Out, out, you damn foreigners!

A friend of mine, from Canada, recently decided not to come to the US anymore.

Today was my final time trying to enter the US to do what many other people have done in my industry before: go and speak at a conference.

The reason I was given this time was that although I had forfeit the speaking fee they were going to pay me, I was still going to be speaking at a conference where other speakers were getting paid, and that there was no reason an American couldn’t fill that spot. When I asked if there would have been any issue if the conference was a free one and nobody was getting paid, I didn’t get an answer.

D’Arcy’s experience at the border control reflects a growing dilemma that other speakers in my industry have also been facing: when you travel overseas to speak at a conference, and you get the dreaded "What are you here for?" question, should you tell them the truth and face the battery of questions that boil down to "Are you taking any money out of the country?", or should you lie, claim you’re on vacation, and point out how you’re putting money into the country in question?

Particularly when the organizers of the conference have every reason to prefer people at home—financial, lack of cultural barriers, reduced language barriers, and more—and invite me to come speak, anyway?

Note that because the US Border Patrol apparently Googles people when they stop at the border,

This all started of course when I was up-front and honest about the speaking engagement the first time I went through, which flagged me in their system. This became very obvious this past weekend when I attended the Twin Cities Code Camp and was at the border for an hour. On that entry I specified that I was going for a shopping weekend, which I was; I was also planning on going to the Twin Cities Code Camp, a free event and one that I was volunteering at. I didn’t mention that because why confuse the issue trying to explain what a code camp was, that it was free, and why I would consider speaking for free. This was a mistake for two reasons…

For one, they do have internet at CBP offices. So if you’re flagged, and you have to go for secondary interviewing, realize that you may be Googled. And as such, blog posts talking about said code camp or eating a Chipotle Burrito may appear as well (“So how was the burrito?” was a question I was asked).

… and because there’s no reason to assume other nations’ border patrol won’t do the same thing, I’m not going to answer that question. I don’t want my views aired on a public forum and in the context of a particular discussion acting as a convenient reason for a bureaucrat to create heartache for the citizens of his country that are expecting me to come and help them be more useful and productive and competitive.

D’Arcy’s spot-on right on one point, and I applaud him for saying it:

Canadians have long taken for granted our border with the USA. If there’s one thing this experience has taught me, its that there is an air of entitlement that we’ve had in regards to being able to cross over and do whatever we want in the US. We assume that we’ll be as welcome as we were in the past, and that there really isn’t that much difference between us: we drive the same cars, watch the same television and movies, listen to the same music, read the same books.

That "entitlement" isn’t limited to just Canadians—other citizens of other Western nations, including my own, feel that same sense of entitlement. Border control is just a hassle, just another annoying obstacle keeping me from my travel destination, just like airport security and agricultural inspections. (Having lived in Stamford, CT in the 70s when entire forests were being depopulated by some sort of caterpiller/moth infestation, and in LA in the 80s when we had to stay indoors at night as the authorities did overhead spraying of Malathion over our house at night to kill off the fruit fly infestation, I’m really kinda sensitive to the need for those ag inspections.)

But the fact is, you are leaving your country, and the laws you grew up with, and entering a new country, one which owes you nothing.

But we are different. We are separate, independent entities with different history, values, and morals. So to the second reason why that was a mistake: I, as a Canadian, have no right to make a call as to whether I’m of a benefit to a neighbouring country. I can rationalize all I want that the event is free, and that I’m actually trying to help other Americans by sharing my knowledge, but that’s not my call to make.

The US is in a state of protectionism right now whether they admit it or not. When you continue to hear about the vast number of jobs being lost, it makes sense that they want to ensure their people are being protected first and foremost. Many of those people include friends of mine whose companies are laying off people.

(By the way, D’Arcy, you misspelled "neighboring".)

As much as D’Arcy has the right attitude about the ways in which nations get to make decisions for their little plots of land upon the earth, and our ability to argue with them, I still want to point out that the whole economic protectionist argument has been used before, and it’s pretty much been debunked at a number of levels. (I’m not going down the path of talking about border security, which is a different issue entirely and not what stops D’Arcy from coming to the US.)

The debate around protectionism has been around as long as people have studied economics as a formal "science", and the end results are pretty clear: everybody benefits when the borders are open and unrestricted. The "multiplier effect" that macroeconomists talk about more than makes up for whatever "drain" a foreigner imposes on the local economy.

Note: For those of you who haven’t heard of the multiplier effect, it works like this: while in the US to speak at whatever conference he wants to speak at, D’Arcy spends a dollar at a hotel gift shop, of which the hotel uses $.95 to pay its local worker’s hourly wage, of which the worker spends $.90 on a hot dog for lunch, of which the hot dog stand operator uses $.85 to buy buns for tomorrow’s customers…. And so on. Why aren’t we spending the full dollar each time? Mostly because people will often save some portion of that dollar (unless you’re American, because we don’t save anything, it seems), and because the government will take some portion of that dollar each time in taxes. What this means, though, is that the US$1 that D’Arcy spent turned into US$4 or US$5 or more towards the total GDP of the country. Econ is a fascinating subject sometimes.

And, of course, ask any three economists a question, and you’ll get five different answers. This subject is no different: protectionism has its proponents, too, usually when the local economy is taking a hit… like now. It feels right, protecting those who are "close to home" (and believe me, I’m sympathetic, I’ve had friends who’ve pinged me about finding a new job within the last six months), but in the end, everything it does is artificial—in much the same way that unions artificially keep wages high for union workers, and impose some serious constraints on the companies that employ them. (I don’t think it’s an accident that industries being hammered mercilessly by the soft economy—the auto manufacturers and the airlines—are also ones with large union populations.) Protectionism is almost always a short-term gain, long-term loss kind of operation. The "perennial gale of creative destruction" (from Alan Greenspan’s Age of Turbulence) isn’t always gentle, but it is necessary.

D’Arcy, in the end, closes his piece with a fond wish:

My hope is that at some point the US and Canada will be able to get back to where our countries were before 911. At the same time though, I hope that Canada realizes during this time that it has its own identity; that we are more than just who we border against. Maybe locking down the border will become a good thing after all.

Frankly, my wish would be for Canadians to realize their own identity (and I think Canadians are pretty aware of this in the same way that Americans don’t even realize that it’s a problem), as well, assuming that’s even a problem. What’s more, I think that Canadians will find that they don’t need the US nearly as much as Americans like to think they do.

But locking down the border is going to affect more than just Canadians—my fear is that this protectionist attitude will in fact deter other really bright people from coming to the US and sharing their knowledge and wisdom, or even just participating in our economy for a while. Assume for just a moment that the million or so H-1B visas currently allocated are suddenly all revoked and their holders must return to their countries of origin—how many rent checks, car payments, utility bills, movie nights, dinners at local restaurants and bank accounts are going to be exiled with them? And this doesn’t even begin to touch the potentials for racism that lurk hidden within the system—granting visas and citizenship more easily to "Westerners" (Brits, Germans, Australians, whatever) than "foreigners" (Hispanics, Indians, Chinese).

The fact is, this "locking down the border" won’t help us, in the long-term. Whatever benefits we as Americans accrue from keeping our jobs intact will be lost when those barriers finally come down and we find we can’t compete on the global scale. The "perennial gale of creative destruction" can’t be bought off, it can only be delayed. (Ask the Soviets Russians about their success with the high-protectionist tactic the next time you’re in Moscow or St. Petersburg.)

At some point, the borderless Internet is going to come crashing against the bordered "real world", and it’s not going to be a pretty fight. And we, those of us who define and shape and act as the primary consumer and producer of the Internet’s benefits, are going to find ourselves facing some uncomfortable choices.

In the meantime, however this story ends, I want to be able to say that my country acted in its own defense, but without prejudice, malice, or ignorance. But I’m very worried that I won’t be able to say that… and I’m worried what damage we will do to ourselves in the interim.

(Editor’s note: It will be fascinating to see how many people call me an ignorant racist based on nothing more than the blog title. You want to disagree with me, that’s fine, just do so on a material basis from the body of the post, not just the title.)