Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Mass Immigration, the Growth Imperative and the Creative Metropolis

In Switzerland, votes can quickly turn into a political thriller accessible to the public. Here, the people as the ultimate sovereign has the right (which is rather exceptional compared to other countries) to say “stop, not like this!” in a vote, notwithstanding the recommendations of its government, of wealthy interest groups or expert warnings. This was the case with the recent initiative against mass immigration launched by the SVP that has won with a narrow majority of votes. 

The reactions to this result produced quite predictable waves of indignation, hyperbole and panic (while the winners’ joy was a bit muffled): Switzerland at the economic abyss, an isolated island of happy xenophobes, a nation of spoiled farmers who tore open the “Röstigraben” and slapped the EU.

Is this outcry justified? 

At the very least it is open to discussion. The Swiss economy has been buzzing for decades also without the free movement of persons. Furthermore one cannot simply label a country as xenophobic with four out of ten people having a migration background while at the same time enjoying considerable social peace. A spoiled nation of farmers probably also wouldn’t repeatedly and decidedly vote “no” to more holidays, much to the incomprehension of its European neighbors. We also cannot speak of a real “Röstigraben” when four out of ten Romands (French speaking Swiss) still voted for the initiative while several districts (all urban cantons) of the German speaking part of Switzerland rejected it. Finally the slap in the face of the EU should rather be interpreted as a slap in the face of the European political establishment than of the European citizens, who probably would have voted similarly in most cases, would they have a comparable right of the Swiss initiative. 

The reasons why so many Swiss supported the initiative are manifold. Besides the fear of foreign infiltration and the congestion of infrastructure, it is mainly a growing general unease with the current economic and consumer ideology, which is based on the idea that “more” automatically means “better”. A higher GDP – even if it’s per capita – doesn’t automatically translate into a higher standard of living. But even if one were to accept this claim as a truism, as many representatives of the economy propagated implicitly or explicitly, a comparison with Germany provides some interesting insights. Even though Germany has a shrinking population, its GDP has increased by 10% over the past 10 years, compared with 19.2% in Switzerland. However GDP per capita has increased by 10.55% in Germany whereas in Switzerland it has increased only by 7.29% (1). So 80,000 new immigrants per year aren’t necessarily needed to increase economic productivity.  

However, recent research findings point to the fact that at least in industrialized metropolitan areas with good transportation systems there is a considerable and statistically relevant correlation between the population and its economic productivity and innovation. When the population of a city doubles, its economic productivity increases by 130%, which means that productivity per capita increases significantly. Bigger cities, better connections and more flexibility, a better use of talent as well as more innovation – this could sum up the recipe for success for such cities. But there are a few down-sides to such population growth, among which is that the larger a city, the higher the crime rate. In this context it is interesting that Zurich is explicitly mentioned in a study as an example where population growth hasn’t been accompanied by an increase in the crime rate. The authors of the study attribute this to the huge investments in public transport, particularly relevant in as much as Zurich is a metropolitan region composed of numerous smaller towns whose inhabitants can easily travel to the city center in a very short time (2). The investments in public transport – even when they are subsidized by the state – not only contribute to keeping the standard of living on a high level, but are also worth it economically. It actually makes sense, because the bigger the available talent pool, the better the fit for a job opening. This is especially relevant for recruiting talent today, when both partners in a relationship work professionally. While one of them might find a new job in St. Gallen, the other might still want to keep his job in Zurich. This is quite doable thanks to a good, affordable public transport system without one of them having to give up his or her job or taking a lesser position at the new location. 

While in purely economic terms the public transport subsidies might well be worth it, the ecological balance might however not be quite as shiny. Further urbanization of little Switzerland is certainly a big issue that might be directly addressed by the EcoPop-initiative that is scheduled for vote in few years. In this context there have been many discussions about how many persons actually fit in Switzerland – with the specter being a 10 million country as a horror scenario. But if you consider that ten New York Cities would actually fit in the Swiss midlands, you realize that there’s still enough space in our country for more people, roads and houses. Like the New Yorkers, the Swiss mostly cannot imagine to emigrate, so we shouldn’t automatically speak of an unhappy nation of 10 million inhabitants. Rather, we must take into consideration that our quality of life might suffer if the population keeps growing in the same uncoordinated and non-compact way. NYC is known to be a dynamic and livable city because it has grown vertically as opposed to an urban sprawl like, for example, Los Angeles has. So why not build a mini Manhattan in Zurich North or West? Couldn’t this lead to an urban dynamic that would also entail an improvement in the quality of live? 

Therefore the consequences of and factors involved in the initiative against mass immigration are complex and there probably will be neither inevitable disasters nor simple solutions for it.

Manuel Heer Dawson

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