Monday, February 28, 2011

Immigration is an essential ingredient in American economic growth.

Within the space of 235 years (a blink of an eye in historical time) the United States of America has gone from an ex-colonial backwater to the greatest economic powerhouse in history. Its population has grown from about 3 million to over 300 million over this period. A sizable portion of this growth has come from immigration. The proportion of the foreign born (legal and illegal) has rarely been below 10% and has frequently been in the region of 20%. At any point in time a large proportion of working Americans were either born elsewhere, had parents who were born elsewhere, or had grandparents who were born elsewhere. This is an incredibly dynamic picture, a veritable demographic churning, with amazing cultural and economic implications.

Judging by my own experience and observations, there is a subtle inter-generational shift in cultural identity. Only by the third generation do people feel completely assimilated into the local culture. The immigrants never quite "make-it." I think of myself very much as an American. But I am frequently conscious that my accent and my experience causes me to stand out a bit - not in a bad way, but it is noticeable. Many of my fellow immigrants feel this to a greater extent. It makes for cultural tensions, but also for an exciting dynamism, an infusion of cultural DNA into to social gene pool. My children are American. But even they, as children of South African immigrants, carry an extra bit of background baggage. They feel just a little bit different, in possession of something unique (the tacit and conscious knowledge of another culture). You see this most clearly in the way they gravitate to other first generation Americans in their social circles. By the third generation the children are full Americans. Their grandparents might as well be from another planet.

This pattern is repeated over again in each generation of America's population. It has been a necessary part of the ongoing vitality of the American experience, including its entrepreneurial component. Without it American exceptionalism, and the rate of value-creation, of economic growth, will not be sustained.

Illegal immigration is not a problem. It is an opportunity.

Monday, February 7, 2011

We are America

President Obama told business leaders Monday, "I want to be clear: Even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America... As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation."

This is really annoying - he just doesn't get it. And the businessmen he was speaking do, don't either. They just want to make a deal that will let them run their businesses and make profits. In this speech to the US Chamber of Commerce Obama echoed John F. Kennedy's famous inaugural speech about not asking what your country can do for you but, rather, what you can do for your country.

This gets it exactly wrong!! A system that depends on individual duty and sacrifice to function properly, is likely to malfunction badly, and to be abused by the worst elements of society. This Adam Smith already knew, and this, Milton Friedman already made crystal clear in his 1962 classic Capitalism and Freedom. In the first sentences of the Introduction he writes as follows:

In a much quoted passage in his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic "what your country can do for you" implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man's belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, "what you can do for your 'country" implies the government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary.

To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshiped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.

The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather "What can I and my compatriots do through government" to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom? And he will accompany this question with another: How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?

This should be required reading at the White House.