Weekly link roundup 15

Here’s our weekly installment of links from around the web (see here for all link roundups). As usual, linking does not imply endorsement.

The economics of diasporas

In Borderless Economics: Chinese Sea Turtles, Indian Fridges, and the New Fruits of Global Capitalism, Robert Guest trots out a lot of the usual arguments for reducing barriers to migration, breezily surveying the evidence of the economic benefits to the host nations and especially to the immigrants themselves. Guest does a thorough job of this and his casual style with liberal dashes of his gentle British humor makes this book one of the best out there for the lay reader who wants an introduction to the subject.

Where Guest really contributes is describing the ways migration enhances the processes of globalization. Obviously the movement of people between nations is itself a fundamental aspect of globalization. But migration also facilitates the movement of goods and ideas across borders (the other facets of globalization). It does this by creating channels of increased trust and local knowledge across borders.

Guest focuses quite a bit of attention on China, noting that with ~60 million Chinese abroad the Chinese diaspora is one of the biggest. The emerging importance of China on the world economic stage is a well-chewed over topic. But doing business in and with China is not necessarily a simple matter.

The overseas Chinese serve as a bridge for foreigners who wish to do business in China. They understand the local business culture. They know whom to trust. In a country where the rule of law is, to put it mildly, uncertain, that knowledge can be the difference between success and failure. Studies show that American firms that employ lots of Chinese Americans find it much easier to set up operations in China without the crutch of a joint venture with a local firm.

This fits with what we know about trade patterns between countries. The stronger the cultural ties between two nations, the more they trade with each other. Pankaj Ghemawat, of IESE Business School in Spain, calculates that two otherwise identical countries will trade with each other 42 percent more if they share a common language and 188 percent more if they have a common colonial past.

Trust is a key ingredient to all economic exchange because trading with others involves uncertainty that your trading partner will follow through with their part of the bargain. Diasporas in other nations allow you to interact with people you have a common history and cultural understanding with, reducing the trust barrier. Guest provides an example of a Nigerian factory owner, Dr. Obidigbo, who purchases capital equipment from firms in China.

Dr. Obidigbo travels to China from time to time, but he does not speak the language and he cannot fly halfway round the world every time he wants to buy a new soap machine. So he relies on the Nigerian diaspora to connect him to Chinese suppliers. When he wants to inspect a product he has seen on the Internet, to make sure that it is exactly what he wants, he asks a Nigerian agent in China to go look at it. He has met several such people at trade fairs in China. They are all from Dr. Obidigbo’s tribe, the Ibos.

Advocates of open borders are often accused–sometimes fairly–of being rootless cosmopolitans, idealists who fail to recognize the reality of the strong ties people have to their nations, ethnic groups, and coreligionists. Guest readily acknowledges these strong ties; indeed the ability of these social bonds to survive separation by distance and borders is the very heart of his analysis. Migration skeptics will likely appreciate this nod toward ethnic bonds, but the flip side of this is incomplete–or perhaps merely retarded–assimilation. One flavor of arguments against permitting large numbers of (especially unskilled or lower class) immigrants suggests they do not assimilate to the culture of the host society quickly enough, or possibly at all. The idea is that if host countries must accept immigrants, then those immigrants should do their best to adopt the host culture, rather than keeping one foot in their old home and one foot in their new home. There is possibly a tension then between the desire for immigrants to assimilate and the desire to maximize the economic rewards of immigrants who straddle borders. This tension applies to migration enthusiasts as well, who may be tempted to dismiss too quickly concerns about immigrant assimilation: one must tread carefully when arguing on the one hand that immigrants all eventually assimilate and on the other hand that the greatest economic benefits they lend to their new home involves their maintaining contacts with their old homes.

Migration is not all about economics, of course. Migrants bring ideas with them across borders and, keeping in touch with their homelands as Guest describes, they send new ideas back.

History provides many examples of returnees swaying politics. Vladimir Lenin plotted the Russian revolution while exiled in Munich, London and Geneva. Many of the leaders of South Africa’s antiapartheid struggle agitated from safe havens in Britain or Zambia. One of them, Thabo Mbeki, later became president. Between the cold war years of 1958 and 1988, some 50,000 Soviet citizens visited America through cultural exchange programs. Nearly all were members of the cultural, scientific or intellectual elite. Upon returning, they brought with them ideas and attitudes that helped to pave the way for glasnost–and ultimately, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Migrants are “agents of democratic diffusion,” as Clarisa Perez-Armendariz, of the University of Texas, who has written a study on the subject, puts it.
As Guest illustrates with his examples, some ideas are good and some ideas are bad (at least, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Russia would have fared better had the emigrant V. I. Lenin severed ties with his erstwhile home). This is an example of migration being double-edged, and migration skeptics could leap on this, pointing to the danger of immigrant ideas. There is such danger, and Guest even includes a chapter on bad ideas that thrive on the tribal networking he describes, including religious extremism and crime rings. But Guest’s primary point is that migration, via diaspora networks, facilitates the flow of all commerce and information, good and bad. He argues throughout the other chapters of his book that the good of this greater flow vastly outweighs the bad. I concur, though the reasons for my optimism are too many and varied to delve into for this post. Basically, I think humanity is the ultimate resource, and the logic of human interaction leads us to favor cooperation over conflict.

Nations as Marriages

I’ve been working on a book about marriage lately (links to draft chapters here) and it gave me the idea for an imperfect but somewhat useful marital metaphor for the world’s nation-states. See the related Nation as family page.

Imagine a prosperous but diverse trading city, in which people of many cultures mingle, resulting in a rather weak sense of community. A good deal of sex takes place, much of it in the context of marriages, which are arranged and managed quite differently by the different cultural groups that mingle in the city. It is widely noticed, however, that in spite of these variations, marriage tends to make people a bit more productive and a bit happier, and especially, that it provides a kind of private social insurance, with spouses serving as first responders for each other in emergencies, and providing income support during unemployment spells. Also, marriage is good for the rearing of the young. A paternalistic regime comes to power and takes these conclusions to extremes by setting a target of universal marriage and pursuing it with a kind of blind, bludgeoning determination. It adopts the slogan “marriage is a buddy system for life,” and determines that everyone must have a “buddy.” Mate choice is regarded as desirable in principle and occasionally even eloquently extolled by the regime’s leaders, but the bureaucrats are given orders to register certain numbers of marriages and end up doing it in slapdash fashion just to fill their quotas, first registering cohabiting couples as married, then roommates, and finally neighbors. Children are matched to “parental” homes in the same brusque manner, and soon the whole population of the city has been sorted officially into “families,” though not all of them know about it at first. A raft of new “family values” laws impose basic norms of familial togetherness, from cohabitation and mutual financial support to birthday presents and family pictures. In some cases, citizens are physically forced to leave their homes and enter those of new “spouses” whom they’ve barely met. More often, though, noncompliant citizens are merely denied access to government-issued documents which are now required for purchasing goods and services from formal sector businesses. Hunger soon reduces noncompliance to a minimum.

Superficially, a new familial order has been established. And a surprising number of the new shotgun marriages turn out well. With a little adaptation and give-and-take, couples find a pleasant modus vivendi, and are glad that the government solved the dating game problems for them. Of course, since couples who praise the regime’s policy sometimes get preferences for better jobs, housing, and other perks in the state-influenced sectors of the economy, these reports of marital happiness may not all be sincere. Such mutually happy couples do not seem, in any case, to be a majority, yet pretty good evidence emerges that in most of the shotgun marriages, at least one spouse is fairly happy with the arrangement, since the new laws have allowed some people, by chance, to “marry up” with people who would have been “out of their league” before. Perhaps the most common adaptation to the new laws is a kind of marital tokenism, where spouses do the bare minimum to comply with the laws, and generally lead parallel lives and ignore each other. In the worst cases, some couples descend rapidly into vicious feuds over assets that end in violence and even murder, which sometimes occurs right out in the public street in broad daylight. Such incidents create an outcry, and the regime reluctantly allows partial separation and divorce on an irregular and discretionary basis when it can’t find feasible ways to force people to stay together. There is no doubt that venerable old familial customs, birthdays and wedding rings and family vacations, etc., are regarded with some cynicism now that they are state-coerced. Still, the old family vacation spots are busier than they used to be.

It is soon noticed that the new marriage policy has led to a revival of male headship within the household. The regime didn’t plan this. If anything, it had a preference for gender equality. But it soon claims the new trend as a victory. Its story is that people are “revealing a preference” for traditional gender roles, and soon male headship is incorporated into its pro-family propaganda. What gives this plausibility is that relatively few wives in the newly-traditionalist marriages speak out publicly against their new, more subordinate role. On the contrary, when asked, they usually express confidence in their husbands’ headship. Later, when the regime starts promoting male headship, wives start echoing the regime’s own rhetoric on the subject. Yet many people begin to hear through private channels, and some investigations by foreign journalists and academics seem to confirm, another explanation of wives’ apparent contentment, namely, intimidation. The regime insists on marital togetherness and permanence, and is pretty scrupulous about respecting marital privacy, so, with women’s exit option taken away, and with little recourse against domestic violence, the brute fact of men’s superior physical strength shaped power dynamics within marriages. Wives don’t dare to badmouth their husbands in public. Not that all these wives are being beaten. Often mere threats suffice to keep wives in line. That said, no one doubts that wife-beating has made a comeback, and the regime tries to counter-act this sinister trend with even more propaganda about marital love and harmony. Anyway, the view that male headship reflects intimidation rather than “revealed preference” never manages to become mainstream, simply because it is now politically incorrect to treat married couples as separate individuals with diverging interests. That violates the principle of family togetherness.

As time passes, the regime has quite a few successes to boast of. To start with, marriage as social insurance is working for a lot of people. Since spouses are co-owners of each other’s assets, they each have a little extra income during times of illness or unemployment. Overall, there is less crime and poverty on the streets, because spouses police and support each other. On the other hand, some families experience impoverishment, which the regime blames on “exploitation” by wealthier families, but which on closer examination seems to reflect a prisoner’s dilemma situation in which each spouse is trying to sponge off the other. Why work, when you can go out and spend your spouse’s income instead? Some countries seem to be in a race to sell off assets and spend the money before the other does. Whether the city’s lack of community has been mitigated is difficult to say. There is certainly less diversity in family arrangements, and probably less cultural diversity generally, due to the comparative conformism of the family model the state has imposed on society. Prostitution has plunged as prostitutes have been married off, but a kind of underground economy has appeared, not so much in sex per se, as in romance, in trysts and liaisons and love letters and serenades, in roses smuggled into girls’ rooms by night, that sort of thing. There is a lot of nostalgia for the past. In particular, family life used to have a poetic charm and fascination, and a moral substance, which it has not completely lost, but which now seems rare and less spontaneous.

And there has been a sharp rise in equality, driven in large part by whether families work well or are dysfunctional. The older families, the families that date to the years before the new regime, tend to be the most flourishing and successful. They have the happiest home lives, which spills over into greater productivity in all walks of life. A few old families and many of the new families are trapped in bitter quarrels and feuds that they now can’t escape from. They fall into low productivity, poverty, and long-term welfare dependency, with intermittent domestic violence. Public opinion pities them, but mutters sotto voce that it’s their own fault.

Time to decode the metaphor. For families, read nation-states. For male headship, reading authoritarianism and totalitarianism. For domestic violence, read civil war and ethnic cleansing, as in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan. For birthday presents and family pictures, read flags, national anthems, etc. For family vacation spots, read the Olympics, the World Cup, etc. For divorces, read Czechoslovakia, Malaysia/Singapore, Kosovo, the Soviet Union. For token marriages, read countries like Canada and Belgium that lack a unified national identity. For lucky spouses who got married up, read southern Italy vis-à-vis northern Italy, or Congo vis-à-vis resource-rich Katanga, or Iraq via Iraqi Kurdistan. For the regime, read Woodrow Wilson, 1918, the Fourteen Points, the doctrine of national self-determination, the UN, and generally the whole contemporary world order that partitions the world into sovereign nation-states.

Before 1914, most of the world was not organized into nation-states. Where national identity definitely existed, e.g., among the British, French, Germans, Americans, Japanese, etc., it was organic, deeply rooted in history. These were nations united by some of the following: language, race, religion, historical memory, legal customs, co-citizenship in an established polity, literature, cuisine, philosophical and other ideas. The mix varied but the basis for unity was substantial. Each of these nations had a good deal to love and take pride in collectively, and they did love and take pride in it collectively. They were like couples in a more-or-less happy marriage, together because they wanted to be, even if it is a valid objection to the metaphor, that marriages are consensual in a way that nations aren’t, even in the best of cases. But it was probably true of most English, that they felt English and wanted to be English; of Americans, that they felt American and wanted to be American; of most Germans, that they felt German and wanted to be German, etc. That still is true, probably, of the countries of which it was true in 1914.

When Wilson and his successors imposed nation-state organization on the whole world– to be sure, not entirely by force, not without some buy-in from those being reorganized, but the persistent American ideological bias was a crucial factor in the geopolitical reinvention of the world– they imposed a model that often didn’t fit very well. Wilson at any rate, and I think most of his American successors as well, were impelled to act this way in large part because of their ideas about political legitimacy. Wilson would not even negotiated with Austria-Hungary; he would not uphold empires. For that matter, even the British, Dutch, French, and other European imperialists found themselves in a rather embarrassing position, since by 1914, they were democrats at home, and believed in democratic principles, which their imperialism violated. Nationalism had some influence among colonial subjects of these empires, too, of course– how could it not, since many of the local elites were European-educated?– but so did other ideas, and anyway, the empires weren’t typically overthrown by revolutions from below. More often than not, the transition out of colonialism was initiated as much by the colonizer as the colonized, and was often hasty and slapdash. The adulation of “democracy” in the 20th century implicitly carried with it a program of reorganizing the world into nation-states, for rule of the people requires a people. It was axiomatic that each geographical area onto which the accidents of realpolitik and imperial exhaustion had deposited sovereignty ought to be a democracy. Tanzania ought to be a democracy. Rhodesia ought to be a democracy. Congo ought to be a democracy. Wilson thought he was “making the world safe for democracy,” but he ushered in a new age of authoritarianism, because democracy depends on a certain solidarity among the people, and that doesn’t magically arise when a people gets lumped together into a nation.

National identity has its good and bad sides. People have many identities: I am American, but also professor, Christian, Orthodox, Californian (at present), free-market conservative, Republican (sort of), Harvard grad, GMU grad, Notre Dame grad, English speaker, lover of Dostoyevsky, writer, musician, economist, lover of the outdoors. There is no particular reason why I should prioritize being American over my other identities, nor why Americans should form a polity rather than Californians or English speakers or Christian. Indeed, I regard my Christian identity as by far the most important, and my membership in the Body of Christ as far more real and important than my American nationality. In principle, I could be American by nationality, but not loyal to the American republic, or loyal to the American republic without being American by nationality. I happen to regard the American polity as a pretty good arrangement of things, and am not inclined to break it up, or secede from it, or subordinate it comprehensively to a larger polity; but not all national polities work so well as the American republic, and many people in this world might have good reasons to want their nations broken up, or subordinated to some larger polity, or to secede from a polity, or emigrate from it. The point is, you can’t take for granted that it’s there, or that it has some constant meaning over the surface of the earth. The peoples of some countries don’t feel patriotic love for the entity that the geopolitical order has assigned them to as subjects. The rulers of those countries may wish that they did feel patriotic loyalty, and perhaps it would be a good thing if they did. Even if that is the case, it does not follow that it would be the best thing. If people could love one thing more, should it be their country? Or mankind? Or their families, cities, churches or other religious communities, ethnolinguistic groups, civilizations, continents?

The regime in the parable ought simply to allow the faux, forced marriages to be dissolved. The geopolitical order shouldn’t dissolve all nation-states, probably not even the dysfunctional ones. Here the analogy is inexact. Rather, it should seek to open the world’s borders to immigration. Organically strong nation-states would still retain their identities. Dysfunctional nation-states would still be on the map, but people wouldn’t be chained into them, and they would be opened up to many new and salutary influences.

Partisan politics is holding immigrants’ lives and liberty hostage

In the midst of the ongoing US government shutdown that took effect earlier today, people have been accusing politicians on one side or another of holding the nation and its people hostage to partisan politics. The shutdown will have tragic effects for many lives, no doubt — wage earners are forced to stay home from work, needy people are forced to go without the benefits their government promised to them. But let’s not forget the entire class of innocent people whose lives and freedom have been held hostage to partisan politics for years, if not decades: the innocents, citizens or not, who have fallen prey to the US government’s War on Immigrants.

Some months ago, the National Journal ran an article on the current US immigration debate titled What Undocumented Workers Really Want, with the subtitle: It’s not always citizenship. They just want to do their jobs, cash their paychecks, and be left alone. The article mostly focuses on the lives of restaurant owners and their immigrant employees. It illustrates that the political concerns driving the current US immigration debate are extremely remote from the lives of the people who immigration reform is supposed to help. And one takeaway from this is that Republicans may well be right when they accuse Democrats of cynically caring more about the votes of immigrants than the lives of those immigrants.

The article makes a number of observations about the lives of the unauthorised immigrants in US society:

  • They save substantial amounts of money (sometimes in the thousands of dollars) to pay for smuggling them into the US
  • They lose contact with their family, because they cannot leave the US: one woman in the story had to send condolences for the death of her father by mail
  • They fear any contact with the law, because a simple traffic stop could put them away for life
  • They can easily find employment despite their lack of legal documentation, but always live in fear of losing their job should their legal status be discovered
  • Many employers love their unauthorised workers — not because their labour is cheap, but because they value their employees (to the point that one employer in the story told their unauthorised worker upfront who disclosed her unauthorised status to them that they would worry about it only if the government actually went after them)

The article is obviously only one side of the story. But I think this side of the story is one that the larger empirics back up: immigrants in the US, both authorised and unauthorised, have fantastic labour force participation rates. They have lower rates of detention or incarceration. Most immigrants, whether they are legal or not, are ordinary and innocent people.

The law at the present forces these people to live like criminals. They are on the run from the law for a “crime” that, if it can be called a crime at all, occurred years ago in most cases. There is an easy way to fix this: grant legal residency to these people. Lift the sword of Damocles that threatens to deport and separate them from their homes, families, and careers.

Yet as the article observes, this is not what the current debate about US immigration reform turns on. Rather, the Democratic politicians pushing for “reform” want to make these immigrants into full-fledged citizens — whether today, or some point in the future. Democrats are especially fearful that some immigrants never be able to naturalise.

The article hints that Democrats are motivated by the prospect of these immigrants’ votes. Certainly, Republicans are motivated by the prospect of stopping the addition of these new voters. But what excuse does either party have to hold these people’s liberty and the interests of society hostage to their own partisan interests?

On any other issue, we would be appalled if a political party blatantly blocked or supported an initiative, not because they thought it was a good or bad idea, but because they were afraid of its implications for their partisan strength. The ongoing debate about voter identification rules in the US is surely driven in large part by partisan motivations. Yet you will barely find any Democrats protesting stricter voter ID laws because “It prevents Democrats from voting”. Neither will you find Republicans supporting stricter laws for the same reason. Both cite policy reasons for their position, not partisan politics. But politicians and ordinary people think nothing of baldly citing “It will add more Democratic voters to the rolls” as reason enough to support or oppose the regularisation of the 11 million+ unauthorised immigrants in the US.

It’s galling enough that Republicans are blocking immigration policy reforms on the basis that this is harmful to them. But one oft-overlooked point is that Democrats are similarly likely to overlook potential compromises on the basis that this doesn’t generously enough grant citizenship to unauthorised immigrants. In other words, when given the choice between ending the War on Immigrants (but with less-than-ideal citizenship provisions) or continuing it, Democratic politicians have often chosen to stick with the status quo.

The article obliquely agrees with the Democratic spiel that not granting immigrants citizenship makes them a vulnerable subclass of the community. But how would they be any less vulnerable than they are now? The government’s War on Immigrants makes these people vulnerable to deportation at any time that would take them from their jobs, families, and homes. Even if they do not face deportation, they cannot progress in their career because they can lose their job at any time. The government literally has the power to stop all this with the stroke of a pen, and make this entire class of people much less vulnerable to the oppression of harsh employers or overbearing bureaucrats — all this without the politically explosive granting of citizenship.

Why should we hold protection for these people hostage to the partisan interests of any party, Democratic or Republican? For the Democrats, is holding out for citizenship for these immigrants worth allowing the government to continue spending its scarce resources on terrorising them and their communities? Is it truly humane to support continuing government-sponsored terrorism of innocent families and employers simply for the sake of shutting down any chance of a guest-worker programme?

In fairness to the Democrats, they have not been the primary roadblocks in the current US immigration policy debate. The Republican members of the US House of Representatives may be the ones standing in the way of further movement on amnesty for the 11 million unauthorised immigrants like those in the article. But there are still plenty — by one count, 84 — who believe in ending or at least tamping down the War on Immigrants. It should be incumbent on the Democrats in the House to do all they can to work with these Republicans to find an acceptable compromise and move forward. If we can somehow obtain Republican support by tightening provisions in the law for citizenship in return for ending the War on Immigrants, we should seriously consider this option. We can’t just take it off the table.

Immigrants are no different from anyone else. They want to live in peace with their families and earn honest wages. It makes a mockery of the Republicans’ and Democrats’ supposed commitments to the family and to the hard worker when they prefer to keep the War on Immigrants going instead of offering these people a path to legal residency. It’s one thing to play political games about infrastructure projects. It’s a completely different thing to play political games about bringing the entire armed force of the state to bear on people who just want to earn an honest living and live with their families. Keeping the war on these people going, whether for the sake of a broader naturalisation policy or purely playing a partisan game, is absolutely unacceptable.