Sustainability through Massive abundance.

Episode 33: Opening Borders and Minds

How cities can accommodate immigration so the world can become twice as rich, without the seemingly obvious downsides.

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What's your nationality?
Intro [music]
Origin of borders
Globalism — except for people
Making the world twice as rich
Allaying the fears
Enclaves vs. homogenization
Stronger cities + open borders = ?
Close [music]

What's your nationality?

That's a question I always heard growing up in Hawaii. Oddly enough, while the question was asked in the singular, most kids responded in the plural.

"Oh, I just one poi dog: Hawaiian, and Portagee on my dad's side, Filipino and Haole on my mom's."

Hawaii has a lot of ethnic groups, and most are divided and named according to their plantation era heritage. For example, "Portagee," meaning someone of Portuguese descent is not the same as "Haole," which means white.

But the question of nationality had another answer, which I sometimes heard when someone just wanted to end the conversation. Then they'd say: "I'm American."

Makes sense. Nationality has at least two meanings. It can refer to a person's ethnicity within a nation or to the nation where a person lives permanently.

Nations have done a lot for the world. Nations allow complex societies to exist, to trade, and to become enormously richer. And nations dramatically reduce the murder rate, including deaths and war.

But nations have borders, and they spend tons of money preventing people from crossing those borders.

The full cost of these borders goes way beyond the cost of their maintenance. It's the inequality they create throughout the world.

Increasing immigration would lift billions of people out of poverty. And as I'll discuss in a moment, that's a tide that lifts all boats. In other words, according to many economists, it would make you richer, too.

But how would we do it? How can we increase immigration while retaining or even expanding the economic and social benefits of nations?

Intro [music]

Cities designed like modern Edens, for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.

Welcome to Episode 33, where I'll discuss the Edenicity of immigration.

Origin of borders

Let's talk about where borders come from. And to do that, we're going to need to go way back into ancient prehistory.

Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has shown that one individual can keep track of social interactions linking no more than around 150 people. Our brains just aren't big enough to handle more. And for much of our existence as a species, most of us lived in groups smaller than 150 with strict equality and sharing.

According to Peter turchin, a professor of ecology, anthropology and math at the University of Connecticut, when the number of people you have to deal with gets larger than 150, you need to start taking shortcuts to figure out who will cooperate or compete with you. That's the origin of dialects, religious observances, hairstyles, and fashion.

In-group and out-group competition was fierce. According to Turchin, 10 to 60% of male deaths in small societies were from war with other small groups. Bigger groups suffered fewer deaths, so didgroups with allies. Gradually, the families, extended families, clans and tribes became organized in hierarchies.

Hierarchy allowed large groups of people to coordinate reliably. People in a hierarchy typically interact with one person from a higher level in the hierarchy, and eight from lower levels, in addition to their many peers.

Deborah McKenzie in her very influential New Scientist article from 2014, titled The End of Nations, suggested that complexity was limited by available energy. When we just had human and animal labor, feudal lords ruled small areas. When hydro power multiplied human labor, lords gave way to monarchs.

Even so, national identity has historically been very weak. According to McKenzie, "many Eastern European immigrants arriving in the United States in the 19th century, could say what village they came from, but not what country. It didn't matter to them."

With coal and other sources of power that brought the Industrial Revolution, there was the possibility of more complexity, and that's when the first nation states emerged. McKenzie quotes John Brulee of the London School of Economics: "in 1800, almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. By 1900 they all did."

The late political historian Benedict Anderson wrote about nations as imagined communities that we will never meet, but would die for like family. Creating these required a standardized language, which I discussed in Episode 31 in the context of the Meiji Restoration in Japan, as well as mass media and mass education.

Like our ancient ancestors, we needed evermore complex shortcuts to know who is one of us and who is not.

By the 1880s, Prussia had become a very complex state that paid unemployment benefits, which required citizenship papers and policed borders, which ballooned to the bureaucracy. From this, I infer that religion and custom and fashion and language had become fluid enough from one region to another, that Prussia couldn't rely on them to enforce the borders which it depended on for its economic well being. And so it basically had to invent them, plus the bureaucracy required to enforce them.

Even so, in his 2017 book, Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman points out that passports were still quite rare prior to World War II. Bregman points out that borders are now the biggest cause of discrimination in the world and they're more important than race or class in determining what your income will be.

Globalism – except for people

The irony is that capital, that is to say money, as well as products, flow freely across borders, but people still can't.

Of course they want to. According to Bregman, a person at the poverty line in the United States belongs to the richest 14% of the world. Someone earning the median wage in the United States belongs to the richest 4% of the world. And according to Bregman, for any job you might work, if you're in Mexico, you'll make half as much as you would in the United States. If you're in Nigeria, you'll make 8.5 times less even adjusted for the greater purchasing power of dollars in those places.

It's not just about the haves versus have nots, it's about life or death. According to Bregman, a Somali toddler is 20% likely to die before age five. That's a mortality rate that's three to 40 times higher than US soldiers faced in any of our wars. And just to give you a sense of how recent a phenomenon borders and their enforcement are, 3/4 all border walls and fences in the world were erected after the year 2000.

Making the world twice as rich

Now the question is, what would happen if those borders came down?

Well, there's an economic model by Michael A Clemens, which he published in a 2011 working paper for the Center for Global Development under the title, Economics and Emigration. In that model, he showed that emigration from poor nations should dramatically increase wages for those who leave. It should also slightly increase wages in the poor country where they left and increase the value of capital in the rich country they move to. The bottom line is that when billions of people can move to where they can earn what they're worth, which is tens of thousands more dollars per year, the global economy will grow by many tens of trillions of dollars a year: enough to double the size of that economy.

This means more jobs, more ideas, more opportunities. I get chills just thinking about it: thousands more game changers like Elon Musk, and Aya Badir: people who can't fit in and can't help but innovate, very much like those victims of racism that I discussed in Episode 27.

My own experiences growing up among first generation immigrants, which I described a little bit in Episode 22, confirmed this. My immigrant friends were ambitious. And this was a tide that lifted my ambitions as well.

Allaying the fears

Now, of course, given that we are a species that has a strong sense of in-group loyalty and fear of out-groups, and that that combination of loyalties and fears is really what drove the emergence of nations in the first place, it's not surprising that fear of immigrants is a major lever of political persuasion. So let's address those fears one at a time.

Here, I'm going to basically summarize the list from Bergman's book.

First of all, won't immigration lead to more terrorism?

Well, an unbelievably thorough survey and analysis by Alex murasa in a 2019 Cato Institute publication suggests that the risk is small and manageable. According to that article, "there were 192 foreign born terrorists who planned, attempted or carried out attacks on US soil from 1975 through 2017." In the same timeframe, there were 788 native born terrorists, and the vast majority of those had no foreign sympathies whatsoever.

57% were either right wingers, white supremacists, or anti abortion, only 14% were "Islamists." As the article says, "the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack by a refugee is about one in 3.8 6 billion per year. While the annual chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is zero." So terrorism is really a red herring.

Well, won't immigration lead to more crime?

Well, Bregman presents plenty of evidence that crime by immigrants is lower than native populations in the United States. And it's also true for their children in the United States.

Now, he does point out that in other countries such as the Netherlands, there is more crime among immigrants. But the crime rate matches exactly the crime rates of the communities where they live. In other words, the crime rate is higher because immigrants there are consigned to poor communities. So no, immigrants are not any more likely to commit a crime than anybody else. In many cases, they're less likely and I figure that's because they are more ambitious.

Well, won't immigrants destroy social cohesion?

In Los Angeles in the late 1990s, that's all I heard from white people whose families had been in the country for more than a couple generations. There was always a group to despise.

One otherwise liberal friend couldn't stand Armenians, for example, who made up half the population of my small apartment building.

There was a year 2000 study by sociologist Robert Putman that was eventually released in 2007 that suggested that diversity reduces social cohesion, meaning trust, friendship, helping other people. But Bregman cites later work that showed that what really reduced social cohesion in these studies were poverty, unemployment and discrimination.

Once again, from this, I deduce that the key to maintaining social cohesion is to make immigration less traumatic.

Edenicity's vast Commons and mixed income design will go a long way to smoothing that transition.

Well, once they get there, won't immigrants compete for jobs?

Bregman points out that that did not happen when women joined the paid workforce. Instead, he writes: "a bigger workforce means more consumption, more demand, more jobs."

And he gives the hilarious analogy that if the jobs market is like a game of musical chairs, then the new players arrive carrying more chairs!

Okay, so they won't take away our jobs but won't they drive wages down?

I mean, theoretically, according to that 2011 Clemens immigration paper, there should be a slight downward pressure on wages in the higher wage country. But Bregman gives examples of empirical studies that showed the opposite: a slight increase in earnings for the domestic workforce.

Why would that be? According to Heidi Schierholtz, writing in a 2010 Economic Policy Institute paper, immigrants increase earnings for the domestic workforce because the new arrivals consume more goods and services, which create more jobs. According to Schierholtz, native born workers wages increased a tiny amount, about $4 a week, while foreign born workers wages, that is to say earlier immigrants, did see a decrease of about $33 a week. In other words, immigration mainly affects less recent immigrants, who are far from the majority of the population.

Now slight though this difference is it would still be noticeable to many. Fortunately, it would be less of a problem in Edenicity with its lower cost of living, free health care, transportation, education, and guaranteed basic income.

Okay, but with all those freebies, what if the immigrants are too lazy to work? Won't immigrants from really poor countries just kick back and enjoy all those freebies without doing anything in return?

Wow, that's like the world's most common stereotype about immigrants. Bregman gives evidence that immigrants work harder, take less advantage of safety nets, and in some places, like in the United Kingdom, pay more taxes than the native born do.

In grad school, I briefly shared a house with two Filipino health care workers. And these were some of the hardest workers I ever saw. They were just putting in tons of overtime. And it also matches my experiences staying in touch with classmates from high school, as well as watching how hard my Somali students worked just a year and a half ago.

Okay, okay, so immigrants are not too lazy to work, but What if they never go back?

That's an odd one, isn't it? Bregman points out that people minimize border crossings only when countries make crossing the border difficult. For example, as the US Mexico border tightened up over the years, immigrants who returned to Mexico went from 85% in the 1960s, down to 7% more recently.

So much for our fears of immigrants, which again, I think are pretty much just a relic of that in-group loyalty and out-group fear that we all have that powered the social dynamics that built nations in the first place. But the facts clearly indicate that these fears are more wrong than they are right in the modern world. So we should definitely welcome immigrants with open arms!

Enclaves vs homogenization

The next question is, where and how will they live?

According to Jennifer Neill, a psychology professor at Michigan State, ethnic enclaves promote social cohesion within a group, but decreased tolerance between groups. In her End of Nations article, Deborah McKenzie responds to this by suggesting that maybe small enclaves in close proximity could be a solution, noting that Singapore discourages enclaves and has basically no ethnic strife. She also points out that very large enclaves, like 56 kilometers or larger, can exist peacefully if they're separated by geographic barriers. For example, Switzerland's 26 cantons.

Now here's the key point with large enclaves. Mackenzie quotes Lars Erik Cederman with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich as pointing out that the Cantons work because they have both autonomy and representation in collective decisions.

According to Cederman, strife arises when ethnic groups are excluded from power. That kind of makes sense, doesn't it?

Now McKenzie points out that the problem here is that there's no good definition of an ethnic group. As we saw at the very beginning of this episode, many of us have mixed ethnicities. The solution to that, according to Cedarman and others, is to devolve power to local communities as they do in Belgium and Canada.

Okay, how would that look in Edenicity?

Well imagine that some Edenicities would be ethnically distinct like a Swiss Canton, while others would homogenize several ethnicities, either house by house, block by block village by village or town by town. In any case, Edenicity's political structure, which I discussed in Episode 18, makes sure that each ethnicity is represented wherever they live, no matter what the size of the Enclave. This structure provides both the administrative complexity required to mediate the needs of large diverse populations and the flexibility to respond to change that rigid hierarchies so sorely lack.

Stronger cities + open borders = ?

And that brings us back to the historical questions that we begin with: what happens to nations when borders open and cities grow stronger? I mean, when someone asks about our nationality, what will we say? Will it be our ethnic group? Our city? Our bioregion? Our nation?

Maybe nations will become redefined by networks of cities.

Clusters of edenicities would have bioregional responsibilities such as cleaning up the environment, repairing past harms to the environment and indigenous people whose customs may be integral to restoring habitats and ecosystems.

In my view, this threads the political difference between libertarian perspectives, which argue for smaller national governments, and socialist impulses to expand the commons or even provide for the general welfare, as it says in the preamble of the US Constitution.

Turchin's analysis suggests that there will be no lasting world government because hierarchy, as we've designed it thus far, is all about competing with other nations.

But what if hierarchy itself is breaking down? After all, it was a product of competition between ever expanding groups for ever scarcer resources. But the lesson of Edenicity is that we can live in ever increasing ecological and economic abundance. And that brings us to the strangest possibility of all.

As I mentioned way back at the end of Episode 3, the first places to build something like Edenicity are not likely to be the most powerful nations on Earth. When these new city economies take off like rockets, the real question is, will they be open to immigrants from today's superpowers?

Close [music]

If you enjoyed Episode 33 please click that share link on your podcast player to let people know about it. And be sure to join me next time when I'll discuss how to reconcile the hazards and benefits of inequality. I'm Kev Polk and this has been Edenicity.


Edenicity 33: Opening Borders and Minds

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