#20: Three Lessons from a Vipassana Meditation Retreat

The Dark

I don’t mind admitting that a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat with no running, dancing, skipping or cycling, no meat or refined sugar, no speaking or smiling, no alcohol or caffeine, no reading or writing, no email or internet, no music or games, no computers or radio, no news or advertising, no physical touch and no mingling of the sexes at all sent me absolutely bonkers. To be more precise: by the end of the retreat, I was paranoid that everyone hated me. It was HARD. Continue reading “#20: Three Lessons from a Vipassana Meditation Retreat”

#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.

#17: No Borders is “the efficient way to double world GDP”

If only we’d listen to our economists, it could all be so different. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, describes No Borders as:

“the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to double world GDP”

That’s an extraordinary claim, but it’s backed up with numbers. Michael Clemens, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, Washington, D.C., has collected twelve academic studies examining the “efficiency gain” to the economy from the elimination of various international barriers to trade.

Removing all global policy barriers to the free movement of capital is estimated to have a potential benefit to the world economy of anything ranging from 0.1% and 1.7%. That’s not an insubstantial amount of money, perhaps up to $1.3 trillion, an extra $185 a year for each of us – not to be sniffed at considering that over 700 million people still live on less than $1.90 a day.

Removing international barriers to the free movement of goods is estimated to have an even bigger potential benefit to the world economy of anything ranging from 0.3% to 4.1%, perhaps up to $3 trillion a year, or $450 each.

Dismantling all global policy barriers to the free movement of labour, however, has been estimated to give the world economy a boost of between 67% to 147.3%. That’s at least sixteen times the biggest gain of any other form of deregulation. Even at the lowest estimate, this would amount to an additional $51 trillion for the world economy, or an extra $7,370 in our back pockets every year.

Now can you see why Bryan Caplan ends his short review of Clemens’ work with an unambiguous call to arms for his profession and the wider public:

“If research energy were proportional to the inefficiency of the status quo, virtually every economist would study immigration. And if outrage were proportional to harm, virtually every protest on earth would be in favour of open borders.”

You might at this point be imagining Michael Clemens and Bryan Caplan as anarchist academics, the hard numbers corrupted by personal utopian fantasy. In fact, there is almost complete consensus among economists that borders are a terrible idea. A joint Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University survey in 1996 found that 47% of the general public thought “too many immigrants” was a major reason the economy wasn’t doing better; only 1% of economists agreed. Economics professor Alex Tabarrok calls immigration “the world’s best anti-poverty program”, and even the godfather of modern economics, Adam Smith, advocated not only free trade, but also a free labour market, one where workers could move freely to where they were needed.

Michael Clemens suggests that even just slightly relaxing our border controls could add trillions of dollars a year to the global economy. Michael shows how even mass immigration would support the local economy by drawing on the historical precedent of the millions of women who joined the labour market in a short period of time after the Second World War.

“Women entering the labour force are not exactly identical to men,” Michael says in an interview with Freakonomics author Stephen J Dubner, “so they often complement men in the workplace rather than substitute for them.” Similarly, migrants bring new ideas and skills to their work, complementing rather than directly replacing native workers. “Women start businesses that employ men,” Michael adds. “Migrants do too.”

In fact, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies, the five hundred most successful corporations in the US, were founded by migrants or their children. “Even though there might have been wage-competition between men and women in the ’50s and ’60s, nobody would say now we would make the US richer by banning women from working,” Michael concludes.

What about wage-competition in the UK? In 2008 the Bank of England published a paper that claimed a 10% rise in the number of immigrants working in semi- or unskilled jobs would lead to a 5.2% reduction in pay. In late 2015, the same authors issued an update. Not only had they significantly over-estimated the increase in the number of immigrants taking low skilled jobs, but the reduction in pay was far lower than they expected, just 1.88%.

According to economist Jonathan Portes, this works out to be a reduction of about one penny per hour. This is not nothing, but as Jonathan says, “it stretches credulity to suggest that other things – the level of the minimum wage, the decline in trade union power, technological and industrial change – have not had far bigger impacts on pay in these sectors”.

The flip side to this slight reduction in wages is that some of those savings to business owners are passed on to the consumer. Indeed, in 2008 Patricia Cortes of the University of Chicago found that immigration to the US reduced the cost of a typical shopping basket by about 0.5%.

If you want a large-scale twenty-first century experiment in No Borders, then look no further than Europe. In 2004, seven countries from the former Eastern Soviet bloc joined the European Union. Overnight, about 100 million extra people could move wherever they wanted to work. But, despite the huge differences in GDP between countries like Romania and Sweden, according to economist Philippe Legrain only 4% of people have actually moved, and even then most (perhaps 91%) only intend to move temporarily.

Meanwhile, UCL economists have shown that EU immigrants provided a net benefit to the UK economy of £20bn over the decade from 2000 to 2011, and the most irrationally feared East European migrants made up £5bn of that extra wealth. As for the countries these migrants left, they seem to be doing okay: Poland has outperformed the rest of the EU in terms of GDP growth every year for the last decade.

If the economic arguments are so strong, then what stands in the way of open borders? Well, we do.

Further Reading

Bryan Caplan. ‘The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP | EconLog | Library of Economics and Liberty’. Accessed 2 October 2016. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/08/the_efficient_e.html.

Clemens, Michael A. ‘Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?’ Journal of Economic Perspectives 25, no. 3 (August 2011): 83–106. doi:10.1257/jep.25.3.83.

‘Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy’. The Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University Survey Project, October 1996.

Alexander T. Tabarrok. ‘Why Ruin the World’s Best Anti-Poverty Program?’ The Independent Institute. Accessed 2 October 2016. http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1737.

Tabarrok, Alex. ‘The Case for Getting Rid of Borders—Completely’. The Atlantic, 10 October 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/get-rid-borders-completely/409501/.

Grieve, Roy H. 1983. Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’: the Legacy of a Great Scottish Economist Understanding the Scottish Economy, Publisher: Oxford: Martin Robertson, Editors: K P D Ingham and J Love, pp.pp.41-54

‘The “New American” Fortune 500’. Partnership for a New American Economy, June 2011. p2

Michael Clemens quotes from: ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’ Freakonomics. Accessed 2 October 2016. http://freakonomics.com/podcast/is-migration-a-basic-human-right-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/.

For more detail, see: Clemens, Michael A. ‘Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?’ Journal of Economic Perspectives 25, no. 3 (August 2011): 83–106. doi:10.1257/jep.25.3.83.

Nickell, Stephen, and Jumana Saleheen. ‘The Impact of Immigration on Occupational Wages: Evidence from Britain’, 2015. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2706493.

Jonathon Portes. ‘How Small Is Small? The Impact of Immigration on UK Wages – UK in a Changing Europe’. Accessed 2 October 2016. http://ukandeu.ac.uk/explainers/how-small-is-small-the-impact-of-immigration-on-uk-wages/.

Cortes, Patricia. ‘The Effect of Low-Skilled Immigration on US Prices: Evidence from CPI Data’. Journal of Political Economy 116, no. 3 (2008): 381–422.

Blanchflower, David G., and Chris Shadforth. ‘Fear, Unemployment and Migration’. The Economic Journal 119, no. 535 (2009): F136–F182.

Dustmann, Christian, and Tommaso Frattini. “The fiscal effects of immigration to the UK.” The economic journal 124, no. 580 (2014): F593-F643.

Faris, Stephan. ‘How Poland Became Europe’s Most Dynamic Economy’. Bloomberg.com, 27 November 2013. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-11-27/how-poland-became-europes-most-dynamic-economy.

#16: National borders were supposed to be temporary

In Britain, the first border controls were put in place with the Aliens Act of 1793, as a drastic measure to prevent French republicans from crossing the Channel and fomenting revolution. A few years later the perceived danger had passed and the controls were lifted.

It’s hard to imagine border control as a temporary emergency measure today, but that’s exactly how it was originally conceived. Lasting border controls only came to Britain just over a hundred years ago with the 1905 Aliens Act. Some of you might have known grandparents and great-grandparents to whom passports, borders, and immigration were quite novel.

Although not explicit in its wording, it was well known that the 1905 Act was drafted to deal with the “problem” of immigrant Jews, who were fleeing violent pogroms in Russia that killed thousands. The law was, and remains, in essence racist. The same is true for similar ground-breaking border control laws in the US (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) and Australia (the White Australia Policy started in 1901).

Following these early racists forays, borders really took off after the First and Second World Wars, with the rise of the nation state. Henceforth, for reasons of geopolitical organisation and economic exploitation, every corner of the earth must have a sovereign master, demarcated with borders from its neighbour. New nation states appeared overnight, defined only by lines drawn on a map. Where on earth was Palestine, where Israel? Where was India, where Pakistan? They were all invented and the borders often arbitrarily drawn by fallible administrators thousands of miles away.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a nation state as:

an independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically)

This sounds reasonable at first pass, but the idea that a state-sized territory could have a “common national identity” is ludicrous. It’s estimated that at the time of the French revolution in 1789 only about ten percent of the population of France spoke fluent French. France has taken hundreds of years to evolve anything even close to a national identity, and is still riven by historical, cultural and ethnic divisions. So I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).

After the Second World War, entire populations were uprooted and marched a thousand miles, as between India and Pakistan, as earlier between Greece and Turkey. In other places, the fall out was not nearly so “civilised” as population exchange. Rwanda, Palestine, Israel, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq: scarcely a single new nation state survived birth without bloodshed.

You could confidently argue that this calamitous squeezing of round pegs into square borders is the original cause of the continuing civil wars in Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Even the civil conflicts between privileged and non-privileged in South Africa, Brazil, the United States and elsewhere could be said to be overspill from the decision that each arbitrary parcel of land shall have a sovereign and centralised supreme government, quite regardless of history, culture and ethnicity.

I make these historical observations to show that permanent borders, just like any unexamined habit, were once freely chosen as one solution among many possible solutions to a specific problem. That problem was how best to manage our human affairs in an increasingly connected world.

In the course of a generation, military conflict went from cavalry charges between aristocrats to atomic weapons dropped by flying machines. That’s a radical shift in warfare, one which quite possibly demanded we find an equally radical new way of organising ourselves.

You could even argue that borders and the nation state have been a decent, if crude, solution to that problem. Many millions of people, particularly those in Europe and the US, have been living side-by-side in relative peace since the Second World War. And, considering how that conflict ended, with the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, things could be much worse than they are.

But my point remains: there is no natural law that commands we live with borders. There are people still alive today who remember a time when borders were not necessarily the way we resolved the problems, both real and perceived, of two tribes butting up against each other. I’m worried that we, as a society, are no longer interested in whether or not this current solution actually works, and no longer asking ourselves whether there is some better alternative out there.

The world has changed again, just as radically as it did a hundred years ago, and we must ask ourselves whether solutions chosen in 1905 are still functional.

Protection against terrorism is often put forward as an unanswerable reason for border control. But the tighter we close our borders, it seems, the more terrorist attacks we attract. Terrorism is no longer the threat of republican revolutionaries crossing the Channel from Ireland or France; the biggest terrorist threat the UK faces today is from its own population. There have been seven successful terrorist attacks in the UK since 2005. Every single one was plotted by British nationals, apart from one: Ukrainian far right terrorist Pavlo Lapshyn who murdered a Muslim pensioner and tried to bomb three mosques in the Midlands in 2013. Borders will not prevent terrorism if that terror is perpetrated by UK citizens.

It also doesn’t follow that borders could hope to prevent terrorists who do travel. Organisations such al Al-Qaeda and ISIS have amply demonstrated that they have the resources to work around any feasible border control, including the rather obvious tactic of putting “cleanskins” on, say, a cheap EasyJet flight from Egypt. That doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to prevent terrorist slaughter, but it does mean that we should change our strategy.

Border control is a hopelessly inefficient and expensive means of solving the problem. It didn’t work for the Ming Dynasty of China who lost their Empire when the Manchus were allowed to cross the Great Wall, it didn’t work for the French Maginot Line, easily sidestepped by the Nazis, and it isn’t working for the Israelis who, despite their military supremacy, are losing a quite different battle of demography with Arab Palestinians.

In a world where we are all increasingly connected through a global web of fibre optic cables, and where corporations and ideologies operate on a transnational scale without impediment, is the crude restriction of the free movement of people really still our best option?

Further Reading

Aliens Act 1905: ‘LongView: The Aliens Act 1905’. audioBoom. Accessed 3 October 2016. https://audioboom.com/boos/2995294-longview-the-aliens-act-1905.

Chinese Exclusion Act (1882): ‘Open Collections Program: Immigration to the US, Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)’. Accessed 3 October 2016. http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html.

White Australia Policy (1901): ‘White Australia Policy | Britannica.com’. Accessed 3 October 2016. https://www.britannica.com/event/White-Australia-Policy.

See also the excellent website, Open Borders: Lee, John. ‘Tearing down Chesterton’s Fence: The Bigotry of Border Controls’. Open Borders: The Case, 5 May 2015. http://openborders.info/blog/tearing-chestertons-fence-bigotry-border-controls/.

Grimes, William. ‘The Story of French By Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow – Books – Review’. The New York Times, 29 November 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/29/books/29grim.html.

‘Mosque Bomber Pavlo Lapshyn given Life for Murder’. BBC News, 25 October 2013, sec. Birmingham & Black Country. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-24675040.