Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The $18.3 billion lie

Lawrence Martin asked querulously in the Globe & Mail yesterday why immigration isn't an issue in the current election campaign. He spent a good deal of time citing the former executive director of the Canadian Immigration Service, one James Bissett, who is predicting the usual doom and gloom that the rabid right associates with non-white "ethnic" immigration.

Martin gives Bissett a pass on a possible charge of racism because his son married a Black woman, and his daughter married a Cuban. But that's needlessly defensive, and immediately arouses suspicions even among those like myself who think that a good racism-free socio-economic debate on immigration is there to be had. Those marital choices were rather obviously not up to Bissett; and we have no information, of course, on the state of Bissett family relations today.

But in any case, here is Bissett himself:

Either our political leaders do not know that Canada is facing an immigration crisis or they care more about gaining a few more so-called "ethnic voters" than they do about telling the truth about immigration.

He is, to be sure, somewhat more guarded than this fellow. Or this one. But somehow the message is always the same, however encoded it might be. Immigration is being encouraged for crassly political reasons: to secure the existing [clears throat] "ethnic" vote and import some more Xs for political parties at election time. This is the end of Canada as we know it: nothing less than a crisis is looming.

Bissett is not above
argumentum ad verecundiam, citing loads of studies that purportedly prove this or that but providing no details or citations. The occasional straw man wanders into the room as well:

Our politicians justify their desire for more immigrants by raising the spectre of an aging population and tell us immigration is the only answer to this dilemma, and yet there is not a shred of truth to this argument. Immigration does not provide the answer to population aging and there is a multiplicity of studies done in Canada and elsewhere that proves this.

No one I know argues that immigration is "the only answer" to the problem of the ageing population. Indeed, immigration levels would have to rise astronomically if this were so. But immigration is one offset among many, and shouldn't be so misleadingly dismissed in an all-or-nothing manner.

Immigrants also lay waste to the environment:

We have already experienced the impact mass migration has had on the health, education, traffic, social services and crime rates of our three major urban centres. It may be that cutting the immigration flow in half would do more than any gas tax to help reduce our environmental pollution.

And then we have the obligatory reference to the Herbert Grubel paper written for the Fraser Institute:

[A] study published this year by professor Herbert Grubel of Simon Fraser University revealed that the 2.5 million immigrants who came to Canada between 1990 and 2002 received $18.3 billion more in government services and benefits in 2002 than they paid in taxes. As Prof. Grubel points out, this amount is more than the federal government spent on health care and twice what was spent on defence in the fiscal year of 2000/2001. Isn't it time our party leaders were made aware of this study?

Grubel's article is worth ploughing through. Not all of it is nonsense, although he has a rather evident ideological axe to grind, bemoaning multiculturalism, high minimum wages, over-regulation, social insurance and other Great Satans. Moreover, he makes too-easy comparisons between Canada and the US, citing American authorities on welfare dependency and then hedging with this kind of language (p.23):

It may well be that the more pervasive social welfare programs and an educational system financed differently in Canada will prevent the development of the conditions found by Borjas and Sueyoshi, but since there is no empirical evidence, this outcome is merely a possibility.


He does raise the credential issue, however, which has been rightly critiqued from all quarters:

The economic problems faced by recent immigrants with high levels of education have given rise to the stereotype of taxi drivers in Canada who are foreign-trained science graduates, PhDs, engineers, and lawyers. This stereotype is not far off the mark. Recently, the Consul General for India in Vancouver told me that the inability to find jobs commensurate with their formal education is one of the main complaints immigrants from India have voiced with him. Promises allegedly made by Canadian officials issuing immigrant visas to the highly educated simply are not being kept.

But I find the $18.3 billion dollar figure, the one that the anti-immigrant folks are waving around like a banner, a very odd measure of the alleged "failure" of liberal immigration policies.

Briefly stated, that amount is the difference between the costs of social services for immigrants and the taxes they pay--a kind of snapshot. On the face of it, this seems a rather odd emphasis for a conservative think-tank to take. Is the measure of a person's worth in the community reducible solely to the amount of taxes he or she pays? But the implication here, of course, is that immigrants are a net drain on society, a huge community of communities on the public dole.

But is this the case? Presumably, despite the higher unemployment rate among recent immigrants (12.7% as opposed to 7.4% of native-born Canadians), working immigrants build wealth in the community by participating in the labour force, by creating jobs of their own, and, in the role of consumers, through the multiplier effect of their spending. And this doesn't include the intangibles: cultural contributions, new ideas, and the countless acts of ordinary citizenship that immigrants offer.

What's more, although Grubel notes a slowing in the progress of immigrants towards wage parity with native-born Canadians, he doesn't mention their children, many of whom are part of that cohort of native-born Canadians about which he is so concerned. Indeed, whether immigrant children or children born here to immigrants, the new kids do well in school, well in college, and well afterwards.

Looked at this way, we can see how misleading that $18.3 billion figure really is. What it indicates is not the feeding of a chronic dependency, which is what those who quote it invariably maintain, but a rolling investment that pays dividends over time. Not only is the labour of immigrants and their participation in the economy as consumers left out of this figure, not to mention the positive externalities that immigrants contribute, but also the long-term benefits: the gradual rise in their own wage levels--an indicator of their integration into society and the economy--and the eventual productivity of their children.

Given the ease, however, with which antipathy to the Other can be whipped up by so-called "experts," former immigration officials and the Fraser boyz, and the journalists and ideologues who boil their poison down for popular consumption, I, for one, am pleased that we aren't having the immigration debate during this campaign. Not only do we avoid the inevitable ugliness--marginalized, certainly, since even the Conservative party welcomes more immigration, to the despair of the far right--but we'll have all the more time to get our heads around the Green Shift. : )

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