July 27, 2003

Immigrants will overcome with entrepreneurial flair

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How long will it be before Ireland’s rich-list contains names such as Abramovich or Chang?

Maybe one generation or possibly two generations; it will definitely happen. Immigrants will move swiftly up the social ladder because they work harder than we do.

The only people on the streets in Dublin at 5.30am are sober Chinese or Eastern European workers and drunk Irish partyers. Immigrants are taking two or three jobs, doing the work that we won’t do and living in cramped conditions to save money. This is a pattern repeated all over the world where immigrants take their chances and progress rapidly.

It is quite noticeable here in Ireland that many of us spend an inordinate amount of time complaining. In contrast, immigrants love it here. They can work as hard as they want, save if they wish and live largely unmolested.

They generally get on with their lives in a way they could not back home, leading to a virtuous cycle of hard work and thrift. In time, a sophisticated immigrant network develops and advice about jobs, flats and so on is exchanged.

Certain immigrant cultures, such as the Chinese and Indians, are “hard wired” for material success, while the Russians, Poles and Ukrainians also appear to have settled well here.Their children will have a sense of hunger and drive that will mark them out from their “pure” Irish classmates.

Don’t be surprised if the next big talking point on Joe Duffy will move from immigrants “taking our jobs” to immigrants “getting better Leaving Cert results”.

Eventually, an enormously rich immigrant will emerge who will seek not just money but power – political power. He will use his considerable wealth to buy influence and it is highly probable that this drive and ambition will lead him to push his son or daughter into the political limelight.

It is likely that, by 2025, the major titan on the Irish political scene will be of immigrant stock. The experiences of our own Kennedy clan – and particularly the colourful life of Joe Kennedy senior – may be a blueprint for what could happen here.

Joe’s father, PJ Kennedy,was a publican who used his bar as a launching pad for a political career, initially as head of the Boston vintners association. In 1885, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives on the back of strong support from the drink lobby that was worried about the temperance movement (Michael McDowell look out).

PJ skilfully used his political power to enrich himself and advance the career of his son Joseph P Kennedy.The son showed an early flair for speculation and in his twenties specialised in taking over defaulted home mortgages. He would then paint the houses and resell them at far higher prices. By the time the company was dissolved three years later, Joe’s $1,000 investment had grown to $75,000.

After WWI he gained respectability and joined a “reputable” investment bank in Boston whereupon he remarked to a friend, “it’s so easy to make money in the market we’d better get in before they pass a law against it”. It was easy because Kennedy had inside knowledge concerning the financial state of public companies. Although he made stacks here, he made his real money during prohibition – ironically the very puritanical threat that catapulted his father into politics in the first place.

He formed alliances with crime bosses in major markets in Boston, NewYork, Chicago and New Orleans. These would come in handy years later when his son was running for national office.

Among his mob associates was Frank Costello, former boss of the Luciano crime family, who bragged, “I helped Joe Kennedy get rich.” Sam Giancana,who would later figure prominently in Jack’s presidency, called Joe “one of the biggest crooks who ever lived”.

Kennedy bought booze from overseas distillers and supplied it to organised crime syndicates that picked up the booze at prearranged drop points along the coast. Frank Costello would later confirm that Joe had approached him for help in smuggling drink.

Kennedy dropped the booze at Rum Row – a point where police were paid to look the other way – and Costello and other mobsters would then take over. They distributed the drink, fixed the prices, established quotas and paid off the law and politicians.

They enforced their own law with machine guns, usually calling on experts who carried out bloody hits on contract, much in the same way as the drugs trade flourishes in Ireland these days.

Kennedy, of course, remained clean and used his smuggling money to speculate on the roaring stock market and then, just before the market crash, he had his apocryphal meeting with the shoeshine boy on Wall Street in 1929. When the shoeshine boy started giving Kennedy stock advice while cleaning the maestro’s spats, Kennedy knew the markets had peaked and sold everything – two weeks before the crash. He continued to make money on the declining market by selling short.

After a brief career as (amazingly) the first head of the SEC and an infamous stint as US ambassador to Britain, Kennedy turned his enormous wealth to the purpose of getting his son elected and the rest is history.

The Kennedy story, although remarkable, is not unique in that immigrants do, in general, move up quickly. Why? What made us happy to take three jobs in New York? Maybe it is because when you are away you have no family to fall back on. You have to work. Maybe it is because the whole purpose of being in New York is to work, make a few quid and see the place.

Is it bitterness? The extraordinary drive to “make it” to prove to the folks back home that you can do it. One thing is certain: emigration is a Darwinian process that self selects the brightest, most enthusiastic of any tribe and as a result is always beneficial to the host country and almost always to the migrant.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of immigration is the alliances the immigrant makes in the host country.Typically, the immigrant does not meet with the established middle ground, the professions, the civil service, the commentariat, the mainstream trade union movement or the like.

The immigrant meets the entrepreneur in an unholy alliance of outsiders. This is the most fascinating marriage in modern society: the immigrant and the entrepreneur.The entrepreneur employs the immigrant under the table, sees the immigrant’s economic value and asks no questions. The immigrant sees the entrepreneurasthe antidotetothe bureaucrats with the forms and red tape. The entrepreneur is the immigrant’s lifeline and role model. Both are thrown together symbiotically.

Ironically,when both groups of outsiders become persuaded by respectability, they migrate towards politics. Typically, it is the sons and grandsons of the real immigrant, entrepreneurial mavericks that seek and attain respectability because they wrongly presume there is something vulgar about staying away from the mainstream.

So when we see a future Abramovich or Chang moving towards political office choosing, on a Monday night, the safety of Questions and Answers over the excitement of Profit and Loss, we’ll know that we’ve cracked the immigration dilemma.