Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Editor: let's end the conspiracy of silence

I'm happy to be able to report some more good news. Another mainstream opinion maker has questioned the benefits of mass immigration.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. His opinion piece today (in the Melbourne Age) is well worth reading.  He begins by noting that for many years the political elite has deliberately ignored popular opinion on the issue:

Something significant has happened in this hollow, populist election campaign: the long-standing bipartisan support for strong population growth - Big Australia - has collapsed. Though both sides imagine they're merely conning the punters, it's hard to see how they'll put Humpty Dumpty together again. Which will be no bad thing.

The original bipartisanship was a kind of conspiracy. The nation's business, economic and political elite has always believed in economic growth and, with it, population growth, meaning it has always believed in high immigration.

Trouble is, stretching back to the origins of the White Australia policy, the public has had its reservations about immigration. Hence the tacit decision of the parties to pursue continuing immigration, but not debate it in front of the children.

But immigration has now become an election issue and Gittins thinks this is a good thing:

Gillard and Abbott have attracted criticism from commentators wedded to the old way of doing things, but the end of the conspiracy of silence is a good thing. Whatever the public's reasons for frowning on immigration, it does have disadvantages as well as advantages and the two ought to be weighed and debated openly.

Gittins is sceptical about the benefits of mass immigration because of its effects on the environment. But he also believes that for the native born that there is an economic cost as well:

Even when you ignore the environmental consequences, the proposition that population growth makes us better off materially isn't as self-evident as most business people, economists and politicians want us to accept. Business people like high immigration because it gives them an ever-growing market to sell to and profit from. But what's convenient for business is not necessarily good for the economy.

Since self-interest is no crime in conventional economics, the advocates of immigration need to answer the question: what's in it for us? A bigger population undoubtedly leads to a bigger economy (as measured by the nation's production of goods and services, which is also the nation's income), but it leaves people better off in narrow material terms only if it leads to higher national income per person.

So does it? The most recent study by the Productivity Commission found an increase in skilled migration led to only a minor increase in income per person, far less than could be gained from measures to increase the productivity of the workforce.

What's more, it found the gains actually went to the immigrants, leaving the original inhabitants a fraction worse off. So among business people, economists and politicians there is much blind faith in population growth, a belief in growth for its own sake, not because it makes you and me better off.

Gittins doesn't believe mass immigration has improved the standard of living:

Why doesn't immigration lead to higher living standards? To shortcut the explanation, because each extra immigrant family requires more capital investment to put them at the same standard as the rest of us: homes to live in, machines to work with, hospitals and schools, public transport and so forth.

Little of that extra physical capital and infrastructure is paid for by the immigrants themselves. The rest is paid for by businesses and, particularly, governments. When the infrastructure is provided, taxes and public debt levels rise. When it isn't provided, the result is declining standards, rising house prices, overcrowding and congestion.

So the option is either to raise taxes and/or national debt, or to allow the quality of infrastructure to decline. In Australia it seems to have been the latter option.

How much influence will the opening up of public debate on this issue have? It's difficult to say. The business lobbies do still have a great deal of influence, so I'm not expecting any immediate policy breakthroughs.

But it's nonetheless significant that papers like The Age are carrying such articles. It's possible that there has been a shift of sorts within the political class on the issue and hopefully this will lead to a less one-sided debate in the years to come.

14 comments:

  1. I have a sinking feeling that, although this trend will indeed "...lead to a less one-sided debate in years to come," we certainly won't be seeing any material difference on the ground in terms of significant reform to the immigration program itself.

    But hell, it's fun to have a debate. A pity its all just meaningless waffle and hot air.

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  2. I don't think it is meaningless. If elections are won by the party that promises the biggest immigration cuts its an issue. You should see the glee on people's faces in voter land when they get to talk about it.

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  3. Its funny how the more atomic individuals becomes the larger governments and corporations becomes, an inverse relationship I guess.

    At some time a tipping point must be reached where the people have no influence over policy, I reckon we're past it already.

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  4. Ross Gittins is no fool, and perhaps even more to the point, he has shown for 30 years in his writing for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that he's no coward either. Ever since the early 1980s he has seemed genuinely independent and contrarian. Let's hope he keeps up the independence on the immigration issue, once the howls of "racism" against him start up (and start up they will).

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  5. This paragraph from the article is really remarkable:

    "Trouble is, stretching back to the origins of the White Australia policy, the public has had its reservations about immigration. Hence the tacit decision of the parties to pursue continuing immigration, but not debate it in front of the children."

    Here we have a mainstream writer mention white-only immigration policies from the past without immediately and self-righteously condemning them. That's new. What's more, he goes so far as to imply that the public might have legitimate reasons for wanting a whites-only immigration policy, and he outright mocks the politicians for trying to silence the "racist" Australian public, i.e. "not debating in front of the children".

    Unless this guy is the Oz equivalent of Pat Buchanan, I'd say his writing like this indicates some kind of change.

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  6. As regards Ross Gittin's article.

    "For he's a jolly good fellow,
    for he's a jolly good fellow, for he's a jolly good fe-he-llow....

    And so say all of us!"

    Hip Hip Hooray!

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  7. Bartholomew Ross Gittens is a leftie so he can say whatever he wants without concerns of racism. Its one of their perks ;).

    I would say society is kept in sway by the powerful forces of conformity and "public opinion". Once these start to open as has happened things start to change.

    Its funny you know because here we say that the left has a stranglehold on society and there's maybe not much we can do. If you go to a left wing website you'll here them saying the same thing about the right, they control society and there's nothing much we can do.

    What we have is an individuated society, so that makes it seem that we as individuals can't do that much of anything to affect it. Hence the pessimissim. We're also vulnerable individualy to being seperated from the herd and being made to doubt our beliefs and premises.

    All of these things I would encourage people to get over. Group activity premised on the confidence of real concerns, beliefs and understanding can achieve a lot.

    All through the Western world people are asking "Do the guys upstairs really know what they're doing?". Sustained critique and an unwillingness to give up achieve a lot.

    For those who are demoralised by the current state of affairs. For instance by seeing their neighbourhood overrun by foreginers. I would advise you to keep at it remember that even this debate would have been seen as incredibly unlikely or inconcievable even 6 months ago.

    Our society is not totalitarian in the strict sense but is kept in place by millions of individual and often hard to see threads. Tackling these is where the progress to be made is.

    Or to put it another way. Man up. Putting your head in your hands is a staple of the left. Either way we've had this dicussion before.

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  8. One of the things that is interesting in relation to immigration is that the left are quite divided on it. Gittens is one voice on that front, he's also famous for coining the term "affluenza" I belive, the left wing critique of economic growth.

    I heard the immigration debate between the two parties today on the ABC. As was typical the Liberal opposition minister was heckled during his speech. What was interesting was how weak and desultory the heckling was. I think the left are not only divided on whether they want to support Gillard but also on this issue.

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  9. Katharine Betts's book THE GREAT DIVIDE (1999) is well worth reading on the topic of how the official environmentalist cause - which used to contain serious non-leftists like Sir Garfield Barwick, was periodically championed by James McAuley in its Tasmanian manifestations, and could once talk quite intelligently about the risks of excessive urban population - got monstered in 1984. That was both the year of the Blainey affair, and the year in which the Peter Garrett apparat took over the conservation movement, demonising all its opponents (within as well as outside the Australian Conservation Foundation) as "racist". I would urge all readers of this website to examine Dr Betts's book, if they haven't already done so. It names names.

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  10. Jesse wrote,

    "Or to put it another way. Man up. Putting your head in your hands is a staple of the left. Either way we've had this dicussion before.

    I couldn't agree more. This article is a reason to be encouraged not disillusioned.

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  11. "Its funny you know because here we say that the left has a stranglehold on society and there's maybe not much we can do. If you go to a left wing website you'll here them saying the same thing about the right, they control society and there's nothing much we can do."

    The liberal left has a stranglehold on culture, but the liberal right has a fair amount of control over economic matters (such as trade policy). This is is why the left thinks the right is in control, and the right thinks the left is in control. It's basically a case of the two sides talking past one another.

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  12. Mike Courtman said,

    "It's basically a case of the two sides talking past one another."

    Yeah.

    In other news Dick Smith's populations show will be on this week. It will not doubt have a strong environmental focus, which is the modern critique of economic growth.

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  13. God Dammit Abbott is proposing to return to Howard level immigration numbers after "confidence is restored" in the immigration programe. NO NO NO! The days of using immigration as an economic lever must come to an end.

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  14. Every Psych study we did at uni, showed that people favoured their 'own kind' in job selection, altruism and on identity issues.

    I think things have changed on 'big Australia' because the elites are starting to realise their kids are gonna be screwed because the new Asian-Australian dominated business, educational and political class won't value diversity as much as they did.

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