ALTHOUGH North America and Europe have finally emerged from the darkness of the global financial crisis, the economies of the West still lag behind those in the rest of the world. That's particularly the case when it comes to jobs. The unemployment rate in the United States, for example, remains stubbornly around 7 percent. In Chile, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Mexico and South Korea, however, the official unemployment rate is way lower.
So here's a novel solution to America's problem: Move the people to where the jobs are.
Exporting the unemployed may sound radical, even cruel, but the quest for jobs has been a driving force behind global migration - and population growth in the New World - for centuries. More than 55 million Europeans, many desperate and poor, migrated to the Americas between 1846 and 1940.
And in the past few years, those movements have started up again. When crippling unemployment throttled Spain, some 30,000 Spaniards upped and moved to Argentina between June 2009 and November 2010. Between 2008 and 2011 alone, more than 1 percent of the Portuguese population moved to Angola.
But Americans haven't been searching for a better life somewhere else on nearly the same scale. According to the State Department, only about 6.3 million U.S. citizens live abroad, or around 2 percent of the domestic population. About 5.5 million British people live permanently abroad, almost five times the U.S. level in per capita terms.
So why shouldn't America send out some huddled masses for once? Of course, Americans want a young, employed workforce to help support their aging society as it pays for rising Medicare and Social Security bills, but it would be far better for everyone if they were employed abroad rather than sitting idly at home. And many of the country's unemployed are demographically well placed for a change of scene precisely because they're disproportionately young and footloose. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, as of October 2013, the unemployment rate among those ages 16 to 19 was 22 percent; among those 20 to 24, it was 12.5 percent. And the rate among men never married in all age ranges is around 12 percent. Nothing's tying them down. Go East, young men!
Some might wonder, though: Would other countries really want America's wastrel youth, with their lack of language skills and poor education? The good news is that English has official or special status in countries that are home to 2 billion people, and one in four of the world's people speak English to some level of competence.
And even young Americans who haven't made it to university have received a quality of education considerably higher than that of most people in emerging economies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development runs internationally comparable tests of student achievement at the high-school level. The U.S. average score on the reading tests was 500. That's behind South Korea (539), but it compares favorably with Brazil (412) and Panama (371). So buck up, C students: You might still be an attractive addition to Brazilian firms looking for some English-speaking talent. And trust me, Rio de Janeiro isn't a hardship post.
Why should we be encouraging the young and unemployed to look worldwide for better opportunities? Because the benefits of U.S. emigration extend way beyond ready jobs and a more interesting life for those in search of adventures abroad. As little as a 1 percent increase in migration between two countries raises bilateral trade. There's also evidence that migrating to another country brings greater foreign investment back home, that if you double the number of Americans living in another country, you'll see foreign direct investment from that country to the United States increase by about a fifth.
Simply put, there's a profound benefit to the economy in sending your kids overseas.
So let's help show young Americans the door by allowing the Peace Corps to offer short-term voluntary assignments and by expanding programs like the Fulbright that support academic study overseas. And let's keep them abroad by abandoning the system that makes them pay taxes to the United States on top of the taxes they pay to their host countries. And why not encourage the portability of benefits from Medicare to Social Security?
Or, thinking bigger, why not use the U.S.-EU trade talks to set up a trans-Atlantic visa-free zone? The free movement of labor has done wonders for Europe. It's time Americans get on board. A more globalized U.S. workforce would be good for the unemployed, good for the country - and good for the world.