In a post several weeks back, I talked about the economic case for immigration and population growth. In it, I hypothesised that:
New Zealand has a strong feedback loop between net migration and economic growth. When growth prospects get worse – as they did in the 1970 and 1980s – it dissuades people from coming here and encourages Kiwis to leave for greener pastures. This in turn worsens growth prospects by sucking consumer demand out of the economy and reducing perceived household wealth (i.e. lowering house prices).
By contrast, good growth prospects tend to attract migrants to New Zealand’s cities and encourage potential emigrants to stay. This in turn leads to a virtuous cycle between higher growth and increased migration.
In my view, building good cities that attract and efficiently accommodate population growth can make us better off by strengthening the agglomeration economies at work in New Zealand’s economy. It can also make us better off in non-economic ways: consider romantic relationships, for example. If you’re young and single (or old and single), you should absolutely prefer more people to be arriving than leaving. The more young, mobile people are staying or arriving in New Zealand cities, the better your odds are of ending up in a good relationship.
However, I don’t think the economic case for immigration is as strong as the “moral” case for immigration. That’s because immigration is one of the most powerful mechanisms for enabling people to lift their incomes and social status. Migration can offer individuals opportunities that they never would have had in their home countries.
I’m going to discuss some economic research on the topic, but first I want to explain why it’s important to me.
Basically, in the 200-400 years in which reasonable data on my ancestors is available, migration has been just about the only thing that has enabled us to have any significant social or income mobility. Ever.
Migration has worked out well for me. Moving back to New Zealand has given me opportunities that I might not have had in the United States. Thus far, I’ve had a more interesting and fulfilling career and I’ve been surrounded by interesting and friendly people while doing it.
Migration also worked out well for my parents and several of their siblings, who left New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s during the wave of economic destruction caused by collapsing commodity prices and Muldoonist Think Big initiatives. Like many other New Zealanders, they’ve done well overseas.
And, back in the 1840s-1890s, migration to New Zealand opened up opportunities for social mobility and independence to my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. In fact, those were just about the first opportunities anyone in my family had to get ahead. If it weren’t for migration, we’d still be lower-middle class in some grim former mill town in northern England.
I’m grateful for the opportunities that migration has offered me and the opportunities that it’s offered to my family. Furthermore, I feel strongly that more people should have similar opportunities. I don’t believe in pulling up the ladder. If some hard-working folks from Nigeria, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Samoa, or wherever want to try their luck moving to an unknown country, I’m all for it. Give them a fair go.
Several recent papers by University of Otago economist Steven Stillman (another immigrant!) and several co-authors help quantify how valuable giving people the opportunity to immigrate can be. Stillman uses evidence from two “migration lotteries” operated by the New Zealand government. Under a programme started in 2002, a small number of Tongans and Samoans randomly selected from a pool of applicants are offered residency in New Zealand.
Evidence from the Tongan migration lottery shows significant improvements in well-being for migrants. Stillman and his co-authors found evidence of:
- “Very large gains in objective well-being result from migrating to New Zealand (Table 2). The weekly wage of principal applicants rose by NZ$321 (US$200) within a year of first moving which is almost three times the weekly wages of the control group in Tonga (NZ$117).”
- “More subtle and complex effects on subjective well-being…” After four years, they observed a “very substantial rise in the other components of mental health, of about three points, which is equivalent to one quarter of the wave 2 scores for the control group in Tonga.”
Evidence from the Samoan migration lottery shows that migration can also improve wellbeing for migrants’ families in the old country, at least in the short term. Stillman and his co-authors found that migration increased household consumption and reduced poverty in households that sent migrants to New Zealand, although these effects faded away over time.
In short, even after controlling for self-selection bias (i.e. the fact that migrants tend to have both motivation and resources to migrate), migration seems to make people better off. It doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, but it certainly works for most people.
In my view, the evidence suggests there are good economic and moral arguments for enabling migration, rather than cutting it off in the good times. If we want to manage house price inflation, it would be fairer and more sensible to pursue other policies instead. This could include (but certainly isn’t limited to):
- Changes to tax policy to harmonise our property taxes with major trading and investment partners – as Stu highlighted, our unusually low property taxes distort people’s investment decisions and push cash into housing
- Supply-side policies like a revitalised programme of state house construction or urban planning policies that enable people to build more housing in areas that are accessible to jobs and amenities.
What’s your experience with immigration? Remember, you or your ancestors came here relatively recently by boat or by airplane!