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Monday, April 21, 2003

On Being an Expatriate

[This post has been edited--DCS]

On the excellent Free Trinidad blog eparillion comments about why he won't be returning home anytime soon:

I left for college, as did many of my peers, because I believed that I could get a better education [in New York]. Fair enough, but why stay after graduation? Well, for one thing, I found the culture of anti-intellectualism backed by religious dogma rather distasteful, and much preferred the more open-minded environment that New York had to offer. For another, I simply didn't think that I could get as interesting a job in Trinidad. I didn't want to work in law, medicine or oil (or its downstream industries, for that matter), and the impression I'd get upon investigation was that there wasn't much going on outside of that area. Now, that's obviously not entirely true, but the basic idea that there were more jobs here than there remains. Crime wasn't a factor in 1998, but these days you can add it to the list.

In the comments, Seldo justifies his reasons for not going back:

The conventional expectation is that I should feel somehow guilty about this: I am, after all, abandoning the country of my birth for the bright lights of the big city. But much as I miss Trinidad, I see no more reason to feel guilty about leaving Trinidad than Billy-Joe Hick does when he leaves Sticksville, Ohio and moves to New York. Big cities are more interesting and more creative places than small towns, and Trinidad through an accident of geography doesn't have any cities big enough. That's too bad, but it's nobody's fault.

Eparillion's post was inspiried by a long Richard Florida article in Washington Monthly, about creativity in the American economy. Arnold Kling is right to say that Florida's analysis is Austrian, following Joseph Schumpeter's overquoted mantra of creative destruction. Stephen Karlson also has thoughtful comments on Florida's piece, especially on Florida's recommendations. Rather than talk about this, though, I would like to say a few words about Trinidad.

Seldo's comments echo a some of endogenous growth theory, a strand of which says that capital, including human capital, move to where it can be most productively used. This is a common explanation of brain drains--the highly skilled cannot meet their potential (and feel consequentially unfulfilled themselves) if they are forced to work with poor quality capital. Trinidad, despite its relative affluence, is no exception, it would seem. Thought it has been creeping upwards, only about 8 percent people of school-leaving age go to university. Like the former mother country Britian, where many are worrying about the decline of math and science education, the problem really beings much earlier, with a primary and secondary school system that, despite its pretensions to universality, produces a surprisingly large number of functionally illierate school leavers.

Trinidad's economy is growing, at a annual rate of 3-5 percent. The trouble is it all driven by oil, natural gas and their downstream industries (the "offshore" economy, to use Lloyd Best's term). The rest of the economy, which employs most of the population, is generally subsidised. The government did a lot to correct major macroeconomic policy errors during the 1986-1992 recession; now, though, other that pushing for further hydrocarbon exploitation, I am at pains to figure out what they actually do to keep the economy growing and push the long-run rate of unemplyment down, though both have been happening.

Trinidaian governments, regardless of party, have more-or-less put the country on autopilot--they announce a mixed-bag of small initiatives, but since structural adjustment economic policy is more or less hands off, and they generally avoid screwing up the economy in any fundamental way. This may sound like a libertarian paradise, but it is something of an abdication of responsibility, leaving real economic oversight in the hands of a small number of low-profile civil servants at the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance. (They do a good job, all things considered, but that's not the point.) Structuralist economists (of which there are many in the West Indies) can't see any fundamental industrial change. Basically life is "nice" so long as the oil price is above $20 a barrel. Any sign of dynamism or creativity, though, is so far hard to detect, and most job growth is in low-productivity service sectors.

Trinidad's population is tremendously creative, especially in the realm of culture. Somewhat oddly, it is also more than a bit conservative, especially when it comes to professionalisation, which, when it comes to cultural products, is a key step towards broadening the market. Take Mark Kleiman's comments on American folk music:

Folk music tends to be "heavy on the fiddle, heavy on the harmonies, and light on the rehearsal time." Worse, since a certain casualness in performance is taken as the hallmark of the folk style, folk performers tend to deliberately cultivate a little bit of imprecision: going a little sharp vocally, putting an unnecessary twang into violin music to make it genuine fiddle music, emphasizing the speed of a breakdown number by slurring the notes.

Imagine how glorious it would be to have a whole concert in which classical standards of peformance were applied to the folk repertoire, or to new pieces in the various traditions.

Change the instruments and substitute "calypso" or "steelband" for folk, and you have the problem there in a nutshell. To take one example, many have proposed changes to the slow-running Carnival events to broaden their audience and make them suitable for live broadcast; the reply you get is that you can't change the "people's culture". Each Caribbean Island also fiercely nationalistic when it comes to carnival competitions, with even other regional artists largely kept out. The thing is, you can't necessarily grow and stay as you are.

While not reaching the extremes of the oil-boom days of the 1970s and early 80s, the rising all-around affluence has raised expectations, especially among the university educated youth. The lack of real economic--and social--change on the ground, though, dismays many. This could be a coordination problem, which does not put the growing skilled Trinidadians together with each other, and other skilled West Indians. Migration is probably looked upon as the solution, and not just by Trinidadians educated abroad. Anecdotally speaking, there has been an increase in the number of University of the West Indies graduates either taking up positions with multinationals and moving, or applying for youth- or skilled worker visas.

To echo Karlson's comments, I am not sure that government policy can do much about this. Industrial policy--the steel plant and the proposed aluminum smelter, to name two--have been proven money losers (when in state ownership, at least) and possibly a politcal non-starter. Just as China's accession to the World Trade Organisation drove and locked-in economic changes there, perhaps a real Caribbean single market, with full freedom of movement, will change things, forcing producers to adapt to a wider market. Perhaps. Until then, many in Trinidad and in the wider Caribbean region, myself (possibly) included, will contintue to seek the bright lights and the big opportunites of the major cities abroad.