Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Attention Tim Flannery. Immigration is good for the environment.

Apparently there was an IQ2 debate at the City Recital Hall last night, on whether Australia should decrease its immigration rates. Attentive readers would already be aware my answer is a resounding no.

Those who are opposed to increased human population due to its effects on the environment, such as our esteemed 2007 Australian of the Year, have attained the honour of provoking a response from me today. (I might get around to applying a blowtorch to the even more terrible arguments about the labour force or social cohesion on another occasion.)

Its one thing to argue that the Earth can't sustain more people or indeed even our current population. I happen to think it is absurd to argue this; I won't respond to it, though, because the stated case I am refuting is even weaker.

Why? Because immigration does not create more people, magically, out of thin air (as of 2009 there is so far only one technologically mature process for doing so.) It simply moves them. And it doing so, it actually reduces the projected future population of the world. So if we really are approaching the limits of our finite carrying capacity, immigration is actually a Good Thing (TM).

How can immigration reduce future population? Despite popular stereotypes to the contrary, descendents of immigrants assimilate to the culture of their adopted home. Actually the culture also assimilates to them, but this effect is much smaller when immigration is low relative to the size of the population.

Now Australia is in the 5th phase of what's known as the demographic transition. Our natural fertility rate is negative. People immigrating here are typically from countries in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th phases of the transition. If they stayed in their home countries, they would ultimately have far more descendants than if they move here, where many of their great-grandchildren are likely to end up childless.

Of course, Australia's natural resources will end up a little more strained, certainly relative to the rest of the planet. I hope it goes without saying, though, that we all care first and foremost about the global environment, and aren't just seeking to keep our own little island free from populaion pressures. It does go without saying? Excellent.

"Ah", the environmentalist now argues, "but rich people - such as immigrants in a first world country - are far worse for the environment than poor people, such as their cousins left behind."

This rebuttal, for the time being, is true. It is morally abhorrent - it implies that to protect the environment, we should actively seek to prevent the world's poorest people from becoming any richer, while it is implied Westerns be allowed to continue to enjoy tremendous wealth (even the most eco-concious Australian is both far richer and more polluting than most Ethiopians) - but it is nonetheless grounded in fact.

Except the rest of the world is steadily becoming richer, regardless of whether we let people migrate here or not. China and India will eclipse the West's ecological footprint relatively soon, and other developing nations are sure to follow. Meanwhile, the West has actually started to wake up to the issues facing our environment, and furthermore has the luxury of being able to sacrifice some of its vast wealth on attempts to try and save the planet from oblivion.

What is more likely to save the world from climate change? An argument to convince the populations of third world countries that they don't need electricity? An enlightened political consensus leading to enforcable international laws that constrain our carbon emissions? Or scientific breakthroughs, funded by Western economic growth, that lead to both cheap, clean energy sources, and the ability to extract exisiting anthropogenic greenhouse gases from the atmosphere?

You don't have to believe technological progress is a panacea for the world's problems; just that it has a better track record than self-righteous moral preaching or complex political compromies.

Without loss of generality the argument holds for shrinking bio-diversity, loss of arable lands, etc.
Sadly, Malthus remains an influential voice in today's public policy debates, despite more or less 200 years of consistent empirical evidence refuting his ideas. I guess all that's left to be said is: Bring on the next lot of people to add yet more nails to his theories' coffin, and maybe one day people will get the picture.

Here's hoping they include plenty of Indian computer scientists developing smart grid technology for Google in California, Brazilian geneticists engineering algae to convert C02 and sunlight back into fossil fules for the CSIRO in Canberra, and Ghanian economists at the LSE publishing solidly researched papers backing up the case made here with scientifically rigorous evidence.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Some things you might not know about my political views

I've been toying around with my draft first political rant, and find I can't bring myself to post something inspired by anger that no longer seems entirely fair or measured... so instead, since you were all promised politics, here's an arbitrary set of opinions on some issues. Yay!

Abortion: I'm Pro-Choice, but not militantly - my moral intuition fails so poorly on abortion (once I start to reason about it in any detail) that I default to letting the mother's conscience take primacy over mine, since its her body and all. Incidentally I believe Roe vs Wade is appallingly terrible law - there is a gaping hole in the U.S. constitution concerning exactly when a human obtains rights, but I don't think it was the Supreme Court's job to fill it.

Political Hero: Is, these days, Thomas Jefferson. I'm by no means a libertarian, I'm just in awe of his intellect and convictions. How he put his ideals into practice in the messy world of real politics is a truly fascinating topic - having only really read his Wikipedia page, I'm keen to get my hands on a biography or two. Australian political hero - I'll go for Bob Carr, because nerds have to stick up for one another, no?

In the next Federal election: I don't especially want to vote for Labor, largely because Rudd is overreaching with certain elements of his socially conservative agenda - the main bugbear for me being the appalling internet censorship scheme. I could vote for Turnbull - regardless of his less than appealing personal qualities - but certainly not for the Liberal Party, who to add to mynatural inclinations against their right wing politics, have recently presented an appallingly incoherent and often frightningly irrational policy plaform. The Greens are even worse than the Liberals on policy, and will never win my vote until they purge their party of the influence of ideologues who are so deluded they are capable of opposing things like Nuclear Medicine isotope production at the Lucas heights reactor. If the Democrats were still a viable force with actual political talent, I'd consider voting for them, although it'd involve spending a lot of time figuring out what they actually stand for, since that part always seemed a bit murky.

So at the moment, the ALP wins my vote by default. I'd like to see the Labor left pushing internally a bit harder on issues that matter to me, and not on protecting the thugs in the CFMEU who give the Australian union movement a bad name.

Free Markets or Planned Economies? Both. Our current best knowledge of both economic theory and practice seems to point towards best results from a mixed system - something like we have in Australia. There are without a doubt better ways to run economies, but we haven't discovered them yet. However the dawn of the Information Age is promising in this regard (IMO the massive, distributed computing power of the Internet, product of the Silicion Valley entreupener, may quixotically be the Marxist's last great hope for signficiantly more centralised economic decision making becoming truly viable.)

Taxes - up or down? The level of taxation as a proportion of GDP is a matter of fiscal policy, and rightly changes depending on economic circumstance. As a rule I think we should be redistributing more wealth from the rich to the poor, but I believe we should do so via fewer mechanisms - higher but fewer taxes, and higher but fewer forms of welfare. In fact, if I were in power, my main economic agenda would be to simplify - and probably even merge - the tax and welfare systems, in a revenue neutral fashion. Of course that's far from easy to do, but I'd like to see it nonetheless.

Immigration rates: Should go way, way up. Mainly in the form of unskilled labour and refugees, not just poaching the few doctors the third world has (skilled labour from the first world is fine.) Its an economic, demographic, and moral imperative - with our massively aging population we desperately need more young people, and bribing our own middle class to have babies just isn't that cost effective. The added bouns here its freer immigration is basically the best means of global wealth equalisation, since the immigrants will get richer by being here - not because they end up taking our wealth but because they benefit from our positive externalities, so essentially, they get wealthier for free. Also, they tend to send a fair bit of the money they make back to their home countries where it is usually desperately needed.

People like trot out the usual, largely flawed objections to this one. Society has coped before and can cope again, and so can the enivornment. Really.

ETS: Yes, there definitely should be a price on carbon. The science is kinda shaky - we're almost certainly making the Earth warmer, but by exactly how much and with what effects is much more open - but the economic modelling that is the best argument against acting is even shakier. In the face of this much uncertainty, play it safe and cut emissions. We know we can afford the hit to GDP - civilisations have never ended because the government introduced a moderate tax hike. As a bonus, it'll lesson the economic shock when we actually do start to run out of fossil fuels (which isn't for ages, but hey its nice to be prepared.)

Criminal Law: Soft on crime! Ha. I'll advocate purely selfishly in this matter, in favour of whatever minimises the likelihood that I ever end up a victim or perpetrator of crime - and to hell with the rights of current victims or criminals ;-) This involves weighing up, more or less, the deterrence value of strong punishments, the recidivism reduction of rehabilition, and the option of spending public funds in the broader productive economy instead of the justice system - which reduces the odds myself or my neighbour will ever have to steal to eat, become drug dealers and addicts, etc.

Evidence seems to point to spending more money on rehabilitation for criminals, and less on building new gaols. Perhaps the government should outlaw the media's lying portrayal of crime being out of control due to weak-willed judges, when in fact we live in a remarkably safe and peaceful society by any historical or global standard. I mean freedom of speech is all very well and good but what about my freedom to live in a society goverened by reason rather than the hysteria that happens to make newspapers more profitable?

Actually, I don't have to renounce my values quite that much, because I'm confident the internet will, sooner rather than later, send newspapers and television stations in their current form out of business. Good riddance. Whether what ends up replacing them is any better is an open question. I'm an extreme optimist about the future, though.