The Other I

October 6, 2012

Ground Control: We got a problem

I have just read a review of Better Capitalism by Ropbert Litan and Carl Schramm and am downloading the book to read.  Many of the ideas are scary, because America might be on a downhill slide that we are too stubborn to stop.  On the other, there are sensible, do-able things we can decide to implement that could put America once again on the top of the world.  Not with guns but with a commitment to freedom and creativity – and yes, to capitalism in its best form.

For example, between 1980 and the financial crisis in 2008,  small, high-growth companies less than five years old provided almost all  – all! – of the 40 million new jobs in America during that time.  Since then, the emergence of these companies has plummeted by 65%.  If these companies are the engines of economic growth, then unemployment is going to continue to be an endemic problem.  Why is it happening?

The authors  suggest that one of the reasons is that America’s previous business-friendly immigration policy isn’t business-friendly anymore.   This is much more important than I realized.

Because 40% of the Fortune 500 companies in America in 2010 were founded either by immigrants or by their children.  That includes such American names as Google, AT&T, DuPont, eBay, Kraft, Heinz and Proctor & Gamble.  Until 9/11, America was a magnet for immigrants with brains, skills, and a dream.  Today foreign-born entrepreneurs have to negotiate an obstacle course to get into the States, while Canada, China, and India are flinging open their doors to them.  Last year I sat next to an educated and skilled immigrant on a flight to the U.S.  But he was only stopping off there;  he was on his way to Canada.  There are tens of thousands of others like him.

America has long had a schizophrenic attitude toward immigration.  Immigrants have made our country what it is.  And yet there is the impulse to slam the door shut against newcomers.  There is that impulse to say we don’t need them, that they aren’t as smart as we are, that they don’t speak the language, that their attitudes aren’t “American,” that they don’t value democracy.  And above all, the accusation is that they are taking jobs from Americans.

But the numbers just don’t substantiate this.  Right now there are about 12 million unemployed people in America who would like to work and can’t find a suitable job. What would unemployment be like without half our Fortune 500 companies?  or without all those small new companies started by immigrants with an idea and a faith in America?

When times are tough, irrational  prejudices often become vote-getters.  But it’s a self-destructive vote-getter.  America needs immigrants to be the best of what we are.   And on our good days, we know that.  On our bad days, we build walls and detention centers, we try to kick them out if we haven’t managed to keep them out in the first place.

But we don’t have to be afraid of immigrants.  We really don’t.  It’s our fear that we need to be afraid of.



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