Opinion

Felix Salmon

Will the world ever have open borders?

Felix Salmon
Jun 30, 2011 07:16 UTC

My favorite bit in this video comes towards the end, when I ask Charles about the wonderful tweet he sent out last Friday, after the gay marriage bill passed the New York senate.

One day we’ll see legal discrimination by *place* of birth as evil as discrim. by other features of birth –gender, orientation, color.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

I wanted to know, was this just a lovely sentiment, or does Charles really think this is going to happen? The answer is the latter, and Charles gives two strong reasons why that might be the case.

One is the way that the world is getting smaller and more interconnected. Countries make hundreds of agreements with each other, they set up organizations like the UN and the EU, and in general behave much more pleasantly towards each other than they ever have in the past. And at some level that has to be because doing so is what their people want.

Charles’s second point was about mobility and immigration, and it’s a great one. Greater levels of immigration aren’t just a fantastic idea from a national-security standpoint and a fiscal standpoint, they’re also demographically necessary for an aging America which has a lot of labor-intensive needs in a service sector which can’t be outsourced. “The self-interest of people will weaken the effects of borders,” says Kenny, which is surely true. Americans don’t like immigration, but they love the low prices that immigration brings for their golf courses and swimming pools and McMansions.

There’s a long distance between appreciating the upside of immigration, on the one hand, and extolling the idea of completely open global borders, on the other, where everybody has the same right to work in the US, no matter where they were born. There’s many people who would push for the former, and almost nobody who would push for the latter. But as the economic distance between countries shrinks, the problems associated with such a policy will get smaller. And Charles points out too that there will be increasing numbers of Americans who want to live abroad; those Americans would in principle be quite happy to sign bilateral open-border agreements with the countries they’d like to live in.

None of this is going to happen in our lifetimes, but if you look at how far the world came over the course of the last century, there’s reason for optimism about how much more progress it can make in this one. Countries already go to war with each other much less frequently than they did in the past; the insane cost of war alone is one good reason why that might be. And without wars to make us hate each other, we’ll surely continue to get friendlier towards each other.

Sometimes, too, change can happen astonishingly fast. David Schlesinger touched on this in his chat with me yesterday — look at the way in which the Chinese government is successfully serving the interests of the Chinese people today, compared with 20 or 30 years ago.

The main official obstacle to Chinese people traveling around the US today is not China’s government, it’s America’s. And while we fear China in many ways, the spectre of mass Chinese immigration to the US is not one of them — to a large degree, America could and should welcome an influx of Chinese entrepreneurialism, which could quite possibly be funded with some of China’s trillions in foreign exchange reserves. From a US perspective, much better all that investment and job creation happen here than in China.

They put something in the water, here in Aspen, which makes people very optimistic. (Although maybe it’s inactive early in the morning: both Steve Adler and I were unimpressed by the latest demographic analysis purporting to find a centrist, consensus-driven majority in America.) But the world really is getting better, and has been for a couple of centuries now, and it’s very likely to continue doing so, in its lumpy and unpredictable way. Which means that, sooner or later, there’s a good chance that Charles’s dream will come true.

COMMENT

The concept of open boarders is stupid. It embraces the idea that you and your 5 brothers and 3 sisters can royally screw up the place you were born, see the impact of your culture / communities lousy decisions and then bolt for greener pastures where the locals plan smarter and work harder.

Good fences make good neighbors.

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Remixing education

Felix Salmon
Jun 28, 2011 18:00 UTC

I went to a fantastic education panel this morning called Game Changers, with three inspirational educators: John Hunter, Salman Khan, and Katie Salen. Sal Khan needs little introduction, at this point; if you haven’t seen his TED talk, go watch it now. The other two were new to me, however: John Hunter invented the World Peace Game to teach his 10-year-olds; it’s a lot more chaotic and inspirational than it sounds. And Katie Salen is the executive director of the Institute of Play, which has already built one school in New York, and has another on the way in Chicago.

What all of these people have in common is an emphasis on teachers ceding control of the classroom and their curriculum. In its place, more than anything else, is gameplay. The Khan Academy gameplay is highly structured; the World Peace Game is more fluid; and the Quest to Learn games are in many cases designed by the students themselves. But in all cases the students are learning from each other, and indeed the teachers are dynamically learning from the students too. This is not surprising when you find 5th graders in Los Altos diving gleefully into Khan Academy’s calculus modules and becoming expert in undergraduate-level mathematics; and indeed another thing these teachers have in common is that they’re all fans of mixing up ages and abilities in classrooms.

Inspirational teachers are nothing new, of course, and it’s probably true to say that an inspirational teacher is always going to do great work, whatever the tools they have to work with. But Khan made the great point that high school students, in particular, can and do make incredibly inspirational teachers themselves, if only you give them the opportunity.

All of this boils down to what Hunter called “embracing chaos”. This appears in many ways: you have to encourage kids to make mistakes; you have to let them develop their own ways of learning; and, on a more mundane but in many ways much more important level, you have to give them much more access to the internet than they generally have right now.

Salen was very strong on this last point, complaining about how internet access is very limited in most schools, and that typical filters stop kids from going to any site with the word “game” in it. I asked about one of the things which worries me most about the present generation of kids — which is that they have not developed the critical abilities necessary to distinguish reliable from unreliable information on the internet. The classic example of this is the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, which kids believe in when they read about it on the internet, even if they’re initially skeptical. But Hunter was reasonably convincing that simply telling 5th-graders about the tree octopus is a very powerful lesson for them about not always believing what they read. And Salen was even more convincing that if we want kids to develop critical abilities, we need to give them access to the unfettered internet rather than confining them to canonical encyclopedias and the like.

None of which necessarily lends itself to pat solutions which can be scaled easily across a state or nation’s classrooms — although it’ll be very interesting to see what happens when the Khan Academy curriculum is adopted across the whole Los Altos school district for 5th and 6th grade. But I do think that there’s reason for optimism on the education front in the long term. I’m enormously excited by (and a little bit jealous of) many of the opportunities and resources available to today’s kids, even if they’re largely outside formal classrooms. And I can’t help but feel that somehow they will show up in improved productivity and creativity down the road. The panelists here in Aspen show how such things can be formalized and implemented by visionary educators; as their ideas spread, they’ll be remixed and reinvented in ways that none of us can currently imagine, quite possibly by people under the age of 12. The possibility space, in other words, is bigger than it’s ever been. And in a random-walk kind of way, it’s bound to be filled somehow, with games and game-changers both.

COMMENT

The classrooms and the way of teaching is changing in India, especially in metros like Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai etc. The Kindergarten kids are using iPads instead of slates. The traditional black boards are giving way to smart boards.
http://dealsdirectory.in/blog/changing-c lassrooms-and-method-of-teaching-in-indi a/

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Getting enthused about Aspen

Felix Salmon
Jun 28, 2011 06:42 UTC

On the strength of one opening afternoon at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I think I like it a lot. And that’s a surprise to me: I was expecting that Alpine gabfests would tend to have more similarities than differences. But this is a world away from Davos, and not just in terms of longitude or season. At Davos, everybody is self-importantly “committed to improving the state of the world”; in Aspen, the stakes are much lower, and the emphasis is on what you’re saying rather than who you are.

The economics of conferences dictate, of course, that there be a smattering of bold-faced names who will do their bit in attracting the paying public and large corporate sponsors. But it’s surprisingly easy to avoid the politicians and the blowhards, and to find sessions on subjects about which you know very little and therefore can learn a lot.

There’s something about Aspen in general, and the layout of the Aspen Institute in particular, which engenders a friendly informality. The setting, of course, is stunning — and it’s also wide open, with lots of space to enjoy the beautiful grounds or wander off to nowhere in particular. Davos doesn’t lend itself to long, discursive conversations: it’s too cramped, too intense, too busy, too urgent. Aspen is relaxed, and informal, and — wonderfully — open to the (well-heeled) public. Security here is almost invisible; there are no heads of state, no metal detectors, and not even much sign of corporate meetings and dealmaking.

The opening session was a rapid-fire salvo of quick three-minute Big Ideas, ranging from the striking to the silly. I had favorites, of course. Salman Khan, of the Khan Academy, talked about how it might be possible to set up a credentialing system so that if you’ve become as knowledgeable and adept as a Harvard graduate, Harvard or some institution like it could certify you as such — even if you didn’t go to an expensive formal college. It’s one of the few ideas which could really make a dent in academic cost inflation, and maybe even drive it down.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates had a fantastic little talk about the increasing respectability of professional athletes, to the point at which Americans tend to side with them, now, rather than sports team owners, when there’s a dispute. And that’s partly because, he said, “we have a less racist country”. In the 1980s, he said, there was a feeling that African-American athletes “didn’t deserve the salaries that they were getting”, while now we have “a situation where players command much more respect”, with much less in the way of racial undertones, even as team owners get less respect than they used to. It’s one of the very few areas of America where power has shifted away from capital and towards labor over the past couple of decades.

And David Leonhardt recapitulated his great column about the sad fate awaiting mothers in the workforce. Companies have to realize, he said, that there’s an enormous pool of untapped and underutilized talent out there — and any economy or sector which manages to get the most out of mothers is going to have huge potential.

Then, after dinner, I got the opportunity to see a Larry Lessig slideshow in the flesh — something I can highly recommend. In this case, it was an expanded and signficantly tweaked version of this talk, on the way that US institutions in general, and Congress in particular, have become corrupted by corporate money.

The talk is quite a tour de force at this point, and was followed by a fascinating Q&A period in which smart questions were asked and Lessig actually answered them. Paul Romer got the final question, asking whether some of the problem could be fixed by moving powers away from the legislature and into the executive. That question elicited a quite astonishing five-minute response, which I’ll try to transcribe here with only minor elisions. Remember, this is entirely extemporaneous:

We’ve seen that. We have pretty powerfully shifted power to the executive. And what that does is just relocate the place in which the influence is going to have its effect. Now you could have an executive who very strictly regulated the legislature. We might be left with that as a second best solution.

But I think that there’s something weak about democracy that depends upon these extremely powerful executives. And if you look at the American constitution today, relative to the framers’ Constitution, the framers envisioned Congress at the core. That was the jewel of their democracy. And these two necessary evils on each side. An executive, like the president, who they were fearful would become a king; they tried to limit his power so that he couldn’t. And the courts, who were hated at the time, because courts were just tools of the King. So courts and the executive were two sideshows, and Congress was a jewel.

Of course what we’ve done over the past 200 years is everything we can to inflate the power of the courts. People love the courts. Even after Bush v Gore, people still have enormous respect for the Supreme Court. Everybody wants them to fix what the democratic process doesn’t. And we’ve expanded dramatically the power of the president. So the power of the presidency today looks more like King George, and the Queen today looks much like George Washington. We’ve somehow reversed their roles because we’ve pushed to solve this problem of a failed democracy.

When I get this kind of pushback, it feels like a kind of splash of cold water, of the form “none of the changes you’re talking about are ever going to happen, so what’s the second best?” And the reality is you might be right. It might be impossible. And I got that question directly once, in Dartmouth. And I had this thought when she said this. If a doctor came to me and said your son has terminal brain cancer, there’s nothing you can do — would I do nothing? Just look at the doctor and say OK?

When you think about what it is to love, the willingness to act compassionately for something, that kind of emotional need, love for country: there are people who go risk their lives for that kind of love.

All of us have to have this kind of irrational love for country. Which says yes, maybe it’s impossible. But we’re going to act even if it’s impossible. And nothing I’m asking anybody to do is anything like the soldiers who go for love of country and fight our wars. Nobody’s going to die from this fight. It doesn’t take two years away from your family. All it takes is commitment, as citizens, not to let politicians continue to destroy the republic.

There’s no reason not to start that fight. So I flew myself for 24 hours here to Aspen because if that fight starts anywhere, it starts in places like this. With people like you.

Now you can agree or disagree with Lessig’s rhetoric — but his arguments surrounding the jurisprudence of corruption are sophisticated and interesting, and also laced through with real passion and vision. And he’s absolutely right that Aspen is one of the places where such ideas will take root, if they are to have a real effect. What’s more, Aspen is a place where it isn’t embarrassing to have such ideas and ideals.

This isn’t a place where grandees chair a “policy and initiatives coordination board” which will “analyse, assess and coordinate the prioritization, development and impact of multistakeholder initiatives within the global system” in order to “support the global agenda”. Instead, it’s a place where individuals can discuss ideas with passion and sophistication, and learn from literally hundreds of other people doing the exact same thing. Which is a pretty fecund place to be, if it’s done right.

Obviously, there’s a lot more Ideas Festival to come — it’s barely started — and for all I know it could yet get hijacked by politicians and stale debates. But on the evidence of the short first day, I’m optimistic about what might transpire here. Especially since my hotel has a small fleet of Trek Districts which I can use to get to the campus and back. Or maybe it’s just the altitude going to my head, and I’ll be over it in a couple of days.

COMMENT

Some more objective form of credentialing for graduates would be welcome, both to employers and graduates. Harvard (et al.) would never go for it, both because of the downward pressure it would put on its tuition, and because it would quickly become apparent that very, very many of its own graduates wouldn’t qualify.

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