Book Review: Better Lives: Migration, Wellbeing and New Zealand

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_better_lives_migration_wellbeing_and_nzWith migration being an ongoing political topic, and a tricky policy area, this book would seem to be a timely one. Julie Fry and Peter Wilson are both independent economists, and the former has already co-written a 2016 text on migration, with Hamish Glass, for Bridget Williams Books. However, this version is a lot longer and becomes more of an academic text, rather than an extended essay on a specific topic.

Besides utilising their economics training, and referring to well-recognised academic economists, Fry and Wilson introduce the ‘Wellbeing’ framework, which introduces a range of qualitative aspects for policy-making, to complement the existing quantitative measures. But the authors also refer to the shortcomings of aggregated statistics such as Gross Domestic Product, before setting out all the categories of the Wellbeing approach. Since the so-called Wellbeing approach will apparently feature prominently in next year’s Budget documents, this is a useful way to think about nuances in policy.

However, the idea of Wellbeing is open to criticism for being somewhat subjective, or even nebulous, and introducing political criteria, such as considerations of the Treaty of Waitangi. One can perhaps expect right wing economists to find it all a bit too politically correct, and also lacking in econometric rigour. There is a conceptual problem that is rather obvious here, and migration exemplifies it for economists. While most economists want free movement of money, capital and goods across borders, there seems to be an exception with the mobility of people, at least for people who don’t have useful skills. Yet that mobility also aids in moving wages and prices.

The difficulty provided by this conceptual problem, of having free markets but not free movement in people, becomes clear in the chapter on applying the Wellbeing framework. This chapter is actually significant in itself, highlighting the current issues in tertiary education, and the health profession, caused by temporary and permanent migration. But, certainly with regard to tertiary ‘export’ education, especially in private training (with work visas), the authors revert to wearing their economic hats.

First there is a criticism of export education as a contributor to national income, given the free movement of capital, as a business decision. The point being that so-called export education is not necessarily good for the economy just because it provides an ‘export’ income. Then a few pages later the authors claim, while making a point set within parentheses, that ‘export’ education is not really an export at all, if those graduating from tertiary courses stay in New Zealand, and don’t actually return home.

The latter point is made in the context of an important discussion about the health sector workforce. Indeed, it seems that New Zealand has almost the highest number of foreign-born doctors in the world, apart from Israel, and has the most foreign-born nurses. It might have been better to focus on these migration issues within the tertiary sector, and the related question of training an indigenous based health profession, more directly.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Better Lives: Migration, Wellbeing and New Zealand
by Julie Fry & Peter Wilson
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781988533759