Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
Global Change Starts at Home
Featuring James Fallows & Parag Khanna
How do global changes affect us on the local level, and vice versa? Today, writer and journalist James Fallows, and the founder of FutureMap, Parag Khanna, join us to discuss the interplay between the tectonic forces of geopolitics and the specific currents of the everyday. They contrast the narratives that are animating different regions of the world—especially in the United States and Asia around inequality, optimism, and defeatism—and forecast a future of migration and climate change adaptation.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network. And I am here as always with Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are with this podcast series, and we are with The Progress Network, having a series of ongoing conversations with people who are thinking and contemplating and focusing on what could go right in the world and not what is going wrong. Or rather, they may be focusing on what is going wrong, but they’re doing so with the sentiment and the spirit of what can we all do, and what can I do individually, to make things go right, given that there is such a global, profound conviction among so many people that everything is in fact going wrong. And look, as we’ve said again, and as I will continue to acknowledge, it may indeed all be going to hell in a hand basket.
And if so, it will not be for lack of a lot of people talking about that forecasting and predicting it, showing it, demonstrating it, and believing it. But we owe it to ourselves to consider the alternatives. And we particularly, I think, owe it to ourselves to listen to people who are deeply engaged in the conversation and in the ideas of, hey, maybe not, maybe we are doing things in the present that will bear fruit in a positive, in a progressive, way—small-p progressive way—into the future. And in that spirit, we’re talking to two people today who have had global reach and are global citizens, have lived everywhere and to some degree, therefore, I suppose lived nowherebut are citizens of the world and have thought through, what are the larger trends, and how do those play out in specific stories? What are the big tectonic forces—I like using the word tectonic—and what are the specific forces that bear on individual people in specific places. And with that, Emma, tell us who we’re talking to today. I feel it’s one of those, like, game show things of, “Tell us what they’ve won.” Tell us who we have “won” today for our conversation.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): We’ve won two spectacular people. The first is James Fallows. He’s a writer and journalist, and he’s been a correspondent for The Atlantic for many years. Jim’s work has also appeared in Slate, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The American Prospect. With his wife, Deborah Fallows, they’re the authors of the book Our Towns, which is a story of local American revitalization and is now the basis of an HBO documentary. And our second spectacular person is Parag Khanna, who is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a data- and scenario-based strategic advisory firm. Parag was named one of Esquire’s 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century and featured in Wired Magazine’s Smart List. His newest book is Move: The Forces Uprooting Us, which was preceded by The Future Is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century.
ZK: So it’s great to have both of you here today to have this wide-ranging conversation. It occurred to me when we paired you for this conversation that in many ways, you know, Jim, you’ve gone from the global view and the view from China, where you lived, to more, I guess we’ll call it the micro view, right? The view on the ground, particularly in the heartland of the United States, about the currents that are reshaping people individually in specific places. And Parag, you take more of the 30,000-foot tectonic, what are the forces shaping us? And I thought that’d be an interesting way to kind of lead into a general conversation of, for Jim at least, does that micro view, right—You go into a West Virginia town that’s struggling with X, and sometimes when you look at the specific, you find that the general is completely distorted, and sometimes when you look at the specific you find that it iterates these general patterns. I mean, what what did you find in terms of the world we think we’re living in, of massive change and structural disruptions and, you know, things are no longer the way they are and speeding up versus how people are actually living in very specific places at very specific times.
Thanks so much, Zachary, for this occasion—it’s an honor to be on with all of you—and for this setup. I guess one of the many lessons I learned in the years I lived in China, and before that in Japan, is that contradictory realities are always true at the same time. And so, you know, in China, it’s so obvious, you can say that, China is rich and China is poor. China is X and China is Y. And they’ll all be true. Something similar, I think, applies to the global and the local, at least in the United States, where I’ve beenmy wife, Deb, and I have been concentrating for the last half dozen years. And I’d put it this way. There are certain global trends that are felt in every single inch of the earth surface and then the sea surface that affect how people are making their choices and they’re living and moving and suffering and succeeding.
They range from pressures of climate, which of course Parag has written about extensively in his recent work and his upcoming work the economic disruptions. It’s fascinating for me that any era of American history back to the 1600s, you can find a connection between local economies and what’s happening globally in the fisheries trade, or in the commodities trade or whatever—and that’s happening in the US, too—on down the list of things that are truly global, notably pandemic now, too, and what’s happening in Huntington West Virginia, or Walla Walla Washington. So, that is true, but also there is one very, very distinct difference in our experience between the local reality in much of the US and the perceived national/global perspective, which is the national perspective over the last half dozen years, at least, has been so polarized and zero-sum and flattening and resentment driven that we all are aware of that in US Senate elections and presidential elections and everything else, and most of the framing in the press, and that in our experience is not how it actually feels in much of the daily reality of not just smaller town, but just sort of American life of people thinking, “I need to raise my children. I need to do something about the roads here. I need to think about my parents who are sick,” et cetera.
So the main contradiction that we found between what people think about the country and how the country thinks about itself on the micro level is that people think the rest of the country is going to hell and in this practically civil war, but they don’t think that as much about where they actually live.
ZK: It’s a little like the old canard of you know, “I think the school system is broken, but I love my kids school,” or “I think Congress is completely corrupt, but I love my congressperson.” So there’s—that disjuncture certainly has been around for a while.
EV: Parag, I’m curious maybe how you might talk about that interplay in terms of Asia, since you focus a lot on Asia and focus a lot on the sort of opposite narrative of Asia to the US. Of course, you know, it’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison there, but, you know, Jim was just talking about this very popular national narrative in the US of like, “We’re going to hell in a handbasket. We’re in a decline.” But in Asia, are things felt, do things feel grim in that way, or no?
Parag: Well, first of all, thank you guys for having me on. It’s great to see all of you, even if people are just listening. It’s nice to have a collegial conversation and feel like we’re sitting around a table together. We’re just missing maybe a couple of bottles of wine.
ZK: Well, it’s collegial for now, Parag.
EV: I would love to add the bottles of wine, though; that sounds great.
Parag: But so, look, it’s obviously very hard to generalize about Asia as a whole. But I think what’s crucial in what Jim has said is the question of relative gains over time, the perception of what your standing is versus either what you were, what your aspirations are, what you think you could be, or the trajectory you’re headed in. And people can feel that, obviously. They can compare their lives to 10 years ago or to their parents’ lives, or their upbringing and childhood and their prospects right now, in terms of their savings rate and things like this. In Asia, almost universallyyou know, there have been relative gains, right? You can have backsliding and the quality of democratization and the degree of stability in the state. You can have any numbers of, any amount of fits and starts in different societies. But on a relative basis from where, say, China was in 1970 or 1980 versus today, or India in1980, 1990 versus today; pretty much all of Southeast Asia as well, there has been those significant, material, tangible gains that even young people can remember in their immediate, compressed, you know, short lifespan, let alone old people.
So again, it’s hard to generalize, because inequality is also very high. Let me put something in perspective: In America, if I’m not mistaken, the state with the highest median income level is Maryland. And the poorest is Mississippi. And the gap there is again, rough figures, like $60,000 per capita GDP in Maryland versus, say, $30,000 in Mississippi. So you’ve got a two-to-one gap. Now let’s take Southeast Asia, the region that I happen to live in right now. You’ve got countries like Singapore, where I am, Brunei, which have something like $80,000 to $90,000 annual median income. And then you’ve got Myanmar and East Timor, which are roughly about $3,000, right? So there’s your 30-to-one gap.
And Southeast Asia is representative of this whole mega region of 4 billion people. It is far and away the most unequal place in the entire world. And Africa doesn’t even come close because Africa doesn’t haveyou know, a third or even a higher percentage—maybe two-fifths—of the world’s billionaires are here in Asia. So inequality is vastly, vastly greater here. And yet, that’s the point I want to make, is that you don’t actually hear people harping about it as much. Now, of course, in China, it’s become a whole policy agenda to say, “we want to reduce inequality, and we’re going to do various kinds of redistribution and pull the private sector and billionaires into it.” But in day-to-day conversation, right, newspapers, magazines, on the street, you know, when someone sees, you know, the guy blazing down with his Ferrari and so forth, they don’t say, you know, “I lament this inequality, and this is horrible.” Because again, the tide has been lifting, you know, all of the boats. And people—policymakers, media, intellectuals, civil society—are generally more concerned with raising the floor and continuing to help to connect and provide basic infrastructure and public services and welfare for those roughly 2 billion Asians, who are still quite poor.
So rather than all the handwringing that we have in already-developed, mature economies like America about inequality, where there’s this sense that the pie is suddenly finite, we’re fighting over the spoils, in Asia, they know the pie is going to continue and continue to grow. So let’s just make it more inclusive. And that’s a huge difference in mood and tone and trajectory. But again, it’s based upon the relative history,
ZK: That idea, which I think is really crucial of, and I think under-looked at—the idea of inequality tends to rise as an acute issue when there is a perception that the growth profile has ceased, right? Meaning, inequality in a static world versus inequality in an expanding world are very different phenomenon. And for China, for years, certainly in the aughts and into the teens, China was growing immensely, and inequality was growing immensely, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of pushback against that, because the bottom part or the middle was also rising, in relative terms, quite sharply. And so, in that sense, inequality is rarely the issue per se, it’s the issue within that context. And it occurs to me another thing, and I want to hear both of your views about this. And part of the reason why I created The Progress Network was this feeling of one of the under-examined deficits in the Western world, and certainly in the United States, is an optimism deficit, right? This conviction that the future can be… You can create this better future, individually and societally, which was certainly an animating aspect of the United States; often a foolish, naive, and arrogant one, but still animating. And you do still, particularly in a pandemic and post-pandemic world in Asia, have a kind of conviction of, “we can meet the problems that the world and life and society throws at us and surmount them, as opposed to being deluged by them.” Do you think the pandemic has sharpened that, Parag? And then, Jim, you’ve sort of been on the ground in a comparative way, in a unique way, in the past years and probably have your own take on that.
PK: Well, there’s no question that the kind of initial conditions pre-pandemic were favorable towards Asian countries managing the pandemic better, despite the fact that it emerged in their immediate geography and had less time to react. And part of it is a high degree of trust in government, right? And so, because that predates the pandemic, you didn’t have—and I would just couple that right away with the culture of solidarity, and that’s not only because of Confucian societies, because of course we have Muslim societies in this region as well—it is simply about social solidarity as a norm, as a cultural underpinning, you know, sort of tighter-knit communities, that kind of ethos, if you will, at a national, provincial, you know, town, village level, across cultures in this region, coupled with high trust in government. And the third element being strengthening, rising state capacity, right?
A government that even in a poorer country, such as Vietnam, which of course in the first year of the pandemic managed to suppress the virus almost completely, it had lots of those three factors taken together. And what’s very important again is to emphasize that it’s not about rich or poor or about you know, Confucian, hierarchical political systems, you know, even democratic systems, or at least democratic cultures, like that of Thailand, even though they’re not currently ruled in a democratic way, you know, perform relatively well. So I think you have to have those underpinnings when you have a large population and can have all these complex effects where you don’t have cohesive behavior. And obviously every Western country has proven how difficult it is to herd the cats. So it’s easier to herd the cats here, I guess, to put it colloquially. But I don’t want to ascribe that, as so many people would, present company excluded, to this notion that Asians are by definition, by default, culturally, you know, sort of people who are docile and obedient, because you have, you know, in many countries in Asia, very liberal, free-thinking cultures.
And I’ll give you just one example. These TraceTogether apps, these contact-tracing apps, were not made mandatory in democratic societies across the region. Not in South Korea, not in Japan, not necessarily in Taiwan—in Taiwan, it was more a victory of public information and those other virtues. Here in Singapore, it wasn’t mandatory. They had a very, very low uptake of that app. As a resident here, I would have said, “Are you kidding me? Make this mandatory right now.” Right? Make everyone do it. And people are like, “No, no, no, no, no. I’m going to make my own decision.” And there are still anti-vaxxers. My trainer at the gym—in fact, I’m not allowed to go to the gym, because he can’t go to the gym, because he refuses to get vaccinated and you can’t, you’re not allowed at the gym. So there is freedom of thought. So I want to emphasize that this is not about, you know, people who are just obedient to authoritarian rule and that that authoritarian rule is somehow wiser. Right? I think that these cultural foundations really do matter.
ZK: You look great, by the way, Parag. I mean, even without the trainer thing. Jim, what do you think?
JF: I’m doing my best. I go for runs and the bicycle and everything. So to answer your recent question about what’s happened to the sense of possibility during the pandemic in the US, let me, if I could, backtrack just a little bit, because I think the confluence leads us to where we are now and is very much in sync with The Progress Network outlook. My sense is that at every point of its history, the US has been marked by some kind of improvisational, can-do, Tocquevillian type spirit and also by catastrophe and disruption and challenges and things that are terrible. And if you go through almost decade by decade, you see these things coinciding. You’ll have, you know, in the Andrew Jackson era, you had this uprising against the plutocrats of those days. You had the nightmare of the Civil War in the 1860s. You had the whole grim history of the late 1800s we’re aware of, of the corruption in the original Gilded Age, and the beginnings of Jim Crow, and the seeds of the Klan, and all of that.
And just decade by decade by decade, through to American life, you have these objectively really bad circumstances. And the question at any moment is how the other forces in American life believe that there is some way to deal with school segregation after World War II, or to deal with the horrific violence of the 1960s and the serial assassinations and all the rest—the violence not meaning the urban riots; I mean the assassinations in the Vietnam War, et cetera. The point this brings me to is that I think the way I describe this American spirit is sort of “conditional optimism.” The sense that things are rough, but we can deal with roughness. We can find some way ahead. And what Deb and I have noticed in the last year and a half, during the very unequal effects of the pandemic—some people just being locked down and seeing lots of Netflix, some people being sick and dying and having to go out to their service sector jobs—is a striking community sense; in many places we’ve seen that this is a chance to do some things anew; for individuals to think about how they want to live their lives. For employees to think about, do they want to have these kinds of jobs anymore? For large communities of people: Where do they want to live? Where do they want to raise their children? For other communities: how do they become sustainable? Et cetera, et cetera. And so I think there is the chance for, from this year and a half of disease and political abyss and a public health nightmare, and now, what, 600,000-plus US deaths and all the rest, I think there are many places a sense of what might we do differently, which has been the case in a lot of these other marker moments in US travail.
ZK: I don’t know, Emma, do you find in your world a broad spectrum of conditional optimism or conditional apathy?
EV: I don’t see a world of conditional apathy. I do see a world of maybe conditional, like, “I’m tired of this and not trusting—like Parag was talking about, there being a high level of trust in various Asian governments—not trusting the American government. And more than that, not trusting the American people around them to bring us all forward. And I do think that maybe that, you know, hearkens back to what you mentioned at the beginning of the conversation, that that might be true at a national level, but maybe not true when it comes down to like your actual neighbors, or, you know, your actual school people. I was wondering, Jim, if you think that there’s any kind of a turning point with the development of the vaccines in the US, because the US certainly seemed to be in a very deep, dark place in the beginning of the pandemic, and then there seemed to be this kind of regeneration of hope, and “the US is a world leader” and that kind of thing with the vaccines. Do you think that that helped at all?
JF: I think yes. I think we have seen in America, land of contradictions, a number of contradictory impulses and messages just in the last year and a half. I did a big story in The Atlantic just about a year ago, analyzing the first six months of US response to the pandemic as if it were an NTSB report on an airplane disaster, how it was that with all the safety measures that were put into place, how was it the case that at that point, 200,000 people had been killed. Now, of course, a fraction of that. But it was a few months after that, of course, where the other aspect of the US establishment, if you will, these research institutions, some public private partnerships between the government and universities and actual pharma companies had come up over the decades with these vaccines.
And for a while, I think the creation of these vaccines, I think is a great Sputnik style achievement for world science, and including the US part of world science. The distribution of them in the last three or four months has been another sign of problem on the US front. And just to say one other thing about this, it is striking in the last two weeks how many stories are in the news every single day about somebody who said, “I didn’t believe in this vaccine. I told everybody to stop getting it. And now I’m on a ventilator. I’m about to die. Please learn from my mistake.” And every day there are four or five of those items in the news. One thinks they will have some cumulative effect, but we’ll see.
ZK: Yeah, I’m not sure… For years, you had the attempt to get people to stop smoking by showing these horrific pictures of someone who had emphysema or was speaking out of a breathing tube. And the idea being that someone would see that and go, “Oh my God, what was I thinking? I’ll stop tomorrow.” And it’s, I mean, I suppose cumulatively people have certainly stopped smoking. And I think cumulatively over time, people are likely to have more vaccine uptake, but it’s not clear that those moments are quite as, “grab someone by the shoulders.” And then they snap awake the next day.
ZK: I wonder, Parag, you’ve been looking at sort of big global changes for the past 20 years and have written a lot about shifting currents of what’s driving this loose thing we call the international system. Many people believe that that statement is inherently an oxymoron, but we’ll just use it for the moment. What’s driving it forward? What’s what are the locuses of change? And that the rise of various players within Asia is a profound one along with demography and your new book about how human beings have always moved from place A to place B and that that’s been a huge force of modern history. But there’s also been a tendency, acutely in the past couple of years, to kind of use pandemic responses as a global ranking table of like, who’s gotten it right and who’s gotten it wrong.
And part of the problem of that is, you know, at any moment in time, the aperture changes, right? So like one moment it looks like, “Oh my God, you know, Vietnam did an amazing job. There are no cases.” And Australia had this communal thing. And then, you know, viruses being literally mutable things that somewhat defeat human ability to control, the narrative changes. “Oh, We’re not getting people vaccinated,” or “Oh, we opened up.” And how did you think… Do you think the larger trends are in place, but there was just an over-tendency to kind of use the pandemic of solidifying a generalization. You know, we talked about this with Jim, right? The constant tension between the general and the specific.
PK: So I think, you know, the question really boils down to, you know, red zones and green zones, right, or blue zones, if you will. And, you know, we shouldn’t, we can’t rush to judgment about a place strictly on the basis of its performance in the pandemic. And again, that’s what short-term media outlets do. Bloomberg issues a new “best place to be during the pandemic” or in the post-pandemic every single week, and the ranking table changes. How are you making a 10-year prognostication every single week and modifying it? I don’t know how you get away with that, but that’s what they do. But there are certain secular drivers, right, of whether or not a place would qualify in the longer term as a blue zone/green zone and not a red zone. And it wouldn’t just be whether or not they botched the pandemic, because of course, in the spirit of conditional optimism that stems from sobriety, the sobriety check, the reality check.
Look at Italy as an example. Italy was doing horribly in the first, you know, six, eight months of the pandemic. And it was, you know, sort of pitiful and being criticized and so forth. And, you know, you’ve heard all the same, you know, the horror stories that we’ve heard out of other developed countries. And now, less than a year later, everyone’s celebrating Italy as the comeback kid, and “look at the growth rate” and, you know it’s building back its economy and, you know, high vaccination rate, and so forth. So a country, if you look strictly at the pandemic, a country that performed poorly could actually have hit that rock bottom, had that moment of awakening, and decided to bootstrap to a new, you know a new mode, a new approach, again, a new sobriety based on that experience. But you also have to factor in the politics, the economics, the demographics, the climate change, and so forth if you’re going to determine or make long-term determinations about where people want to go.
That’s basically what the new book is about. It’s kind of saying, “What’s the future of human geography in light of this complex set of simultaneously colliding dynamics,” like pandemic, like climate change, like economic dislocation, labor automation, geopolitical crises, and so forth. You don’t get to pick your prices, is kind of where we need to start this new branch of the conversation, right? We can talk about just the pandemic as if it’s an isolated thing. But in reality—remember when last year people were saying, “Wow, people in the foothills of the Himalayas in India actually saw snow-capped peaks for the first time. Maybe this pandemic and, you know, economic lockdown is the solution to climate change.” Well, here we are, and obviously it was not the solution to climate change. Emissions are back to record levels, coal-fired power plants are being built everywhere. And climate change continues to accelerate.
You don’t get to neatly, chronologically, temporarily, you know, tackle your crises one by one. They are literally all hitting the world at the same time. So resilience is, you know, you measure countries by how well they fend off whatever you know, force or trend or crisis of the moment is undermining everyone’s stability or challenging everyone. And those countries right now, you know, for example, islands look very strong, right? New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore, Iceland, Malta, you know, so there are certain virtues to being an island. If that island has a certain degree of resource self-sufficiency, even better—a place like New Zealand, for example. But not all of us are lucky enough to live on an island. I do. So, you know, there you go. I lucked out. But it’s definitely not self-sufficient, right? So, you know, I won’t get into everything they do in this tiny little place that imports 99% of its food to ensure self-sufficiency.
But again, it’s a highly technocratic exercise. It’s not an exercise in simply being an optimist, right? You actually have to do this. You have to build those infrastructures and those reserves and diversify your supplies of oil, gas, water, and food. But again, you know, largely speaking, I had set out actually to kind of just say that the world population is going to move from south to north. It’s inevitable. Look at the NASA maps that show you the change in suitability, right? You can just google, you know, “suitability index NASA” and you’ll see you know, that the Northern Hemisphere is turning green and the Southern Hemisphere is turning red, right? That’s why people talk about climate apartheid and so forth, but you will also have these “tragedy of the commons” effects. So imagine if everyone says, “Hmm, Canada, that looks like a great place to be, you know, let’s all go buy property in Toronto.”
Well, I’ve been talking to people in Toronto, and they’re saying, “It’s getting terrible. And now there is gang violence, and housing is unaffordable, and there’s so much congestion, and get me out of here.” Now, if everyone in Europe were to say, “Let’s just go to Sweden,” right, you’d have the same thing. Sweden can barely handle 50,000 Syrians you know, let alone a crush of climate migrants. That’s why I came to the conclusion that the next generation, particularly today’s young people, are going to be on the move in search of these green zones, blue zones, climate oases, what have you, far more than any of us ever had to face, you know, growing up and into the future. And that’s kind of how I come to the conclusion that we are… That many people, billions of people, literally billions will in time, in the coming decades be forced to rediscover our nomadic roots.
JF: This is an add-on in the context of having seen a number of Parag’s presentations about his new book and learned a lot about it, which I think is really interesting, on these global forces of migration and the kind of the, some of the international differences among them, the differential effects in the US and in Europe, et cetera. A particular US implication I wanted to mention is I think that through US history, this kind of real sort of mixing up of where people are has been a constant. I mean, we can think again of the 1880s, of people moving from Europe towards the West. We can think of the 1910s, the Great Black Migration from Mississippi and Alabama up to Detroit and up to Chicago and places like that. The 1930s, when many of my forebears were forced to move during the Dust Bowl. The 1950s, when people moved to the West Coast of California. I think something like that is underway right now, too, in the US. I think we’re in the middle of another one of those decades when the landscape is going to be rearranged, for climate reasons, for pandemic reasons, for cultural reasons, et cetera. So there are those marker decades in specifically US history when people figure out where else they would like to be. And I think one of those is happening right now, I believe.
PK: It absolutely is happening. And, you know, no one would have told you in February 2020, that 2020 would witness, you know, it was a record rate of relocations within the United States, right? And that’s precisely what happened. And you know, I would argue that the new American dream, or the next American dream, needs to be outward mobility, right? Not just picking one place and sort of settling down, because that can be as much a liability as an asset.
ZK: Well, I mean, Emma, your individual story this year is kind of a perfect iteration of that, right? Going from New York to Greece, first from China to New York to Greece to New York to Greece, at a time when the optic clearly is that the world is shut down and no one’s going anywhere. Now, you know, your story, just like Parag’s and mine and Jim’s are not necessarily indicative, right? There’s a strata here that is not… One shouldn’t over-extrapolate from. But nonetheless, there was a lot more movement than meets the eye.
EV: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah. I was in China when the pandemic hit—nowhere near Wuhan—but I was in China when the pandemic hit, and that was an interesting experience that I could talk about at another time. But I did go from the US and I moved to Greece during the pandemic year, which is, I think, in some ways unusual, in part because a lot of people are not reverse-migrating from the US to Greece. I mean, when people here are like, “Oh, you moved to Greece,” the next question is “Why?” Like, “Why would you do that?” And you know, that ties into the question that I was thinking about asking Parag, which was how do you see cultural attitudes keeping apace with this future of migration? Because, you know, Greece is a place where the problems of immigration and emigration are very fraught.
You know, you have a huge brain drain. And on the other hand, they’re literally building a wall right now to protect against refugees—protect is a terrible word; that’s how it’s viewed though. And you know, a lot of Greeks, if you’d looked them in the eye and said, “By the way, like, the future is going to be migratory,” there’s going to be a lot of backlash around that, you know? So I’m just curious how you see… Is it something where like, well, it’s going to happen and like attitudes are going to have to change, or is there going to be more of an intentional change that we could sort of push.
PK: It depends on where, and it depends on, even within a country, the demographic. What I found is that if you survey, you know, millennials and Generation Z, you find that their attitudes track much more closely to each other, horizontally, globally rather than within their own country. Right? And so you have a real breakdown in the idea of a national ethos or set of national values. So young people around the world you know, are pro-migration. They’re for mobility, connectivity, sustainability, not for rootedness, national identity, you know, patriotism, and so forth. I have a section of the book about conscription. This was one of the most fun chapters to write. I looked at every single conscription policy everywhere in the world. And you will barely find a place where the rite of passage of an 18-year-old male is not trying to escape conscription at whatever price.
And I just had a hilarious time looking at the things people do, the bribes they’ll pay, the injuries they’ll fake, the places they’ll flee to to avoid military conscription, even in places that we think of as being more nationalist or even patriotic even than we are, right, in America. So there’s that example. And then if you look at European countries or Western countries more generally, there is a wide divergence in attitudes. Let’s remember Canada, right? Canada is at this point sort of importing on a net annual basis more permanent migrants than the United States is with one-tenth the population, which is incredible, right? So, you know, 400 to 500,000 people a year on year on year, with almost no interruption. They’re on pace to have more than 400,000 this year, for example. And then you’ve got obviously Southern European countries, where again, even if you have a divergence in attitude between old and young, you know, you and your friends, you know, in Greece versus the elderly, you know, ask yourself, “Who are going to be the voters in the next five, 10 years?”
It obviously isn’t the elderly, right? Even in Eastern Europe where you’ve had the strongest populist you know, sort of anti-immigrant sentiment, the irony is of course, those are the most rapidly depopulated countries as a result of brain drain. And also there’s been this self-correction. You can see it in their most recent elections, whether it’s at the urban municipal level or at the federal level where, you know, governments like Viktor Orbán and so forth, they don’t tend to last very long; long enough for us to agitate and self-flagellate about them for a few years, but ultimately they fizzle out and that’s exactly what’s happening. Because they don’t allow supply and demand to govern their immigration policy. And they don’t have a skills-based or sector-based approach the way they should, the way Canada does, the way lots of other countries do. And ultimately, that’s the policy that prevails.
If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t actually have the multiethnic societies that we have today, right? So ultimately the force of mobility, of migration, of movement always prevails. It has for the last hundred thousand years. It would not be wise to bet against it, especially when you’re talking about, you know, it’s embedded in your question and kind of, you know, our outlook, when you look at every single Western country, barely any of them have above replacement fertility levels. It’s only because of immigration that they have a tax base at all. And this is only going to get more acute. We are hand-wringing about this now, but it’s particularly in the next 10 to 15 years that you have the highest or the accelerated mortality of the baby boomers. And that leaves even more of a challenge, in the pension systems, tax base, labor markets, and all these kinds of things in the next decade.
So I think pretty much every country is, you know, either kicking and screaming or through some kind of revelation going to come in… And Greece, by the way, has huge skill shortages. You have squeezed shortages in agriculture of all things. It has shortages in manufacturing, it has shortages everywhere. And yet you—and I mean, not you, but Greece—and other countries are repelling migrants who they could just as easily integrate into the labor market. So yes, I’m being, you know, very pragmatic about it rather than looking at the identity politics. But the problem with starting from the presumption of identity politics is that it is genuinely a wrong assumption about some kind of, you know, sort of immutable national ethos that simply breaks down the second, you look at the generational divide within a country.
And just one last thing: Germany, which is the anchor obviously of the European Union and the largest country. I’ve lived off and on in Germany for 30 years. And when I was actually a teenager, there was a right wing party called the NPD—doesn’t exist anymore. Just a few years ago, I was on a sabbatical living in Berlin, and everyone was afraid about the AFD, right, the Alternative für Deutschland. And they were considered the right wing anti-immigrant party. What you’re about to have in, you know this year is that a coalition led by left parties, you know, the Greens and the SPD and so forth, they’re going to be taking over the government. And this AFD is nowhere to be seen. So the stuff that gets us all worked up, whether it’s Viktor Orbán, or the AFD, or the Golden Dawn in Greece and so forth, or of course you know, in Italy, the Five Star Movement—that’s just off the top of my head—it never really lasts.
Sorry, one one one more thing: Britain, Brexit, because this is the one everyone can relate to, right? Identity politics and immigration were central to the Brexit vote five years ago. Today, right now, as we speak, it is easier to get a visa to the UK as a migrant than it was before Brexit. It’s literally not even… It’s more than 180 degrees. Because if you were an Indian or Pakistani in the year 2015, you needed to show a job offer, like a letter that you have a job offer, and maybe even pay a security bond that you may not even be able to afford to get into Britain. Today, right now, you can literally just say, “I have a degree from X university,” and you just show up in the country. Because Brexit taught them—they hemorrhaged talent, capital, investment. Their own citizens started expatriating at a record level, and they have shortages in the NHS of doctors and nurses, and like America, by the way—the American embassies all over the world were trying to recruit nurses and doctors, offering free airfare to come and treat our COVID disaster. So countries realize, again, one way or the other. And Britain has just said, “We’re open for business.” They let in a record number of foreign students last year.
ZK: Although, on this question of the demographic part—and Jim, you have a unique view on this because you lived for a while in not just China and obviously not just in the United States, but also in Japan. And yes, it is unequivocally true that large swaths of the world are seeing non-replacement-rate fertility, right, declining populations, demographically. The US census that came out in 2021—should’ve come out last year, but anyway—it shows that some Caucasian America is not a population replacement. And the only thing is immigration, and more recent immigrant groups are supplying the only population growth in the United States. Western Europe is of course shrinking, but it’s not clear, Parag—and Jim, I want to hear your thoughts on this—that that then leads to societies seeing the writing on the wall and becoming more open, because for 10, 20 years people have been saying Japan should become more open to immigration because that’s the only thing. And largely that’s been untrue. I mean, there has been more immigration, there’s been a little bit more opening but not to the equivalent that Parag talked about with the UK. In fact, Japan has said, “Well, we’ll solve the demographic issues with technology, not with humans,” right, with robotics, not with people, with fake people, not real people.
JF: Yes. So I was thinking Zachary, I’d been thinking of that same comparison. We lived in Japan for about four years in the 1980s during their boom era, and actually had our kids, young blond kids, go to Japanese public school, which was an enlightening experience for them. And Japan, since those days—the population of Japan in those days was about 120 million or so. I think it’s on a path to go below a hundred million… And perhaps down to about 85 million, because the whole ethos of Japan sort of cultivated for a long time has been, “We Japanese, and those other people.” And it’s part of what gives Japan the elegance and the functionality and the cohesion and all the rest it has, but it makes it more resistant to all the kinds of changes that you all are talking about and Parag was describing. And this, on the other end of the spectrum, I would place the US, which I think is uniquely well-positioned by its combination of scale and history to be an absorber and magnet for people from around the world.
I think the four of us on this call probably have different family stories that brought us into contact with the US, but the US in different ways has absorbed people from different backgrounds. My fundamental principle of “US inequality and prejudice has been the axis of American history” is of course the axis between Black people mainly brought here as slaves and other people who were not brought as slaves. And that through the waves of history, “new groups,” quote-unquote—the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Greeks, the Poles, the Jews, the Czechs, whoever—they all were seen as alien and the other when they arrived. But two or three generations later, they are part of the sort of… They have been Americanized, and all of that panic of the 1910s, what was that was that all about? I think the Black–White divide remains the axis of our politics. Simultaneously with that, there’s the fact that the US has made itself sequentially a continuum, in my view, open to new entrants who can use the US as the platform for their ambitions and hopes.
PK: I’d say Asians are a great example of this. People wouldn’t have thought 20 years ago that the rate of annual new citizens in the United States from Asian descent would outpace those from Latin countries. And yet that’s exactly… Of course the stock of Latinos is much larger, but the rate of new naturalizations from Asia is higher. And again, that’s come around very, very quickly.
ZK: I mean, this does raise, I guess, sort of a final question for today, by no means a final question for this conversation in general, of, you know, this podcast we call What Could Go Right? And partly, that’s just the question of what could go right in the world, given the continual aperture of what could go wrong? But part of that’s also, what could be unexpected, right? In a world where people expect things to go wrong, what could go right is unexpected. In a world where people expect a certain trajectory, right, “Asia is going to rise. China’s going to become the dominant power.” It’s certainly clear that whatever balance the 21st Century has, if it has any balance will not look like the 20th, and will not be an American-anchored world, which by no means should mean negative things for the United States, right?
There is nothing that says happiness, stability, success depends on being a hegemony. If that were the case, then at any given time, there’d be like one small group of humans that would be content, and everybody else would feel like, “Ugh, man, if only.” So I don’t think that that balance shifting is necessarily a negative. Americans may perceive it to be so, but even in their own lives that doesn’t mean that’s the case. But the assumption of trajectories also often is just that, right? We think that the world is going to look like X, and maybe it’s going to look like Y. So in this sort of conviction of the rise of the rest or the rise of Asia, I’m not, I guess my question isn’t like, is that going to be untrue; it’s more like, what might happen in the next 10 to 20 years—because beyond that it’s all just, you know, delightful gobbledygook—that changes our sense of trajectories, right? That changes our sense of the inexorable rise of China. Not like, “Oh, there could be a coup, or there could…” something a little less dramatic in specific, but a little more dramatic in general.
JF: Yes, I will take the risk of hazarding two of them, of possible sort of discontinuities in the paths that are underway, which would have welcome effects. One would be a recognition both in China and the United States, with implications for the rest of the world, essentially that China and the US do not need to be on a zero-sum collision course. That is something I very strongly felt during the years we were living in China, I felt during my time—I was actually working in the White House for Jimmy Carter when he was sort of ratifying the opening with Deng Xiaoping. And there are lots of tensions between between China and the United States, but it seems to me, certainly within the potential of the public of both countries, which in my experience generally likes one another when they have a chance to see one another, and it’s within the power of the leadership of those countries to say, “This doesn’t have to be the next great historical collision.” And that would be a very important factor for the 21st Century with implications from climate to everything else.
The other discontinuity is, two years ago, none of us in the lay public could have imagined that a vaccine for this new pandemic could have been, or several vaccines could have produced so well so quickly and so effectively, setting aside how they get administered right now. But the fact that they exist is, by world scientific standards, almost a miracle. Hypothesize that there is some miracle in battery technology, or in solar technology, or in desalinization technology, or something else that what seemed fatal obstacles in just, you know, desertification or energy production or whatever, that there is some way to have a better path ahead. I’m not assuming that will happen. I’m saying if you imagined a discontinuity, the political one, I would imagine, is the US and China sayingyou know, Rodney King-like, “Why can’t we just get along?” That the technical one would be some counterpart to the mRNA vaccine, saying “Here’s something that seemed insoluble, but actually, there may be a solution.” So those are my “what could go right” offerings.
PK: Well, I’ll follow on that with some continuity and echo some of those ideas. In looking beyond the US and China, when you look take kind of a systems view of geopolitics, you don’t put any one power at the center. So it’s a complex system. And, you know, in the spirit of what Zachary said at the beginning, you know, this is actually unlike any previous century, when you think about geopolitical order. Well, I take that very seriously, because it’s true. And most people just kind of say, “Oh, that’s a throw-away line, but ultimately it’s all about who’s number one.” But in fact, the contours of the geopolitical distribution of the coming 10, 20, 30 years, I think have been fairly clear for a while now and continue on that path and are not likely to be disturbed quite frankly.
And they’ve withstood the shocks of the last financial crisis and pandemic. And that is that you have a stronger regionalization trend. You have North America consolidating. You just had the USMCA trade agreement. You have the European Union hanging together and moving from just a monetary union towards a fiscal union. Within Asia, you have a multipolarity. Yes, China is sort of first among equals or even unequals, but there is this coalition of many other Asian powers, be it Japan India, and others that have formed the Quad and other constellations to restrain China and to pursue their own interests. So not only is it a multipolar world globally—even Asia itself is multipolar, and that’s not the kind of landscape we really ever had historically with a truly globally distributed sort of equilibrium. And equilibrium sort of connotes that you have some degree of stability, or at least the self-correcting mechanisms embedded.
And even if there were a US–China war over Taiwan or a collapse of North Korea, or one of the other scenarios, like the conflict in the South China Sea, that doesn’t mean that the conversation stops and there’s some big reset. You will continue to evolve a new equilibrium, a new dynamic among the numerous powers in the world, including Russia and Saudi Arabia and India and Japan and Australia, and so forth, that tend to be ignored in these conversations that are very US-China centric. So I actually, even as someone who’s kind of obsessed with geopolitics, I actually don’t lose sleep over this, because five years ago, when every conversation began with, you know, “Belt and Road is China’s plan to a certain unilateral hegemony over the world,” with this assumption that it would succeed simply because it wanted to. Well today, no one’s saying that, because people were not appreciating that the reactions to China’s action are more important than anything China did. Because China itself evoked these counter-coalitions and so forth.
And the entire post-colonial world is always very attuned to neo-mercantile behaviors, such as China’s. And you are going to have this self correction mechanism that has kicked in in many countries, including client states like Pakistan and so forth. So I actually believe very strongly in the stability and durability of the distributed multipolar system. And that’s fortunately where we’re headed. So that should be good news to everyone, even to the United States, because it could mean that you will have these self stabilizing mechanisms, not always peacefully mind you, right? You may have violence settlement, resolution of certain disputes, but then that dispute does go away, even if it’s on unfair terms. So I think that’s important.
And then, to echo Jim’s point about technology, right? I mean, we are getting there with some of the critical technologies around energy or water desalination and doing so through sustainable, renewable energy and you know, decarbonizing various industries. I would just say—this is more of a recommendation than, you know, a sort of genuine sense of optimism around this—but we are right now with, you know, COP26, you know, around the corner, we’re a bit not overly focused, but we focus exclusively on climate mitigation, for which to some degree it is too late, right? We should continue to do everything we can do to decarbonize industries and maybe even consider geoengineering projects. But adaptation is something we have to face every single day already. It can’t wait till we’ve cut emissions to zero, right? You know, Louisiana today cannot wait until 2060 when China says it will have shut down all fossil fuel power generation, right? So we’re not investing enough imagination and enough energy and resources into adaptation. And adaptation means how do we help each other as humans to survive the next 5, 10, 20 years?
And one of the reasons we should do so is because we need to have this new appreciation of the fact that the world population is reaching a plateau. This is not a Malthusian situation we’re in. The peak world population will probably be reached in the year 2035 or so. And it will likely be less, or it will be less than 9 billion people. So I do hope that a new kind of ethos can sink in, and it will not be universal by any stretch of the imagination, but incrementally, that having more migrants, having climate migrants, resettling large swaths of the world population is not going to lead to being overrun in this, you know, sort of incessant way by people from the developing world, because literally there is a finite number of us that will exist in the immediate future. And therefore, for the sake of the sort of continuity of our species, we actually need to have a little bit more kind of, you know, planetary solidarity. So that would be my hope.
ZK: I mean, again, this is, I think, the conversation we’re going to increasingly have over the coming years, which is that the demographic future of the 21st Century is so unlike the past 250 years. And it’s going to throw many things out of whack, you know, expectations of economic growth, “Why should there be economic growth if there are fewer people?” But also many of those negative expectations out of whack, the Malthusian one, right? “Oh My God, the world is going to sink under the weight of resource constraints and too many bodies.” You know, that narrative made a lot of sense when that trajectory seemed to be the one. But human societies have a devilish capacity, in a both twinkling of the eye and a negative way, to confound expectations. And I like the fact that we’re ending on this idea, which, you know, Jim, you articulated earlier and in a lot of your work, that multiple truths can be true simultaneously. And you as a storied newsman who also I think got very tired of the news, like Parag had said about geopolitics, the news is a constant Groundhog Day of, “Oh my God, things are falling apart,” or “Oh my God, there’s this huge crisis.”
And then of course you wake up the next day, and presumably the world hasn’t in fact ended; you’re onto the next “oh my God,” with nary a reference to, you know, as bad as it was yesterday, we’re still waking up tomorrow and there’s a world to go on. And, you know, you’ve moved from being at the epicenter of that, I think, and gotten very tired of it to an awareness of, “We can actually tell many stories simultaneously, if we have a mind to.” The news may not have a mind to, but that doesn’t stop us individually and collectively from doing it. And then Parag, your sort of essential points of, you know, what seems like such a huge deal in the moment is a pebble in a pond relative to these larger forces that, that are going to be with us a lot longer than “what’s the recent outcome of the Hungarian election,” or, you know, the Kosovar independence movement, or even, you know, whether or not the dictator of North Korea has or has not shed a few pounds. So I think just keeping an eye on that, and the degree to which the two of you continue to force people to keep an eye on that, is absolutely essential. And I’m delighted to have you part of this endeavor and also just to continue to watch and listen and learn from what you both do. So, thanks so much for having this conversation with Emma and myself today.
JF: I am so grateful for this conversation today and for the larger work you all are doing. So we’re glad to be your colleagues. I wouldn’t say fellow travelers, since that has connotations from the old days, but we’re happy to be your friends and allies in this effort.
PK: Aye, aye.
ZK: Another fascinating conversation. Do we feel we now have a handle on the tectonic forces shaping the world for the next century?
EV: I don’t know, I feel winded. I feel like we went through a lot, and it was an hour, but it felt like a lot less time than that. But I was really glad that at the end that both of them mentioned the sort of like almost miraculous advances in technology that we’ve already had with the vaccines and that we may have in the future with other technologies. Because it made me think of what you were saying, Zachary, about, in our narrative, we have this optimism deficit, but in people’s actions, people are incredibly optimistic. I mean, like people, you know, jumped into the problem with COVID—if you’re looking at it from the scientists who developed the vaccine—like, with unbelievable optimism. And it really worked out in all of our favor. And yet somehow that’s not… That doesn’t sort of like travel over into what we actually say about each other.
ZK: And that is also a cultural moment. And by cultural moment, look, this could last decades, but it is still a cultural moment, where if anyone ever wants to go back—and you can now do this easily online—and try to look at some of the magazine covers of Fortune and Time Magazine and Life Magazine in the 1950s. And they are full of this kind of “Golly gee willikers, we’re going to harness nuclear energy to power cars,” and, you know, it was a kind of, in retrospect, really naive optimism, that every single human problem would just be ineluctably solved by the end of the 20th Century. And you had this belief, too, with the world’s fairs at the end of the 19th Century. Today, even with the incredible development of vaccines in, really, in a timeframe that no one thought was possible, it’s just not seen as particularly cool or smart to extrapolate good things coming from just that alone in the future. As if somehow, you can’t be caught in public extrapolating really good news going forward. And look, it might not happen. No one… There are no guarantees. But I’m eternally and continually struck by that.
EV: For some reason, it feels a lot worse to extrapolate in a good news direction and be wrong. Like nobody wants to be that person. But if you extrapolate in the crisis direction and you’re wrong, it’s kind of like, no one’s going to notice, you know, it’s just sort of par for the course. And I really appreciate what Parag said about climate adaptation, too, because I think he’s right. The adaptation game is the game that we’re playing now. And, you know, there’s a lot of people out there who say we’re in the best position we could be to adapt. So maybe we’re going to do it.
ZK: And look, for years within the climate world, that was totally… If anybody started talking about adaptation, as opposed to mitigation or prevention, they were seen as an apologist, they were seen as “you’ve given up.” And look, I don’t know that that cultural, moment’s going to shift anytime soon, but to the degree that you can call it out, and you’re totally right, Emma, it’s like, there is that deep cultural feeling of you don’t want to be that person, right? You don’t want to be that person saying that things might go well when in fact they don’t, whereas there’s very little negative blowback of forecasting Armageddon. I’ve joked for years: If you’re going to forecast the end of the world, just don’t give a date. Because you can always say, “Just wait.”
EV: Yep, it’s going to happen.
ZK: “It’s happening. It’s coming, it’s coming.” And almost certainly, in a billion year timeframe, it’ll come. But I think both Parag and Jim in their own ways have been voices of, “Okay, take a moment. Step back. Look at what’s actually going on at a much kind of deeper and larger way, and not just what’s consuming your narrative and your story in the moment.”
EV: And what’s coming up next. You know, like Parag made that point about the generational divides, with migration being completely different. And I think that that’s certainly true about another topic that they brought up about, you know, US versus China. China’s the US’ big next enemy—and I’m borrowing this idea from Anne-Marie Slaughter via Parag’s Twitter, but I love it so much I had to bring it up—that, you know, Anne-Marie says, you know, if you talk to somebody under 40, certainly under 30 about like the US needing to win the 21st Century, they’re like, what are you talking about? Like, can we just cooperate with China about solving climate change and adapting like we were just talking about?
ZK: Absolutely. So, it’s been a great other conversation. Thank you, Emma.
EV: Thank you, Zachary.
ZK: To be continued.
To find out more information about The Progress Network and What Could Go Right?, visit theprogressnetwork.org. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter to stay up to date with everything happening with The Progress Network. If you like the show, please tell a friend, share an episode, or leave a rating and review on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. What Could Go Right? Is hosted by Zachary Karabell, and me. Emma Varvaloucas. We are produced by Andrew Steven. Jordan Aaron is our production coordinator. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thanks so much for listening.
Meet the Hosts