Friday, April 08, 2016

Finding Your Place(s) (with Neil)

Trev:
About a year ago I bumped into my high school headmaster in Sydney. It seemed like an amazing coincidence being more than 10,000 km from Westville in Durban, South Africa. Turned out there were about 3 other old boys near by. Growing up, perhaps it was the equivalent of seeing someone in Joburg. I don't think people only leave South Africa (or anywhere) for reasons of 'Grass being Greener'. There are just so many experiences to be had, different perspectives to be gained, and lessons to be learnt in the wide world out there. I have lived in London since 2008, and started travelling more widely in 2014. Neil Lessem, a friend from university has lived in San Francisco (an awesome city) and recently moved to Sydney.  

Neil (2nd from left) and me (third from right)
Smuts Trolley Pushing Team

Neil:
Hi Trevor, I am always amazed at the reach of my South African network around the world. When I attended graduate school at UCLA, none of my American classmates knew anyone else from where they grew up who was enrolled at UCLA at the time. I on the other hand had two friends from my high school in Johannesburg. Not only that, we were from the same year, in a graduating class of about 180 people. I have noticed that South Africans are very good at keeping in touch with each other as we move and as we travel. I think this is a function of two things 1) a funnelling into a very small number of elite institutions by the South Africans that will have the means to travel and live abroad; and 2) investment in peer networks because we come from a society that is traditionally not very mobile. Americans tend not to invest as much in their adolescent social networks because they know that when they finish high school they will move somewhere else for college, possibly work in another state afterwards, go to grad school somewhere else, and then ultimately settle down somewhere they may have never been before. 

Trev:
It is probably also true that this network we are noticing is mostly limited to the English speaking world. Although I do know of people who have ventured to China, South Korea, Bahrain, and Singapore. The two of us were part of the generation where Apartheid ended while we were at high school. I had a burst of 'Rainbow Patriotism' where the idea was to extend the idea of myself beyond my bubble. I would belt out the inclusive national anthem sung in multiple languages. Eventually, I even started supporting 'enemies' like Percy Montgomery when he pulled on a green jersey. I only got nervous about Patriotism in 2008 when I saw Xenophobic attacks starting. America seems to be 'self-sorting' itself. I read an article talking about 11 nations. A mobile society where you find your people rather than sticking where you are born. I like mobility, but the idea of us just moving from problems worries me. 

2008 was a wake up call for Rainbow Patriots

Neil: 
Hmm. I don't know if the network is limited to the English speaking world, but it is certainly thinner in non English speaking countries. This weekend I will be visiting with a friend from primary school days who is living in Ho Chi Min City. I do think the network is however largely restricted to English speaking (mostly white) South Africans. San Francisco is very much a self-selected community and one that I identified tremendously with. While it is incredible to be in a place where you feel secure and inspired by like minded individuals, lacking dissenting opinions can lead to a bubble like mentality. The other larger issue that you refer to is that not everyone can move. National borders and poverty bind people to places and regimes that they do not choose

Trev: 
I tend to avoid divisive issues as I think we get into partisan groups which (like businesses looking for a competitive advantage) end up disagreeing 'just because' rather than because they think it is in the interest of the larger group. That said, two of the issues I feel most passionately about are contentious. I think we live in a world of Global Apartheid. I was struck how divided some cities are. I didn't get to Oakland in San Francisco, but I did do a lot of walking in Chicago, Seattle and Vancouver. Even when borders and laws don't exist, Apartheid can exist. But borders and financial restrictions do lead to a two tier world of those who can and can't move to where the opportunities are. A Universal Basic Income and Unrestricted migration are things I feel strongly about. Even if they were in place, I think we would still need to work hard on figuring out the softer issues that keep communities divided and conquered. 

Apartheid restricted those without required skills to 'Homelands'

Neil: 
Agreed on both points, but curious to learn more about your idea of Global Apartheid. I would have thought it is subtleties in laws that cause these inequities to persist (like the war on drugs in the U.S.). What factors do you have in mind? 

Trev: 
I have more questions than answers. I think there are unwritten laws and entrenched prejudices that reinforce division as much as the 'letter of the law'. Some things like passports strike me as directly comparable to pass laws and dompas. The points systems employed allow people (like me) to get British Passports (or the equivalent in the US, Canada, Aus etc.). Although pitched as a skills exchange, there is plenty of evidence to show that people at all economic levels tend to add value as immigrants. I would argue that it is window dressing. I understand the fear people have of culture being overturned if the gates opened. I am interested in finding out more about the internal migration in the US. I don't think people move easily. Take Greece as an example, many people would rather struggle on, than move. 

Neil:  
I recall reading 'The Case for Open Borders' a couple of years ago, it really opened my eyes. "Think about what happened in the 1960s and '70s as more and more women joined the workforce in the United States. Was the result mass unemployment for men, as women took all their jobs? Of course not — the economy adjusted, and we're all better off for it. 'Would we really be a richer society if we kept half the population stuck at home?' Caplan asks. 'Isn’t it better to take people who have useful skills and let them do something with it, than to just keep them locked up someplace where their skills go to waste?'

On the issue of cultural corruption there is an interesting paper (Cultures of Corruption)  by Fisman and Miguel: They look at UN diplomats in New York City. 

They have diplomatic immunity and thus cannot be forced to pay their parking fines. The number of parking fines diplomats accumulate is highly correlated with the level of corruption in their home country, implying that cultures (good and bad) persist. However, (and this is the good part), over time cultural norms change and converge to to those of the environment in which the diplomats find themselves. Unfortunately, this is an environment of zero consequences, so they start accumulating more traffic fines. I personally do believe that the this would still hold true for positive social/cultural norms. 

Trev:
Corruption is a global problem, but I think transparency is slowly chipping away at it. As far as political resistance to open borders goes, two contributing factors are a fear of losing a way of life, and the belief that it is a 'zero sum game'

The first one is tough to deal with. Culture does develop. America is a great example of that. The rapid growth of urbanisation has seen cities change their character regularly. The speed of this change make it difficult to settle into a rhythm. Cosmopolitan life requires you to constantly be outside your comfort zone. It isn't surprising that conservative people tend to retreat (or stay in) rural areas. 

The second issue is easier to deal with. New people create jobs. Not just skilled people. There is plenty of evidence for this, and it makes sense. Releasing someone's potential benefits everybody. 

Neil:
Trevor, you win my vote. I am not sure about the retreat vs. stay thing. They are very different. Staying implies a desire to maintain the status quo, while retreating means an active lifestyle choice based on different preferences. A friend of mine recently said that all big city folk secretly want to live in a small town, but are too afraid to admit this to themselves in case it makes them happy. Just coming off a 16 hour workday yesterday, I wonder about the wisdom of this…
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