Migration and Technology

by George Hatjoullis

Migration is increasingly being met with political friction. Countries that once encouraged migrants are now placing obstacles. The UK departure from the EU is about migration. In part it is fear of the overwhelming flows generated by geopolitical events. In part it is simply xenophobia and even outright racism. There is however also an economic logic. I have been slowly exploring this logic in many previous blogs, the most recent being Fertility, Freedom, and Artificial Intelligence.

The countries restricting migration are wealthy. They have an abundance of capital and access to modern technology. In recent decades ageing population has restricted growth and migration has relieved this constraint. The migration has brought with it social stress but successive administrations in wealthy states have ignored this stress for sound economic reasons. Technology is providing an alternative to migration for relieving the constraint of ageing population, and one that has less social stresses. Indeed technology is creating new problems which will encourage further restriction of migration.

The silicon chip is the basis of this new direction for migration. Yesterday I went shopping in Tesco and was accosted by a check-out lady. She insisted I try the new hand scanner. Reluctantly I did. I scanned everything into my trolley, went to self-service where she did a random check. I paid by credit card and rolled off to the car. How long before I take a trolley and activate it with my credit card, I shop, the trolley scans, and I roll off to the car with my card charged as soon as I leave the shop? That is a lot of check-out staff jobs gone.

Technological change is often incremental and thus its power and extent not fully grasped at the time. The problem of electricity storage batteries stands between humanity and an energy revolution. The efficiency of conversion of natural energy (sun, wind, wave, thermal) into electricity is proceeding at a rapid pace but it has already reached a point where storage efficiency is becoming the constraint. Concern over climate change will keep the pressure on research and innovation if nothing else does. Everyday I come across a little snippet demonstrating how technology has economised on another previously labour intensive function (junior clerks in chambers would you believe). It is not just manufacturing. Law, banking, finance, and retail are all impacted. Robots and software do not need pensions, benefits,and do not strike. They do not need large HR departments to manage the staff issues. The implications are enormous.

Technology is on the verge of annihilating jobs in every industry. Productivity is about to jump. New but very different jobs will be created. Wealthy countries that have the capacity to benefit from this new technology will become even wealthier. The ageing population will become less of an issue. The biggest social challenge will be how to redistribute the new wealth without disincentivizing the creation. The solution is likely to include a basic benefits package for citizens as of right. One can see how this might make the state wish to control the number of citizens whether through fertility or migration.

This type of brave new world prediction is invariably ignored until it is self-evident. I raise it only because I think it gives a new insight into political developments. If they have a compelling economic logic then resistance may be doomed to fail. It is also wise to anticipate developments that emerge from this logic. Citizenship becomes a valuable commodity not to be taken for granted. The state will demand something back for its gift of basic economic rights. If we do not choose our politicians carefully it may demand things we ultimately come to regret.


I shall add links to snippets on the advance of technology over time.

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