Open Border Delusions By the Left

Many on the left are increasingly getting vocal about the need for open borders where the poor are free to move to the rich West for a better life. But is this a good idea?

I like reading the stories of Indi Samarajiva, based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He often writing about what is happening in the West, in particular the US from what he calls the “Global South perspective.”

I actually love that he is kind of in your face and takes no prisoners when writing. There is no need for second guessing on what Indi’s position is. And Indi, if you read this, I am also envious of your highly engaging writing style. I hope to get to your level at some point. Anyway ,that was the polite intro before writing about how I completely disagree with Indi in his latest article: The Way Out Of Poverty Is Getting Out Of Poor Countries.

In this story, Indi makes the case that the easiest way to erase poverty is simply to allow poor people to migrate to the rich West. Apparently according to economists, this would double the GDP of the world. An estimate completely detached from reality in my humble opinion, but we will get to that later.

So why are we not doing this blatantly obvious and super simply strategy for erasing poverty? Indi has a simple explanation for that as well. Because we westerners are all a bunch of insufferable racists. We just don’t want our countries to fill up with brown people. That is all. If only it was that simple.

So let me play the role of the smug, privileged white westerner. Not my dream role, but I suspect I have been typecast to play it, despite my best efforts.

The Western Perspective on Borders

Indi, of course, speaks from his point of view and based on his life experiences. For those making their way to the West, it must seem like all we do is invent creative ways of raising obstacles for people who just want to get on with their lives and provide for their families. Believe me, I have some experience with that as my wife is not Norwegian and I can still remember the rush of anger when one of the bureaucrats dealing with my family reunion papers said half-jokingly that I should have found a Norwegian wife instead, when I was venting my frustrations about the whole procedure. This is over 10 years ago, and we had to go through a lot of paperwork and procedures, but this seems to be what I remember best from the whole thing.

The anti-immigrant Progressive party in Norway has over the years been quite busy inventing creative schemes to limit family reunion. Something that I naturally have a personal relation to. I know that in the West, not everyone actually gets to marry the one they love, because that person is from the “wrong” country. Thus naturally having some freedom to move across borders is something I care a lot about. I do believe we should allow:

  1. Marriage to foreigners.
  2. Skilled worker migration.
  3. Asylum seekers and refugees.
  4. Foreign students, provided they pay the cost of education.

But I draw the line at open borders. And there are a multitude of reasons for this.

Unskilled Labour Migration is Not Sustainable

Norway has no practical limitations on skilled labour entering Norway. These applicants also tend to get processed really fast. If you have university education and can get a job in Norway, then it is pretty much: Go ahead.

The reason is simple. We are unlikely to get overrun by PhDs, postdocs, IT professionals etc. These are people who are mostly in short supply anyway, and most of them would rather go to the US, Australia, Canada, etc. Who wants to go to a cold remote corner of the world, where they speak an odd obscure language instead of English?

The problem is when you open up for unskilled labour. Integration with the EU has already given us a taste of this problem. Most of Norwegian construction business has replaced by Polish workers today. If you pass a construction site today, you will hear people speaking Polish with 99% certainty.

What is the problem with this? Do I hate Polish people? No, I have nothing against Polish people and I have in fact had a number of great Polish colleagues. All these Polish construction workers have even given us a huge amount of benefits. They have dramatically cut the costs of constructing houses and helped fuel a housing boom. People have upgraded their kitchens and bathrooms for an affordable price. So you would think this is a win-win situation, right?

Nope, this is causing some deep problems that we have probably only seen the beginning of. In a free-market economy with supply and demand, higher supply means lower prices. And that is has happened in every regard. Salaries for construction workers have dropped significantly. Not just salaries, but also their working conditions, perks and general respect.

Norwegian teenagers have in ever larger numbers dropped out of vocational training to be carpenters and construction workers. They don’t want to be educated in a profession with low wages and bad working conditions. Norway has a proud tradition of vocational training where high schools have all sorts of advance machinery and skilled teachers, teaching everything from cooking to house construction to operating a CNC machine. All those skilled teachers are losing their jobs. Whole sections of high schools all over the country are getting closed down as nobody is studying to be a construction builder or carpenter anymore. A long and proud craftsmanship tradition is dying out.

The standard and quality of Norwegian housing is falling. Historical buildings using old craftsmanship traditions can no longer be properly cared for and maintained.

Meanwhile decades of economic boom in Poland is leading to ever more Poles returning home to Poland. Their pay and working conditions have improved so much that they no longer see Norway as equally attractive.

What does a country do when all their construction workers leave, and you have stopped training new ones, and the ones with the skills to train new ones are no longer there? It is a ticking bomb.

And we are not alone with this ripple effects. Poland itself got such shortage of construction workers due to this trend that they had to hire Ukrainian construction workers. One can only wonder if similar types of disaster is playing out in Poland although I am sure it will have its own flavor. And what about the Ukraine? Where will they get their missing construction workers from?

This isn’t even unskilled labour. A craftsman needs some proper training. What happens too professions with significantly less skill requirements? What will conditions be for waiters, people who stock shelves, deliver packages, work in factories? Suddenly you have 100x as many people applying for the same position. Supply and demand. The result is predictable. Salaries will fall, while perks and working conditions will fall.

Brexit and Trump

Commentators such as Indi like to speak of things like Brexit and Trump as if it all just ignorance, stupidity and racism. That is certainly part of the equation. But underlying all of this anger, hatred and bigotry are often real concerns. Real frustrations.

Places like Norway are in a fairly enviable situation as a strong welfare state and strong social democratic traditions have kept things from unraveling too quickly and too far. Norwegian unions have adopted and organized Polish construction workers. This has slowed down the rapid decline in working conditions and pay. Generous programs for retraining workers, unemployment benefits, etc., has helped displaced Norwegian workers get new jobs. Having some trillions stashed away in an oil fund also helps, no doubt.

Not everybody in the West is this lucky. American blue collar workers face a country built on an utopian ideal of rugged individualism. An ideal where all your success and failures are explained in terms of your own ability to work hard and take chances.

These workers have gotten attacked on every possible flank:

  1. The Reagan revolution destroyed their unions and took away what little welfare system the US had.
  2. Technological development has led to automation and fewer low-skilled jobs.
  3. Neoliberalism and increasing free trade has pitted most Western low-skilled workers in direct competition with workers in places like China.
  4. Increased immigration has led to more competition for a shrinking number of low-skilled jobs.
  5. A large influx of illegal immigrants in the US has led to competition with workers who have zero rights and who thus have a very weak bargaining position and who are forced to accept the lowest possible wages.

In short, it is a race to the bottom. And the effects are all too easy to see. You look at the Midwest at the opioid crisis and meth pandemic. You listen to the people affected by this and there are some common stories across the board. You get paid less for more work. The pressure to perform is increasing because there are plenty of people hungry to take the shitty job that you are holding onto for dear life. More and more people take drugs just to keep awake and keep performing at the job. Of course, this is like pissing in your pants to stay warm. It works for a while until it doesn’t.

The results have been that white working class Americans are seeing a fall in life expectancy. An unprecedented development for a rich country today.

Sure, these people are all better off than the average worker in Sri Lanka or Africa. Just like German workers in the 1930s were better off than most workers in the rest of the world. But that is not human psychology. We don’t measure ourselves against the worst of the world. We measure ourselves against our fellow citizens. We measure ourselves against the lifestyle and opportunities we have had. While a poor Indian may deem this kind of life as a big upgrade, that is not what working class Americans or Brits have been seeing. They have been seeing a life getting worse and worse.

They feel angry and forgotten. They feel perhaps much the same anger as German workers in the 1930s looking for someone or something to blame for their deteriorating lifestyle and despair.

The Rise of Fascism

The result is predictable. Foreigners get the blame. And they get the blame not just because we always like to scapegoat but because there are some half-truths to this. Sure, neoliberal free trade and Ronald Reagan destroying the unions, corporate greed, etc., is also part of the problem. But no doubt competition with cheap Chinese labour or illegal slave labour is driving their wages down.

At this point, I feel a need to interject with an important perspective. When Europe experienced the Syrian refugee crisis, it was certainly a challenging problem to solve. Many people got angry at refugees for the problems they caused. Some even cheered when their boats sunk in the Mediterranean and people drowned. It was appalling to see the lack of empathy by many people. It is understandable that people are upset about the problems caused. But at the same time refugees are doing what anybody else would do. If I were fleeing from a war in a poor country, I would try my best to get into a prosperous country for a favorable future for my family. You cannot be angry at people for trying to find the best life for their family. But at the flip side of the coin, you don’t necessarily need to give them that.

That is the two perspective one has to keep in mind at the same time. You can empathize with the plight of the refugees, even if you at some point say “stop, we cannot take more now.”

This is a hard balance to pick, and it applies to anyone seeking a better life in the West. There is a certain obligation to help those in need, but if you put no limits on how much you help or how many you aid, then all you do is drag yourself down to the bottom.

I consider myself part of the political left, but I am also a realist. I saw the tremendous rise of the political far right as a response to the huge influx of people. This just comes as an addition to the trends that led to Brexit and Donald Trump. Fascism is on the rise all over the West. I worry. And I have become increasingly worried about taking in more immigrants from the third world. Norway is relatively well off. Much is that is due to more moderate immigration than Sweden and Germany, both seeing a far more active far-right.

This is what is so profoundly naive about Indi Samarajiva’s perspective on immigration and borders. Those of us living in the West are just faceless white privilege people with no worried, putting up roadblocks. In reality we have our own challenges and our own demons. We know very well what happened last time we ignored the plight of our own working class. It led to death and destruction across the whole world.

There is no endless supply of low-skilled positions. Most of the poor third world is not inhabited by engineers and doctors. Most people in the third world are poorly educated. That is part poverty. Should they all migrate to the West and compete for the same dwindling low skilled working positions, then it is a simple game of supply and demand.

Who will be the loser in this game? It will be the Western working class. Salaries and conditions will simply keep falling until they are outcompeted or cannot hold onto the job. How are western governments supposed to pay for these people who are out of a job? The West is not some bottomless money bin. These people are all voters, and they are not going to be voting for the people that opened the borders.

Culture Clash

It is easy to mock the affluent white liberals living in their privileged white suburbs, or to explain the negative attitudes among working class whites as simply down to racism and bigotry. However, mass immigration has real effects on society. I live in multi-cultural part of Oslo, where the majority are actually of foreign descent. We have been happy living here for about 10 years raising our kids. The media tries at times to give a dystopian picture of reality here. We may be better than the media tries to paint it but to think it is all pure bliss would be hopelessly naive.

Over 90% of the students at our closest school have minority background. Around 80% need extra language training as they don’t learn to speak Norwegian properly at home.

Neither me, nor my wife, who is a foreigner wanted to send our kids there. Even my foreign friends absolutely did not want to send their kids there. It is not a bad school. The teachers do their best, and it has lot of really nice facilities. The playground is awesome. But let us be real, nobody wants to put their kids into what easily amounts to a social experiment, where the majority becomes the minority in their own country.

To be precise my kids are mixed so they aren’t really majority anyway and go to a school with about 60% student of foreign origin. That schools is very nice. In part that is because there is a large mix of background and many kids have parents with different ethnic origins. Many are half-Norwegian. It is an environment where Norwegian culture and language becomes the obvious common denominator. It works, but you can take this too far. At over 90% foreign student mass, where the majority needs extra language training, which is supposed to only ever be needed for a small minority, then you are in big trouble.

It is not like Norway is deliberately trying to create ghettos. There is not a history of red-lining here and various government are always actively trying to spread refugees and other immigrants all over the country. Yet immigrants tend to seek to the big population centers as soon as they have an opportunity. When they get there, they go where the housing is cheapest and they know people. That is how the ghetto gradually grows.

Social problems grow with it. Without high enough percentage of native Norwegians around, kids start developing a hybrid language rather than learn proper Norwegian. Connecting with Norwegian culture becomes more difficult. I have seen this very clearly up close with how kids play with each other. At first glance, it could look as if kids segregate by ethnicity. But what really happens is segregation along cultural fault lines. Second- and third-generation immigrant kids with parents well-connected to Norwegian culture and language tend to form friendships with native Norwegians in the same way that native Norwegians will make friends with each other. Language and culture matter. My youngest son was best friends with a young Irish-Norwegian girl first years of preschool because his Norwegian was not as well developed as his English. He naturally bonded with another English speaker.

These cultural barriers can carry on for years, causing the local population to segment. You see it in how teenagers form gangs. With gangs, more problems follow. We have had problems with drug dealing, cars being set on fire, etc. Usually it is quiet here but there are occasional flare ups. The racists and bigots in the rest of the country are all too ready to point fingers whenever this happens and shout loudly about the failures of multiculturalism.

It is all a fragile balance. I think we are doing okay, but we are also not that far away from much deeper problems. We have seen what much larger waves of immigration in neighbouring Sweden have led to. It is important that we can show success in integrating our immigrant population and give them a successful life. That is not going to happen if the borders are made wide open and people flood in at rates several times that of what Sweden experienced.

With a higher concentration of non-natives, the challenge of integration becomes exponentially harder.

Economists Detached From Reality

This is why I would call the economists who argue that we can double the economy with open borders detached from reality. People are not robots. We are not a homogenous mass of interchangeable human resources. We have different religions, cultures, languages etc. Prejudice and racism are part of human existence whether we like it or not. With moderate immigration, we may be able to contain the worst of our instincts, but not with open borders.

These economists are not taking into account the complex interactions between people and the conflicts that can arise. Economic models don’t predict things like WWII and the rise of the Nazis. It does not predict things like the Yugoslavian civil war. Humans are all just average homo economicus with no cultural or ethnic markers. One human is the same as another.

They also are highly unlikely to model welfare states. Most Western countries have extensive welfare states giving unemployment benefits, social housing, free education, health care, etc. I live in a part of the world especially generous in this regard.

Lots of calculations have been run on this. One has looked at tax income and expenditures on each immigrant. The conclusions have been that your average-non-western immigrant to Norway is a net cost. If we had all the welfare services they receive, it costs more than what they pay in taxes.

What these economists don’t take into account is that most Western countries are organized so that the more affluent and better paid part of the population subsidize those who are paid less. Thus, even if the earning potential can be increase for a third-world immigrant by moving him or her to the West, the problem is that the system is setup to compensate him/her with public goods and services that exceed the value they pay in taxes.

Thus this migration could only work if welfare state systems were dismantled. It is perhaps not an accident that one of the most immigrant-heavy Western countries, the US, also has the weakest social safety-net.

Thus open borders will lead to a race to the bottom. Well-educated Westerners may benefit economically by low-skilled labour getting cheaper. Less educated Westerners will be major losers. They will not sit idly while watching their livelihood and benefits being taken away from them.

Open borders are a poor idea that ignores the complexities of human interaction, and political realities. If we actually want to reduce racism, the best chance is by having a moderate immigrant population and with ample resources to help raise this population up. More immigrants will mean less resources to aid every individual.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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