Friday, December 24, 2004

Thinking of moving to another country?

Are you a blue state American who has the blues? Think Bush is Hitler, and want to burn your American passport ASAP to escape the New American Police State? Here's a few countries for you to think about: Panama, Costa Rica, and Canada.

Some preliminary criteria

I evaluated countries via some fairly simple criteria:
  1. Accessibility: A country had to be accessible via direct flights from the United States. This ruled out countries like, say, Guyana. Past that point, the amount of time and airfare to the country were ruled in. The lower the cost, the better the score. Australia, with a 16 hour flight and $2K airfare to get there, thus scored much lower than Costa Rica, which has direct flights for around $500.
  2. Health care: The country has to have world class health care facilities. Bonus points if there is low-cost health insurance available.
  3. Immigration policies: has to be relatively easy for Americans to enter the country and, for a price, get permenant residency.
  4. Property rights of foreigners: Foreigners can easily buy properties in the country, and the government doesn't take those properties away except via rule of law for transgressions against reasonable laws.
  5. Business friendliness: It must be relatively easy to start a business in the country. Even Blue Staters appreciate this one, since it allows them to build their dream rain forest bed'n'breakfast for fellow Blue Staters to come to and meditate upon natures' beauty while stroking their crystals.
  6. Internet infrastructure: Internet access must be available and inexpensive. Bonus points if there is sufficient internet bandwidth coming to the country in order to run hosting companies and such.
  7. Banking system: The banks must be solvent and have sufficient capital to give loans for business expansion if so needed. This rules out, e.g., Argentina, whose banks are insolvent.
  8. Stable currency: Inflation should be reasonable (e.g. not 100%+) so that you aren't forced to maintain your liquidity outside of the country in order to keep it from evaporating. It should be easy to convert between American dollars and the local currency. (Panama gets 100% score here, since it is totally dollarized).
  9. Living expenses: It should not be expensive to live there. This rules out most of the Carribean islands even if the property rights thing didn't.
  10. Educational system: countries where all citizens have a decent education tend to work better than those where a large percentage of the population is illiterate and ignorant. Bonus points for a world-class higher education system.
  11. Corruption: Corruption is rust in the workings of government, and interferes with government working smoothly and correctly (i.e., in a way that interferes least with the practice of business). Countries which are totally corrupt (like, say, Belize) got lower scores than countries whose government is so squeaky clean you could wipe your eyeglasses on it (e.g., Canada).
  12. Climate: this is subjective. Let us just say that I hate snow, and cold drizzling rain doesn't exactly excite me either. (Canada gets a 0% on this one).
  13. Beaches: Should have good beaches. (Canada gets a 0% on this one too).
  14. Language barriers: Since Blue State Americans are as ignorant as other Americans when it comes to foreign languages, English-speaking countries get a 100% score on this one. It is assumed that any other language will need to be learned. Spanish is probably the easiest language in the world to learn. Other Romance (Latin-derived) languages, i.e., Portugueues, French, and Italian, are about the same difficulty to learn. Then come the Germanic languages. Anything else is quite difficult for the typical American to learn, since other languages use a different alphabet than we're accustomed to and have a grammar and syntax little resembling the Latin and Germanic related grammar that we're accustomed to.
With that out of the way, let's look at a few countries:


Let's start with the top of the list: Canada. If you're an American, Canada will be familiar to you. It's like America, except colder, and cleaner, and government actually works there for the most part aside from the usual incompetence such as, say, letting the British Government sell you four rusty old submarines as "Good as new! Driven only by a little old lady to Faslane Scotland every Sunday!". You can cross into Canada with no big muss or fuss -- just flash your U.S. passport, and you're in. American dollars are easy to convert into Canuck dollars. And, get this -- people are actually polite there! And have more freedoms enshrined in their Constitution than even the Americans do!

So what's the downside? Well, their version of our INS is just as incompetent as our version of the INS, with visa paperwork often getting lost. If you want a permenant residency visa (the only kind that eventually qualifies you for Canadian citizenship) rather than rely on the year-to-year NAFTA visa (which is only available if you have an actual job in Canada in one of the enumerated professions), everything is handled by one little old man in Buffalo, New York, whose gout ails him badly and whose hands shake so badly that the files just get all mixed up and, oops, sorry, you have to re-submit this paperwork you submitted a year ago, because it somehow got lost (me bad!). Furthermore, they only want you if you're in one of the enumerated NAFTA professions and have at least three years of experience. Finally, living in Canada is expensive and the pay is low and the work is usually boring compared to the equivalent work in the United States. There's a reason why so many Canadians come to the United States to work -- they can send home their dollars, and then when they go home, live like a king instead of like, well, a Canadian. Still, it is the only civilized nation in the Americas, and for those of you who appreciate civilization, is "the" place to go. Just be aware that you'll need $10K in liquid funds (more if you have a family) plus the 3 years of experience plus work in one of the "desired" NAFTA professions in order to get in.

Costa Rica

This little country, pretty much the Canada of Central America, has been overrun by Blue Staters, all of whom are fervently stroking their crystals while holding the lotus position meditating upon their auras. Costa Rica is the Starbucks of Central America. Costa Ricans are nice, polite people, who dislike conflict (they have no military even), and who are generally well educated but who are becoming, well, a bit bemused and perhaps alarmed about all these gringos pouring into their country.

Until recently you could go into Costa Rica on a 90 day tourist visa (stamped on your passport when you got off the plane in San Jose' CR) with a few thousand bucks in your pocket, buy a stretch of land on some lonely beach somewhere for $500 or so, start a bed'n'breakfast or Internet cafe', post an advertisement in a U.S. travel magazine, and presto, you were in business, with hoards of fellow blue staters pouring in to stroke their crystals while holding the lotus position meditating upon their auras (well, except the Californians, who go to Costa Rica to surf, surf, surf -- some surfers claim that some of the better Costa Rican beaches are almost as good as Hawaii, and it's a helluva lot cheaper). Nobody ever checked your visa. Well, the Costa Ricans are getting a bit tired of all these "OHHHM"'ing gringos cluttering up their countryside, and are cracking down. They've started setting up passport checkpoints at major chokepoints (there's really only two main roads in the whole country that all traffic has to go through) and shipping some of these gringos home, at which point bye-bye, you won't be allowed back in for 10 years, and that bed'n'breakfast? Oh, it got confiscated by the government and sold to someone else in order to pay for your ticket home.

Don't like it? Don't bother complaining about it. Costa Ricans are polite people, but the notion of "freedom of speech" is not a notion that's in the Costa Rican constitutution. Indeed, until recently it was a crime to criticize government officials, though the law was rarely used because, well, that would have been impolite.

On the upside, it does have good medical care with state-of-the-art facilities (well, on the private side -- the public health system is, as usual for state-run healthcare systems, mediocre at best), and health insurance for using those state-of-the-art facilities (via the state health insurance monopoly) is cheap, unlike in the United States where if you're in your 50's, forget about getting health insurance for anything that you can afford. Crime is rare in Costa Rica, other than the typical pick-pocketing and petty theft that you'll find in pretty much any country outside the United States and Canada -- violent crime is very rare, because Costa Ricans tend to be rather apalled by the whole notion of violence (the same reason why they don't have a military). And it is, in general, a safe and reasonably well run country (well, reasonably well run for Latin American countries, i.e., it runs on Costa Rican time, not American time, and the government bureaucracy can be stifling).

Still, the welcome mat has mostly been pulled out from under you Blue Staters. The message from Costa Rica is clear: Come with cash -- big honkin' piles of cash, unless you're retired on Social Security -- or don't come at all.


Finally, Panama. Panama's claim to fame in the past has been drug smuggling and corruption and money laundering and stuff like that. Panama was the place to go if you were on the lam and had some money to hide in their banks. It's still that way to a certain extent -- deposit $200K in the Bank of Panama, and you're in. After 3 years you can apply for Panamanian citizenship, which, amongst other things, will allow you to vote for one or the other of the 7 ruling families that run the country like some outpost of the Mafia, as well as own a retail business (non-citizens are not allowed to own retail businesses). But the Panamanians have cleaned up their act since the Marines hauled Manuel "Nose Candy" Noriega off to jail. Why, they even require the police chief of your last legal residence to assure them that you're not a criminal before they issue you your residency visa! (And, again, as in Costa Rica, don't bother complaining about it -- not only is freedom of speech NOT in their Constitution, but they'll put you in JAIL for criticizing government officials).

Most Blue Staters probably will not be happy in Panama. Panamanians worship the almighty dollar -- indeed, that is their official currency, the U.S. dollar(*), due to the fact that most of the funding for their government comes from fees on ships going through the Panama Canal (which are assessed in dollars, because otherwise it'd be madness figuring out how to repatriate Chinese wuan or whatever). Panamanians blithely are turning their southern jungle into clearcut, and have erected shanty towns on top of their most historic sites, happily ripping stones off of 500-year-old walls in order to use as the foundation for their new hovel.

So why would you want to live in Panama? Well, that's simple: the Canal. Everything in Panama revolves around the Canal. Panama is the center of distribution for goods coming from Taiwan and China and going to the Gulf or Atlantic Coast nations of South/Central America. Panama is in the center of most of the Internet connectivity for South and Central America, and has heavy duty fiber to the rest of the world if you want to set up an offshore web hosting company. Even though their banking privacy laws aren't as money-laundering-friendly as they used to be, they still will give the Feds a hearty "F-U" if the Feds come snooping to see how much money is in your bank accounts so that they can repatriate some of it (note that you still must file IRS tax returns even if you live overseas). With the exception of their labor laws (which make it very expensive to fire workers, and almost impossible to bring in foreign talent), Panama is a very business-friendly environment, where you can set up in one of the free trade zones and happily assemble computers for export to both Latin America and the U.S. for less money even than the Taiwanese can manage (since your labor will be cheaper than Taiwan's, and there's no tariffs in the free trade zones). Location, location, location -- without its location, Panama would be just another banana republic.

Unlike in Costa Rica (where Spanish is pretty much required to do anything), you can get along in the Canal Zone and Panama City with zero Spanish. Because of the international banking, nearly all service employees know English, and little schools dedicated to teaching the natives English are found and advertise heavily everywhere. However, learning Spanish definitely improves the experience.

The two Central American countries mentioned above were mentioned primarily because you're unlikely to turn into a casualty and unlikely to have your business or properly confiscated from you by corrupt government officials, and you're unlikely to be kidnapped or be a victim of violent crime in these countries (the exception is in the Darien province of Panama, where it meets Columbia, where the Columbian civil war occasionally spills across the border). If you're interested in learning more, there are Spanish language immersion courses in both Panama and Costa Rica which are worthwhile. Spend a couple of weeks -- your mornings learning Spanish, your afternoons wandering around the countryside practicing it -- and you get a little feel for the country. Note that while Costa Rica has a reputation for clean government, Panama has the exact opposite reputation. In reality the truth in both countries is somewhere inbetween.

Other countries

What about other Latin American countries? Well, usually they're either absolutely corrupt (more than the usual amount of corruption, I mean so corrupt that they'll take your property away from you on the least pretext), horribly poor (neither Costa Rica nor Panama is wealthy, but they're a lot better off than their neighbors), have a lot of violence, don't allow Americans to buy property or run businesses in their countries, or don't like Americans very much. Columbia, for example, is the kidnap capital of the world. Mexico is corrupt as a $3 bill. Brazil hates Americans with a passion and getting a visa is a (deliberately) painful process. Argentina and Uruguay are undergoing economic turmoil and are a long ways away. The Carribean islands generally make it hard for Americans to buy property there, and besides are very expensive. Etc. etc. etc.

Chile: A possibility, but most blue staters wouldn't be happy there because Pinochet privatized everything and blue staters hate that kind of thing. Poor people are literally dying on the streets for lack of adequate food, water, and health care, while the rich wine and dine in their plush gated communities, a situation which makes Republican's little soldiers rise in salute but which would disgust blue staters. Chile is business-friendly in a way that the Bush family understands as "business friendly" (i.e., the government makes sure that the friends and relatives of whoever is in power gets all the business), but has a geographical problem: it is hard to get there from here, wherever "here" is. Chile is a *LONG* ways away from any of the major markets of the world (with the exception of Mercasur, but Chile and Argentina hate each other so that's not a big plus), and is a 12 hour $1K flight away from the United States.

Australia, New Zealand: Unless you have lots of $$$, forget it. It costs $2K and an 18 hour flight just to get there.

Asian countries? Forget it. They are a bunch of racist bigots, fierce on that whole "racial purity" nonsense. If you're a "gaijan" in Japan, for example, you will always be a second-class citizen at best.

Europe: Forget it. They don't want you. Seriously.

Africa: Are you SUICIDAL?!

As for my recommendation? Blue staters need to just stay home. If they want their own nation, they need to stick to their guns and do it. Overrunning someone else's nation just because you don't have the guts to fix your own is no way to handle things.

- Badtux the American Penguin

(*)Panamanian currency *is* US currency, under the rather hilarious explanation that the Panamanian Balboa just *happens* to very strongly resemble the US dollar, and just *happens* to be minted for them by the US mint under contract. Panamanian bills are U.S. bills straight from the U.S. Mint with no changes, but Panamanian coinage actually is different than US, having pictures of Balboa instead of Lincoln stamped on the coins, but by an amazing coincidence these coins are the exact same size, value, and weight as US coins and vending machines in either country will accept either coinage.

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