Migration

One of the reasons for having a blog is to work out for yourself what you think about the issues.  One good place to start is to look at the arguments that people make for their own, pre-determined, views.  The problem there is that you can be swayed, not by the strong logic and impeccable evidence of the partisans, but by the idiocy of their views.  Take the euro.  There is a strong economic case against the UK joining the euro, based on the need for a country to be able to control its own interest and exchange rates. But in fact the argument seemed to be about whether the Queen’s head would appear in the currency (doh – the euro has the head of reigning monarchs on its coinage).  The danger was that you could have jumped into the pro-euro camp, just because the arguments of the anti-euro camp were so stupid.

So, migration.  I am aware that you can lose a lot of friends by discussing this issue.  It is too easy to say that any discussion of controlling the admission of workers or, any proposal to prevent foreigners entering the country and working here, is racist.   This is odd, when the world is organised on the idea that nation states look after their own patch of the globe (OK, OK, I know that this is not true for the rich, who seem able to live and pay tax anywhere they like – and it is only the poor who are herded back to their home country).  The argument about migration is full of similarly invalid or weak arguments, it seems to me:

The first one is that the anti argument that migrants ‘take our jobs’.  This is part of what is known as the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy – the idea that there is a limited number of jobs, and if one person fills a vacancy, there are fewer left for other people.  In fact, we can increase the number of jobs by expanding the economy – by ending the absurdity of ‘austerity’, for example.  The fact that researchers argue that migrants do not replace UK nationals when the economy is at full employment supports this view.  The same is true about the gripes that migrants are taking housing, when we can build houses (and indeed, many building workers are from Irish or West Indian stock, or recent European migrants).  The fact that the government has a weak record in job creation and a worse one in construction doesn’t alter the case.

Then there is the pro argument that ‘migrants contribute to the economy’ by increasing the GNP.  Well, of course they bloody do.  Adding workers to any enterprise or region or economy increases output.  The issue is whether they raise the standard of living, the GNP per head.  This depends on an idea called ‘optimum population’, which asks whether we have the right number of workers in relation to our stock raw materials and capital investment.  I think it would be a bold economist who said that the UK at the moment has too few workers in relation to our capital or natural resources.  Any increase would be more likely, it seems to me, to take us beyond the optimum population level: but again, we could use the extra labour to produce more investment goods – more machine tools, better roads – and it is government policy that is influential in depressing the current investment level (particularly in the public sector).

An associated argument is that migrants contribute more to the national budget than they take out.  I welcome any argument that pooh-poohs the idea of benefit tourism, which I suspect to be a minor problem.  Most migrants I meet seem keen to get established with a decent job, or indeed any job.  But the calculus of tax and benefits will depend on the age of the people you’re looking at.  It would be very odd if an immigrant cohort made up of able bodied people between the ages of 25 and 40 did not have a positive effect on the national books: the costly part of your life as far as public spending is concerned is before 18 and after 65.  But do we think that Polish people do not grow old, or Romanians will have no children ?  An example.  We now have in Britain a mature Afro-Caribbean community, with spruce old guys off to the barber and well-dressed lady pensioners off to church.  I suspect the balance of government spending v receipts has levelled up from the days when all our West Indian migrants were young and in jobs.  That will happen to the East European and West African communities, won’t it ?  This seems to me to be relevant to the claim that we need immigration to compensate for our ageing demographic – we have so many pensioners, we need bright and busy foreigners to pay our taxes and care for us.  How long does that benefit last ?

Then there is the debate as to whether immigrants depress wages for native workers.  There has been some denial here, but it would (again) be truly strange if they did not.  The laws of economics see the labour market as just another market, and an increase in supply drives down price.  Some papers have suggested that the effect is sectoral, but the consensus is that wages at the lower end of the market have fallen.  Maybe not a lot, but a bit.  For me, this links in with argument 1 above.  It is dishonest to say that without Bulgarians and Lithuanians we would not get our crops harvested, until we have tried to find workers locally by offering higher wages.

Now, all these arguments seem to be economic.  That’s not the only thing to think of.  There is a respectable cultural case to be made – that English society, literature and science has contributed enormously to the world’s culture, and needs to maintain a distinct identity.  Not sure I agree with this – the list of authors, athletes, politicians, surgeons etc from migrant backgrounds would be too long to print here.  And, to be blunt, there wouldn’t be much of British identity to preserve without the contribution of Polish and Czech fighter pilots in 1940.  But there must be a sense of ‘how much is enough’.  I went recently to my old stamping ground at Woolwich, and was taken aback to find an area that was totally changed from the white working class suburb where I grew up and went to college.  Am I wrong to think that ?  I don’t know, to be frank.  But there must be a case for discussing the effects of a twenty year year doubling of the number of foreign born people in the country – from 2.9m in 1993 to 6 million in 2013.

Does this link with the increasing attacks on social security – now known, American style, as ‘welfare’ ?  Some argue that you cannot have open borders and a welfare state – not because of ‘benefit tourism’, but because a welfare state requires fellow-feeling – that someone like me has got into difficulty and it’s only decent to help them out.  It’s what the French call “fraternity”, and I’ve written elsewhere that we don’t have enough of it.  If the people in difficulty are not felt to be ‘like me’, then the idea of contributing to their income becomes less easy to maintain.  Yes, I know that the biggest element of welfare state benefits are to the old, but that is not how it is sold to the public (or what they believe).

An additional confusion comes from the way that ‘migration’ is a term that covers many different issues.  The refugees in the Mediterranean, fleeing the awfulness of African tyrannies and conflicts, are not the same group as Filipino nurses, and neither of them are the same as Latvian fruit pickers or Polish carpenters.  And then there are the high skill people in finance and technology: here’s a survey of most in-demand skills.  On top of it all are the students coming to universities and colleges in the UK, most of who will want to leave when they are qualified.  Separate policies are needed to respond to the issues raised by each of these groups.  And this is difficult when the motives of migrants are mixed: the distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘asylum seekers’ is not always clear.  A BBC discussion with Mediterranean migrants (and what a delight to find someone talking to those concerned) found both those fleeing oppression, and those seeking a decently paid job to enable them to remit money home.

Take the Mediterranean problem for a moment, which shows the complexity of the issue.  One side says we must not let people drown.  Another says if we mount a rescue operation we will just encourage the people smuggling trade.  Both sides are, of course, right.  The philosophical issue is therefore not easy.  What is needed is fundamental change and reform in the countries of origin of the fleeing masses, but that’s not going to happen (in the cliché) any time soon.  In the meantime, we need to find civilized and humane arrangements for looking after those we rescue, making it clear that the Royal Navy is not a ferry service to the UK.

Ok. Enough for tonight.  I think it is important to look at the issue with calmness:  just one in six Britons think immigration has benefited the country, and the response to this is surely not to give the rest of them lectures about bigotry.  There is a democratic point: who thinks that the proposition “half the new jobs in the country should be filled by foreigners” – which has happened in recent memory – would have gained support if put to a referendum ?  For all that, people’s ideas about migration are mixed and complex: on that, I agree with Lord Ashcroft (cut that phrase out and keep it for posterity).  Will get back to this when my mind is clearer, which may be a while.

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