What would an immigration policy designed for the future look like?

What would an immigration policy designed for the future look like? January 19, 2018

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATOPIO_3.jpg; By Humanrobo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Robots will take away all of the unskilled jobs.  In order to support a family, you’ll need an advanced education.”

“Robots will take away all of the unskilled jobs, but we as a country will be wealthy enough to provide a Basic Income to everyone.”

“We’ll need lots of unskilled workers because of the growing need to have caregivers for the elderly, and to provide cheap labor to reduce the cost of daycare and allow families to outsource household tasks.”

“Manual labor jobs may shrink but we’ll have new sorts of employment; as the wealthy get wealthier, they’ll hire personal trainers, for instance.”

“We’ll need to import the smartest workers we can, to compete with China, because our own children don’t work hard enough/aren’t smart enough.”

“We’ll need lots of workers of all kinds because our population is shrinking.”

“No matter the relative supply of skilled vs. unskilled workers, and the supply of workers vs. dependents, the economy will always expand to accommodate everyone, so more immigration will always be better than less immigration.”

“The growing inequality between rich and poor, and the worsening struggles of the poor, are exacerbated by high levels of unskilled immigration, and the only way we’ll fix this is by cutting immigration.”

Which of these is true?  All?  Some?  None?

Some time ago, I started drafting a post about how it’s a challenge to think about Social Security and retirement planning in the future because of all of the speculation about how that future could change.

It seems to me that the same thing is true of immigration, particularly now that we are discussing whether we should primarily have low- or high-skilled immigration.  (Not being discussed:  how much immigration should we have?)

We don’t really know what the future will hold, whether there will be radical transformation or whether we’ll plod along, the same as we always have.  After all, to take a small example, in my own field, we have vastly improved our ability to quickly calculate actuarial liabilities.  One consequence?  Rather than mass layoffs of actuaries, we now have ratcheted-up expectations for the level of complexity of the calculations.  Rather than using an approximate discount rate because it’s what’s available in our look-up tables, we use yield curves, and provide our clients with daily projection modeling.

So I really fundamentally don’t know.  Consider that even the so-called “jobs Americans won’t do”, that is, jobs dominated by immigrants, by and large have an even distribution of native-born Americans and immigrants, with Personal Appearance Workers — manicurists and the like — the highest at 63%, and Plasterers and Stone Masons having the highest percentage of illegal immigrants, at 36% of the total workforce.  How many of these jobs will be replaced by automation?  How many opportunities for other other low-skilled jobs will open up?  For instance, is an increasingly-wealthy population increasingly dining out, hiring housecleaning and lawn care services, and the like?  (Though, on the other hand, how many of them would do so less often if supporters of high minimum wages win their own battles?)

At the same time, even if these sorts of very personal services have job growth, it seems plain as day that other industries will lose workers to automation, and that this will be a net positive:  if poultry-processing firms can automate more of their process, it’s less that needs to be done by people in what by all reports are pretty miserable conditions.  If a robot can be built to transfer elderly patients from beds to wheelchairs, and to handle their toileting needs, or can help them feed themselves when they can no longer manage cutlery, then this provides them greater dignity (assuming our perception that needing assistance with these tasks is undignified, is actually felt by those receiving this care).

Now, the Basic Income proposal, that we’ll all be on the dole but the country will be so fabulously wealthy that we can afford it, has always felt like a preposterous idea, but imagine that it comes to pass:  how willing would the American people be to let in new Basic Income Recipients?

And I try to read people who hold themselves out as Real Economists, and even have the credentials and employment to prove it.  Some economists are pretty danged sure that we can take in as many immigrants, of whatever skill levels, and always have jobs available.  On the other hand, it seems to me that those same economists take the blind metric of “as long as they improve their living standard relative to their prior sh**hole country, it’s a win,” but American politicians, policymakers, and American society in general don’t use this metric, but judge based on whether these people “live in poverty” based on our definitions, whether they have a “living wage,” whether the accommodations for their lack of English ability are sufficient for them to obtain medical care on par with the rest of us, and obtain social services, whether they have sufficient “income mobility” and so on.

So, yes, this is of that genre of Jane the Actuary post that I might as well start a tag for:  “Jane the Actuary doesn’t have the answers.”

Do you?


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATOPIO_3.jpg; By Humanrobo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


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