#18: We are all the same

I’m beginning to suspect, however, that economists would love to live inside a computer model, where human beings are all the impersonal and interchangeable sum of their productive value.

Michael Clemens ran the stats comparing Indian computer programmers who won a visa lottery, emigrated and earned significantly higher wages in the US, with those who weren’t so lucky and stayed in India. He examined the differences between the two groups in education and programming skill, reasons for which you might rationally pay someone $60,000 a year more. There were no such differences; they might as well have been the same people. The only difference was location. His conclusion was inescapable: your earning potential is entirely governed by where you are, not who you are. And where you are is, under the current controlled system, almost entirely a fluke of birth.

This is a salutary lesson for those of us standing on the shoulders of our ancestors who had the industry and aggression to make the world their factories. But I can feel the weight of existential crisis bearing down on my shoulders. I can understand why we tend to instinctively reject these ideas.

I want to believe that I have justly earned my education, my opportunities, my three meals a day. I want to believe that I somehow earned the right to be born British. The absurdity of typing that last sentence brings me face to face with the painful truth that the only objections to free migration are political. Unrestricted immigration is a hard policy for politicians to defend when things aren’t going great, when you need a scapegoat to distract from your hapless or corrupt economic decisions.

Unfortunately, we humans do have a tendency to hold long-standing irrational prejudices about foreigners and those of a different cultural background. And those beliefs are easily used to either “explain” difficult social or economic problems or to wilfully distract us from alternative solutions. Thus the political response du jour to any economic or social crisis: tougher immigration restrictions.

In 2014, the German Marshall Fund, a US organisation dedicated to international cooperation, ran a survey in which they asked people across the EU whether they thought that there were too many immigrants in their country. In the UK, 54% of people agreed that our country was overrun with foreigners.

There is a twist, however. In some surveys, people were first told exactly how many immigrants lived in the UK. Under this condition, the number of people saying that the UK was full up dropped to just 31%.

Conclusion #1: Our prejudices are surprisingly easy to change through direct exposure to accurate information.

Many people fear a clash of cultures, that with too much immigration the “British way of life” will change beyond recognition, and in extreme cases that the immigrants will “take over” and the British people will be forced to adopt the foreigner’s law.

From the same Marshall Fund survey, only 46% of people agreed that newly-arrived immigrants were integrating into British society, but that number leapt to 63% when thinking about the immigrants’ children. I wonder how high that figure of approval would rise when considering their grandchildren or great-grandchildren?

Conclusion #2: Where is the clash of cultures if you believe that immigrants are well integrated into UK society?

I see these Marshall Fund statistics as signs of hope, that our prejudices can be challenged and changed. An even more encouraging statistic is that 73% of British people think the government is doing a terrible job on immigration. I agree, although perhaps not for the same reasons as the Daily Mail.

In the second half of the last century, ordinary citizens of the world successfully overturned countless deeply entrenched restrictions on human freedom of movement and self-determination. African-Americans and indigenous Australians now have civil rights in their countries, the controls of the apartheid state of South Africa have been dismantled, and the Berlin Wall that separated east and west in Europe has been bulldozed into history.

If the last thousand years are any guide, slow but dramatic change is not only possible but highly likely. And the policy of No Borders doesn’t sound extreme any more, it sounds humane.

Further Reading

Clemens, Michael A. ‘The Effect of International Migration on Productivity: Evidence from Randomized Allocation of Us Visas to Software Workers at an Indian Firm’, 2012. https://www.aeaweb.org/conference/2013/retrieve.php?pdfid=459.

‘Transatlantic Trends: Key Findings 2014’. The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 2014.

What do you think?