7 Thoughts On Syrian Refugees

Last year I paid my graduate school bills researching refugee resettlement in the United States. Back then, when I told people my research topic they usually responded, “Oh, interesting!” And refrained from asking any follow up questions. That’s all different now. Blog posts I’ve written months ago on the topic of refugee resettlement without much fan-fair are now top hits day after day. That being the case, I thought I’d summarize and list my thoughts on the topic, now that everyone seems to be listening:

  1. The lunacy of state-level action. What struck me first when hearing the news about the five state Governors who suspended the acceptance of Syrian refugees into their states was how silly the whole thing was. The US Refugee Assistance Program is a national program, put in place by the United States Refugee Act of 1980. Refugees are accepted by the United States–not individual states. They are resettled by local voluntary agencies that are funded by federal dollars, state dollars, and in-kind donations (largely from faith-based communities). Also–and here is the kicker–once refugees have been resettled in the United States, they have complete freedom to move wherever they like. So, if Michigan or Alabama or Georgia or Texas or Arizona really want to keep Syrian refugees out of their state, then they are going to have to try to get something done at the federal level, because simply refusing to initially accept refugees into their state isn’t going to prevent refugees from moving there. Oh, and according to some of my forthcoming research upwards of 15-25% of recently arrived refugees move across state boarders each year.
  2. Immigration Policy vs. Refugee Assistance Policy. They are different. It is dangerous and misleading to conflate the two. When the United States Refugee Act of 1980 was signed into law, individuals who entered the United States via recommendation from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHRC) were set apart as distinct from immigrants and were granted different rights and duties. Therefore, it is possible to be against systemic immigration policy reform (if you happen to fall into that camp) and still be in favor of welcoming Syrian refugees.
  3. The possibility of terrorist infiltration. Most of the fear (it seems) is driven by the possibility that terrorists could use the refugee resettlement system to get into the United States. Surely this is a serious concern, however, it is important to remember a couple details. First, of the over 14.4 million refugees around the world right now, less than 1% of them will ever be resettled in a third country (i.e. not their own or the country they fled to). Second, refugees are screened by the UNHCR, the US Department of Human Services, the US Department of Homeland Security, and travel on regular passenger airlines. So, while the possibility certainly exists, the odds are not very high. It is likely not even a top-ten best way to “sneak” into a country you want to destroy. For my money, the biggest threat (and France is a testament to this) is extreme social fragmentation of minorities based on race, religion, etc. Ensuring social and economic integration for ALL PEOPLE is any nation’s best (and most cost effective) security program.
  4. For Christians, the response (should be) obvious. “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” – Deuteronomy 10:18. It sure sounds to me that God cares for refugees. Therefore, it follows quite simply that those who strive to live Christlike lives should (must) do the same. Yet this seemingly clear call hasn’t stopped prominent (and influential) pastors to shed theological ambiguity onto the matter. Ambiguity that doesn’t seem to exist for other issues (i.e. well, you fill in the blanks). It saddens me when our spiritual leaders are unable to untie themselves from the political dichotomies of our modern world.
  5. Refugees are an economic boon for any country they go to. This may be a controversial topic expect for the fact that it’s not. It’s immediately obvious that some refugees offer huge benefits to national economies. For example: STEVE JOB’S DAD WAS A SYRIAN REFUGEE. Imagine life without your Apple device… that is life without Syrian refugees ever being allowed into the United States. Now, the real question isn’t, ‘can refugees be beneficial?’ It is really, ‘are refugees beneficial on average?’ To this the evidence seems to suggest a resounding yes. Think about it: perhaps nobody on this planet is harder working and motivated to succeed. They ALL escaped death and were given a slew of new opportunities to live life.
  6. Syrian refugees are victims as well. Over the weekend it seemed like everyone, no matter political identity, religion, race, gender, or any other qualifier either changed their profile picture to red, white, and blue stripes or prayed for the victims of the tragic attack in Paris. It is easy to see the people of France being the victims of this all, but (at least) an equal share of the vicim-hood resides on those who were forced to flee their homes because of the terrorist organization that claimed responsibilities for the attacks in Paris.
  7. The (ongoing) refugee crisis is one of the greatest humanitarian issues of our day. Solving the problem of the suffering and squelching of dignity and freedom of over 14 million people in this world is one of the largest and most urgent of our generation. Are we going to allow 8 kids, acting in fear, to change our policies and procedures? I sure hope not.

For those who would like to make your voice heard to your state government representative about this issue, here is a list of phone numbers to call your Governor’s office.

“A Trickle of Syrian Refugees Settle Across the US”… and they’re (probably) moving

A couple days ago The New York Times ran a short story about Syrian refugees being resettled in the United States. Here’s an excerpt:

Since the Syrian conflict began four years ago, just 1,854 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States.

The refugees who have arrived from Syria since 2012 have been placed in 130 towns and cities. They are among the most vulnerable people in the war: single mothers and their children; religious minorities; victims of violence or torture.

Some of them have reached large cities like Houston, but most have been sent to more affordable, medium-size cities by the nine voluntary agenciesthat handle refugee resettlement. Boise, Idaho, has accepted more refugees than San Francisco and Los Angeles combined; Worcester, Mass., has taken in more than Boston.

Here’s a fancy map that shows where in the United States these Syrian refugees have been placed between 2012 and 2015. The map backs up the previous excerpt, Syrian refugees ARE being settled all across the United States, but that is not the whole story.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 6.56.25 PM

If you follow refugee resettlement at all, you’ll be aware of the phenomenon called ‘secondary migration’. This term describes the situation when a refugee moves to a different city (and often to a different state) shortly after being settled in the United States. Why would a refugee, who has just escaped a life threatening situation, move away from an initial placement location where they receive free services helping them find work and housing? Well, for many reasons, but some forthcoming research of mine suggests that the number one reason is to move closer to social networks of family or kin.

So when the following map is coupled with a conclusion that Syrian refugees are going to be living scattered all across the United States, a subtle yet important point is missed. Refugees will move and they will move to areas were other people with Syrian ancestry live.

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So where are Syrian refugees who have been resettled in the United States going to move to?

Well, don’t expect this map designed by The New York Times to tell you anything very easily. This map simply displays the information in the wrong way. This map shows the number of people of Syrian ancestry per 1000 people. Sure this may show us proportional Syrian population densities across the United States but it doesn’t tell us anything about where incoming Syrian refugees might move to. When people want to move to live closer to family and kin they simply find where most of their family and kin live.

So while their are a lot of dark blue counties in Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, and even Alaska; I can almost assure you this is not where the majority of Syrian secondary migrant refugees are going to be moving to. Rather I’d be willing to wager that the cities where there are already lots of people of Syrian ancestry living is where these folks are going to move to. These cities also happen to be where a lot of people in general live – the big cities on the coasts and Chicago.

So while Syrian refugees are being resettled across the United States in over 130 cities and towns (and we should do our best to welcome and ease their transition as best as possible). My research suggests that it is the 4 or 5 biggest cities in the United States that need to be prepared for Syrian refugees ultimately inhabiting their area.

The thing about guns

This is one of those blog posts that get me into trouble. It’s one of those posts that (probably) blend in with all the other junk that is out there on the web about opinions and politics and on and on and on. I probably shouldn’t add to the noise, but I’m writing a MS thesis and applying for PhD programs and getting married in 8 months, so… oops.

So here’s the gun debate in a nutshell:

One side says gun violence is driven by gun ownership. Proponents of this side point to countries (like those in Europe) with low rates of gun ownership and low gun violence as an example in their favor.

The other side says gun violence is driven by all sorts of other things. Proponents of this side point to countries (like Canada) with high rates of gun ownership and low gun violence as an example in their favor.

Here’s the thing: both sides are right AND wrong… at the same time. In reality (and this almost becomes immediately obvious) gun violence is driven by both gun ownership (a.k.a. all the guns in circulation) AND all sorts of other things.

Here’s a quick tangent on the two different ways things can relate to each other in the real world:

The first way is called an additive relationship. This sort of relationship characterizes questions such as: How much of professional success is driven by nature and how much is driven by nurture? In this case the two components of interest simply add together to determine the outcome of interest. Nature could be zero or nurture could be zero. It doesn’t matter, though, because the inputs are simply added together to produce the output.

The second way is called a chain relationship. This sort of relationship characterizes questions like our present question: How much of gun violence is driven by gun ownership and how much is driven by “other stuff”? In this case the additive approach doesn’t work well. The reason being, to have gun violence you need BOTH a gun and a person willing to pull the trigger with the gun pointing in the direction of human being. If either is taken away, gun violence disappears. In this application if EITHER gun ownership or “other stuff” is zero then gun violence is also zero. Adding the inputs together doesn’t lead to any output. There will just be either a pile of guns with nobody to shoot them with violent intent at other people OR a bunch of people who want to shoot someone with no guns in which to do so.

So, it conceptually doesn’t matter what side of the debate wins. What matters is we (as a nation) need to pick one. We either need to reduce the number of guns in circulation or reduce the amount of “other stuff” that contributes to gun violence.

But here’s the kicker, we don’t know what the “other stuff” is. It’s not clear what makes the United States different from Canada. So for my money I’d say we focus on the thing we actually know how to do.

The Economics of Hope: Research Methodology and Identification Strategy

Yesterday I presented the plan for my thesis research in my department’s weekly Brown Bag Seminar. I had two objectives for the presentation: the first was to introduce this idea of ‘the economics of hope’ and second to receive feedback on a potential thesis research project. I received a lot of good comments and feedback on how to improve the design of my potential research project.

Here are the presentation slides

If you have any comments or questions, please email me  at bloem [dot] jeff [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks!

I’ve written about this topic several times on this blog already see here here and here.

[Book Review] Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

Over the summer (due to the extra time caused by the brake from classes) I was able to get some unassigned reading in. One of the books I read was Richard Thaler’s newest book ‘Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics‘. While reading it I came across the opportunity to submit a book review in the Faith & Economics journal which is a peer-reviewed academic publication of The Association of Christian Economists. 

I’m happy to say my review was accepted and is now forthcoming; to be published in either the fall 2015 issue or the spring 2016 issue. The decision (not up to me) has yet to be made. The final published edition will be posted on this site when the time comes, but in the meantime here’s a draft of the submitted review:

Book Review Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler

In short, I thought Thaler’s take on the making of behavioral economics was both entertaining and interesting. The book is quite accessible to non-economists and would be quite the informative read for almost anyone interested in human motives, business management, and/or public policy.


Links I Like [7.15]

The Flaw in Fair Trade The best explanation, to date, on why fair trade (coffee) doesn’t work as a development tool.

The Paternalism of Behavioral Economics Another response to that crazy critique.

Can You Help Someone Become Financially Capable? Yes, well, maybe.

Is there a Free-Market Economists in the House? Survey evidence that shows very few professional economists (specifically 8% of AEA members) are free-market-tiers.

Trying to Explain Bayes’ Theorem to an Islamophobic Congressman (Cation: wonkish)

Two nice explanations of the “Worm Wars” replication debacle (Blattman) & (CDG)

The Scoop on Fertilizer Subsidies in Africa – by my professor Nicky Mason

Links I Like [6.15]

The Anti-Poverty Experiment

George Orwell was wrong, less money means MORE stress and more on the behavioral economics of poverty

Why “We’re not doing academic research” isn’t an excuse for bad M&E of development programs

Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong and why there is no “bottom billion”

Should we behave like economists say we do?

Who wins from the empirical shift in economics? (Hint: it is not free market, Econ 101 theorists)