x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

What if engineers could move as freely as strikers?

Branko Milanovic: Football provides us with a great example of globalisation, and the current World Cup could give us an idea of how a globalised labour force in all professions could work.

Football's free-wheeling labour exchange rules could make a perfect model for globalising the world's labour force.
Football's free-wheeling labour exchange rules could make a perfect model for globalising the world's labour force.

For many of the billion spectators who watched the Fifa World Cup opening in Johannesburg, South Africa, the word "globalisation" may have come to mind. From advertisers to spectators, football embodies globalisation like no other sport. And for players, football embodies globalisation like no other profession.

The market for professional footballers is by far the most globalised labour market. A Nigerian or Brazilian soccer player can more easily get a job in Europe or Japan than a skilled surgeon or engineer. Out of some 2,600 professional players in the five top European leagues - England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France - almost 800 are expatriates. Today, many of the best clubs have no players at all from their "own" countries. The Inter Milan team had no Italian starters only a few weeks ago when winning Europe's most prestigious competition, the Champions League.

What if that similar global mobility of labour were to spill to other professions? If medical doctors could move with equal ease from Cameroon to Spain and Italy, as Samuel Eto'o, the Inter Milan striker did; or engineers could move from Ivory Coast to France and then England, as Chelsea's Didier Drogba did? Soccer could provide clues to what this new world of mobility, largely unhindered by national borders, might look like.

Globalisation of the world's most popular game is responsible for two developments: The first one cannot be easily quantified but most observers agree the quality of the game has improved. And global mobility of labour combined with a capitalist system, in which the richest clubs can buy the best players without salary caps or other limits, concentrates quality more than ever before. The gap between the top clubs and the rest has widened in key European leagues. Winners of the European Champions League are consistently from a narrowing circle of the top, richest clubs.

At the club level, globalisation combined with commercialisation produces two outcomes: better quality of the game, which is tantamount in economics to greater output; and greater concentration of winning clubs, which is tantamount to greater inequality. The question is, can greater output be preserved while lessening the effects of inequality? Yes, although not at the club level discussed so far.

Only at the national level - say, team US, team England - where different rules imposed by the Federation Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) apply. At the national level, expatriates cannot play for the countries where they live but must play for countries of origin. To some extent, this reverses the "leg drain" once every four years during the World Cup - akin to Cameroon doctors based in France returning from time to time to perform operations in Douala or Yaounde.

It would seem that this reversal should equalise the outcomes somewhat, particularly as players from small African leagues play in larger English or Spanish leagues, much as a doctor from the developing world returns with skills and connections acquired after an education at Stanford or Yale. And indeed, differences between national teams, most notably at World Cup games, have steadily decreased.

At the last three World Cups the average difference in goals per game between winning and losing teams has ranged between 1.2 and 1.3, as opposed to 1.7 some 30 years ago. International football suggests globalisation can be made sustainable and reduction in inequality is surely part of that sustainability. But for that, global rules must accompany globalisation, whereby losers get something for agreeing to play the game.

Translated into everyday language of economics, some brain drain may be reversed by imposing special short-term return duties on migrants. To have a real bite, the system would require policy co-ordination by most rich countries. Whatever its exact modalities, a more open-minded immigration policy should be combined with special duties for migrants, the biggest beneficiaries from freer movement of labour, from which their countries of origin would derive some benefit, too.

Branko Milanovic is a professor at the School of Policy, University of Maryland. His books include Income and Influence: Social Policy in Emerging Market Economies. * Yale Global