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Finding a place for transnational elites

| Sunday, June 22, 2008

In the 20th century, the color line was the primary challenge. In the 21st century, the problem is the border line.

Today, more people live outside their countries of birth than at any time in history, and international migrants now make up the equivalent of the world's fifth-most-populous country -- just after China, India, the United States and Indonesia.

As a result, migrant-receiving nations, particularly those in the First World, are scrambling to devise strategies to incorporate and integrate newcomers and their families into their adopted societies.

From Germany to the United States, policymakers and the public alike are particularly worried about integrating the poorest immigrants into their social fabrics. It is commonly assumed that socioeconomic mobility is the key to making these newcomers loyal citizens of their new homelands.

But what about the transnational elites who can easily move anywhere they please?

In May, American actress Susan Sarandon vowed to move to Italy or Canada if Republican Sen. John McCain becomes president. However off the cuff her comment might have been, it points to the challenge many developed nations and cities are likely to have maintaining the loyalty of their elites as a globalizing economy makes relocation easier.

More than a decade ago, in a posthumously published book, "The Revolt of the Elites," sociologist Christopher Lasch accused the creative class (the group Robert Reich, Clinton's labor secretary, famously called "symbolic analysts") of abandoning their responsibility to serve as a moral bulwark and stabilizing force in society.

What he could not have foreseen, however, was the extent to which commercial and cultural globalization would further undermine the elites' old-fashioned loyalty to place.

Make no mistake: The benefits of globalization, especially high-level transnational exchange and trade, particularly to the United States, are clear.

In the U.S., highly skilled workers and wealthy entrepreneurs from around the globe contribute mightily to this nation's productivity and creativity. Their presence in our cities, and ours in theirs, has fostered a greater appreciation of global cultural diversity. It has spawned a vibrant cosmopolitanism that broadens our collective concern for people who live beyond our borders.

But this cosmopolitanism is not without its dark side.

Increasingly, many of our big cities' creative elites -- both native and foreign-born -- see themselves as citizens of the world. Our intellectuals are exploring the declining significance of place in the new globalized world order. And this brave new world cries out for an answer to the question: Does a person who swears loyalty to all cities and nations have any loyalties at all?

I've always been struck by the fact that the same people who rightly criticize multinational corporations for having no sense of responsibility to place never seem to express the same concern about the equally "unplaced" creative elite.

A few years ago, I was at a fancy dinner party and found myself the only one at the table who held only one passport. Over the years, I've met way too many highly skilled expatriates who know little and care even less about the cities they live in.

Just last week in northern California, I met an African-born Indian economist who said he moved to Washington from London to escape the British capital's rootlessness.

"It's everybody's second home," he told me. "No one is really tied to the place."

In May, Los Angeles Business Journal published a special report on Los Angeles becoming a magnet for what one analyst called "global families" -- those who live and do business in Southern California and elsewhere. I wonder how much they know about the coalition-building that makes L.A. politics tick; I wonder what kind of local philanthropic activities they're involved in.

It's long been a sociological axiom that homeowners take better care of their houses and their neighborhoods than do renters. I think the same principle applies to cities and nations.

Without denying the benefits of globalization, we should remember the beauty and strength of parochialism.

It's all well and good to love the world, but real social solidarity is generally found on a smaller scale. And it's not just the unskilled immigrants we should be concerned about. We need to find ways to encourage the highly skilled ones to form a sense of attachment and commitment to their new homes. On top of that, we natives must remember that there is no honor in escaping engagement by becoming a citizen of the world.

For as much as globalization will continue to change the way we live, it probably will remain true (as quaint as it sounds) that home is where the heart is.

At least it should be.

Gregory Rodriguez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times opinion pages, is author of "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America."

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