Tag Archives: Zero-Sum Fallacy

Blaming immigrants for unemployment, lower wages and high house prices is too simplistic

The Conversation

Robert Breunig, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Mark Fabian, Australian National University

Australia should cut its immigration intake, according to Tony Abbott in a recent speech at the Sydney Institute. Abbott explicitly cites economic theory in his arguments: “It’s a basic law of economics that increasing the supply of labour depresses wages; and that increasing demand for housing boosts price.”

But this economic analysis is too basic. Yes, supply matters. But so does demand.

While migration has increased labour supply, it has done so primarily in sectors where firms were starved of labour, and at a time of broad economic growth.

Immigration has put pressure on infrastructure, but our problems are more a function of governments failing to upgrade and expand infrastructure, even as migrants pay taxes.

And while migrants do live in houses, the federal government’s fondness for stoking demand and the inactivity of state governments in increasing supply are the real issues affecting affordability.

The economy isn’t a fixed pie

Let’s take Abbott’s claims about immigration one by one, starting with wages.

It’s true that if you increase labour supply that, holding other factors that affect wages constant, wages will decline. However, those other factors are rarely constant.

Notably, if the demand for labour is increasing by more than supply (including new migrants), then wages will rise.

This is a big part of the story when it comes to the relationship between wages and migration in Australia. Large migrant numbers have been an almost constant feature of Australia’s economy since the end of the second world war, if not earlier.

But these migrants typically arrived in the midst of economic growth and rising demand for labour. This is particularly true in recent decades, when we have had one of the longest periods of unbroken growth in the history of the developed world.

In our study of the Australian labour market, we found no relationship between immigration rates and poor outcomes for incumbent Australian workers in terms of wages or jobs.

Australia uses a point system for migration that targets skilled migrants in areas of high labour demand. Business is suffering in these areas. Migrants into these sectors don’t take jobs from anybody else because they are meeting previously unmet demand.

These migrants receive a higher wage than they would in their place of origin, and they allow their new employers to reduce costs. This ultimately leads to lower prices for consumers. Just about everybody benefits.


Read more:
A focus on skills will allow Australia to reap fruits of its labour


There’s an idea called the “lump of labour fallacy”, which holds that there is a certain amount of work to be done in an economy, and if you bring in more labour it will increase competition for those jobs.

But migrants also bring capital, investing in houses, appliances, businesses, education and many other things. This increases economic activity and the number of jobs available.

Furthermore, innovation has been shown to be strongly linked to immigration. In the United States, for instance, immigrants apply for patents at twice the rate of non-immigrants. And a large number of studies show that immigrants are over-represented in patents, patent impact and innovative activity in a wide range of countries.

We don’t entirely know why this is. It could be that innovative countries attract migrants, or it could be than migrants help innovation. It’s likely that the effect goes both ways and is a strong argument against curtailing immigration.


Read more:
How migrant workers are critical to the future of Australia’s agricultural industry


Abbott’s comments are more reasonable in the case of housing affordability because here all other things really are held constant. Specifically, studies show that housing demand is overheated in part by federal government policies (negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions, for instance) and state governments not doing enough to increase supply.

Governments have responded to high housing prices by further stoking demand, suggesting that people dip into their superannuation, for instance.

In the wake of Abbott’s speech there has been speculation that our current immigration numbers could exacerbate the pressures of automation, artificial intelligence and other labour-saving innovations.

But our understanding of these forces is nascent at best. In previous instances of major technological disruption, like the industrial revolution, the long-run effects on employment were negligible. When ATMs debuted, for example, many bank tellers lost their jobs. But the cost of branches also declined, new branches opened and total employment did not decline.


Read more:
New research shows immigration has only a minor effect on wages


In his speech, Abbott said that the government needs policies that are principled, practical and popular. What would be popular is if governments across the country could fix our myriad policy problems. Abbott identified some of the big ones – wages, infrastructure and housing affordability.

What would be practical is to identify the causes of these problems and address these directly. Immigration is certainly not a major cause. It would be principled to undertake evidence-based analysis regarding what the causes are and how to address them.

The ConversationA lot of that has already been done, notably by the Grattan Institute. What remains is for governments to do the politically difficult work of facing the facts.

Robert Breunig, Professor of Economics, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Mark Fabian, Postgraduate student, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The Zero-Sum Fallacy

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this article was published in
“The Skeptic” Vol 32, No. 4, December 2012)

In game theory, ‘zero-sum’ describes a game where one player’s gain is a loss to other players; and the total amount of the available money or playing chips is fixed. A logical fallacy often occurs when this particular game theory is applied to real life economic or political discussions amongst non-economists – leading to false beliefs that the amount of wealth or jobs in the economy is fixed.

This mistaken view is illustrated by expressions such as ‘a larger slice of the pie’, which imply that ‘the pie’ has a fixed size and that net welfare cannot be improved by growing a bigger pie.  That is, that people can only become richer by making others poorer; or that increasing labour productivity or immigration causes unemployment.  In economics, this is known as the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ or more generally as the ‘zero sum fallacy’.

Many economic situations are not zero-sum, since valuable goods and services can be created, destroyed, or badly allocated in a number of ways, thus creating a net gain or loss of value to various stakeholders. For example, if your house increases in value, it does not follow that somebody else’s house has decreased in value. It is possible for all houses to increase in value.

Specifically, all trade is by definition positive sum, because when two parties agree to an exchange each party must consider the goods or money it is receiving to be more valuable than the goods it is delivering. In fact, all economic exchanges must benefit both parties to the point that each party can overcome its transaction costs  – or the transaction would simply not take place.

As P.J. O’Rourke has ironically put it:

In this zero-sum universe there is only so much happiness. The idea is that if we wipe the smile off the faces of people with prosperous businesses and successful careers, that will make the rest of us grin.

There is only so much money. The people who have money are hogging it. The way for the rest of us to get money is to turn the hogs into bacon.[1]

On an international scale, the zero sum fallacy manifests itself in the false belief that poor countries are poor because rich countries are rich; and that poverty can only be alleviated by redistributing wealth from rich countries to poor countries. More effective and enduring  alternatives, such as increased economic development and trade, or the elimination of bad governance and corruption, are not even considered.

In informal logic, the zero sum fallacy often takes the form of a false premise. In rhetoric it is usually a hidden premise, which makes the conclusion of one’s argument a non sequitur. That means that the zero sum fallacy is usually either a subtype of a false premise fallacy, a non-sequitur fallacy, or both.

References

[1] P.J. O’Rourke, The Wall Street Journal, 27 December 2012.

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