Post-mortem on migration debate

Last night I went to Bristol Freedom Society to debate Ryan Bourne, of the Centre for Policy Studies, over whether the UK should have open borders. It was very enjoyable, and while I won very marginally, convincing one person to switch sides from closed to open borders, I thought it was extremely close, and Ryan was certainly a very fluent and convincing speaker.

My main case was (a) restricting migration restricts extremely important rights, like the freedom to take a job you are offered and the freedom to offer a job to a desired applicant, (b) when we curtail these sorts of freedoms we need to have a preponderance of evidence that the costs are very high, (c) the economic evidence says immigration is pretty good for the recipient country, very good for the source country, and amazingly good for the migrant themselves, (d) the magnitude of the social/cultural impact (i.e. the effect of migrants on our institutions, customs, etc.) is unclear, (e) therefore, we ought to have open borders (or something very close to open borders).

Ryan’s counterargument centred on the claim that the benefits of restricted migration would not extend if it was unrestricted or close to unrestricted, because migration of certain amounts undermines the institutions that cause migration to benefit people at all. (It was more complex, but this formed the nub of the debate). As is suggested by my point (d), I think there is some plausibility to this argument, but I also think it is under-studied. I suggested this when we were able to discuss the points we’d made in our opening statements a bit more, and we had a lot of back-and-forth over the issue, but we didn’t resolve our disagreement. Without trying to guess at Ryan’s position or put words in his mouth, I will stake out three claims I think we must accept to have the debate within a rational framework.

1. All positions are on a continuum from complete open borders (as much gross immigration as non-natives wish/can afford) to complete closed borders (no gross immigration). Perhaps the best way of accurately describing positions is by how much migration they favour. Open borders advocates favour something close to 100% of the amount that would occur under open borders. Everyone else is somewhere on a spectrum from no gross migration to the 100% open borders case (past societies have also had forced immigration, i.e. slavery, so these aren’t the only theoretical positions, just the only persuasive ones.)

2. The supposed socio-cultural problems of migration come from particular numbers of migrants. No one thinks 5,000 migrants a year to a country the size of the UK will fundamentally undermine its customs, laws, institutions and so on. Many people think 5,000,000 migrants per year would. So to be anti-open borders you implicitly have to have an estimate of how much migration you think is going to occur. If open borders only led to 5,000 migrants per year, then almost no one would be against it. It is because open borders would be expected to lead to too much migration that people oppose it. This doesn’t change if it’s a question of probability distribution—then migration is opposed because it raises the chances of too much migration occuring to too high a level. Everyone must (at least implicitly) have an expected level of migration to oppose open borders.

3. Any claim that migration should be kept to a particular level, because of the risk of undermining British institutions, implies an assumption about how much damage the marginal immigrant does or will do (reliably or with some probability). One cannot cop out of the question, you need to have an answer. But no one has yet set out good evidence about exactly how much damage to institutions the marginal immigrant does or will dotypically arguments in this area depend on anecdote or things that people feel they “just know”. This won’t do when the benefits to immigration are so high. We cannot simply assume the cost to our institutions outweighs the other benefits.

I think once these three points have been accepted, there is a lot of room for good empirical work. But until they have, a lot of the migration debate will be unclear, vague, and people will be talking past one another.

The “Papers, please” immigration bill

In today’s City AM I highlight some of the worst parts of the government’s Immigration Bill. The Bill forces private citizens like landlords, nurses, wedding registrars and others to become de facto state informants, reporting anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant to the authorities:

But “papers, please” could soon become government policy. Whatever your perspective on migration, the Immigration Bill currently being debated in Parliament would turn thousands of private citizens into state agents, forced to report anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. Almost every provision in the Bill will deputise some group of British citizens in this way, and would subject others to invasions of privacy.

Private landlords will have to run immigration checks on tenants, and will be at risk of prosecution if they fail to comply properly. The crackdown on “sham marriages” will expose more Britons to investigation. Marriage registrars are already required to report “suspicious” marriages to the state, but this Bill will double the period during which couples are under threat of being reported. Any Briton hoping to marry a non-EU citizen is open to investigation, and there will inevitably be mistakes that remove protections from legitimate couples.

Though concerns about health tourism are legitimate, the actual cost is tiny:

This week, it was reported that the NHS spends £2bn on treatment for temporary migrants in the UK. But most of this is on those, like students and temporary workers, who are already paying tax here.

The cost of actual health tourism – people coming to the UK specifically to get health treatment – is estimated by the government to be £70m, or 0.06 per cent of the NHS’s annual budget. Enforcing tighter controls may seem attractive. But if the cost is greater than the amount of money it saves, it doesn’t make sense.

Read the whole thing. I’d be interested to hear people’s views in the comments.

Mean medians

The US Census Bureau has just released a major publication “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012″ that has set much of the US political and economic blogosphere alight. “The incomes of the middle class have stagnated!” they cry, pointing to a statistic that shows the median household income in 2012 down from a real terms peak of $56,080 in 1999 to its pre-recession peak of $55,628 in 2007, to a measly $51,017 last year. That means the median has grown just 3% since 1991, when the last major recession hit the bottom. On the headline measure, incomes are actually below 1989.

I do not doubt that the middle classes (and the poor!) have been hit hard by the recession (although in the UK the story might not work in exactly the same way). But to tell this as a general story of middle-class decline seems to be stretching it massively. I don’t just mean because we can now use excellent services like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and so on for free. Having said that, I think Tyler Cowen massively undercounts the importance of free internet services—we now have near-instant, cheap or free access to basically the entirety of human artistic output. A proper measure of consumption or income that included these would give a much more optimistic result.

Still, this isn’t my key point. We use median statistics because incomes are very unequally distributed—the US had a Gini coefficient of 0.463 in 2012, while the UK’s was 0.32 in 2011-12. A mean (like GDP/capita) does not tell us anything about how gains are distributed, it just tells us how big the gains have been, compared to the size of the population. A median, showing us the middle point, is less easily skewed. But a median can still be extremely misleading under certain circumstances.

One of those circumstances, and an empirically highly relevant one, is when there is mass immigration to a country. According to one official dataset and my simple calculations, legal inward migration to the US was 13m between the 1999 peak and 2011 (inclusive). Presumably illegal migrants aren’t counted in the figures, but for completeness we might note they seem to number more than 12m. If we assume that inward migration is typically lower skilled than the US population as a whole (which seems highly plausible), then it’s entirely possible that a median falls while every individual in the population becomes much richer. Indeed, this is particularly true if outward migration is largely made of particularly high-skilled people (which also seems plausible). The income per natural concept, developed for a different reason, but relevant, is the number we’d want to check to look at the real trends in incomes when the make-up of the population is changing significantly.

Immigrants to the USA have much higher incomes than they had before. US citizens’ incomes also rise, not just because migration boosts their wages but also because of the general effects of economic growth—GDP/capita is significantly up on 1989, 1991 or any of dates picked to generate shocking income statistics. Everyone is better off, but the statistics need not reflect that. Of course, since I haven’t picked the statistics apart absolutely conclusively, I can’t say for sure that this effect is actually driving the divergence between apparent prosperity for US middle classes and the statistics implying penury. But of course, without that level of digging, neither can the het up US wonks.

The real reason we like immigration so much

Martha Gill has a good piece on immigration on the Telegraph Blogs site today, pointing out the simple fact that people often forget: the main reason immigration is such a good thing is that it’s really, really good for immigrants.

Sure, immigrants make the rich countries they arrive at richer and subsidise those countries’ welfare states, but people in rich countries have a lot already. It’s people coming from places like Somalia and Sierra Leone that have the most to gain from being able to work in the UK.

Michael Clemens’s study, “Trillion dollar bills on the sidewalk“, looks at estimates of the global GDP gains that would come from open borders. The gains range between 67% and 122%, depending on how many people actually migrated. Those benefits would overwhelmingly accrue to the world’s poorest people, and that’s a good thing.

Gill’s piece is directed at the left, which is fair enough given that most defenders of immigration are on the left. But no side owns cosmopolitanism. Almost everyone has heard the slogan “trade, not aid” from people on the political right. They (correctly) see international trade as a much better way to improve the lives of people in poor countries than development aid. They want free trade because it works for poor people around the world, not just because it would also happen to make us a little bit richer.

It doesn’t seem out of the question that the same kind of altruism might eventually spread to the right’s view of immigration. That might seem unlikely, but the political right was once a bastion of protectionism, and that changed.

Fundamentally, immigration restrictions are laws that ban firms from employing certain people and landlords from renting or selling their property to certain people. What’s right-wing about that?

Milton Friedman’s objection to immigration

Free market supporters of immigration controls often quote Milton Friedman in support of their position:

There is no doubt that free and open immigration is the right policy in a libertarian state, but in a welfare state it is a different story: the supply of immigrants will become infinite.

On the face of it, this is a powerful argument for restriction. As I’ve noted in the past, whether we like it or not people are dependent on state institutions like the NHS and it would be a bad thing for those things to crumble without the reforms that make market-based alternatives viable.

But are things as clear as they seem? Elsewhere, Friedman also said:

Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.

I think Friedman vastly overstates his case in his final line (it’s only good if it’s illegal?), and empirically he seems to be mistaken (the fiscal contribution of immigrants is usually positive in general, and has been positive in the UK in particular) but still, let’s take his point as given. Does that make immigration controls the best option?

No. There are ‘keyhole solutions’ we can implement instead – that is, solutions that are specifically designed to address the supposed problems that go with open borders.

We could require that immigrants post bonds priced according to the average cost to the state of someone of their age. We could require immigrants to provide for their own health insurance, unemployment insurance, education, etc. We could restrict the use of the NHS and other state services to immigrants who are working. And so on. The point is that most of the problems associated with immigration are not best solved by restrictions on immigration. Don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Well, OK, but we are where we are. Those solutions are nice in a think tank fantasy-land, but they’re never going to happen, you might say. (Well, not with that attitude, they’re not!) For the sake of argument, what if these keyhole solutions were irrelevant and Friedman was empirically correct?

In that case, his point about illegal immigration being the best kind of immigration – and indeed, a net positive overall – might really be worth thinking about. As Will Wilkinson has argued, people who follow Friedman on immigration should then argue not for restrictive immigration controls, but restrictive immigration laws paired with a toothless Border Agency, or one simply told in practice to ignore these laws. (Much as most decent police officers ignored anti-sodomy laws for some time before those laws were repealed.)

So maybe that’s a Friedmanite ‘keyhole solution’ for people concerned about immigrants sucking the welfare state dry: keep immigration laws the way they are, but shut down the UK Border Agency and treat the laws as the silly anachronisms they are.