Immigration policy and wellbeing

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, 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.

14 thoughts on “Immigration policy and wellbeing

  1. quote
    Dr Bryce Edwards, an academic who is a visible commentator, says
    There is growing condemnation of the Government’s unwillingness to adequately address underfunded public services and infrastructure. Some of this criticism is even coming from economists and right-wing commentators.

    NZIER – John Ballingall – 06 March 2018 – Overseas Investment Act
    NZIER recently made a submission to the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee on proposed changes to the Overseas Investment Act to ban foreign buyers of existing New Zealand homes. We oppose the Bill mainly because of its complete lack of empirical analysis, and because of the potential unintended consequences that have not been explored to date

    Over the past two years I have expressed criticisms of the paucity of publicly available data in a useable form, or even the total absence of data. Any irritation I might express is compounded when the NZIER opposes a move on the grounds of unavailability of data and thus the opportunity to analyse that data. It appears to me the lack of data is a product of underfunding of the agencies concerned. Qualified people spending a lot of time and energy writing long tomes based on absence of quality information should be questioned

    For what it’s worth, the following is the line of discourse I expect from the unaligned academic world. Unfortunately it relies on data

    For 7 years I have advocated temporarily closing the gates on immigration completely, for a period of time, until the disruptions and infrastructure deficits can be addressed. This brings into play two possible contestable issues

    1. Temporary cessation of all immigration will cause some undefinable disruptions and social costs to employers and businesses who have come to rely on these corporate subsidies?
    2. Continued mass immigration along existing lines is causing unquantified disruptions and changes to the social fabric of society and exerting pressures on social infrastructure that are not being addressed

    The economic test is what are the costs to existing society of each of the two courses of action

    Which course of action would have the least cost to society ?


  2. I’m with Kerry McDonald
    “The high rate of immigration is a national disaster. It is lowering the present and future living standards of New Zealanders by serious adverse economic, social and environmental consequences.

    The critical criterion for policy is impact on the living standards of New Zealand residents. The impact on the immigrants is irrelevant. But, the political view is a simple and misleading “quantity” based one – more immigrants means population growth and more jobs, houses and infrastructure spending, so GDP increases. This suggests a strong, well-managed economy – which is a nonsense in New Zealand’s case with an export dependent economy.”

    Compare that to the ideology of the juggernaut Labour and National have set upon us (not to mention RNZ/TVNZ)


      • How to get exercised – what the heck has happened.

        I’m a retired greyhair – a paleface pakeha for what that’s worth. Born, bred and raised in Auckland. Auckland was a pretty harmonious place. In my experience growing up down at the bottom of the social heap in a state-house, in a state-housing area, comingling with maori and rarotongans and fijians and samoans and niueans there wasn’t any racism that I was ever aware of. We were all in together, mixed together, went to school together, played sport together. Where does all this racial stuff come from. Can only imagine it comes from all these imports who have brought their prejudices with them


      • The Potentialities and Politics of Urban Superdiversity

        How does or could a focus on superdiversity destabilise and challenge normative approaches to urban diversity management or national projects in ways that create new spaces and options for an inclusive/progressive politics? And who are they key players? This seminar also explores who is typically included in discussions of superdiversity and those that might be excluded such as hegemonic majority ethnic groups, or corporate and private sector organisations. Settler society superdiversity is used as one example to explore the complex possibilities of emancipatory politics.

        Click to access Academy_Masterclasses.pdf

        1. To free from bondage, oppression, or restraint; liberate.


    • I guess whenever we look at our tiny population of 4.6 million on the land mass the size of Japan with 125 million people, economists like Kerry McDonald get laughed at internationally.


    • why is your population growth, infrastructure spending or GDP increases more important than the lives of innocent people living in struggling countries or under the communist regime? these people have done nothing to deserve to live like this so they deserve a chance at a good life and a good life for their children.

      [MHR note: this is a comment from my 13 year old daughter. You can see we eschew indoctrination in this household!]

      Liked by 1 person

      • So you do you mean only immigrants from countries below our average standard of living or all those who are poorer than us from anywhere?

        May as well apply it to yourself. Are you willing to share your possessions with the many poor families in NZ? It takes an effort to justify my selfishness but what I have is for my family to inherit and I do my best to hold on to it. My acts of charity are mine; I do not delegate my charitable acts to the government.

        Immigrants invariably reduce wages; usually only slightly but the more the numbers the bigger the effect. That was little bother to me when I was programming computers because I was generously paid. Neither do I shed tears for well paid economists having their opportunities suppressed because say a brilliant economist from Bangladesh arrives in NZ. However if you are unemployed in NZ or under-employed in NZ or working for low wages in NZ then adding 3rd world immigrants who reduce your job opportunities and reduce the wages for whatever work you can get is a serious matter.

        It is just too easy for well paid academics and wealthy politicians and self-interested business owners to be generous with the meagre incomes of honest hardworking low paid Kiwis. I am looking forward to discovering the argument made in this book for the benefits of high-skilled immigration and hopefully more ammunition to fight against low-paid immigration

        Keep immigration policy designed for the well-being of Kiwis and use refugee policy to address your concerns.


      • Michael. Time for you to have a discussion with Maddy about Communism and Marxism. Communism in its purist form where everyone is treated equally and society shares the means of living well, should be good. Maddy denigrates communism, Does she mean Soviet Communism or Sino-Communism or Marxist communism. Surely Russian communism was ok until they started invading their neighbours and spending enormous sums on Cuba and African countries that were not aligned with communism. And then the system failed


      • I wrote this and remember feeling proud of it “” I do not delegate my charitable acts to the government “”. A hour later taking a car to my social worker step-daughter I realised it was a load of tosh. Of course we pay taxes to the government so they can provide charitable services for us and do so with balance and fairness.


    • Past research does not show that bonding is “bad” in a broad social context, but instead that bridging is more
      effective for employment outcomes
      • The three most important factors for successful bridging appear to be: language, language and language!

      Therefore a common language is an asset?

      “Just inside the sliding doors of the Dahua supermarket in Northcote, Spoonley enthuses over the leafy greens. An estimated 80 per cent of the businesses in the precinct are Asian.
      “Have you been in one of these lately? Look at the variety,” he says, waving an arm across the expanse of the produce aisle. “You are getting all the choys. And see, it’s in Mandarin script as well as English.”
      We continue through the aisles, up into the meat section where a customer is chatting happily with one of the staff. “Have you heard English spoken so far?” says Spoonley. “Most of the language spoken here is Mandarin. Asia comes to Auckland. Asia comes to New Zealand.”


      • That link starts: “”Slowly, almost imperceptibly, New Zealand society is changing before our eyes. Despite being the last land mass to be inhabited by humans, we are now one of the most ethnically diverse. And despite priding ourselves on our egalitarian society, the gap between rich and poor is growing faster in Aotearoa than in almost any other country in the OECD.””

        There seems to be no realisation that there is the possibility of a link between rapid ethnic diversity and the gap between rich and poor. Surely worth an investigation especially when the prosecuted cases of worker exploitation and human trafficking predominately involve non-NZ ethnicities or recent arrival. It seems a logical result to have a less egalitarian society when social cohesion is in decline and cultural practice and language help divide us.

        A minor issue, my knowledge of NZ is small but are we New Zealand or Aotearoa? The latter may be fine Te Reo even if rumoured to be of English Victorian poet origin. I’d be happy to use either but mangling two languages cannot be right and to use both in one paragraph is confusion. On one hand it is bringing Te Reo into more common use which would be positive but on the other hand it could be rejecting those with less sophistication and therefore sadly divisive.

        Certainly not imperceptible where I live. The nearest 5 fuel stations to my home were manned by surly Pakeha 5 years ago and now they are run by younger friendlier recent immigrants from India. That is a fast change and who will it be in another 5 years?


  3. As with any significant activity you need criteria for judging its success or failure. Generally it is best if the criteria come first and the activity second.

    Immigration is mainly defended on economic grounds and professional economists who by definition ought to be the best judges of economic success cannot agree whether it has been a success despite 70 years of data and decades of debate.

    If this new book causes the government to list their criteria, the means of measuring them and their targets it will be a step forward.


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