Migration Is at the Core of the Human Experience
Every year there’s a draft for human capital. And every year, the U.S. gets the top picks.
Early on a Monday morning, 51 people assemble at a safe house in northern Mexico. A semi truck pulls up, and the man they’ve paid to shepherd them to America directs them into the trailer. Hours later, they are found dead of exposure, still in that trailer, on the outskirts of San Antonio.
Six hundred and fifty migrants died crossing into the U.S. in 2021. This happens all over the world. Fifty-eight Chinese immigrants were found dead in a trailer in Dover, England, in 2020, and 39 Vietnamese perished in a truck in Essex the year before. Last month, 76 Libyans hoping to get to Italy died when their boat sank. Six hundred other migrants have perished this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
They keep coming. Fleeing war and criminal violence, abandoning farms devastated by climate change, seeking more tolerant societies … looking for a better home. Thousands of migrants cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day. Last year 150,000 unaccompanied children made the journey. Think about that. Kids crossing borders into different countries, alone. In my house, it felt bold to let our kids walk into town with their friends. In Europe, 5 million Ukrainians have left their homeland since the Russian invasion, two-thirds of whom are not expected to return.
Migration is at the core of the human experience. Our ancestors were nomads. Their wandering led them out of the Rift Valley, across the Sinai, and eventually … everywhere. Eight thousand years after the first people reached Tierra del Fuego, another cohort “discovered” a New World populated by their distant cousins, and 2.5 million of them migrated across the Atlantic — with devastating consequences to those who’d gotten there first. In the middle of the 19th century, the discovery of gold in a mountain stream inspired 300,000 people — many of them prosperous at home, doctors and lawyers, landowners — to move to California in less than a decade.
I am the product of migrants. In the late 1950s, my 22-year-old mother emigrated from the U.K. to Toronto on the steamship Empress of England. Passage took seven days and cost 80 quid. She met my father, who’d made the same journey from Glasgow three years prior. They ended up in America’s Finest City (San Diego’s official nickname), where she worked as a court reporter (documenting trials by hand, no less) and my dad sold candles to department stores. My folks used to go to the beach and fly kites their first winter in California, just to marvel at the weather and their good fortune. Flying kites on the beach; dying of exposure in a tractor trailer. If you don’t know/recognize how much of your success/failure is/isn’t your fault, you lack awareness.
People migrate for many reasons. Our earliest ancestors moved from place to place based on changing seasons, which determined the abundance of crops and the migration habits of animals. People didn’t go out to eat but went anywhere to find food. Home was where the food was. We moved to survive.
Once the original gangster of technology, agriculture, emerged in the Middle East 20,000 years ago, our movements were no longer just about survival, but prosperity, curiosity, and conquest. The first documented migrant to Britain (today we’d call him undocumented) was a Greek astronomer named Pytheas. In 325 B.C. he got on a boat and set sail, even though the ocean was filled with monsters and ruled by a temperamental Poseidon. Halfway around the world, Alexander was on his way to India — each compelled by curiosity and conquest.
Similar to … everything, immigration has been weaponized for political purposes, and, depending on party affiliation, we’ve decided every immigrant will go on to found Google or become a criminal. What’s undeniable is the impact immigrants have had on the Fortune 500 and the startup sector. Almost half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by American immigrants or their children, and more than half of unicorns (private companies worth more than $1 billion) are founded by immigrants. Every year there’s a draft for human capital. And every year, the U.S. gets the top picks.
The most recent migration headlines concern Silicon Valley. The narrative: It sucks and everyone is leaving. Venture capitalists who built their fortunes in the Valley say they’re “over” it. The Bay Area is “crashing” and has become “unhinged” with wokeness. “San Francisco is Detroit and Miami is the future,” claimed a recent VC transplant. Elon Musk relocated Tesla from California to Texas, saying California state laws were “fascist.” Newspapers across the country report on a “tech exodus,” with quotes and anecdotes from aggrieved tech workers. California’s dead. (So is New York.) Tech’s moving to Texas and Florida, and the money will follow.
We’ve been to this movie before — it’s called bullshit. In 2005, Silicon Valley was losing its edge and hemorrhaging jobs. In 2009 it was shrinking, on the brink of death. In 2010 it was on the brink of death again. In 2012 the Golden Age of the Valley was over. In 2014, San Francisco was declared the next Detroit. However, the next Detroit has HQs within a 15 mile radius whose combined market caps rival the GDP of Germany and Japan combined. I know, apples/oranges … both are fruit. You get the idea.
Ninety-seven percent of startups stayed in the Bay Area in 2020. Of the 1.2% that moved, a fifth went somewhere else in California, and another fifth went to New York. The Valley still dominates the startup scene. Last year firms domiciled in the Bay Area received over a third of total U.S. venture capital funding. Austin and Miami received 1.5% and 1.4%, respectively — less than Seattle, Philadelphia, or D.C. I don’t believe a city can sustain a robust technology sector unless it has a world-class engineering school (e.g., Berkeley, Stanford, etc.). Also, declining quality of life and overwhelmed infrastructure is an apt descriptor of … Miami.
Miami’s population actually declined in 2021. Tech leaders’ disdain for the Bay Area and/or NYC is correlated with the size of their unrealized gains. (See above: California is “fascist.”) They should be more honest: “I made my money here but want to (not) pay taxes somewhere else.” And that’s their right. But don’t shitpost the state that stood by you all these years. “Yes, I’ve been having sex with my 25-year-old assistant, but your passive-aggressive nature is why I’m leaving you.” Fuck off.
The tech exodus narrative is a distraction. The real domestic migration trend is … less migration. Specifically, people aren’t moving. In 1948 roughly a fifth of Americans changed residences. That number has been steadily declining since. During the pandemic, we read opinion pieces about everyone quitting their job and moving to Maine. There was a feeling that migration habits were changing; in reality the song remains (increasingly) the same. In 2021 only 8.4% of Americans moved — an all-time low.
It’s been happening for several decades, though nobody can figure out why. An aging population and a younger cohort described as the “complacent generation” are factors, but there must be more. Lack of portable health care and a decline in the lifestyle once sought in the West could also be explainers. My theory is that, like everything else, mobility has become a luxury item costs can only be borne by college grads (who are themselves increasingly anchored by student loan debt).
American mobility has been halved in three decades. Contrast that with China, where over 370 million people live somewhere besides their home region. (Another contrast: A mere 1 million foreigners live in China, placing it 54th among nations by immigrant population.) Why does it matter? Because when capital is not allocated to its best use, growth declines. A lack of mobility also affects culture, resulting in less dynamism, increased aversion to risk, and suspicion of outsiders. Yes, Covid spurred some relocation, but, like the “renewed” labor movement, that’s a blip that likely won’t reverse the secular decline. The problem isn’t that a tech Karen is leaving the Bay Area, it’s that not enough people are leaving any area. “Remote Work” should be called “Work from Home” as it’s decreasingly remote, just at home. Six in 10 people who move stay within their county; eight in 10 stay in-state.
Movement in and out of cities is essential to economic vitality. Cities are the heart of our economy: the influx of young people, the moving out of oldsters to the suburbs, that’s their heartbeat. This too is subject to political forces taking over the narrative: One person’s urban renewal is another’s gentrification. These dueling and absolutist storylines are counterproductive, because the life of cities must be managed. Left to the market, a city eats itself. The Yoda of urban renewal, Richard Florida, admits to a profound realization that his celebration of the young urban creative class left out the “immiseration” of service workers when rents go up. New York City has been grappling with the price of success for decades — the creative class that made New York great can’t afford to live there now. And more and more of them don’t, otherwise we wouldn’t have an Austin that’s also becoming unaffordable for its creative class.
The Galloways are doing their part to restore mobility — we’re moving to London. Last week I wrote about podcasting. But all the comments were questions about the move. Many people have posited that it likely has something to do with the polarization, gun violence, and attacks on rights that threaten our country. No, that’s not it. There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed with what’s right with America. And it’s not for work. Actually, the move makes no sense professionally. But neither did moving to NYC or Florida.
So … why? My parents crossed the Atlantic in seven days with nothing but two suitcases in search of something better. We’ll cross in seven hours with two dogs in search of something different, as we could never do better. The prosperity made possible by America’s freedoms and the opportunities afforded immigrants and their offspring have let me answer a calling to return to my parents’ first home. It doesn’t feel like leaving, but spending time at our best friend’s place, as the U.S.-U.K. alliance has deep roots. I am committed to helping that alliance flourish. At pubs, Premier League games, and dog parks, I will buttress Americans’ reputation as a generous, loving, and profane people. Mom, Dad … I’m home.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Missed yesterday’s AMA with me? You can rewatch it if you create a free Section4 account. Sign up, then look for it under Live Lectures.