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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Intolerance and Stagnation

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Earlier this year, I attended a breakfast hosted by the Lord Mayor of London John Stuttard, at which he kept quoting statistics on the number of foreigners working in London's financial district and the variety of countries they represent. I doubt that the discovery last month of car bombs on London streets will diminish his delight at the multicultural character of the British capital.

Throughout history, the hallmark of any dominant society has been its international centers. Rome was probably the first global city during its heyday. Victorian London and 19th-century Paris were magnets for immigrants. New York was a famous melting pot in the first half of the 20th century, and today, when it is once again thriving, half of its population is foreign-born. Similarly, London's current revival, after years of post-WWII blight, has gone hand in hand with its internationalization.

This is because immigrants represent the most energetic and ambitious part of society, and advanced civilizations prosper when they utilize their energies and ambitions. Conversely, insular societies that ban foreigners or hamper their advancement and integration tend to lag behind.

This holds true for entire historical epochs. In the Middle Ages, geographical movement was restricted while local affiliation became paramount. Not surprisingly, technological and commercial stagnation endured for centuries.

Since the early modern period and until the middle of last century, attitude toward Jews has served as a litmus test. It seems that whenever a nation began persecuting its Jewish population, it inevitably lost its global standing and was either defeated in war or simply collapsed. Examples include: imperial Spain, tsarist Russia, Hitler's Germany and, most recently, the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, extending a welcome to the Jews coincided with the rise of the Netherlands, Britain and many German city-states.

In medieval Europe, Jews were early promoters of international commerce and nascent globalization. Being a widely scattered diaspora, they could establish business ties among their co-religionists everywhere. Tolerating Jews meant opening up to the outside world, while persecuting them signified the closing of the national mind, which led to eventual decline and defeat.

The litmus test endures, but in addition to Jews, it now covers attitudes toward immigrants from less-developed countries and the gay community.

In a global world, the willingness to welcome foreigners and the ability to assimilate them is particularly important. The success of the U.S. economy since 1980 closely parallels the renewed inflow of immigrants. My favorite statistic is the percentage of the foreign-born population in the U.S. After declining to an all-time low of 5 percent in 1970, it has now risen above 12 percent -- the highest in 80 years. Americans born in India, China, Russia and elsewhere are the reason the U.S. economy benefits so much from globalization.

Attitude toward gays, meanwhile, is a measure of tolerance in society. Modern societies succeed when they allow different groups to coexist peacefully. Many decayed American cities now try to attract gay communities because their presence often sparks revitalization. Moral relativism -- defined as refusal to set standards for truth, morality and behavior -- is the engine of capitalist progress.

Current anti-immigrant legislation and attempts at gay-bashing in the U.S. may undermine its ability to lead in the modern world. This is also why homogeneous, xenophobic and homophobic China is unlikely to emerge as a global leader -- and why Japan never did so in the 1980s.

The same goes for Russia. Since the 1998 financial crisis and the rise in oil prices, Russia not only has taken a step away from democracy, but it has abandoned all attempts to become an advanced society. The rise of "Russia for Russians" xenophobia and the widening backlash against its gay community clearly signal where Russia is going.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.