The Mathematics Versus the Politics of Immigration

The Mathematics Versus the Politics of Immigration
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The United States is being inundated by asylum seekers. Europe is being flooded by refugees. An exodus from poor countries is overwhelming rich countries -- illegal workers steal jobs, migrants pocket welfare benefits, and foreign criminals endanger society. 

Or so we’re told. 

Migration is often branded as a problem and the root of other troubles. But the truth is that migration can help countries rich and poor. It is not a threat that needs to be contained; it’s an opportunity that should be seized. And perhaps more important, it is impossible to stop. 

Take a moment to consider the future size and shape of the world’s population. The rich are getting older, and the poor are getting younger. While the world’s aging wealthy countries will find it harder and harder to pay for social security and health care, the world’s youthful poor countries will be unable to provide enough jobs for new workers. 

Migration offers a mathematical solution to these contrasting demographic problems.

Many wealthy countries are aging rapidly. With women having fewer children in recent decades, soon there may not be enough workers to support the elderly. Particularly in Europe and Asia, some countries are even set to shrink, with deaths outstripping births. Fewer workers means smaller tax revenues and possibly lower economic growth rates. The outlook is not as dire for the United States precisely because of its immigrant population.

Meanwhile many poor countries are remarkably young. The population of the world’s least-developed countries is projected to double in a few decades. While there are potential benefits to having a youthful and active population, there will be too many young people to employ in certain countries, likely increasing poverty rates. Evidence indicates that very young populations both harm democracy and heighten the risk of conflict.

Migration from poor countries to rich countries can help mitigate the approaching demographic crises by balancing dependency ratios, or the proportion of workers to the elderly and children, of individual countries. Subtracting unemployed youth from poor countries can reduce their problems, while adding young workers to aging countries can improve the capacity of governments to confront their challenges. 

To sum it all up, migration can reduce the risk of violence and war, cut poverty and unemployment, spark economic growth, and increase the tax revenue of rich countries, enabling the future payments for social security, health care, and infrastructure upgrades. So, mathematically speaking, migration can resolve many of the world’s most fundamental challenges. 

Of course this is impossible politically. No country, rich or poor, would completely assent to this equation. Even if it wasn’t more complicated than simple addition and subtraction (it is), the electoral calculations of politicians ensure that some migration controls will remain in place. 

To be sure, migration is no panacea. In the real world, it is never all good or all bad. Migration produces winners and losers, and the effects largely depend on how it is handled

Small impoverished countries are particularly vulnerable to losing their most educated people, and remittances and aid are unlikely to make up for this so-called brain drain. Rich countries can also struggle to absorb immigrants in high numbers, and some indigenous workers can be harmed financially. New arrivals can breed mistrust and hinder cooperation between and even among groups. These downsides mean open borders are not the answer either. 

But instead of exploiting the possible benefits, widespread fears that immigrants take jobs, deplete resources, commit crimes, and threaten a way of life cause host countries to erect barriers to entry. Authoritarian and democratic governments alike are building walls, inhumanely separating children from their parents, and quarantining new arrivals in hard-to-reach places or other states to dissuade would-be migrants from coming.

This is the wrong response. Current policy responses do not square with the desired results. 

My overly simplified calculation is meant to illustrate that migration is not the bogeyman it is often made out to be. If managed correctly, migrants can be welcomed and integrated successfully into rich countries. New arrivals can be absorbed and cultures can be fused. 

We need to flip the script on political debates over migration. Migration from poor countries to rich countries is likely to increase in the coming years whether we like it or not. The demographic pressures are too strong to overcome. But migration does not need to multiply existing problems -- it can reduce them if the situation is managed wisely. 

David Kampf is a senior PhD fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School. The views expressed are the author's own.



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