Immigration & Technology

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The logic in arguments against immigration often runs up against the realities produced by the huge technological advances currently underway in production. Are jobs finite and being ransacked by foreigners? Or are there always going to be jobs, whatever the drive of technological advancements?

UKIP Party Conference (Opening Speech)

This is not an essay on the value of work, only on its existence. It is not moreover, an advocacy for more open borders. (Though I add in parenthesis that I find the very concept of national boundaries anathema to even minimally liberal priorities). Rather, it is an attempt to draw attention to the ways in which arguments against immigration often run counter to arguments that (whether implicitly or otherwise) assume the labour market can retain its current form, thereby withstanding rapid technological advances in the methods of production.

The logic against immigration seems to go as follows. If we let the borders down – or indeed, even retain their current permeability – individuals looking for work will flood our country. Currently, there are 485 million people out there in that big bad world just waiting to conquer our damp little island (or 26 million, or 4,000 a week – whatever, be scared!). Now when ‘they’ come to take ‘our’ jobs – and contribute some £20 billion to the economy it should be noted – this assumes that there are a finite number of jobs. Here is the jobs we have, here are the jobs they take from us.

A zero-sum logic is thus readily apparent: The jobs that belong to ‘them’ are jobs that we can no longer do: They win, we lose. Now, there are undoubtedly certain distributional issues at stake. The £20 billion contributed above, does not take it account the effects it might have at the lower end of the wage spectrum. Lower wage earners are the individuals, by and large, who will take whatevrobot-worker.jpger brunt there is from the influx of migrants. It is, however, interesting to note that such distributional issues are nowhere to be found in any of the other arguments espoused by political elites when discussing, for example, the effects of austerity on the wages of workers and the ratcheting effect of increasing income concentration at the upper-end of the income index.

However, from an economic point of view – bracketing the distributional issue – the influx of cheap labour could be a boon for the economy – according to the very same logic of austerity, the deflated demands of labour are a means to get the wage down to its ‘natural’ clearing rate, avoiding all that pesky negotiation with trade unions who just can’t quite ‘get’ austerity. With a steady supply of workers willing to accept lower wages and  longer working hours, the costs of production get pushed down and more investment is forthcoming. In other words, the means are developed by which the economy can get put back on the (only) right track. For consumers, this means cheaper goods. With cheaper goods, there’s more consumption. Of course, this doesn’t hold precisely because with suppressed wages consumers have less ability to consume. As a consequence, you have a lack of demand – or, more accurately, a weakened ability to purchase (the demand might be there in spades).

Unless of course, there aren’t a finite supply of jobs and the labour market can create more opportunities for local workers to get in on the productive activity.

This is where the other wing of the argument opens up. It seems a commonplace when discussing immigration that the labour market simply cannot cope with this influx of additional workers. However, replace immigrants with robots and the story becomes a very different one with a very different moral. Whatever figure you take – let’s be conservative and say 50% by 2030 –  work, especially (but by no means exclusively) at the lower end of the wage spectrum is under threat by rapid technological progress. However, what seems to be assumed by simply preserving the status quo in light of these figures, is that the remaining 50% of the labour market will expand in ways to accommodate the unemployed. Given that such gains in the efficiency and sophistication of the technology is across the board, this is more than a little hopeful – some might say it even has the flavour of ideology. When Boris Johnson rails against the RMT’s attempts to retain jobs for its membership, it seems to be with the assumption that other jobs will naturally appear to soak up the excess. Carry this strategy out economy-wide and you precipitate a situation of mass unemployment.

The point then is to be honest – or at least consistent – about the nature of the labour market: Is it something that can expand indefinitely so that employment survives as the basis upon which citizenship and social inclusion are to be predicated? Or is it a less adaptive and expansive thing than we are given to thinking? Whatever the answer to that question, the consequences for what we do about borders and welfare need to be re-imagined: Practically at least – the theory is there for the taking.

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Featured photo courtesy of Danny Howard

First photo courtesy of Justin Morgan

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