## Wednesday, February 22, 2017

### Why do journalists ignore facts on immigration?

When foreign supermarket chains ALDI and Costco entered Australia, did Coles and Woolworths welcome them with open arms?

What a silly question. Of course not. The entry of foreign competitors undermined their pricing power. So much so, that recent RBA research credited the entry of ALDI with a 13% reduction in grocery prices.

When foreign competitors enter the labour market, should local workers welcome them with open arms?

Of course not. More competition reduces the pricing power of workers, depressing their wages.

Depressing wages is a terrific thing for the owners of capital - landowners, miners, banks, and other businesses - who love to promote the story that immigration is an overall economic win. Yet they conveniently ignore that this overall outcome only occurs because their profit gains outweigh the losses to wage earners.

For the past decade, Australia’s big business lobbyists have provided the “skills shortage” and “ageing” myths as cover stories for their calculated raid on wages through record high immigration levels.

Even pro-immigration Canada is not even in the ballpark of Australia’s population growth.

So it puzzles me how so many journalists, politicians, and other media commentators, can buy into the lobbyist’s story. Can they not separate the humanitarian logic of supporting refugees, who make up a tiny fraction if immigrants, from the economic logic of mass immigration?

Take Bernard Keane. He writes for Crikey. His latest article carries the tagline:
Businessman Dick Smith attacking immigration as a threat to our economy is both wrong-headed and encourages anti-immigrant sentiment in the community.
I sort of see his point. Keane reckons that talking about immigration could stoke racial tensions, and that is a bad thing. But that logic leaves no opening to have any discussion about important policy questions surrounding our immigration system.

Not only this, he employs the same false rebuttals to Dick Smith’s economic arguments that Waleed Aly tried on The Project a couple of months back.

Here’s Aly.

And here’s Keane.
Immigration can’t halt the ageing of the population, but it can slow the decline in participation, which — far from impoverishing us — will support economic growth.
But they are both wrong. On both points. And what is more surprising is that they both have stuck with these views despite the clear evidence. It’s almost as if they won’t let the facts sway them.

Keane quotes a 2006 Productivity Commission report to support his view, which found that
…the overall economic effect of migration appears to be positive but small.
But that report mostly supports Dick Smith’s view, which is the standard economic one. It concludes with:
The distribution of these benefits varies across the population, with gains mostly accrued to the skilled migrants and capital owners. The incomes of existing resident workers grows more slowly than would otherwise be the case.
While it may well be the case that there are small overall gains, the distribution of those gains also matters. Working class wage-earners suffer a loss, while wealthy capital owners, and the skilled immigrants themselves, benefit.

And what about housing? Keane mocked Smith about his view that high immigration rates are contributing to elevated housing costs. He says:
Blaming migrants is the “they take our jerbs” argument of housing affordability.
I wish the Productivity Commission could clear this one up too. Oh, here. Look.
Urban land owners, in particular, might benefit from increased land values or rents.
Aly and Keane both make the point that immigration is helping to solve population ageing, which leads to a decline in the share of the population actually in the workforce (because of more retired people). Yet that too is a myth. Here’s the Productivity Commission to tell us about it.
Despite popular thinking to the contrary, immigration policy is also not a feasible countermeasure. It affects population numbers more than the age structure.
Not surprisingly, immigrants age as well.

The economic analysis Bernard Keane used to try and discredit Dick Smith actually supports all of Dick Smith’s fundamental points.

I don’t know why this is so hard to fathom. Keane and Aly aren’t arguing for open borders, which would be the natural conclusion of their arguments. So they implicitly realise immigration policy is a choice, and that it has economic and social consequences.

Making a proactive choice about immigration policy isn’t being anti-immigrant, nor is it anti-refugee. Australia’s absurd immigration policy choice has been to lock up the neediest refugees, while at the same time adopting an immigration policy that has been off the scale in global terms, and affecting local wages.

Keane and Aly can go on ignoring economic reality. They can paint as racist everyone who understands that population and immigration outcomes are the result of policy choices. But they can’t change the facts.

## Sunday, February 19, 2017

### Futile rental-price competition

In his famous book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins’ presents a Forest of Friendship story, which contains within it a powerful idea that has broad implications for how we develop important social, economic, and political institutions. I want to show how this idea provides clues about how to tackle excessively high home rental prices, and offer some suggestions about how to do just that.

Here is Dawkins.
Imagine the fate of a hypothetical forest - let's call it the Forest of Friendship - in which, by some mysterious concordat, all the trees have somehow managed to achieve the desirable aim of lowering the entire canopy to 10 feet. The canopy looks just like any other forest canopy except that it is only 10 feet high instead of 100 feet. From the point of view of a planned economy, the Forest of Friendship is more efficient as a forest than the tall forests with which we are familiar, because resources are not put into producing massive trunks that have no purpose apart from competing with other trees.
But now, suppose one mutant tree were to spring up in the middle of the Forest of Friendship. This rogue tree grows marginally taller than the 'agreed' norm of 10 feet. Immediately, this mutant secures a competitive advantage. Admittedly, it has to pay the cost of the extra length of trunk. But it is more than compensated, as long as all other trees obey the self-denying ordinance, because the extra photons gathered more than pay the extra cost of lengthening the trunk. Natural selection therefore favours the genetic tendency to break out of the self-denying ordinance and grow a bit taller, say to 11 feet. As the generations go by, more and more trees break the embargo on height. When, finally, all the trees in the forest are 11 feet tall, they are all worse off than they were before: all are paying the cost of growing the extra foot. But they are not getting any extra photons for their trouble. And now natural selection favours any mutant tendency to grow to, say 12 feet.
And so the trees go on getting taller and taller. Will this futile climb towards the sun ever come to an end? Why not trees a mile high, why not Jack's beanstalk? The limit is set at the height where the marginal cost of growing another foot outweighs the gain in photons from growing that extra foot.
The futile competition Dawkins describes is a natural instinct. Civilised society builds institutions to help avoid the negative consequences of such instincts, with rationing systems that foster genuine large scale cooperation.

One particularly important part of the economy where our institutions no longer prevent futile competition is in the housing market. I am not just referring to the house and land asset market, where speculation runs regularly runs rife. Rather than mutant trees, it is speculators who try to bid just a little more for each home, wasting resources by overpaying for land. These always end in spectacular crashes where the greatest fool - the last speculator - makes the greatest loss. But they also bring down the real economy as well!

I am talking of something more mundane. The rental market.

Here too there is a forest canopy. It is an invisible rental price curve, a rental canopy if you will, that expands across the world’s cities, supported not by heavy wooden trunks, but by the wasted resources used by tenants to pay to access the land. While Dawkins’ trees chased a bigger piece of sky, renters chase a better piece of the land.

The diagram below shows the basic idea. The green line is the current “rental canopy”, which is higher near city centres, and falls with distance. At half the height is an orange line, which is one possible height of the rental canopy, if a cooperative institution could be developed to stop the futile price competition amongst renters. The grey shading shows the economic gains for renters from an increase in cooperation.

So why don’t tenants cooperate like a Friendship Forest?

The benefits are clear. In Australia, there are around 2.7 million renting households paying $60 billion per year in rent or$22,000 per household. Halving the rental price saves $30 billion of previously wasted resources by renters, generating massive efficiency gains for them. Large-scale cooperation could happen in practice in the following way. Each renter sends a copy of their lease that shows their current rent to a central organisation. The organisation tells each renter only to pay half the rental amount on the lease to their landlord, and that from now on it will set the rental prices. Because the organisation negotiates on behalf of all tenants, it is a monopoly supplier of tenants to the landlords and can set the rental price. Let us call this organisation a Tenants’ Union. If there are no “mutant”, or “rogue”, renters who opt out of the union and outbid rental prices by negotiating directly with landlords so they access a better home for themselves, the system will work. It is a genuine Friendship Forest. If this cooperative institution could drop the “rental canopy” by half it would save each renting household$11,000 per year.

This is great news. It is a perfectly possible and realistic thing that can be done.