Archive for January, 2011

What Causes Migration?

January 23, 2011

There are so many strands to the discourse on immigration that it is easy to lose sight of the underlying conditions that give rise to different views. Debate focuses on the trees and loses sight of the forest. Is it possible to do otherwise? Probably not, but here I attempt to describe what is happening and why, while not attempting to suggest solutions. Consider the reaction of a visitor from Mars who views conditions on Earth and the associated immigration scenarios being discussed.

Apparent facts

Migration is the result of the availability of land on planet Earth, the people who inhabit the planet now and in the future, and the movement of persons from one part of the planet to another.

Earth is a self contained planet within the universe. Absence space travel and underwater living, the inhabitants of Earth are forced to live somewhere on the land surface of the planet. They are mobile and can, unless impeded, move from one place to another. They appear to do this from time to time.

The total population of Earth has increased. Records estimate that for many centuries the total was about 1 billion. It increased to 2.5 billion by the 1950s, to 7 billion in 2010 and some project it to peak at around 9 billion by 2070. Early and future figures are all estimates, but the substantial growth between 1950 and 2010 is considered reliable, (Wikipedia provides sources of population estimates).

Earth’s population is spread unevenly around the world as a result of many factors including climate, availability of food, birth and death rates and the ease with which people can move from one place to another – more on this later.
Research based on archaeological evidence shows that human beings migrated out of Africa about 130,000 years ago reaching North America about 30,000 years ago – see world map of migratory patterns at

Travel depended on the initiative of individuals subject to various incentives such as the availability of agricultural land and changes in climactic conditions. For example, during these millennia there were several ice ages that covered parts of the world and then retreated.

Migration of people around the world has existed for thousands of years. Originally people moved with their families and tribes. They probably moved because of adverse conditions at home and the opportunities which they imagined existed elsewhere. Those with initiative often showed the way.

Today, the land area of the Earth is divided artificially by imaginary lines called borders which define geographical entities called nation states. There are about 200 nation states of vastly different sizes, about double the number in 1950. Some have large land areas like Russia and Canada, and others small like Singapore and Mauritius. Some have large populations like China and India and others small like Caribbean and other small island states. Some are wealthy and others poor on a GDP per capita basis.

The governments of states claim the right to organize and control the activities within their boundaries. This includes monitoring whatever crosses their borders whether as trade in goods and services or the movement of people. Required are screening mechanisms and the ability to enforce the state’s rules on those who enter, and sometimes those who leave. Those who gain entry without being screened are described as illegal migrants and the process of entry as equivalent to the smuggling of goods into a country.

The current pressure for people to move from one country to another arises because of differing conditions between countries. The standard of living in some countries is much higher than in others. People are motivated to move to where they can improve the livelihood of their families. The same is true where it is safer to live in some than other places. Modern communications provides the necessary information to potential migrants. Lower transportation costs facilitate their movement.

Because the states’ screening mechanisms act as taps to limit inflows of official migrants, people set themselves up in business to do two things. Some people act as advisors to those who want to enter the country through the legal gateways; and others show people how to enter illegally by bypassing the rules. The latter can be very rewarding but also dangerous in the sense that the person can be prosecuted for smuggling people into the country.

So what?

The barebone conditions of international migration are the combination of the limited land area of spaceship earth, a growing world population that is unevenly spread around the planet, and a desire by people to improve their lives and that of their families by moving from less to more desirable locations. Combine these factors, which I consider as given, with the man-made division of the earth’s land area into artificial entities called states, and you have the basic conditions for migration today. See how the boundaries of the countries of Europe have changed over the past 1000 years at . Each of these states claims sovereignty over its land area. Whether many small states can actually exercise sovereignty is questionable, but it is the claim that makes migration like trade a topic of universal interest.

I suggest that the factors discussed above set out the background conditions which our Martian visitor might see as the problem which individual countries have to grapple with in administering their immigration policies. This background looks at the forest as opposed to individual trees which represent the interests of individual groups within a country that are concerned with admitting refugees, relatives of previous immigrants, those with particular skills, temporary foreign workers and foreign students. In Canada, there are lobbyists for each of these groups. At the same time, there are those who lobby to reduce immigration using arguments about existing high unemployment, the social costs of integrating newcomers into Canadian society, frictions caused by migrants with different cultural backgrounds, and the need to stabilize the size of the Canadian population.

As I stated at the outset, I don’t have answers to the many issues raised by immigration. I do think that the pressure to find answers will increase as more people are on the move globally and the ability to exercise state sovereignty has weakened.


Restricting Consumer Choice

January 21, 2011

The following is a message from my cable provider:

Unfortunately the channels you have outlined are mostly bundled together in the Basic Cable and Cable Plus Combo packages and we are unable to remove specific channels from those packages and modify the price. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Suppose you visit a supermarket to buy some cornflakes and are told that you can only have the cornflakes if you also take a can of beans and a pack of frozen peas. Store policy dictates that cornflakes are only sold in a bundle with beans and peas. Or suppose you want to buy some screws in the hardware store and you can only buy them if you take a can of paint and a hammer. The absurdity of these purchase conditions is exactly what you do when you buy cable TV services. You cannot pick and pay, that is buy the individual channels you want. You are offered a bundle of channels among which may be one or two you want but others you never watch.

The reason for this policy in Canada is that viewers watch US and other foreign services such as the BBC and there is concern by some that Canadian channels
which may be more likely to carry Canadian content will not attract viewers. The fact that viewers may only watch the foreign channels in the bundles with domestic channels means that you can force channels to be carried by cable services but not force viewers to watch them. Note the declining audience shares of CBC television audiences: the CBC is supposed to be the flagship for Canadian content.

Cultural nationalists in Canada have supported this policy along with subsidies for the production of Canadian content and lobby for its continuation. Agriculture and culture remain among the last bastions of protectionist trade policies. However, the end is in sight. It will be technology rather than economic arguments that will destroy this fortress and introduce competition to the benefit of consumers.

The combination of DVDs delivered by mail or online and internet TV services will put the consumer in the driver’s seat to decide what they want to watch and when. The PVR has already done this by allowing viewers to time shift and watch recorded programs while fast-forwarding through the commercials. Computers with access to the internet can be linked to a TV screen so as to watch material from the internet, and TV sets will have built in internet access to facilitate this type of viewing.

Luckily for viewers technology will give them the benefits of competition that politicians and certain interest groups refuse to allow. Imagine the day when you are able to choose to watch exactly what you want similar to the way you do when you go to the movies, select a book from the library or bookstore, buy your preferred newspaper and magazine and select your favourite CD. Shortly, you will be able to decide when you watch video content and the menu of choices will be much greater. There will be issues of copyright to sort out but this always happens when new technology occurs as it has for print publishing and music.

Technology also offers a good news story for the creators of content. The internet provides new content producers with the opportunity to air their material without depending on the traditional channels of distribution and many are doing so. Established producers benefit from traditional channels. A vibrant cultural community is one that encourages entrepreneurs and new entrants.

Although cultural nationalism may have been motivated for understandable reasons, the resulting policies harm the interests they seek to promote. We can now look forward to the time in video when you want beans you no longer have to buy turnips as well. It has been an absurd situation but the end is nigh.

Social Networking – Then and Now

January 16, 2011

The Kings Speech and The Social Network are two films that bookend my lifespan from the 1930s to the present. Both are excellent films and illustrate the changes that have taken place over a few decades. In the 1930s people networked by mail and telephones that used operators to connect parties. In 2011, networking is via mobile phones, Blackberries and other gadgets that provide instant communications. Today, everyone seems to know what everyone else is doing anywhere in the world. In 1948, George Orwell wrote about what he expected to happen by 1984. He had no idea of the changes in technology that would actually link then and now. Below I summarize how social networking has changed over time and what this may mean.

In rural England where I lived as a child, people connected with each other in the same neighbourhood. You met and knew your neighbours by seeing them and talking to them. Your circle of immediate acquaintances was small and the conversations were not recorded except in personal memories where the record might be conveniently edited.

A wider circle of acquaintances was reached by mail and for some by telephone. The postal service was relatively cheap but phone calls were paid for on a timed basis and long distance calls were often prohibitive depending on the distance. Emergency long distance messages were sent by telegraph and paid for by the word. In sum a person’s social network was small, most of it close at hand with some facility to link with people further away.

Conversations were not recorded unlike written letters which might be kept but were often discarded. Historians have found letters and diaries invaluable in recording the past if they remain available. Contrast this with the present where many communications are easy to record and store. One observer commented that the hard drive is the greatest invention since grandparents’ memories which previously acted as storage devices.

Other facilities for social networking in the past were the pub, the club and the coffee shop. All these exist in some form today and consume patrons’ waking hours. These are places where unrecorded conversations took place, although now it is easy to record them.

Today social networking takes many forms. All those mentioned above exist and are used to some extent today. However the direct recorded communications now includes e-mail, text messaging, mobile phone usage and devices which allow messages (including audio and video) to be sent by a combination of available wireless and wired networks. More people can afford to send more messages with more content.

What differs today is that all these forms of electronic social networking can be recorded and stored indefinitely. In addition it is possible to forge someone’s presence and remarks. Forged letter writing and messaging is not new but can now be undertaken more easily. Already employers are checking a person’s Facebook and other networking sites to collect background information. Imagine that what a person wrote in their teens may be used to evaluate their suitability for future employment. Jon Stewart on the Daily Show uses video clips of statements made by politicians and others that are often embarrassing. Among children, cyber bullying, is a practice that is engaged in by their peers. This is not to suggest that any of this can be prevented but users of social networking sites need to be aware of the possible downside of these forms of communication.

Blogs such as this are also forms of social networking. While useful for informed feedback and criticism that is generated, blogs too have the potential for negative impacts. While social networking is not new, the forms that it now takes and future developments, unknown at least to me, will need to be monitored. I cannot see that there is much the state can or should do to counter negative effects of social networking. It would require the monitoring of the equivalent of verbal conversations. I am curious to learn what others see in both the upside and downside of social networking today.

One further thought about modern communications technology. While it adds to what one is able to do each day, it does not increase the time available to do it – 24 hours per day, except in the sense that one may be able to do things more efficiently and thus consume less time per activity such as sending a message, correcting a typed draft or researching information. What I need to do is decide how I want to spend my waking hours and search out those applications which support this decision. The advice of those with whom I network is often useful in this quest.

Identity Cards and Migrants

January 15, 2011

This posting stems from a feeling that the context for the discourse on immigration policy has changed from a narrow view that deals with the screening of immigrants and asylum seekers to a broader view of how to manage the crossborder movement of people. With a global population that has grown from 2.5bn in the 1950s to 7bn today and a doubling in the number of countries to almost 200 over the same time period, more people are crossing more borders. They cross for various reasons but at the time of crossing it is difficult for screening authorities to know which category they belong to and which entry conditions apply. At the same time claims are made about state sovereignty which includes the right to control borders. Regarding the crossborder movement of people, countries are now less able to exercise sovereignty. There are however measures to address this problem.

Consider the case of Canada where in a recent year 30.5 million people are reported to have entered Canada – approximately 30 million as tourists, 250,000 as permanent residents and most of the remainder as temporary foreign workers. Since there is no detailed recording of who leaves and when they leave, Canada does not know how many people are here legally. Only estimates are possible and these often reflect the interests of those quoting them. Note the estimated figure for the US is 11 million persons.

Illegal persons in Canada come from a combination of those who have entered legally but not left when required to do so, and those who have managed to enter illegally by somehow crossing the Canadian border without being noticed. Tourists from some countries only need to show a passport at the Canadian border, while from others they must obtain a visa. Temporary foreign workers and permanent residents must be screened and receive official permission to enter.

This brief summary suggests that there are ways for foreigners to cross the Canadian border and remain in the country without official permission to stay. Since the demand for permanent residency status exceeds the annual available quota, an industry of immigration consultants and fixers has grown up of those who are paid to game the system. News reports indicate that foreigners pay several thousands of dollars for a passage to Canada. If the foreigner is unable to pay cash up front, a loan may be arranged to be paid back for work done in Canada or for some service performed which may well be illegal. The system fosters an underground economy. This is not to suggest that all illegal activity can be eradicated but the present set of policies makes it more likely to persist.

Another approach to managing the type of problems outlined above is to undertake checks on persons in the country. A natural reaction to such a suggestion is that it smacks of actions taken in a police state. This is true but it ignores the extent to which people already surrender their identity in exchange for some benefit. A passport, drivers licence, health card, bank card, credit card, tax return, home ownership all require providing personal information. At the same time, use of the internet in general and social networking in particular means that there exists a detailed record of what people say and do. Security and advertising agencies are among those who make a practice of finding out what individuals are doing, aided at times by closed circuit television systems. The last are used to catch criminals while at the same time recording the actions of innocent private citizens.

It seems remarkable to me that with all the information given off by persons in everyday life that some of this information cannot be gathered and reviewed to determine whether a person is legally within a country.