What’s happening with immigration?

It is a serious question.  MBIE’s immigration data are pretty hopelessly poor –  not published in readily usable formats, not seasonally adjusted etc.   The Migration Trends and Outlook publication for 2017/18 is still not available.  I know they have plans afoot to improve things, but it is past time they did: immigration, after all, being one of the major instruments of economic (and social) policy in New Zealand.

But from time to time, I have a look at what they do publish –  huge tables in small fonts, from which one has to transcribe numbers if you want to do anything with them.  And the other day I had a look at the latest residence approvals data, and was quite surprised by what I found.

This chart shows the number of people approved for residence in each June year.  The 2018/18 number is the annualised number based on September quarter actual data.

residence 1

The “target” rate of approvals was around 47500 per annum for a long time, lowered slightly to something centred on 45000 per annum late in the previous government’s term.  As you can see, give or take 5000 or so people, they more or less meet that target. And so last year’s drop took me by surprise.  I didn’t make anything much of it then, when the numbers finally came to light: after all, announced policy hadn’t changed much, and perhaps it was just noise.

But the early data for the current year suggest something more than noise.  If the September quarter rate of approvals was kept up only about 33000 residence approvals would be granted in 2018/19.  Perhaps there is some seasonality in the series –  did I mention that MBIE don’t publish seasonally adjusted data, or make the raw data available in a form in which I could see for myself? –  but if not, it would represent quite an undershoot relative to the official target.

I don’t usually pay much attention to the nationality of those getting residence –  my arguments about immigration are mostly macroeconomic in nature, indifferent as to whether the migrants come from Bangalore, Birmingham, Brisbane or Beijing.  But as I’d been writing about the PRC and our political parties, out of curiosity I checked the residence approvals granted to people from the People’s Republic.  And finding those interesting, I looked a bit further.

residence 2

That (the blue line) is a staggering drop-off in approvals from China.   Again, perhaps there is some seasonality –  but it isn’t obvious why there should be, given that most residence visas are granted to people already in New Zealand, initially on other visas.

The falls in approvals from India and the Philippines are also pretty large.  And yet clearly the fall isn’t across the board. So far this year approvals from the UK are running at about the same (annualised) rate as last year (as were, more or less, when I checked, those from South Africa another significant source country, and those –  much fewer –  from Singapore and Taiwan).

I’m puzzled by what is going on.  I’d taken the new government at its word when it swore that it wasn’t changing the residence approvals target, but if not it looks as if something is going on that is markedly reducing the number of eligible people (especially from China and India) applying. (In another of the huge, not user-friendly, documents MBIE puts out, it looks as though there are also fewer applications in hand now than usual.) Perhaps it has something to do with the earlier wave of foreign students studying here, but although there has been a significant drop in numbers from India those from China haven’t changed much.  Perhaps there is something in the publicity around foreign investment restrictions –  which don’t of course apply to those who have residence?

I’m puzzled.  And, of course, I’ve spent years calling for a reduction in the residence approvals target, so in one sense I’m not unhappy to see the reduced numbers.  But I also strongly favour open and transparent policy, and there has been nothing announced suggesting that we should have been expecting –  or that the government was seeking –  such a large reduction in the number of residence approvals being granted.

If any officials or industry experts have informed insights on what is going on the comments section is open.

 

Real interest rates

It is a while since I’ve done a real interest rate post, so here goes.

You’ll see stories from time to time about how low the New Zealand government’s borrowing costs are.

But it is still worth reminding ourselves of New Zealand’s long track record of having among the very highest average real interest rates in the advanced world.   Here, for example, are New Zealand, Australia, and the G7 countries for the last five years (the period chosen a bit arbitrarily, but a different set of dates wouldn’t substantially alter the relative picture).  I’ve just used average bond yields and average CPI inflation, from the OECD databases, but using (say) core inflation also wouldn’t materially alter the picture.

bond yields

Among these countries, we have one crisis-ridden hugely indebted euro-area country (Italy), one country with new substantial political and economic uncertainty –  and quite a lot of debt (the UK), one with extremely high levels of public debt (Japan), and one with recklessly large fiscal deficits and rising debt (the US).  And our real long-term government bond rates have been higher than all of them.

If we look at the situation today, the picture isn’t a lot different.  Italy has gone shooting past us, which should be no consolation to anyone (crisis pressures re-emerging there).  The gap between New Zealand and US real interest rates has narrowed quite a bit, as one might expect from the sequence of Fed interest rate increases in turn driven partly by unsustainable late-cycle fiscal expansion, but a 10 year US government inflation indexed bond was trading this week at 1.04 per cent, and a 10 year NZ government inflation indexed bond is trading at about 1.25 per cent.   Even that gap is substantially larger for 20 year indexed bonds.

As a reminder, our interest rates don’t average higher than those abroad because of:

  • superior productivity growth rates (we’ve had almost none in recent years),
  • macroeconomic instability (we have low stable inflation and low stable public debt),
  • public sector credit risk (see above –  and of the countries in the chart only Australia has comparably strong public finances),
  • weak banking systems (the Australian banks and their NZ subs have some of better bank credit ratings in the world),
  • risk around high levels of external indebtedness (not only is much of the external indebtedness on bank balance sheets –  see above –  but the New Zealand exchange rate has been persistently strong, not a feature you expect to see when risk concerns are to the fore).

Oh, and of the small OECD countries with floating exchange rates, over the last five years only Iceland (recently emerged from serious systemic crisis) and Hungary (IMF bailout programme as recently as 2008) had higher real interest rates than New Zealand.

At the heart of any explanation for this persistent real interest rate gap –  which has been there, on average, for decades –  must relate to factors influencing pressure on resources in New Zealand.   At some hypothetical world interest rate, there is  some mix of more demand for investment (housing, business, government) and a small supply of savings (households, business, government) than in most other OECD countries.    That incipient excess demand on resources is absorbed by having a higher domestic interest rate than in most other countries, and a higher real exchange rate.    That mix of adjustment will then squeeze out some of the incipient excess demand.  Global evidence suggests that overall savings rates aren’t very sensitive to changes in expected real returns.  Governments tend not to be very responsive to price signals, and people have to live somewhere (so although residential investment is highly cyclical, in the end everyone gets a roof over their head).  Much of the adjustment pressure is felt around genuinely discretionary, and market sensitive, investment spending: business investment, and especially that in sectors exposed to international competition.   It is the stylised story of New Zealand: moderate savings rates (overall), quite high rates of government and residential investment, modest rates of business investment, and a tradables sector which has managed little per capita growth for decades, and where international trade shares of GDP are stagnant or falling even a period when world trade blossomed.

And that is where my immigration policy story fits in.   Savings and investment pressures are aggregates of all sorts of forces and preferences, and so one can never say that a single factor “explains” the whole picture.  But if one is looking for areas where government policy – a non-market or exogenous influence –  plays a part, then New Zealand immigration policy over decades seems likely to be a significant part of the story.  Lots more people means lots more demand for investment just to maintain existing capital/output ratios.   New people need houses, and schools and roads and so on.  If this were a country where domestic savings (flow rates) were abundant –  and domestic savings are different from foreign savings because the act of saving domestically takes some pressure off domestic resources (incomes generated here not spent here) – it wouldn’t be a particular issue.  But that isn’t so in New Zealand.  Government policy choices may have influenced those outcomes to some extent –  I certainly favour a different tax treatment of savings –  but my reading of the international evidence leaves me sceptical that reforms in that area would make very much difference to desired savings rates (if only because income and substitution efforts tend to offset).

Instead, conscious and deliberate government policy drives up ex ante investment demand (at the world interest rate), and in the process tends to drive out the sort of investment that might have enabled those of already here to achieve better material standards of living.

(In a very small sample, it is perhaps worth noting that there are four OECD countries where policy is set to favour high rates of immigration.  They are New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Israel.  It should at least prompt a moment’s reflection among the immigration champions, that not one of those countries has been a stellar OECD productivity performer –  Australia and Canada have done better than New Zealand and Israel, but are nowhere near the OECD frontier, despite the abundance of fixed natural resources those two countries have.)

In (reluctant) support of teachers

I’m no great fan of school teachers (at least as found in contemporary New Zealand –  a re-read last week of Goodbye Mr Chips was another matter altogether).  Over ten years now we’ve encountered a handful of very good teachers, quite a few duds, and lots who seemed no better than mediocre.  There was the Principal who, when my oldest child started school, told a gathering of parents of new entrants that it was really quite inappropriate to teach content as almost all of it would be out of date before long.   And when this particular Principal (together with the NZEI) was using the pages of the Dominion-Post to promote my daughter’s teacher –  apparently genuinely excellent –  as an illustration of the case for more pay, I made myself unpopular by noting that in the same school there were less than outstanding teachers, and that most people knew who they were.   Then there was the science teacher at the local intermediate school teaching conspiracy theories around 9/11.      Teachers who want to tell students off for discussing the previous day’s playground incident in which a deeply troubled student was on the loose with a knife and the school was in lockdown.   And then there is the endless “indoctrination”, mostly probably by teachers not quite smart enough to realise there really is an alternative view to their particular right-on views on colonialism, capitalism, homosexuality or whatever, and not apparently trained to the view (common in my youth) that a teacher’s personal political views (let alone sexual preferences) weren’t something to obtrude into the classroom.   If there are any teachers in Wellington sympathetic to a market economy, they must keep rather quiet about it.

So I’m not normally overly sympathetic to teachers.  And mostly we are stuck with them –  the teachers’ unions being among those most strongly opposed to effective school choice.   That said, as a stay-at-home parent, their stopwork meetings and strikes don’t inconvenience, or greatly bother, me.  It can be nice to have a bonus day at home together.

Of course, like any occupation there can at times be difficulty filling particular teaching positions.  When I was young we moved from Christchurch to Kawerau, and either on the day we arrived, or possibly the next day, the Principal of the local high school was on the door step.  He’d heard that the new Baptist minister’s wife had science qualifications and teaching experience (10 years previously) and he was desperate for staff.

Perhaps not all such specific vacancy stories tell anything meaningful about salaries and/or working conditions.  But when the stories multiply, and there is evidence of a material gap between demand and supply (demand exceeding supply) at the current price is usually a sign that the price should be rising, perhaps quite a bit.

How confident can we be that there is a shortage of teachers at current salaries?  Principals tell us so, but they –  members of same unions –  aren’t entirely disinterested observers (it was only a few weeks ago that a newsletter came home from one local school in which the Principal urged us parents to get along and support the teacher protest).    And almost every day, at least in the schools I have exposure to (three at present), there is a warm body in front of each class.

But then in this morning’s newspaper we read that the government itself –  the ultimate employer/funder of most school teachers –  recognises the problem.  The Minister of Education “is pledging to find at least 400 overseas teachers for the 2019 academic year”.

Which is rather convenient for the government surely?  As the near-monopsonist purchaser of school teaching services, it deals with shortages by using its power as  controller of the immigration and work visa regime to attempt to meet its staffing problems.

As I’ve written previously, there can be a place for work visas where, for example, there is a sudden and unexpected increase in a demand for a particular skill, or even where a particular skill is very rare (the market for some speciality skills can be very thin indeed).   But there are no real surprises as to how many teachers are needed nationwide –  at bare minimum for people born here there is a five year lead time, and that for new entrant teachers.  And decent teaching skills aren’t, or shouldn’t be, that hard to come by –  the PPTA apparently claims 17000 members.    These should be jobs that can be perfectly adequately filled by local residents –  who will have the added bonus of understanding the local culture –  at least if the labour market was allowed to work.

A few months ago I wrote here (and here) about how the work visa system appeared to be enabling local authorities to keep down bus driver wages and (thus) fares and ratepayer funding by substituting foreign workers in place of locals.    The bus driver case looked particularly egregious –  it being a quite modestly-skilled role into which someone could be trained in 6-8 weeks.   But it isn’t clear to me that the school teacher case is really so different, even granting that the skill levels are higher, and thus the inevitable local training and recruitment lags would be a bit longer.

Of course, like all work visa applications the case for importing teachers will be supported by evidence that locals couldn’t be recruited. But if you keep the wage level down it isn’t overly surprising that New Zealanders with other options will pursue them, and you will be left with an apparent shortage.

And the market in teachers is a pretty dysfunctional one.  We have national pay scales even though it must be a great deal harder to get teachers in Auckland than in Timaru (and that private sector jobs typically pay a bit more, for the same job, in Auckland than in Timaru), the pay scales for secondary teachers don’t differentiate by subject (even though the alternative options for a good science teacher and a good history teacher may be quite different, and we still have something like pay parity between kindergarten teachers and secondary school teachers.   For that we can blame both the teacher unions and successive governments (National-led and Labour-led).

Nonetheless,  there does seem to be a shortage of (good) teachers, and it isn’t obvious that the government should be able to use the immigration system to avoid meeting the market (while no doubt claiming in other fora that heavy use of work visas in particular sectors doesn’t hold down wages in those sectors).

When writing about bus drivers, I suggested adopting this sort of policy

To that end, I’ve argued previously for a system in which Essential Skills visas are granted on these terms:

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, with this provision to apply regardless of skill level).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum.

If an employer really can’t find a local hire for a modestly-skilled (or unskilled) position, they’d be able to get someone from overseas, but only by paying (to the Crown) a minimum annual fee of $20000.  It is pretty powerful incentive then to train someone local, or increase the salary on offer to attract someone local who can already do the job. If you can’t get a local to do a job for $40000 per annum, there might well be plenty of people to do it for $50000 (and still cheaper than paying the ongoing annual fee for a work visa employee).

Even in the context of teacher salaries –  where starting salaries are well above $40000 –  per annum – this looks like the starting basis for a workable model.

More generally, I have argued that

If we are going to have government officials administering something like a mass market Essential Skills visa scheme, and deciding who does and doesn’t get approval, surely a key aspect of any labour market test should be something along these lines?

“has the effective wage or salary rate for this occupation risen materially faster than wages and salaries more generally in New Zealand over the past couple of years?”

If not, how can you seriously use the term “skill shortage”?    Even if wages in a particular occupation have risen faster than the norm, it takes time for locals to respond and shift occupations, so one wouldn’t necessarily want to jump at the first sign of a bit of real wage inflation in a particular occupation, but if after a couple of years the pressures were persistent then some sort of Approval in Principle for temporary migrant labour –  at wages at or above those now prevailing in the domestic market – might make some sense as a shock absorber.  But MBIE seems perennially averse to markets adjusting in ways the generate higher real wages, even though that outcome is one core part of what we look for from a successful economy.

I’m not a fan of the teachers’ union propaganda arguing that some decades ago senior teachers earned as much as MPs, and that they should be again –  MPs seem to have been quite badly underpaid in that earlier period.  But I’d be surprised if the government could show that teacher salaries (and overall working condition-adjusted remuneration) have increased more rapidly than the market generally in recent years.  If not, surely higher salaries –  perhaps regionally differentiated – should be the first part of any adjustment, and if there is any resort permitted to offshore labour markets it should be explicitly temporary, backed by financial incentives/penalties of the sort I outlined above.

It sticks in the craw to stick up for teachers and their unions, but the market indications would appear to be on their side in this particular dispute.   Of course, the fact that there is a shortage doesn’t –  in an administered market like this –  tell one how much salaries should be adjusted (or the onerous paperwork burden eased), or the appropriate balance (starting salaries vs later progresssion) but the direction looks pretty clear.  And the proposal to resort to substantial offshore recruitment looks as if the government has indirectly conceded the case –  even as, again, it continues to preference the interests of offshore people over those of New Zealand workers.  Teachers might be less sympathetic than bus drivers, rest home workers, or shop assistants, but they are New Zealanders too.  Even, as it happens, substantial funders of the Labour Party.

Against values tests

New Zealand First’s conference over the weekend apparently supported some form of values test for immigrants.  It has been ACT Party policy too –  perhaps one of the few things the two parties (one strongly pro-immigration, one ostensibly a bit sceptical) actually agree on.

Such provisions aren’t unknown: Australia has its Australian Values Statement , a pretty watered-down thing that newcomers have to subscribe to. It isn’t clear that doing so makes any useful difference at all.    As I noted in an earlier post

My concerns are about two, perhaps opposing, risks.  The first is that any values statement becomes a lowest common denominator statement as to be totally meaningless.  The second is that the wording of any values statement –  if taken seriously –  would be hotly and continuously contested, as culture wars ebbed and flowed. 

Here, any serious suggestion of a values test just seems to offer another avenue for fighting the culture wars, in ways that would – among other things – end up delegitimising the deeply held views of many New Zealanders (native and non).   According to Newsroom’s account of the New Zealand First proposal

The bill would legally mandate new migrants and refugees to respect sexual equality, “all legal sexual preferences”, religious rights, and that alcohol was a legal substance that could not be campaigned against.

I certainly don’t respect “all legal sexual preferences”, let alone the acting out of those “preferences”.   And, on the other hand, the public health academics at Otago seem to lament that alcohol is legal.  More generally, for 100 years or so –  ending only 30 years ago –  we used to have a referendum every three years at which one of the options was Prohibition.   Kate Sheppard and the WCTU campaigned for women’s suffrage partly as a means to the desired end of Prohibition.     It is a long time ago now, but I suspect I probably voted for prohibition myself, and my (New Zealand born) father was a leading figure in the Temperance Alliance, which campaigned for it.    And what of “sexual equality”?  Who knows precisely what it is meant to mean here –  or in the Australian Values Statement –  but perhaps it means faithful Catholics would be banned from migrating to New Zealand because they don’t believe a woman can (from the nature of things) serve as a priest?    I don’t suppose that is what NZ First will mean, but some Green MPs might think that sort of restriction was rather appealing.

And does anyone suppose that if such a values test was established in New Zealand it wouldn’t include something about the Treaty of Waitangi, and something rather heavily loaded towards an interpretation that would have been unrecognisable 50 years ago.  Perhaps migrants would be required to undertake to “respect” the Treaty, whatever that means, or something that went even beyond that.   Or that if a values test was imposed by the current government it wouldn’t be full of rhetoric about the environment, climate change, and other left-wing priorities.

I dealt with this in an earlier post when, a couple of years ago, ACT was championing its proposed values test.

And where would it stop?  I had a quick look this morning at statements I could find in which each of the three largest political parties describe their values.  There was some overlap (and the particular Labour Party document I found had three of four pages of text, while the Greens and National Party had quite short lists), but there were quite a few substantial differences.  Which is what one might expect: a significant part of political debate is the contest of ideas and values, particularly in an era of cultural transition (eg secularization, in which culture and religion are no longer intrinsically interwoven).

I might find the references to loyalty to the sovereign, and limited government, in the National Party’s list appealing.    Many other New Zealanders wouldn’t.   “Respect the planet” might be something central to a Green view on things, but to me the concept of respecting an inanimate object just seems weird.  And even though there was serious uncertainty about the consequences of doing so, I’m glad our ancestors took decisive action to confront Hitler, rather than “take the path of caution”.

As far as I can see, none of the values statement (yet) talk of the rights of the unborn, or transgender rights to bathrooms –  to take just a couple of issues that have convulsed American debate.

Perhaps we might get agreement on process issues –  parliamentary sovereignty, a universal franchise, the rule of law etc –  but even on process it might be thin pickings.  There are probably plenty of supporters here of moving to a written constitution, and others who still hanker for a return to FPP.  In the end, is there genuine common ground on very much at all, other perhaps than that change should occur non-violently?  We can all agree that individuals do and should have rights, and probably all agree that in some circumstances the needs/interests of the “community” override those individual rights.  But where that boundary is, and how it should shift, is the intrinsic stuff of politics.  We can’t agree among ourselves, so what is there for immigrants to sign up to, other than today’s (temporary) shifting majority.  I was amused, for example, to read the Prime Minister’s [John Key] rewriting of history, in answering the values question, noting that for him it included “understanding that New Zealand’s always been a tolerant society”.   Really?  To name just one low-key example, our treatment of conscientious objectors during the two World Wars meets no reasonable definition of “tolerant”.

And yet the people who call for migrants to sign values statements do capture a fair point.  When large numbers of people are allowed by our governments to come and live in New Zealand they have the potential to change our society.  People are not just bloodless economic units –  dessicated calculating machines.  They bring their own attitudes and values, and while the new arrivals are likely to be changed by living here so –  if the numbers are large enough – is our society.  One need only think of European migration to New Zealand over the last 200 years –  we their descendants may be changed by living here rather than in, say, the United Kingdom, but the similarities with modern Britain are probably greater than those with pre-1840 Maori society.  The point is not that modern New Zealand is better or worse for those migrants (and their values/attitudes/technologies), but that the fact of change is inescapable and largely irreversible.  Seeking that sort of change is itself a political act.

Which is one of a number of reasons why I’m skeptical that –  even if there were material economic benefits to residents of the recipient countries – large scale immigration programmes are normally a legitimate role of government at all.  We’ll always have some immigration.  New Zealanders travel, and some will meet and marry foreigners.  Often enough the new couple will want to settle here.  And our humanitarian impulses will, rightly, drive us to take some refugees.  But in neither case –  both on generally quite a small scale – do we grant permission to reside here with a goal of changing our society.

But once we get into large scale immigration programme, governments are in the culture change business, actively or passively, often without even realizing it. In terms of the domestic culture wars, and ongoing debates, the ability to attract more people like one side or another skews the playing field.  Instead of working out our differences, and debating change, within the existing community of New Zealanders, we tilt the playing field one way or the other. I might be comfortable with a large influx of mid-western evangelicals, while most Wellingtonians might prefer liberal Swedes.  I might be happy with strongly Anglican Ugandans or Kenyans, while many would prefer secular French.   In the specific New Zealand context, few migrants have any strong reason to feel a commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi, and for those New Zealanders for whom that is an important issue, any large scale immigration skews the game against (that representation) of Maori interests

It is far easier to resolve disputes, and find an ongoing place for each other, among communities with shared memories, experiences and commitments.  Families do it better than countries.  Countries do it better than the world.  Globalists might not like to acknowledge that, but it doesn’t change the reality.  Families don’t usually resolve their differences –  sometimes painful lasting differences –   by injecting new members into the family.

It is one of the reasons why I’m opposed to large scale immigration programmes at all.  They allow governments to attempt to skew the playing field one way or other, rather than letting the inevitable cultural/values conflict play out, and be sorted out,  by New Zealanders themselves, as New Zealanders.  Perhaps it is a little different when the immigration largely involves people with similar backgrounds (culture/religion) to those of people already in the recipient country.   One might argue that was the case in New Zealand for a long time, although even then one could only do so by ignoring the position of Maori in New Zealand.

I also dealt with some of this stuff in a post on the culture/identity aspects of last year’s New Zealand Initiative report on immigration.

So long as we vote our culture out of existence the Initiative apparently has no problem.  Process appears to trump substance.  For me, I wouldn’t have wanted a million Afrikaners in the 1980s, even if they were only going to vote for an apartheid system, not breaking the law to do so.  I wouldn’t have wanted a million white US Southerners in the 1960s, even if they were only going to vote for an apartheid system, and not break the law to do so.  And there are plenty of other obvious examples elsewhere –  not necessarily about people bringing an agenda, but bringing a culture and a set of cultural preferences that are different than those that have prevailed here (not even necessarily antithetical, but perhaps orthogonal, or just not that well-aligned).

When governments facilitate the inward migration of large numbers of people –  as ours is every year –  they are changing the local culture in the process.  Now, cultures and sense of national identity are not fixed and immutable things, but cultures also embed the things that the people of that country have come to value and which have produced value.  Those people (“natives”) typically aren’t seeking change for its own sake: the culture is in some sense the code “how we do things here”, that built what people value about the society in which they live.  Whether it is comfortable or not to say so, in the last few centuries, Anglo cultures have tended to be among the most stable, prosperous and free.  So it is far from obvious why should embrace change so enthusiastically, or why we would want to adopt the Initiative’s stance, and only want to exclude those whose views and actions are “antithetical” to our own, or who might want to topple our society illegally.

Perhaps if there were really substantial economic gains to New Zealanders from bringing the huge numbers of non-citizens to live in New Zealand it might be different. At very least, we might face the choice –  give up on some of our culture and sense of national identity in exchange for the economic gains.  In some respects, that was the choice Maori faced when the Europeans came –  a clearly more economically productive set of institutions etc, but on the other hand the progressive marginalisation of their own culture. ….

There is also a degree of naivete about the Initiative’s take on culture and/or religion (and the two overlap to a considerable extent).  Back in one of the earlier quotes, the Initiative argued that it was fine with people of whatever belief coming, and

Within New Zealand, people are free to pursue their beliefs, be they spiritual or corporeal, provided these do not impose on other people’s pursuit of the same.

They don’t seem to recognise that most people hold to beliefs that they think should influence how society is organised.  Even libertarians do. This is particularly obvious in Islam, which has never had a very strong distinction between ‘state’ and “church’, but it is no less true of Christianity.  Both are evangelistic religions, proclaiming what they believe to be true – and seeing truth as an absolute concept.  Both can, and have, survived at times and in places as minority faiths, but neither has ever been content to believe that its truths are just for its people, and not for export. I’m not so sure it is really much different either for today’s “social justice warriors”, or for libertarians –  whose proposed rule is, essentially, that we should all just leave each other alone (even though this has never been, and never seems likely to be, how human beings have chosen to organise themselves).

I’m not convinced that stable democratic societies can survive that long without a common culture and/or common religion (the two aren’t the same, but they overlap considerably, and necessarily).  It is hard to know.  We don’t have a long track record of democratic states –  a few hundred years at most (even if one doesn’t use universal suffrage as the standard), and then only for a handful of countries.

…..

Democracy involves agreeing to live by a set of common rules, agreed by some sort of majoritarian process.  In almost any state, those rules include procedures for handling those least able to support themselves (whether it was Old Testament gleaning rules, the Poor Law, or the modern welfare system).  In a democracy, the willingness to help and support others is likely to be limited, to a considerable extent, to those with whom one feels a sense of shared identity.  The boundaries aren’t absolute, but revealed preference –  and introspection –  suggests that almost all of us are willing to do much more for our own families, and then perhaps for friends or members of other close communities of interest (neighbourhoods, church groups etc), and then for others in one’s own country, and only then for citizens of the world.  Is it a desirable model? I’m not sure. But it is human one, one that seems fairly ineradicable at a practical level.   Speaking personally, I don’t feel a strong sense of obligation to support someone down on their luck just because they became a New Zealander yesterday.  And I don’t feel a strong sense of obligation to support someone who won’t work to support themselves.  But I’m much more willing to vote my taxes to support those people than I am to support those down on their luck in Birmingham or Bangalore.  It is partly in that sense that “being a New Zealander” matters.  Mostly, humans will sacrifice for those with whom they sense a shared identity –  and generally that isn’t just the Initiative’s line about a shared belief in equality before the law, free speech etc etc (important to me as those things are).

Of course, what unites and divides a “country” or community changes over time.  In the wake of the Reformation, divisions between Protestants and Catholics were sufficiently important to each to make it practically impossible for both groups to co-exist for long in any numbers in the same territory/polity.  And, sure, multi-national multi-faith empires have existed for prolonged periods –  the Ottomans and Habsburgs were two examples – but not as democracies. Prudent repression can maintain stability for a long time.  But it isn’t the sort of regime that Anglo countries (and many others) have wanted to live under.

But the New Zealand Initiative report doesn’t seem to take seriously any of these issues, not even to rebut them.  They take too lightly what it means to maintain a stable democratic society, or even to preserve the interests and values of those who had already formed a commuity here.    I don’t want stoning for adultery, even if it was adopted by democratic preference.  And I don’t want a political system as flawed as Italy’s, even if evolved by law and practice.   We have something very good in New Zealand, and we should nurture and cherish it.  It mightn’t be –  it isn’t –  perfect, but it is ours, and has evolved through our own choices and beliefs.  For me, as a Christian, I’m not even sure how hospitable the country/community any longer is to my sorts of beliefs – the prevalent “religion” here is now secularism, with all its beliefs and priorities and taboos – but we should deal with those challenges as New Zealanders – not having politicians and bureaucrats imposing their preferences on future population composition/structure.

Values tests simply aren’t any sort of sensible answer, and particularly not in western societies  whose “values” and “religion” are not remotely stable or settled.   Perhaps it would work in Saudi Arabia.  Perhaps it even could have worked in many places in the 19th century.   And if such tests were seriously adopted in a society like New Zealand they would probably end up being used most against the sorts of people who now call for them.  Our culture’s heritage once included Test Acts, and I hope we resist the growing pressure to establish some modern form of them.  We can’t avoid the cultural conflicts within our own society, but we can give ourselves space to work them through as New Zealanders, people with some sort of shared commitment to this place and its people, that few newcomers –  wherever they are from, whatever their values, whatever their religion – are likely to share.

 

On our disappearing migration data

Having written here earlier in the week about the reckless and irresponsible way in which the government and Statistics New Zealand are degrading the quality of our very timely net immigration data (itself a major, and quite cyclically variable, economic indicator), I noticed a couple of comments that prompted me to dig out some numbers for this post.

The first, in a comment here, was that the self-reported intentions-based PLT measure probably couldn’t be counted on as very accurate anyway.  And the second, in someone else’s commentary, was that at least we will still (I hope) have monthly reporting of total passenger movements (tourists, business travellers etc as well as the permanent and long-term movements) from which a reasonable steer might be gleaned.

The best way of looking at whether the PLT measures are reasonable is to compare them with the new 12/16 method numbers –  available with a long lag, but which involve looking back, using passport records, and checking which people actually came (or went) for more than 12 months ((the threshold for the PLT definition).   Unfortunately, SNZ is still not publishing seasonally adjusted estimates for the 12/16 method numbers, so one can only really do the comparisons using rolling annual totals.   On this chart, I’ve shown the rolling 12 month totals for (a) the 12/16 method, (b) the PLT series, and (c) total net passenger movements for almost 30 years (although the 12/16 method data are only available this century).

migration 31 Aug

All the cycles are pretty similar, at least if one takes a broad sweep of the data.  That isn’t surprising, as most short-term visitors go home again pretty quickly, leaving something like an underlying trend of permanent and long-term movements.   And it confirms that the PLT numbers have been a useful –  although not perfect –  indicator of the actual permanent and long-term movements (captured in the 12/16 numbers).  Importantly, the turning points tend to be very similar.

One wouldn’t expect those two series to be the same, as they measure different things: the PLT numbers are about intentions, and if plans change so will behaviour.  If lots of people come to New Zealand (or leave for Australia) and things don’t work out and they change their mind, ideally we would want to know.    The divergence that looks to have opened up between the grey and orange lines at the end of the (grey) series might prove to have been something like that.  But in future we won’t know because (a) we won’t have the PLT data at all, and (b) the grey line will only be available with a reasonable degree of certainty with quite a long lag.   As a reminder, here is the new SNZ chart I included in the post the other day, illustrating the huge error margins around the timely estimates SNZ proposes publishing using their new (unpublished and untested) methodology.

Provisional-and-final-net-migration-estimates2

But the other thing worth noticing is how noisy the blue line is.  There is a great deal of volatility, which makes distilling any signals (about permanent and long-term movements) very hard on a timely basis. That was why the PLT numbers have been so useful.  The blue line is thrown around in particular by big sporting events: eg the Lions tours in 2005 and 2017, and the Rugby World Cup in 2011.    There are big additional net arrivals, and then big additional net departures a month or two later, with mirror effects in the annual numbers a year later as well.  I have found the total net passenger arrivals data useful in the past –  in both 2002 and 2011 they pointed to something larger in the permanent and long-term movements than the PLT numbers themselves were reflecting, and that sense was later reflected in the 12/16 numbers (much larger net inflows in 2002/03, and somewhat larger net outflows in 2010/11).

What of the monthly seasonally adjusted data (the stuff designed for high frequency timely monitoring)?  Here is a chart of the PLT and total series, with scales set so as not to allow the flows associated with the Rugby World Cup (in particular) to dominate the chart.

migration mthyl sa

At a monthly frequency, the noise in the total passenger (orange) line totally dominates any signal, while the volatility in the monthly PLT series (that we are soon to lose altogether is very small).    What should perhaps be more concerning –  and is a bit perplexing –  is why the volatility of the total passenger series is itself quite variable across time, even outside the months associated with major sporting events.   Right now, for example, the volatility in the monthly series is quite extreme.    Here is the same chart for just the last four years or so.

migration mthly

The Lions Tour is very evident in mid-2017, but the heightened volatility goes well beyond that.

All of which leaves me not quite sure what to make of the very first chart.   The blue line (annual net inflows of all passengers) has fallen back a long way already (down from around 80000 to around 40000), and similarly-sized falls in the past have often been coincident with, or perhaps a little ahead of, large falls in the PLT numbers (and the 12/16 numbers).  There are some reasons to think we might see something similar now.  Fortunately, for the next couple of months we will still have the PLT data

PLT mthly

But after that –  thanks to government and SNZ choices –  we will be flying blind.    We’ll have good information eventually on what actually happened, but it will be available with such a lag as to be more use to economic historians than to people trying to make sense of, and respond to, contemporaneous economic developments.  And the net total passenger movements data is sufficiently noisy that it probably won’t give us much of a steer (and even then with big error margins) before the lagging 12/16 data do.

This is simply reckless behaviour around a major set of timely economic data.

Work visas for shop managers

We learned yesterday that the firm that owns Burger King in New Zealand has been banned from using migrant labour (ie people on work visas, not resident non-citizens) for a year.

The penalty was imposed on Burger King not, it is reported, because of a migration-related offence, but because the company was founding guilty of breaches of the minimum wage laws in respect of someone (reportedly not on a work visa) working as a store manager.  A company that can’t be relied on to follow some aspects of labour law probably isn’t the sort of firm that should be counted on to treat short-term migrant labour well.  So even though I think our minimum wage is (relative to nationwide productivity and median earnings) too high, I’m not bothered at all by the ban.

But surely the bigger question that should be addressed to the government is why companies are able to use “migrant labour” in such modestly-skilled low-paying roles at all.   As a reminder (and complaining again about the inordinate delays in MBIE releasing timely data), in 2016/17 these were the top four occupations for the principal applicants in the Skilled Migrant category of our residence approvals programme  (in other words, the cream of the crop).

Main occupations for Skilled Migrant Category principal applicants, 2016/17  
Occupation 2016/17
Number %
Chef 684 5.7%
Registered Nurse (Aged Care) 559 4.6%
Retail Manager (General) 503 4.2%
Cafe or Restaurant Manager 452 3.7%

 

And among those who got (so-called) Essential Skills work visas

Number of people granted Essential Skills work visas by main occupations, 2016/17
Occupation Number %
Chef 2,178 6.6%
Dairy Cattle Farm Worker 1,617 4.9%
Carpenter 1,478 4.5%
Retail Supervisor 961 2.9%
Cafe or Restaurant Manager 942 2.9%
Retail Manager (General) 767 2.3%
Aged or Disabled Carer 748 2.3%

Large numbers of people who appear to have no particular qualifications or specialist expertise, doing jobs that often don’t seem to pay much more than the minimum wage (when the law is being followed at all –  and it is widely known that there are much more egregious cases than the Burger King example, where migrant workers are required to pay back, under the table, much of any salary as a ‘fee’ for getting them into New Zealand.)

There is an argument that some economists make that we can gain economically by letting in lots of quite unskilled people.  Even economists think such an approach is likely to leave lower-skilled natives worse off.

igm lowskilled

As I noted last year, commenting on one UK academic who celebrated the possibilities of lots of low-skilled migrants (lowering the costs of cleaning, childcare and so on)

What Bateman is in fact arguing for is a policy designed to explicitly help people like her, at the expense of poorer less highly-skilled Britons (in fact, in the roles she talks of typically poorer relatively unskilled British women).  No one person is ever an exact substitute for another, but there is a great deal of overlap.    Even though she never says it, what Bateman is arguing for is a policy designed to increase the differences in incomes between the highly-skilled and the less-skilled –  for the comfort of the highly-skilled (women and their spouses).

Many advocates of a fairly liberal approach to immigration like to downplay the possibility of any costs to low-skilled natives of the recipient country, but Bateman’s argument relies almost entirely on those costs.  Reasonable people can debate how large the actual adverse effects are, but Bateman clearly believes they are large –  that is why, in her view, immigration makes things so much easier for people like her.     And she can’t even be arguing  –  as some might –  that it is just a transitional effect, or otherwise the possibility of outsourcing domestic duties cheaply would soon go away again.  So it seems to be a vision of society that involves repeatedly importing new waves of lowly-skilled immigrants to keep the relative returns to low-skilled labour sufficiently low to make life comfortable for the professional classes.

Whatever the other arguments for and against immigration, it is hardly surprising that citizens might rebel against a proposal to bring in lots of foreigners to widen the income gaps in society –  not just those between nationals and non-citizen foreigners, but those between skilled and unskilled nationals.   Sceptics of other economic reforms will argue that some of those changes also had that effect, but even if so (which I mostly dispute) it was never the intention, or the envisaged long-term effect.  By contrast, Bateman’s argument is in effect for using immigration to maintain a permanent class of helots –  not always the same specific people, but a constantly refreshed pool of people able to earn relatively little, because of the direct competition fron unskilled new arrivals.

Of course, this isn’t the (avowed) approach of the New Zealand immigration programme, which is supposedly mostly about skills –  highly able and talented people, building on what is already here (inadequate as the advocates believe that is) to lift the productivity and incomes of us all.

But that story has long been threadbare.  The evidence for the productivity gains is non-existent (in a country whose productivity continues to drift further behind that of other advanced countries) and instead we import large numbers people with few very obvious skills, too often doing jobs which appear to pay not a lot more than the minimum wage.  It is a rort against New Zealanders.

Now that the government is falling over itself to pander to business interests on anything not central to its own (mostly economically damaging) agenda, there is clearly no chance of any sensible immigration reform under this government (any more than under its predecessor). If anything, talk of regionalising immigration policy would make things even worse.  But for what it is worth I repeat my suggestion around short-term work visas, which would get bureaucrats out of the rationing business, and rely more heavily on the market.

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).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum or 20 per cent of the employee’s annual income (whichever is greater).

If it is really worth it to a firm to pay a $20000 annual fee on top of a salary to have someone on a work visa, well and good.  But that doesn’t seem likely for very many of the sorts of jobs that top the work visa occupational list.

And recall that markets can and will adjust.  The Canadian federal Minister of Immigration spoke at Victoria University the other day (I hope to come back to his address in greater length later): Canada is in the process of over-leaping New Zealand to claim the dubious crown of largest (per capita) planned migration programme in the advanced world.  The Minister told us lots of stories about skills shortages, and “desperate” needs for workers (in a country with an unemployment rate of 5.8 per cent) –  we heard several times about an apparently desperate need for “50000 truck drivers right now”, and yet never once did the Minister address or even mention the typical market adjustment mechanism: when demand for a resource is scarce, the price will tend to rise to encourage resources to move to meet the demand.      If it is hard to staff fast-food restaurants, or dairy farms, or rest homes, it is a sign –  in an economy that is, at best, only sitting around the NAIRU – that workers in those roles aren’t being paid enough.  It really is (almost) as simple as that.

Tossing away valuable emigration data

We had confirmation yesterday that departure cards are to be scrapped.    This was flagged by the Prime Minister a few months ago, and I wrote about the issue here.   Since then it appears that there has been no proper public consultative process.

As I noted in March

I’m sure airlines and airport operators hate the cards.  There have been prevous efforts to get rid of them.  They are, nonetheless, a core element of the data collections (in conjunction with arrivals cards) that give us some of the very best immigration data anywhere.  In a country with –  year in, year out – some of the very largest immigration, and emigration, flows anywhere in the advanced world.

We are told by the government that this brings us more into line with other countries

On Sunday, Lees-Galloway said the move would bring New Zealand into line with other countries, few of which had departure cards with the level of detail required by the New Zealand card.

(although even then we appear to overshooting in scrapping the cards completely).

But the statistical and related policy issues New Zealand grapples with are different from those in many other countries, most of whom don’t have big outflows of their own citizens, or big cyclical fluctuations in those flows.     Immigration of non-citizens is managed through the administrative approvals required to get a visa.  But people don’t need government approval to leave again and New Zealanders (of course) are free to come and go without any prior approval from the New Zealand government.

So departure cards captured the intentions of people coming and going.  Those stating that they intend to have changed countries for 12 months or more make up the permanent and long-term migration data that, for decades, has been a major and very timely indicator of what is going on, in a country with some of the largest swings in net migration of any country in the world.   It isn’t as perfect indicator by any means –  very timely ones rarely are – but it has consistently contained valuable information, especially around turning points.   And now the government proposes to scrap this data collection.

The Minister of Customs reckons the cards aren’t necessary

Customs Minister Meka Whaitiri said the cards were no longer needed for their original purpose – to account for all passengers crossing the New Zealand border.

“We have smarter systems now that capture passenger identity information and travel movement records electronically,” she said.

“Information captured by the departure cards is now mainly used for statistical purposes.

“Statistics NZ has developed an alternative way to produce migration and tourism statistics, based on actual movements rather than passengers’ stated intentions on the departure cards.”

I certainly agree that departure cards aren’t needed to capture the total flows, but it is the timely breakdown of that data that has been extensively used for decades.   And the operative word there is “timely”.  The new 12/16 method data –  looking back and seeing how long people were actually here/away – is better for long-term analytical purposes, but it is available only with a 17 month lag, whereas the departure card based data is available within weeks.  That difference matters, and it is worth bearing in mind that 17 months is almost half a parliamentary term.

We are told that Statistics New Zealand has “developed an alternative way to produce” the data, but we’ve seen no details of this, and there has been no consultative document made available for comment.  In  my earlier post I included this quote from SNZ claiming that in future estimates of the PLT breakdown

will be generated through a probabilistic predictive model of traveller type (ie short-term traveller, or long-term migrant), based on available characteristics of travellers. Such a model will provide a provisional estimate of migration, which we can then revise (if required) as sufficient time passes for us to apply the outcomes-based measure.

I commented then

I hope that they plan to rigorously evaluate the accuracy of such models, including when they’ve worked well and when they haven’t, and how well they capture the effects of policy changes, and that they expose their models and evaluation to external scrutiny before scrapping such a valuable source of hard data as the departure card.

But we have seen no sign of such an evaluation at all, and yet in a few months that data that have been used for decades will be discontinued, with  no ability to recreate it in future if the new models that are talked about prove not to have been very good.

Without seeing the models it is hard to comment on where they might go wrong.  But the key point is that statistical models often work fine when past behavioural patterns keep on as they were in the past, and they often fail when behaviour changes.   It is the behavioural changes that are often of most interest to the analyst, and it looks as though there will now be very long lags before we have the data to enable any such changes to be recognised.

I just heard Iain Lees-Galloway claiming on Radio NZ that future statistical information will be improved by scrapping the departure cards.  That seems very unlikely – essentially impossible, because you cannot really know the intentions of travellers other than by asking them, and intentions actually matter in this business.

I could add to the lament around official immigration statistics that there has still been very little progress in making available regular, timely, seasonally adjusted, accessible data from MBIE on visa approvals.  These are major economic and social data for New Zealand, which should be readily available almost instantly, including through SNZ’s Infoshare site.  There is no reason why immigration approvals data should not be at least as readily useable as, say, building approvals data. I know MBIE has a project underway to improve the situation, and make available an immigration data dashboard, but it seems to be moving very slowly –  it must be a year now since MBIE first told me about it, and it is months since the person doing the work invited me to provide comments on a prototype.  It is encouraging that something appears to be in the works, but in the meantime we limp on with inadequate, not user-friendly, administrative data, while the government simply abandons the best timely data we have on what people leaving New Zealand are planning to do.