Thursday, 7 September 2017

Migration and economics

One of the most over-used words in contemporary debate is ‘sustainable’.  Part of the problem is that it means different things to different people as they define it in ways which enable them to do what they want to do; and another part of the problem is that it’s become one of those fashionable words without which no report on anything is ever quite complete.  So in discussing the question, I start by pinning my colours firmly to the mast of the Brundtland report; it’s about using resources in a way which does not compromise future generations.
Currently, developed countries are a very long way from meeting that definition – it has been calculated that the earth’s population would require the resources of three earths to sustain its current level of resource consumption if every person on earth enjoyed the average living standard of the average person in the UK.  And some have argued that the US lifestyle would require four earths.  It’s not an exact calculation, of course, and some would argue about the detailed elements of it, but the basic conclusion – that current lifestyles in the developed world require the use of resources at an unsustainable rate – is a reasonable starting point. 
One thing that we can say with a high degree of certainty is that those people and countries which don’t currently enjoy the same standard of living as we do in Europe or the US aspire to achieve that standard of living.  That aspiration is one of the prime drivers of migration – faced with a choice of waiting until their own countries catch up or taking a short cut by moving to a country with an already existing higher standard of living, many in the world’s poorer countries are choosing the latter.  And who can blame them?
It’s a mechanism which doesn’t only operate between the world’s poorest countries and the richest; it also operates ‘regionally’ within both poorer areas and richer.  So, for instance, within the EU, those countries whose economies are lagging are seeing an outflow towards those countries with higher average incomes and better job availability.  Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians etc. come to the UK first and foremost because they feel that their prospects are better here than they are in their countries of origin.  And they’re not wrong about that.  We in Wales should be only too aware of the phenomenon – the cause is exactly the same as that which has, for generations, led so many of our own young people to head towards London or even further afield.
We perceive it differently though, partly because the line on the map between England and Wales is seen to be entirely different in nature from the line between the UK and ’the continent’, and partly because immigration and emigration appear to be two completely different phenomena.  Whilst I understand why the perceptions are different, the objective reality is that there is no real difference on either score.  For us here in Wales, both types of migration are part of our lived experience – but emigration is actually the bigger issue.  It’s only because the perspective from which the issue is usually examined and reported is a very ‘British’ one (in which movement from Wales to England doesn’t count as ‘migration’ at all because it’s seen as ‘internal’) that we end up with politicians discussing the question as though the problem is controlling who comes in.  Actually, we could gain more insight if we were to look at the problem from the perspective of those countries in Eastern Europe which are losing so many of their young people to places like the UK, Germany, or France.
That brings me to the paper launched today by the Welsh Government, talking about controls on immigration post-Brexit.  The report talks about the problems Wales faces from an ageing population and the need for immigration in order to sustain services and communities, and suggests an approach to managing immigration which is dependent first and foremost on the need for the skills of the immigrants.  In effect it focuses overwhelmingly on one-way migration (inwards) by a specific demographic (people of working age), and specifically refers to the need to avoid the working-age population decline which would otherwise occur.  I found that a very narrow and short term perspective on a much more complex issue.  That’s understandable, to an extent, in the context of the short-term problems likely to be caused by Brexit, particularly to a country like Wales which is already suffering from an outflow of qualified young people.  In that sense, it looks like an attempt to balance a response to tabloid-driven xenophobia and the immediate needs of the Welsh economy, but what it doesn’t even touch on is how we get to a situation where population and resource-usage are in balance over the long term – and not just in Wales.
The underlying economic model is broken; it depends on an ever-growing population of working age to support an ever-growing population of pensioners.  It owes more to Ponzi than to sustainability.  There’s a difference in emphasis, but the approach being taken to freedom of movement by the Welsh government differs little in principle from that of the UK government – it’s all about the economic self-interest of the country receiving migrants, and has little to say about the interests of migrants or those of their countries of origin, let alone about our wider collective interests.

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