Globalization's discontents

I'm back from Africa, and what a trip it has been. Ghana was certainly a marked contrast to Zimbabwe.

I'm back from Africa, and what a trip it has been. Ghana was certainly a marked contrast to Zimbabwe. You would never mistake Ghana for a rich country, though compared to Zimbabwe, it is positively affluent. People are poor, but the roads are filled with cars, the stores are filled with products, and the random crowds of people at intersections hawking everything under the sun sell products in new packaging, as opposed to scraps of whatever Zimbabweans managed to find in an economy where the currency is essentially non-convertible and can depreciate 50% in two days.

Now that I'm plugged back into my 15mbit Internet connection, I no longer have that isolated feeling anymore. So, count on my returning soon to my random philosophizing on subjects technology-oriented (the new ODF support in the upcoming Office 2007 service pack seems particularly delicious).

Before I do that, however, allow me to look back briefly on something that became apparent in the course of my long trip. We drove by Alexandra, site of some of the worst anti-immigrant riots South Africa has ever seen, on my way to OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg last week. South Africa, to be sure, is straining under the weight of huge numbers of immigrants streaming in from neighboring Zimbabwe (blame for which is partly shared by the South African government, in my opinion, given its suprising unwillingness to put much pressure on neighboring Zimbabwe).

Immigration, however, is an issue around the world, and from what I can see, we ALL seem to be handling it pretty badly. The cover pages of scandal mags in the UK lament the number of passports being given to "foreigners" as well as the number Brits who are now opting to live and work overseas (which is an example of reinterpreting data with a negative slant, as I think Brits going to work overseas is more reflective of the current European and global market for skills - the same thing bringing immigrants to British shores). As noted, Johannesburg is wracked by anti-immigrant riots. Ghana is very protective of their local labor market, forcing most people (including myself) to go through a week-long visa application process. And, of course, there are anti-immigrant groups in the United States who want to build the functional equivalent of the Berlin wall across our entire southern border as they try to throw out 3% of the residents here on the misbegotten theory that it would have a positive effect on the US economy.

Globalization means more than a global supply chain that creates trade linkages in one place with everywhere else on the planet. It also means that more people from other countries will live and work in locations distant from the place they were born. Unfortunately, we humans are a lot more tribal than we like to imagine sitting in front of our Chinese-made computers, drinking our lattes and eating leftovers from a previous night's visit to an Indian restaurant. Nobody would think to ban "immigrants" from Mississippi from taking jobs in Chicago, but travel a few hundred miles further north, and a big long imaginary line is used as justification to divide towns down the middle and place all sorts of labor and travel restrictions on each other.

In Africa, the cross-border migration situation is particularly complicated. The amount of time it took me to enter Lesotho, a country completely surrounded by South Africa, is particularly odd. If I do any amount of regular travel through Africa (which is increasingly looking likely to be the case), I will quickly fill up the new visa pages in my passport.

To some extent, some of these restrictions are necessary (clearly not all, as I can't imagine why Canada, the US, Europe, Japan and other "wealthy" nations don't have open labor markets with each other). We can't accept every immigrant who wants to come to American shores without failing to take care of the people who are already here, never mind the tribalist backlash such a massive inflow would cause in the US, or for that matter, the UK or South Africa.

Good governance seems paramount. Taking care of the people who are here while ensuring that they are competitive with newcomers seems particularly important if a nation is going to have anything approaching an open labor market. I think US voters would be more open to globalization and immigration if locals didn't feel that job losses entailed loss of medical benefits, or if our schools did a better job of preparing students for global competition through better science programs - something our universities are particularly good at doing, but our primary schools are not. These are all policies that special interests like to paint as socialist, but really aren't if you understand the essential role governments play in the economic process.

Health and education are core competencies in any capitalist society. That isn't an excuse to make the provision of these services a central planning nightmare straight out of Soviet Russia, but it does mean that these services MUST be provided to EVERYONE. Well educated, healthy people make better capitalists, just as societies with credible property and contract laws serve as a better playing field for markets. The two are intertwined, and though a country might do decently well while missing some of the bulletpoints on the capitalist good governance list, they would be that much more healthy and productive if they were included.

It is possible, in other words, to be open to immigrants while taking care of the people who already live in a country. That won't satisfy those who just don't like change in the character and color of their local communities, but it would reduce the more pressing source of anger, which for most people, is simply a question of being able to take care of their families.