Tag: 2016

New Immigrants Are More Culturally Different than They Used to Be

Native-born American concerns about immigration are primarily about how immigration will affect the culture of the country as a whole and, to a lesser extent, how the newcomers will affect the economy.  One’s personal economic situation is not a major factor.  It’s reasonable to assume that the degree of cultural difference between native-born Americans and new immigrants affects the degree of cultural concern.  Thus, Americans would likely be less concerned over immigrants from Canada or Singapore than they would be over immigrants from Egypt or Azerbaijan. 

A large team of psychologists recently created an index of the cultural distance of people from numerous countries around the world relative to the United States.  The index is constructed from responses to the World Values Survey as well as linguistic and geographical distances.  Their index includes numerous different psychological facts such as individualism, power distance, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long term orientation, indulgence, harmony, mastery, embeddedness, hierarchy, egalitarian, autonomy, tolerance for deviant behavior, norm enforcement, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, creativity, altruism, and obedience.  These are all explained in more detail in the paper.

Their paper has an index where lower numbers indicate a culture more similar to that of the United States while a higher number indicates a culture more distant from that of the United States.  As some extreme examples, Canada’s cultural distance score is 0.025 and Egypt’s is 0.24. 

Using the cultural distance index, I calculated the cultural distance of the stock of immigrants in the United States in 2015 from native-born Americans.  I then compared the cultural distance of the stock to the cultural distance of the flow of immigrants who arrived in 2012-2015.  The immigration figures come from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the U.S. Census Bureau.  If the stock of immigrants in 2015 was more culturally similar to native-born Americans than the flow, then the recent flow is more culturally distinct.  If the stock of immigrants in 2015 was more culturally different from native-born Americans than the flow, then the recent flow is less culturally distinct. 

Table 1 shows the results.  The immigrant flow in 2012-2015 is more culturally different from native-born Americans than the stock of immigrants was in 2015.  In other words, today’s newest immigrants are more different than those from the relatively recent past.  Relative to the stock, the cultural distinctiveness of the flow in 2012-2015 was greater by about one-fourth of a standard deviation.  In other words, the stock of American immigrants in 2015 was very culturally similar to people from Trinidad and Tobago (0.099) while the flow of new immigrants who arrived from 2012-2015 more similar to Romanians (0.11).

Table 1

Cultural Distance of Immigrants Relative to Native-Born Americans

  Cultural Distance
Immigrant Stock 0.10
Immigrant Flow 0.11

Sources: WEIRD Index, ASEC, and author’s calculations.

There are a few problems with my above calculations.  First, those who choose to move here are likely more similar to Americans than those who do not.  There is obviously some difference in cultural values inside of a country as the average person does not choose to emigrate to the United States.  Second, American immigration laws likely select immigrants with similar cultural values through various means such as favoring the family members of Americans and those hired by American firms.  It’s reasonable to assume that foreigners who marry Americans and who are hired by American firms are more culturally similar than the average person from those countries.  Third, the cultural distance index only covers about two-thirds of the immigrant population in the United States.  It is possible that countries not on the list could shift the score significantly in either direction.

New immigrants to the United States are more culturally different than those of the past, but not by much.  This increase in the cultural difference of new immigrants could have had an outsized impact on Trump voters in 2016, but immigration overall is more popular with Americans than it used to be.

Is 2016 Over Yet?

By the end of the year, 2016 had accrued a list of international crises, celebrity deaths and electoral shenanigans so long that a spate of articles appeared questioning whether it was the worst year ever, while social media appeared to be primarily filled with people asking “Is 2016 over yet?” But at least in the realm of foreign policy, there’s little hope that 2017 will bring much respite.  

It would, of course, take an extraordinarily narrow view of history to argue that 2016 was really the worst year on record. That would require one to overlook 1942-3, the height of Second World War barbarity, or 1914, the year when the “war to end all wars” began. 1968 wasn’t that great, either, bringing us the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the crushing of the Prague Spring, Vietnam War massacres, and a plane accident involving four nuclear bombs.  Or if you want to go back further in history, it’s pretty hard to ignore 1347, the year the Black Death reached Europe.

But 2016 did present an impressive series of foreign policy and political disasters, ranging from a coup in Turkey to Russian meddling in the U.S. electoral process to terror attacks in France, Belgium, and Germany. In the ongoing Syrian civil war, Russian and Syrian government troops finally succeeded in crushing opposition in Aleppo at massive humanitarian cost. And crises that in any other year would have been front page news – like North Korean missile tests or worsening relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia – were sidelined in favor of more urgent crises.

2016 also saw a global surge in populism, with the election of bluntly anti-establishment politicians like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, and the surprising victory of pro-Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom’s referendum on the European Union.  Indeed, one of the few positive foreign policy events of the year – Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC, ending a 50-year conflict – was almost derailed when voters rejected the deal at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that 2017 will substantially improve matters. Many of this year’s crises will in fact carry over into next year: the war in Syria continues apace, Brexit negotiations are ongoing, and North Korea is likely to continue its saber rattling. Worse, some of this year’s less visible crises have the potential to deteriorate further, like the war in Yemen or Venezuela’s economic and social collapse.

More broadly, the overarching trends that defined much of the foreign policy landscape in 2016 look set to continue for the foreseeable future. Populism is likely to impact next year’s key European elections. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front looks likely to do well, as does Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland. In the Netherlands, anti-EU sentiment has some speculating that March’s election could precipitate a ‘Nexit’ from the EU.    

The complexity of this year’s crises – and the broader shift towards a more multipolar international system – also looks set to continue. This will create challenges for U.S. policymakers, who may have to seek cooperation with states like Russia or China on key issues at the same time as opposing them on others. And authoritarian backsliding by countries within U.S. alliances, most notably Turkey, raises key questions about what U.S. security guarantees in some areas actually achieve.

Still, as one cliché points out: “Prediction is hard, especially the future.” This pessimistic view of foreign policy in 2017 may well turn out be inaccurate. It simply seems unlikely given the growing global trends which precipitated many of this year’s big foreign policy surprises. Pretty soon, we may be asking if 2017 is over yet.