Saturday, February 7, 2015

Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century, by Paul Collier

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Exodus marshals some very interesting research into migration and its economic effects, yet overall the book disappoints with its narrow focus and unwieldy language.

Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University. He’s also worked at the World Bank. Exodus, which examines global migration in the 21st century, aims to take a contentious issue and bring a calmly rational approach to it. Collier claims to look at the simple facts of migration and from that deduce the correct policy settings. Like so many others, Collier has an interesting personal migrant story to tell. His German grandfather, Karl Hellenschmidt, migrated from the poverty stricken town of Ernsbach, to one of the world’s most prosperous at that time, Bradford in England. Karl Hellenschmidt’s son, Karl Hellenschmidt Jr., would change his name to Collier. As the author tells us several times, his family chose to assimilate rather than retain their German identity.

The findings of Exodus, which uses much interesting, if incomplete, research, aren’t too radical. A bit of common sense would tell you the same things. Too much migration can cause strains on the host country. The larger the host country’s diaspora of a particular nationality, let’s say Bangladeshi, the easier it makes it for further Bangladeshis to migrate. Diasporas offers many advantages - financial, linguistic and cultural support among them. Nation states on the other hand, and a sense of patriotism, promote harmony, co-operation and mutual regard. Migrants to richer countries reap the higher productivity ( working with computers and more sophisticated machinery ) that those more evolved labor markets offer, resulting in dramatically higher wages. They get a “free lunch” by gaining employment in a more advanced economy, one that relies on trust and the rule of law.

That’s a snapshot of some of the major points Collier discusses. To simplify overall the book basically says host countries receive a modest financial gain and negligible social strain from migration. It’s all really much of a muchness. However, the danger is if migration were to be increased too much, then this could cause social unrest. The best way to avoid social unrest is to ditch the policies of multiculturalism and promote assimilation. This way the diaspora would be reduced and migration wouldn’t have such a high social cost.

This is a book that has several problems. Perhaps the main one is its very narrow economic focus. It feels like we’re being invited to view the Mona Lisa, but a magnifying glass is  continually held over her nose and we’re not allowed to look at anything else. The migrant experience, the differing reasons why people migrate or even a short history of migration isn’t given at all. The overall picture is one of migrants being rather benign, perhaps a little  parasitic, and yet potentially very dangerous. The question arises: if migration rewards host countries so poorly, why have so many countries pursued it at all?

Also problematic is the book’s language. Collier uses a lot of glib buzzwords common to economic theory, like ‘game theory’ and ‘zero-sum games’. The text is so heavily larded in this way that it’s hard to get a focus on what he’s saying. I had to repeatedly re-read sentences three or four times to try and figure out what was going on. Once translated into common English, you realise some great point wasn’t escaping you, and that plainer, more direct English could have been used (and Collier writes that this is a book for the lay reader!). It’s a case of someone obfuscating meaning in order to appear more lofty and intelligent. He also uses analogies and metaphors that don’t seem right. Because of this, it’s hard to trust his arguments. For example, when discussing potential rises in migration, he likens it to global warming. Not only that, he goes on to draw out the analogy for another page, not leaving it as a throwaway remark. My immediate impression was that he knew very little about global warming. Maybe his knowledge of migration was limited too?

There are plus sides to Exodus, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it to the end. Collier does use a lot of interesting research (again, much of this research is incomplete) and this aspect of the book provides food for thought. But this is more in the line of interesting facts and figures; the much bigger picture of migration the book doesn’t address, and for this reason many may find it disappointing.

Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century, by Paul Collier. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141042169. RRP: $22.99

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