When in doubt, blame the immigrants

I don’t think I surprise anyone when I say that anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise. In the US, Donald Trump is constantly stoking fears of the flood of immigrants arriving at the Mexican border. Meanwhile, many a Brexit supporter wants to leave the EU in order to limit immigration. After all, we are just a small island and this island is full.

Populist politicians all over Europe and the US exploit the decline of manufacturing in the industrialised world and focus the anger of the unemployed and threatened middle class on the competition from immigrants. But as I have said before, the evidence points clearly to the fact that far more jobs in the manufacturing sector have been lost to robots and other forms of automation than to outsourcing of factories to Asia or Latin America. So even if we would break up all the global supply chains in the world, the number of jobs created at home would be far less than the jobs that were lost over the last couple of decades to begin with.

The perceived wisdom about the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment is that most people simply don’t know about this fact. So, one would think that if one informed the public about the impact of automation, they would change their minds about immigration.

One would think so, and one would be wrong.

In a set of three studies Baobao Zhang from MIT asked several hundred employed people in the US to participate in an experiment. In each of the three studies about half of the participants were taught about the impact automation has on the labour market and job security while the other half was not. The chart below shows part of the results of one of these studies.

Change in attitude about job security and political issues after being informed about automation

Source: Zhang (2019). 

After learning about the effect of automation on the labour market, the perceived likelihood losing one’s job increased by 22%. Similarly, the perceived likelihood that one would lose the job due to automation increased by 21%. Learning about the effects of automation gave people a more realistic assessment of the impact automation may have on their jobs. 

But when asked about the policy measures that should be taken to mitigate these effects, people still blamed the immigrants. In fact, support for reducing the number of immigrants increased by 8% while support for job retraining programs increased by only 4%. More radical measures like the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), an idea that is sometimes discussed by the progressive left, got no traction at all. The attitudes towards UBI remained unchanged despite the increased perceived threat to one’s livelihood from automation.

I guess, what these studies show is how compartmentalised our thinking is. We are willing to integrate information in some beliefs but not in others. Learning about automation changes our attitude towards job security but not towards politics. And furthermore, these studies show that we always need to blame someone for our misery. And blaming robots just doesn’t feel as good as blaming immigrants.