An economist for President?

My two young US citizens have been badgering me about the US election, and when I tell them I’m just glad I don’t have to choose this year, one says “but what if someone had a gun at your head and forced you to choose between Trump and Clinton?”.  Watching Trump’s convention address last week confirmed many of the reasons why I would not support him, and watching Clinton’s address yesterday had much the same effect for her.  Last week’s New Yorker had an interesting profile of the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, but the more I read about him the less appealing he also seems to be.   I’m still glad I don’t have to choose –  and, what’s more, get to live in a country that has had women as head of state for 128 years of its 176 year modern history.

About the same time I was reading the Johnson profile, I stumbled on “Kotlikoff for President“: prominent economist Laurence Kotlikoff (a professor at Boston University) is running for President, urging voters to give him –  and his running mate, another prominent economist, Ed Leamer (at UCLA) –  a write-in vote in this year’s presidential election.  Kotlikoff is perhaps best known for his push to ensure that governments are fully transparent about the nature of the intergenerational fiscal obligations they take on.

A quick skim through Kotlikoff’s campaign website confirms that there are many issues I disagree with him on – not limited to his banking reforms proposals, contained in his 2010 book. Jimmy Stewart is Dead: Ending the World’s Ongoing Financial Plague with Limited Purpose Banking which he presented, and I had a chance to discuss with him, when he visited New Zealand two or three years ago.  It wasn’t so much that I thought his proposal was wrong, as that I thought he was much too optimistic as to what difference it would make –  my typical reaction to monetary reform proposals.

But what really interested me in working through his economics material was his discussion on immigration and population issues, in particular the bolded passage.


Immigration has been a major topic in the Republican Presidential debates. But the discussion has been remarkably disconnected from the facts. Notwithstanding the suggestion that illegal immigrants are overrunning our borders, there are and have been more illegal immigrants leaving our country than entering it. Indeed, over the last decade, roughly 1 million more illegal immigrants have left our country than have entered it. This is tribute, in large part, to our immense, decades-long effort to secure our borders. We still need to work extremely hard on border enforcement to eliminate illegal entry to our country. But we shouldn’t presume nothing has been accomplished.

The real issue with immigration is legal immigration. We are adding 1 million legal immigrants to the population each year. The great majority are unskilled. This isn’t hurting investment bankers or the software engineers at Google. This is hurting low-skilled U.S. workers. It’s the last thing we need if we are trying to restore our middle class.

Population Explosion

Legal immigration is also fueling a veritable population explosion. Unless we reduce legal immigration, our population will rise by one-third – over 100 million people – in just 45 years. That’s the current population of the Philippines. Most of these additional people will locate in the nation’s major cities. Driving in our major cities at peak hours is already a major challenge. With one-third more people, driving in our major cities may be like driving in Manila – an experience I don’t recommend.

Kotlikoff’s academic speciality is public finance, and Leamer specialises in trade and econometrics, but it was unusual to see  any such prominent academic economists speak up on the issue, expressing unease about the US immigration policy.  And recall that legal US immigration –  the bit Kotlikoff and Leamer focus on –  is one third the size, in per capita terms, of New Zealand’s non-citizen immigration programme.  The US grants around one million green cards a year –  every year roughly one new person for every three hundred already there. We aim to grant 45000 to 50000 residence approvals a year –   every year roughly one new person for every hundred already here.  In a single year, that difference might not sound like much.  Over even 20 years, it is enormous: over 20 years the US will have let in one person for every 15 already there, and we’ll have given the right to live here to one person for every five already here.

I’ve been reluctant to focus on the implications of immigration for wages.  My focus has been on the more macro perspectives: the potential impact on real interest rates, the real exchange rate, and tradables sector growth and investment prospects, in a country that has a modest savings rate and is constrained by its remoteness from the rest of the world.  I’ve also been a little uneasy about the wages story in aggregate in the short-term, since I read the evidence as suggesting that in aggregate immigration tends to boost demand more than it does supply in the short-term.  If anything, surprise immigration surges tend to lower the unemployment rate not raise it, at least in the short-term.

But the repeated (fallacious) insistence of business groups that large scale immigration eases skill shortages for the economy as a whole –  a proposition I dealt with here – eventually forced me to realise that at least in those occupational groupings where there is substantial immigration, that immigration simply must be holding down wages for New Zealanders in those sectors below what they would otherwise be.    The effect might be quite small at an economywide level, but if your sector can persuade the central planners in MBIE (and their Minister) to allow relatively easy recruitment of immigrant labour it simply must dampen the wage rate you as employer would otherwise have to pay.   If the available supply of labour diminishes, the typical response will be for the price to rise.

One could readily think of a number of occupational groupings that stood out when I looked last year at either residence approvals’ occupations or those getting Essential Skills work visas (and that is before starting on the sorts of role the people on working holiday visas tend to cluster in), such as

  • chefs
  • retail managers
  • dairy workers
  • aged care worker or nurse
  • restaurant or café managers
  • cook
  • truck driver

For each of these occupations, the alternative to a ready availability of immigrant labour must have involved, at least in part, higher wages.  Each firm would tend to pay higher wages to attract good people from other employers, and the industry as a whole will end up paying higher wages which will, over time, attract more locals into the industry.  Sympathetic as I am to aged care workers, it has always seemed that the heavy reliance –  as a deliberate matter of policy – on immigrant labour probably explains rather more about the pay differentials they complain about in pay-equity suits, rather than any sort of structural gender-based discrimination.

I understand why government politicians will want to deny these sorts of adverse wages effects. It is more puzzling why Opposition ones do  – especially Opposition parties with their roots in the trade union movement.  And even more so why most economists are at pains to try to deny any adverse effects on anyone.    Unless there are big productivity spillovers from the sheer presence of super-talented foreigners –  and in the New Zealand, most immigrants just aren’t super-talented (any more than most locals are), and no one has been able to find evidence of such spillover benefits at all – if there are any medium-term economic benefits from immigration at all they result from dampening the price of labour relative to the price of capital.  If labour is cheaper more projects are viable than would otherwise be the case.

In case anyone thinks this is just crazy stuff, there is a huge  formal literature on how immigration worked, and affected economic outcomes, in the first great modern age of immigration – the 50 to 70 years prior to World War One.   I’ve touched this in a previous post, referencing a piece by leading Irish economic historian (and professor at Oxford), Kevin O’Rourke.    Overnight, I stumbled on a new accessible essay by O’Rourke written prompted by the recent 100th anniversary of the Irish rising of 1916.  Here is what he has to say about the implication of emigration for wages.

Ireland was hardly the only country to experience mass emigration in the nineteenth century. If its emigration rates were particularly high, this was not due to a uniquely repressive environment (of either Irish or British origin). Irish wages were much lower than American wages, Ireland’s marital fertility rate was high, and there was a large stock of previous migrants to facilitate the transition to a new life in a New World. High emigration is precisely what would be predicted under such circumstances; the Irish were not unusually prone to emigrate, other things being equal.

And as was the case elsewhere, high emigration had a profound impact on the Irish economy, lowering the supply of workers competing for jobs, and raising wages. The wages of unskilled Irish building labourers rose from around 60 per cent of what their British counterparts were earning in the 1830s, to more than 90 per cent in the decade before World War I. Something similar happened in economies as superficially dissimilar as Italy and Norway, and in all three countries emigration was largely or entirely responsible for this wage convergence.

Irish wage convergence was emphatically not due to a superior Irish growth performance

This is just a standard non-contentious result in the modern literature about this historical period –  for anyone interested check out the writings of Hatton, Williamson and O’Rourke himself, for example. Emigration from Europe to the New World (including New Zealand) lowered wages here and raised them in the source countries. It greatly helped the process of income convergence –  although in New Zealand’s case, it took significant public subsidies to make even the high wages on offer here attractive to “enough” people.

There are occasional attempts to explain why the 19th and early 20th century experience might not be applicable today, but I’ve not found any of them even remotely persuasive. Instead,  most modern academic enthusiasts for high immigration to Western countries are either altogether unaware of the historical literature, or simply choose to ignore it.    That is particularly unfortunate –  one could think of worse descriptions –  in the New Zealand case, where since the 1970s we have had huge net emigration of New Zealanders and since the end of the 1980s huge policy-facilitated and promoted immigration of non-New Zealanders.  If it had just been the outflow of New Zealanders, the 19th and early 20th century experience might have led us to expect a substantial measure of income convergence between New Zealand and Australia (as outflows from Invercargill or Taihape helped keep factor returns in those places somewhat in touch with those in the rest of the country).  But if such a process had been incipiently at work, the policy programme to bring in so many non New Zealanders to a country no longer sufficiently attractive to its own would have worked to directly stymie the prospects of such convergence.   And yet in none of the MBIE or Treasury work on immigration I’ve seen has the historical convergence literature been applied to the New Zealand experience.  That seems like quite an omission.

It seems like a good year for Kotlikoff and Leamer to get some coverage for the issues they are promoting. I hope their sensible comments on the immigration policy issues do get some more attention.   And that as we approach our election next year –  with one of the largest controlled non-citizen immigration programmes anywhere in the world (and one of the worse long-term productivity performance –  we can have some thoughtful engagement with the costs and benefits of immigration, including the distributional ones, informed by the historical experience, as well as by the models of modern academic immigration enthusiasts.