Daniel Altman is Big Think's Chief Economist and an adjunct faculty member at New York University's Stern School of Business. Daniel wrote economic commentary for The Economist, The New York Times, and The International Herald Tribune before founding North Yard Economics, a non-profit consulting firm serving developing countries, in 2008. In between, he served as an economic advisor in the British government and wrote four books, most recently Outrageous Fortunes: The Twelve Surprising Trends That Will Reshape the Global Economy.
Daniel Altman: Immigration is a really complex issue because there are so many political and social and economic issues wrapped up in it and I think that as result you see very different priorities being set by different countries. The United States has an immigration policy that is pretty much driven just by political and social priorities. We don’t have a lot of content. In fact, we don’t have a lot of economic rationality in our immigration policy either at the top end of the spectrum for the high-skilled immigrants or at the low end for the low-skilled immigrants.
That is in stark contrast to a lot of other countries. What we’re seeing in other countries, for example, the United Kingdom and Australia is a much more economically-driven policy where they observe the needs of industry and they allow workers to enter as those needs are filled and they also have one extra attribute, which is sort of a cream-skimming program where they give special preference to people who have advanced degrees, who speak English well, who have entrepreneurial potential and earning potential. Those people can get work permits almost instantaneously just by filling out a sort of scorecard. If your score is high enough, you can immigrate. In the United States we don’t have anything like that and, as a result, if there is a global sort of beauty contest to try and attract the best immigrants from around the world to contribute to your economy, we’re going to lose it.
A lot of these rich countries are rolling out the welcome mat for the best immigrants that they can pluck from all around the world and really making it very attractive for them more so than ever to leave their countries of origin and go to a wealthier country where they might have better opportunities. Is this a good thing or a bad thing for the countries that might be sending them? Well I think it could go either way, but I tend to think it’s probably a bad thing. If one of those people stays in their home country, they become part of the anchor of a base middle class that helps to develop the country. We have found in the years that we have been studying development economics in this country and around the world that you need a sort of professional middle class that acts as the foundation for growth. Those are the people who start to take responsibility for paying taxes, having social services, increasing the capacity of their state to serve its people. If all of them leave even if they are sending money back that money is not enough. They’re presence is important because they are creating the intellectual, political and economic underpinning of a growing society, and I think that is what the real problem is with this brain drain.
Can we pack the entire human race into Missouri, the “Show Me” state? We might as well try, because when it comes to making important decisions, we humans have a bad habit of not heeding warnings when we don’t...