They come from the land of ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow. Or something like that.
The first humans came to America looking for opportunity; probably in the form of new places to hunt, fish, and live. The first Europeans came to America for similar reasons, and in some cases with the hope for a bit more freedom to practice their religion than they were used to. Many sold everything to pay for the journey, on the gamble that they would have a better life and probably earn more money than they were in their old homes. They’re still coming, for basically the same reasons, but from different places for the most part (although people still immigrate to America from Ireland, Poland, France, etc.)
Most Americans look on the 1800′s as sort of the quintessential period for the immigrant story. In the 1800′s they were emigrating from an old, long established culture and economy to a new frontier culture and economy. Spaces were big, land and jobs were plentiful, and opportunity was supposedly everywhere. My in-laws tell the story of my wife’s grandfather, who made several trips back and forth from Alsace to Minnesota, each time “earning a fortune” in Minnesota and spending it in Alsace.
The frontier was a key to the immigrant story. Frontier meant opportunity to acquire land much cheaper than in an old established economy like Europe, and land meant wealth to a farmer. Merchants saw opportunity in frontiers to move into new markets where there was little competition and they could capture a large market share. Untapped natural resources like California gold were also keys to providing opportunity for immigrants who were willing to assume the risk of uprooting themselves to pursue them.
But those days are gone forever, over a long time ago. America is no longer a frontier. In many ways, today’s America resembles Europe in the 1800′s. Highly developed, globally adventurous, and relatively stratified. Social and economic mobility are not what they were, although as in 19th century Europe there is still a fair amount of them. Probably more, since our system of aristocracy is less formalized.
So what’s a 21st Century American to do? Should we stay behind in the old world and accept our lot, or is there a frontier where we might find greater opportunity?
Until we get serious about space travel, today’s frontiers are in any old, established cultures and economies that are experiencing a renaissance. A few years ago that was Japan and the Asian Tigers, now it’s probably India and China and places like Vietnam. These aren’t really frontiers – they’re well established markets and cultures, and the land is not available for homestead. I’d call them “refrontiers”, since they’re really only frontiers by virtue of their renaissances. Still, any comparison of GDP growth rates will attest to the levels of opportunity in these economies.
So it seems to me that for the fairly average American, the opportunity is to try to move your net worth to a refrontier and practice good old Yankee Capitalism. Consider that seriously and it gets pretty scary, but that’s the kind of risk that immigrants have always taken on. “Honey, I’m going to sell our house, my car, my 401k, cash out and move to Hyderabad. I’ll send for you and the kids when I get established. Six months tops.”
I don’t know about you, but I might have a little trouble selling that to my wife. Still, neither one of us would be living here now if our ancestors hadn’t done it.
Just a thought.