Unknowns in the immigration debate

From 2007 until last November I was a member of the Migration Advisory Committee, a group of independent economists advising the UK government on specific questions about the economic effects of immigration policy. There has been some debate on the radio and online today about the latest political statements on immigration. Unfortunately, the area of what we don’t know about the effects – is immigration a net benefit or a net cost to the host country? – far exceeds what we do know. The areas of uncertainty are described in the MAC summary of a series of research projects on the impacts of migration, commissioned and published a year ago.

In a nutshell, the biggest potential benefit we don’t understand is the long-run dynamic effect on potential growth (in an ageing society) from an increase in the working-age labour force, the increase consisting of people who are by definition more than normally enterprising and have different experiences and ideas to contribute. I have a particular interest as well in what businesses will do, in a globalised age, if they can’t employ as many immigrants as they have become used to – to what extent will outsourcing or imports replace inward migration? The biggest potential costs yet to be carefully assessed are the ‘congestion’ effects of immigration on housing, or access to services, for example. While some supposed costs are myths – the idea of higher crime rates for instance – others have not been well measured.

There are plenty of interesting books on immigration. I liked quite a recent one, [amazon_link id=”069115631X” target=”_blank” ]Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future by Goldin, Cameron and Balarajan[/amazon_link], and an older (2000) one, Jeremy Harding’s [amazon_link id=”1861972113″ target=”_blank” ]The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man’s Gate[/amazon_link].

The former is an argument for liberalising migration policy, which runs counter to the popular mood in many countries at present; but even if you do not share that perspective, its contribution is placing the debate in the context of globalisation and demographic change. National policies will be more effective if they acknowledge the underlying global trends.

[amazon_image id=”069115631X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future[/amazon_image]

The latter is an evocative short piece of reportage that reminds us that migrants are real people, with extraordinary stories. It too raises the question of globalisation, but in its cultural dimension – particularly the awareness everybody in the world now has of other lives, through satellite TV. “The father of a desperate family in Burkina Faso who decides, after three bad harvests in a row, to ride into town and negotiate a loan can watch a slimming commercial on CNN while he waits in the living room of a prestigious uncle.”

[amazon_image id=”1861972113″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man’s Gate[/amazon_image]

Satellite TV spread rapidly around the world in the second half of the 1990s, and again in the 2000s in Asia. Its enormous cultural impact has hardly been studied.