Vanishing Volk


As readers of this journal may recall, I have argued that immigration has historically been a great net benefit to this country, and continues to be. Two recent articles give me occasion to reflect upon this topic anew.

The first is a piece from the Telegraph of London. It reports that Germany’s birth rate has now dropped to the lowest level in the world, and its workforce will shrink even faster than Japan’s in a few years. Germany’s rate averaged 8.2 births per 1,000 population (or about 1.38 births per woman on average) over the years 2008 to 2013, even lower than that of demographically depressing Japan (with its 8.4 births per 1,000, or an average of 1.41 children per woman) over the same period.

At this rate, Germany’s population will drop from its present 81 million down to 67 million in 45 years. This decline is in spite of the large influx of migrant (i.e., temporary) workers. The prospect of such a heavy drop in population — nearly 20% — has led some small towns in Brandenburg, Pomerania and Saxony to begin formulating plans for eventual closure.

Germany and Japan are likely to drop almost 20% in per capita GDP by 2060, compared to about 10% in Britain and the US.

The report notes that Britain and France are both doing better demographically. Both countries averaged 12.5 births per 1,000 population (or an average 2.01 children per woman), again over the same period. (The US has dropped to an average of 1.88 children per woman, which is below replacement rate. We continue to grow in population only because of our relatively welcoming immigration policy.)

In the crucial working age group (20–65), the percentage of Germany’s population will drop from the current 61% down to 54% by 2030. At that point, there will be only 1.1 workers per retiree, which will likely make the pension system insolvent.

The economic and geopolitical impact of such shrinkages will be profound, to say the least.

Economically, from the young come the gales of creative destruction that cause economic progress. As the author of the piece out it, “While aging societies can enjoy a rise in per capita income for a while, they tend to do so by living off past productivity and intellectual capital. This reserve is exhausted over time. It becomes progressively harder for older countries to remain at the technology frontier.” From the young come also the gales of new purchases — of homes, for growing families, of cars, of diapers, of the newest electronic devices…

This shows up in GDP per capita. Germany (and Japan) are likely to drop almost 20% by 2060, compared to about 10% in Britain and the US. In fact, the IMF calculates that both Britain and France will overtake Germany in total GDP by 2040.

Geopolitically, this means that Germany and Japan will lose their regional dominance.

The cause of all this is compound, that is, has more than one contributory factor. The first factor is one common to all developed nations, including ours: a baby boom followed by a baby bust. After WWII, Canada, Japan, the US, and Western Europe all saw rapid explosions in population, as soldiers returned and started families. But the “baby boomers” had lower rates of childbirth, and their children have lower rates of childbirth. Birth-dearth squared, so to say.

As I mentioned earlier, all developed nations are facing this demographic challenge. But there is a second factor at play, one that I will call “Volkische communitarianism,” folkish communitarianism. This term refers to statist politico-economics wedded to ethnic or racial tribalism. This, I would suggest, is the real problem Germany and Japan face, one that does not afflict — at least to the same degree — Britain, France, Canada, or the US. The fact that Germany and Japan identify national identity in terms of ethnicity, shared blood, rather than shared culture and norms means that while Britain, France, Canada and the US have been able to assimilate immigrants more or less successfully (the Muslims in France and Britain rather more slowly than our immigrants), the Germans and Japanese find that very hard. Their immigrants (and Germany has a fair number of them — 800,000 migrants came in last year) have historically tended to remain apart from the rest of the community.

But another report suggests that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to change the national mentality. In a recent talk at a conference on Germany’s current quality of life, she urged her fellow Germans to welcome the diversity of the new migrants, saying Germany is a “country of immigration.” She added, “There is something enriching if someone wants to come to us.” She added that these recent migrants need to feel at home.

At that point, there will be only 1.1 workers per retiree, which will likely make the pension system insolvent.

She is wrestling with some real problems. Past waves of migrant workers — such as the Turkish workers who came years ago — have faced difficulty in getting citizenship. Whether she will succeed in persuading her fellow citizens remains to be seen, of course. The anti-immigrant party Alternative für Deutschland party has been growing lately, as the number of immigrants has grown.

But one has to admire her attempt to deal with the issues, especially given Germany’s not too distant past of tribalist politics.

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Is He Really She?


So Bruce Jenner has “always felt like a woman” inside, and ESPN is giving him their “Courage” award for coming out in such a public way. I know you’ve seen his photograph on the cover of Vanity Fair, so fetching with his newly-carved facial structure, his come-hither hair extensions, his pumped-up breasts, and his manly hands and man-parts discreetly hidden behind his back and under his crotch.

“I’ve always felt like a woman.” What exactly does that mean? Does he mean “I know what it feels like to nurture a child and cook a meal and clean a house and bat my eyelashes at a man”? If so — shame on him. That is not what it means to be a woman. And shame on all the pundits and journalists who are falling all over themselves to praise him for thinking that’s what it means, or for letting him get away with making that statement without challenging him to explain what it means.

So Bruce Jenner is the “ideal proportion” for a woman, because he has a man’s skeleton, and thus narrow hips?

Did Jenner feel like a woman in the 1960s when he was training on the boys’ well-funded high school track team, while the girls spent most of their time dressing and showering for P.E. with perhaps 20 minutes spent on the field? Did he feel like a woman during his Olympic glory days, when men’s track and field events were shown during prime time, and women’s track and field events were mentioned in the middle of the sports page somewhere? Did he spend 35 years finding blood in his underwear once a month, and dealing with all the trauma and embarrassment that goes with that? Does he know how it feels to realize your tampon is leaking and you’re sitting down and there is no way to escape without people watching you walk out of the room? How dare he say he knows how it feels to be a woman, after spending 65 years as a man.

If he means, “I know what it feels like to want to put on a dress and heels and makeup” — well, fine. You don’t have to be a woman to do that. Nor do I have to be a man to put on a tuxedo or a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Clothes do not make the man — or the woman. Moreover, I resent Jessica Diehl, who clothed Jenner for the Vanity Fair photo shoot, gushing, “Caitlyn’s proportions are fashion proportions, really. She’s tall, slim, narrow hipped: kind of ideal to dress” (New York Times, June 4, 2015). So Bruce Jenner is the “ideal proportion” for a woman, because he has a man’s skeleton, and thus narrow hips? My wide hips are perfectly proportioned for a real woman. I earned my hips through eight pregnancies, five births, and three miscarriages. Go through that, Bruce Jenner, and then tell me you know how it feels to be a woman. Even my husband doesn’t know how it felt to lose those three babies. Not from a woman’s perspective.

And let’s talk about Jenner’s supposed transformation. He surgically shaped his facial structure, pumped up his breasts with silicone and hormone therapy, and layered on a pound of makeup. But he kept his penis. What kind of woman has a penis? How does Jenner’s lack of commitment and confidence in his choice qualify him for a Courage award?

Bruce Jenner is welcome to mutilate his body any way he wants to, but please don’t make him a role model, and please don’t call him a woman. He can change his face, change his name, and wear all the dresses he wants. He can call himself transgendered. He can change his name to Caitlyn. But he can’t get rid of that Y chromosome. And he will never know what it feels like to be a woman.

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Decorating the Dead


My grandmother and her friends used to call Memorial Day by its old name, Decoration Day. People went out to the cemeteries to “decorate” the graves. As a young man, I thought, “What hypocrisy! Millions of people are slaughtered in wars, and they are ‘remembered’ by people who ‘decorate’ their graves!”

The thought still seems unavoidable, especially when you see the Memorial Day ceremonies at a military cemetery. Here are thousands of identical white tombstones, “memorializing” individual men and women who are, for the most part, remembered by no one. And these are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of people slaughtered by wars and revolutions during the past two centuries — shot, drowned, blown apart, starved to death.

Nor is mass slaughter merely a feature of the modern world. The Iroquois wiped out the civilization of the Hurons, and tried to wipe out the Hurons themselves. They almost succeeded. Where are the tribes of the ancient European world? In many cases, only their names remain to be “memorialized,” by the rare scholar who knows their names.

Yet I believe that the idea of “decoration” or “remembrance” can be more than hypocrisy, if we — like, perhaps, my grandmother and her friends — actually use it as a way of asserting the significance of individual human lives. Though lost to specific memory, the lives of those people whose graves we see beyond the cemetery fence were real and important. If in decorating a tomb we actually do remember that, and at the same time remember the horrors that inevitably occur when the significance of the individual is forgotten, we may do well.

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Mister Huggins Goes to Washington


I am the mother of a black cat. Though it may be a little silly, I suppose it’s still politically correct for me to call myself Mister Huggins’ mother. I’ve been informed, by animal rights activist friends, that considering myself his owner is now frowned upon. Though anybody who’s ever lived with a cat would tell you that Mister Huggins actually owns me.

Ten years ago I started feeding a little stray tuxedo female, and was overjoyed that in my care she went from being skinny and woebegone to happily chubby. I thought she was too young to bear a litter, as she was still practically a kitten herself. But I came home from work one sizzling September afternoon to find her sitting on my patio, looking totally astonished and surrounded by four tiny furballs.

Kittens having kittens! Sounds like a social problem. It is undoubtedly yet another progressive cause waiting to be born.

I took the lot of them in from the heat. Relieved of her maternal burden, as soon as the litter was weaned, the mother ran away. Believe it or not, my leftist pals bemoaned the capitalist callousness that had caused this tragedy and commended me on my sense of social responsibility. Actually, I’m pretty sure you can believe it.

Black cats, pit bulls, and dolphins can’t vote, although some dolphins are undoubtedly smart enough to do a better job of it than many humans.

The boy kitten who looked like his mother was immediately adopted by one of my MoveOn friends. She warned me that I’d better keep the other boy, because — being solid black — in the cruel world he would face a lifetime of discrimination. I’m not making that up either.

Hoping to spare him stigma, I gave him his very un-sinister name. Mister Huggins has grown up, like his sisters, to be a very civilized and affectionate cat. Altogether I have four cats and a dog, and we are a very happy blended family.

Another friend, battling on the front lines of the animal rights crusade, regularly sends me sad stories about the plight of dolphins, wild burros, pit bulls, bowl-confined goldfish and — of course — black cats. Nearly all the organizations from which these dirges originate want donations. And, of course, legislation is always urgently needed.

Must we fear that this craze will reach the manic proportions of many other progressive causes? I think we can rest assured that it won’t. Black cats, pit bulls, and dolphins can’t vote, although some dolphins are undoubtedly smart enough to do a better job of it than many humans.

Actually, perusing the pitiful offerings of the last nationwide election, I was tempted to run Mister Huggins as a candidate for Congress. Hollywood would surely immortalize him: Mister Huggins Goes to Washington!

I think he’d actually bring in some fresh ideas. But, alas, that’s only a pipe dream. Not only because he isn’t human, but because he’d surely buck all those big-government hucksters and become a libertarian. Nobody owns a cat. Mister Huggins has a mind of his own.

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Embodying Injustice


In our media-saturated culture, we tend to see the people in the news as embodiments of grand sociopolitical realities.Thus, for example, have the Baltimore police and Freddie Gray, Michael Slager and Walter Scott, and Darren Wilson and Michael Brown become figureheads for our pet causes. The big-government left tells us that the cops involved must be convicted and harshly punished, because otherwise there can be no recognition of police brutality or racism. The authoritarian right maintains that if, as in Wilson’s case, the officers are cleared of all charges, there is no problem with police brutality or racism. Then it is not the police themselves who are tried, in the minds of statists, but police brutality and racism.

But these men cannot be reduced to mere symbols. They don’t simply embody anything. They are (or were) individual human beings.

To turn police officers involved in suspects’ deaths into scapegoats — before they’ve been convicted of any crime — is barbaric. Such thinking predates civilization. It belongs to the Stone Age. As a society, we are not evolving, but devolving. We are taking a gigantic leap backwards.

What will become of our criminal justice system if people are no longer recognized as themselves? The mob may be content to do that to others, but would any of us want to be reduced to such a state ourselves? To be robbed of one’s individual identity is, indeed, to be dehumanized.

In the Michael Brown shooting, all available evidence suggests that Officer Wilson killed Brown in self-defense. That by no means negates the disturbing data that have come to light about the Ferguson police department. Far less does Wilson’s exoneration discount the problem of police brutality. The case in question says nothing about any fact except for the case in question. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.

The anger of the demonstrators has ample justification. In many parts of the country, the police do behave, increasingly, as if they are an occupying army and the people they are sworn to protect a conquered enemy. Nor do racial minorities always receive anything approaching fair treatment by law enforcement officers.

But a mob is inspired, not byreason, but by raw emotion. It demands a sacrificial animal.To appease its feelings, it wants the offending cops convicted — regardless of whether they are guilty or not. That the mob would almost certainly be satisfied with such an outcome demonstrates its inhumanity. In their willingness to dehumanize other individuals, those who take part in it dehumanize themselves.

A guilty verdict against the apprehendingofficers would not bring Michael Brown, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray back to life. Nor would a single incident of police brutality likely be prevented. Far from being converted from their folly, actual racists would find legitimate cover for their rage. As it is, police departments nationwide are now declaring themselves effectively at war with the civilian population. Not only has further harm not been averted but more has been inflicted by mob action and its response.

If any lesson emerges from this unholy mess, it’s this: if we are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, our decisions, actions, and very lives can be snatched away from us. They can be twisted, like wet clay, into whatever shape suits the ambitions of a political faction. They become mere tokens in a contest for power. Under such a system, the concept of justice becomes a joke.

Justice is a strictly individual matter. It must be taken into account case by case. No nameless, faceless mass can be given “social” justice against any other. If Michael Brown was murdered, Walter Scott cold-bloodedly executed, or Freddie Gray brutalized off-camera inside that police vehicle, each act — however heinous — was a separate crime. None of them “embodied” anything, except a mother’s son or, for believers in the divine, a child of God.

Far from magnifying these men into anything larger than themselves, we have diminished them. In the process, we’ve diminished ourselves. And instead of making our country safer, we are turning it into an ever more frightening and treacherous place.

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Discovering the New American Dream


Much has been written recently about the death of the American Dream. The collapse of the real estate market in 2008, followed by a worrisome three-year recession, a struggling job market, and the rising cost of college tuition have caused many to wonder: is the American Dream still alive? Can it be restored? Should it be laid to rest?

James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in 1931 when he wrote,

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone. . . . It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (The Epic of America)

For over a century the American Dream was characterized as having a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, two cars in the garage, 2.5 children in the house, a faithful dog in the yard — and a chicken in every pot. The twin equalizers of democracy and laissez faire promised social mobility, financial security, judicial equality, and prosperity through hard work. Next door to that house in the suburbs lived the Joneses, and keeping up with them was part of the dream too. Bolstering the dream was “an underlying belief that hard work pays off and that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation” (Ari Shapiro, NPR).

Today’s dreamer, however, keeps the dog on the bed, not in the yard, and children are likely to be delayed into the mid-30s, if they come at all. Bicycles stand next to the hybrid or electric car in the garage, and the house is controlled remotely by smart phones. The chicken in that pot must be free-range, antibiotic-free, and served with locally grown vegetables.

The average student leaves college saddled with more than $30,000 in student loans. Debt is a prison they dream of escaping.

Unlike the Joneses next door, the new dreamers are less materialistic and more likely to be getting rid of stuff than accumulating it. Bigger is no longer considered better, and tiny houses are the latest fad. The new dreamers eschew self-interest and care about connectedness and global awareness. Buzzwords like “sustainability,” “social responsibility,” and “green” drive their dream. They want to live in downtown urban areas and prefer apartments or multi-family dwellings where they can share amenities and reduce their carbon footprint. Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech, says, “this generation is more interested in the amenities of the city itself: great public spaces, walkability, diverse people and activities with which they can participate.”

But even this smaller, more earth-friendly dream seems remote to many. The new dreamer no longer believes that hard work: necessarily pays off and worries that, for the first time in our history, the next generation will not be better off than its parents. In fact, according to columnist Adam Levin, being debt-free is a key factor in the new American Dream. According to his study, only 18.2% of Americans today see homeownership as part of the American dream, while 27.9% cite having enough money to retire at 65 as their goal and 23% of young people today simply dream of being debt-free. This is not surprising, when the average student leaves college saddled with more than $30,000 in student loans. Debt is a prison they dream of escaping.

Contrary to media pundits and government analysts who push the idea that consumer spending drives the economy; any move toward saving and fiscal responsibility is good for the economy, and thus good for the American Dream. In fact, the Bureau of Economic Analysis recently acknowledged the distortion of focusing so much on consumer spending and recently began issuing GO (gross output) statistics that include the production sectors of the economy.

Meanwhile, welfare and unemployment are dragging down the American dream. Not only is welfare expensive in terms of how much transfer payments cost, but also in how much is lost from the lack of productivity from those who aren’t working and contributing to the economy. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 made progress toward ending lifelong welfare, but today, 35.4% of Americans are living on welfare of some sort, according to the Census Bureau. This nightmare has to be changed if the dream is to stay alive.

Throughout the 20th century, home ownership was encouraged as a way to stabilize and improve communities, because people who own their homes are more likely to stay put, take care of their property, get involved in local politics, and remain employed. Millennials, however, avoid home ownership for those very reasons. They don’t want to “stay put” but value spontaneity, mobility, and the freedom to accept unexpected opportunities without having to worry about selling a house. Home ownership has, in fact, been declining since 2004. In a survey conducted last year, only 61% said they would buy a house if they had to move (New York Times, Feb. 8, 2015). In the words of Thoreau, “our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them” (Walden).

Today’s dreamer keeps the dog on the bed, not in the yard, and children are likely to be delayed into the mid-30s, if they come at all.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that today’s generation is lazy, however. Most work hard, but they work, or want to work, at doing things they love. Many are turning from corporate America to entrepreneurial America and rely more on developing a horizontal social network than on climbing a vertical corporate ladder. And, while it is fashionable to hate capitalism, many are capitalists by default, creating businesses and often working from home. The new American sells advertising to support blogspots and engages in crowd-funding campaigns to raise capital for projects.

In short, the New American Dream is more about finding happiness and sustaining the planet than about achieving financial prosperity — although we are happy to accept prosperity if it finds its way to our door. Personal satisfaction is more important than keeping up with the Joneses, and making time for oneself — to work out at the gym, go to a concert, read a book, post a blog, or create a work of art — is more important than putting in overtime at the office.

Is the American Dream alive? It is, but it’s changed. And it isn’t just for Americans ant more. What’s your dream? And how are you making it come true?

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Are Mobs a Good Thing?


In recent days, the Indiana “religious objections” law has often occupied the number one spot in the news, despite competition from the Iran nuclear negotiations, the mass slaughter of Christians in Kenya, the machinations of leading candidates for the presidency, and other inarguably more important topics.

I’m no expert on the law, and I won’t pretend to be, but I suspect that neither the governor of Indiana nor the gay and liberal lobbies that are attacking him could ever be convicted of libertarianism. We knew that, coming in.

It does seem obvious, however, that both conservative and liberal lobbies have made a lot of money on this controversy, and will make plenty more on mass emails with 20-point type. Less obvious, but vaguely predictable, is that the conservatives will benefit from a sizable backlash and, even more, from the precedent set by liberal lobbyists in promoting business boycotts that crippled the governance of a state, and all because of something that is, in itself, pretty clearly a minor issue.

From this, I believe, libertarians can learn two equal but opposite lessons.

1. In America, in the digital age, boycotts can actually work; and a minor issue can be the best thing to use in promoting such boycotts. Campaigns about minor issues don’t have demonstrably worrying entailments. They can be reduced to simple messages and used to embarrass people who don’t join a boycott. “What do you mean, you don’t celebrate Cesar Chavez Day? What do you mean, you don’t start your meetings with a flag salute?” Not libertarian examples, I know . . . but given a little ingenuity, people inclined toward liberty could use this weapon to mobilize opposition to governmental entities that offend in some clear though minor way, thus encouraging them not to offend in mightier ways.

2. In America, moral mobs are easily formed. America is, for good and bad reasons, a moralistic country. It’s a country that had Prohibition, for God’s sake. It’s the kingdom of political correctness. Anyone who claims to be offended in America can elevate the “issue” to moral status and make the alleged offender wish that he or she were dead. Libertarians are just as vulnerable to this treatment as anybody else, and the precedent set by the liberal mobs zeroing in on Indiana — or Duke University, or the University of X, or Company Y . . . fill in your own favorite atrocity — is not a happy one. It appears less happy when one reflects that even after the mobs have been shown to be lynching the wrong people, their impetus doesn’t go away. They just find another victim.

Two lessons. No conclusions. Sorry.

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Confused on the Concept


Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is one of those “liberals” who cannot resist the temptation to invent new rights (for government) and destroy old ones (for people). In response to the latest round of terror conspiracy charges, she has issued a public statement, which reads as follows:

I am particularly struck that the alleged bombers made use of online bombmaking guides like the Anarchist Cookbook and Inspire Magazine. These documents are not, in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the Internet.

I am particularly struck by the senator’s inability to distinguish reading about something from doing it. Perhaps she believes that no one should know the chemical composition of dynamite, because such knowledge might be used to destroy a public building. Perhaps she believes that Hitchcock’s movies should be banned, because they show how to kill people with knives, scissors, and birds. Perhaps she is accustomed to rushing on stage to keep Macbeth from killing the king.

Or perhaps she is merely a typical American politician, busy about her work of ruining concepts she is incapable of understanding.

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Playing the Odds


In the old days, the mob and similar outfits ran the numbers racket in most of your larger American cities. The numbers racket was simple: you pick a three-digit number, give the guy your money, and, if your number comes up, you get a payoff about 600 times as big as the bet. As the overall payout was around 60%, the mob was sure to get a very respectable return on their end.

I think it was in the ’60s that the government started muscling in. Now it’s called the lottery, but it’s the same racket, except the odds were better when it was the mob running it because they did not feel it was incumbent upon them to withhold income tax.

Oh yeah, and now it’s legal. There is a new game now.

Here’s how it works. You pick a federal law. Any law will do. Then you violate that law. That’s right: you break it. Next, you wait to see whether the government decides that the violation entitles you to a cash payout. If so, you go to the government and provide proof that you violated the law. Then you just fill out the usual numerous forms and, eventually, the government hands you the cash.

A guy I know who likes to crack wise calls it “statutory roulette.” The odds that you will choose the right law to break aren’t particularly good, but it could happen.

Here’s an example.

Let us say it is 2009 and Victor, a guy in Juarez, Mexico, chooses to violate US immigration law by sneaking across the border to Texas. So he sneaks. He finds work, gets married, and, in the fullness of time, has a few kids. He files income taxes, but not with a Social Security Number (SSN), because, as he is what is sometimes called an “illegal alien,” he can’t have one. Instead, he has to use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). All this time, he stays in Texas. His children, having been born in the US, are automatically US citizens, which is only right. Victor keeps his nose relatively clean. He is not convicted of any felonies or even serious misdemeanors. Things are going pretty good for Victor.

Now it’s called the lottery, but it’s the same racket, except the odds were better when it was the mob running it.

So, as of November 14, 2014, Victor is still “unlawfully present” in the United States when, out of the blue, President Barack Obama approves an executive action that changes everything. The action is called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). And, just like that, Victor is eligible for a three-year deferral of deportation, a work permit, and an SSN.

It is hard to believe, I know, but you can look it up right here.

Here’s the good part. With the SSN, Victor can now refile his taxes for the past three years. And since he has that SSN, he is also retroactively eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is a cash grant given to working people with kids. It is available only for people who are not in one of your higher income brackets. Which Victor is definitely not.

So. It seems that Victor is now eligible for a cash payment from the feds of somewhere around six to nine thousand American dollars.

At a Finance Committee hearing, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked John Koskinen, the IRS Commissioner, whether this EITC thing for people who are in the country illegally is on the level. The IRS guy gave a long-winded answer that somewhat conspicuously did not include the word “no.” The exchange was on the TV. You can watch it here.

Just make sure you keep all the evidence that proves you actually did the crime, or the feds won’t pay up.

The senator couldn’t believe what he was hearing, so he said he wanted an answer in writing. The letter the IRS guy sent the senator is here.

Get the picture? That’s right, straight from the horse’s mouth: Victor is entitled to the dough.

Victor entered the country illegally. He lived in the country illegally. I mean, it wasn’t even legal for him to work here. And now, the federal government is going to give him a many-grand payoff for the time when he was “unlawfully present.” What can I say, Victor? Your number came up.

It is widely known that a reliable way to increase your chance of winning when you play the numbers or the lottery is to bet on more than one number. The more numbers you bet on, the better the odds are that one of your numbers will come up. In much the same way, it stands to reason that to improve your chances of winning in “statutory roulette,” it would be highly advisable for you to violate lots and lots of federal laws. The more of them you break, the better the odds that you’ll break one that ultimately entitles you to a wad of c-notes. Just make sure you keep all the evidence that proves you actually did the crime, or the feds won’t pay up.

Which is only fair.

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Unfinished Business


Back in the mid-1990s, Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind chronicled the struggles of a poor, black honor student named Cedric Jennings as the latter aspired to get out of an inner-city high school and into a top-notch university. Suskind’s pieces garnered him a Pulitzer Prize and led to a book-length treatment of his subject, A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League (Broadway Books, 1998, 372 pages).

Cedric, a junior at Washington DC’s Frank W. Ballou Senior High School, has to suffer the slings and arrows of a student body that largely takes a dim view of academic achievement. Part of a small group of accelerated science and math students, he dreams of being accepted into MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program, offered the summer before his senior year. Anywhere from one-third to one-half of those successfully completing the program go on to matriculate at MIT, and Cedric has his heart set on being one of them and majoring in mathematics.

The young man who wanted to major in mathematics at MIT and make mathematics a career instead bailed out of mathematics altogether with just a minor at Brown. Why?

Although he makes it into the MITES program, he quickly finds himself outclassed: most of the black students are middle-class, hailing from academically superior suburban high schools and having much higher SATs. Decidedly at a disadvantage, he nonetheless manages to complete the program. But during a meeting with academic advisor Leon Trilling, he is told that his chances of getting into MIT aren’t that good. Particularly telling are his SAT scores, 380 verbal and 530 math, for a combined total of 910 out of a possible 1600. Professor Trilling suggests that he apply instead to the University of Maryland and Howard University, even giving him the names of particular professors to contact. The distraught Cedric will have none of it though, even going so far as to accuse Trilling of being a racist.

If he can’t get into MIT, he’ll prove the critics wrong by getting into an Ivy League school. Pulling his SATs up to 960 from 910, he applies to Brown University because it has an impressive applied mathematics department. He’s accepted, and Suskind chronicles the trials and tribulations of his freshman year. The book came out during Cedric’s junior year, Suskind commenting in the Epilogue, “His major, meanwhile, is in applied math, a concentration that deals with the tangible applications of theorems, the type of high-utility area with which he has always been most comfortable” (364).

Thus concludes the summary of the book published 17 years ago. As the years went by, I wondered how Cedric had fared during the remainder of his Brown experience and after graduation. Every now and then I came across some tidbit of information. Although I was expecting to find him putting his major in applied mathematics to work in that field, I discovered instead that he had gone back to school, earning a master’s in education at Harvard and a master’s in social work at the University of Michigan; he had been involved in social work and then had gone on to become a director of government youth programs. Nothing particularly unusual about that, though; lots of folks get graduate degrees in fields other than their undergraduate major and end up veering off onto other career paths.

But I discovered that a revised and updated edition of A Hope in the Unseen had come out back in 2005, and I was surprised to come across this statement in the Afterword describing Cedric’s graduation from Brown: “Then Cedric proceeded, arm in arm with Zayd, Nicole, and a many-hued host of others, to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in education, a minor in applied math, and a 3.3 grade point average” (377). Suskind casually lets slip that Cedric didn’t end up with a major in applied mathematics after all! That he only minored in that field means he didn’t have to take the final upper-level courses required for a major.

Suskind had also made Leon Trilling out to be some kind of Prince of Darkness thwarting the Journey of the Hero, and this is a most ungenerous characterization.

Although the book does have Cedric contemplating a second major in education along with his original major in applied mathematics, doubling up in that way just didn’t make much sense. As with his MITES experience, he found himself outclassed at Brown, having to compete with students from academically superior suburban schools, students with SATs hundreds of points higher than his own. He had trouble with some of his freshman courses, even his specialty, having to drop a course in discrete mathematics. Would it not have been more prudent, under those circumstances, simply to focus on one’s original major and on required courses without having to worry about the additional academic load of a new, second major? And if one did take on a second major and then had to scale back on the total number of courses taken, would it not have made more sense to scale back on the second major, getting a minor in that field instead, while going on with the original major? Something just wasn’t adding up here.

Although Brown had been unaware that Cedric was the subject of a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal when he was admitted under Brown’s affirmative action program, the college most certainly would have found out in short order, and it would have been in its best interest that this particular admit not get in over his head. Education is a much “safer” major than applied mathematics, and it is a popular major with many African Americans.

Cedric believed that getting into a top-notch university was a reward of sorts for all that he had to put up with through high school: “I could never dream about, like going to UDC or Howard, or Maryland or wherever . . . It just wouldn’t be worth what I’ve been through” (49). But it appears he may have had to strike a bargain in order to achieve that end. The young man who wanted to major in mathematics at MIT and make mathematics a career instead bailed out of mathematics altogether with just a minor. Why was the motivation behind such a tantalizing shift of academic focus not duly chronicled by Suskind in the Afterword to the revised and updated edition? He offers no explanation whatsoever for Cedric’s stopping short of a full major in applied mathematics, furtively sneaking the fact by as if hoping the reader wouldn’t notice.

Had Cedric gone to Maryland (or Howard) instead, would he have gone on to realize his STEM aspirations?

Suskind had also made Leon Trilling out to be some kind of Prince of Darkness thwarting the Journey of the Hero, and this is a most ungenerous characterization. In 1995, the mean math SAT score of entering freshmen at MIT was 756 out of a possible 800; Cedric’s score was 530. Dr. Trilling was absolutely correct to wonder whether Cedric was a good fit for MIT at the time. Trilling’s advice to Cedric to apply to the University of Maryland and Howard University was based on the fact that those schools were involved in a project with MIT called the Engineering Coalition of Schools for Excellence in Education and Leadership (ECSEL), a program aimed at underrepresented minorities in the field of engineering. Had Cedric been accepted by either of those schools and majored in engineering, he could have had another shot at MIT as a transfer student if his grades had been good enough and if he had been able to boost his SATs. Trilling was actually trying to keep Cedric’s STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) aspirations alive. Even if Cedric still fell short of getting into MIT, he could have gone on to get an engineering degree from Maryland or Howard and contribute to a STEM field in which blacks are woefully underrepresented relative to such fields as education and social work.

During the drafting of this review, I discussed its content with a friend who urged me to check out chapter three of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Allen Lane, 2013, 305 pages). That chapter was titled, “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in science.” Caroline Sacks — a pseudonym — is a straight-A “science girl” all the way up through high school in Washington, DC. Applying to Brown University as first choice, with the University of Maryland as her backup choice, she’s accepted by both and of course chooses Brown. But she has to drop freshman chemistry at Brown and take it over again as a sophomore. Then she has trouble with organic chemistry, finally having to leave her STEM track altogether and switch to another major. She achieves an Ivy League degree from Brown, but at the expense of her passion for science. Had she gone to Maryland instead, she believes, she’d still be in science. Had Cedric gone to Maryland (or Howard) instead, would he have gone on to realize his STEM aspirations?

A Hope in the Unseen has become widely assigned classroom reading, even spawning a number of accompanying classroom study guides. Although it is indeed an inspiring story, it’s simply not all that it’s cracked up to be. Legions of readers have assumed as a matter of course that Cedric proved the naysayers wrong by earning a major in applied mathematics at Brown when his dream of earning a major in mathematics at MIT was derailed by his low SATs. In reality, Cedric had to leave applied mathematics at Brown — and had he instead been admitted to MIT and attempted a major in mathematics there, he probably would have had to leave much earlier, perhaps even having to forgo the consolation prize of a minor.

Although many consider Cedric’s experience at Brown an affirmative action success story, his experience actually highlights the problems inherent in affirmative action policies that lower academic standards for minorities.

Editor's Note: Review of "A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League," by Ron Suskind. Revised and updated edition. Broadway Books, 2005, 390 pages.

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