The Gilded Cage

Last night I watched a movie that’s been making the rounds in Portugal. It’s about emigration, a subject I’ve touched on before in these pages.

It’s in the nature of this country to love it and leave it, at least for its more adventurous sons and daughters. So I’m not shocked that the best and brightest decide to make their fortunes elsewhere.

That doesn’t stop the pundits from telling us we’re living a tragedy at present, exporting all our young minds to other lands, rather than creating the conditions for growth at home.

Well, that’s the story of Portugal, ever since it became a nation almost nine hundred years ago. Everyone I ever met had a relative or friend living in Africa, Brazil, or perhaps somewhere in Northern Europe or the States.

For some reason, the countries that speak our language don’t seem to count as foreign destinations, perhaps because the Portuguese have been going there for the best part of six hundred years—funnily enough that includes Macao, where almost no one knows any Portuguese words.

The movie’s plot centers around Paris, in a classic comedy balancing a lower class Portuguese couple against an upper-crust French family. That puts the context squarely in the 1960’s, but the sets are very much present-day.

Hopefully a version dubbed in English, or at the very least subtitled, might emerge, to try to reach a wider market. The lead actor is known in the U.S.—he starred in Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger as the Cuban hatchet man for the cartels, who seduces an FBI secretary in order to obtain inside information about the U.S. war on drugs.

The present-day diaspora contains both top and bottom segments—a perfect image for the hourglass economy. All who leave are in search of a better life, and either do the low wage work or are able to secure high-end jobs.

In the first case, they compete with other immigrants, but in the second they’re up against local people. The low wage segment integrates well in Judaico-Christian societies such as the U.S., Germany, or the U.K. The new arrivals share common societal and religious values, and are a peaceful, sober, and hard-working community.

The greatest show on earth: a lone flag flutters over the groundswell on Portugal's west coast.

The greatest show on earth: a lone flag flutters over the groundswell on Portugal’s west coast, three days before Christmas.

It’s not particularly different in Lisbon or Oporto: although alcohol is far more available than in the U.S. or U.K., public drunkeness is a rare spectacle—I was at a Christmas party late afternoon yesterday where perhaps two bottles of wine were consumed, and no spirits whatsoever; there were twelve people there. Don’t get me wrong, the hosts were flawless—it’s just a different mindset.

The high-end jobs are entrepreneurial, and therefore driven by fierce competition. The young men and women who leave this country, hungry to compete and win, do so partly because in Portugal, what you know is often superseded by who you know. And it doesn’t take them long to realize that in most successful nations, the opposite is true—knowledge and skills are compensated irrespective of age, wether or not prefixed by ‘patron’.

Emigration rarely severs ties to the homeland. In my own personal wanderings, I’ve never met an immigrant who didn’t love Portugal. It’s the way things work back home they dislike—things that are actually easy to change, but need to be changed disruptively.

Maybe high-end emigration within Europe is really a good thing, to avoid the intellectual incest that is endemic in Portuguese society. Increased poverty forces a focus on things that work, and breaks down artificial barriers—although there’s a real risk that a demagogue will step in and pervert the whole system before positive changes are felt. The false gods of fascism and communism have repeatedly done just that through much of the XXth century.

Among other things, what most countries need are guidelines for governance, not legislation. There are usually more than enough laws, a good part of which are ignored—often because they make no sense, are difficult to enforce, or are not perceived by the population to provide a benefit.

So I decided to produce my own tips—in harmony with my thoughts above, I’ve kept it short.

The Wibaux Wishlist for the Year of the Horse

1. Everything needs a good reason. No reason, no policy.

2. Tell people first what they can do. If you forbid something, explain why.

3. Never use ten words when two will do. Three pages are enough for most policy documents.

4. Establish realistic time limits for every administrative decision. After that, deferral is tacit.

5. Never encourage administative inefficiencies by extending deadlines.

6. Don’t try something new everywhere, test it regionally and then roll it out.

7. Set priorities, be realistic, and keep to schedule.

8. Don’t pick the flowers and water the weeds.

9. Be disruptive – try things others don’t do.

And remember, if you put a bunch of lawyers in the same room for four years, they’re going to make laws, not learn to knit.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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