Johan Fourie's blog

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The American future: notes from a visit

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Owl in flight

Take-off: Photo by Johan Fourie at Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona, October 2013.

Yesterday our stay in Tucson came to end. It’s been a great experience; Tucson, a mid-size city in southern Arizona, is an eclectic mix of university town, military base and hippie culture. It’s also close to the Mexican border, which means that you will find excellent Mexican food, a welcome alternative to typical American fast-food diet. (How is Chipotle not yet a global franchise?) Oh yes, and Tucson is also in the desert, which means you’ll encounter saguaros, javelinas, ocotillos and fantastic autumn weather.

I was there to visit the University of Arizona’s Department of Economics. I presented the day after my arrival, which allowed a quick introduction to the faculty and students. First observations (of the US system in general): math ability is effectively the only criterion used for entry into the PhD programme. A significant proportion of students fail their first year (of five). A high proportion, often more than 50% of the graduate student body, is Asian-American, especially within the University of California system. In Tucson, foreign students from countries as diverse as Iran, Korea, Uruguay, Kazakhstan and China make up a large proportion of graduate students (in Economics). There are very few African students, at least at the universities I’ve visited. (I’m not referring to African-American students, although they are also underrepresented, as are Hispanic Americans.)

(Perhaps this warrants another post, but by considering the proportion of Indian and Chinese students at US universities, it’s easy to understand why these countries can be optimistic of their economic future. In contrast, even though some African economies are growing at rapid rates, it’s clear that the skills shortage will soon dampen this growth if these countries do not actively import skills from abroad.)

Our stay in Tucson was especially enjoyable thanks to the generosity of our Airbnb host, Ross, my host at the Department, Price Fishback, his colleague, Tiemen Woutersen, as well as that of Taylor Jaworksi (who is on the job market this year). Price treated us to a visit to the Desert Museum (where I snapped the above picture), and tickets to attend two college basketball games, a college football game (with more than 50000 spectators, close to 100 players per team and a show so professional I’d give them a World Cup to host any day of the week) and several lovely dinners. Arizona is mining country, so Helanya and I also visited Bisbee, a quirky mining town close to the Mexican border. We even took a tour of the old copper mine, which I am embarrassed to say was my first experience of an actual mine (discounting Gold Reef City). While here, I read Bill Carter’s Boom Bust Boom. As a resident of Bisbee, Bill explores the ways in which mining affects his own town, but also copper’s pervasiveness in our everyday lives.

Helanya and I also flew to San Francisco where we rented a car to visit Stanford (distinguished, high-tech, Asian), the Google campus (expectant, powerful, hipster) and UC Berkeley (classy, affable, under construction). The next day, I presented at UC Davis, their Economics department has a strong emphasis on economic history. Greg Clark submitted the final manuscripts of a book that morning which, in typical Greg Clark-style, promises to challenge prevailing ideas of social mobility.

This was my first extensive visit to the States, and I’ve made several observations. Helanya and I lived close to the university in a place we rented through Airbnb. The great advantage of the apartment was that my office was a 10 minute walk. The bad thing about Tucson (and the US in general), though, is that you need a car to get pretty much anywhere. Even though public transport is available in Tucson and they are building a new tram system linking campus to downtown, the differences between European university towns and the US are stark. I guess the US is more like South Africa (or South Africa more like the States); cars are ubiquitous and central to how Americans work and play. This culture of the car is both expensive and time-consuming, a consequence of the American Dream and subsidized home-ownership which created vast suburban areas resistant to public transport. Reducing this dependence on cars – or transforming this car into something more efficient – will be the greatest challenges (and opportunities) of the future.

Americans are known to be extroverted and self-assured, and our experience largely supports this generalization. The upside of this is that they are overtly friendly, sometimes irritatingly so, like when Helanya ended up next to a guy on the two-hour San Francisco flight who wanted to be her non-stop tour guide and personal councillor. (Do you really ask someone whether they are happy in their relationship ten minutes after you’ve met them – when their husband is sitting across the aisle?) This is, for someone used to the diffidence of Europe, both refreshing and awkward.

But America is also straddling a thin line between a country united and divided. Before any college sports game, the crowd falls silent and turns to the national flag that hangs prominently in the stadium. A trumpet plays the The Star-Spangled Banner and the crowd follows in song. It is an impressive display. The frequency of American flags (massive ones) that are visible across American towns, the regularity at which veterans and current soldiers are celebrated (at airports, on TV, at sports games), and the pervasiveness of American Culture, from fast food to news and movies and fashion, made us sympathetic and somehow part of this country built from an eclectic mix of migrants. (But that, of course, can easily lead to ignorance too: no, the World Series is not a world series.)

But just like South Africa, America is also a country divided along racial lines. As mentioned above, university entrance is highly disproportional to the population; Asian-Americans and whites are overrepresented, Hispanic and African-Americans are in the minority. (What happened to Native Americans, you might think? Aside from an excellent museum in Washington, they really are at the fringes of society.) There are affirmative action policies in place to redress these discrepancies, but they can have perverse outcomes. Francisca Antman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics and the University of Boulder Colorado, shows, for example, how people of mixed-race reclassify themselves depending on the type of affirmative action programmes. “Consistent with supporting evidence showing that individuals from underrepresented minority groups face an incentive to identify under affirmative action, we find that once affirmative action is outlawed, they are less likely to identify with their minority group. In contrast, we find that individuals from overrepresented minority groups who face a disincentive to identify under affirmative action are more likely to identify with their minority group once affirmative action is banned.”

Disunity is not only by race, but also by political affiliation. On our journey across America we’ve met staunch supporters of the Republican Party, outspoken Democrats and many who are critical of both. We’ve also endured the consequences of failure by the American government to reconcile differences across party lines. We’ve watched MSNBC and CNN but also FOX. We’ve heard debates about gun control, legalizing marijuana, Obamacare, the debt ceiling and the future of democracy. These are not easy issues in a country that is increasingly unequal. Those at the lower end feel their privileges eroding: immigration threatens their jobs, they believe, while gun control threatens their leisure. Those in South, or those in rural areas, feel more vulnerable, they argue, than those in the North, or those in cities. Obamacare’s intricacies make it an easy straw man for all the things wrong with government.

There are no easy answers, but Americans easily forget that they still live in one of the most remarkable countries on earth. Two days ago, someone asked me what my thoughts are on the future of the American economy. ‘Is it really going down?’

No, it’s not. Other countries may be doing better, but that’s a good thing. America is still the land of opportunity. It still provides the best platform for any entrepreneur – local or foreign – to turn their ideas into reality and ‘make it big’. Think about Google, now fifteen years old (and founded by an immigrant). Think about Facebook, who is only ten years old. Or Airbnb, who is only five. Its universities still draw the best of the global best to America’s shores, and many come to stay. Its politics may be perplexing and convoluted, but it is still the country that can elect a president from one of its smallest minorities.

Because of its promise, America will continue to be a country of migrants. (The political challenge is in supporting this, not inhibiting it.) Minorities will grow bigger; Spanish, which is already widely-spoken, might even become an official language. Americans of Asian heritage will increasingly be an economic elite, a consequence of their excellent tertiary education.

That means the American of the future might look very different, but she will continue to live in a country that inspires hope and belief in a better future.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 21, 2013 at 17:15

2 Responses

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  1. […] our best students to consider a PhD in Europe or, preferably, the US. On my brief visit to the US last year, I was surprised by the high number of PhD students in Economics from countries much poorer than […]

  2. […] dinner, but also to an extensive campus tour and sage advice. (More of my thoughts on America here.) In Montevideo, Luis Bertola showed me how Uruguayans braai (not bad) and play football (not bad […]


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