Immigration smimmigration

"If you choose the red pill, then I'll show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. But then we're going to stop releasing people from the Matrix. We're worried about wage effects in Zion."

“If you choose the red pill, then I’ll show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. But then we’re going to stop releasing people from the Matrix. We’re worried about wage effects in Zion.”

Paul Collier writes about immigration for Bloomberg. I’m sure we’re only a matter of minutes away from some very serious commentary from the folks at CGD or from Roving Bandit, but here are a few of my own thoughts.

Firstly, Collier argues that new immigration inevitably will hurt the status of the recently-migrated, even if it does not hurt the native population:

The answer is that those who have already migrated lose, at least in economic terms, through the subsequent migration of others. Migrants lose because they compete with one another.

Migrants aren’t in close competition with indigenous workers. The advantage the indigenous have may be that they have better command of the language or that their greater tacit knowledge of social conventions makes them more productive.

The effects of immigration on the wages of indigenous workers vary between very small losses and modest gains. If immigration policy were to be set by its effects upon wages, the only interest group to campaign for tighter restrictions should be immigrants.

The individual behavior of immigrants evidently belies this interest: Immigrants typically devote considerable effort to trying to get visas for their relatives. But these two interests aren’t inconsistent.

An immigrant who enables a relative to join her receives benefits such as companionship. The increased competition in the job market generated by the extra migrant is suffered by other immigrants. In effect, a tightening of immigration restrictions would be a public good for the existing immigrant community as a whole.

So immigration doesn’t hurt the`indigenous’ population, but will hurt new migrants? Solution: every country in the world allows just one immigrant in its borders, then closes them forever. Seriously, it is unclear here what Collier’s assumed social welfare function is.* It’s perfectly understandable why immigration restrictions might be endogenous to levels of migration, but I’m struggling to recall any high-profile cases of recent-migrants calling for a curb on future migration.**

If we cared about general welfare and not just that of recent migrants, loosening restrictions are a bit of a no-brainer. Yes, it might depress wages in the short run for other migrants (evidence?) but compared against the enormous welfare benefits from the migration itself, this is really a second-order concern (a bit like arguing that we shouldn’t let anyone else into the life-boat because, damn it, it will be less comfortable).

Next, Collier argues that new immigration creates another set of externalities on existing migrants: more hate

There may be further social reasons that the existing stock of immigrants has an interest in tighter restrictions. The size of the immigrant stock also affects attitudes of the indigenous population. Contrary to the hope that exposure increases tolerance, the opposite appears to happen.

Heightened intolerance is a public bad suffered by immigrants as a whole, and is thus inadvertently generated by the individually maximizing migration decisions of each successive migrant. Hence, the paradox of migration. Individual migrants succeed in capturing the huge productivity gains from migration. But migrants collectively have an interest in precisely what individually is most detrimental: entry barriers.

Haters gonna hate – and haters gonna hate even more when there are more immigrants around, apparently. Again, no evidence is given to support this case. While I do think there is a worthwhile conversation to be had about how immigrants integrate into societies and how best to maintain social cohesion, falling back on the “We, the indigenous, are inherently racist, and are just going to get more racist as more foreigners show up and there’s nothing to be done about it” argument seems a bit silly.

Finally, Collier argues that migrants might not actually be that much happier and that, combined with the psychological cost of being in a new culture, immigration might be a bad deal. He turns to evidence from several studies showing happiness doesn’t increase when people are allowed to migrate.

This seems to me to be a better argument against using happiness as a welfare indicator, rather than against migration itself. It also leaves us with an entirely unsatisfactory explanation for current migration: that people are deluded about the benefits and would have preferred never to have traveled in the first place. This is particularly hard to swallow in an era where information is particularly cheap – it is relatively easy to send information back to one’s friends and family to clarify that, actually, it isn’t as cool here as I thought it was going to be.

In general, these feel like highly theoretical, armchair rationales for limiting migration. Surely we’ve moved past this by now?


*Update #1: To clarify, I mean the SWF Collier is using to make his case, not necessarily his personal preferences over migration!

**Update #2: a friend noted (via e-mail) that this is historically quite common – waves of immigrants turn around and try to stop the next group from landing. While I’d conceded that former-immigrants tend to resist those coming from a different national/ethnic origin, are there any cases where immigrants tried to close the door on immigration from their own country of origin?

The migrant’s dilemma

Where would people end up if there were no barriers to movement?

The folks at Gallup, who recently produced some interesting figures on the large number of people from developing countries who  would like to permanently emigrate, have followed up with new data on where people would like to move to.

Using their survey data to predict the proportion of the population who would move if all barriers were dropped, they constructed net migration indices, basically showing the increase/decrease in adult population which would result if everyone got their wish. For example, below we have the top gainers (in percentage terms):

Continue reading

“Ask not what you can do for your country…”

Does this matter? Or just the people that live there?

Does this matter? Or just the people that live there?

When you think about the reduction in poverty, do you think about the number of people who are living in poverty or the number of countries that are characterized by a high proportion of people living in poverty? And on reflection, if you haven’t thought about this before, which do you think is more important?

When I first thought about this, many years ago, my answer was immediate and absolute: the number of people in poverty. Of course: as a humanist, all lives are important and whatever actions will do the most the help the most lives must be the best. I remember reading with satisfaction a paper about growth convergence about 8 years ago, which made this very point: weighting for population, because of India and China, growth rates of the poor and the rich have been converging, in contrast to the conclusion if one takes nations as the unit of analysis (I think it was by Lant Pritchett. If anyone can confirm or correct this, I’d be very grateful).

Now I’m not so sure, and part of the reason is the (marginally) increasing debate around migration-as-development. Many, though by no means all, debates about migration and development take an almost apocalyptic tone in decrying a country as doomed or destined to suffer, and present migration as a cure for the ills of the inhabitants of these countries. (Others like Owen Barder present the migration debate as an essentially moral issue about freedom of movement and ability for individuals to improve their circumstances without getting into the prospects of long term development for the country – this closely matches my own opinions on the issue).

The response to the Haiti quake has been characterized by this kind of pessimism. On these very pages, we asked “What are the chances that Haiti is ever going to grow or develop?”; the Roving Bandit calculated how long it would take to drain Haiti of all of its inhabitants and resettle them in the US; the President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Waye suggested he could give Haitians a region to make their own in Senegal; Alex Tabarrok suggested Port-au-Prince as a Charter City, which would essentially constitute an admission of the failure of Haiti as a sovereign state (by the by: great idea! Let’s tell the descendents of the only successful slave rebellion in history, a people who fought for 12 years against Napoleonic forces *and won* that they’ve had their chance and they’ve failed. Step aside and let the foreigners do it right; after all, we all know the rules that will work in Haiti, don’t we? This does nothing to change my opinion on Charter Cities as an approach to development).

What’s wrong with this kind of approach? Quite a few things, though it’s difficult to unpack them neatly for argument. Firstly, it undermines is the role of identity in determining the best paths for development, which requires us to recognize that different ways of escaping poverty are not equal and should not be judged on the same terms; secondly, it implies that the nation-state is an anachronistic organizing concept for policy purposes; and thirdly, it may have implications for paths of development in the future.

Continue reading

A modest proposal for climate change and immigration


Finding resources in a post-global warming Africa will be even more difficult

There is a general consensus that, however severe the eventual impact will be, it is much of the developing world that stands to lose the most from climate change. Increasing temperatures result in more unpredictable and volatile weather as well as greater levels of desertification and disease. Many believe that Africans will be the worst sufferers, despite the fact that they contribute the least to global emissions.

I am currently not optimistic about suggestions that we should pay developing countries to adapt to their worsened environments or to transition their economies into ones that are less carbon-intensive (read: slower-growing). When it comes to adaptation funds, given the extremely low level of government capacity in some of these countries and the general lack of aid effectiveness,what are the chances that these transfers will actually be used for their intended purpose? It’s far more likely that the funds will just act as a payout: reparations for making the lives of the poor worse off. Chris Berg makes a compelling case against cash-for-climate in this article:

Climate aid is just another illustration of what the economist William Easterly calls development paternalism: a belief well-paid international experts, equipped with enough power and resources, should take the third world’s destiny under their benevolent wings.

When I started a post in Malawi several years ago, I spent my first day on a long drive from the south of the country to the capital, Lilongwe. I had arrived in the middle of Malawi’s dry season, when the terrain is orange, dusty and sparsely vegetated. This was my first developing country experience and, overwhelmed by this barren landscape, my immediate thoughts were: this place is a hell-hole that will never be developed, what we need to do is fly in helicopters and move everyone to a place they can live a decent life.

It wasn’t long before I was laughing at my brash, knee-jerk reaction but that isn’t to say that the policy prescription was completely crazy. Many sub-Saharan countries like Malawi are facing both internal and external climate pressures: depleted soil, extreme deforestation, volatile rainfall, and now the looming threat of rising temperatures. In some of the worst-hit, least hospitable locations, is it really reasonable that people must be stuck in such environments, just because they were unlucky enough to be born there?

Continue reading