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Immigration and Real Wages: Reality and Perceptions

Reality

Robert Skidelsky’s recent pieceapplies a textbook model to the question of immigration, which implies real wages do fall for some time. The story goes like this. There is sudden increase in labour supply because of a wave of immigration. Immigrants compete for jobs, which forces down real wages, encouraging firms to switch to more labour intensive forms of production (automatic car wash to hand car wash), which reduces labour productivity. However as firms respond to higher profitability and invest, everything including real wages and productivity goes back to where it was, the only difference being that the economy is now larger. So immigration leads to lower real wages for as long as it takes firms to invest.

Did the large increase in EU immigration that started in 2004 have this effect? There is no noticeable change in the rate of increasein nominal or real aggregate wages until after September 2007, which was when the Northern Rock crisis happened. Everything from 2008 onwards is dominated by the recession. But we have emerged from the recession with an economy with low productivity and low real wages, and as yet firms are not investing. Is this the model working, and has the second stage involving more investment somehow stalled for some reason? Do we need to cut immigration so we can have increasing real wages again?

There are many problems with this textbook model. First, there was a large increase in work related immigrationfrom non-EU sources in the second half of the 1990s, but no associated decline in real wage growth. Second, the model treats immigration as an exogenous shock, by which I mean immigrants just turn up and start competing for jobs. If that was the case, we would expect to see a temporary increase in unemployment associated with immigration inflows. You do not see that in the late 1990s, or immediately after the start of EU migration in 2004. And third, econometric evidence suggestsimmigration has no noticeable impact on real wages (see also hereResults are similar in the US).

There is a simple explanation for all these difficulties: we are using the wrong model. An alternative model is one where firms find it advantageous to produce in the UK, but have problems getting workers, a problem that is solved by recruiting from overseas. It is very telling that under Theresa May the Home Office commissionedmany studies designed to show how immigration was holding down real wages, and all were suppressed because they could find no evidence. In this production led model, there is no reason for real wages to fall. The additional employment, investment and output go hand in hand.

What about the experience of low real wages after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC)? The first point to make is that there is nothing about real wages that a combinationof productivity growth, higher indirect taxes (in 2011) and exchange rate depreciations cannot explain. We have not seen a significant shift in the distribution of income towards profits. So any immigration effect would have to come through via lower productivity. As I explained here, you can tell a story where poor UK productivity performance since the GFC is the result of (a) a global productivity slowdown (b) poor UK investment in R&D and new technology (c) unexpected negative shocks: first the recession, then the lack of recovery (austerity) and finally Brexit.

I would say at the moment the evidence strongly suggests that real wages are not noticeably reduced as a result of immigration, but I remain open to seeing contrary evidence. We should also note the undisputed fact that immigration provides more resources to the public sector, so workers are better off via this route. But if this is the case, why on earth do the public believe the opposite so strongly?

Perceptions

To many, in all social classes, it is obvious that immigration reduces real wages. The logic appears watertight. If more people with skill X come into an area, that reduces what the existing workers with skill X can charge. For the self-employed plumber, it means more competition for a fixed number of plumbing jobs, so quotes for any job will have to fall. For workers being paid a wage, it means they can be more easily replaced if they or their union asks for a higher wages.

The same thing happens in reverse when people point to Brexit leading to shortages in labour in some sectors because immigrants are no longer coming. Are, they say, that will raise wages in that sector, which is bound to make the remaining workers in that sector better off.

Telling people that econometric evidence suggests that there is no evidence that immigration lowers real wages cuts little ice on its own, because the logic above seems so clear. There is also no point in telling them that immigrants will increase demand, because it is obvious that immigrant plumbers will do their own plumbing, or immigrant workers producing X will demand far less X than they produce.

The mistake people are making is right at the beginning of this thought experiment. By talking about real wages, people immediately think about themselves as workers. As a result, they imagine a world where there are more immigrants doing the kind of work they do. And, understandably, they keep everything else constant. But immigration controls are never about one group of workers, or the immigrants that have just appeared in the neighbourhood. They are about workers across the economy, influencing not just their nominal wage but the overall level of demand in the economy. 

How do we get over the failure to generalise? One way is to ask people to imagine the opposite of most people’s implicit thought experiment. Ask what would happen if there was more immigration in every trade except their own. They should realise that immigrants would require the services that this person provides, so the demand for their trade would increase, allowing them to increase their quotes and raise their standard of living.

Another mistake somepeople make is to assume that because many EU immigrants are from poorer East European countries, and immigration happens because of differences in standards of living, we have to get some kind of equalisation of living standards as a result of immigration. To see why this is the wrong way of thinking about it, imagine if workers were forced to move the other way, from rich to poor countries. Would this raise real wages in poor countries? Of course not: they would be paid the same as domestic workers producing the goods the poor country does.

A far better way of thinking about EU immigration is that it is allowing production in the UK to happen which would otherwise go abroad. Of course there may be a small number of cases where overseas workers are exploitedby restricting their ability to leave their employment, but domestic laws and resources should exist to stop that happening.

One way proponents of less immigration play on these misleading perceptions is to talk about just controlling unskilled immigration. That is clever, because it diverts people away from thinking in terms of a labour shortage model. The best response to that is to suggestvarious occupationsthat are not classed as skilled, and ask people whether they really want less care workers or nurses and so on.

But what if people still feel that immigration must reduce wages in some way. Perhaps just the possibility of potential immigration restrains workers for asking for pay increases. The final mistake that people make so often is to assume that lower nominal wages means lower real wages. For that to happen prices have to be unresponsive to lower wages. And that in turn would mean the share of profits in national income would have steadily risen since we had large migrant inflows, which it has not. The main determinate of real wage growth in the UK has and always will be productivity growth.

Falling nominal wage growth would still have an important effect, however. It would keep inflation low, which would allow policymakers to let unemployment fall relative to previous trends while keeping inflation on target (it would allow the NAIRU to fall). And that has to be a good thing.

Implications

Although the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that immigration does not reduce real wages, it is fairly easy to see why people would think otherwise. That contrast is ripe for exploitation. How it was exploited, and how it is turned a previously outward looking, tolerant nation into one that triesto deport someone who have legally lived here for over 50 years, will be the subject of a second post.





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