Exodus: Costs and Benefits of Mass Migration

exodusExodus discusses the costs and benefits of mass migration.  Paul Collier (author of “The Bottom Billion”) looks at migration from the viewpoint of the migrants, the population of the receiving country and the population of the country of origin.  Most people about migration argue either that it is good or bad. They address the wrong question, says Mr Collier. The right one is: how much more migration would be beneficial, and to whom?

Collier identifies 3 factors that determine the migration rate: the width of the income gap (which he sees as a temporay distortion during which prosperity is not yet globalised), the income level in the country of origin and the size of the diaspora (and the absorption rate).  The second factor implies that migration might increase when a country of origin becomes richer, as more people are able to afford the trip.  The absorption rate is the speed with which migrations adopt the norms of the host society.  The rate tends to decrease with the size of the migrant community in a country, as new arrivals have fewer incentives to adopt norms of the host country when there is already a large diaspora network.  Therefore, initiatives (language programmes, geographical spreading, apprenticeship programmes) that help to increase the absorption rate are useful, as they can sustain a higher migration rate.  Such policies explain why the US has a higher absorption rate than France.
Migration makes migrants better off. If it did not, they would go home. Those who move from poor countries to rich ones quickly start earning rich-country wages, which may be ten times more than they could have earned back home. “Their productivity rockets upwards,” says Mr Collier, because they are “escaping from countries with dysfunctional social models”.  This is crucial. Most rich countries are rich because they are well organised, and poor countries are poor because they are not. Nationalism has positive aspects as it enables people to cooperate beyond the family or clan level and to redistribute resources.  Cooperation requires trust and easily breaks down (e.g. free riders) .  As other did (Acemoglu and Robinson), he points to the importance of inclusive (rather than extractive) institutions and trust in the development of a country.  High-trust societies have the institutions and norms that enable development.  France is richer than Nigeria because its social model is superior.  A factory worker in Nigeria produces less than he would in France because the society around him is dysfunctional: the power keeps failing, spare parts do not arrive on time and managers “are busy battling bribe-hungry bureaucrats”. When a rich country lets in immigrants, it is extending to them the benefits of good governance and the rule of law.
What of the countries that receive immigrants? Mr Collier argues that they have benefited from past immigration, but will probably suffer if it continues unchecked.  Continued mass immigration threatens the cultural cohesion of rich countries.  There is a trade-off between positive effects of cultural variety (no real demographic positive effects) and negative effects on social cohesion, but these effects play with different groups in society.  The young, affluent middle classes are the big beneficiaries of variety. In contrast, those people on benefits like social housing or welfare, whether because they are unemployed or pensioners, experience most competition from immigrants and are the most vulnerable to the weakening of cohesion.  Collier refers to the work of Robert Putnam in the US who showed how immigration lead to a decrease of trust, not only between indigenous population and immigrants, but also among the indigenous population (“hunkering down”).  This has effects on people’s willingness to support welfare policies.  A shared sense of identity is a condition for social redistribution.  People need to see people who need state welfare as themselves minus the good luck.
Finally, Mr Collier looks at the effect of emigration on poor countries. Up to a point, it makes them better off, dispelling notions of “brain drains”. Emigrants send good ideas and hard currency home. The prospect of emigration prompts locals to study hard and learn useful skills; many then stay behind and enrich the domestic talent pool instead. But if too many educated people leave, poor countries are worse off. Big emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil benefit from emigration, but the smallest and poorest nations do not: Haiti, for example, has lost 85% of its educated people.

 Collier is quite pessimistic, but it is hard not to see the recent surge in populism and anti-immigration policies as a vindication of his warnings.  As Milanovic did, he suggests looking into ways to give immigrants a special statute (e.g. higher taxes, temporary residency, limited access to social welfare).  These policies might seem discriminatory or harsh, Collier writes, they might be better than the current situation, both for the countries of origin and for the countries of destination.

Migration and Development

downloadA very interesting interview with Michael Clemens, migration expert from the Centre for Global Development, a US think thank.  What would happen if Europe (quite utopically) would decide to open up its borders?  Some key extracts:

On why people migrate:

Safety and opportunity depend mostly on what country you live in, and 97 percent of humanity lives in the country they were born in. For those of us born in safe, prosperous countries, such a random lottery seems quite satisfactory. Most migrants are people who have simply decided that they will not let lottery results enforced by others determine the course of their lives.

On the impact of migration on the host country:

I would go as far as to say that this is a consensus opinion among economists. That is saying a lot, because economists are known for putting caveats on everything. But all the serious evidence we have points to large gains in overall economic activity from reduced barriers to labor mobility. Ninety-six percent of American labor economists agree that the economic benefits of US immigration exceed the losses.

Unfortunately, this research is rarely used as the basis for a debate.  Instead, nasty arguments like ” if we allow them, many more will come”, tend to be accepted as truth.  What I didn’t know, is that research shows that immigration increases wages for low-skilled labour, rather than depressing them:

Research has shown that natives acquire more skill when immigration rises [by specializing in occupations requiring more complex tasks and less manual labor]. And firms adjust their investments when immigrants are present, shifting away from technologies that eliminate low-skill jobs for both low-skill immigrants and low-skill natives. Most simply of all, foreign workers are not just workers, they are also consumers. Immigrants at low wages tend to consume products, like fast food and budget clothing, that are made and sold by other low-wage workers.

This relates to the work of Ricardo on comparative advantages in trade. Countries with a lot of labor relative to capital, for example, will tend to have a comparative advantage in labor intensive goods production. Apart from human rights and social justice arguments, letting in more migrants makes economic sense, in particular in greying Europe.  Rather than fearing that immigrants will plunder social security coffers, the question is whether European welfare systems will collapse without immigrants:

A comprehensive review by the independent OECD in 2013 found that the average immigrant household in Europe contributed over £2,000 [$3,000] more in taxes than it took in benefits.

The most interesting argument in my eyes, is how often a mindset that considers migrants as people who somehow not belong where they are, is used in case of cultural tensions.  The tensions are explained as a result of migration, rather than as a responsibility of the host country.  The mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Clemens clarifies the point with a good analogy:

Suppose a woman is attacked by men on the street, as she walks to work. What caused the attack? It depends on your assumptions. Many people in the world do not believe that women have the unqualified right to work or to walk down any street. These people might say that the cause of the attack was that the woman’s family allowed her to take a job and walk around unguarded. If you believe that women’s rights to work and travel are beyond question, you might identify a different cause of the attack: The cause of the attack was that men decided to attack her.

Likewise, when activists hold rallies to unmistakably threaten immigrants with violence, many might describe this as social conflict “arising” from immigration. This view requires you to already have decided that migrants don’t have the right to be there—for the same reasons that saying attacks against women arise from their presence on the sidewalk requires you to have already decided that women don’t have the right to walk on the sidewalk.

Finally, how about the effects on the origin countries?  Brain drains leaving countries with few qualified doctors and engineers.  Or, the important role of remittances, many times bigger than aid, on development? Clemens underlines that immigration is different from actively recruiting people in developing countries:

So if we’re talking about immigration policy, the question “Does migration substantially harm low-income countries?” is the same as the question, “Does forcibly stopping people from leaving low income countries substantially help those countries?” To put it mildly, social science has absolutely no evidence of such a effect.

People in developed countries often see the wealth and opportunities in their country as a right, rather than as a stroke of luck, as if they have any credit in being born in a rich country.  Given the fact that countries such as Lebanon (4 million people) and Jordan (6,5 million people) each can take one million Syrian refugees, a good starting point for European countries would be to increase the numbers they’re willing to accept each year.  Articles and arguments such as this deserve to be widely read.