Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Locked in the Equilibrium

With the announcement of Labour's new immigration policy, we can at last be entirely sure that the extended election campaign has gripped home. And it's ugly, dammit. Both big parties are now committed to a policy of dramatic cuts in immigration and of a whole new philosophy on this issue. Crucially, the proposals Charles Clarke issued yesterday would introduce something like the concept of "guest workers", forbidden to bring their families or draw social benefits and obliged to return home after 5 years, to British practice. This is a radical change in ideas. For most of the last 60 years, there has been a distinction between those countries (usually Anglo-Saxon, oddly enough) who considered immigration broadly desirable and permanent, and those countries (usually continental-European) who attempted to have both immigrant labour and an absence of immigrants. British commentators frequently criticised Germany, for example, for its curious position of having a million Turks in the country whilst maintaining that "We are not an immigration country".

In this light, it is worth mentioning, the commonly drawn distinction between "integration" and "multiculturalism" is of secondary importance. You can only have either integration or multiculturalism if you first accept that the people who are to be integrated or to have their cultural identity respected exist and are not going away again. In passing, I wonder how much reality this much-debated distinction ever contained? After all, it's certainly not true to say that "integrationist" Australia's cities do not have strongly identified ethnic areas like "multicultural" London or Bradford. But this is off-topic.

The new immigration proposals represent - if they are ever put into effect, as opposed to being merely electoral - a break with the underlying philosophy of policy that has guided the UK since 1948. Whether or not you agree or disagree with the content, you can hardly deny the radical importance. How did we get from the constant invocations of "diversity" in the first Labour term to this point? (Does anyone now remember Robin Cook's speech regarding chicken tikka masala?) Where did the remarkable convergence between the old enemies, Blair and Howard, come from?

Economists have the concept of a Nash equilibrium to explain the situation where a small number of competitors tend not to undercut each other, even without colluding. The basic idea is that for each possible price firm A could charge, there is a matching strategy for firm B. You can plot a curve (a reaction function) showing the cost or benefit to firm A for each price. Plot both firms' curves on the graph and you'll find they cross. At that intersection, neither party can change their price without losing out. Unless something exogenous, outside the cosy confines of our axes, occurs, there they will stay indefinitely.

It's not far from that theoretical insight to the practice. At least in their own frame of reference, both big-party leaders are convinced that, just like the trapped duellists caged in the Nash diagram's axes, if they move the other will go the other way and grab advantage. So long as the basic perception that refugee-bashing plays well holds, there is no way out of this. Note that the logic of the Nash equilibrium doesn't require them to be right; so long as they believe immigration to be radioactive, their behaviour will be the same. Because they will behave in the same way, they will never encounter the test of reality.

Horrible, innit?

It gets worse, of course, because we are dealing with decisions of a dynamic rather than a static nature. Instead of just being locked at the same price level, we are locked into a process of progressively increasing severity. Imagine that, instead of a price, the variable is a degree of acceleration or declaration. Whilst the equilibrium persists and the two players remain locked at the same value, we are steadily going faster and faster. In fact, there is a positive feedback operating as well (damn, we're heavy on the concepts today! A positive feedback loop in a Nash equilibrium! Wahoo! They'll invite me to join Crooked Timber..). One of the basic facts of the case is that public opinion surveys regularly show that "the public" thinks there are too many immigrants. Another of the facts of the case is that "the public" when asked to estimate how many immigrants there are generally overestimate by an order of magnitude. That is, they think there are too many immigrants, in both the possible senses.

That brings us to another point. There's a simple ratchet at work here (there goes another one!) - because of the equilibrium lock, whatever either big party comes up with will be spun to the press as being "tough". The next frame is pretty obvious. Yer man then calls the other main party for a quote in response to that. Following the inexorable logic of the Nash equilibrium, they of course beat it. The ensuing story, of course, then gets a screamer headline...the first party reads that, concludes that this is the number 1 hot issue, and heads off to crank the screw up some more. After all, one of the main factors in the Home Office's "fear survey" is the content of the mass press.

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