Hopi Sen says the best response to immmigration is to give "our citizens the skills needed to succeed in a post-manual labour world":
I want a society where every child gets the chances of a Toynbee, or a Miliband, or a Cameron, or a Johnson, or a Dromey, or a Benn...I’m a social democrat. I believe in the ability of every citizen.
I'd love to agree with him, but some things make me sceptical.
First, there's a nasty possibility that many people lack the innate skills to succeed. This thought has been stressed by Greg Clark in The Son Also Rises (well discussed here and here). He points out that social mobility is very low even in modern-day Sweden. He says: "social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait, such as height." Perhaps, therefore, there are powerful genetic or quasi-genetic reasons why there are so few latte-sipping elitists.
You might reply that the solution to this is to invest more in education. However, there's a big strand of thinking - associated with Eric Hanushek (pdf) - which says that such investments have very low returns. There's a reason why private schools charge huge fees - it's that education is a low-productivity job.
Even researchers who aren't as pessimistic as Hanushek find that big spending has only modest effect.For example, Steve Gibbons and Sandra McNally estimate (pdf) that:
A 30% increase in average expenditure per pupil improved test scores by about 8 points on our 1-100 scale.
It's touch and go whether this is cost-effective in raising future earnings. And I'm not sure whether governments committed to continued austerity would want to increase spending so much even if it did pay off 20 years later.
There's another reason why we'll never get a society in which everyone has the chances of a Miliband or Toynbee. It's that homophily is a powerful force. It was family connections that got Miliband an internship with Tony Benn, and which probably got the university dropout Toynbee her first journalism job. It's hard to see how such advantages can be eliminated.
And let's face it, people naturally want to hire folk in their own image.Sajid Javid's experience of discrimination by the British "elite" chimes with my own: when I was looking for jobs, offers came more readily from US investment banks who couldn't read my outsiderness than it did from British employers. But not everyone can work for Merrill Lynch.
I fear, then, that Hopi is guilty of that typical social democratic flaw, of excessive optimism about the human character.
There is, though, an another solution here - which could run alongside Hopi's efforts to prove me wrong. A more progressive tax and benefit system would help cushion the less skilled from the effects of immigration (and globalization and technical change), and thus ensure that potential Pareto improvements actually do benefit everyone.