CONNECTING THE DOTS: Chloé Zhao, Janet Yellen, and Brian Armstrong
For the last almost 2 years, I have been living in the south of France and I get this question often “Where are you from?”. I usually give the answer — “origin indien, citoyen americain, vivant en france” — translated it will be, “born Indian, American citizen, living in France”. This is the exact question that lead me to write “The World Belong to Immigrants, Nomads, and Gypsies” six years back when I was in NYC, inspired by a TED talk of Pico Iyer where he articulates how “home is not a piece of soil…but a piece of soul”. I had a simple goal to use my personal journey as an immigrant and connect it to the broader global phenomenon of human migration.
How Chloé Zhao, Janet Yellen, and Brian Armstrong give human migrations a new meaning?
During the last year over multiple lockdowns, I have had the opportunity to read and ponder on why such a migrant crisis is so prominent in our lifetime.
Two different recent news items — first the US Treasury Sec Janet Yellen calling for a global minimum corporation tax rate (must watch) and next the massive IPO of CoinBase founded by libertarian Brian Armstrong helped me connect the dots on the key reasons why millions of people are now nomads, of one kind or another. Now, layer these two news pieces with the ethos of home, belonging, and loss palpable throughout the Oscar winning movie Nomadland directed by Chloe Zhao and then it becomes easier to understand the two big reasons why human migration is such a big crisis.
Nomadland tells the stories of American “recession refugees” traveling across the country in vans and RVs looking for seasonal work in Amazon warehouses, farms, and state parks. The film focuses attention to fragmented, tenuous gig economy and alternative living situations that we like to comfortably ignore.
Chloé Zhao is a nomad by herself — born in Beijing, schooled in England, and creating her best stories in the USA. While its easy to label her as a Chinese director making a soulful movie on a profound and relevant American subject, the more I researched, I found her to be comfortable in her polyglot identity, always transient and fast-moving and refusing to be categorized in terms of nationality, race or culture.
TWO BIG REASONS
1. Lack of economic control of nation states
Probably one of the biggest reason of human migration today is the waning of the powers of a nation state and our expectations from it — both in rich and poor countries around the world.
The concept of nation states was invented in Europe in 1648 when peace treaty were signed to bring an end to a horrific period of European history that killed approximately eight million people. This treaty laid out relatively stable borders within the European continent leading to colonial expansion into the rest of the world. The riches from such colonial expansion paid for solidification of state owned machineries like taxations and defense and powered nation building activities like education, healthcare, and culture. This well known template continued and in most cases thrived for few centuries with the state controlling the flow of money and investing in the development of its societies.
The picture now is starkly different. The state (in most parts of the world) has lost its tremendous authority over capital, majorly due to global trade and financial revolutions that have happened in our life time. Globalization have forced states to question social commitments and reinvent themselves as market custodians leading to ever increasing trends of inequality — the rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer as a byproduct of our current economic system.
The proposal from the Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is to claw back some of that state economic control — create a global minimum corporate tax to prevent the flow of corporate tax dollars out of the national borders into a booming “offshore” zone which seems to be an accepted norm for 21st century commerce. Even super rich and well-liked companies like Apple have moved billions of profits to such offshore reserves in order to avoid paying taxes. These relentless transfers of tax dollars undermine national communities in real ways — leading to failures of states to fund initiatives that benefit many instead of the elite few.
I’m pleasantly surprised at the obvious recognition of the fact that a crumbling national political foundation can be resolved through a transnational financial reform. Obviously there will be naysayers who will suggest that such a global financial regulation is impossible — to me it seems to be technologically trivial compared to all the other complicated systems those same people have already built.
2. Citizenship & Currency
While there is significant negative narrative (some of it rightly deserved) around transformative innovations from Silicon Valley, we cannot deny the impact of new breakthrough technology fueled systems that ushered positive changes in the lives of millions of people.
Across the world, most of the global working populations have now access to same products from Facebook, Google, Apple, PayPal and yet in our political life we are still limited by our citizenship and our aging geographic borders. We use all these technologies to send, receive, hold currency in digital wallets that can be used across the world, and yet we get to play no role in the democratic processes of any other country besides the one we are “citizen” of.
Even as we reap the benefits of global financial and technological integrations, we focus exclusively on inside sovereign states while discussing “politics” and everything else is considered “global/foreign affairs”. We have been successful in deregulating capital flows, but protective politicians (and their policies) across the world have strongly held back human movement through this notion of citizenship — which is nothing but a kind of “accidental inheritance” that may not be always beneficial.
The systems we inherited from our ancestors are not permanent and there is plenty of opportunities for innovation. Current technological systems offer models for reimagining citizenship de-linked from territory, and its advantages can be more fairly distributed.
In 2015, Estonia was the first country to offer e-Residency, a government-issued digital identity and status that provides access to Estonia’s transparent digital business environment enabling digital entrepreneurs to start and manage an EU-based company online.
The Pandemic made remote work culture a reality and ushered a flurry of big buck offers from cities like Tulsa, Tucson and an array of other smaller towns to lure talent untethered by an office, promoting migration within the USA. Other countries also followed suit — a Stanford PhD data scientist I know is one of the lucky winners to the ’90 Day Finn’ program announced by Finland for selected US tech professionals to relocate.
Cryptocurrency though is still considered as digital gold rather than a real currency (more for investments than for daily transactions) yet all rich countries are worried about the disruptive potential of a global currency that is not tied to national borders.
Brian Armstrong made a strong pitch for economic freedom in his letter to the shareholders before the IPO of his cryptocurrency exchange company this month. Though at first it seems rather bizarre, coming from a person who strongly discourages employee activism and political discussions at work, its not hard to see the bigger play he has in mind for how cryptocurrency can create an alternative free, fair, and global economy running on a common set of digital standards allowing people to be based anywhere and doing business everywhere.
Brian, in this podcast with Eric Reis, clearly articulated how the original Bitcoin whitepaper is a marvel of computer science, game theory, and economics rolled into one vision of bringing more freedom to the world. The Coinbase IPO is surely a significant milestone democratizing the infrastructure needed to nurture a possible decentralized economic order and economic freedom.
We are trying to use century old political norms to manage 21st-century innovations in autonomous technology, deregulated finance, and global channels of communication. For increasing numbers of people — including weary and yet resolute Fern in Nomadland and many many others, our current systems now are unable to offer a plausible, viable future. Without conscientious changes in political, economical, and technological structures we will end up dissatisfying more people for whom “accidental inheritance” means doom and despair and the migration will continue.
The road for change is long, meandering and will need many different leaders and champions. Let us welcome the poignant narrative of Chloé Zhao to raise global awareness about nomads who are not hyper-skilled as the engineers in the world’s best logistics company, sponsor the clarion call of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to create a global minimum corporate tax that can be used to recreate opportunities for the wanderers, and lookup to the immense possibilities of cryptocurrencies to define a new global economic order — thereby addressing many of the root causes of forced migration.