Last week BWB Books published Better Lives: Migration, Wellbeing and New Zealand by Peter Wilson and Julie Fry, two consulting economists (as the authors explicitly note, one has lived overseas for a long time now, and the other is an immigrant to New Zealand). It is an attempt to think about New Zealand immigration policy, and experience, in a framework broader than just economics. And “wellbeing” is the new flavour of the year – at the heart of The Treasury’s (questionable) Living Standards Framework, adopted by the government as nice-sounding rhetoric and a lens for next year’s Budget. And, of course, there are various scholars overseas, and international agencies, doing work in the area. In fact, the OECD’s Better Life Index provides the list of categories – other than aggregate economic out-turns – that Fry and Wilson use to frame their discussion of immigration policy.
Julie Fry has now been writing about New Zealand immigration policy for several years (having initially worked on it as a young Treasury economist 25 years previously). There was the paper she wrote for Treasury, subsequently published as a Treasury Working Paper. That paper had an explicitly economic focus (and I was quite involved with her work at that time). Her abstract for that paper concluded
More work is required to assess the potential net benefits of an increase in immigration as part of a strategy to pursue scale and agglomeration effects through increased population, or whether a decrease in immigration could facilitate lower interest rates, a lower exchange rate, and more balanced growth going forward.
At the time, the paper was quite controversial within Treasury because it wasn’t automatically supportive of the “big New Zealand” approach.
A couple of years ago Fry and Hayden Glass published a book (also by BWB) called Going Places: Migration, Economics and the Future of New Zealand . That book seemed generally positive about the – modest – economic contribution of immigration, but argued that any such gains could be maximised by focusing on bringing in as far as possible people who could make a real difference (noting that many of those coming under current policies don’t).
Our view is that New Zealand should seek more people who will contribute to economic transformation. By their nature, these are people who do not just fit in: we are looking for those who might disrupt, transform, provoke and cajole, connect New Zealanders with others and change the way this country does things.
Things like the Global Impact visas – launched a year or two ago – fitted this description.
And then Fry and Wilson teamed up to do this new work, attempting to look at immigration policy through a wellbeing lens, including an attempt to find a way to think better about the potential relevance of the Treaty of Waitangi to the issues (my own early thoughts on some Maori dimensions of this policy issue are here). As I understand it, the work began with some modest NZIER funding – from their “public good” programme – for an article on the issue. It grew into a 275 page book (admittedly, BWB Texts pages are quite small) – a big commitment by the authors.
They have had quite a bit of coverage. There was a nice introduction to it on interest.co.nz, the authors were interviewed on Newshub Nation on Saturday, and The Treasury invited them in for a guest lecture last week (which I attended).
I haven’t read the book yet, and I don’t want to write about it substantively until I have done so. Nine months ago I gave them extensive comments on a draft of what later became the book, but I expect that much will have changed since then.
Having said that, I’m instinctively sceptical of the wellbeing approach – especially if it is anything more than a relabelling of the economist’s basic tool, utility maximisation. That doesn’t mean I think non-economic considerations are, or should be, irrelevant, but I’ve not yet seen any convincing sign that these proposed frameworks are generally very enlightening in helping shape policy positions. Often they seem to provide cover – sometimes unwittingly – for whatever cause or preferences the particular analyst favours (eg in The Treasury’s recent working paper on social capital I saw the suggestion that cars might perhaps be discouraged as being invidious to this particular analyst’s conception of “social capital”). In this case, I think some pro-immigration people are sceptical that applying a wellbeing approach to immigration policy is not much more than an attempt to justify less immigration even if there are economic benefits. Since I don’t believe that in New Zealand’s case in recent decades there have been such benefits, I’m probably more concerned about the (possible lack of) rigour of any attempt to broaden out the range of considerations, and uneasy that one or other component of the framework will be latched onto to make the case for more immigration (when what we’ve had looks to have been economically costly to New Zealanders as a whole).
But, as I say, I want to withhold substantive comment until I’ve finished the book – so most likely I’ll write about it next week. This post was prompted by various comments to other posts highlighting the new book, seeking comment, and in some case I thought unfairly criticising the authors. I’d recommend people read the book – it is pretty cheap – or at least the article-length version of the argument published in Policy Quarterly, the Victoria University publication, in its pre-election issue last year. Here was their conclusion in that article
Migration has been good for New Zealand, but it has not been great. We think using a well-being framework has the potential to make it better. Focusing on smaller numbers of more highly skilled immigrants, and considering important broader issues that a simple focus on per capita GDP allows us to ignore, should lead to more effective and more sustainable immigration policy for New Zealand.
As you imagine, I have mixed feelings about that conclusion, but it is worth reflecting on and engaging with.