Reading a NZ economist supporting large-scale immigration

As much as I can, I try to read and engage with material that is supportive of New Zealand’s unusually open immigration policy.   One should learn by doing so, and in any case there is nothing gained by responding to straw men, or the weakest arguments people on the other side are making.

At present, supporters of our unusually open immigration policy hold all the levers of power, and dominate much of the media.   But what has surprised me over the years I’ve been thinking about these issues is how unpersuasive I find the pro-immigration material, perhaps especially that written in a New Zealand context.   I’m not sure whether dominating elite opinion for so long has meant they no longer put the effort in, or what.  But whatever the reason, I’ve expected stronger arguments and evidence –  in support of a policy now run for 25 years –  and haven’t found them.

At the start of the year –  in a document that they were quite open about being aimed at Winston Peters, and those who might be listening to him –  the New Zealand Initiative came out with a substantial publication, largely devoted to saying that there was really nothing to worry about: if they couldn’t demonstrate the economic gains to New Zealanders (a point they acknowledged) there were few or no downsides.   If there was a case for any refinements, it was very much at the margins.  I devoted a series of posts(captured in a collected document) to examining the case they’d made.    I remain surprised at the limited extent to which an institution run by economists engaged with the specifics of New Zealand’s longer-term economic (under)performance.

A month or two ago, BWB Texts published Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century , a collection of chapters by various New Zealand authors (mostly, it would seem, of a left-liberal persuasion).  I wrote earlier about the chapter on a particularly unusual feature of the New Zealand system: we are the only country with any material amount of immigration (and one of only a handful in total) allowing people to vote if they’d resided here for just a year.

But my main focus is on the economic perspectives, both because that is my own background, and because successive governments have sold the immigration programme primarily as a tool to improve New Zealand’s economic performance and the economic outcomes of New Zealanders.   One doesn’t see it any more, but MBIE used to call the immigration programme a “critical economic enabler” .

And in Fair Borders there is a chapter on the economics of immigration, headed “International Migration: The Great Trade-Off”.   The author is Hautahi Kingi, a young New Zealander –  with a fascinating back story, that left me disquieted about aspects of our system –  who has recently completed a PhD on the ‘macroeconomics effects of migration’ at Cornell, and now works for a consulting company in Washington DC.

He begins his chapter in praise of migration –  not just something good, but something “central to human experience” –  harking back to some mythical day when humans were free to wander savannahs and steppes, constrained only by wild animals, unfamiliar climate, and hostile people who were already there, but not by official border guards.

As he notes, actually, 95 per cent of people live in their country of birth.  Probably a fairly high percentage live within 100 miles of where they were born.   Given this, Kingi concedes,

immigration policies have the potential to transform not just our economies, but the structure of our societies and institutions.

Which is, of course, part of what many people worry about.  Societies and institutions exist as they are for good reasons.    G K Chesterton had some wise cautions to those who happily lay into such institutions.

Kingi continues “by definition, international migration is a global issue”.  Well, I suppose so, in that for any international migration to occur at least two countries are involved.  But there is no necessary reason why immigration policy should be considered a global issue at all.   It isn’t like issues around pollution or climate change.  And few countries do treat it as an international issue.  They make immigration policy, as they seek to make policy in most other areas of governments, primarily in the interests of their own citizens/voters.

Kingi’s first main section is about what he describes as “the global perspective”.   He is pretty persuaded by the papers which seek to show that if only all countries opened their borders and people could move wherever they wanted there would be a massive – perhaps 100 per cent –  increase in world GDP.  In his words “from a global income perspective, no other policy offers anything remotely as appealing”.

But, in fact, he doesn’t make much of a case.  Sure, open migration would beat out foreign aid –  the alternative policy he quotes – as a means to lift average incomes.  But whoever supposed that most foreign aid ever did much good –  Peter Bauer was writing about this stuff decades ago –  or that much of it wasn’t more about foreign policy (cultivating relationships with foreign governments) than about lifting living standards in recipient countries.     Free trade in goods and services does much more than foreign aid.

Perhaps more importantly, surely the most compelling and effective means to lift living standards en masse is for countries to adopt growth-friendly policies and institutitions.  China is the most obvious example in recent decades.   They have a long way to go –  on both policies and outcomes –  to get to First World living standards, but what they have achieved in recent decades is transformative, and obvious.  And for hundreds of millions of people.

Unfortunately Kingi –  and many of the libertarians who also run such arguments –  end up running a latter-day version of the line one used to hear decades ago from people on the dripping-wet left wing side of economic debates: the poor are poor because the rich are rich.    To a first approximation, it is simply false.    People in New Zealand, or the UK, or France, or Denmark aren’t rich because we won some lottery, or just got lucky, but because our ancestors developed, and we maintain, cultures and institutions that develop and maintain a high level of productive capability (encouraging and rewarding people for investing in human and other forms of capital).   Sadly, too many other countries have failed to do so.   (The need to work hard to maintain such cultures is part of why I think Oliver Hartwich’s Herald op-ed today is profoundly wrong: character matters greatly.)

It is not as if change is imposssible –  look at the convergence achieved in recent decades by a handful of east Asian countries.  It is not as if our relative position is immutable either –  not 1000 years ago, China was well ahead.   But prosperity, en masse, is mostly about the institutions, broadly defined, that societies develop and maintain.  Doing so is hard work.

Are there exceptions?  Well, yes of course.  In our age, if you don’t have too many people, and you do have lots of oil and gas, your people can be very rich, even without many of the supporting institutions that otherwise seem to be required.  But those are windfalls, in a sense achieved by free-riding on the gains –  demand and technology – developed elsewhere.

Generally, even if individuals might feel themselves lucky or unlucky, societies –  and all of us exist within societies – aren’t lucky or unlucky: they are the product of successive generations of choices.   Immigration restrictions don’t “elongate the misery” of poor countries: the choices of those societies are primarily what have that effect.

Can one import prosperity?  To some extent one can.  After all, New Zealand (and Australia and the like) are examples.  Material living standards weren’t high for indigenous people pre-colonalisation.  But New Zealand and similar countries had lots of land, a temperate climate, and by importing not just lots of people from the then most advanced economic culture (and all the legal and associated institutions), something a bit like Europe was created here.   Maori shared –  perhaps to a lesser extent than might have been desirable –  in the prosperity that was created here.   But –  and these are Kingi’s words – “movement of people entails movement of culture and norms”.    A New Zealand that was once largely the place of Maori isn’t really so any longer.

But that 19th century example –  that transformed Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and US –  isn’t really relevant to New Zealand’s situation now.  Even if we wanted to engage in such a mass transplantation, there is no economic culture hugely more advanced than what we already have.

So Kingi’s focus is the other way round –  it is on the gains to migrants from being able to shift from poor countries to rich countries.  There is no doubt that, for individuals at the margin they are considerable –  it is why we see foreign students willing to pay $40000 for a job in New Zealand, with the aim of qualifying for a New Zealand residence visa.

But the staggering gains in the papers Kingi cites don’t result from quite modest flows, but from “massive” movements of people.  In his words “movement of people entails movement of culture and norms” –  and if those effects are small for modest migration flows, they are likely to be substantial for “massive” movements.  In the long-run, migrants import their own economic destiny –  just as we (descendants of the 19th century migrants from the UK) did.   And if poor migrants in large numbers ultimately bring their own cultures and institutions, it is most unlikely that in the long run they’d be better off here to anything like the extent the academic papers suggest.  After all, geographic New Zealand is no better intrinsically suited to economic prosperity for lots of people than many other parts of the world –  arguably (or so I’ve argued) our remoteness makes us less so.

Strangely, Kingi’s poster-child example of large scale immigration is the Gulf Cooperation Countries, such as Qatar and Kuwait.  86 per cent of Qatar’s population is made up of migrants. Qatar has probably the highest GDP per capita in the world.  It is obviously appealing to the poor migrants, who keep coming, but I’m not sure why Kingi regards it as a remotely appealing basis on which to sell mass migration to New Zealanders.   For a start, these are classic states with massive natural resources and (originally very few people).  It is no surprise that there are windfall gains that could be spread around.   But as even Kingi acknowledges, the exploitation of lowly-skilled foreign labour in countries like this is appalling (even if one wants to engage in economists’ talk of both sides benefiting or it wouldn’t happen).  It simply isn’t how we would want a society to be structured.  And although he notes that this large scale migration goes on without causing any great domestic political problems, (a) the migrants have few rights, and no political rights (even fewer typically than the natives), and (b) these are societies not exactly known for freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the like,  And, sadly, slavery –  or its modern equivalent –  can look quite appealing to the slaveholders and those who benefit from the practice.   It remains morally repulsive.

If you’d only got this far in Kingi’s chapter, you might suppose he was an out-and-out advocate of open borders and free migration, here and everywhere.     But it is here that he gets more interesting.  Note the trade-off in his chapter title, and he seems to recognise that whatever large scale migration might do for the migrants, it could well harm at least some natives.  I think he gives a fair account of the international debate about the impact of immigration on the wages of lowly-skilled natives

Although this debate continues unresolved in academia, it is at leasr conceivable that immigrants may negatively affect those native workers with whom they compete most closely for jobs.  The experience of globalisation in recent decades should teach us to take this potential concern very seriously.

He looks to reconcile what he sees a a global imperative to allow high immigration (generally) with the risk of harm to vulnerable natives, favouring better-educated migrants.

But as notes, immigration is’t just an economic issue.  And here too he seems torn.  He’s a paid-up member of those who “embrace multi-culturalism as a cherished part of progressive society” and yet recognises that “mass migration” can have a ‘potentially corrosive effect on that society”.    But as I say, he is torn.

When people cross borders, so do their cultures and norms, and we are almost always richer and stronger for it.


more diverse societies also tend to reduce the provision of public goods and erode support for the welfare state

Unlike some libertarians, that erosion of support for the welfare state seems to be a bad thing for Kingi.


[ethnic divisions] can severely undermine the social institutions sustaining an economy because, despite the assurances of modern legal systems, “virtually every commerical transaction has within itself an element of trust”

He notes

The impact of immigration on a country’s social fabric can be an uncomfortable issue to discuss because it forces us to acknowledge and confront lamentable tribal aspects of human frailty.

Institutions and societies evolve to cope with human fraility –  aka “reality”.

And almost in passing he notes a Maori dimension

modern Aotearoa was founded on the principle that tangata whenua have rights to their culture that should not be overridden by settlers.  At the heart of the critique against colonialism is a concern for the enforced erosion of culture.

Kingi sets out the concluding section of his chapter with the proposition that there is a moral dilemma between the global and domestic perspectives.

by restricting the entry of foreigners…we effectively accept the substantial inequality outside our borders in order to protect the veneer of equality within.

You can see where his economist instincts lie.  But he is simply wrong about the trade-off, at least once large numbers of people are involved.  Societies make, and sustain, their own destinies.   He argues that

migration is, and always has been, the best tool for reducing suffering  in our world

But demonstrably that isn’t so.  Europe didn’t get rich on the back of migration –  even if the 19th century outflows helped them a bit.  China didn’t lead the world –  and recover its standing in the last 40 years –  on the back of migration.   Perhaps some libertarians wish it were otherwise, but migration –  country to country –  has always been a distinctly minority experience.   It lifts prospects for relatively small numbers –  if the people of North America are generally richer than the countries of their ancestors, people of South American typically aren’t.  Rising prosperity, reduced poverty, mostly result from choices, conscious or unconscious, that societies make about how to organise and discipline themselves.

I’m not sure quite where Kingi himself ends up.  His chapter is strikingly high level, and despite being in a book focused on New Zealand hardly engages with the New Zealand economic experience (or New Zealand social/cultural issues) at all.  It certainly doesn’t recognise how unusually large New Zealand’s residence approvals programme is by modern international standards.

Perhaps when Kingi ends this way

While international migration represents a life-changing opportunity for many, it also threatens the livelihoods of others and strikes to the core of our societies by changing their structure, their jobs, their culture, their appearance

he is still working his way towards a policy prescription for modern New Zealand.

As part of Radio New Zealand’s recent podcast series on New Zealand immigration, Kingi and I did a series of email exchanges on these issues –  me as the sceptic and Kingi as the supporter.  Radio New Zealand tells me that the series of letters was well-received by readers,  in part for the very different angles they present on the economic issues.  I want to come back to that exchange, perhaps next week, to elaborate on some of the key points we each chose to make when confronted with the other’s arguments, under pretty tight word limits.



A fresher approach for ordinary New Zealanders

I’m as fascinated by the rise of Jacinda Ardern as any other political junkie.  I’ve always been a bit puzzled, struggling to see what issue she has led or what blows she had managed to land on the government.    Then again, she seems to have something different –  perhaps even more electorally important.   I’ve been dipping into accounts of Bob Hawke’s rise –  the last case I’m aware of that where major opposition party changed leaders close to an election (in that case only four weeks out) and won.     It isn’t clear that Bob Hawke was a better Prime Minister than Bill Hayden might have been, or that David Lange was a better Prime Minister than Bill Rowling would have been, but in both cases the new leaders had something –  a degree of connection, engagement etc –  that the deposed leaders didn’t.     Reading the accounts of the last weeks of Bill Hayden’s leadership of the ALP, the party had become as disheartened and lacking belief in its own ability to win (despite still leading in the polls), as some suggest the New Zealand Labour Party had become.    Quite what the Ardern phenomenon amounts to I guess we’ll see over the next few weeks.  From her comments so far, I could imagine her campaigning as Hawke did –  both the upbeat theme of “reconciliation”, and the more cynical description in (sympathetic) leading Australian journalist Paul Kelly’s book “no avenue of vote-buying or economic expansion was left untouched”.

For now, we are told that the “Fresh Approach” slogan is apparently out, and a new slogan and some new policies are soon to be launched.  Since no party really seemed to be campaigning on policies that might make a real and decisive for ordinary New Zealanders’ prospects, in many respect a fresher approach should be welcome.  Of course, it rather depends what is in that policy mix.

My interests here are primarily economic.  In an interview with the Dominion-Post this morning, the journalist put it to Ardern that “National will campaign on its economic record. Is that where Labour is weak?”.     Perhaps it is Labour’s weak point.  But what sort of “record” is the government to campaign on?  An unemployment rate that, while inching down, has been above the level it was when they took office –  already almost a year into a recession –  every single quarter of their entire term?  An economy that has had no productivity growth for almost five years?     House prices that, in our largest city, have gone through the roof?  Exports that are shrinking as a share of GDP?    And, at best, anaemic per capita real GDP growth?   If it is a weakness for Labour, it must be in large part because (a) their messaging has been terrible, and (b) nothing they offer seems likely to make any very decisive difference to the mass of ordinary New Zealanders.

What might?   Here’s my list of three main sets of proposals.    An effective confident radical Labour Party could offer the public these sorts of measures –  in fact, on some points arguably only a left-wing party could effectively do so (Nixon to China, and all that).

  1. A serious commitment to cheap urban land and much lower construction costs.
    • In a country with abundant land, urban land prices are simply scandalous.   The system is rigged, intentionally or not, against the young and the poor, those just starting out.  Too many of Jacinda Ardern’s own generation simply cannot afford to buy a house.
    • To the extent that there are poverty and inequality issues in New Zealand, many of them increasingly trace back to the shocking unaffordability of decent housing.   With interest rates at record lows, housing should never have been cheaper or easier to put in place.
    • And yet instead of committing to get land and house prices down again, the Labour Party has been reluctant to go beyond talk of stabilising at current levels.  Talk about entrenching disadvantage……(and advantage).
    • It is fine to talk about the government building lots of houses, but the bigger –  and more fundamental –  issue is land prices.  It is outrageous, and should be shameful, for people to be talking of “affordable” houses of $500000, $600000 or even more, in a country of such modest incomes.  International experience shows one can have, sustainably, quite different –  much better –  outcomes, but only if the land market is substantially deregulated.
    • I don’t have any problem if people want to live in denser cities –  I suspect mostly they don’t –  but it is much easier and quicker to remove the boundaries on physical expansion of cities (while putting in place measure for the associated infrastructure).   Labour’s policy documents have talked of moves in this direction –  as National’s used to do –  but it is never a line that has been heard from the party leader.     If –  as I propose –  population growth is cut right back, there won’t be much more rapid expansion of cities, but make the legislative and regulatory changes, and choice and competition will quickly collapse the price of much urban, and potentially developable, land.
    • It is clear that there is also something deeply amiss with our construction products market –  no one seriously disputes that basic building products are much more expensive here than in Australia or the US.  Make a firm commitment to fix this.  Perhaps it involves Commerce Commission interventions (supported by new legislation?)?  Perhaps it might even involve –  somewhat heretically –  a government entity entering the market directly.     But commit to change, to producing something far better for New Zealanders.
    • The vision should be one in which house+land prices are quickly –  not over 20 years –  headed back to something around three times income.  A much better prospect for the next generation.
    • No one will much care about rental property owners who might lose in this transition –  they bought a business, took a risk, and it didn’t pay off.  That is what happens when regulated industries are reformed and freed up.    It isn’t credible –  and arguably isn’t fair –  that existing owner-occupiers (especially those who just happened to buy in the last five years) should bear all the losses.   Compensation isn’t ideal but even the libertarians at the New Zealand Initiative recognise that sometimes it can be the path to enabling vital reforms to occur.  So promise a scheme in which, say, owner-occupiers selling within 10 years of purchase at less than, say, 75 per cent of what they paid for a house, could claim half of any additional losses back from the government (up to a maximum of say $100000).  It would be expensive but (a) the costs would spread over multiple years, and (b) who wants to pretend that the current disastrous housing market isn’t costly in all sorts of fiscal (accommodation supplements) and non-fiscal ways.
  2. Deep cuts in taxes on business and capital income
    • the political tide is running the other way on this one –  calls for increased taxes on foreign multi-nationals and so on –   but it remains straightforwardly true that taxes on business activity are borne primarily not by “the rich”, but by workers, in the form of lower incomes than otherwise.  So if you really care about New Zealand workers’ prospects, cut those taxes, deeply.
    • and one of the bigger presenting symptoms of New Zealand’s economic problems is relatively low levels of business investment.   Taxes aren’t the only thing businesses  –  and owners of capital  –  think about, but they are almost pure cost.   Tax a discretionary activity and you’ll get a lot less of it.   That is especially true as regard foreign investment –  those owners of foreign capital have no need to be here if the after-tax returns aren’t great.  For all the (mostly misplaced) concerns about sovereignty, foreign investment benefits New Zealanders –  ordinary working New Zealanders.     Cut the tax rates on such activity  –  they are already higher than in most advanced countries –  and you’ll see more of it taking place.    More investment, and higher labour productivity, translates into meaningful prospects of much higher on-market wages –  the sorts of wages they have in the advanced countries we were once richer than.
    • simply cutting the company tax rate will make a material difference to potential foreign investors.   It won’t make much difference for New Zealanders’ looking to build or expand businesses here, because of our imputation system    That’s why I’ve argued previously for adopting a Nordic system of income taxation  –  in which capital income is taxed at a lower rate than labour income.  Note the description –  it is a system not run in some non-existent libertarian “paradise” but in those bastions of social democracy, the Nordic countries.  Not because they want to advantage owners of capital over providers of labour, but because the recognise the well-established economic proposition that taxes on capital are mostly borne in the former of lower returns to labour.
    • some argue against cuts to business taxes on the grounds that it will provide a windfall to firms (especially foreign firms) already operating here.  Mostly, that is false.  It might be true if foreign firms dominated our tradables sector –  where product selling prices are set internationally.  But in New Zealand, foreign investment is much more important in the non-tradables sectors.  Cut taxes on, say, the banks, and you’ll find the gains being competed away, flowing back to New Zealand firms and households in lower fees and interest margins.  If for some reason it doesn’t happen, feel free to invoke the Commerce Commission (and/or expand its powers).
    • much lower business taxes should be a no-brainer for an intellectually self-confident centre-left party serious about doing something about long-term economic underperformance and lifting medium-term returns to labour.     I’m not really a fan of capital gains taxes, but if you need political cover promise a well-designed CGT –  it probably won’t do much harm, especially if you take seriously the goal of delivering much cheaper houses and urban land (see above –  there won’t be many housing capital gains for a long time).
  3. Deep cuts to target levels of non-citizen immigration
    • This item might be entirely predictable from me, but it is no less important for that.    Labour started out with some rhetoric along these lines, but as I’ve noted previously what they actually came out with was a damp squib, that would change very little beyond a year or so.   So
      • Cut the number of annual residence approvals to 10000 to 15000 per annum –  the same rate, per capita, as in Barack Obama’s (or George Bush’s) United States,
      • Remove the existing rights of foreign students to work in New Zealand while studying here.
      • Institute work visa provisions that are  (a) capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa) and (b) subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum or 20 per cent of the employee’s annual income (whichever is greater).
    • In substance, you will be putting the interests of New Zealanders first, but you will also strongly give that impression –  a good feature if you are serious about lifting sustained economic performance, while being relentlessly positive about it, and about your aspirations for New Zealanders.
    • Change in this area would immediately take a fair degree of pressure off house prices, working together with the structural housing/land market reforms (see above) to quickly produce much much more affordable houses and land.  Markets trade on expectations –  land markets too.
    • You’ll also very quickly alter the trajectory of urban congestion –  those big numbers NZIER produced in a report earlier this week.
    • But much more importantly in the longer-term, you’ll be markedly reducing the pressures that give us persistently the highest real interest rates in the advanced world, and
    • In doing so you’ll remove a lot of pressure from the exchange rate.  Lets say the OCR was able to be reduced to around typical advanced country levels (say 0.25 per cent at present).  In that world, the NZD offers no great attraction to foreign (or NZ institutional) holders – it is just one of many reasonably well-governed countries, offering rather low interest rates.  In that world, why won’t the exchange rate be averaging 20 per cent (or more) lower than it is now?
    • And that should be an adjustment to be embraced.  Sure, it will make overseas holidays and Amazon books etc more expensive, but in sense that is part of the point.  We need a rebalanced economy, better-positioned for firms to take on the world from here.  Combine a lower exchange rate, lower interest rates, and lower business tax rates, and you’ll see a lot more investment occurring –  and firms successfully selling more stuff internationally.  And with more investment will come the opportunities for sustainably higher wages –  and all the good stuff the centre-left parties like to do with the fiscal fruits of growth.

I don’t suppose anything like this will actually be part of the fresher approach.  But if it were……we could really look forward to a better, more prosperous, and a fairer New Zealand.

Nonsense repeated endlessly is still nonsense

For decades –  in fact going back to the 19th century –  business groups in New Zealand have claimed that we need lots of immigration (often even more immigration) to relieve pressing skill shortages.   No one ever seems to ask them how other countries –  which typically have nowhere near as much immigration as we do –  manage to survive and prosper, but set that to one side for now.

Sometimes the alleged skill shortages relate to really highly-skilled positions.  I don’t suppose anyone is going to have a problem if DHBs manage to recruit the odd paediatric oncologist from abroad.   But more commonly the calls relate to the sorts of jobs that require considerably less advanced skills.  In generations past the call was for more domestic servants –  colonial girls were apparently reluctant to take on such roles, at least at the sorts of wages that middle New Zealand wanted to offer.     These days…….well, we all know the sorts of role firms claim they simply have to have immigrants for.  Without them, the more florid suggest, the economy will topple over.

For an individual employer, those calls make a lot of sense.  Each firm has to operate with the rest of the economy as it is.    Faced with two potential employees of exactly the same quality, of course an employer will prefer the one who will work for less.  And they’ll be keen to have the competition among potential employees, to keep down any pressure for higher wages.  And if your firm couldn’t hire immigrants while your competitor could, your business might well be in some considerable strife.     Moreover, if the whole pattern of the economy has adjusted to using large amounts of modestly-skilled immigrant labour, so that some sectors rely mainly on that labour, of course it will look to employers in those sectors as if the continuation of current policy is absolutely vital.   Who, we are asked, will staff the rest homes otherwise?  Or milk the cows?

Deprive an individual employer of the ability to hire modestly-skilled migrant labour, and the argument will stack up.   But if we are thinking about immigration policy as a whole we need to take a macroeconomic, whole of economy, perspective.  And then the perspective, or experience, of an individual employer is largely irrelevant.    With a materially different immigration policy, much about the economy will be different, not just the ability of that individual firm to hire a particular immigrant.

This isn’t some striking new perspective.  New Zealand economists were saying it decades ago, responding to exactly the same sort of business sector claims.   Mostly the response consisted of pointing out two things, both of which really should be obvious but seem to repeatedly get lost in the “our business needs more migrants” rhetoric:

  • migrants aren’t just producers (sources of labour supply) but consumers, and someone else has to produce the stuff they want to consume, and
  • in a modern economy each new person generates a need for quite a lot of additional capital (a place to live, roads, schools, hospitals, shops etc) and someone else has to produce and put in place that capital.

In other words, whatever beneficial impact an individual migrant may seem to have at the level of the individual firm, there is little reason to suppose that in aggregate high rates of immigration will do anything at all to ease so-called “skill shortages” or “labour constraints”.    In fact, mostly the claim was rather the reverse: big migration inflows temporarily exacerbate those pressures across the economy as a whole.

I’ve written previously about Professor Horace Belshaw’s contribution to the immigration debate as long ago as 1952, as the post-war immigration wave was getting into full swing.   Belshaw was, at a time, one of our leading macroeconomists.  He noted

At the time when there are more vacancies than workers, it is natural to assume that immigration will relieve the labour shortage. This however, is a superficial view.  The immigrants are not only producers but also consumers. To relieve the shortage of labour it would be necessary for more to be contributed to the production of consumer goods or of export commodities used to buy imported goods than the increased numbers withdraw in consumption.  That is unlikely….[and] there will be some temporary net additional pressure on consumption.


Of much greater importance is the fact that each immigrant requires substantial additional capital investment, not in money but in real things.  Houses and additional accommodation in schools and hospitals will be needed. In order to maintain existing production and services, and even more to maximize production per head, there must be more investment in manufacturing and farming, transport, hydro-electric power, municipal amenities and so on.

To anticipate a little, immigration is not likely to ease the labour shortage while it is occurring, and is more likely to increase it because although additional consumers are brought in, more labour than they provide must be diverted to creating capital if the ratio of capital to production is to be maintained.

A few years later, the Reserve Bank published an article in its Bulletin (April 1961) on “Economic Policy for New Zealand” by a visiting British academic, who noted

It is an illusion to assume that inflationary pressure and labour shortage can be relieved by increased immigration….the main immediate effect of increased immigration is to add to the shortage of capital goods. Even single men need to be housed, and they need capital equipment with which to work in industry…..Resources have to be devoted to providing this capital that could otherwise have been devoted to increasing and modernising capital equipment per man employed.

A few years later, another leading New Zealand economist, Frank (later Sir Frank) Holmes – Belshaw’s successor as McCarthy Professor of Economics at Victoria – published a series of articles on immigration for the NZIER.  I could quote from him at length, but suffice to say he was convinced that in the short-term the demand effects (including for additional labour) from increased immigration outweighed, by some considerable margin, the supply effects.   And here “short-term” didn’t mean a month or two.  In fact, he quoted from some recent estimates by the Monetary and Economic Council –  the Productivity Commission of its time – suggesting the additional excess demand would last for up to five years.

Or, a few years on, a quote from economic historian Professor Gary Hawke

Ironically, the success with which full employment was pursued until the late 1960s led to frequent claims that labour was in short supply so that more immigrants were desirable. The output of an individual industrialist might indeed have been constrained by the unavailability of labour so that more migrants would have been beneficial to the firm, especially if the costs of migration could be shifted to taxpayers generally through government subsidies. But migrants also demanded goods and services, especially if they arrived in family groups or formed households soon after arrival and so required housing and social services such as schools and health services. The economy as a whole then remained just as “short of labour” after their arrival.”

This sort of conclusion wasn’t even very controversial among economists.   Whatever the possible longer-term merits of high immigration –  and on that point views did differ –  no serious analyst saw it as a way to relieve labour market pressures or deal with other excess demand pressures.   It simply didn’t.

For 15 years there wasn’t very much immigration to New Zealand and in the process this knowledge seemed to have been largely lost.      But the character of the economy didn’t really change, let alone the basic propositions that (a) migrants are consumers too, and (b) more people requires the accumulation of materially more physical capital.    At the Reserve Bank it took us a while to wake up to this, in the face of first big post-liberalisation surge in immigration in the mid 1990s, but thereafter it became established wisdom for us.     Consistent with this was a piece of research the Bank published just a few years ago.  In that paper Chris McDonald looked at the impact of a one per cent lift in the population from net migration on, in this chart, the output gap (the estimated difference between actual GDP and the economy’s productive potential).

output gap mcdonald

On this estimate, unexpected changes in migration increase the excess demand pressures on the New Zealand economy.    The dark blue line is the central estimate, while the lighter lines represent confidence intervals around that central estimate.   Coincidentally –  see the Monetary and Economic Council estimates from earlier decades – on this model it takes five years (60 months) for the excess demand effects to fully dissipate.   Over  that time, on this model, immigration will be exacerbating aggregate labour market pressures, not relieving them.

I don’t want to put too much weight on any particular model estimates, and the Reserve Bank itself has tried to back away from this particular one.   What causes the change in immigration matters to some extent.     But the general conclusion –  immigration does not ease resource pressures –  shouldn’t be controversial.  Indeed, only a few months ago some IMF modelling on New Zealand’s experience again produced similar results.

None of this should be a surprise (including to economically literate officials advising ministers).  As I noted earlier there are two strands through which immigrants add to demand.  The first is consumption.  The household savings rate in New Zealand is roughly zero: on average, people consume what they earn.   Perhaps the typical (or marginal) migrant is different –  some will be sending remittances back to their homelands –  but even if we assume that new immigrants have hugely different behaviour than New Zealanders, perhaps consuming equal to only 80 per cent of income, it is still a significant boost to demand.  In effect, much of what the immigrants produce will be consumed by them (not exactly the same stuff, but across the economy as a whole).  That is no criticism of them –  people do what people do –  but it is the first leg in the story about why claims that immigration eases labour shortages are typically simply false.

But the much more important part of the story is the capital requirements that new people (migrants or natives) generate.     Here Statistics New Zealand’s capital stock data can help us.     The latest estimates of the net capital stock (ie net, as in depreciated, and excluding land) are around $750 billion.   Total GDP is around $250 billion.   That ratio of net capital stock to GDP has been pretty stable around 3 for decades.

cap stock to GDP

Each dollar of additional GDP seems to require three dollars of new capital.    And this ratio understates the issue for two reasons:

  • the first is that the capital stock is a net (depreciated) figure and the GDP is gross (it includes capital spending to cover depreciation  –  around 15 per cent of GDP), and
  • the second is that our focus is here on the contribution of labour.    The ratio of the net capital stock to compensation of employees (the national accounts measure of total labour earnings) is almost 7.

These are average numbers of course, and in discussing immigration the focus should be on the margin.    It might be reasonable to point out that the typical migrant won’t need much more government capital in the short-term (eg schools and hospitals)  –  but then central government makes up only around a sixth of the total capital stock.  Perhaps the typical migrant, at least their early years, will settle for less good quality housing than the typical native?   But on the other hand, the productivity of the typical migrant is also likely to be lower than the national average, again at least in the early years (MBIE’s own labour market research highlights how long it takes many migrants to reach the earnings of similarly qualified locals).   So I’m not here to give you a definitive number for how much new capital spending is typically going to be associated with each new migrant, but it will be large.  It will be a significant multiple of the first year’s labour supply of the typical new migrant.  It will, in other words, for several years exacerbate any aggregate shortages of labour, not relieve them.

Of course, quite a bit of physical capital is imported.  All those earlier estimates already, explicitly or implicitly, take those imports into account.  SNZ’s input-output tables suggest that across capital formation as a whole the import component isn’t high –  around 21 per cent in 2013.  That shouldn’t be surprising.  Buildings make more than half the physical capital stock, and although they have some imported components, there is a great deal of domestic labour (and domestically produced timber and concrete).  Accommodating more people simply adds greatly to the demand for employment over the first few years after they arrive.

Commentators and politicians who argue that migrants don’t take jobs away from New Zealanders are largely correct  (again, past modelling exercises confirm that sort of intuition).  They don’t do so –  and they don’t succeed in lowering aggregate wages –  precisely because influxes of immigration (or unexpected reductions in the net outflow of New Zealanders) add to demand –  for goods and services, but thus for labour –  more than they add to supply.    There are probably some sector-specific adverse wage effects –  in sectors where immigrant labour has been made particularly readily available –  but much the bigger determinant of overall real wage prospects in New Zealand is productivity growth.  Sadly, our record on that score over many decades has been poor. Over the last five years it has been shocking –  no labour productivity growth at all.    That, in turn, may be in part because of the effects of rapid population growth –  all that spending associated with more people crowding out (notably through a high exchange rate) activities that might have offered more productivity growth prospects.    Despite the political rhetoric to the contrary, there is no surprise that more people create more jobs –  always have, probably always will.  But there is also no surprise that as it was decades ago, is now, and probably ever will be, increased immigration doesn’t ease overall labour market pressures.

So too much of the New Zealand debate is simply misplaced.  If we want to deal with domestic unemployment, as we should, look to monetary policy (it was a point Frank Holmes made 50 years ago). In the current context, hire a Governor who will take seriously the ambition of non-inflationary full employment.  If there are sectoral market pressures, let wages in those sectors adjust –  that is what happens to tomato prices when tomatoes are in short supply.   And if we were serious about wanting sustained productivity growth –  as we should be –  it increasingly looks as though much lower levels of non-citizen migration would be the way to go.

On our woeful productivity performance, even the Reserve Bank is starting to openly recognise the issue.  This chart (using their estimate of TFP) was in the chief economist’s speech this morning

Figure 3: Potential GDP Growth

Figure 3: Potential GDP Growth

Source: RBNZ estimates.

Little investment –  as the Deputy Governor noted in his speech last week –  and almost no productivity growth, and simply lots and lots more people.  To what end –  beneficial to the average New Zealander –  one might reasonably wonder?


Immigrants and the right to vote

I’ve been reading Fair Borders?: Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Centuryrecently released by Bridget Williams Books in their BWB Texts series.  It is a collection of nine fairly short chapters by New Zealand authors on various aspects related (more or less loosely) to immigration policy.  Being from the BWB stable, it is a pretty left-liberal collection.   I’m hesitant about recommending it, as many of the chapters don’t offer much insight or analysis, but (a) there isn’t much being written in New Zealand on immigration policy, (b) it is pretty cheap ($14.95 from memory) and (c) the publisher (in the cover blurb) does recognise that the interests of actual or potential new migrants and the interests of New Zealanders aren’t necessarily the same.

I will come back another day to the chapter by a young economist who has recently completed a PhD on “the macroeconomic effects of immigration” at Cornell.  But today I wanted to focus on the one chapter that really caught my attention, by Kate McMillan, a senior lecturer in politics at Victoria.  Her chapter bears the title “Fairness and the borders around political community”, and isn’t really about immigration, per se, at all.   Rather she focuses on something I’d never known before, that New Zealand is very unusual internationally in when we allow new arrivals to vote.

Only five countries in the world have provisions allowing resident non-citizens to vote: Malawi, Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay –  none known these days for taking many immigrants –  and New Zealand.   In most countries, only citizens get the right to vote in national elections (there is a much wider range of rules for local elections in many countries).  The United Kingdom also allows residents who are citizens of the Republic of Ireland or “qualifying” citizens of Commonwealth countries to vote in parliamentary elections, but there is no general entitlement for non-citizens residents (including those from EU countries other than Ireland).

New Zealand’s rules seem to have evolved from something very like the British system.  Until 1975, “the right to vote in New Zealand local and national elections was granted only to British subject adults who had been resident in New Zealand for at least a year”, and similar provisions had been in place in Canada and Australia.  McMillan reports that Canada and Australia at around this time shifted to a citizenship-based voting rights model, the same choice that had been made by most new states as they decolonised in the post-war decades (Malawi presumably being the exception).

New Zealand made a different choice.   We dropped the “British subject status” requirement, and opened the franchise to any permanent resident who had been resident here for a year or more.  And, as McMillan points out, in the Electoral Act “permanent resident” doesn’t mean what it means in the immigration administration.   To become a permanent resident under that system, you need to have been on a resident visa first for two years.  But in the Electoral Act, anyone on a visa without an expiry date counts as a permanent resident.   In principle –  although it won’t be common –  someone could have arrived on 22 September last year, and be voting on 23 September this year.  The same provisions apply to Australian citizens living here (a year’s residence suffices to get the right to vote).

McMillan highlights further how unusual our voting rights rules are.  In those other four countries that allow non-citizen residents to vote in national elections all require residents to have lived in the country for at least as long as they would have to have lived there to be entitled to take out citizenship before they are allowed to vote.  (Unless you are Peter Thiel or Gabs Makhlouf), people have to spend five years here before they are entitled to apply for citizenship.  But new arrivals can vote when they’ve been here for only a year, even if they have no real intention of staying.

That doesn’t seem right to me.    It is certainly a long way out of step with international practice, including in the democratic societies we typically compare ourselves to.  To be clear, McMillan herself does not favour material changes in the rules, although she does suggest bringing the Electoral Act’s definition of “permanent resident” into line with that in the Immigration Act (which would increase the practical residence requirement from one year to two).   She suggests this change for administrative clarity (including for migrants and others on just who is entitled to enrol/vote) and because ‘the current one-year residency rules leave too much room for populist opposition”.  That seems an odd argument both because (a) her own chapter highlights just how out of step with international practice the New Zealand rules are (even compared to liberal beacons like Sweden, Canada, or Norway), and (b) because it isn’t at all clear why a shift from a one year to a two year residence requirement would satisfy the dreaded “populists”.     In almost all countries, non-citizens can’t vote in national elections at all.

A change along those lines would be a big step for New Zealand. But in a sense it would be a step away from our colonial past.   The very liberal franchise provisions are clearly a legacy of the days when (a) almost all our migrants were British, and (b) when there was only a hazy line drawn between Britain and New Zealand (or Canada and Australia) –  there wasn’t a separate New Zealand citizenship until 1948.    These days we are our own country, and it seems right that only those who have made the step of becoming citizens of this country should be able to vote, and thus directly influence how we are governed.   It isn’t an argument about immigration numbers at all.  And if and when immigrants (in large or small numbers) become citizens they should, of course, be free to vote.

There are counter-arguments, of course,  One relates to paying taxes.  If one pays taxes in a country, shouldn’t one be able to vote there?  I don’t think so.  I’ve lived and worked in three other countries, and it never once occurred to me that I should get a say in their future.  It was their country –  the citizens of those countries –  not mine.    Clearly, almost every other country in the world takes the same view –  and the handful of others who don’t also don’t receive very many new people anyway.

Taking up citizenship is an act of commitment.  It means different things to different people of course.  When the 1975 rule change was made, there was a concern about not putting pressure on people to become citizens who might have been here for decades, and barely recognised a difference between British and New Zealand citizenship (McMillan quotes from Hansard a speech by then backbench MP Michael Bassett).  Perhaps that was an argument that had some validity 40 years ago  (I don’t find it very persuasive even then, as existing rights could readily have been grandfathered, imposing a citizenship-based franchise for anyone arriving after the law was changed).     These days, it seems a very weak argument.  If you aren’t prepared to go to the modest effort of becoming a citizen, and swearing allegiance to New Zealand and its sovereign, we might be quite happy to let you live here permamently, but why should you get a say in how this country is run or governed?  You’ve chosen to remain at arms-length from us.

As McMillan reports, the select committee that considered the 1975 legislation (a) amended the initial government proposal to allow only citizens to stand for Parliament, and (b) recommended “that the issue of franchise rights be considered again the following year and that some thought be given then to whether citizenship might be the appropriate measure”.    There seems a lot of merit in an argument that if you can vote you should be able to stand for Parliament, and I don’t expect there would be many supporters for removing the requirement that only citizens can be MPs.    McMillan and a colleague sum up the 1975 changes as a product of “interplay between idealism and pragmatism, theoretically informed and ad hoc decision making, and quick-fix measures that, whether by accident or design, became a permanent and extraordinary feature of the New Zealand constitutional landscape”.   It is a quick-fix that is now well overdue for reform.

How important is the issue?   In numerical terms perhaps not too large.  As McMillan notes, the proportion of newly-eligible non-citizens who vote in the first election they are eligible for is relatively modest, and the number of new residence visas granted each year is just under one per cent of the existing population.   Most of them will be eligible for citizenship two elections afterwards.   Perhaps in some constitutency seats it might be a bit more of an issue, but the overall composition of Parliament is largely determined by the nationwide party vote.

I think it is more about taking New Zealand citizenship rather more seriously than we seem to.   Whether it is abuses like the grant to citizenship to Peter Thiel (nine days in the country and no intention of ever living here), or allowing full voting rights to people who’ve been here for as little as a year, and may have no intention of staying, we seem to treat too lightly membership of this polity.    Some of that is about our colonial history, but Canada and Australia had similar histories and they’ve moved their franchise provisions back into the international mainstream.  Perhaps part of it is the sheer numbers of New Zealanders who’ve left permanently?   Whatever the reason, reforming the voting rights provisions, to a citizenship basis – and perhaps something like five years residence for local body elections –  would seem to make sense.  I’d be comfortable with protecting existing voting rights for anyone who has lived here for more than, say, 10 years, but for anyone else, if they want a say in the government of this country, first make the step of becoming a citizen of this country.

On another topic, many readers will be aware of Radio New Zealand’s new podcast series on immigration which started last week.   I was one of the many people they interviewed as part of putting the series together.   The series is presented by an immigrant (non-citizen) and is sponsored by Massey University and so, as you might expect, the overall tone is pretty favourable to New Zealand immigration.  And there is a slightly de haut en bas tone to it all.   Having said that, it is a fairly serious-minded attempt to look at a wider range of perspectives on the New Zealand experience than one often finds.  It called to mind the line Boswell recorded in his 18th century life of Samuel Johnson

I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

For anyone interested in the subject, you could do worse than download the series as it released over the next few weeks.

New Zealand First’s immigration policies

I was briefly half-encouraged when I heard that Metiria Turie had been attacking New Zealand First for having “racist” immigration policies.  Mostly it seemed like a further rather depressing attempt to suggest that any serious debate about New Zealand’s unusually large and ambitious immigration policy was illegitimate, all the while trying to look like the Greens were taking the high moral ground, even as their co-leader actually descended into mud-slinging and name-calling herself.   But….there was the hint there that perhaps New Zealand First actually had some distinctive immigration policies.  The last time I’d looked on the NZ First website what was notable mostly was how little material there was on immigration policy, and how few significant policy proposals.

But, no.    When I checked again yesterday, there still wasn’t much there.    From listening to Winston Peters over the years, or even just listening to the reaction to him, you might have supposed New Zealand First had some far-reaching and specific proposals that would change the face of immigration policy in New Zealand.  Instead what you find is this.

New Zealand First is committed to a rigorous and strictly applied immigration policy that serves New Zealand’s interests. Immigration should not be used as a source of cheap labour to undermine New Zealanders’ pay and conditions.

There have been numerous instances of administrative failure to apply immigration rules and standards.

New Zealand First will strengthen Immigration New Zealand to give it the capacity to apply immigration policy effectively.

New Zealand First will:

  • Make sure that Kiwi workers are at the front of the job queue.
  • Ensure that immigration policy is based on New Zealand’s interests and the main focus is on meeting critical skills gaps
  • Ensure family reunion members are strictly controlled and capped and there is fairness across all nationalities.
  • Ensure that there is effective labour market testing to ensure New Zealanders have first call on New Zealand jobs.
  • Introduce a cap on the number of older immigrants because of the impact on health and other services.
  • Make sure effective measures are put in place to stop the exploitation of migrant workers with respect to wages, safety and work conditions.  In Christchurch and elsewhere there is evidence of exploitation of migrant workers.
  • Develop strategies to encourage the regional dispersion of immigration to places other than Auckland. Auckland’s infrastructure is overloaded.
  • Remove the ability to purchase a pre-paid English lesson voucher to bypass the minimum English entry requirements.

And that is it.   I’m guessing that no one (or at least no political party) is going to disagree with anything in the first three mini-paragraphs.    But if no one is going to disagree, those words aren’t saying much either.

What about the specifics?   Everyone is going to sign on for avoiding the exploitation of migrant workers, even if reasonable people might differ on quite where the line would be drawn.  Even the current government took some steps in response to the Christchurch evidence.

The current labour market testing system may, or not, be working well, but on paper there are requirements in place that are supposed to prioritise potential New Zealand workers (three of the eight NZF bullet points).  Again, no one much  –  perhaps not even ACT or the New Zealand Initiative –  is going to disagree with the general goal, and nothing New Zealand First says here is very specific.  It all seems pretty mainstream stuff –  probably putting too much faith in the capabilities of MBIE for my own tastes.

New Zealand First wants to cap family union entry, and also cap the number of older people getting residence visas.  But again, how different is that to current policy, where applications for parent visas are currently suspended altogether?    Perhaps New Zealand First wants to go further in that direction than most, but it hardly has the ring of something very dramatically different.

And in calling for a larger proportion of migrants to be encouraged to places other than Auckland, NZ First seems quite consistent with the government’s policy of offering additional points for people with job offers in the regions.  And Labour want to allow regions to develop their own priority occupation lists.  Personally, I think all three are daft, and simply tend to lower further the average quality of the immigrants we get, but (sadly) there is nothing out of the mainstream in the direction NZ First seems to be proposing.

And that leaves the final bullet about English language requirements.  Without knowing anything much about it, on paper what NZ First is proposing looks reasonable enough (if we are going to have English language requirements, a prepaid voucher for a course one may never bother attending doesn’t look like much of a substitute.    But it is a level of detail that hardly seems likely to divide parties deeply.

And quite what qualifies as “racist” there –  and Turei was explicitly talking about “policies” –  is beyond me.  Except of course that she and her co-leader (the latter in his speech last week) seem determined to insist that no legitimate discussion or debate is possible about New Zealand’s unusually large immigration policy –  unless, of course, they are proposing things, in which case presumably we can all be assured of their virtue and rectitude.

What is more striking is that, for all the speeches and interviews, there is nothing in that New Zealand First list that would make any very material difference to the expected net inflow of non-citizens.   In particular, there is nothing at all about the overall level of residence approvals.  Reading this list, NZ First appears to be comfortable with a residence approvals target of around 45000 per annum (three times, per capita, the US rate of approvals), and it is the number of residence approvals that will, over time, determine the contribution of immigration to population growth, pressure on resources or whatever.     There is also nothing at all on provisions around international students, nothing about working holiday visas, and nothing specific on temporary work visas.

If one took this page of policy seriously, one could vote for NZ First safe in the expectation that nothing very much would change at all about the broad direction, or scale, of our immigration policy.     Of course, there would be precedent for that.  The last times New Zealand First was part of a government, nothing happened about immigration either.

Perhaps there is still some major announcement with some more substantive policy specifics still to come.  I see that the New Zealand First conference is being held this coming weekend.    Perhaps that will be the occasion.   But at present, there is very little there, and most of what there is isn’t a million miles from where the other parties –  including the government –  seem to have been.

The Greens on immigration: taking the low road

Earlier this week various media outlets were carrying reports of a new speech on immigration from Green Party co-leader James Shaw.  In both Stuff and the Herald articles were headed “Green Party apologises for anti-immigration pandering.   To be fair to Shaw, that wasn’t quite what he said.

A year or so ago, the Greens came out with a new policy on immigration.    The aim was to produce annual population growth of around 1 per cent, and they would adjust immigration policy settings (in light of changes in rates of natural increase or of the comings and goings of New Zealanders) to meet such a target.   At the time they talked a lot about the pressure points that really big net migration inflows caused.   Shaw told Radio New Zealand

“We know that immigration is becoming more of a concern for people and in my experience the vast majority of people aren’t concerned about immigrants, they’re concerned about the impact on house prices, and infrastructure.”

They seemed mostly to be about stabilising population growth pressures, rather than reducing average net immigration very much at all.   After all, average annual population growth in New Zealand in the 20 years prior to the current immigration surge was 1.1 per cent, and rates of natural increase are slowing.

But whatever their intentions, I think everyone who thought about the issue at all seriously, concluded that their policy was unworkable, mostly because of the big –  and not readily forecastable –  fluctuations in the comings and goings of New Zealanders.  I wrote about it at the time

In a sense the fatal conceit in the Greens new policy is the idea that New Zealand’s population growth rate can be held stable from year to year.  While New Zealanders are fairly free to move –  or not –  to the much larger Australian economy in response to changes in relative economic opportunities –  and while New Zealand incomes are so much lower than those in Australia –  we will almost inevitably have the sorts of swings in the net outflow of citizens I showed in the first chart above.  Trying to manage the inflow of non-New Zealanders year by year to offset those fluctuations would be (a) impossible, and (b) something of a fool’s errand even to try.

Others pro-immigration people have made the some point about the unworkability of the scheme.

So in that respect it is good that the specific formulation of a target has been dropped.  If they were serious about a population policy –  and I think they are the only party to have one –  they could have rephrased it to aim to produce average population growth of around 1 per cent per annum on, saying, a five year forward looking basis.    That would have been less unworkable.  But, instead, the numerical target has gone altogether.

From the tone and content of Shaw’s latest speech there must have been a huge backlash in some quarters against the party leadership, and probably Shaw in particular, over last year’s proposed policy.

Last year I made an attempt to try and shift the terms of the debate away from the rhetoric and more towards a more evidence-based approach.
We commissioned some research which indicated that immigration settings would be best if tied to population growth.
Unfortunately, by talking about data and numbers, rather than about values, I made things worse.
Because the background terms of the debate are now so dominated by anti-immigrant rhetoric, when I dived into numbers and data, a lot of people interpreted that as pandering to the rhetoric, rather than trying to elevate the debate and pull it in a different direction.
We were mortified by that

I guess I’m not a Green supporter, but much of this just looks unrecognisable.  Go back and look at the mainstream media coverage, and no one then seemed to think he was “pandering”.   It looked at the time like a serious attempt (apparently backed by some commissioned research) to grapple with some pressing issues –  especially around housing and transport –  and if the solution he came up with wasn’t very workable (and probably should have had a lot more internal stress-testing before it was released for public consumption), it was a serious attempt.  It didn’t blame migrants for New Zealand policy failures, it simply recognised that very rapid population growth can create stresses for us all.   As Shaw noted then

Mr Shaw said the aim of the policy was for better planning, and less hostility towards immigrants.
“The debate around immigration is kind of being captured by those voices who are just simply anti-immigrant, and we really want to make sure that doesn’t happen.

It all seemed pretty calm and rational (even if unworkable).   In fact, at the time so calm and rational that Shaw could even use the (relatively) moderate “anti-immigrant” to describe those who wanted to pull back more significantly on immigration.

There is none of that calm moderation in this week’s speech.    In a speech of only 1350 words, “xenophobia” appears four times, and “scapegoating” three times (admittedly “racism” gets in only once).    People who disagree with the Greens’ stance are, apparently, characterised by such evils.  And on the other hand, the Greens are the party of love

I’m proud to lead a party that stands for the politics of love and inclusion, not hate and fear


Openness, inclusiveness and tolerance must win out over racism and scapegoating and xenophobia.   Love and inclusion must win out over hate and fear.

If that isn’t pandering, I’m not sure what is.  And all the while attempting to secure the high moral ground.   Thus

We in the Greens are deeply concerned that the debate about immigration policy in New Zealand has, over the course of time, come to be dominated by populist politicians preaching a xenophobic message in order to gain political advantage.

This ugly strain of political discourse is quieter at times of low net migration into New Zealand, but rises at times of when net migration is high – as it is now, and so, at this election, sadly, the xenophobic drum is beating louder.

“Xenophobia” is one of the favoured words of the groups –  whether from the right or the left –  in our society who favour a continuation of our unusually large-scale immigration policies.

My Oxford dictionary defines xenophobia as a “morbid dread or dislike of foreigners”.   I’d challenge Mr Shaw, or others in the media and lobby groups who like to the fling around the word –  or cognates like “fear” (widely used in this year’s New Zealand Initiative report) – as if the only basis for questioning New Zealand’s immigration policy can be something irrational, to produce some evidence for their claims.    I presume Shaw isn’t wanting to apply this description (“xenophobia”) to his Labour Party allies who recently came out with some proposals designed to reduce the net inflow of migrants (at least temporarily), using much the same sort of arguments Shaw himself was articulating, calmly and reasonably, only last year.  No doubt he intend his comments to apply to Winston Peters –  also the avowed target of the New Zealand Initiative’s report.   I’m no fan of Peters, but I’ve read various of his speeches over the years, and listened to him in interviews, and the “morbid dread of foreigners” seems to bear no relationship at all to what Peters is saying.    Do the Greens recognise any legitimate reasons for being sceptical about the merits of the large scale non-citizen immigration programmes New Zealand runs?

“Scapegoating” is one of Shaw’s other favourite words.   Here, there was a section in Shaw’s speech that I totally agreed with

Migrants are not to blame for the social and economic ills of this country.
Migrants are not to blame for the housing crisis.
Migrants are not to blame for our children who go to school hungry.
Migrants are not to blame for the long hospital waitlists.
Migrants are not to blame for our degraded rivers.
It is the government’s failure

But again, is anyone engaged in the public debate saying anything different?   I was flattered to be described recently by the New Zealand Initiative as “New Zealand’s most articulate critic of immigration”.  I’ve said repeatedly that migrants are just doing what all of us probably seek to do –  pursuing the best opportunities for ourselves and our children.  The problem isn’t the individuals, it is the policy choices governments make.  Again, is anyone who is critical of current immigration policy saying anything different?

Shaw seems to have abandoned what he described as

an attempt to try and shift the terms of the debate away from the rhetoric and more towards a more evidence-based approach.

and tried to cover his own poor specific policy proposal last year, by adopting instead the politics of the slur.   And all while pretending to claim the high moral ground.   Perhaps naively, I’d always thought the Greens –  much as I disagree with them on most things –  were better than that.

As it is, we are now left unclear what the Green Party’s immigration policy really amounts to.  To their credit, there is a 10 page densely-typed immigration policy document on their website, but neither it nor the two page summary give us much clarity at all.

They begin

We support an appropriate and sustainable flow of migrants

Which differentiates them from who how?   “Appropriate” is one of those words bureaucrats use when they don’t want to be specific.

And among their three ‘key principles’

Maintain a sustainable net immigration flow to limit effects on our environment, society and culture.

Surely any possible worries about the impact on “society” or “culture” could only stem from “xenophobia”?  Or is that only when other people make such arguments?

There are strange observations such as

Only make decisions to use immigration as an instrument of economic policy openly by an Act of Parliament

I don’t really disagree, but…..immigration policy operates under the Immigration Act, passed and amended by Parliament.  And among the purposes listed in that Act is

contributing to the New Zealand workforce through facilitating access to skills and labour

The Immigration Act, at least in its modern guises, has always been substantially an instrument of economic policy.

There is lots of detail on various aspects of the policy, but no sense at all as to how many permanent non-citizen migrants we should be seeking to take each year.  We know they are keen to take more refugees, but it isn’t even clear whether that increased intake would be in addition to the total number of non-citizens we take in each year at present, or whether additional refugees would replace some others.

On voluntary migrants they say

an open immigration policy would be unmanageable, and it is the Government’s duty to ensure that voluntary immigration is managed in the national interest. Although ‘national interest’ can mean different things to different people, the definition that has informed our national immigration policy for many years is that we should accept people who will bring skills, capital, or other desirable attributes with them.

And they have a view on the types of skills which should be favoured

Give priority in the skilled migrant category to skills needed for a sustainable society and economy, such as scientists, engineers and other trades with specialised skills applicable to fields including — but not limited to — organic farming, biodegradable materials, recycling, and renewable energy and fuels.

But there is nothing, at all, as to whether current target levels (around 45000 per annum residence approvals) is too high, too low, or about right.

Not even their general stance towards the environment gives much clue.   In discussing “yearly immigration quotas” they say we need

an assessment of the ability of our environment to cope with population increases, taking into account changes in energy use and other behavioural and infrastructural factors;

but they also talk in the same breath of

the need to have spare environmental, social and cultural ecological capacity to accommodate potential returning New Zealanders and people displaced by climate change

But what does it all mean?   You could mount a good argument, on environmental grounds, for a much lower annual target for new residents.   And the likely economic costs of meeting our climate change emissions commitments –  made more difficult by rapid increases in population – would just reinforce that, especially as the Greens are explicit that immigration policy needs to be managed for the interests of New Zealand, not the world.   But that doesn’t seem to be the Greens approach at all.

And then of course, there are the cultural dimensions.  Here is what they have to say

The Taonga of our people, and sites of historical, cultural, environmental, recreational, and general emotional significance for resident New Zealanders, should be protected from adverse impact as a result of immigration, and should not be seen as up for sale to wealthy newcomers. The Green Party will:

1. Take all reasonable steps to prevent immigration numbers, and the sale of land to rich immigrants, from having an adverse impact on Taonga.

But, again, what does it mean?   And why isn’t it what the Greens themselves would refer to as “xenophobia” if anyone else was raising the issues?

Perhaps one can only conclude that answering fairly basic questions like how many non-citizens we should take in each year, or even just what rationing devices we should use to decide which migrants to take, is altogether too hard.  That isn’t promising for a party that wants to be in government only a few months hence.

Reading Shaw’s speech the other day, I did notice this line

in fact, the Greens have the ambition of being the most migrant-friendly party in Parliament.

I did carefully note the potential distinction between “migrant-friendly” and “migration-friendly”, but when I first read the line I was struck by how similar it was to lines one sometimes sees from ACT.   David Seymour obviously thought so too, as he was soon out with a release casting doubt on the Greens’ claims in this area, and suggesting that ACT really was the most pro-immigration party.    Perhaps the Greens just want to be known as nice, while Seymour explicitly eschews niceness

We stand up for productive immigrants and the businesses that employ them, not because it feels nice, but because New Zealand needs immigrants

In fact, I suspect both parties have quite strong globalist leanings –  more so than a concern for the interests of existing New Zealanders –  but neither can quite bring themselves to consistently adopt such an approach.  Curiously, both also seem keen on values statement and the indoctrination of immigrants –  even if they probably couldn’t agree much about what ideas they’d indoctrinate the immigrants with.

If it weren’t for such leanings, it is hard to imagine the Greens –  vocal champions of clean rivers etc –  wouldn’t be much more strongly advancing an agenda that avoided government policy exacerbating population pressures on the environment.    Whether on economic grounds, or environmental grounds, the immigration programme we’ve run for at least the last 25 years (through all sorts of year to year swings in the overall net inflow or outflow) simply doesn’t look to have been working in the interests of New Zealanders as a whole.  If the Greens disagree, it would be good to see the argumentation and evidence.




Squeezing out business investment

I was up early this morning to talk to the breakfast meeting of a Rotary club about immigration and economic performance in a New Zealand context (similar points to my LEANZ address last week, but shorter and a bit simpler).  I hadn’t been to a Rotary meeting for decades, since going to the odd one as a teenager as my father’s guest, and somewhat alien as it was (altogether too extrovert for me, especially at 7am), it was also rather inspiring –  people working together to make a difference in their community; some of George H W Bush’s “thousand points of light”.

In the course of my talk, I’d made my standard point that in New Zealand rapid population growth seems to have contributed to crowding out business investment.   Whatever the reason, over the decades business investment as a share of GDP in New Zealand has averaged around the lower quartile of what has happened in OECD countries as a group.  Driving home I remembered that a couple of months ago I’d downloaded all the data to help illustrate some of the stylised facts that bothered me, but had never gotten round to using the resulting charts.

All else equal –  and it never is –  a country that has faster population growth would normally be expected to devote a higher share of current output to investment than countries with slower population growth.  That observation isn’t exactly rocket science.  More people need more houses, and roads, and shops, and offices, and schools, and hospital, and factories.   A country with no population growth at all could simply maintain its capital stock per person by devoting enough of current output to capital expenditure to cover depreciation.  (To be clear, in all this I am using national accounts measure of investment (“gross fixed capital formation”), which (largely) measures resources devoting to building new stuff.)

Houses make up the largest single component of the reproducible capital stock (and almost half the total in New Zealand at present –  note that this is houses, not the land under them).    And since everyone needs a roof over their head, and almost everyone does, you would expect to find a materially larger share of current output devoted to house-building in countries with faster population growth rates.   There is lots of short-term cyclical volatility in house-building activity, so it makes sense to look at average over a long enough period to look through cycles.

In this chart, I’m looking at the period from 1995 to 2014 and looking across OECD countries.  I chose the period because quite a few OECD countries –  especially former eastern bloc ones –  don’t have data before then, and when I downloaded the data a couple of months ago a few countries didn’t yet have 2015 data.    One year won’t materially alter the picture.

res I % of GDP

New Zealand is the red dot close to the line (above population growth of about 27 per cent).

The slope has the direction you’d expect –  faster population growth has meant a larger share of current GDP devoted to housebuilding –  and New Zealand’s experience, given our population growth, is about average.     But note how relatively flat the slope is.  On average, a country with zero population growth devoted about 4.2 per cent of GDP to housebuilding over this period, and one averaging 1.5 per cent population growth per annum would have devoted about 6 per cent GDP to housebuilding.    But building a typical house costs a lot more than a year’s average GDP (for the 2.7 people in an average dwelling).     In well-functioning house and urban land markets you’d expect a more steeply upward-sloping line –  and less upward pressure on house/land prices.    But that isn’t today’s point, which was simply that more people has indeed meant more residential investment.

But what about the business investment picture?  In the data, business investment is a residual –  calculated by taking total investment and subtracting housing investment and general government investment.  Again, all else equal, you would expect a country with a faster population growth rate to have devoted a larger share of current output to business investment.  Workers need “tools”, and if economies are going to maintain their trajectory of growth in income per capita, then the growth in the capital stock needs to at least keep pace with the number of workers.

(You might wonder why I look across countries, rather than just across time within individual countries.  There are two reasons.  First, in many countries there isn’t much variation in population growth rates.  And second, to the extent there is, reverse causation may well be at work –  a booming economy will tend to draw in more people. )

But here is what the cross-country chart looks like.

Bus I % of GDP

Again, New Zealand is the red dot near the line.

There is plenty of variation –  not every observation is close to the line –  but there is no sign at all of the expected upward slope.  If anything, the regression line is downwards –  the faster population growth was across these countries in this period, the smaller the average share of current output devoted to business investment.  The (non-housing) capital stock per person will have been growing materially more slowly in the average high populaton growth country than in the low population growth countries.    The countries with material falls in population were all former eastern-bloc countries, who might be thought to have lots of convergence (and investment) opportunities anyway.  But even if one deleted them from the chart entirely –  and recall that we too were supposed to have lots of convergence opportunities –  the regression line is still very slightly downward sloping (basically dead flat).

It is a chart that should be pretty troubling.    Even a modestly upward-sloping line would still be weaker than ones prior might lead one to expect.

Some readers with more of a background in formal economic research don’t like these scatter plots at all.  They rightly note that it captures just a relationship between two variables, and there is a lot of other stuff inevitably missing.  The relationship may be causal, but it might not be.    One protection against that risk is the use of long period averages for 30+ countries.    But, as importantly, scatter plots of this sort have to be taken together with the wider context –  other stuff we know.

For example, is there a plausible mechanism that might account for such a relationship?  Well, the notion of “crowding out” is a pretty well-established one in the economics literature.  When the government increases its expenditure, the typical result (in a reasonably fully employed economy) is for private sector spending to fall.  Higher interest rates and a higher exchange rate are part of the mechanism by which that happens.   Whether or not there is a full offset is debated, but no one seriously doubts the mechanism or the direction of the effect.    Investment spending tends to be more sensitive than consumption spending, with the exchange rate channel making tradables sector activity (sales and investment) particularly likely to respond.

Increased demands associated with faster population growth may well work in much the same way.   The summary, scatter plot, data certainly isn’t inconsistent with such a story.   In the New Zealand context, one of the stylised facts we have to grapple with is that our real interest rates have been persistently higher than those in other advanced countries, and our real exchange rate has fluctuated around persistently high levels.  (And when I restrict the business investment chart only to countries with floating exchange rates, the downward slope is still apparent.)

So I don’t find the scatter plot in isolation conclusive, but it is troubling nonetheless –  and should be for those who like to invoke the empirical estimates of large per capita income gains from immigration, again in a cross-country context.  How likely are such gains, if countries with relative fast population growth rates (almost all, on account of high immigration inflows) are also the countries that, on average, have relatively modest levels of business investment?  Firms invest to take advantage of the new opportunities that arise.

I’ve asserted that high levels of planned immigration have a disproportionate effect on investment in the tradables sector.  These aggregate data don’t shed any light on that split –  they are just total business investment.   But, at least in a New Zealand context, it makes sense that things will have worked that way.   Higher real interest rates than in other countries –  unmatched by faster productivity growth – will deter all long-lived investment here, regardless of sector.  But when the exchange rate is also boosted, firms considering new investment in the tradables sector are exposed to a double-whammy: highest cost of capital, and a less competitive position relative to foreign firms.   Domestic demand tends to be strong in countries with fast population growth, while international demand is something New Zealand firms just have to take as given.   As our export share of GDP hasn’t been growing –  if anything shrinking –  while those in most other OECD countries have, it seems reasonably likely that investment in theNew Zealand tradables sector has been much weaker than otherwise, and weaker than that in the non-tradables sectors.  That weakness in tradables investment is likely to affect both our natural resource based industries (deterring more capital intensive modes of production) and in the struggling (where unsubsidised) other parts of the tradables sector.

For many countries, population growth isn’t that materially influenced by national policy.   In the former eastern bloc countries, the fall in population is about natives leaving.  In some other countries, illegal immigration can be a big issue.  But in New Zealand –  and Australia –  policy makes a big difference.   We have full control over our borders, and let in lots of legal non-citizen migrants.   In New Zealand, in particular, it looks as though discretionary policy choices have worsened the business environment, and in particular skewing things against the prospects for strong investment by firms that could successfully take on the rest of the world.

(In case anyone is interested, somewhat to my surprise I discovered that there is also a downward-sloping regression line when one plots general government investment and population growth.   I’d expected to find that the government investment just happened anyway –  governments not being subject to market tests.  But over these countries in this period it didn’t.  If, optimistically, you think that government investment is a complement to private investment in improving economic performance, that should be particularly worrying.  Even if the lagging government investment is just about keeping up with the numbers of schools and hospitals (say) a higher population requires, it doesn’t exactly look like a mark of success –  whether in New Zealand, or across the OECD.)