A Growing Trend of Leaving America

By some estimates 3 million citizens become expatriates a year, but most not for political reasons.

American voters at a polling station in Ajijic, Mexico. Expats also voted by fax and Internet.

American voters at a polling station in Ajijic, Mexico. Expats also voted by fax and Internet.

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After eight years with a professional dance troupe, Barcomi decided on another leap, this one into a new career as the founder and operator of what is now one of Berlin's most prominent coffee and baked goods stores. So successful did that venture prove that she later opened a deli under the Barcomi name. And between raising her children, she has written two respected cookbooks.

Barcomi's reflections on her expatriate life are nuanced: "I feel like the longer I live in Germany, the more I identify with being an American. It takes a while to realize how different we are from the Germans." But Barcomi also says that she has no intention of returning to the United States, even though she would never give up her passport. "I can't imagine living in the American rat race, even though I love Ameri-ca. I wouldn't leave here. I'm at the top of my game."

Like Sheren, Barcomi feels that her American attitudes and education, including her Girl Scout training, prepared her well for a successful life abroad. "I think perseverance is a distinctly American quality."

One big question is whether America is ultimately gaining or losing from this movement of bold, talented Americans into other countries. The answer is not simple. Wennersten cites what he estimates is a loss of about $30 billion in payroll, but he considers the outflow of expertise an even bigger potential drain. "It's not the average guys who are going," he says. "It's these 'crea-tives' who will be establishing the paradigm of the future."

Whether the relocation trend is heading toward a zero-sum outcome is something that you can't help pondering when you meet young American expatriates in Panama. If what they bring here in terms of skills, knowledge, and energy is Panama's gain, is America necessarily a loser?

Not if you look at what Jon Hurst is doing. Before starting the New York Bagel Café in the Cangrejo ("Crab") neighborhood of Panama City, the 38-year-old Arkansas native had spent a good part of his life helping others, from working with disabled adults in California to stints in the Peace Corps and the Crisis Corps in Central America. In fact, he sees the business he launched in 2006 as an extension of what he had recently been doing for an organization that focused on sustainable development in Panama and nearby countries. "One of the reasons I opened this place is to create a sustainable business that would help the local community," says Hurst.

Coupling hard work with idealism, Hurst has built a store that has become a hub in this oldish, artsy quarter. His eight Panamanian employees are well paid and are learning about all aspects of the food business. The free WiFi and all-you-can-drink coffee, in addition to bagels and sandwiches, draw a lively mix of customers who conduct business, check their E-mail, or simply meet with friends. And while there are great challenges to life in Panama City, from appalling traffic to difficulty in getting equipment repairs, Hurst finds the Panamanians friendly and the local conditions (particularly the free trade zone and a modest regulatory regime) especially hospitable to small business. The Panamanian government encourages foreign entrepreneurs by giving microinvestor visas to those who put up at least $50,000 and employ at least three Panamanians. "I couldn't have opened this type of business in the States," says Hurst, who makes the same point that Landau does: "Here there's no one competing against me."

It may not be much of a stretch to say that today one of America's strongest exports is its skilled, energetic, and often idealistic relocators. If America's information-driven economy is the engine of globalization, it is fitting that Americans are working in those parts of the world that are being transformed by the process. They make up an entrepreneurial "peace corps"—establishing businesses, employing, instructing, setting examples, and often currying goodwill. It is a cliché, but still largely true, that many foreigners say that they distrust America but like Americans. These relocators have something to do with this.