Saturday, May 29, 2010

On the dialogics of cultures and populations

Over at GNXP, Razib Khan put up a post on the historical demographics of German Jews as compared to the current demographics of American Jews that I thought might interest you.

[I]n regards to the future of the American Jewry I think the story outlined in Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 may serve as a possible vision of the future. Elon notes that almost the whole of the German Jewish elite of the late 18th and early 19th century converted to Christianity. Moses Mendelssohn’s last Jewish descendant died before the 20th century; the rest of his descendants had become Christians. Karl Marx and Heinrich Heine were not atypical. But there was a large German Jewish community in the early 20th century, though even that was being eroded by intermarriage and conversion. If Elon is correct that the bulk of the 19th century Jewry became Christian, where did the Jews of the 20th century come from? It seems that as the German Jewish burghers abandoned the Reform temples for Lutheran churches, their spots were filled by assimilating Eastern European Jews who were immigrating into Germany and taking over the institutions which the earlier community had built. They were heirs in spirit, if not blood, to Moses Mendelssohn. In other words, a large bumper crop of Orthodox youth may be the salvation for the Reform and Conservative movements. There may be no third generation Reform, but not all third generations beyond Orthodoxy remain Orthodox either.

Examples like the above constitute any number odata points against the idea of extending demographic trends naively into the distant future, expecting that cultures and populations will remain conservatively and hermetically sealed off from each other, without any blurring or fusion. That has never been the case. Different cultures always engage with each other, individuals interact with other individuals, thesis, antithesis, synthesis on a scale. Don't think dialectics: think dialogics, a far more complex set of relationships.

The dialogic work carries on a continual dialogue with other works of literature and other authors. It does not merely answer, correct, silence, or extend a previous work, but informs and is continually informed by the previous work. Dialogic literature is in communication with multiple works. This is not merely a matter of influence, for the dialogue extends in both directions, and the previous work of literature is as altered by the dialogue as the present one is. In this sense, Bakhtin's "dialogic" is analogous to T. S. Eliot's ideas in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," where he holds that "the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past."

The term 'dialogic', however, does not just apply to literature. For Bakhtin, all language - indeed, all thought - appeared dialogic. This means that everything anybody ever says always exists in response to things that have been said before and in anticipation of things that will be said in response. We never, in other words, speak in a vacuum. As a result, all language (and the ideas which language contains and communicates) is dynamic, relational and engaged in a process of endless redescriptions of the world.

What holds for works of popular culture like literature holds for culture as a whole--and, for that matter, for areas of culture other than popular culture like demographic trends. Based on any number of highly individual reactions to different economic, political, and social stimuli, different societies respond to population issues in different ways, very often informed by the experiences of other countries. Québec has been influenced by the family-friendly policies of France; Estonia has largely adopted the family-friendly trends of low marriage rates and postponed fertility of neighbouring Nordic countries; countries with dynamic labour markets (like Spain and the United States until recently) are more open to immigrants than countries with relatively closed labour markets; people often move from one country to another based on cultural and historical bonds between sending and receiving countries (from Ukraine and Central Asia to Russia, say).

The same holds true for subpopulations within a given polity, with gender norms from a surrounding culture influencing the behaviour of immigrant women coming from cultures with different gender norms, and with some degree of mutual assimilation, often asymmetrical, between different populations. Argentina's culture may be heavily influenced by Italian immigrants, but ultimately the division of these Italians into different regional populations ensured that the descendants of Argentina's big waves of Italian immigrants, who likely formed a slight majority of incomers, ended up speaking Spanish. And Germany's Jewish population continued to grow, despite the assimilation of the native-born, thanks to immigration from Germany's eastern hinterlands.


Mexico migration patterns

Research done recently by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank reveals some surprising conclusions.

“The U.S-Mexico border region has a unique economy and socio-demographic profile that sets it apart from the rest of the country. Perched between two giant nations, the border bears witness to over $350 billion in cross-border trade and well over one hundred million border crossings every year, yet has remained one of the poorest regions in the U.S. At $30,904, per capita income on the U.S. side of the border is 85 percent of the U.S. average. Without San Diego, border income is much lower—$22,302—61 percent of the U.S. average. At the same time, the Mexican side of the border is one of the wealthiest regions in Mexico; income per capita in Mexican border states is about 1.5 times that of non-border states.”

I suppose this conclusion is a reasonable one; on the US side the border region is mostly remote countryside adjoining the poorer neighbor while the Mexican side is that country’s primary access point to the US.

The researchers then pose this interesting question:

The obvious economic question is what factors drive Mexican migration into one
of the poorest areas in the United States? In other words, why would Mexican migrants pass up more lucrative labor markets in the U.S. interior for a stint on the border?

The conclusion is that:

“access to fewer migrant networks and a strong geographic preference among
border migrants may ultimately underlie their willingness to settle for lower wages on the border rather than seeking higher wages by venturing into the U.S. interior….Border migrants might prefer border cities over interior destinations because they don’t have migrant networks in the U.S. interior, don’t speak English or have little U.S. work experience. They may be skilled in occupations which are disproportionately common on the border, such as service and sales occupations, or in skilled occupations where native (U.S.-born) labor is scarce in the border region and hence wages are relatively high, such as professionals—architects, engineers, technicians, vocational teachers and college professors. Moreover, because of the border’s high concentration of Border Patrol and other immigration and customs officials, the region likely attracts migrants who can cross the border legally, such as those who have temporary visas including tourist visas or border crossing cards.5″

The suggestion regarding professional workers goes against conventional wisdom; an example might be of an engineer from Mexico winning a bid on a construction project near the border on the US side in part because that engineer is far nearer to the project than any US firms.

If you take a look at Mexico population distribution, you’ll see that with the exception of the Tijuana area Mexico’s states along the US border are relatively thinly populated compared with the major urban areas in the south. Given the high income identified by the researchers, you would think that the border states would attract more internal migrants. Perhaps it takes time for word of the opportunities to spread and for migrants to prepare to make the move.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cuba's missed opportunities

I'll start by linking to and quoting Rory Carroll's Guardian article "Cuba suffers exodus of the best and the brightest as economy remains in the doldrums".

Young people, especially well-educated professionals, are fleeing the island. Tens of thousands have emigrated in the past two years. The exodus has alarmed the communist government but remains largely unreported, a taboo topic for state media.

"It's a sign that the revolution has failed, so they don't want to talk about it. We are losing our future," said Ricardo Martinelli, a university professor who has seen many of his students and his only child, a 23-year-old technician, emigrate in recent months.

Analysts blame growing frustration over President Raúl Castro's stalled reforms. After formally succeeding his brother Fidel last year, he promised economic liberalisation, but the average monthly wage remains $20 (£14). "What I notice more and more is the disaffection of youth: more people not seeing a future," said one European diplomat. A government-organised free concert on the Malecón seafront attracted a small fraction of the expected audience. When performers attempted rabble-rousing speeches, the crowd drifted away.

Unlike the mass exodus of the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when a chaotic scramble across the Florida straits seized world attention, this new wave of emigration has involved an orderly – and discreet – transit through Havana's José Martí airport. "At least 80% of my peers have left," said José-Miguel Marín, a 38-year-old scientist. "I keep track through Facebook. They are all over: Ecuador, Mexico, the United States, Spain."

Bureaucratic and financial hurdles remain, but Cuba has loosened restrictions on leaving, opening the door to those who have the will and means to wrangle a visa for another country. Often that means the best and brightest. "I saw people weeping when they were turned down for a US visa," said Carmen Gonce, 65, after visiting the office that represents US interests in Havana.

Ecuador has become a magnet, because it requires only a letter of invitation rather than a visa. Last year Cuban arrivals soared by 147% to 27,114, according to the national immigration agency. The number of Cubans marrying Ecuadoreans jumped from 88 in 2007 to 1,542 in the first nine months of 2009.

The whole idea of an economic transition in Cuba from socialism on the models of China or Vietnam, with political authoritarianism combining with a substantial widening of economic freedom, remains far from realization.

Cuba was supposed to be enjoying a new dawn. On taking office Raúl Castro promised to open up a moribund economy 95% controlled by the state, raising hopes that a Caribbean North Korea would become a growth tiger like China or Vietnam.

There have been modest steps: greater autonomy for farmers; the ban on owning computers, mobile phones and DVD players has been lifted; de facto privatisation of barber shops and beauty salons; bureaucracy clipped in provincial towns. But Raúl has ignored deeper reforms, suggesting his more doctrinaire brother remains influential.

"As long as Fidel is alive, Raúl will not cross him," said Ann Louise Bardach, author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington. "And for Fidel everything is about the fall of the Russians. He fears that if we open this, we lose everything."

Even now, recent reforms in the agricultural sector, distributing underused land to farmers, is being undermined by the high costs of mechanization and the lack of sufficient incentives to farmers--Cuba's not replicating China's successes in economic reform.

Many of Cuba's problems can be traced directly to its population issues. As J. Bradford Delong noted in 2008, Cuba on the eve of the revolution enjoyed levels of economic and human development comparable in Latin America only to developed Argentina and Uruguay, with higher standards of per capita income than most of southern Europe and one of the lowest rates of infant mortality in the world. The investments of the Castros' regime may have substantially increased levels of human development, but Cuba has lost tremendous amounts of ground economically. Once on par with Argentina and Uruguay, GDP per capita--at least according to the Penn World Table--on par with that of Mexico or the Dominican Republic. In the meantime, Cuba has adopted policies like the sharp limiting of urbanization that has doubtless played a major role in shifting labour in the Cuban economy from agriculture to higher value added sectors. One's tempted to conclude that Cuba's urbanization has been focused as much within Cuba (in Havana and smaller cities) as in the United States (in the Cuban-American heartland of Dade County), that for young Cubans moving to the big city means leaving their country.

Cuba is being very badly served by its rulers. The country has a narrow window, produced by its combination of sub-replacement fertility with continuing high levels of emigration. It has only a short amount of time in which it can grow rich, recovering at least some of the ground that it has lost over the past half-century. Instead, the current government has opted for policies of stagnation--economic, political, social--which will serve the country badly, perhaps allowing emigration as an escape valve for the unhappy young. This 2002 Library of Congress report makes it clear that Cuba's future economic development depends on a more economically rational distribution of its population, in economic sectors and by geography. Nearly a decade later, that hasn't happened.

Cuba may yet become a democracy, eventually, but I'm now much less hopeful than I was in my postings of 2006 and 2009 that Cuba will reform before it becomes a sort of Caribbean Moldova, impoverished and depopulating. Governments can adopt many different policies to deal with their demographic issues, but Cuba's government certainly isn't notable for its competency. Yes, replacement migration might be an option, but where would the migrants come from? and why would they head to Cuba, instead of the United States or Spain or any number of more attractive destinations? The possibility of self-reinforcing migration, as young Cubans leave a Cuba that would be left increasingly behind by other countries with better economic records and considerable need for labour and more follow suit as Cuba's position deteriorates, is a real one.