Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Matt over at The Visible Hand points us to one of the darker responses to the current economic unpleasantness: resurgent tribalism. Long story short: a New Zealand manufacturing plant with some skilled migrant Filipino workers kept those workers on and laid off some relatively lower skilled New Zealand workers. The laid off workers are, of course, upset about having lost their jobs and some are pushing to have the migrant workers' visas revoked.

It's depressing that the government seems to be jumping on the "let's blame the immigrants" bandwagon. Leaving aside the obvious point that if the company were to have to lose its more skilled workers it might well lose its contract with Nissan and consequently have to lay off a lot more good Kiwi blokes, it's still none of the government's business. The firm is better placed than the government to decide which of its employees are most important to keep on - and all the more so when many firms are running pretty close to the shut-down point.

I'd previously reported on the correlates of "economic thinking" in New Zealand. One of the components of my "economic thinking" variable measured whether the respondent tended to agree that immigrants help the economy. I re-ran things, this time using only the immigration measure. I constructed a variable taking on a value of 1 if the respondent disagreed or strongly disagreed that immigrants help the economy, and 0 if neutral or positive towards immigrants' effects. I then ran probit specifications to find the correlates of being in this group.

The NZES also queries whether respondents agree or disagree that "immigration is a threat to the New Zealand way of life". The variable correlates strongly with thinking that immigrants hurt the economy (0.44). The two columns in the table below report the results (marginal effects) of separate probit specifications looking at the correlates of thinking immigrants are a threat either to the New Zealand economy or to the New Zealand way of life.

The table reports only those interesting variables that are significant both after a general-to-specific reduction and in the initial specification, so some variables only show up in one specification or the other. The coefficients tell you the increase in the probability of answering that immigrants are a threat given a change in the independent variable listed. So, if you're of Asian ethnicity, you're 14% less likely to believe that immigration hurts the economy (but no more or less likely to believe that immigrants threaten the New Zealand way of life).

What I found most interesting was that left-wing ideology, which I expected to be a reasonable insulation against fear of immigrants, only showed up in the second specifications: holding left-wing ideology correlates with a reduced fear that immigrants threaten our way of life, but has no effect on views of the effects of immigrants on the economy. I was also very surprised to find that union membership had zero effect on beliefs about how immigrants effect the economy, but strongly affected beliefs about "way of life". None of the occupational codes came up as important, being unemployed or on unemployment benefit didn't matter. Being of middling income seemed to increase fear of immigrants, as both low and high income groups showed negative effects (though which proved statistically significant varied by specification).

The obvious candidate variables show up as important: education and reading newspapers reduces fear of immigrants; political ignorance, being in a rural area, and being born in New Zealand increases it. If I add in political party support, supporters of the Maori Party and New Zealand First are significantly more likely to view immigrants as a threat to the New Zealand way of life and to the economy; National and Labour supporters are pretty similar to each other on these questions with reduced likelihood of viewing immigrants as a threat as compared to the set of other parties' supporters.

Perhaps sentiments have changed a lot since 2005 when this survey was conducted, what with the ongoing economic unpleasantness. In the 2005 survey, there's little evidence that those out of work or in more tenuous household situations were more fearful of immigrants; of course, it's now much harder to find a job if you become unemployed. But, based on the 2005 numbers, 35% of respondents rated immigrants a threat to the NZ way of life (with 41% disagreeing) and only 22% rated immigrants a burden to the economy (with 51% disagreeing). And, National supporters were more pro-immigrant than average. This is all pretty promising. Even if Immigration Minister Coleman is not helping in keeping immigrants from becoming scapegoats, it doesn't look like there's a big base on which such sentiment could build.

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