The one number that explains the employment situation

5.6 people are chasing every one job. Without reducing this number, unemployment can never substanti

Perhaps the best single piece of news in the unemployment data isn't the reduction in the number of unemployed people, which, though a positive indicator, obscures a number of less positive results. It is instead the reduction in the number of unemployed people per vacancy, which now stands at 5.6, down from 5.9.

The data has also allowed the TUC to recompile their list of employment blackspots – those places where this ratio rises to unacceptable heights:

Local Authority

Region

Claimant Count

Vacancies

Ratio

West Dunbartonshire

Scotland

4,036

111

36.4

Inverclyde

Scotland

3,023

84

36.0

Lewisham

London

10,886

318

34.2

Hackney

London

10,869

461

23.6

Blaenau Gwent

Wales

3,393

150

22.6

Hartlepool

North East

4,671

214

21.8

Eilean Siar

Scotland

566

26

21.8

Lambeth

London

12,362

592

20.9

Kingston upon Hull

Yorkshire & Humber

15,431

759

20.3

Haringey

London

10,393

552

18.8

These figures should pour cold water on the government's triumph at the evidence that their work experience programme is effective at getting people back into employment. Yes, this is good news (although also, of course, the minimum that should be expected from a programme which, until recently, threatened people with loss of benefits if they did not volunteer their time). But unless the programme reduces this ratio of unemployed people to vacancies, then all it does is fill vacancies with one set of people rather than another.

When there are five people competing for every vacancy the best way to make unemployment go down is to create new jobs to fill. There are other ways to reduce the figure - for instance, the government could make seeking work so unpleasant that people stop claiming jobseekers' allowance and eventually stop looking for work altogether - but they are merely massaging the figures, rather than solving the problem. Helping people get what vacancies there when low growth means that there are no new jobs will do nothing for the unemployment figures.

It is the fundamental difference between acting on an individual level and a societal one.

A building site in Lewisham, an employment blackspot. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The economic and moral case for global open borders

Few politicians are prepared to back a policy of free movement everywhere. Perhaps they should. 

Across the world, borders are being closed, not opened. In the US, Donald Trump has vowed to halve immigration to 500,000 and to cap the number of refugees at 50,000. In the UK, the Conservative government has reaffirmed its pledge to end free movement after Brexit is concluded. In Europe, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are being sued by the EU for refusing to accept a mandatory share of refugees.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has followed the rightward drift. Its general election manifesto promised to end free movement, and Corbyn recently complained of the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe”.

Among economists, however, a diametrically opposed conversation prevails. They argue that rather than limiting free movement, leaders should expand it: from Europe to the world. Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, likens the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk”.

Economists estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent. A doubling of GDP (a $78trn increase) would correspond to 23 years of growth at 3 per cent. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund estimates that permitting the entirely free movement of capital would add a mere $65bn.

The moral case for open borders is similarly persuasive. As the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman writes in his recent book Utopia for Realists: “Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.” An unskilled Mexican worker who migrates to the US would raise their pay by around 150 per cent; an unskilled Nigerian by more than 1,000 per cent.

In his epochal 1971 work A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls imagined individuals behind a “veil of ignorance”, knowing nothing of their talents, their wealth or their class. It follows, he argued, that they would choose an economic system in which inequalities are permitted only if they benefit the most disadvantaged. The risk of being penalised is too great to do otherwise. By the same logic, one could argue that, ignorant of their fortunes, individuals would favour a world of open borders in which birth does not determine destiny.

Yet beyond Rawls’s “original position”, the real-world obstacles to free movement are immense. Voters worry that migrants will depress their wages, take their jobs, burden the welfare state, increase crime and commit terrorism. The problem is worsened by demagogic politicians who seek to exploit such fears.

But research shows that host countries gain, rather than lose, from immigration. Migrants are usually younger and healthier than their domestic counterparts and contribute far more in tax revenue than they claim in benefits. Rather than merely “taking” jobs, migrants and their children create them (Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant, is one example). In the US, newcomers are only a fifth as likely to be imprisoned as the native born. A Warwick University study of migration flows between 145 countries found that immigration helped to reduce terrorism by promoting economic development.

In a world of open borders, the right to move need not be an unqualified one (the pollster Gallup found that 630 million people – 13 per cent of the global population – would migrate permanently). Under the EU’s free movement system, migrants must prove after three months that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system” – conditions that the UK, ironically, has never applied.

But so radical does the proposal sound that few politicians are prepared to give voice to it. An exception is the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who argued in 2016: “Inevitably, in this century, we will have open borders. We are seeing it in Europe already. The movement of peoples across the globe will mean that borders are almost going to become irrelevant by the end of this century, so we should be preparing for that and explaining why people move.”

At present, in a supposed era of opportunity, only 3 per cent of the global population live outside the country of their birth. As politicians contrive to ensure even fewer are able to do so, the case for free movement must be made anew.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear