27 January 2005

Orange County Values

"Where's the power?" was the question John Gunther always asked in his travelogue of mid-twentieth-century America, Inside U.S.A. In the late 1940s, the answer was often the local party machine. Power now was here, in this restaurant [Bistango, next to a Japanese bank], dispersed among many more people and much less accountable, for the issue was simply profit, disconnected from political promises or even geography. Orange County's global corporations were merely home bases--which could be removed in an instant in response, for example, to tax increases.

"What kind of business is being transacted?" I asked. "Biomedical, pharmaceutical, genetic engineering, chips for fax machines, and all kinds of software-multimedia," [Orange County Business Journal editor Rick] Reiff told me. "Then there are firms, big firms, that specialize in teaching English to Vietnamese, Chinese, and other Asians and Latinos. Global trade and workforces are everything for us. Orange County is roughly one percent of the U.S. population, but it has three percent of Fortune 500 companies. Every time there is a conflation of the publishing and multimedia industries, power shifts slightly to California from New York, because the future will favor multimedia over mere books."

Later, back at Reiff's office, I leafed through more than a hundred editions of the Business Journal and found stories about this group of Iranians or that group of Taiwanese or Pakistanis or Mexicans from Sonora buying this or that technology company. Ethnic Indians and Chinese predominated. Seeing Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Mexican faces in an Orange County computer factory owned by a Pakistani and two Chinese some years ago, Polish journalist Ryzsard Kapuscinski noted that the culture of the new workforce here "Hispanic-Catholic family values and Asian-Confucian group loyalty," with hiring done through family networks....

"Will this place fight for its country? Are these people loyal to anything except themselves?" I asked.

"Loyalty is a problem," Reiff said. "Only about half the baseball fans in Orange County root for the California Angels [whose stadium is in Anaheim, a county municipality]. I root for the Chicago White Sox. So many people here are from somewhere else, whether from the U.S. or the world. People came here to make money. In the future, patriotism will be more purely and transparently economic. Perhaps patriotism will survive in the form of prestige, if America remains the world economic leader."

Rather than citizens, the inhabitants of these prosperous pods are, in truth, resident expatriates, even if they were born in America, with their foreign cuisines, eclectic tastes, exposure to foreign languages, and friends throughout the world.
SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 99-101

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