Hard Stuff or MBIE puff piece?

According to TVNZ,  “The Hard Stuff sees Nigel Latta tackling the key issues facing NZers”, funded with taxpayers’ money through NZ On Air.

I don’t think I’d watched any of Latta’s programmes previously, but when I heard a couple of years ago that he was planning to tackle immigration I suppose I welcomed the notion that a mainstream broadcaster would give serious coverage to a major instrument of economic (and social) policy.

Shortly after Latta’s new series got underway, I’d heard underwhelming things about the immigration episode from people who’d watched it on the website.  But I only got round to watching it this weekend, after it was broadcast last Tuesday.

Frankly, even with the warnings I’d had, I was staggered at how much of a puff piece it was.  In many respects MBIE and the Minister of Immigration must have been delighted. But if that is the strongest case that can be made for New Zealand’s large-scale non-citizen immigration policy, we should be pretty worried.  Being a bit of a naïve optimist at times, I keep expecting someone –  MBIE, Treasury, the Minister, supportive academics, whoever –  to come up with some pretty compelling evidence or argumentation to seek to demonstrate how New Zealanders have benefited (economically) from one of the largest actively managed immigration programmes in the world.  But they don’t.  It must leave thoughtful supporters of the policy at least a little uncomfortable.

Latta’s programme had three main interviewees:

  • Nigel Bickle, the senior bureaucrat who heads the Immigration New Zealand arm of MBIE and who –  being a public servant –  is simply the mouthpiece for government policy.  The MBIE website describes his background as  follows:  “the majority of his experience is in front-line service delivery, in a number of operational and support leadership roles specifically within complex organisations undertaking change”.  Those are really valuable skills in some public sector roles, perhaps even in Immigration New Zealand, but I’m not sure they suggest he has much to offer on the costs and benefits to New Zealand of a large scale immigration programme.
  • An immigration consultant, and
  • Professor Paul Spoonley, an academic sociologist, one of the key academic advocates of New Zealand’s immigration policy, and one of the key figures in the MBIE-funded research programme CADDANZ, a programme that simply assumes the benefits of large-scale immigration.  I dealt with some of his overblown economic claims here.

There was some brief snippets from several  other pro-immigration people –  including one who claimed, incorrectly, that there had been a net influx of New Zealanders to Auckland (thus to downplay the role of non-citizen immigration on house prices) when the data suggest quite the opposite over recent decades.   And there were several heartwarming snippets from immigrant families, and from the Principal of Rangitoto College and that was about it.

The intended message seemed to be “there’s really nothing to worry your silly little heads about”.  And while I suspect (hope) he didn’t really mean to tar everyone with any doubts about the programme in this way, the only reference to alternative perspectives  that I spotted in the entire programme was to “racist idiots”.  Take that….

We were told (reasonably enough) that some past mistakes in the immigration programme  had now been fixed.  For example, there really had been an influx of highly-qualified people in the 1990s whose qualifications were not recognized here (while now the programme puts a strong emphasis on applicants having a job offer).  I was a little surprised to learn that in the 2013 census data, 62 per cent of taxi-drivers really were overseas-born.  Some of the least satisfactory features of the family stream of the immigration programme have been fixed –  one such featured (sibling) arrival seemed to be working extremely hard, but as his two jobs were at Pak N Save and as a cleaner it didn’t seem likely that the spillover benefits to the rest of the economy were large.  And, of course, we still allow around 4000 a year in under “parent visas”.

Bickle  –  that “front-line service delivery expert” –  argues that we need lots of immigration because a country “can’t get wealthy trading with ourselves”.  There seemed to be quite a bit of confusion there.  Of course, small countries (in particular) need to trade internationally, but that tells one simply nothing about the case for (or against) large scale immigration.  As it happens, and as I’ve pointed out before, most countries –  and especially most countries of our sort of size population –  export and import a much larger per cent of their GDP than New Zealand does.  And that is true whether or not those countries have had lots of immigration.  Even the academic advocates of immigration accept that the evidence that immigration does much to boost the export share of GDP is pretty slender.  I’d argue that there is a good case that in New Zealand (specifically) rapid population growth has, if anything, crowded out growth in exporting.

Towards the end of the show, Latta was burbling on about how “the economic gains are a no-brainer”.  And – in his view –  there are no other plausible risks/downsides of a large scale immigration programme,  So, he concludes, “immigrants are doing us a favour” and we should really be grateful to them for choosing to settle here –  rather than, he implied rather than directly stated, complaining or indulging those “racist idiots”.

You might wonder how Latta concluded  that the economic gains to New Zealand were a ‘no-brainer’.  I did.  I guess that is what comes of approaching the issue with what appears to have been a pre-conceived answer in mind, talking only to advocates of the immigration programme, and misinterpreting (or misapplying) a consultant’s report.

For some time, MBIE (and its predecessors) have been paying consultancy firm BERL to produce a report every few years, drawing heavily on Census data as well as other material from government agencies, to produce an estimate of the fiscal impact of immigration.  The latest such report was released, MBIE tell me, a couple of weeks ago.  But, as it suited MBIE’s agenda, it had been provided to Latta well in advance of that (the programme was the website before the BERL report was available to the public).  On this particular methodology, BERL estimates that the average non New Zealand born person (“immigrant”) contributed a net $2653 to central government finances, compared with only a net $172 per New Zealand born person.

The Minister of Immigration and MBIE are obviously keen on this report,  Only a week or so ago, Michael Woodhouse, Minister of Immigration, appeared on TVNZ’s Q&A programme and was asked, near the end of his interview, if there was in fact any evidence that, over the longer-term, our immigration programme lifts exports, productivity etc.  Not in the least abashed, Woodhouse responded that there most certainly was such evidence, citing a report BERL “put out just last month” which demonstrated a very strong positive contribution.  I looked around for such a report and eventually had to ask MBIE what the Minister was referring to.  I was told it was the BERL fiscal paper linked to in the previous paragraph.

I hope the Minister had simply misunderstood that report.  It is an interesting exercise in its own way, but it has very considerable limitations.  Let’s start with those the BERL authors themselves list:

This study focuses on a subset of relevant issues and is subject to a number of limitations
1. The study concerns the impacts of gross immigration, not of net migration flows.
2. The study concentrates on fiscal rather than economic impacts. Due to this the study is limited to estimating the direct monetary impacts on the government’s operating budget.
3. The study does not cover all components of the government accounts.
4. This study captures a number of influences on differences in the fiscal impacts between population groups. Data limitations restrict the degree to which within group differences can be used to estimate overall impacts.

To be clear, the fiscal exercise does not even purport to look at the overall economic impact of immigration (good or ill).  It sheds no light at all on that issue.

But even in what it does look at, there are some quite severe limitations:

  • recall that the report estimates that both NZ born and immigrants made a net positive fiscal contribution to the government’s accounts.  Perhaps, but recall that in 2013 (the year studied) the government was still running quite a large fiscal deficit.  In other words, even if the study is roughly accurately capturing the relative contributions of immigrants and the native-born, it isn’t remotely accurately capturing the absolute contribution.
  • The BERL exercise does not appear to recognize at all that much of the demand for increased government capital spending now arises from the immigration programme itself (as it notes, between 2001 and 2013, the New Zealand born population aged 25 to 64 actually fell slightly while the foreign born population of that age increased by 222000 people).  Over those 12 years, 80 per cent of the total population growth has been among the foreign-born.   Assign much of the (above-depreciation) government capex to the immigration programme and suddenly even the fiscal numbers will look quite different.
  • These are snapshot effects rather than inter-generational ones.  It is hardly surprising that an immigration programme that brings in relatively young people involves less government operating spending (per capita) than for natives –  people that age are typically young and fit –  but if we want to think about even the fiscal impact of the immigration programme as a whole it would be important to look at the impact not just of the immigrants in the couple of decades post-arrival, but (for example) at the impact as those people age, and the impact of their own children (many of whom will be New Zealand citizens, but still a consequence of the immigration programme).
  • perhaps most importantly, any sort of exercise like this is only meaningful if it deals with very small changes (when one can keep the rest of the economy held constant).  By contrast, the potential for a large scale immigration programme to affect real interest rates, the real exchange rate, and the underlying structure of the economy, means these fiscal exercises offer no insight at all on the overall impact of immigration even on the fiscal accounts, let alone the wider economy.

I’ve never made much of the fiscal issues around immigration.  By international standards our residence programme , if large, isn’t bad  –  if it doesn’t attract many very skilled people, at least it does successfully focus on getting people quickly into the labour market.  But precisely because in the end we are largely bringing lots of people quite like us –  who can readily get jobs –  it is very unlikely that in the long-run there will be much net difference in the fiscal effects between the contributions of those whose ancestors have been here for generations and more recent arrivals.

But to revert to Latta’s –  and the Minister’s –  overblown claims, not even BERL would argue that their report sheds any light on whether New Zealanders are gaining economically from our large scale non-citizen immigration programme, that has now been in place (albeit with constant tweaks) for 25 years.  Perhaps there are such gains, but to demonstrate them one would surely need to grapple with such disconcerting statistics as:

  • New Zealand having had among the lowest (lower quartile) rates of productivity growth among OECD countries for the last 25 years (and perhaps the only OECD country with materially higher immigration – Israel –  is one of the few countries to have had even less productivity growth than New Zealand),
  • the failure of exports as a share of GDP to increase for 30 years

exports small countries

  • the failure of per capita tradables sector real GDP to have increased at all for the last 15 years (recall, this isn’t just a share of GDP – there has simply been no real per capita growth in our outward-oriented sectors in that time).
  • the fact that after all these years, our exports remain very heavily natural-resource based, sectors that would seem unlikely to have much need of a rapidly growing population.
  • the continuing relative decline of Auckland’s GDP per capita, despite the concentration of the immigrant population in Auckland.

Perhaps I shouldn’t really expect words like “productivity” to appear in prime-time mainstream TV, even when taxpayer-funded, but it was as if Latta had never heard of the concept, and those he interviewed just didn’t care.  There was an (immigration) programme to defend after all.  Who cares if New Zealand has been in gradual economic decline for 60 years or more? The elites apparently simply know that the economic gains of an extraordinarily large immigration programme are a ‘no-brainer’.

Actually, I suspect a few of them will have cringed, and squirmed rather uncomfortably, when they heard Latta make that claim.  But the defenders of the programme –  Ministers, officials, and academics –  really need to start coming up with something much persuasive if we are really to be confident (and few things are ever certain) that New Zealanders are benefiting from this large scale intervention.