Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cultural traits are contagious

Here's an interesting paper that I appear to have missed at the time of its publication. A Crook is a Crook ... But is He Still a Crook Abroad? On the Effect of Immigration on Destination-Country Corruption by Eugen Dimant, Tim Krieger, and Margarete Redlin.

Opponents of large scale in-bound migration usually express their concerns in terms of the economy (cheap foreign labor will push out marginal native workers) and/or in terms of crime (foreigners will drive an increase in crime.)

Both propositions can be true depending on the nature and circumstances of the immigration. But they are not necessarily true. The devil is in the details.

A further concern frequently expressed is that immigration changes the culture of the receiving country. In turn, this concern breaks down into two components - a generalized change and specific changes.

Concern about generalized change was probably best expressed in Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. Putnam's research made a strong, but not ironclad, case that high levels of immigration, particularly in short time frames, induced marked reductions in societal trust. The effect was systemic. Not only did affected native citizens demonstrate distrust of immigrants but they demonstrated reduced levels of trust among one another. Essentially Putnam linked concentrated immigration with a measurable erosion of social capital.

The second aspect of concern about immigration is the fear that the destination culture will be eroded by bad cultural traits from the originating country of origin.

Interestingly, this concern is not limited to foreign migration. Within the US, there is a similar concern about domestic migration. Specifically, red states in general have stronger economies than blue states (higher growth, lower debt, lower taxes) and therefore there has been a decades long migration out of declining blue states into red states. Makes perfect sense and that is one of the strengths of our Republic. At the same time, elites in the receiving red states have expressed concerns that the blue state immigrants will bring with them blue state cultural expectations of high state services, comfort with high state debt and high state taxes. The red elites are concerned that the blue incomers will bring with them the cultural attributes which caused the decline of their originating states of origin.

While this is still hotly debated, there is accumulating research indicating that this is more than a case of paranoia and hallucination.

In terms of foreign immigration, the concerns have been longer standing. They are often dismissed by the open borders advocates as simple ignorant xenophobia mixed with racism. This is a tragedy that elite decision-makers first response to opposition is plain ad hominem invective and the straight assumption that their fellow citizens are ignorantly wrong. These are complex and consequential issues that warrant evidence-based decision-making.

So how transferable are foreign cultural attributes? I believe that indeed there are evolutionary changes when you experience a foreign based admixture. And that it is not necessarily a bad thing. As always, it depends. All complex systems need variance in order to evolve. Some of the variance can originate domestically but the most straight-forward means is to introduce variance from the outside. Exposure to alternative values, beliefs, folkways and practices can be a source of doing things not just differently, but better.

While I believe in the necessity of variance in complex systems, I also suspect that there is some, perhaps evolving, optimal level of variance. If the system is uniform and unchanging, it becomes fragile and will eventually shatter from exogenous change. If the system is anarchic and random, you lose all levels of efficiency and effectiveness. The optimum amount of variance is somewhere between 0 and infinite. My guess, looking at immigration levels in the US and some European countries over the past couple of hundred years, is that that optimum is probably somewhere between 5-15% of the population being foreign born at any given moment in time, and I am guessing that it is towards the lower end of that range. We are currently at about 14.5%.

A further factor is the degree of selectivity of immigration. The more that immigrants are selected on cultural compatibility, on demonstrated capabilities, on demonstrated cultural attributes which are admired, the easier it is to have higher levels of foreign born populations.

The challenge in the US, I think, is not immigration per se but volumes and selectivity. We are coming off 30 years of relatively unmanaged immigration with very high percentages of immigrants unselected for cultural compatibility, higher capabilities and/or admired cultural attributes. This volume and randomness has meant that that there has been a very skewed distribution of the benefits from immigration with the benefits mostly going to the wealthy and the costs usually exacted on the poor.

I think that is the context of Dimant, et al's research. They are looking at a very specific question: What is the degree to which host country corruption levels are affected by foreign immigration?
From the abstract:
This paper analyzes the impact of migration on destination-country corruption levels. Capitalizing on a comprehensive dataset consisting of annual immigration stocks of OECD countries from 207 countries of origin for the period 1984-2008, we explore different channels through which corruption might migrate. We employ different estimation methods using Fixed Effects (FE) and Tobit regressions in order to validate our findings. Moreover, we also address the issue of endogeneity by using the Difference-Generalized Method of Moments (GMM) estimator. Independent of the econometric methodology, we consistently find that while general migration has an insignificant effect on the destination country's corruption level, immigration from corruption-ridden origin countries boosts corruption in the destination country. Our findings provide a more profound understanding of the socio-economic implications associated with migration flows.
I am more interested in the more general question: To what degree are host country cultural values changed by the introduction of foreign values via immigration? If the host culture is immune from influence of foreign values, then the argument against the potential negative effects of immigration becomes a simpler argument about economics. If foreign cultural values do transfer with some measurable effect, then the nature of the foreign values and the volume become much more critical concerns.

Dimant, et al find that cultural values do transfer and their particular case study is that a negative value transfers (it would be nice to see a similar study on a positive cultural trait such as work ethic.) From an article by the lead author.

Independent of the econometric methodology applied, we consistently find:
(i) General migration has an insignificant effect on the destination country’s corruption level.
(ii) Immigration from corruption-ridden countries boosts corruption in the destination country.
Hence, the international legislators’ fear (as expressed in recent agreements by the G20 group) that immigration may cause a problematic inflow of corruption appears to be justified. Policy-makers will therefore have to take precautions to avoid this problem. However, the optimal response is not obvious. One possibility could be to restrict immigration by only selecting immigrants originating from non-corrupt countries. Alternatively, very careful checks ad personam could be conducted.
So this particular study supports the proposition that emigration that is to be additive to a host nation's well-being ought to take into consideration cultural compatibility as well as the personal value portfolio of individual immigrants. That makes logical sense but the procedural mechanisms to achieve that are difficult and expensive to achieve.

The closing passage from this article is an example of why freedom based democracies have such a hard time with philosopher-kings who simply wish to execute plans without seeking consent. From the ivory halls:
The downside of this policy is that it could seriously restrict the inflow of migrants, which might not be optimal given that most OECD countries face a severe aging problem and are in need of immigration to keep their social security systems sustainable. An arguably better strategy could be to immunize the domestic population against a corrupt attitude brought into the country by some immigrants and thus preserve the state’s purposeful functionality. One way to achieve this is through better educating the domestic population of the detrimental effects brought about by corruption. This would both raise their awareness and yield a critical state of mind.
The man in the street interpretation? "You are telling us we need to increase immigration because we are aging. That we can't control the quality of that immigration. That some of that immigration will be detrimental. And that we need to spend money teaching native citizens not to pick up bad cultural habits from immigrants?"

You can see why that might be a hard argument to sell to the average citizen. It is a bad argument.

UPDATE: Coincidentally came across From Everything You Wanted to Know About Chain Migration by Ed Straker. The data is for the most recent year available, 2015. Of the slightly more than 1 million immigrants accepted that year, only 15% were selected based on skills. The 850,000 unvetted immigrants included refugees, foreign spouses joining American citizens, family migration (a naturalized immigrant bringing in parents, siblings, adult children, etc.), and "lottery" immigrants. Obviously, many, perhaps most, of those 850,000 might have high levels of cultural compatibility, valuable skills, and respected values. But we don't know.

In our current state, we have high volumes of legal immigration with low levels of actual screening. An interesting context to add to research of Dimant et al.

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