Thoughts as the immigration data disappear

Last month marked the end of an era.  In a country with larger and more variable migration flows (in and out, New Zealand and foreign) than almost anywhere else Statistics New Zealand released the last ever set of permanent and long-term migration data.  The numbers were only ever approximations –  because people changed their minds –  but they were (a) based on data collected from every person crossing the border, and (b) reported quite quickly (October’s data were released on 22 November).

As I’ve written about here previously, there is a new system being put in place, but the numbers it produces will have (on SNZ’s own reported estimates) huge margins of error each and every month, and it will be at least a year after the event until we can have even moderate confidence in estimates as to what was going in any particular month.   The issue arises most seriously in respect of the outflows of New Zealanders, for which –  of course –  there is no other administrative data, such as (say) visa approvals.  It is cavalier, another step backwards in terms of having timely data  –  whether for economic monitoring, or political and economic debate –  but perhaps convenient for governments and officials who would prefer the issues not to be debated (“just let us get on with our ‘Big New Zealand’ project”).

Even the total movements data –  which was part of understanding tourist inflows and outflows data –  is now going to be worse.  This is from the recent SNZ release

Removing departure cards means changes to the timing and composition of this release. Statistics on short-term movements (including the current report International visitor arrivals to New Zealand) will be published in a new international travel release, and long-term movements in a new international migration release.

Both releases will be published on the same day, up to 30 working days after each reference month. November data, previously published just before Christmas, will now be published in January, and December data in February.

From about 15 working days to 30 working days.  That is SNZ’s –  and the government’s idea of progress?   Then again, these are the people who seem to have stuffed up the latest Census so badly  –  and no heads, political or bureaucratic, have rolled.

But to mark the passing of the PLT data, here are a few charts.  Here is the quarterly annualised data by citizenship.

Last PLT 1

For all the talk in recent years about “New Zealanders coming home”, there was only a single quarter with a (tiny) net inflow.   The net outflow of New Zealanders is still modest by historical standards, but interestingly while there is a net outflow to Australia there is still a small net inflow (the gap between the blue and orange lines) of New Zealanders from the rest of the world.   If leaving for Australia has got harder –  and the headlines about New Zealanders’ rights in Australia more grim –  perhaps it is harder still in the rest of the world?   And, despite the fall in residence approval visa numbers (mostly granted to people already here), the net inflow of non-New Zealanders remains large.

We won’t have this timely data in future.

Migration data by citizenship is available. on an annual basis, back to 1950.  Here are the cumulative PLT numbers since then.

Last PLT 2

In the early period the net outflow of New Zealanders was tiny. For the 16 years up to an including the year to March 1965, the net outflow of New Zealanders was 10576, or an average of under 1000 a year.    In a normal country you expect to see an outflow of citizens: most people obtain citizenship by being born in a place (or naturalised in it), and some proportion of natives will always choose to leave –  whether falling in love, or simply preferring the opportunities some other place has to offer. But in normal countries –  especially normal advanced countries –  those outflows are typically small.   (Estimates, such as they are, of the number of American citizens living abroad, short or long term, come to less than 3 per cent of the total US population.)

Here is the same chart starting from the year to March 1966 and coming all the way forward to the year to March 2018 –  53 years of data.

last PLT 3

Over that period a net 968000 New Zealanders are estimated to have left –  from a country that in 1966 had a population of just under 2.7 million.

And, on the other hand, successive governments have brought in (because it increasingly has been a matter of conscious and deliberate policy) almost 1.4 million non-New Zealand citizens.  Even just in the last 30 years –  when it has all been conscious and deliberate policy –  the net inflow of non NZ citizens has been 1.1 million people (in 1989, the total population was only 3.3 million).

Even allowing for the 50 year span, they are staggering numbers (in both directions).   And perhaps what is all but unprecedented is that combination.  There are countries –  even in the modern era of largely controlled immigration –  that have had very large inflows (you could think of modern Israel or Australia in the 1950s. or Portugese settlers flooding back home in the 1970s, or the French settlers back from Algeria after independence).  And you can think of countries that have had very large outflows in modern times –  Cuba, or modern day Venezuela, Syria, or some of the eastern European countries after they joined the EU.  But I can’t think of a single case that parallels New Zealand’s radical population experiment –  a mass exodus of its own people (mostly to better opportunities across the Tasman, quite rationally), accompanied by such active large scale controlled inflows of people from other countries.  Some of the places people leave from en masse are hellholes (each of the first three of my list), but the countries in eastern Europe typically aren’t –  almost all of them now, for example, have average GDP per capita above that of the median country.

As a matter of economics, I think the policies pursued by successive governments have been daft and damaging, embarked on (and, worse, continued) in a cavalier manner that paid no serious heed to the ongoing economic underperformance and constrained opportunities of New Zealand.  Or even to how unusual New Zealand’s approach to population and migration was. I’ve laid the arguments for that case out elsewhere (eg here) and am not going to repeat them here.   I’m pretty confident that –  on narrow economic arguments – material living standards for the average New Zealander would today be better (probably materially better) had governments respected the signal in the behaviour of New Zealanders, and perhaps kept the average annual inflow of non-New Zealand citizens to, perhaps, 10000.  Over the full period that would have meant perhaps 900000 fewer non-NZ immigrants.

We’d have been smaller –  but small countries abroad do just fine –  we’d have worked more within the constraints of our natural resources, we’d have reduced the extent of the disaster that is the housing “market”, and more internationally-comparable real interest rates and a lower real exchange rate would have made firms operating in the tradables sector better-positioned to succeed from here.

But as I was thinking about the issue, another dimension occurred to me that I hadn’t previously given much attention to.  The component of the population that wouldn’t have changed much with a much different immigration policy is the people identifying as Maori.    Those people were 15 per cent of the total population at the 2013 Census, and for the sake of argument we’ll assume it is still 15 per cent now.     With a different immigration policy –  along the lines I sketched above –  the population now might only be about four million, probably less  (a net 900000 fewer migrants, but they have children and grandchildren, filling out a total population effect over several decades).  A Maori population that is 15 per cent of 5 million, would be almost 19 per cent of a population of 4 million.

This is all highly-stylised, and I’m not putting any weight at all on precise numbers, but it is a reminder that immigration policy –  going back many many decades (see Vogel on this point about his immigration policy) –  has been about reducing the relative importance (numerical weight) of Maori in modern New Zealand.  Sometimes that was intentional, and at other times probably mostly not, but effects (especially entirely foreseeable one) matter more than intentions.

Reasonable people might differ on whether this is a good thing, or even a legitimate topic for discussion.  Were one Maori, one might quite easily think it a very bad thing.  You might view the resurgence of things Maori in recent years as a “good thing” and wonder about the “what ifs” around a quite different path of immigration in modern times.  Not only would your people have been clearly the single largest non-European ethnic grouping, but your overall share in the population –  and claim on power, resources, and esteem would have been that much greater.

But it is quite possible that many others would see things differently.  Many other voters –  consciously or not –  might welcome large scale immigration partly because it can be used to relativise and reduce the position of Maori (“just another minority in the cacophony of voices”).  As someone who is sceptical of our immigration policy (over decades) for economic reasons, I’m genuinely curious as to how the liberal strongly pro-immigration voices in our society reconcile their enthusiasm for high rates of immigration and their regard for Maori (the Labour Party itself, with such a substantial Maori caucus, is the most group to wonder about, although one could wonder about the National Party too.)

Of course, if one were being hard-headed about the matter one might wonder what such an alternative society might look like.  A country that was, say, 20+ per cent (identifying as) Maori  –  with higher fertility rates than other ethnic groups –  and just a couple of per cent each Pacific and Asian (a plausible mix if we’d been targeting 10000 net non-citizen migrants for the last 50 years).  That would look and feel very different to today’s New Zealand.  One can see reasons why some –  Maori and non –  would have embraced such a mix.  But, realistically, one can also see reason why for some European New Zealanders it might have been more of an impetus to have followed the economic opportunities and gone to Australia.   Who knows which tendency would have predominated, and what  political dynamics might have emerged in the process, or what the economic implications might have been.  My arguments about the economics of immigration in the New Zealand context have tended to proceed as if there are no ethnic faultlines –  and remember my “for economic purposes, I don’t care in the migrants come from Birmingham, Bangalore, Brisbane or Beijing”.  But that isn’t so, and it may –  genuine uncertainty, at least in my mind –  matter even in thinking about likely alternative economic outcomes.  In my view, it is almost always better to let societies work these thing –  including competing interests and values – out themselves over time, rather than have governments might a heavy hand on the scales (as they do by large scale immigration programmes).

(Some earlier thought on immigration policy and Maori are here.)