Tag Archives: economic growth

Open borders and the economic frontier, part 3

Last fall I wrote two posts, Open borders and the economic frontier, part 1, and Open borders and the economic frontier, part 2, which were meant to be the first two parts of a three-part series, which sought to address the large macroeconomic question of whether open borders would cause the global economic frontier to move forward faster or slower. BK had made a loose empirical argument in the comments that the more productive ethnic groups seem to be most productive when they are in the majority, less so when they live as minorities among other ethnicities. In part 1, I gave the following reasons why I was skeptical of BK’s empirical analysis: (a) the weakness of the theoretical links between race, cognition, and GDP; (b) the fact that the poor/racially disadvantaged countries are concentrated in the tropics; (c) the pattern that the racial minorities BK’s argument focused on tend to have arrived under imperialist auspices as colonizers or settlers and are therefore particularly alienated from the population; and (d) the prevailing view in our culture that “racism” is scientifically erroneous. In part 2, I explained how, in my own theoretical work, growth is modeled as “exploration of the goods space” through an expansion of the “endogenous division of labor” as capital or population expands, and applied it to the data BK had highlighted. Using the EDOL model, I derived a new theory of relative growth and decline in the 20th century, namely, that the automotive revolution altered economic geography, reducing the economic distance between all manner of points connected by land, while increasing the distance between points separated by the sea: thus Britain and its empire suffered, while the United States and contintental Europe were big gainers, and the Soviet Union also benefited.

But let me step back a bit. Economic growth is very important because, in the long run, small changes in growth rates can alter the human condition enormously. If we can raise the long-run growth rate of per capita income merely from, say, 2% to 3%, that will make our grandkids 70 years from now twice as rich as they would have been if the slower growth trajectory had been sustained. In 700 years, this small change would make our descendants over a thousand times richer than they would have been. Lately, this important topic has become the subject of a large literature, mainly in economics though it spills over to other fields as well. I got a Masters in International Development and a PhD in economics and I’ve been exposed to a lot of this literature, yet I nevertheless feel inadequate to the task of summarizing it. Still, here’s a very rough typology of theories. Continue reading “Open borders and the economic frontier, part 3” »

Understanding the place premium, or; building the economic intuition behind open borders

There are plenty of misconceptions about the place premium — the arbitrary wage gap between different countries of the world. (The term “place premium” was introduced in a working paper titled The Place Premium: Wage Differences for Identical Workers across the U.S. Border – Working Paper 148 by Michael Clemens, Claudio E. Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett. See also our blog posts that mention the place premium). Some common ones include the mistaken beliefs that estimates of the place premium don’t account for purchasing power, or that the place premium doesn’t adjust for characteristics like job type or labour quality. But even if one avoids these missteps, it can be difficult to grasp the source of the place premium and the intuition around why labour mobility would erode the place premium by increasing real incomes worldwide.

Here’s the classic example of the place premium: the bus driver. You take the bus driver in Yemen and transplant him to the US. Same guy, doing the same job, driving the same bus, even. Just in a different place. You’ve just boosted that Yemeni’s income by about 15 times over, because now he’s ferrying highly-productive Americans instead of relatively unproductive Yemenis. He’s driving them between Boston and New York instead of between Sana’a and Aden. And yes, that 15x multiplier is real — it’s the actual point estimate from the seminal paper on the place premium, calculating the premium between Yemen and the US in terms of real wages, adjusted for all statistically-identifiable characteristics of the worker and the job.

Now, you might contend that the Yemeni bus driver isn’t himself being more productive. After all, he’s doing exactly the same job he was before. The extra income he earns now doesn’t represent any increase in his productivity; it just represents some income he’s siphoned away from Americans, who pay a Yemeni bus driver the wages of an American bus driver, even though he’s plainly less productive than the American who might otherwise drive that bus.

This intuition, I think, is related to why people make a couple of rather unintuitive (to me, anyway) conclusions about the place premium and its implications:

  1. Open borders erodes the place premium primarily, if not only, by redistributing the income of richer people to poorer people. The poor of the world do in fact benefit immensely from migration, but this is not because migration makes them more productive. They simply earn an economic “rent” by taking rich-world wages which are incommensurate with their actual poor-world productivity. World GDP does not actually increase from open borders, and rich-world GDP actually falls.
  2. People in poor countries are poor because they are innately unproductive. This is because of one or both of the following:
    1. Levels of productivity are endogenous to you as an individual, not the society you happen to be in. The value of your work is determined by you and you alone, not the society you live in.
    2. Levels of productivity are endogenous to your country of origin. The value of your work is determined by some combination of your personal qualities and the institutions you grew up in. The society you live in has little to no impact on your productivity.

These claims are incredibly unintuitive to me, because even if they might be true to some degree, there isn’t any economic theory or data to support the strong claim that where you live has no impact on productivity. The very fact that economists who study labour mobility consistently conclude that the gains from open borders would roughly double world GDP means that these conclusions are wrong. Moreover, there are plenty of reasons why your intuitions about the relationship between your environment and your productivity ought to run the exact opposite way.

If you lived in a society currently facing a civil war, or a natural disaster, you would be incredibly unproductive. An engineer isn’t of much use in a famine-ridden country; he has to spend most of his time looking for food, instead of designing bridges. The claim that the society you live in has no impact on your productivity is totally unintuitive; of course the engineer becomes less productive if you take him from his comfy home in an OECD country and plop him into somewhere like Somalia or the Congo. So vice-versa, if you find an engineer in Somalia or the Congo, and you take him with you to somewhere like France or Italy, you’ve immediately increased his productivity. He spends less time figuring out how to get food and shelter, and more time figuring out how to build bridges.

You might protest that this is a high-skilled immigrant, so let’s go back to the bus driver. Exactly the same intuition applies. Take an American bus driver and drop him down in Yemen. Would he still really deserve his American wages in Yemen? Sure, it’s no fault of his own that we’ve forced him to live and work in Yemen instead of the US. But the fact is that the Yemenis he’ll be driving around are less productive than his old American passengers. He used to drive software engineers and Starbucks baristas (you laugh, but baristas save productive doctors and executives plenty of time and money) in the US; in Yemen, he drives shepherds and hotel cooks. Given that the entire productivity of being a bus driver comes from ferrying valuable people around, it’s unsurprising that when the economic productivity of the people he transport drops, his productivity drops as well. So vice-versa, taking a Yemeni bus driver and giving him a bus in the US to drive makes him incredibly more productive. He used to support a small, relatively undeveloped economy; now he supports a much more prosperous economy. His taking that American job has directly lowered the transportation costs for quite a few highly-productive people.

You might protest that while this is true at the individual level, you couldn’t simply take every person from Yemen and put them in the US and expect to achieve the same result. You’d be right, which is why nobody that I know of seriously suggests forcing poor people to immigrate to the rich world. It’s the people who have a lot to gain from immigration — those whose potential productivity means they can reasonably expect a substantial wage hike from moving to a better society even just doing the same work they’re used to doing — that will migrate. People who aren’t productive enough to justify the large financial and non-financial costs of moving simply won’t move. Unless you subsidise migration, you won’t see unproductive people swarming highly-productive societies.

Still, on one level, it can seem intuitive to say that if you’re doing exactly the same job in two different places, your productivity doesn’t matter: you should earn the same wage for the same work wherever you are. But that’s actually incredibly unintuitive. Even if you’re just a farmer, your crop yields depend on where you are. If you can buy or rent land elsewhere that is more fertile, you can do the identical job on that piece of land and immediately become more productive. And that’s just the simplest scenario. If you’re a machinist, you are more productive working in a society with a functioning power supply than you are working in a society with frequent blackouts. If you’re a hairdresser, you are more productive working in a society where your clients are corporate executives instead of a society where your clients are subsistence wage-earners — because even if you save your clients exactly the same amount of time and effort, in one society your clients’ time is worth a lot, and in the other it is worth little.

It might be intuitive to conclude that open borders is simply redistribution, allowing unproductive people to claim wages meant for highly-productive people. But some basic economics suggests this can’t be true. If a Yemeni bus driver is 15 times less productive than a US bus driver, he basically will get his passengers lost or injured so often that the only way his employer can find it profitable to keep him on staff is if they slash his wages down to the levels he earned in Yemen — if they slash his high-productivity wages by 15 times. Something has to give: either he has to be productive enough to merit higher wages, or he has to go back to Yemen and back to his old job. Otherwise, he ends up jobless and destitute in the US.

Having travelled on public transport in different countries, I could swallow the claim that a bus driver from a poor country is only half as productive as a bus driver from a rich country (because of poorer driving habits, etc.), though I’d still be skeptical of it. But I’ve never met a bus or taxi driver who is so thoroughly incompetent that I would deem his driving skills worth 1/5th or 1/10th of his professional counterparts whom I’ve encountered in the rich world.

The place premium doesn’t actually mean all the gaps we see between rich and poor countries would disappear under open borders. Even in jurisdictions with open borders, such as between Guam or Puerto Rico and the mainland US, we observe a place premium where it seems the American bus driver earns 25% to 40% more than his statistically-identical counterpart in Guam or Puerto Rico. That probably is explained by true productivity differences (though some of it might also stem from xenophobia or other reasons making it difficult for a bus driver in Guam or Puerto Rico to undercut a bus driver on the mainland). But nowhere in the history of the world have wage gaps as big as the ones we see internationally today been observed. We can quite surely say that most of the place premium comes from arbitrarily coercing otherwise productive people into staying in unproductive regions or societies.

The intuition behind this is clear: your productivity does in fact depend on where you are. You produce more living in Australia than you do in Antarctica for a reason — just as you produce more living in South Africa than in Zimbabwe for a reason. Whether it’s a better geophysical climate or a better political climate, some places just make us more productive citizens and human beings than other places do. We need a damn good reason to arbitrarily force people to stay unproductive — especially when it means consigning them to a life of grinding poverty that would shock just about anyone reading these words.

The photograph featured in the header of this post depicts Italian immigrants laying tram tracks in Springfield, Massachusetts circa 1900.

Open borders and the economic frontier, part 2

In the first post in this three post series, I gleaned a theory of the economic frontier from some of BK’s comments and offered a few of my own responses. In this post, I’ll expound my own theory.

Two general points. First, how the economic frontier advances is both enormously important for human welfare and quite mysterious. It is important because long-run economic growth will determine how well we can mitigate world poverty and deliver ever-improving lives to future generations. A tiny increase in the rate of advance of the economic frontier, say from 3% to 5%, would make our descendants a century hence almost an order of magnitude wealthier. Second, open borders would likely affect the rate of advance of the economic frontier. Before reading BK’s comments, I had pretty much taken it for granted that open borders would boost growth, at least in the short run, as people move from low-productivity countries to high-productivity countries. Based on Clemens (2011)  and Kennan (2012), the modal result of formal studies so far seems to be that open borders would double world GDP, and the assumptions on which this result is based are actually conservative in some ways, e.g., they don’t assume that everyone would migrate to where their marginal product is highest. Negative institutional/productivity side-effects of open borders on frontier countries would have to be very large to offset this, but such effects are not beyond the range of plausibility.

My theory, which I’ll call the “Endogenous Division of Labor” or “EDOL” model, was the topic of the second chapter of my dissertation, Complexity, Competition and Growth (but don’t pay $103, it’s available here for free). More recently, and I think more accessibly, I published a new version as an SSRN working paper here, under the title “Development as Division of Labor: Adam Smith Meets Agent-Based Simulation.” All the data is drawn from a simulation I wrote, which is introduced in this video, and I’ll be happy to send the simulation (as a runnable JAR file) if you’re interested in exploring its properties on your own. It’s not that user-friendly, but I’ll even be glad to give you a tutorial via Skype. I’ll also be glad to present it at academic conferences or seminars or whatever. I think it would lend itself to public presentation quite well, though I haven’t got the chance to transfer. I’m trying to publish it. So far, the Journal of Political Economy rejected it, with some harsh but useful feedback. I plan to submit a completely rewritten version to the Journal of Economic Growth. Any feedback is welcome.

Continue reading “Open borders and the economic frontier, part 2” »

Open borders and the economic frontier, part 1

This will be the first of three posts on the topic of “open borders and the economic frontier.” 

I am indebted to commenter BK for making the major subject of my academic research, on the basis of which I hope to make my name as an academic economist, relevant to this blog. In a long series of comments at my post “The American polity can endure and flourish under open borders,” and previously at “Garett Jones responds…” BK digs up some numbers and makes a sort of loose empirical case, based on the experience of what Amy Chua calls “market-dominant minorities” in many countries around the world, that segregation of humanity based on cognitive ability, with race as a proxy, actually makes the world economy as a whole more productive:

Chinese-Singaporeans generate income almost twice as great in mostly Chinese Singapore as the large Chinese-Malaysian minority does in Malaysia (about $70,000 per annum vs about $38,000), even though there are less than 3 million Chinese in Singapore but almost 7 million in Malaysia. But the Chinese make up 75% of Singapore vs 25% of Malaysia…

There is a Chinese elite, but this isn’t enough to fix the institutions, which have to represent the general population. All this occurred in the context of strong legal discrimination in favor of Malay majority, racialized anti-business sentiment, and big gaps in political views between Chinese and non-Chinese Malaysians. Using the above statistics, if the Chinese-Malaysians could have done as well as Singapore by also seceding from Malaysia into Chinese-dominated countries, total GDP of the region would rise substantially just from letting the Chinese-Malaysians free of the Malaysian electorate, even if incomes back in Malaysia plummeted. But it gets even better: Singapore lets in millions of guest workers from non-Chinese Malaysia, among other places, who send back huge quantities of remittances. Singapore generates more innovations in science and technology with positive spillovers for the rest of the world.

Basically, patterns like this seem to suggest that total GDP and welfare are much increased by international segregation by IQ and other characteristics contributing to productivity and performance, and that giving every country in the world demographics representative of the world would be devastating…

I’ll try the analysis again for a different region, randomly selected to be Africa.

The obvious data are the economic evolution of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and South Africa after universal suffrage and the end of apartheid. This is complicated by the fact that both countries were suffering economically from crippling sanctions before majority rule, as well as internal racial conflict which were then lifted and replaced with foreign aid as part of an intentional effort to make post-suffrage conditions better than pre-suffrage conditions. Continue reading “Open borders and the economic frontier, part 1” »