Migrants v babies

In today’s Age, Ross Gittins argues the economic case for less immigration based on the impact on the environment and aggregate demand. But he commits a surprising sin: he fails to consider what the best way to manage aggregate demand and the environment would be as opposed to pointing out what immigration does to them. Indeed, he claims that immigration accounts for half of our population growth. But it is population growth that is the bigger issue. And the obvious solution is to curtail the other half of population growth — the so-called natural half. Let me edit his article accordingly:

immigration birth adds more to the demand for labour than to its supply.

That’s because migrant families with children add to demand, but only the individuals who work add to supply.

Migrant families with children need food, clothing, shelter and other necessities. They also add to the need for social and economic infrastructure: roads, schools, health care and all the rest.

Another factor is that their addition to demand comes earlier than their addition to labour supply. The rate of unemployment among recent immigrants babies is significantly higher than for the labour force generally.

Of course, I have to spot there because the rest is about skilled migration and let’s face it, babies ain’t skilled. So the case here is for reduced natural population growth as opposed to immigration.

Indeed, that case becomes stronger. Here is Gittin’s argument on the environment:

It’s obvious that one of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce the growth in our emissions — and make our efforts to cut emissions more effective overall — would be to reduce immigration.

It is not obvious at all. It is simply wrong. If people cause emissions and emissions are a global problem, then at first glance moving people from one country to another neither helps nor harms the environment.

17 thoughts on “Migrants v babies”

  1. You could potentially argue that shifting someone from a poor society with a small ‘footprint’ to Australia would increase global resource usage (the importation of one unskilled person who would otherwise live in dire poverty would also be much worse than the importation of one person from, eg, the US, which in fact may possibly result in a net reduction in global pollution). No matter which way you slice it, though, on the basis of these arguments the wilful addition of a whole new person has got to be a clearly worse thing to do for the environment and economy. You haven’t even mentioned the direct effects of babies on the labour supply of their parents, something that’s absolutely not an issue with immigrants.

    So obviously, based on this sort of analysis, Australia should immediately shut the borders and more importantly really heavily tax anyone having children. Only China has got it right so far!

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  2. I don’t know about it being ‘simply wrong’, as christine has said, consumption patterns in the immigrants home country would doubtlessly be lower (kinda part of the reason they moved!).

    But of course it’s total population of the world that really matters. Erlich (1971) I=PAT still has insight value (though I’m sure you could quibble).

    “The impact (I) of any group or nation on the environment can be viewed as the product of its population size (P) multiplied by per-capita affluence (A) as measured by consumption, in turn multiplied by a measure of the damage done by technologies (T) employed in supplying each unit of that consumption””

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  3. The free flow of labour between geographic locations contributes to greenhouse gas emissions because air travel (by far the most common method of entering Australia) has very high emissions.

    Besides which, the quote is “reduce the growth in our emissions”, where I assume our is the nationalist view, rather than global. Australia will meet her Kyoto targets, even if it is more an accounting trick in regards to the global effect.

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  4. Gittins also touches on the fact that governments don’t want to address the population/emissions issue. My guess is that politicians are worried that lower total growth will make them look like poor economic managers, and so these issues will stay as the undiscussed elephant in the room until per-capita GDP changes are used in headlines and press releases.

    Per cap GDP is probably a better measure of the economic well-being of the average citizen than total GDP anyway.

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  5. “then at first glance moving people from one country to another neither helps nor harms the environment.”

    Maybe you should take more than one quick glance at issues. It seems to me that bringing a person from a poor existence (no car, fridge etc) to a relatively wealthy one would increase their emissions substantially.

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  6. Near as I can tell, few immigrants into Australia come from the really poor sections of the really poor countries. Also, are immigrants the big polluters in Australia?

    Instead, they might be moving to a country that will sign Kyoto and commit to policies to reduce emissions. That may be a net benefit.

    What is definitely true is that if you had a choice between not having another child and not having another immigrant; the child policy would have a bigger impact on emission reduction.

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  7. Gittens is entirely correct with regards to the effect of migration on property prices (a fact that you seemingly ignored).

    A baby is not going to buy a house in Vaucluse or Brighton but a wealthy skilled migrant would do so.

    Migration is one of the key factors underlying the housing boom – quite simply, demand is outstripping supply. That demand isn’t coming from 3 year olds looking to purchase an investment property.

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  8. “Only China has got it right so far!”

    Christine – I heard on the radio the other day that apparently China is considering getting rid of the one child rule, partly because of the unhealthy male:female ratio, but also because of their increasing affluence. If they do, it will be interesting to see how much the birth rate goes up, given that the current generation of would-be parents have been heavily socialised into the one-child mould.

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  9. Migrating to a country that has the highest per-capita greenhouse emissions in the world, does not seem like a recipe for reducing carbon emissions to me. Joshua’s arguments rely on a idelaistic dream that we “work out how to get less emissions per person” as a justification that migration to Australia is good for global emissions. We are not going to setting any records for emissions reductions, let me tell you now.
    Furthermore artificially inflating population growth to twice that of natural growth rates IS the fact behind Australias housing affordability crisis. It is a simple supply and demand issue. Do I want to live in a country where we “contribute to global economic life” as the primary focus, or do I want to live in a sustainable place with a decent standard of living and where my own children can afford to buy a home. You place too much importance on economics and not enough on quality of life. Australia is not some economic expansion experiment!

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  10. How about choosing neither a new migrant nor a new baby? JG blithely bundles “our economic and environmental goals” together. What if they’re mutually exclusive? Can economic growth go on forever?

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  11. To rephrase Jill – false dichotomy?

    Ross Gittens reasonably sets out the section he wants to talk about – immigration – and mostly leaves birth rate out of it.

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  12. “What is definitely true is that if you had a choice between not having another child and not having another immigrant; the child policy would have a bigger impact on emission reduction.’ As other commenters have noted Josh, you have created a false dichotomy. I expect Gittins would argue that we should reduce BOTH birth rate and immigration.

    It is also implausible to argue that migrants will contribute less to global warming when they mvoe to Australia. We are currently high polluters per head.

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  13. It isn’t a false dichotomy. Gittins opened with the claim that half our population growth comes from immigration. He then argued that as a strict policy we should consider reducing immigration.

    I think the case of “or else what” is what economists need to consider whenever recommending this type of policy.

    But let’s get some facts straight: there is no evidence that immigration has harmed the economy. It has only ever enhanced it. I am not sure there is any evidence of increased house prices or inflation.

    Second, Gittins argued that we could reduce our emissions by reducing immigration. True. But why do that in that way? There is no good environmental policy that argues we should reduce our emissions ignoring the expense on others. However you cut it, stopping a single migrant keeps another country’s emissions high.

    Finally, it is not obvious to me that immigrants are lower net emitters in their country of origin. That is something for investigation. My claim is that it was hardly ‘obvious’ as Gittins claimed and I can imagine the reverse being true.

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  14. Oh and another thing, Chris, “implausible to argue that migrants will contribute less to global warming when they move to Australia.” Come on: think of every immigrant you know and where they have come from — colder climates with high fuel bills.

    As usual, for some reason, when thinking immigration people seem to assume that the marginal immigrant we would exclude is an impoverished person living with a zero carbon footprint in a poor country. I hope people are not arguing for a discriminatory policy along those lines.

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  15. We have a fertility rate of 1.8 babies per woman. This is already below replacement level. How much lower can the fertility rate go?

    Even if it were to be forced a point or two further down, this would only be used by the Government as further justification for cranking up the level of immigration.

    You’re not going to get reduced population growth in Australia by further depressing the fertility rate.

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