Writing in the Globe's Economy Lab blog, MLI senior fellow Linda Nazareth looks at the economic benefits of migration. "If there are better prospects in North America than there are in Europe or Asia, they figure out how to get there. It has always happened, and in an economic sense, it has worked pretty well. So why is there so much debate and resistance to the migration phenomenon?" she writes.

Linda Nazareth, December 12, 2013

If there was a way to boost global economic output by 100 per cent, we would all be all over it, right? Say that the way to do it was to move technology to strategic places around the globe, because doing so ensured that everyone was more productive. Even if that required countries to co-operate, you would think they would be happy to do it. After all, doubling the size of the world economy sounds pretty good, particularly in these days of sluggish activity and strained finances.

Except – what if that policy meant not moving technology, but moving people?

Migration, or basically moving people, is more than a hot topic these days. We tend to hear about it as "immigration" – people coming into the country that we live in – but on a wider scale, you have to think of people moving both in and out of different countries. People do it instinctively; if there are more jobs in oil sands country in Alberta than there are in Central Canada, they pull up stakes. If there are better prospects in North America than there are in Europe or Asia, they figure out how to get there. It has always happened, and in an economic sense, it has worked pretty well. So why is there so much debate and resistance to the migration phenomenon?

A blog on the World Bank website says the resistance to migration is indeed a mystery, and suggests it would be instructive to figure out exactly why that is the case. After all, the studies as to whether migration itself is good or bad are already fairly exhaustive, and for the most part they show pretty strong economic positives. Moving people from where they are less productive (in a labour-market sense) to where they are more productive tends to provide widespread benefits.

Certainly, in the short term the new migrants may lose out, but over the longer term they tend to win. And, although there are some costs to governments of dealing with migrants, research by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has shown that the fiscal burden of migration is either zero or slightly positive, in part because new entrants tend to be younger and less likely to use heath care services (and, by extension, not need senior services for decades).

But there is always going to be resistance to migration, both from immigrant-sending and immigration-receiving countries. A hot topic these days is that of the so-called "brain drain" – the out-migration of those with high skills from the lower-income countries that educated them into the higher-income countries where they can make better livings. In immigrant-receiving countries and in the wake of a brutal recession, the concerns tend to revolve around the fear that newcomers will take jobs from the native-born, or at least push down the wages that natives would have received in the absence of new labour supply. These are dilemmas – and as with most complex economic forces, they are not easily addressed with quick-fix policies.

Move technology around the world as if it were a chessboard? No problem. Move people around? That is going to start some big debates. As we debate though, let's try to concentrate on the long-term gains, however that might seem to be in the moment.

Linda Nazareth is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Her book Economorphics: The Trends Changing Today into Tomorrow will be published by Relentless Press in January. www.economorphics.com