January 8, 2010


A Ponzi scheme that works: The greatest strength of America is that people want to live there (The Economist, 12/17/09)

Because America is so big and diverse, immigrants have an incredible array of choices. The proportion of Americans who are foreign-born, at 13%, is higher than the rich-country average of 8.4%. In absolute terms, the gulf is much wider. America’s foreign-born population of 38m is nearly four times larger than those of Russia or Germany, the nearest contenders. It dwarfs the number of migrants in Japan (below 2m) or China (under 1m). The recession has dramatically slowed the influx of immigrants and prompted quite a few to move back to Mexico. But the economy will eventually recover and the influx will resume.
No matter where an immigrant hails from, he can find a cluster of his ethnic kin in America

Nearly all Americans are descended from people who came from somewhere else in the past couple of centuries. And the variety of countries from which immigrants come—roughly all of them, and usually in significant numbers—is unmatched. No matter where an immigrant hails from, he can find a cluster of his ethnic kin somewhere in America. In fact, he is probably spoilt for choice. If he wants to live in a suburb, eat Korean food and listen to fire-and-brimstone sermons in Korean, he can do so in northern Virginia. If he prefers an urban and secular Korean lifestyle, he can try Boston or San Francisco. If he craves Ethiopian food, Amharic radio and lots of gay clubs, Washington, DC, may suit him. And so on.

You can find welcoming clusters of ethnic minorities in other rich countries, but not nearly as many. In a European country, if you want Korean food and a particular denomination of Korean church, you might find it in the capital but you will struggle in the suburbs. In America, it is easier to find just the niche you want: Polish or Vietnamese, metropolitan or exurban, gay or straight, Episcopalian or Muslim, or any combination of the above.

You have a choice of weather and landscape, from snowy Alaska to baking Texas, from the mountains of Colorado to the forests of Maine. Northern Virginia, where Mr Lee lives, has the same climate as his homeland: winter is freezing, summer is muggy, autumn is delightful and spring brings cascades of cherry blossoms. [...]

No rich country allows unlimited immigration, and the rules vary a lot, so it is impossible to know which country is the most attractive to the largest number of people. But there are reasons to believe that America ranks at or near the top.

Mr Florida and Irene Tinagli of Carnegie Mellon University compiled a “Global Creativity Index”, which tries to capture countries’ ability to harness talent for “innovation...and long-run prosperity”. The index combines measures of talent, technology and tolerance. America comes fourth, behind Sweden, Japan and Finland. You could quarrel with the methodology. America comes top on certain measures, such as patents per head and college degrees, but it is deemed less tolerant than other countries in the top ten. This is because the index rewards “modern, secular” values and penalises Americans for being religious and nationalistic.

This is a mistake. Some religious countries are indeed intolerant, but America is not one of them, as Ms Hirsi Ali attests. And for many talented people, such as Mr Lee, America’s vibrant and varied religious scene makes the country more attractive, not less.

Michael Fix of the Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank, observes that religion has a strong effect on who comes to America. For example, although Muslims slightly outnumber Christians in Nigeria, Nigerian immigrants to America are 92% Christian and only 5% Muslim. Christians are about a quarter of the South Korean population, but four-fifths of Korean immigrants in America are Christian. Migrants from the Middle East and North Africa are mostly Muslim, but a hefty 28% are Christian and 10% are Jewish.

Christians and Jews are drawn to America in part because they know it is an easy place to be Christian or Jewish. They don’t face persecution, as they might in the Middle East. Nor do they face derision, as they might in more aggressively secular parts of Europe. Also, churches create networks. Migrants typically go where they already know people, and often make contact through a church.

It is also a mistake to rate Americans as less tolerant because they are nationalistic. Americans may have an annoyingly high opinion of their country, but theirs is an inclusive nationalism. Most believe that anyone can become American. Almost nobody in Japan thinks that anyone can become Japanese, yet Japan is rated more “tolerant” than America. This is absurd.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 8, 2010 11:20 AM
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