Minty, Minty Fresh

Tim Lee at Megan McArdle’s place:

Businesses typically steer clear of hot-button political issues, and it’s not hard to understand why. They want to attract as many customers as possible, and taking a side on a controversial issue will alienate whichever half of the population happens to be on the other side. So I was astonished to see the personal finance site Mint.com run this blatantly anti-immigrant chart on its Mintlife site. What’s wrong with it? Well, let’s start with the sources:

mint_sources.png

The most jarring name on this list is the openly racist vdare.com. The rest of the list is a mix of official government sources, non-profits, and blogs. The sources skew heavily in an anti-immigrant direction, although at least one is a pro-immigrant source (fiscalpolicy.org). While none of the other anti-immigrant sources is as offensive as vdare, few (if any) of them could be considered credible sources for statistics about immigration.

Given its sources, it’s not surprising that the chart is riddled with implausible statistics. The most obvious whoppers are the claims that “about 43% of all Food Stamps issued in the United States are to illegal aliens,” and “about 41% of all unemployment checks issued in the United States are to illegal aliens.” Mint doesn’t give specific citations, but these claims appear to come from this article at “Charlotte Conservative News,” which itself does not cite any sources. Given that the law doesn’t allow undocumented immigrants to collect unemployment benefits, this claim doesn’t pass the straight face test. As for food stamps, I’m not able to find recent statistics, but a 1995 study found that undocumented immigrants with citizen children received about 2 percent of all food stamp benefits. The population of undocumented immigrants has increased in the last 15 years, but it hasn’t increased by a factor of 20.

Another dubious claim is that undocumented immigrants cost Arizona taxpayers $2.7 billion, which would be roughly a quarter of Arizona’s $10 billion budget. The post doesn’t give a specific citation, so it’s hard to fact-check it, but that figure seems implausibly high given that undocumented immigrants constitute less than 10 percent of the population.

The graphic doesn’t even pretend to be a balanced look at the immigration debate. It doesn’t estimate the amount immigrants pay in taxes. It doesn’t discuss the number of businesses started by immigrants or the number of jobs they have created. It doesn’t mention the crucial role that immigrants play in our high-tech industries. It doesn’t show the ever-escalating costs of enforcing our draconian immigration laws.

Ezra Klein:

I’m a user of Mint.com, the sleek personal finance site that was recently purchased by Intuit, but I’m not happy to see it using its credibility as a finance site to promote absurd fear-mongering and dubious statistics from anti-immigration outlets. And even putting aside its reliance on racist and/or non-credible sources, the chart manages to toss up a bunch of statistics about illegal immigration’s economic cost without saying a word about its economic benefits.

This is a tricky place in the immigration conversation, but if you’re talking economics rather than legality, it can’t be avoided. Illegal immigrants pay a variety of taxes, including payroll and sales taxes, but return to their home countries before they collect the benefits. They drive down wages for competing workers, which is a cost, but also drive down prices of the goods they produce, which is a benefit. They help some industries which would leave the country remain within American borders (as the line goes, California either imports people who pick strawberries or it imports strawberries). They purchase things. They’re disproportionately young (one way of lessening our entitlements crisis would be a massive increase in immigration). And of course, there are enormous economic benefits to the immigrants themselves, and to the countries that receive the money they send home. For an introduction to some of these issues, see this paper (pdf) by economist Gordon Hanson.

Illegal immigration, of course, isn’t just an economic issue. It’s also an issue of fairness, and law, and distribution. But insofar as Mint’s chart was about the economics of the issue, it managed to both mislead in what it said, and in what it didn’t say. Even worse, it managed to mislead in only one direction. As Tim Lee writes, I hope this is just some kid at the company freelancing a charticle and not an official ideological policy of a site that supposedly tracks ATM withdrawals. But I guess we’ll know soon enough when Mint.com responds to the hubbub.

Max Read at Gawker:

Mint was bought by software makers Intuit—the company behind the Quicken finance software—last fall. It seems pretty unlikely that a big company like Intuit is looking to piss off costumers who (having paid attention in economics class) believe that immigration improves, rather than harms, a country’s economy. So what happened here? Is Crooks an anti-immigrant true believer who got carried away, or just a guy who didn’t know much about the issue and doesn’t have a great eye for credible sources? Or is “immigration is bad” official Mint.com policy now? Any way you slice it, Mint doesn’t look good.

David Weigel:

There’s some low-level chatter and anger today focused at Mint.com, a popular personal finance website (disclosure: I use its iPhone app) which has published an infographic on “The Economic Impact of Immigration.” Nothing overly political about it on the surface, but check out the sources — in addition to Pew, the site credits the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies and VDare.com for data. VDare, in particular, is best known for publishing work by white nationalists while maintaining that it is not a white nationalist site. (A current headline: “Diversity Is Strength! It’s Also…US-Educated Terrorists.”)

[…]

I’ve asked the company about this and will post a response if/when I get it. For now, it says plenty about how immigration restrictionists, who crank out lots of data, dominate web searches on the topic.

Lee Sherman at Mint.com:

At MintLife, our mission is to give users and visitors the financial information they need to save and do more with their money. Topics range from personal finance advice, to analysis of macroeconomic trends and the fiscal impacts of news of the day. We publish content from a variety of contributors and sources, and the opinions expressed don’t necessarily reflect those of Mint.com or of Intuit.

It’s true that the tone is often provocative, seeking to engage readers in dialogue around important topics, but the recent blog post “The Economic Impact of Immigration” went too far, cited polarized sources and did not receive the editorial judgment and oversight it deserved.

We regret it. It is completely unacceptable and won’t happen again. Our intention was not to further the agenda of any of the sources from which data was pulled, and the post has been removed.

Josh Lowensohn at Cnet:

MintLife’s editor Lee Sherman has since taken down the graphic and issued an apology, saying that the company went “too far” and that it won’t happen again. “It’s true that the tone [of the MintLife blog] is often provocative, seeking to engage readers in dialogue around important topics,” Sherman said. “But the recent blog post ‘The Economic Impact of Immigration’ went too far, cited polarized sources, and did not receive the editorial judgment and oversight it deserved.” The apology, though, was not good enough for some Mint users, who have removed their accounts from the service, and are posting about it on Twitter.

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Filed under Immigration, New Media, Race

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