Monday, July 11, 2016

The Diminishing Returns of Immigration

I feel deeply uncomfortable writing anything bad about immigration. Not only am I an immigrant, but my whole family, and very many of my dear friends have benefited from global citizenship.

Global citizenship, as I defined in my previous article, Nails in the Coffin, is the process by which people are extracted from a deprived part of the empire and granted access to a prosperous part. The gift of access comes with the obligation of supporting the systems of the empire with one's labor, and generally shying away from speaking negatively about parts of the system that are considered “good” by the empire’s philosophy. My labor is my writing, and I have benefited from immigration, so by speaking against immigration I am laboring against a system that has benefited me and could benefit others.

I fully expect to have charges of bigotry or selfishness leveled against me. After all, by speaking against a system that has made my life better, it does seem similar to pulling the rope up once I've made it to the top of the mountain. However, the current theory of open immigration is a tool of imperial control, which is hurting working class people with false promises of prosperity. That must be confronted.

Open immigration, which stands in direct contrast to controlled immigration, has much lower standards to receive permission to immigrate. Different countries have different requirements, but we can say that the more requirements, the more controlled the system. I am fully in favor of a system of controlled immigration, but not open immigration.
Open immigration is supported by a broad spectrum of individuals, from human rights advocates to economists, under the assumption that the free movement of people will benefit both the migrants and the receiving economies. It is a concept most heavily promoted by neo-liberal (new liberal) economists. Their reasoning is that free movement of capital (raw material) and labor would allocate these resources more effectively, boost economic productivity, and lead to a genuinely “free market.” The fact that free movement increased the rate of extraction from the peripheries (payer communities) to the center (beneficiaries) was no surprise because that's what productivity means. That the movement of material and people undermined local community’s ability to resist extraction was an added benefit. Neo-liberals stated that “free markets” were supposed to improve prosperity for all people, but obviously didn't for the majority of people.

Those of us who occupy the lower rungs of the hierarchy in the beneficiary’s circle, support open immigration by chanting the mantra “it helps the economy,” or some variation thereof. Like the “free market,” the “economy” has become an abstraction to hide real limits and real consequences, which are known in economics as diminishing returns.

Crack open a text book and you will find a definition of economics that reads something like, “Economics is the exchange of goods and services.” This definition, and others like it, leave out vital pieces of information, such as where do the goods come from? Or more accurately, where do the raw materials to produce the goods come from? The answer, as John Michael Greer points out in his book, The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered, comes from nature. Greer divides the economy into three parts, or tiers. The first tier of the economy is nature, which produces the produce that we extract. The second tier is production of goods, and the services that develop around the distribution of those goods. The third tier is financial, and is a means of facilitating movement of goods and services. When divided in this way only the first two tiers can be considered real, because if there are no materials there can be no production or exchange. Because tier three is simply the movement of paper it can also become detached from the real economy, and forms what we call a bubble. Strangely, even though it is the least useful tier it is the most powerful in our society.

Prosperity anywhere depends on people having immediate and future access to goods and services. All people measure their prosperity comparatively. They compare what they have in terms of basic necessities like food, water, shelter, medicine, and in terms of luxuries, to what they had and what the could or might have. They also compare what they have to what others in their community have. Just as important is their perception of both their own and their community’s ability to achieve the prosperity they believe they deserve. The availability of resources per-capita is a determining factor of how prosperous a community is, and will be.

In our empire's economic system prosperity is divided  on the three tiers of economy. The least prosperous people all work to extract resources from nature (miners, farmers, etc...), while the wealthiest are in the financial tier. As William R. Catton pointed out in his book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis for Revolutionary Change, division of labor is an ecological principle. Every quasi-species in the case of human societies, finds an ecological niche. We can reasonably say that any society that has endless resources can create endless niches to fill. Thus they can absorb an endless number of people, who would find endless prosperity without compromising the prosperity of others. The problem is that no society has an endless amount of resources at its disposal, and the current high levels of prosperity in the developed world can be directly tied to having access to a disproportionate amount of the world’s natural resources.

The developed world, as a result of having access to those resources, could take in as many people as there were niches to fill and create more niches without compromising the prosperity of people already in the developed world. Their intake capacity, the total number of people an economy can absorb without compromising the prosperity, or perceived prosperity, of the resident population, is high. Intake capacity is quite similar to the ecological concept of carrying capacity, which states that every ecosystem has a maximum supportable load for a given species relative to the resources available in the ecosystem. Carrying capacity is applicable to division of labor, or specializations, as it is also known in economics. If everyone was a banker or baker then those two niches would witness intense, even violent competition. The point at which the majority of an ecosystems population are losing prosperity, however it is measured in that ecosystem, is the point at which intake capacity has been reached. The point at which the available population is greater than the number of available niches is the point at which maximum carrying capacity has been reached.

When niches become over saturated, adding more people to the population base does not grow the economy. Rather, each additional person strains the ecosystem, that is to say the infrastructure and welfare system, that help supplement personal prosperity in the developed world. Housing, fresh water, food, medicine, and the promise of future prosperity all become issues that instigate conflict. Past a certain point more people do not grow the economy, they only reduce the benefits gained by working in some niches and deliver those benefits to those working in other niches. In our economy, that means as more people are added to the service sector, which holds the majority of niches, then the drop in wages paid by those jobs will benefit those who use the services. Keep adding people and the conflict created by those competing for finite resources will negate any benefit gained from cheaper services.

In the United Kingdom and the United States of America, the beating hearts of our empire, the elite have done something infinitely more insane than simply add endless numbers of people. Under the advice of their neo-liberal economists, the elite have actively reduced the number of niches available in the economy by outsourcing entire industries, and simultaneously reduced the resources that go toward maintaining welfare and infrastructure. These steps have reduced the diversity of niches available, and reduced the resources available that support standard of living (personal prosperity), all while adding endlessly more people to the labor force through the support of open immigration policies.

This strategy, if you want to call it that, is directly contributing to the rise of racially and religiously motivated nationalism. Keep walking along this path and the inevitable consequence will be mass violence.  


  1. Varun-
    This is a very interesting essay! I followed you here from TADR, where I've been hoping JMG would comment further on immigration, as I've been struggling to wrap my head around the competition between my 'good liberal' upbringing and my own observations and realizations of our country's limited carrying capacity. It is helpful to my thinking to see you, an immigrant, step out and examine the issue in this way; it in some way seems to give me ethical permission to look beyond my compassion for those who seek a better life for themselves and their families by immigrating to the U.S., to ask hard questions like, "What if this country can no longer offer those better lives, even to its own people?" I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on what a healthy controlled immigration policy (and practice) might look like.
    I'm looking forward to exploring your archives, too.
    Heather in CA

  2. Heather, I'll put that on my writing list.

  3. Varun, like Heather, I'm coming to have a different perspective on immigration than I was raised to carry. As I'm married to an immigrant, these considerations hit close to home - especially since my husband's niche has shrunk and he has only been able to find work overseas (for a while in Germany where we thought we might become immigrants) and now in China, the country he left (for a reason).

    We both find that while we welcome the varieties of people that make up America and celebrate the fact that the American experiment has allowed for that, we see that this society poorly provides for its own - witness homelessness and poverty as the empire collapses. Is there not an obligation to secure the lives of those who are already here before opening borders and encouraging others to come with a promise of great things? Even to my teenagers, in whom I have hoped to encourage compassion and generosity, I have to be careful how I word this lest they start perceiving me as anti-immigrant or my opinions as racism. They understand what I say, but don't seem to be able to separate out the likelihood of their own economically difficult futures from the 'correctness' that requires that we take in ANYONE who wants to come, regardless of the overall result.

    Thanks for this, and for your consistently thoughtful comments on the ADR.

    1. reality,It really is a very difficult situation for all of us. I feel for the millions of people in India who yearn for a better life, I also feel for the millions in the US who yearn for the same thing. These ethical dilemmas will likely become more difficult as we continue the long descent, but they are the things that will keep us human.