Left Outside

Migration as Technology

I was a little confused by this Robin Hanson post. He cites with approval the fact that since 1970 40% of all the extra consumption in the world has occurred in the United States. Below are the top 30 gainers in terms of tens of billions of dollars a year.

United States 583, Japan 183, China 103, United Kingdom 73, Germany 63, France 53, India 47, Brazil 47, Italy 39, Canada 37, Mexico 37, Spain 28, Indonesia 14, Netherlands 11, Greece 9, South Africa 8, Thailand 8, Switzerland 8, Belgium 8, Austria 7, Colombia 7, Sweden 7, Philippines 7, Norway 7, Malaysia 7, Portugal 6, Chile 6, Finland 5, Ireland 5, Denmark 4. (source)

Robin argues that this is argument against Tyler’s notion of a slow down in technological innovation. But the population of the US is 48% bigger in 2010 (310,000,000) than in 1970 (209,000,000). At first I couldn’t see why this would counts as evidence against some notion of a slow down in intensive growth. The US got more from more which is great for all those people involved, but it is not evidence we can get more from less, is it?

Well, in a way it is, although you have to denationalise your perspective. The US does have an overwhelming lead in one “technology”; that of receiving and assimilating migrants. The factors behind this are geographical, historical and cultural, but it still as a really important technology in terms of increasing “our” productive and consumptive capacity.

The productivity of millions of people has been hugely increased simply by them moving across a border. Allowing more migration is an innovation that can make many people better off by improving their productivity. But it is a technology which cannot be excercised by a single firm, it is better thought of as a society-wide innovation akin to germ theory or corporation law.

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