From the June 9, 2009 Daily Telegraph (London)
June 9, 2009
by Irwin Stelzer
In boom times there are plenty of jobs in developed countries. These attract immigrants from all over the world. Come a recession, the job market tightens, and the flow reverses – immigrants go home, either because unemployment is more tolerable at home, or because, as with most Chinese and Indian workers leaving America, the opportunities are better.
This ebb and flow is just what a free-trading regime is supposed to produce. Free trade, we are taught, means the unimpeded flow of goods and services, capital and labour across international borders.
At times, the flow of goods causes problems, as when European apparel firms feel that competition with China is "unfair", or US steel companies persuade the government to impose quotas on the importation of steel, or the Japanese erect bureaucratic barriers to the importation of US cars. And, at times, the flow of capital causes problems, as when the Chinese decide to buy up resources the Australian government wants to keep in domestic hands, or an Arab government wants to own US ports, or when "hot money" from speculative investors suddenly flows out of a country.
But these are mere tempests in the proverbial teapot when compared with the problem created by the international movement of labour. In Britain, illegal labourers in search of work and a better life or the country's relatively generous welfare payments, sneak in from France, where they have gathered from Africa and Eastern Europe in preparation for the last leg of their journey. In America, Mexicans by the millions slip across the border in search of work. In good times, they have no trouble finding jobs building the homes and tending the lawns of Americans unable to find citizens to do these jobs, at least at the wages they are willing to pay. In Spain, Italy and other countries, Africans and Eastern Europeans come to find the jobs that are simply not available in their countries.
This creates three problems for the receiving nations. The first, and newest, is that among the immigrants are terrorists who come to wreak havoc on the indigenous populations. The second is that native workers see the newcomers as competitors for jobs, leading politicians to trawl for votes by promising "British jobs for British workers" or, in my country, by forcing a bailed-out General Motors to open new plants in America and close some in China. The third is that the native population senses that its culture is under siege.
The first problem can be solved in part by tighter border controls and better intelligence – and, were it not so non-PC, sensible profiling (or, to use a less emotive term, the application of statistical probability tests). The second, the competition for jobs, is less of a problem during boom periods in which labour is in short supply, and can be met by a variety of techniques, including a points system of the sort now used in the UK and other countries, to match immigrants to labour-deficient markets. This is highly imperfect, and does not prevent immigration from putting downward pressure on wages, but it does unruffle many union feathers.
It is the culture issue that is so intractable. There are places in the UK, France, America and other countries where the existing inhabitants feel they have become strangers in a strange land. The dress is foreign and often scary, the native tongue is unheard on the streets, the odours from the cooking of strange foods are off-putting, children are held back in school by immigrants who do not speak the nation's language, and the religions practised vary from the merely exotic to the positively threatening.
Perhaps worst of all, this is of little concern to the ruling elites, who rarely live in the affected neighbourhoods, or venture into them (except when searching for votes). They are free to favour multiculturalism without enduring its consequences, and to ignore the fact that new immigrants, unlike previous waves, may have no desire to assimilate into cultures they often find abhorrent.
So, for some, the departure of immigrant workers is a cause for cheer. But recessions end, and the flow of people across borders will once again accelerate. Indeed, even recessions do not result in a complete departure of the people attracted by jobs to Britain, the US and other developed countries whose welfare systems are more generous and humane than those at home. Tensions remain – which is unfortunate, since the free movement of people can provide a much-needed addition to the labour forces of developed countries, and the remittances of immigrant labourers a much-needed relief from poverty for residents of poorer countries. There aren't many such win-win situations around these days.
The easier parts are to provide reasonable assurance that terrorists will be detected in most cases, and to match immigrants with available jobs. The harder part is to reduce the availability of welfare for those who come seeking a handout rather than a hand up. The hardest part is to persuade the policy-making elites that insistence on assimilation, rather than continuation of the multicultural policies which make them feel so saintly and modern, will alleviate some of the opposition to immigration and cut into the mounting popularity of racist parties.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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