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A sensible overview of a thorny topic...
on 5 August 2015
As books in this general go, this is a balanced, sober and intelligent examination of what is a highly controversial and ethically difficult area. Movements of populations have ever been a feature of human social relations. Sometimes such movements are forced by persecution, deprivation, war or by the willingness to exploit opportunities that might lie elsewhere. Wherever the reason for human movement within countries or beyond borders, there are often significant impacts (admirably both positive and negative) on migrant populations and those who eventually play host to them. Trying to formulate government and international policy on immigration requires trying to disentangle the relative merits and demerits of allowing various levels of immigration (and from which destinations and labour categories) is difficult. But none of the foregoing is news.
The premise behind Colliers book unsurprisingly is the age old economists focus on the margin. Immigration he claims is neither good or bad in itself. It is simply an activity arising from possible need,policy or expediency in the host country and sufficient need or ambition shown by the migrant population. What is important is the extent of the population shift,the time frame over which it happens and the extent to which it can be 'absorbed' by the host country. Controlling the flow of immigration rather than the extent of immigration is the core idea of this book. This is a significant because if immigration is a natural part of human life and will occur either with the sanction of sovereign states or not, management is key.
There are several observations that that this book suggests that make it a worthwhile read. Firstly, that there is relatively little reliable data and research on the effects of immigration both on those countries importing populations and those exporting them. Secondly, that a straight estimation of costs and benefits as expressed in money terms is not a sufficient metric by itself. We might see that an influx of skilled labour into the UK might cause prices of particular services to fall, productivity and output to rise. In addition the effect on welfare services and education could also be costed. What is important though is who wins ( consumers / businesses who buy in such labour) and who loses ( taxpayer, existing users and providers of overstretched welfare and education and possibly local communities who might feel that they are being 'squeezed out' by the new 'alien' arrivals). The political debate then is between the economic and social liberals who tend to overestimate the benefits and ethical imperatives of immigration and undervalue the costs of such societal transitions ( possibly because they do not have to suffer its consequences) and those less convinced citizens who see the issue relating as much to a sense of national and individual identity as much as jobs and pay. Collier makes his most important contribution by recognising that immigration is a global problem / opportunity. For countries that shed people, they gain particularly from significant inward capital flows from remittances but lose from depleted skill and entrepreneurial resources. Recipient nations may make gains, but this depends very much on the profile of the immigrant population being accommodated and their willingness to be absorbed into the existing national ethos and community.
'Exodus' is a good place to start for a sensible discussion of immigration. It frustrates because instead of simply lining up the arguments for/ against like so many ducks in a row, more space could have been devoted to policy prescriptions. For a start, what can be done when a regional issue (currently Libya?) creates a sudden surge in population movements? This is a distinctly different problem the from more regular 'legally' managed regular economic labour movement (contract labour/ guest workers) and social integration (allowing relatives to enter a country). I think that Collier should have focused on two notions - that poor countries are frequently very poorly and corruptly run. Poor government causes in part the motivation for People to uproot themselves. Institutions like the IMF, World Bank and the United Nations should focus much more on providing expertise and leverage to effect change in those nations that need it most. Former colonial overlords such the UK, France and Belgium surely have a moral duty not just to intervene in regional conflicts but also in providing support in trying to build competences in administration,judiciary and legislative processes. This is the work of generations but worthwhile. The author could and should have focused more on encouraging global trade. Allowing poorer nations to trade their way to prosperity and so become less dependent on aid and remittances will be a hugely important stepping stone to building global prosperity and reducing the deleterious effects of 'excessive' immigration. This means organisations like the EU have to find a way to pacify particular producer groups ( the agr -industry?) and allow poorer nations more market access. If the EU for instance wants to reduce forced economic immigration, it has to start looking at promoting (in a collaborative and sensitive fashion) more assiduously the welfare of citizens and states that frequently export more labour then is good for them.
'Exodus' scores highly because it is readable, jargon is explained with clarity and although for some readers it may focus too much on the monetised costs / benefits of immigration and fails to address the social and political objections to free labour movement ( are all immigration sceptics all 'nutters' and racists?), it is even in tone. It would useful and lead to a greater understanding in this area, if commentators remembered that immigrants and their receiving populations are human beings. Collier, whatever the possible shortcomings in his book manages to balance economic analysis with a feel for his fellow humans.Recommended.