There’s No Migration Problem Amnesty Can’t Solve

On Wednesday, Branko Milanovic whose work deals mostly with quantifying global inequality wrote a piece about migration for the Financial Times. The piece, titled “There Is a Trade-Off Between Citizenship and Migration” bespeaks the many ways in which economists seek to improve world systems by adjusting its parameters rather than calling into question the structures which underlie them.

As the title suggests, Milanovic insists that there is a trade-off between the types of citizenship countries grant immigrants and the levels of migration those countries will see. Rather than treating such migration as a result of political and economic calamities that are disproportionately laid upon the global South by the forces of Western economic and military rapaciousness, he treats it almost as an economist might treat pollution – something generally socially undesirable, but only preventable in degree by manipulating property rights.

Taking for granted a trade-off between citizenship rights and migration, Milanovic proposes a system of graduated citizenship akin to the systems of the United States and the Arab Peninsula. Needless to say, Milanovic’s approach has already seen some push-back. Chris Bertram, writing for the blog Crooked Timber has already called Milanovic’s suggestion “reinventing apartheid.” And while it might be a tad bombastic to equate the visa system of the US or the sponsorship system of the GCC with the brutally repressive white nationalist regime of South African apartheid, Bertram does have a point that such systems create arbitrary legal gateways for brutal racial repression and a sort of ethnic caste system.

The Marginal Propensity to Assume

For his part, Milanovic is flabbergasted by the response arguing that the citizenship-migration trade-off is undeniable, even going so far as to provide a cute graph to illustrate his point.

Like most graphical presentations in economic theory, this one is fraught with overzealous simplifying assumptions. For Milanovic, migrants leave their countries of origin in order to escape a “citizenship penalty” in their homeland. To quote Milanovic at length:

The income disparities between countries remain large, however. And they mean that most of a person’s lifetime income is determined by where he or she lives or were born (less than 4 percent of the world’s population live in countries they were not born in). The income of two individuals identical in all respects except that one was born in a rich country and the other in a poor one might differ by a factor of 10 or 20, or even more. You might say that citizens in rich countries receive a citizenship premium, while citizens in poor countries suffer a citizenship penalty. Migration is the attempt by the global poor to enjoy that premium, or at least a part of it, for themselves.

Here, Milanovic flattens all reasons for migration – escaping persecution, war zones, environmental devastation – into ones of pure accounting. Further, like most mainstream economists, Milanovic regards the initial conditions as neutral, concerning himself only with how people seek marginal improvements as individuals.

In practice, this approach makes little sense since migration – particularly that which might cause a “migration row” – is usually something that relies heavily on personal networks. People do not arbitrarily migrate to the place which presents the highest citizenship premium, but rather one which friends and family have arrived at safely with established migration routes where there is a budding migrant community. Although he could read the voluminous literature on chain migration, Milanovic only need travel across the East River to Brooklyn and Queens to see this.

The Rule That Proves the Exception

The belief that migration is pulled rather than pushed bespeaks a degree of national chauvinism – a sentiment often given a positive spin in the US under the moniker ‘American exceptionalism.’ In a framework of investigating migration decisions, this is at worst simplistically naive. In the framework of assessing costs for host countries however, this treads into the waters of xenophobia. Continuing from Milanovic:

The arrival of migrants threatens to diminish or dilute the premium enjoyed by citizens of rich countries, which includes not only financial aspects, but also good health and education services, and public goods like the preservation of national culture and language.

From my interactions with Branko both in person and online, I’m fairly certain that he has absolutely no desire to embrace racism and would likely rebuke it at any opportunity. However, the geopolitical paradigm he crafts here makes such a result nearly inevitable. By essentializing historically fluid categories such as national culture and language, Milanovic sets up a framework in which migration is an invasive force. By treating geographic income disparities as historically neutral and sacrosanct, he sets up a Paretian world in which changes are only permissible insofar as they are immediately beneficial to everyone involved. In other words, Milanovic’s assessment of migration creates a paradigm in which only the wealthy should be allowed to migrate.

For Milanovic, migrants bring nothing but their monetary endowments to their new host countries. Anyone migrating without her own wealth, according to this reasoning, will merely drain the system. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, studies show that more often than not, migrants end up in forms of employment that create the opportunity for the creation of new higher-skill job in complementary sectors. All of this amounts to the strengthening of the very systems which Milanovic claims they will destroy.

Far from being idle surplus population, migrants provide an overwhelming economic boon where institutional systems support it. Historically, this institutional support has not led to the destruction of national culture and language, but rather its expansion. When flocks of Jewish and Slavic migrants fled the Ottoman and Austrian persecution in Milanovic’s native Serbia in the latter part of the 19th century, they brought with them cultural and linguistic traditions that have since become so sewn into the fabric of this country as to go without notice.

Citizen-Abiding Law

Within a framework in which the nation is distilled into a transhistorical geopolitical entity, that migration represents its fundamental disruption is almost a foregone conclusion. Such a problematic conclusion appears to Milanovic, but he seems content to ignore it. Again, quoting at length:

It is not clear that the old conception of nation-state citizenship as a binary category that in principle confers all the benefits of citizenship to anyone who happens to be physically present within a country’s borders is adequate in a globalised world.

In effect, there is a trade-off between such a view of citizenship and the flow of migration. The more we insist on full rights for all residents, the less longstanding residents will be willing to accept more migrants.

What Milanovic fears – or at least the hypothetical ‘residents’ he rhetorically employs – is not the destruction or diminution of the privileges of rich countries, but rather the exclusivity of the privileges accorded to the accident of place of birth. Of course, such an ‘old’ concept of citizenship – one granted by mere residency – has not existed for the most part since about the 1920’s. In its stead, Milanovic advocates a system that exists in most of the world:

If graduated categories of citizenship were created — ranging from those that grant almost no benefits other than the right to temporary work, to those that are close to full citizenship, like the US green card system — we would be able to reconcile the objective of reducing world poverty with reducing migration to acceptable levels.

If we do not do something, we will be stuck in a position in which everyone who makes it to the rich world is given full rights of citizenship, but we do everything in our power to make sure that nobody gets here.

The truly bizarre thing about Milanovic’s “US green card” proposal is that it actually does nothing to solve any of the problems he raises in the mind of ‘residents’ as evidenced by the “US green card system.” There appears to be, in fact, no relationship between the extension of citizenship (migration has been down; enforcement has been up) and discontent with migration policies (the country’s presidential race may very well be between a racist husk of corn who wants to deport all migrants and a neoliberal weasel who wants to kill them before they get here). So what is a good policy?

Full Amnesty

As economists, we’re trained to think in terms of incentives. Incentives, however, do not come from nowhere, and are themselves enforced by institutions. To my mind, the institution of ‘graduated categories of citizenship’ does nothing to forestall the (perhaps unfounded) consequences of migration. It in fact creates a caste system which breeds the material anxieties of those traditionally opposed to immigration.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling for those who are already in their host countries to get permanent visa status. I’m not calling for a mass extension of the guest worker program.

I’m calling for borders to be as porous for workers as they are for capital.

This would mean that upon entry into any country, a worker would receive a visa to work and live unconditionally in the country as if a citizen. With an open legal path to live and work in the US, this would greatly hamper the ability of cartels to traffic people and things across the border.

No one would have an incentive seek illegal entry when there is an open legal path. Further, no one would have an incentive to be a low-level drug mule or mercenary with less risky, more rewarding work available in another country. Migrant workers would have no incentive to take substandard wages at the expense of domestic labor. The widened consumer base would incentivize expanded production and create more jobs. The expanded tax base would provide funding for schools, hospitals, and other public services that all residents are entitled to.

Enforcing immigration laws is tough, but it makes it a lot easier when there are none.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *