The emerging and maturing global economy presents both opportunities and threats to the United States, and it seems that the country is having one of its periodic bouts with insecurity about our ability to compete in the global market. We look at China's powerful central government and its ability to focus investment on national priorities and we worry about being left in their dust. We are nervous about the messiness of our democracy and the gridlock and brain-lock we see in our nation's capital. Still, as Winston Churchill famously remarked a few years after winning World War II and then losing his position as British Prime Minister:
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. (November 11, 1947, in the House of Commons)
In the United States we have a combination of muddled democracy, regulated capitalism and occasional openness to immigration. That combination has created a dynamic and creative place that manages to collect a good deal of the world's brain power and creativity in a single location. Of course, as a New Yorker I see my home city as the central meeting point of what John F. Kennedy once termed "a nation of immigrants." In the 2000 census, nearly 40% of the people who lived in New York City were born in other nations. That figure did not include an estimated one million or so illegal immigrants not counted by the census or the many foreign diplomats, business people, and tourists that crowd these streets as well. It is also an ever-changing group; while Main Street in Queens was home to Jewish immigrants and their stores a generation ago, today it is dominated by signs in Chinese and Korean.
We don't know what nearly a decade of post 9/11 paranoia about foreigners has done to New York's international profile, but I doubt it has made this city less global. As most experts acknowledge, the fuel of the post-industrial economy is mainly comprised of innovation, creativity and brain power, though intelligence, while necessary, is not a sufficient condition for innovation on its own. One must also have freedom and safety to think and create. New York City provides such an environment as it continues to serve as a gateway to the rest of the nation. People come here first from other parts of the world, and after a few years make their way to Arizona, Vegas or places closer by. We see that gateway function performed to a lesser degree by Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Chicago and Miami as well.
All of New York's mayors have understood the centrality of immigrants to the city's growth and prosperity. A few decades ago, city leaders started their political campaigns with trips to the three "I"s: Italy, Ireland and Israel. Today the city's immigrant base is more complex. Of course, the city's immigrants do not only come from other nations, they also come from other American states. New York City is both a real place and an image planted in the imagination of the ambitious and adventurous. Recall the introduction to Stevie Wonder's great song Living for the City: "New York... just as I pictured it..."
New York's role as a gathering place is what makes this city work, and this strategy is central to the nation's long-term prosperity and competitive edge. Yet this is not always understood well. America has long had its nativist, anti-immigrant side--just as it has its anti-science and anti-intellectual tendencies. Immigrants supposedly take low wage jobs away from "real" Americans and somehow corrupt our culture. But in the 21st century these views only serve to endanger our already shaky economic well-being.
America's long-term role in the global marketplace is to specialize in brain power and creativity. Freedom is not simply a political principle here, it is an economic asset. It can help us attract the best creative and scientific talent in the world and put them to work. Our media, educational and natural resources can make this the best place on Earth to live, work and play. America's great advantage in the global economy is that we have long allowed people to come here from other parts of the world and become Americans. New York City has made immigrants a key part of our identity throughout history. That is not the case in China and Japan and in many other nations. A foreigner in Japan is always a foreigner, but a foreigner in America might be the grandfather of New York City's mayor or the father of the nation's president.
As communication, information and transportation technology continue to shrink the globe, the ability to welcome immigrants can't help but provide New York with a competitive advantage in attracting and growing businesses. As the rest of the nation looks for a niche in the global economy, it could do a lot worse than following New York's lead.
Follow Steven Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/earthinstitute