America still the land of the fresh start

We found ourselves sitting next to each other on a flight from Dubai to Mumbai in October 2001, about a month after the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks.

We found ourselves sitting next to each other on a flight from Dubai to Mumbai in October 2001, about a month after the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks.

We found ourselves sitting next to each other on a flight from Dubai to Mumbai in October 2001, about a month after the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks.

I was heading back to Australia after a failed, but interesting attempt to link up with the anti-Taliban forces of the Herati warlord Ismael Khan from Iran.

Zulfikar Jaffer was going to India to order stocks of components for Maruti-Suzuki cars and four-wheel-drives he sold through his dealership in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where his family had been settled from the subcontinent since his grandfather's time.

But the thing he talked about was that he and his family had just got their visas to emigrate to the US, and were preparing to pack up and leave. They were heading for Tampa, Florida, where several other families they knew were also settling and opening a local mosque for their little community.

Tampa, Florida. At that time it was in the news chiefly as the headquarters of the US military's central command, directing the war on terrorism, and just launched by President George Bush with a focus north of the Arabian Sea across which we were flying. I wondered what kind of welcome a bunch of Muslims from East Africa would get, moving in and opening a mosque in Tampa, Florida.

Yet the non-news of the past decade has been that America hasn't closed its doors on legal immigration since the Twin Towers shock, though there has been a crackdown on illegal labour movements into the south-west. People like the Jaffer family are still arriving and America still naturalises more than 1 million new citizens every year.

This is one reason why the idea of American decline that grips a surprising number of Australians is mistaken, or at least highly premature. Add this large migrant intake to a much higher fertility rate than almost any other Western country (just under the net replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman) and you have a country that is growing strongly, at least in numbers.

There are about 313 million Americans. By the middle of the century there will be between 420 million and 439 million according to recent official projections.

Moreover, the high birth rate and relative youth of immigrants will help keep America comparatively young. It is already younger than Western Europe and Japan, and will remain so in 2050 even with 27 per cent of people 60 or more, according to a United Nations study.

By then 38 per cent of Germans, 33 per cent of the French, 30 per cent of Chinese, 42 per cent of Japanese, 35 per cent of Singaporeans, and 33 per cent of South Koreans will be over 60. India will have the world's biggest population, more than 1.5 billion, and still be relatively young with almost 21 per cent in the 60-plus bracket, despite a steady ageing from the present proportion of only 7.6 per cent over 60.

Australia will be close to the Americans, with 28 per cent over 60, as long as it sticks with its large immigration intake. Will it be the same in America? My late journalist colleague Robert Haupt advised it was best to regard Americans as ''Germans who speak English'', implying an earnestness that needs cautious approach. During the coming decades it will be more like ''Spaniards who speak English'' as the present non-Hispanic white majority falls below half the population.

But it's unlikely that national characteristics will change greatly. America is a nation that sooner or later veers back to its founding principles. It has dreadful wobbles sometimes, like the McCarthyism of the 1950s or the trashing of legalities and fiscal responsibility under Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney.

But if you show Americans a lack of equality and opportunity - for blacks, women, gays or whomever - sooner or later they work to redress it.

That's one part of the inclusiveness and renewal that is part of American strength. The other is the climate of innovation.

Three decades ago, Ezra Vogel hit the zeitgeist with his book Japan as Number One. We heard how Japanese mastery of technology and management was going to create a new ''superstate'' [as coined by the Hudson Institute futurologist Herman Kahn). America was producing parasitic lawyers, while Japan was churning out engineers.

Then Steve Jobs returned from his spell as a dharma bum in India, and started his marvellous 35-year run of Apple computers and gadgets that is only ending now with his illness. Recently Apple has pipped Exxon as the world's most highly valued company by sharemarket value.

And in a knowledge economy where creative software is the product, lawyers are important to protect ownership.

To be sure, there are some less wonderful things about Americans. Gun ownership is as important to them as it is to Pashtuns. About 40 per cent believe in Biblical creation, though that's down from 47 per cent a decade ago. A distressing number think cutting taxes is the way to reduce government debt.

A lot of Americans are now doing it very tough, with unemployment over 9 per cent, foreclosures on many homes, and those in work getting by with ''McJobs'' or de-unionised casual rates. But failure is put to rest - not propped up as in Europe and Japan. America is still the land of the fresh start.

This week I searched the internet phone directories, and rang Zulfikar Jaffer in Florida. He didn't remember me and was wary of a stranger who said he was from Australia ringing late in his evening.

But he said the family's migration had worked out well.

''People are wonderful, everything is okay,'' Jaffer said. ''My children have grown up here now so they're happy.

''This is a beautiful country, everyone wants to come here.''

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