Immigration and AI

I’m going to start by making a confession. When I was a kid growing up in Toronto in the 1960s, I secretly wished that I had been born American. I was an avid history buff from an early age, and I saw America’s

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka provides business commentary to CBC Radio One and a column syndicated across the CBC network.

past far more exciting and romantic than Canada’s. They fought a violent revolution to win their freedom. We just sort of drifted away. There was a bloody Civil War. Nothing similar happened here. But as I became older, I realized the wisdom of Charles Montesquieu’s famous quote: “Happy the nations whose annals of history are boring to read.”

This comes to mind right now as I watch what is going on in the American body politic. As I write this column, the US government is partially shut down. There is no compromise solution in sight and it seems that with each passing day, the public is becoming increasingly angry and frustrated with both mainstream political parties. It feels very ugly and I believe that horrific and widespread violence is not beyond the realm of possibility. And at the root of tension is, ostensibly, the building of a border wall with Mexico. Except it’s really not about a wall. It’s really about immigration that is, how many people the US should admit and from where, and the terms and conditions under which they will be admitted.

I think that before I go any further, I should make my own stance about immigration clear. I see it as one of Canada’s greatest strengths. And I reject it on the “diversity” argument. That’s mindless which is, of course, why stupid politicians make it. Our immigration system, based on points, is not at its core about “diversity.” It’s about merit. We have figured out how to cull some of the best and brightest from around the world, whether those people were originally born in India or China or Iran. And the irony is, getting back to America, is that as far as I can tell, Donald Trump just wants to make US immigration policy similar to ours.

I also think that before I go any further (because it’s key to what will follow), I should make my own stance about the welfare state clear. I see it as one of Canada’s greatest weaknesses, that is, as it has come to evolve in practice. It was originally advanced by people like Tommy Douglas as the idea that there would be public responsibility for people that were unable to take care of themselves. However, it’s morphed to mean that there is public responsibility for people who are not willing to make the decisions needed to take care of themselves. We no longer have a social safety net; we have a hammock that is subject to gaming and abuse to Canada’s ultimate detriment.

It sure looks like we are on the cusp of an economic revolution and that revolution will be spearheaded by artificial intelligence, or AI for short. There is a wide range of occupations that are threatened by AI, anything and everything from truck drivers to data entry clerks to computer support specialists. And as jobs are lost and people who were previously middle class see their futures slip away, there will be increased discussion about immigration policy. Why would Canada bring in more people when there isn’t enough work for those already here? It will be a very fair question.

A serious discussion must be had about what our immigration policy should be in a world of AI. Now, it may be that as those truck drivers and data entry clerks and computer support specialists are thrown out of work, they will find equally satisfying other careers. This is something I would certainly hope, but it’s not what we’ve seen as manufacturing jobs have been lost across North America. GM recently announced that it is closing its operations in Oshawa, Ont. and I would be very surprised if those workers will ever make as much.

Therefore, assuming that AI does lead to large job losses, it might be that the best public policy would be to reduce immigration—or even declare a temporary moratorium. Understand that I am NOT suggesting that this is necessary right now. But it is something that we might have to consider in the future, because the combination of very open borders combined with the welfare state is a mixture that could lead to ruin for the people who are already here because of the new self-selection process that might drive immigration candidates in the future.

These are difficult conversations to have. I really hope that we can reflect on the American experience, learn from their mistakes, and keep that difficult discussion as Canadian, and boring, as possible.