5 August, 2003: One in, one out

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As ever, I should probably refrain from commenting on the breathtaking stupidity of other web loggers, but I was so incensed by this rather unpleasant post by self-styled `conservative commentator' Peter Cuthbertson that I couldn't help myself. (Update: Peter Cuthbertson is an ignorant lying brat.)

Cuthbertson has `written' an `article' by cutting-and-pasting some points from this rather thin rant on immigration from The Spectator. Cuthbertson refers to the Spectator article as `another great piece' because he agrees with it. Which is sad, because it's total crap.

Let's go through the points one by one:

  1. Mass immigration hugely exacerbates the housing crisis.
  2. Britain is already overcrowded: it is one of the most densely populated islands in the world; twice as densely populated as France and eight times as densely populated as America -- and increasing population density damages quality of life.

These two are, of course, the same point, but splitting them up makes them look more impressive. Well, until you read them, I suppose.

The first thing to point out is that there is no `housing crisis'. There is a shortage of housing in some parts of the country, but that could be solved in a matter of months by building new houses. This, of course, would be unpopular -- chiefly among existing home owners who hope to benefit financially from house price inflation -- but that doesn't make it a crisis.

Secondly, it doesn't mean anything to claim that the country is `overcrowded', except in context. Peter makes an uninformed attempt to provide context by his claim that increasing population density worsens quality of life. Let's actually look at some statistics:

Country Area (square km) Population Population Density (per square km) GDP per capita ($ in PPP terms)
UK 244,820 59,778,002 244 25,300
Sweden 449,964 8,876,744 19.7 25,400
Belgium 30,510 10,274,595 337 29,000
USA 9,629,091 280,562,589 29.1 36,300
Switzerland 41,290 7,301,994 177 31,700
France 547,030 59,765,983 109 25,700
Japan 377,835 126,974,628 336 28,000
Singapore 692.7 4,452,732 6428 24,700
Germany 357,021 83,251,851 233 26,600
Ireland 70,280 3,883,159 55.3 28,500

(We use GDP in purchasing-power-parity terms as a measure of quality of life. This is perhaps of arguable utility, but there is little else to work with. Data from the CIA World Factbook, so E&OE!)

Here's a plot of these figures:

Plot of population density vs. GDP per capita

(Note logarithmic scale.) It's clear that there is, among this set of countries, no relation between population density and quality-of-life. In particular, countries with approximately the same GDP per capita as the UK stretch over a population density range of about 20 per square km to about 6,500 per square kilometer -- a factor of more than three hundred. (This is what you'd expect intuitively, since we could imagine carving out bits of the country -- say, central London and rural bits of Yorkshire -- and separately calculating their GDP and population density figures. This would give us a big range of population densities but a much smaller range of GDPs per capita.)

  1. Mass immigration -- as opposed to limited immigration of skilled workers to meet shortages -- damages the employment prospects of those already here, particularly the unskilled.

Would Cuthbertson make the same argument about adding `unskilled workers' to the population by other means, for instance natural increase? Unlikely. So what's the difference here? In any case, as anecdotal evidence suggests -- see, e.g., Fran Abrams's Below the Breadline -- many of the jobs taken by immigrants are ones which no `natives' are prepared to do.

  1. Imposing mass immigration on a society that doesn't want it damages relations between the communities that are already here ... [which] forces voters into the hands of extremist parties such as the British National party.

Of course, there's no reason that immigration should `damage relations' between communities that are already here, though being told again and again that it will undoubtedly doesn't help.

  1. Mass immigration increases inequality in society by increasing the wealth of those who employ immigrants (who tend already to be rich) and reducing that of those who compete with them (who tend to be poor).

It's always nice to see right-wingers wringing their hands about `inequality in society'. In fact the claim here is in some sense true, though the significant income inequality is between new immigrants and those who have been in the country longer (see for instance this paper on the situation in Canada which measures inequality among various immigrant and non-immigrant populations) rather than between immigrants and those employing them.

But it's hard to see how this is a problem. After all, immigrants -- who are, after all, choosing to come here -- know what they're getting themselves in for (or ought to). This is how the free market works. If people won't do significantly better by leaving their home and making a new life in a different country, they presumably won't do so. Since Cuthbertson is obviously opposed to immigration, he should see this as a good thing.

  1. Mass immigration is no solution to an ageing society, because immigrants grow old at just the same pace as non-immigrants. One of the country's top pension experts, Professor David Miles, said that trying to solve the pension crisis by importing more people is ``madness''.

I can't find the Miles comment so it's not possible to establish the context in which he said it. The other claim, that introducing immigrants to the population ``because they grow old at the same pace as non-immigrants'' is breathtakingly stupid. Imagine replacing `immigrants' with `children':

Having more children is no solution to an ageing population, because children grow old at just the same pace as adults.

Moving on,

  1. Mass migration of unskilled workers promotes low-skilled, low-wage industries and reduces economic productivity.

This is basically the same as (3) and (5). Again, many of the jobs being done by unskilled immigrants are jobs which non-immigrants won't fill -- it's hard to see who that's going to damage. Will it `reduce economic productivity'? Well, that depends on what jobs the immigrants actually do. It's certainly not obvious from the claims above.

  1. Much if not most of the supposedly temporary migration -- such as student visas, holiday working visas and seasonal agricultural workers -- is permanent.

This isn't an argument against mass immigration. If you think that mass immigration is a good idea, then you won't care about it; if you don't, hearing this will make you go all purple and start thrashing about with your copy of the Daily Mail. Either way it's not germane to the argument.

  1. White flight is ghettoising Britain's cities and fragmenting communities.

Apart from the fact that `ghettoising' is an extremely ugly word, this is just racism.

(The comments on Cuthbertson's piece are worth reading too, if you want to get a taste for the level of contemporary right-wing debate on the internet. Particularly amusing is the argument about pensions, wherein a large collection of morons fail to understand a trivial -- and fundamental -- bit of algebra. Nevertheless, they pontificate at length about pensions policy.)

In other news

I saw Buffalo Soldiers -- a fairly entertaining military heist movie. Watching it put me in mind of an incident related in a (vaguely entertaining) book called Marijuana Time. in which the author, Ken Lukowiak, describes a training film intended to warn soldiers in the British Army of the dangers of narcotics:

After a fade to black we next find our two sergeants out in the woods on a NATO exercise. Sergeant No-No's taking the Warsaw Pact threat seriously and is charging around in an efficient manner, doing military-type things with his map and compass. Sergeant Spliffy, on the other hand, he's hiding away behind a tree and having a qucik puff on the old `wacky backy'.

Bet before he can get down to the roach, the command comes through to move out. Sergeant Spliffy grabs a last deep toke on his joint, then another quick one for luck, and leaps into his tank. At the same time Sergeant No-No climbs behind the wheel of his Land Rover and immediately starts issuing orders over the radio. In the notional battle that follows, dopehead Sergeant Spliffy is so off his face that he drives his tank right over his best friend's Land Rover, killing poor old Sergeant No-No instantly. The End.

... What I do know is that [the makers of the film] would have been very disapointed with our group's reaction to it all. For our conclusion was that the German girls doing the tempting were such drop-dead shakeable babes that we'd have smoked heroin if we'd thought it would help us get into their knickers. Mind you, none of us drove tanks, did we?

Anyway, Buffalo Soldiers is highly recommended, as is Good bye, Lenin! -- it's pretty unusual to see two good films within a week of one another, and even more odd that both of them are set at the same time in roughly the same place....

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.