. It’s just this crazy whiplash.
At first you say, “This is totally costless. How dare you suggest that there’s any cost?” Then you suddenly say, “You must immediately transform your society, and you must immediately invest these vast sums of money and emotional and psychic resources in basically accommodating newcomers.” Again, I’m not unsympathetic to the view that you want to be accommodating, but let’s be honest about the fact that this is like a marriage. This is not like you’re swiping left on some dating app. You know what I mean? You’re looking for a good time. You’re in town. Hey, you want to have dinner with someone new. This is actually a real lasting relationship where if that person snores it’s going to matter for you for a lifetime and beyond.
SEAN SPEER: I want to pick up on some of those observations because one of the key insights in the book, Reihan, that has reshaped how I think about these issues is basically the following: You argue that Canada and the U.S., which are outliers around the world because we grant citizenship based on birth or what is sometimes referred to as birth on soil, need to think differently about our immigration policies than jurisdictions, as you say, that don’t have similar citizenship policy.
In effect, what I understand you be saying is if you have a policy of birth on soil, you can’t have an immigration policy that involves little reciprocal or mutual obligation between the nation and those who come here because if they have children, those children become citizens. Once you think about these issues that way, it has pretty major implications. Do you want to elaborate a bit on why birthright citizenship looms so large in how you think about immigration issues and why do you think others fail to reckon with this fundamental reality?
REIHAN SALAM: Well, you put it very well, Sean. Just we are really entering into this long-term relationship and there certainly are people on the restrictionist Right in the U.S. who talk about revising birthright citizenship. I’ve even played with the idea myself as a kind of thought experiment for getting people to think seriously about what it means to, for example, grant amnesty. What it means to say that concerns people have about the rule of law are not going to matter in this instance. How do we prevent there being serial amnesties, which can also undermine public trust? I think that you really distilled it perfectly.
I think that is why this is also a subset of a larger issue, which is, I really believe in biting the bullet. One thing that people don’t fully appreciate, and of course this is contested and you know much more about this than I do, Sean, but Canada is a market democracy. It’s a liberal society, but it really has embraced, and I know that there have been ebbs and flows here, but has really embraced immigration enforcement, has really embraced the notion that if you violate, if you overstay a visa, we are going to take that seriously and there are very stiff penalties on the books if you violate Canadian immigration law.
Now, I think that in the United States, partly because we have a long border with Mexico, with a middle-income society, and a border that is increasingly being a gateway for so-called “extra continental migrants”, people from outside the western hemisphere who come to South America by land, it’s a number that is growing quite, quite rapidly. We face, I think, a different set of dilemmas that shapes our thinking in both ways.
There’s this one view that, essentially, our border is exceptionally difficult to control, and therefore one takeaway from that is we should more aggressively militarize the border, we should externalize enforcement in various ways. We should pursue that as our strategy. Another view is that, “Look, we should give up and we should basically try to regularize and legalize these flows in various ways and that would be a much more effective tool.” Maybe that’s a tool that complements enforcement efforts.
I will say I’m not an extremist in either end. I recognize that there are subtleties here, but I think that that’s something you could say that Canada benefits from having the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans and you have the Arctic and then you also have the United States as a buffer as well that allows you to approach this somewhat differently. Now, again, I’m less of a fatalist about the tools that are at our disposal, but there’s no question that it introduces all manner of complexity into a polyethnic multiracial society. Because basically there are ways in which immigration discourse intersects with our, as you know, torturous discourse about race, ethnicity difference, interethnic inequality. That’s something that I also tried to address in the book.
I just tried to say, “Gosh, this also is a gating issue.” Because if you are in Singapore, if you’re in Qatar, you can say, “Well, we don’t care about inequality per se across these groups because I do not care about the Bangladeshis who are arriving here as temporary workers. Of course, they’re poor by the standards of what I would expect for a Qatari citizen but that’s par for the course. They’re not part of my society.”
But if you are a Bangladeshi immigrant to the United States, you are a second-generation person and you’re looking at wealth disparities, you’re looking at something quite meaningful. Some of the most brilliant immigration advocates are really serious, thoughtful people. They start from a cosmopolitan baseline. For them, what’s relevant is, if I’m born in Guyana, I’m a heck of a lot richer if I’m living in the suburbs of Toronto than if I’m remaining in Guyana in a rural place.
That makes sense from a purely cosmopolitan perspective. If you are thinking about the guts of a society and how it works, and if you do have a more or less egalitarian sensibility, which by the way, I wouldn’t describe myself as egalitarian, Sean, but within some bounds, if that’s going to be a background of our politics, if you’re going to have folks in the NDP who are just constantly talking about interethnic inequality, well then guess what? You got to think about that at the front end too, as something that’s going to inform your thinking. That process of selection is going to have deep implications for the inequalities that will get reproduced in your society over time.
SEAN SPEER: Consistent with the book’s thinking, your recent Foreign Policy essay that I mentioned makes the case for a U.S. immigration policy that resembles something like Canada’s point system. As you write: “Virtually all of the world’s market democracies have moved towards points-based systems that select migrants on the basis of language proficiency, educational credentials, employment offers, and other characteristics that predict labor market success and integration.” Why not the United States? What’s the political economy obstacle here?
REIHAN SALAM: This is such a thorny set of issues. First, I will say for your Canadian listeners that I appreciate that there is a lot of complexity to the Canadian system and that, of course, Canada admits a large number of family class and humanitarian class migrants. I would argue that in some ways we can get into this further if you’d like, Sean, that under the Trudeau government, there have been moves that I think have not been entirely beneficial.
I think in some ways the Canadian system has moved in a direction that is less salutary in terms of its long-term consequences, potentially vis-a-vis the United States. One big difference is simply because we are not a Westminster Parliamentary democracy, the question of executive authority, basically the speed and nimbleness with which we can restructure the system from the ground up, those are things that can be somewhat inhibiting.
Now, I’m a great believer in our system. I’m a great believer in the idea that the idiosyncrasies of our Congress, the limitations placed on our executive branch, to my mind, they reflect this belief that you want broad overlapping majorities that are durable over time to affect a dramatic policy change. Now, I can imagine a world in which the U.S. embraces an immigration system somewhat closer to what you’ve seen emerge in Canada and Australia over the past several decades, that would give some discretion to the executive within clear guidelines provided by congressional legislation.
Again, that can go better or worse depending on the circumstances, but I think that I would love to see congressional legislation that does provide some broad contours for what a point system might look like that could then be adjusted, but there would be some discretion set, discretion within limits. I think that that would be really, really beneficial. I think the big obstacle is that you need a broad, durable, overlapping majority.
Also, one particularity of our politics is that because immigration is such a contentious issue, it’s very hard to see it happening through a single party. The filibuster in the Senate has made it exceedingly difficult because you effectively need at least 60 plus votes in the Senate, then you also have to have the fact that the two houses aren’t identical. Republicans in the House are oftentimes different from Republicans in the Senate.
You’ve had a number of big ambitious comprehensive immigration reform proposals that almost crossed the finish line because they had broad support in the Senate, but there was resistance in the House. For very good reason, I would argue in some places. Because our immigration reform efforts have been no trade-offs efforts. Let’s make everybody in the immigration expansion coalition happy. Let’s not say, “Well, we’re going to pare back family streams somewhat to increase economic stream.” Nope. We’re just going to increase it across the board.
Then public opinion on immigration is a little bit tricky to read because you could say, should you increase the numbers? Should you decrease the numbers? And you’ll get one answer. If you say, do you want to decrease family? Do you want to decrease economic? Do you want to decrease humanitarian? You’ll get different answers. Do people have a clear sense of how the numbers have changed over time, for example? I think that’s not always a reliable guide, but I think that the broad fact is that you don’t have a large number of people who want big increases.
The reform proposals that we saw during the Obama administration, for example, or during the George W. Bush administration, typically entailed quite significant increases in legal inflows. Now, what you’ll hear from partisans of those proposals is that, well, actually, overall, considering that unauthorized inflows were quite big, you’re not actually seeing a big delta there.
Again, we can debate that, but I think the big picture is that we need a new settlement. We need a new bipartisan approach that does not discount the fact that the broad public, mass public opinion, does not really favor drastic increases and inflows. Now, I will also say that my thinking is softened on some of these issues, partly because of some of the challenges we’ve seen emerge throughout the COVID experience, and also just some of my conflicted feelings about the implications of demographic change from migration, but that’s a whole separate issue.
SEAN SPEER: Reihan, you’re a keen observer of Canadian immigration policy. What’s your sense of current policy trends, particularly the increase in the annual intake that we’ve seen under the Trudeau government? Is there a risk of too much of a good thing? In other words, just because immigration is good for the country and is presently popularly supported, by and large, do you think the government’s ambitions risk harming the country’s unique political economy equilibrium?
REIHAN SALAM: Sean, this is an issue that I’m obsessively interested in, and I will just begin by saying that Canada is a decentralized federal state, and though the federal government weighs heavily through its transfers to provincial and local governments, really it is a patchwork to some degree. When we’re looking at, for example, something like local land use regulation, that is not something that is dictated by Ottawa, right? It happens that local land-use regulation in, call it the three or four biggest most populous metropolitan areas, the interaction between that local land-use regulation and immigrant inflows is actually humongously profound for economic outcomes, for patterns of domestic migration, and also for what you might call the emerges of new solitudes.
There’s this discourse of the two solitudes in Canadian history, but what does it mean when you have these lines of fracture between urban Canada and rural Canada? What does it mean when you have groups, first and second-generation groups that are quite large, quite robust, that have a diaspora sensibility? Or where people who are Canadian, they deserve to be treated as Canadian, they deserve to be respected, they deserve to have voice, but also, when you’re thinking about backlashes against migration in different societies, my suspicion is that they sometimes stem, it’s not so much from the size of the inflow, but as the size of the inflow and perceived cultural distance, and also the relationship between the size of the inflow and native birth rates, native fertility.
Why is that? One way to think about it is how Canadian, call it an old stock Canadian person who’s 60 plus, who could have another good 20 years of voting and participating in civic and public life. How does that person think about public investment in education, in infrastructure? How does that person think about the future of the country? How does that person think about the burdens that might be placed on her or on him when it comes to local schools and you name it, spending money on a local park?
If you think about in terms of your children and grandchildren, you might think about it one way. You might think about having an investment in the future. If you think about these rising generations as being foreign, not especially connected to you, there being some cleavage there, you might think about it differently. One thing I would say is that when you’re looking at earlier eras of immigrant inflows in the United States, for example, what you’ll see is that our immigrant inflows today are not unusually high, certainly not by the standards of the late 19th century, early 1900s.
They are awfully high in the broader sweep of American history relative to native fertility, the family size of multi-generational Americans. Of course, when you’re looking at newcomers too, they’re actually oftentimes having pretty small family size too. This is true on both sides of the border across North America. That also addresses how you think about immigration as a demographic boon, as a get-out-of-jail-free card when you’re thinking about old-age entitlements, et cetera.
To me, that’s the big thing. Again, that’s not me saying therefore let’s shut it down because I will also say that demographic stagnation and zero population growth, negative population growth can be incredibly painful economically and otherwise can be a real drag not just on growth in growth terms, but even on per capita growth. You have less vitality and I think that it may well have an effect on your capacity for innovation and much else.
I think that’s the big picture. I think that when you’re looking at overall immigration numbers, it sounds silly, but think about rents in Toronto, and Vancouver, and Montreal, and Calgary. You want to think about that. We are not talking about authoritarian central planning societies where you’re going to fiddle with all of these levers all at once because already, Canadian migration, I believe it’s something close to 3x what is coming into the United States.
I would say we probably ought to be a little bit higher and maybe you guys ought to think about pumping the brakes just a little bit because there are knock-on consequences that have a real effect on upward mobility in terms of accessing the housing market and other things too. It’s not just about wages. It’s also about these other things that can affect real incomes. I think that that’s something that people discount. You look at a lot of sophisticated economic analysis saying, “Hey, business models adapt. The impact on wages can be muted, particularly over the longer term.” I buy that. But, again, there are other channels through which migration can affect the quality of life in ways that could yield problematic policy and cultural responses.
SEAN SPEER: There’s just a ton of insight there, Reihan. Just in parentheses, one of the issues that Howard Anglin, a regular Hub contributor and former chief of staff to the federal immigration minister, has raised in the past is the disconnect between the federal government setting annual intake targets without properly consulting provincial and local governments to ensure, as you say, that there’s alignment with sub-jurisdictional policies with respect to housing, or transit, or schooling, or whatever.
It’s like the federal government gets to make this big announcement with a big sticker number and then leaves it to subnational jurisdictions to figure out how to implement it. I think there’s a lot of insight there about the need for a bottom-up process of setting immigration targets as opposed to a top-down one.
REIHAN SALAM: I’m conflicted about that, Sean, because I will say that, I think Howard’s point is well taken, but my nightmare would be NIMBYism at the local level then gets entrenched in immigration policy too. I suppose another line of argument could be that, hey, look, central planning’s not going to work. What we’re demonstrating is that Ontario needs to be much more aggressive about building more homes. I think that’s something that has been a big theme at The Hub. I know that the Spoke brothers are very excited about this. I know you are too, Sean, and I know that Pierre Poilievre cares very deeply about this issue too.
I think that’s fair and true that you need that local land-use deregulation. But I also think — it’s interesting, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, she came into office partly saying, as someone who is a very progressive person, somebody who really embraces the idea of a multiethnic New Zealand, but saying, “Hey, we’re going to have to reduce inward migration because of the housing crisis that we’re in.”
I guess my preference would be, I really do want to see Canada cities, Canada’s municipalities embrace housing growth, but we also, yes, need to be mindful also about social services because one thing that you’ve seen, of course, is humanitarian immigration increasing markedly or when you talk about family migration can we structure things in a way where we really emphasize family responsibility? If you’re sponsoring a family migrant, gosh, you really need to take that seriously.
One thing that I love about the Canadian system is the fact that U.S. citizens can sponsor their parents for permanent visas without limit. It is not a category that’s subject to quotas. In Canada, you are entitled, as I understand it to renewable visas, provided you are going to be on the hook for long-term care. I think that’s incredibly important right? You’re just saying that, of course, we want more grandparents in the country, we want to keep families together. We believe in that but it’s up to you. It’s your responsibility to do that.
You can’t just say you’re going to bring in your elderly parent in her 70s, 80s and say that “Oh gosh, we’re going to expect the Canadian taxpayer to foot the bill for this.” I think that that strikes me as a very mature, thoughtful balanced approach to both wanting family reunification, but also saying that “Hey, there is a shared responsibility here. It does not all belong to the municipal government, the provincial government, the federal government, it also belongs to the family and the community. Let’s find ways that we can basically establish that early on for migrants.” I do think my sense is that Canada does a better job for that than the United States but it’s certainly something that I want us to learn from.
SEAN SPEER: On a related question, you’ve done a lot of thinking about integration, particularly among second-generation immigrants. This has become even more important as the immigrant population increases as an overall share. What’s your sense of Canada’s record in this regard? How ready do you think the country is for a world in which immigrants could exceed half the population within 20 years?
REIHAN SALAM: Wow, there are so much to say about this. Recently, Statistics Canada released a fascinating report on what Canada’s demographic picture might look like in 2041. It is just astonishing because you’re talking about a Canada in which, I believe, it’s something like — as you were suggesting — close to 50 percent is either first or second generation, and 40 percent plus of the population belongs to so-called racialized minorities.
It’s funny because I remember I had a debate, I had a bit of a back and forth with some migration scholars in the United States, who were arguing that, basically, reorienting America’s public charge rules to impose a bit more of what critics would call a wealth test on newcomers to the United States would lead to more migrants coming from Europe and Canada, which is to say white immigrants. I was saying, “Hey, I don’t know if you followed what the demographic mix looks like among Canadians under the age of 40 but I don’t think it’s obvious that these folks would be white.”
The same for Europe. Actually, what you see is a lot of secondary migrants people who settled first in Sweden and then make their way to Canada or the United States. That’s something that I personally think it would be a good thing to facilitate. These are big deep questions and it relates to what we’re discussing before vis-a-vis the relationship between native birth rates and immigrant inflows.
A big index of inclusion in a society full-civic participation, beyond civic participation, cultural participation, cultural inclusion is intermarriage. What you’ll see is that intermarriage patterns really are influenced to no small degree by the relative size of different groups. There’s a lot of fascinating literature contrasting the United States and Canada and intermarriage patterns in both countries.
One thing that’s pretty striking is that now, the black Canadian population is growing quite rapidly but of course, it’s growing because of newcomers from, for example, East Africa and elsewhere, and the Caribbean, of course. That has always been a big source of black population. In the United States, it’s different. But the big picture is that black, non-black intermarriage in Canada is just way, way higher than in the United States.
Part of that is simply, you could say, “Oh, it’s because maybe Canada is less racist, maybe Afro-Caribbean Canadians are doing much better in economic terms.” Actually Canadians of black origin report a lot of discrimination. There really are a lot of gaps when it comes to incomes, professional status, et cetera. But partly it’s just because it’s a smaller group in relative size.
If you look at people of Asian origin on both sides of the border, both sides high levels of educational attainment. Again, there is variation here but, overall, folks are doing pretty well in income terms, wealth terms, but actually, there’s way less intermarriage in Canada Asian-white than there is in the United States. Again, partly that’s relative group size. Partly it’s the composition of these different groups.
Again, that’s not the end all, be all. That doesn’t mean therefore, again, we shut it down or we drastically reduce numbers. It is interesting when you think about Canada in 2041 where you have entire cities’ populations that go back one or two generations, where there is very little intermarriage with, call it, older stock Canadian population and also where you have that rural-urban dimension as well. It’s interesting and I’ve got to say there must be a lot of stuff like this going on in Canada right now, and you would know much more about it than me, Sean.
I was thinking, “Gosh, I really hope the Canadian federal government is really thinking hard about recruiting people into the military, into public safety institutions at the provincial level. I really hope that there are folks in the nonprofit sector in Canada who are trying to get kids, South Asian origin in Brampton and get them out to cottage country.” Are there people who were talking about “Hey, let’s see, we want to have a summer camp program to bring kids of Afro-Caribbean, origin East Asian origin. Let’s get people to mix and mingle and to really embrace the north”? It’s amazing because you have this totally fragmented discourse about, for example, First Nations/Indigenous affairs but then you have this dramatic growth of these new populations.
Of course, bilingualism, culturalism, you think about in the 2040s what the heck is that going to look like when you have a huge critical mass of folks who speak Mandarin or Hindi or Punjabi as big prevalent languages in a more diaspora-oriented world, in which the economic gravitational pull of East Asia will be quite considerable. I suspect that over the next 20 years India’s gravitational pull, culturally, and economically will increase as well. There is this discourse among some Canadian progressives that Canada’s triumph is that as a post-national society.
Needless to say, I don’t find that to be an especially attractive vision nor do I believe it’s especially realistic. If you have a Canadian identity that people are not investing in, people don’t believe in, people aren’t actually being thoughtful about how do we actually address these new solitudes in a thoughtful systematic way, then I’ll tell you. The idea of diaspora politics of people who are thinking much more of Canada as an arena rather than a state, a country that commands loyalty, and I realize that this might sound to some people a little bit conspiratorial or excessively dark or pessimistic and I don’t mean it to. What I mean is that people crave identity, belonging, community and there are a lot of entrepreneurs who are going to provide that for you.
It could be that, actually, the Government of Guyana or the Government of India is going to be doing a much better job of appealing to young Canadians by pulling that tug for them because some Laurentian elites have decided that, “Well, we’re a post-national country and that’s how we’re going to be.” Again, I don’t think that the modal outcome is necessarily a bad one but I think that there is a way in which when I look at central Canadian media, this world, there’s — I don’t know people seem so glib. They seem so triumphalist about how much more enlightened we are that got a country X or Y that are neighbors to the South, etcetera, but they aren’t really thinking about, “Gosh, are we really meeting people where they are? Are we actually this first second-generation population? They are the future.”
What does that mean and how do we incorporate them into the Canadian story in a deep way that’s not just “Oh, official multiculturalism. Cool. We’ll let them have their festivals and stuff? That’s awesome. I’ll show up at the Gurdwara and it’ll be a grand old time.” It’s got to be more than that.
SEAN SPEER: Well, Reihan, it urges so much insight there. You’ve been extraordinarily generous with your time. I just have a couple of final questions if that’s okay.
REIHAN SALAM: Of course.
SEAN SPEER: As you may know, we had Ross Douthat on the podcast recently, and I asked him about a book that the two of you co-authored in 2008, in which you called for a change in Republican party policy orthodoxy to better reflect the evolution of its voter coalition from college-educated voters to more working-class ones. Obviously, your advice went mostly unheeded and the political consequences are still working themselves out.
My sense, Reihan, is that while Ross has remained committed to this shift in conservative orthodoxy, and in fact, in some ways, he’s gone even further in the age of Trump away from market economics, you haven’t. In fact, if anything, you’ve arguably moved back to defending a more conventional approach. Let me ask a two-part question. First, is my interpretation right? Second, is it that you’ve changed, or is it that American conservatives have moved so far beyond the ideas in the Grand New Party that you feel you need to pull things back a bit?
REIHAN SALAM: In broad strokes, when we wrote that book, we were reacting to a number of different developments. Part of it was the sense that the real problem with President George W. Bush was that he was not sufficiently austere, that he wasn’t sufficiently aggressive in rolling back the entitlement state, and that had he done so, the conservative coalition would be in much better stead. This thinking contributed to some developments that happened after we published our book, for example, the rise of the Tea Party Movement, where there was this notion that the future of the Right is in this much more aggressive small government politics.
Now, I will say that relative to that view that what we need to do is drastically shrink the size of government relative to where it was in 2006, struck me as a little bit dishonest, in this sense. What I think you saw was a posture on the part of many conservative lawmakers, conservative politicians, that they were going to be aggressive government cutters, while not really talking about Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Some did try to talk about it, but even then, there was an illusory politics to it. There was the sense of “Well, what happens with the rubber meets the road, or what will a Republican governor say when you propose this particular plan?” It wound up being awfully symbolic a lot of the time.
I think to some degree, for me, Grand New Party was a reaction to that and just think, “Okay, let’s jettison this symbolic small government politics, and instead embrace, I think, an approach that is consonant with a lot of small government themes. We want economic freedom. We want a decentralized society. We want to foster economic opportunity through free enterprise, and the free economy at large. Let’s think about the ways in which we have the safety net. We are going to have the safety net.”
If you look to every market democracy, this has been a pretty persistent feature of the landscape. How can we make it more conducive to work at wealth building? How can we make it work in a way that is not strangling private enterprise and initiative, but rather contributing to it, providing a solid foundation for it?
To some extent, I would be agnostic. Yes, I would generally prefer a smaller share of GDP going to public expenditures but that’s not really the right way to think about it. The right way to think about it is, are these systems actually working and are they not strangling the things that we believe are the foundations for America’s prosperity and openness? That to me was the lodestar.
I think what’s happened is that, basically, there is a real discrediting of a lot of the movement’s conservative orthodoxy on political economy, a lot of which, I think, the feeling hadn’t really confronted the ways in which global political economy has changed, including the rise of new and emerging challenges. It’s not always about top tax rates, it’s about many other challenges we face.
I think a lot of that insight is right, but what you’ve seen is a lot of people to say, “Okay, well, we’re just going to basically embrace beyond bien-pensant views about accepting egalitarian premises as though those are the views of lower-middle-class, middle-class, working-class voters who make up the center-right coalition.”
What I would suggest is that when you’re looking at that broad center-right coalition, including the new elements of it, one big thing you see that is more people who come from places that are more economically stagnant. They’re not coming from the most dynamic, affluent, productive regions. They’re coming from regions where—by the way, they’re not especially unequal and in fact, they’re oftentimes the least unequal parts of the country—where you haven’t seen much growth or demographic vitality. My sense is that these are places where, actually, they would trade off some equality for growth. That’s what they want.
Again, what does that mean? How’s it that we create growth? What growth? Of course, we care about income growth, we care about income growth in the bottom half. That stuff’s all legitimate. I just think the policy prescriptions you see, just honestly, don’t strike me as scratching the right itch.
I’ll also say when you look at the way that conservative politics have evolved, and you think about the real motivating issues for a lot of folks on the broad, I actually do think they have a lot more to do with identity politics than as commonly acknowledged by some of the people who want a new political economy on the Right.
This is a big topic but I think opposition to racial preferences, opposition to quotas, opposition to a public ideology as expressed in schools and other public institutions that seems to be hostile to the country’s historic cultural majority. I don’t mean that in narrowly racial terms.
That’s one reason why you’ve seen the emergence of a new multi-ethnic coalition on the Right, where you see a lot of folks of Latin-American origin, Asian origin, other minority backgrounds who just feel like “I don’t want to be talked to as a member of this or that victim group. I want to be talked to as a citizen and part of a neighborhood or a community that is a real bottom-up community, not a community created by the census or created by someone from a big philanthropic foundation or something like that, or by a big government quota program.”
I think that, actually, those issues are really motivating for people. Not tariffs and industrial policy or drastically increasing redistribution. You have something like 2,000 plus domestic social programs in the United States. I really encourage people to think about how those programs are are interacting with each other. Do all of them work especially well? Let’s maybe rethink, re-channel, consolidate before we talk about “Hey, let’s create a new one that is going to be drastically different from the other 2,000 we’ve already created.” Just the kludginess of it, that layering on but not thinking critically about the dollars that we’re already devoting to these social purposes that often work at cross purposes.
Now again, I realize it’s not perfect, we’re not central planners. Policymaking is an accretion of these things over time. I get it but I would really love a little bit more critical thinking about the programs that already exist, and how we might reorient them, how we might rethink them, how we might sunset some of them.
SEAN SPEER: Let me close on the state of Canadian conservatism for which, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, you’re a very astute follower. Where would you place Pierre Poilievre in the context of some of these debates going on within American conservatism? Is he something of a New Right economic populist or does he fit in a more traditional conservative orthodoxy?
REIHAN SALAM: I am sorry to say, Sean, that I’m just a really big fan of his in a way that will strike many of your listeners as simplistic. Again, I lead an organization that is a nonpartisan organization. We care about ideas first, we care about good public policy, but as a foreigner, I guess I can say that I think that Pierre Poilievre strikes me as an exceptionally sophisticated, impressive person.
I’m sure he has his flaws as a communicator, I buy that. I am so deeply impressed by how he has advanced a message of economic freedom that has a moral component to it. As The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out in an editorial on Poilievre’s victory, he is someone who is really talking about the desire for economic opportunity but for the desire on the part of Canadians to be the authors of their own lives, in the sense that, in many respects, government at all levels is proving to be an obstacle. I also don’t see Poilievre saying, “I’m going to phase out our safety net. I’m going to phase out old age pensions,” and what have you. “I’m going to dissolve Medicare.” I don’t see him talking about that.
I do hope — something that you’ve also called for — I really hope that he brings that sensibility to public services. He talks about defunding the CBC and what exactly does that mean? When he’s talking about public services, I think there’s a way to say, “How can our public services, how can our safety net help people build wealth over time? How can we build a society?”
This is my lodestar in the American context, too. I want a society in which there’s mass multi-generational affluence. There are big gaps across different groups in our society. I want to close them, not by bringing the top down but by bringing the bottom up. Let’s help people.
When I look at things like the TFSA, for example, yes, it’s true that upper-middle-class people can save more money in it. But, actually, there are a lot of working-class people for whom they think of themselves as savers. They think of themselves as people who are building towards something.
The Australians would talk about “battlers” and what I love about the battlers is that you could think of it as just about managing to get by. You could think about it as a tragic story. But you could also think about it as people who are making their way, building things, trying to accomplish something great.
I think that Poilievre also talks about immigrants in that same way. There are people who are broadly connected to the rural Canadians, who are perhaps part of his natural base, but actually, they have that same sensibilities. He’s offering a narrative that allows people like him who have those deeper roots but people like his wife, who are first-generation Canadians, to be part of the same story. They’re drawing it together and there’s an economic story that’s all about that, too.
I’d also love to see this celebration of Canadian symbols and making them real for first and second-generation people. I think there are so many things that he can do. So many wonderful ways but his freedom rhetoric is not imported libertarian nostrums from overseas. He roots it in the great Canadian political tradition: “Freedom is our nationality.” It’s something that is really neat. Again, we’ll see how well it translates, but I think that he’s pulling together a lot of these neat themes about Canada’s economic future, its ethnic future, in a way that I think can be really powerful and that I would love to see American politicians learn from.
I think of the governor of Virginia as someone who, actually, vibes with a lot of those themes. There are some parallels between the two of them. I would love to see more American politicians embracing the fact that the lower middle-class, working-class conservatives in the U.S. are aspirational people. They want to build wealth for their families. They’re ambitious. They are not people who are looking for a government that will redistribute dignity to them, that will redistribute family stability to them. They want to actually build those things themselves and have a society that allows them to do that and structures that allow them to do that. I think that’s beautiful for folks on both sides of the border.
SEAN SPEER: There are probably no other think tank presidents in the United States that could so easily cite Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and not even drop his name. Reihan Salam, I knew this would be a fascinating conversation and you most definitely have not let me down. Thank you so much for joining us today at Hub Dialogues.
REIHAN SALAM: Thank you again. It was a real pleasure.