How not to have a “reasoned and deliberate discussion” of housing and immigration

I noted in my post yesterday that I was a little surprised at how NBR had characterised differences between Shamubeel Eaqub and me around how to think about the contribution of immigration policy to housing demand. The description was “war of words”, something I didn’t recognise. But I hadn’t seen the article then.

As I noted yesterday, the difference is simply about how to interpret net PLT migration figures. Shamubeel uses them to conclude that immigration policy has not been a major influence on housing demand over 50 years. I pointed out, in response, that immigration policy is about how many non-New Zealanders we let in, and how long we let them stay. It does not affect the movement of New Zealanders at all. Accordingly, if we want to understand the role of immigration policy, we should focus mainly on data on the movement of non-New Zealand citizens. I have used the net inflow of non-New Zealand citizens as a proxy, while noting that it is not a perfect proxy.  On that measure, most of the trend increase in household numbers is now down to immigration policy choices.

So far I thought we just had the sort of difference that crops up all the time in analysing data. Someone proposes a hypothesis, with some numbers, and others respond questioning whether, for example, the data cited are showing quite what the first analyst thought they were. That sort of debate is how we advance our understanding. I didn’t (and don’t) challenge the accuracy of Shamubeel’s numbers (and I’m sure he isn’t challenging mine). The only issue should be what light each set of numbers sheds on the issue (and which issues they each shed light on). As I put it yesterday, if people prefer I’m quite happy to say that (given land use and housing supply restrictions) the large net outflow of New Zealanders has greatly eased pressure on house and urban land prices, and the (even larger) policy-facilitated net inflow of non-New Zealanders has greatly exacerbated pressures.    But only one is a immigration policy matter.

To the extent I had given it any thought, I assumed Shamubeel was approaching the discussion in the same dispassionate way.   In his book (page 129) he notes:

Economist Paul Collier, in his book Exodus argues that we need to talk openly about immigration. Not through the lenses of envy and racism, but in the context of a reasoned and deliberate discussion of why we want immigration, how many people we want, and what kind of people we want.

I nodded, largely agreeing, when I read that passage. Collier’s book is also worth reading.

But this morning I picked up a copy of the print edition of NBR and understood immediately Jenny Ruth’s “war of words” description. Instead of “reasoned and deliberate discussion” my argument is simply dismissed by Shamubeel as “That’s racist”, and “he’s always had this thing about non-New Zealanders. That’s pretty much been the tenor of his work over the last three years”, and “he’s taken a biased approach”.

And there is nothing more than that. There is no sense as to why, as a descriptive exercise, he disagrees with my interpretation of the role of immigration policy in explaining medium-term demand for housing.

Perhaps he provided a more substantive response to the journalist and she didn’t report it, preferring only to report the slurs?  (With apologies to Jenny Ruth) I rather hope so, because Shamubeel is someone whose contributions to economic analysis I have had some time for (indeed on this blog, I encouraged people to read his book) . I think he is much better than is suggested by simply falling back on labels like “racist”, or even “he has this thing about non-New Zealanders”, when someone challenges his framing of the numbers.

I’ve been posing some questions around New Zealand’s immigration policy and the implications for understanding economic performance for five years now. When one is discussing, or researching, the implications of immigration policy, inevitably one is focusing on non-New Zealanders. That is who immigration policy affects. As Shamubeel notes, we (and every country probably) need “reasoned and deliberate discussion of why we want migration, how many people we want, and what kind of people we want”.

In that time I’ve debated the issues and analysis with many people- here and abroad, New Zealand born and foreign born – and I’m pretty sure no one has ever previously accused me of racism.  These are important analytical and policy questions, and the prospects for reasoned and deliberate discussion recede further when people contributing to it the discussion are simply labelled “racist”, rather than engaging on the substance of the issues and analysis.

I hope that Shamubeel will, on reflection, withdraw his slur. As ever, I would be very happy to engage him (or anyone) on the substantive issues (whether interpretative, analytical or policy). And I still think people will benefit from reading his book.

7 thoughts on “How not to have a “reasoned and deliberate discussion” of housing and immigration

  1. This is consistent with psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s point I mentioned here a while ago – “wherever people sacralize something, there you will find ignorance, blindness to the truth, and resistance to evidence.” It’s one of Haidt’s hopes that public discourse will improve with less demonising of opposing views (which Eaqub has sadly resorted to). Then you could have a more productive discussion.


  2. Sometimes we forget that when we get big headliners of Immigration net gains at 60,000, we forget that NZ Statistics definition of a long term migrant, is anyone that holds a Visa for more than 12 months and that large net gain includes international students, foreign workers and tourists.


    • Generally, the students and tourists won’t make much sustained net difference. In the end, the population boost from immigration policy is largely determined by the number of permanent residence approvals (target 45-50K per annum). Of course, in some years when there is a big influx of students that will boost numbers, but offset when they (most) go home again.


      • They do make a massive difference because tourism and the numbers of students also on the rise exponentially. Immigration on real permanent migration is largely a replacement policy. The target of 45k to 50k replaces the New Zealanders that depart each year. Auckland has planned a billion dollars in student infrastructure spending. You can bet on their respective marketing departments marketing heavily to increase student numbers year in year out.


  3. In the next few years we would likely see a more static net migration as Chch re build tapers off, but then Auckland’s requirement for more builders will start to escalate. And Aucklands building requirements are going to be far larger than the Chch rebuild.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Around a net 25000 NZers leave (PLT) each year (average since 2000), so the PR approvals target does more than “replace” them. SNZ have numbers on their website on the number of short-term people here from abroad and the number of short-term NZ departure people abroad at any one time. I haven’t got time today to dig them out again, but the change in the net of those two stocks over time is pretty modest compared to the overall rate of population increase.


    • As I have indicated earlier NZ statistics definition of a PLT is anyone that holds a visa for more than 12 months and it includes international students, foreign workers and tourists.


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