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When people are more numerous and living fuller lives, they become more difficult to regiment and control. The exercise of power in any realm involves, fundamentally, the ability to impose and retain control over a country, a marketplace, a constituency, a population of adherents, a network of trade routes, and so on. When the people in that territory—whether potential soldiers, voters, customers, workers, competitors, or believers—are more numerous, in fuller possession of their means, and functioning at ever-greater levels of ability, they become more difficult to coordinate and control, let alone dominate.
The Mobility Revolution
Not only are there more people today, living fuller and healthier lives; they also move around a lot more, making them harder to manage. This trend changes the distribution of power within and among populations, whether through the rise of ethnic, religious, and professional diasporas or through individual vectors of ideas, capital, and faiths that can be either destabilizing or empowering. The United Nations estimates that there are 214 million migrants across the globe, an increase of 37 percent during the last two decades. The number of migrants during that period grew by 41 percent in Europe and 80 percent in North America.
Immigrants are changing the businesses, religions, and cultures of the countries in which they settle. In the United States, the Hispanic population grew from 22 million in 1990 to 51 million in 2011; one of every six Americans is now Hispanic. In Dearborn, Michigan, the world headquarters for the Ford Motor Company, 40 percent of the population is Arab-American. Such enclaves are bound to transform coalitions and voting patterns as well as business strategies and even religious competition. Political parties, politicians, businesses, and other institutions increasingly face competitors that have deeper roots and a better understanding of this new population. The same thing is happening in Europe, as governments have proven unable to stem the tide of immigrants from Africa, Asia, or other, less wealthy, European countries. An interesting case in point: In 2007 a Nigerian-born man was elected in Portlaoise, Ireland, a commuter town west of Dublin, as that country’s first black mayor.
Immigrants send billions of dollars in remittances to their home countries every year, promoting economic growth and development. Worldwide, they wired, mailed, or carried home $449 billion in 2010. (In 1980 remittances totaled less than one-fourth of that in inflation-adjusted dollars.) Nowadays, remittances are more than five times larger than the world’s total foreign aid and larger than the annual total flow of foreign investment to poor countries. In short, workers who live outside their home country, who are often very poor themselves, send more money to their country than foreign investors and more than rich countries send as financial aid. For many countries, remittances have become the biggest source of hard currency and, in effect, the largest sector of the economy.
Perhaps the most aggressively power-transforming aspect of the Mobility Revolution is urbanization. More people have moved, and continue to move, from farms to cities than ever before, particularly in Asia. In 2007, for the first time in history, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. The U.S. National Intelligence Council reckons that “every year 65 million people are added to the world’s urban population, equivalent to adding seven cities the size of Chicago or five the size of London annually.” Internal migration—especially population shifts from farms to cities—can be as disruptive to power as international migration.
A newer form of mobility is also reshaping the landscape of power: brain circulation. Poor nations tend to lose many of their skilled and better-educated citizens to richer countries, which attract them with visions of a better life. This well-known “brain drain” deprives nations of nurses, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and other professionals who are expensive to train. In recent years, however, increasing numbers of these professionals have been returning to their countries of origin and upending business as usual in industries, universities, the media, and politics.
AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that Taiwanese, Indian, Israeli, and Chinese immigrants who worked in California’s Silicon Valley often became “angel investors” and “venture capitalists” in their old countries, starting up companies and eventually either moving back or traveling frequently between their old and new countries. In so doing, they transfer the culture, approaches, and techniques they learned in the United States. Inevitably, the dynamic, competitive, and disruptive business culture common in entrepreneurial hubs clashes with the monopolistic and traditional ways of doing business often found in developing countries.
These migrations are occurring in the context of a vast increase in the movement of goods, services, money, information, and ideas. The trade in goods was barely slowed by the recession that started in 2008. In 1990 the world’s total exports and imports amounted to 39 percent of the global economy; by 2010 they had risen to 56 percent. And between 2000 and 2009, the total value of merchandise traded across borders nearly doubled, from $6.5 trillion to $12.5 trillion (in current dollars), according to the United Nations. Total exports of goods and services in that period jumped from $7.9 trillion to $18.7 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Money also has become more mobile. The stock of foreign direct investment measured as a percentage of the world’s economy jumped from 6.5 percent in 1980 to a whopping 30 percent in 2010, while the volume of currency that moved internationally every day grew sevenfold between 1995 and 2010. In the latter year, more than $4 trillion changed hands across international borders each day.
The ability to move information around has expanded even faster. Somalia epitomizes the concept of “failed states,” societies in which citizens lack access to basic services that most of us take for granted. Yet even there, 21st-century mobile telephony is widely available. In 1990 across the globe, the number of mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people was 0.2. By 2010 it had exploded to more than 78. The International Telecommunications Union reports that in 2012 subscriptions to mobile telephony exceeded 6 billion—equivalent to an astonishing 87 percent of the world’s population.
In 1990 the number of Internet users was insignificant—a mere 0.1 percent of the world’s population. That number rose to 30 percent by 2010 (and to more than 73 percent in developed countries). By 2013 nine-year-old Facebook had nearly 1 billion users, more than half of whom access the social network via mobile phones and tablets.
We should consider the impact of another tool that does not get the credit it deserves for changing the world: the prepaid phone card. The growth of calling-card usage leaves the Internet’s growth in the dust. Now prepaid calling cards are giving way to prepaid mobile phones. Prepaid cellphones have displaced those that require a long-term subscription and bind the user to a service provider through an elaborate contract. The less-well-off who choose to leave home for opportunities further afield no longer face as stark a choice between staying close to their families and improving their fortunes.
The two characteristics shared by all of these mobility-enhancing technologies are the speed and extent of the drop in costs of moving goods, money, people, and information. Airline tickets that used to cost thousands of dollars 20 or 30 years ago can now be had at a fraction of the cost. Transporting a ton of cargo today costs one-tenth what it did in the 1950s. Wiring money from California to Mexico in the late 1990s cost about 15 percent of the transferred sum; today the charge is less than 6 percent. Mobile phone platforms through which money can be transferred from one cellphone to another will soon make remittances almost cost-free.
The Mobility Revolution has had a profound effect. Power needs a captive audience. In situations where citizens, voters, investors, workers, parishioners, or customers have few or no alternatives, they have little choice but to consent to the terms of the institutions they face. But when borders become porous, and the governed—or controlled—population becomes more mobile, entrenched organizations have a harder time retaining their dominance.