What is it, really, that makes a country great?
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Surely not size. Russia has 56 times the territory and more than twice the population of Italy. Yet Italy’s economy, troubled as it is, is 44 percent larger than Russia’s.
Nor is it sheer scale. China’s GDP may eventually outstrip America’s. But per capita Chinese GDP is lower than Mexico’s, making it a rich country of relatively poor people.
Raw military power? Vladimir Putin controls what is probably the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, capable of blowing up the world many times over. But the Russian navy can barely operate a single aircraft carrier far from its shore.
A better measure of national greatness is the ability of nations to cultivate, attract and retain human capital. People tend to vote with their feet. To trace the rise or decline of nations is to watch where those feet go — and where they leave.
Take Hungary. Since 1960, seven Hungarians have won the Nobel Prize. Not bad for a small country — except that all of them left Hungary to make their lives and careers elsewhere.
Or take Portugal, a once-great country. Today, 1 in 5 Portuguese citizens — 2 million in all — live abroad. More Portuguese live in France than in Lisbon. That shouldn’t be a surprise: Since 2008, the Portuguese economy has shriveled by 4 percent.
The United States provides the opposite example. The U.S. economy is 12 percent larger today than it was at the time of the financial crisis. We’re also taking in roughly half a million legal new arrivals a year. The foot-voting continues, and we’re still coming out on top.
As for Nobelists, a report by George Mason’s Institute for Immigration Research found that Americans have won 40 percent of all Nobel Prizes ever awarded — and immigrants accounted for 35 percent of those winners. Last year, the only native-born American to win the prize was Bob Dylan, for literature. The rest of the U.S. winners — economist Oliver Hart, physicist J. Michael Kosterlitz, chemist Fraser Stoddart — are immigrants.
A common U.S. conceit is that we attract brilliant foreigners because we have brilliant things: great universities, vast financial resources, a dynamic economy, high-tech. That gets things mostly backward. It’s because we have brilliant foreigners that we have those things in the first place. Google. Comcast. EBay. Kraft. Pfizer. AT&T. They all had immigrants as founders.
Overall, a 2016 study by the Partnership for the New American Economy found that 40 percent of all Fortune 500 companies were founded or co-founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Taken together they employed 19 million people and had revenues of $4.8 trillion.
Opponents of a liberal immigration policy often insist they welcome legal immigrants and only object to illegal ones. Rubbish. The immigration reform bill introduced in Congress this year by Republicans Tom Cotton and David Perdue and endorsed by Donald Trump aims to cut legal immigration by half.
Restrictionists also argue that we need to favor newcomers with “skills” and educational credentials. More rubbish. Jan Koum arrived in the U.S. from Ukraine in 1992 as a 16-year-old boy with his mother, living off food stamps. She worked as a baby sitter. He later dropped out of college. In 2009 he came up with an idea for a mobile messaging app. Five years later Facebook purchased WhatsApp for $22 billion.
Should it make any difference to WhatsApp’s billion-plus users that Koum arrived in the United States legally? And if it turned out that he hadn’t, should he be required to leave the country, presumably so he can pay income tax — and create jobs — in his native Ukraine?
That would be self-defeating. But it’s the fate that may soon await 800,000 or so young people who were brought without visas to the United States as children, grew up in the country, in some cases speak only English and face deportation because the Trump administration seems poised to terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that allowed them to stay in school or their jobs.
The nativist wing of the right thinks DACA is unconstitutional. That’s not clear, although it would be on firmer legal ground if Congress turned DACA into law by passing Sens. Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin’s DREAM Act. In the meantime, allowing these young dreamers to stay is ordinary humanity and enlightened policy. If just 10 of those 800,000 turn into future Jan Koums, the program will have more than paid for itself.
It isn’t the whole truth to say that immigrants come to our shores because of our wealth. They also come in hope of being welcomed by a country whose astounding faith in human possibility includes a faith in