Borderless Economics

A brief read of the blurb, a look at the table of contents, and I was hooked. I often base my book selections after reading the table of contents. Sometimes this works, sometime it doesn’t. In this case, I’m glad it did.

This book is about people, and their stories. Stories of how they moved from the country they were born in to an unknown country – in search for freedom, wealth and a better standard of living. The author, Robert Guest, is the Foreign Editor for The Economist. As part of his work assignments, he has travelled and lived in many corners of the world. Placed in this unique position, Robert had an exposure to different cultures, and how people in these cultures have attempted to change their economic state – and to a certain extent, their country’s – through migration.

The book talks about the various diasporas across the world – the majority being dominated by the Chinese, Indians, and people from African nations. The interesting thing is that each group of these people are attempting to influence economic growth in different ways. The Chinese businessman, the Indian doctors and Silicon Valley founders, and the Nigerian agents have their own tried and tested method that differs from each other as chalk from cheese. Yet these methods work to benefit the migrants and both the nations that these migrants straddle.

In each chapter, the author leads with the stories of individuals or groups of people – migrants mostly – who have attempted to better their life situations. He then follows it up with numbers in some cases. And this format works because stories are known to be powerful. They can build a more compelling narrative and sometimes are more relatable than simple facts. Stories are more humanistic than statistics. If used correctly (and sparingly), they can engage readers fully with an incomparable effectiveness. Perhaps that is why ancient philosophers chose to impart moral lessons that were wrapped in fables or tales.

Guest makes a very important argument that although “brain drain” may be a concern in the countries where these migrants originate from – some specific examples being Indian doctors and engineers – and Philippine nurses, overall such migration actually boosts skills than deplete them.

What I also liked is that the author does not simply fill the book with the positive effects of migration. He also presents the dark side of tribalism – religious terrorism, drugs, mafia, and to a certain extent, even civil wars. These negative aspects can have severe effects that last for years. But this is an unfortunate consequence which should not simply be a reason to stop or to discourage migration.

The author ends the book by devoting a couple of chapters on the favoured destination for migrants – America. Although the entire book is filled with delightful stories and insight, I enjoyed the these chapters on America the most. Evidently, even today, America is one of the most popular countries where migrants choose to move. The author explains the reasons succinctly,

First, America offers an unbeatable material standard of living. Second, it offers the widest variety of niches,”… “virtually any immigrant can fit in, whether she is a socially conservative Arab or an ostentatiously gay Nicaraguan.

The author also rips apart the various global polls and surveys that often rank certain Nordic European countries as having the best quality of life.

These rankings often miss important nuances, however. They tend to measure the absence of problems rather than the presence of opportunity or excitement. Countries are (correctly) penalised for infants who die or homes that lack broadband. But what these indices fail to capture is the buzz that sets some countries apart. The Nordic countries are nice places: polite, prosperous and orderly. But how many people, given the choice between living in Finland or America, would pick Finland?

No wonder America continues to be the most favoured nation for migrants. However, here I have to point out that this book was written in 2011 and there is yet another point that the author makes about America and its treatment of migrants.

American talk-show hosts sometimes say odious things about illegal immigrants, but no openly xenophobic politician can attract the kind of support that France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen did in 2002…

Ahem. If you’re aware of the current political scenario in America at the time this article was written (mid 2019), you can pretty much judge whether this assertion still holds true.

The author ends the book by explaining his theory of why America will continue to be number one in spite of faster economic growth in countries like China. But to keep that position, the author explains that America will have to revamp its current immigration policy significantly.

About a million green cards (which allow permanent residency) are issued each year, but these are allocated mostly to family members of those who already live in America. In a typical year, only 15 percent are awarded on the basis of skills. No other rich nation puts such a low priority on work-based immigration.

Lately other countries such as Canada and Australia have started welcoming immigrants much more freely and actively based on skill based programs. Who knows, over time, these nations may better reap the benefits of skilled immigration.

I actually felt disappointed when I completed this book. It seemed to end too soon. I wanted more – more stories of brave migrants, more stories of countries that welcome them, and how both these pieces of the puzzle fit together to create synergy. At some level, I even want the author to revisit this book and update it, based on the changes that the world has seen since the book was published. That is, of course, wishful thinking. As of now, one can only follow the author in his subsequent works online.

In closing I just have one curious question. Although the book does point out the effects that migration has on the economies of nations, the author could have delved into the economics aspect in more detail. The deep focus on the stories about the individual and the relatively superficial focus on the economics part makes me wonder whether “Borderless Economics” is the perfect title of this book. But these are just nitpicks.

All In all, I absolutely loved this book. Although I am not a big fan of authors using anecdotes to fill up pages in a book, I feel that Robert Guest has used his stories effectively, to complement the points that he makes in the book. This makes the book a must read for anyone wanting to learn more about the reason and benefits of global migration. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a potential migrant dreaming about moving to a countries with better standard of living or whether you’re already a citizen of such countries. Both sides are likely to benefit from this.

Today information flows freely across the world without any controls or restrictions (well for the most part anyway). We are years away from creating a world that allows a similar flow of people – in and out of nations – free to live and conduct their business in their country of choosing. But one can dream.

Featured Photo Credit: mauro mora
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