The Rise of the Underclass

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If you are a working-age adult who is stuck in a low-wage job, or have no job at all, then you belong to the largest segment of the American labor force: a vast, sprawling underclass, with little, if any, economic value to the society that it burdens. Despite the ongoing monthly celebration of job growth, the number of working-age adults without a job is increasing rapidly and the jobs being created are, for the most part, of the subsistence variety, driving tens of millions of Americans into the lower reaches of the labor force.

During the recession that began in December 2007, 8.2 million American jobs were lost, 60% of which were middle-class jobs. The rest of the decline was split evenly among high-wage and low-wage jobs. Today, more than seven years later, the number of high-wage jobs has finally returned to its pre-recession level. But most of the middle-class jobs have not returned. They are being crowded out by low-wage jobs, largely the result of a stagnant economy, automation, and an enormous labor surplus.

The overwhelming majority of jobs are found in the two lowest wage earner quintiles. The bottom quintile, Q1, is 91.2 million strong, with an average income of $14,600; Q2 is 29.8 million strong, with an average income of $45,100. The other three quintiles, which I will call middle class (Q3), upper middle class (Q4), and upper class (Q5), include 19.1 million, 11.7 million, and 4.0 million, respectively, with average incomes of $70,100, $115,000, and $335,000. These three quintiles, which total only 34.8 million, have all the good jobs. The 121 million workers in the bottom two quintiles have the lousy ones.

As these jobs vanish, our already enormous labor surplus will grow ever larger, depressing wage rates still more.

Writing in the New York Times, Annie Lowrey reports that "the poor economy has replaced good jobs with bad ones." Most of the job growth has been in retail trade, administrative and waste services, and leisure and hospitality — the lowest paying sectors of the economy. Lowrey cited a National Employment Law Project analysis, which found that "fast food is driving the bulk of the job growth at the low end." To David Stockman, former Reagan budget director, the recovery has created a "Bread and Circuses" economy; he is not alone. To experts such as author and investment banker Daniel Alpert, it is a burger-flipper economy; "we have become a nation of hamburger flippers, Wal-Mart sales associates, barmaids, checkout people and other people working at very low wages.” Or, as Pulitzer Prize winning economics journalist Mark Whitehouse ("A Nation of Temps and Burger Flippers?") found, temporary burger flippers.

At least the burger flippers have jobs. With today's labor force participation (LFP) the lowest it's been in 37 years, there are 93 million working-age (16 years of age or older) adults who don't. This isn't to say that there are 93 million American who need jobs. Most retirees don't need them, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites "the aging of the baby boomer cohort" as the number one cause for the LFP decline. But in the 16–65 labor force age range, which excludes retirees, there are about 55 million chronically unemployed who might want a job. It's hard to whittle this number down much further. For example, the number two cause cited for the plummeting LFP is "the decline in the participation rate of those 16–24 years old." In other words, 16–24 year old Americans can't find jobs. They, along with many millions of others in this 55 million subset, are in the same boat as the 121 million with dead-end jobs — the underclass.

And it is growing fast. A recent Federal Reserve Bank study of eight major industrialized economies found that only the US has experienced a decline in LFP. Between 1997 and 2013, US LFP has decreased 4.6%, while Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom experienced increases. Then there is the so-called "Great Decoupling." Beginning around the turn of the century, employment gains, which have historically followed productivity gains, ceased. Job growth and wage increases have become decoupled from the economic progress produced by technological advance. While productivity increased linearly, employment remained flat through the Bush presidency, declining thereafter. Of today's 93 million work force nonparticipants, more than 13 million (3% of the 4.6% decline since 1997) have dropped out since President Obama took office.

Automation played a significant role in this exodus to the underclass, and will only augment its future contribution. Many companies have not rehired the people they laid off during the recession. Instead, they have adopted new technologies — hastening the return to pre-recession profits, at a lower cost — that automate tasks previously performed by humans, including high-skill, middle-class humans.

Automation is no longer confined to tedious, repetitive tasks. Jobs in services, sales, and construction, even jobs in management, science and engineering, and the arts will be vulnerable to takeover by machines. So says an Oxford University study, which concluded that 47% of US jobs are likely to be replaced by computerized machines. And a technology research firm, Gartner, forecasts that smart robots will replace one of every three jobs by 2025. As these jobs vanish, our already enormous labor surplus will grow ever larger, depressing wage rates still more.

Obama's policies have created a record-breaking number of shitty jobs, which he brags about, and now promises to make less shitty.

Yet, as if existing wages were not low enough, we add one million new legal immigrants annually. Politicians, Democrat, Republican, and libertarian alike, tell us that we need them: they start new businesses, they invent things, they help support our aging population. In 1970, with a population of about 200 million and 53% of all households in the middle class, Americans competently started new businesses, invented things (almost everything that mattered), and took care of the elderly. Economic prosperity was achieved through productivity increase, not population growth. Today, with a population of about 320 million, the middle class has shrunk to only 43% (along with its wages and net worth), and we struggle in an economic mire. It seems likely that, with more people (438 million by 2050, under our current immigration policy), the underclass will continue its relentless growth.

Meanwhile, there is no serious attempt by our political elite to help create good jobs — middle class, "breadwinner" jobs that can support a family and reanimate the American Dream. The Obama administration, apparently fooled (monthly) by the declining unemployment rate, is encouraged by an economy that systemically produces low-wage jobs, as long as the number is large enough to flaunt. Mr. Obama regularly brags about record-setting job growth, 12 million at his latest count, asserting that "the economy is headed in the right direction."

It is not. By instilling fear and confusion in American business, recent tax and regulatory policies (including immigration policies) are the chief contributors to underclass expansion. For example, there is a growing preference for companies to employ temporary workers instead of permanent ones. The use of employment services, observed Mr. Whitehouse, is "a practice that makes firing easier and reflects their caution about the economic outlook." Ironically, computer and management consultants, one of the few labor categories to have experienced job growth during the so-called recovery, consist of "people who help businesses figure out how to make do with fewer workers."

Capitalists believe that the way to reverse the trend is simply to reduce the taxes and regulations that have made businesses afraid to spend. Companies, then in possession of more capital and the freedom to invest it, would purchase new plant and equipment, create new products and services, develop new markets, etc., requiring better jobs and more workers to support the expanding operations. And with the increased demand for labor, wage rates would rise.

President Obama has different ideas. He is content with his Burger Flipper economy. Unlike his Green Economy, which briefly created a paltry number of green jobs, the Burger Flipper economy produces enough low-wage jobs each month (now 61 consecutive months) for him to gloat (now, it seems, 60 consecutive months). He apparently believes that this stream of lousy jobs will continue in sufficient quantity to accommodate the five million illegal immigrants that he wants to add to our existing labor surplus.

It is only the very wealthy who prosper, with the top 1% having reaped an astounding 95% of all of the nation's net income gains since Obama took office.

Hillary Clinton, likely our next president, is dismayed by his restraint. She "advocates expanding Obama's executive actions to allow millions or more undocumented immigrants to obtain legal protection and work permits." And if that does not expand the labor surplus enough, Clinton has said that she will "welcome back people who have already been deported."

With the labor surplus driving wage decline and "fast food" driving job growth, Obama has accordingly shifted his policies to help the burgeoning underclass. As Lowrey noted,

The swelling of the low-wage work force has led to a push for policies to raise the living standards of the poor, including through job training, expansion of health care coverage and a higher minimum wage.

Obama's new plan is to improve the quality of the lousy jobs that his old plan created.

Will it work? Those without a job will get no raise. That number, now at 93 million, will increase as businesses encounter the artificially increased labor costs. Those who have a qualifying job will be happy, at first — until they discover that (A) everything they buy will cost more, (B) they will pay more in taxes and receive less in benefits, and (C) at $10.10 an hour, they will still belong to the underclass.

To date, Obama's policies have been largely aspirational, and, for existing American citizens, lamentable. According to the BLS, only 6 million net jobs (not 12 million) have been created under his stewardship. And, according to a Center For Immigration Studies report, all of them have gone to immigrants (legal and illegal). "The number of immigrants working returned to pre-recession levels by the middle of 2012, and has continued to climb. But the number of natives working remains almost 1.5 million below the November 2007 level."

Given the immensity of the underclass, the thinking at the White House might be that Obama's plan will yield more bang for the buck than a plan, say, to help create high-paying jobs. Besides, they already think that the economy is headed in the right direction and expect that, in the burger flipper economy that their old plan created, nothing could possibly go wrong with a new plan designed to lift the wages of burger flippers.

Enter the Burger Robot, the fast food industry's answer to rising labor costs. The Burger Robot can make 360 sandwiches per hour (including gourmet sandwiches); it reduces liability, management duties, and food preparation footprint; it pays for itself in about one year (even at the existing minimum wage); and it doesn't need a hairnet. The machine is not designed to improve the efficiency of fast food workers; rather, says company cofounder, Alexandros Vardakostas, “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

The rise of the underclass is a glowing symptom of our decline. Today's politicians are singularly incapable of fulfilling their economic promises. Their glib, clumsy, overbearing laws and regulations have forged a pathetic burger-flipper economy offering little more than peonage and destitution to the majority of its labor force. After more than six years of feckless meddling, Obama's policies have created a record-breaking number of shitty jobs, which he brags about, and now promises to make less shitty. After more than six years of Obama's promises to help the poor and the middle class, it is only the very wealthy who prosper, with the top 1% having reaped an astounding 95% of all of the nation's net income gains since he took office. For everyone else, there is stagnation and decline — unless you are an immigrant or a robot.




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And the Winner Is — The Story!

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McFarland USA is not a great movie, but it is a great story. The pacing is slow, and at 129 minutes, the picture is justtoo long. The acting is average, and the casting, with men as old as 30 playing characters under 16, is often jarring, especially when a 30-year-old actor is romancing a 15-year-old girl. But the story, about a rag-tag cross-country team of mostly immigrant students who make it to the California state championships, grabs your heart midway through and keeps you engaged till the end.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach who has lost three teaching positions in three different states because of his inability to control his temper. He ends up in McFarland, an agricultural community of immigrant farmworkers and one of the poorest communities in California, because it is virtually at the end of the road. He wants nothing more than to put in his time while finding a better position somewhere else. When a local merchant recommends that he plant a tree in his yard that will provide shade in five years, White responds, “I won’t be here that long.”

They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies.

Then he notices some students running from school to their homes or work in the fields after school, and he realizes that they have what it takes to succeed in cross country. “No one can endure pain the way you can,” he reminds the team during a pre-tournament pep talk. “No one else out there gets up at 4 a.m. to work in the fields and then goes to school and then to practice. No one else can endure heat and thirst the way you can. Don’t let them intimidate you.” Coach White knows the pain they are able to endure, because he has joined them in the fields to pick cabbage, and it was the most physically demanding work he has ever done. He admires these young men on his team who are often marginalized and face ridicule and derision when they compete at other schools.

According to interviews, the real Jim White did not move from job to job until he hit rock bottom in McFarland; he chose to teach at McFarland High School because he wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and he figured a small school would be the best place to do that. It was his first and only teaching job, and he definitely succeeded in his goal of making a difference. All of his original team members went to college or the military and went back to McFarland and became leaders in the community. One did some time in prison, but returned to work in McFarland after serving his sentence. The pattern has continued with subsequent team members, many of whom have graduated from college and found employment serving communities like theirs.

That’s why I said that McFarland USA is a great story, even if it isn’t a great movie. These boys and their families work hard, produce much, and pay their own way. They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies. But they do it so their children can have a better life. Seeing the actual men striding alongside the actors who portray them during the closing credits is one of the best moments in the film.


Editor's Note: Review of "McFarland USA," directed by Niki Caro. Disney Studios, 2015, 129 minutes.



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Playing the Odds

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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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¡VIVA OBAMA!

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On May 4, 2009, President Obama greeted the Mexican Ambassador and others to the White House, saying “Welcome to Cinco de Quatro . . .”

Now, Cinco de Mayo is the holiday that celebrates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Quatro, on the other hand, means the something like “the Fifth of Four,” or maybe “Five from Four.” President Obama, with his usual aplomb, quickly corrected himself amidst friendly laughter and gave a nice speech that was very well received. Here it is.

That speech has given me the courage to write this piece. Should I make a fool of myself by stretching my limited knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history to the breaking point, it comforts me to know that I am not speaking on camera to Mexican dignitaries at the White House.

For much of the past 200 or so years, the hands of the Mexican presidents have been only loosely restrained by courts, elections, legislatures, constitutions, and laws.

This essay will begin with three colorful anecdotes that illustrate Latin American-style authoritarianism generally, and then survey the origins and history of Mexico’s presidency in particular. Next will come a biographical sketch of Jorge Ramos, the newly famous Univision news anchor. The recent decision by President Obama to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) is then examined with an emphasis on Mr. Ramos’ contribution to that decision. In conclusion, a modest proposal is made. It is hoped that this admittedly odd juxtapositioning will provide a vantage point from which we can gain a fresh perspective on the president’s historic initiative about immigration.

I

That Latin American heads of government have tended to be relatively more authoritarian than American presidents is not news. Where to start? Pinochet? Perón? Samoza? Batista? Trujillo? There are so many. I know, let’s start with Esposito.

In his 1971 film Bananas, Woody Allen imagines a revolution in San Marcos, a fictitious Central American country. Esposito, the leader of the guerillas, played by Jacobo Morales, gives a victory speech from a balcony in the capital square, saying, “All citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour! Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check!” The movie is a comedy. Here's the clip.

I read somewhere that Mr. Allen is not proud of his early work.

In February 2010, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela strode into a square in downtown Caracas with his entourage, the city’s mayor, and a TV crew. Standing in the square, he pointed to a building, asked a few questions about it, and then summarily ordered the building to be expropriated by the state. He did this over and over, with lots of buildings. He wasn’t kidding. This version is captioned in English.

Now, you tell me: Who was funnier, Esposito or Chavez?

Latin American authoritarianism is more subtly on display in the marvelous ESPN documentary, “Brothers in Exile.” It is the story of two Cuban baseball players who defected to the United States. In 1997, one of them, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, fled the country in a small fishing boat, leaving his family behind. In 1998, John Cardinal O’Connor sent a lay emissary, Mario Paredes, to Cuban President Fidel Castro with a letter requesting that Hernández’s family be allowed to join him in the US. When Paredes entered the president’s office, Castro was watching Hernandez help the Yankees win the World Series. Upon reading the letter, Castro told the emissary that Orlando was, “a good muchacho; one of the glories of Cuba.” Castro allowed the family to fly with Paredes to New Jersey the same day. Meanwhile, Mr. Juan Hernández Nodar, a Cuban-American baseball scout, was left to languish in a hellish Cuban prison for the remaining 11 years of his 13 year sentence for the heinous crime of unsuccessfully attempting to recruit “El Duque” in Cuba two years before. Nodar's story is worth reading.

Fidel Castro is affectionately known as “El Commandante.”

II

As the focus now narrows to Mexico, the question arises: What stirs this authoritarian impulse?

The pre-Columbian empires and societies of Mexico, it has been said, did little to prepare their people for participatory democracy, as they were less interested in human rights than human sacrifices.

The Spanish monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, some point out, weren’t fond of the notion of “the separation of powers.” They preferred the “top-down” model of governance.

It is also unlikely that the centuries-long Moorish occupation of Spain, the grueling Reconquista, and the Spanish Inquisition did much to create sympathy for the tradition of the “loyal opposition” or to enhance the practice of compromise in the governance of colonial or post-colonial Mexico.

The conquistadores and caudillos, others say, cared little for systems that included any significant “check” on their authority. The only real “balance” in the system was the usurper waiting in the wings. (The most frequent “balancer” might have been Antonio López de Santa Anna, the eleven-time President of Mexico. Yes, eleven.)

In Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto suggests that the “more or less continuous democratic development, constitutional propriety, and rule of law” in the US was possible because its revolution was fought before the Napoleonic Wars. The continuing “incapacitated political chaos” of Latin America he attributes, at least in part, to its revolutions being fought after “the French Revolution had dissolved the Enlightenment in blood and sanctified crimes committed in liberty’s name.” He may be right. It is certainly true that Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the same year that Napoleon died.

The theories that seek to explain the tendency toward authoritarianism are many, complex, and sometimes contradictory, but this much is clear: whether Left or Right, military or civilian, whether the result of a coup, an election, or a revolution, the government of Mexico has generally sported a robust executive branch and spindly and dependent legislative and judicial branches. There have been exceptions, of course, here and there, now and then, and things are changing, some say for the better, but the generalization stands: for much of the past 200 or so years, the hands of the Mexican presidents have been only loosely restrained by courts, elections, legislatures, constitutions, and laws.

While Mexican presidents may no longer have “near-monarchical powers,” the current one is still struggling to create a real constitutional democracy.

Enrique Krause’s book, Mexico, Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico 1810–1996, tells the life stories of the leaders of Mexico from the War of Independence until 1996. He conceptualizes the history of Mexico as the struggle to achieve a true democracy in a country where, as the title suggests, the presidents have wielded enormous arbitrary power and, as a result, have had disproportionate personal influence on the uneven evolution of Mexican society. Much of the book details the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990 called “the perfect dictatorship.” Krause details endemic corruption, pervasive nepotism, massive expropriations, suicides, assassinations, mass atrocities, and elections rigged with live fire. He gives praise where he thinks it due but does not pull his punches in criticizing those who have thwarted the establishment of a real constitutional democracy.

To be fair, Krause’s book was published in 1997, and thus does not include the end of the PRI’s long run in 2000, when the National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency, nor the subsequent reelection of the PRI’s candidate in 2012. Fortunately, in an opinion piece in the December 11, 2014, New York Times, Krause updated his view of the presidency of Mexico:

The long rule of the PRI became a source of corruption that led, in the final decades of the 20th century, to the enrichment of politicians with ties to major drug traffickers. Many of us believed that all this would disappear with the advent of democracy in 2000, when the PRI fell from power after 71 years. We were wrong. The sudden limitations put on the near-monarchical powers of the president had the positive effect of liberating legal local powers (governors and mayors), but it also gave new strength to illegal local powers (drug traffickers and organized crime operatives), who recognized and utilized the weakness of control within the new democratic state to expand their national influence.

So, it seems that while Mexican presidents may no longer have “near-monarchical powers,” the current one is still struggling to create a real constitutional democracy.

III

Even the most patient reader must now be asking what in the world all of this has to do with what whitehouse.gov calls “the President’s Immigration Accountability Executive Actions.” Bear with me.

Who is Jorge Ramos?

Jorge Ramos was born in Mexico City in 1958. Tim Padgett, writing in Time (Aug. 22, 2005), explains that “as a 24-year-old reporter in Mexico City, Jorge Ramos felt choked by more than just the capital's notorious smog. Tired of censorship from Mexico's then ruling party, the PRI, Ramos bolted for Los Angeles in 1983.” Ramos himself said in his Nov. 26, 2014, speech accepting the Benjamin Burton Memorial Award, “I came to the U.S. after they tried to censor me in Mexico.” Hispanic Culture Online confirms that when he was a young reporter for Televisa in Mexico City, his stories were often censored to placate the PRI. By 1984 he had found work as a cub reporter for KMEX-TV in Los Angeles, an affiliate of the Spanish-language network, Univision.

Now based in Miami, Jorge Ramos has been the anchor for Univision since 1986 and is the most influential Spanish-language journalist in the country. It could even be argued that he is the most influential journalist, period, given that his English-only competition is fragmented and preoccupied with chasing ratings. After all, 17% of Americans are of Hispanic origin.

In political matters, Ramos does not pretend to be neutral. As he said in the acceptance speech, “When we deal with the powerful, we have to take a stand. Yes, we have to take an ethical decision and side with those who have no power.” In the December 1 issue of Time, reporter Michael Scherer writes that Ramos “is not just a newscaster, but an advocate and an agitator” More specifically, he is a leader of Hispanics in the US, especially the undocumented. As Ramos told Scherer, “Now, with the new numbers, we are being seen. Our voice is being heard.”

Again: who is Jorge Ramos? Here’s a composite portrait: one part Jesse Jackson, spokesman and advocate for an aggrieved minority. One part Sam Donaldson, whose tenacious questioning style annoyed many presidents. Maybe one part Zorro, the mythological figure who championed poor Californios in their struggle against Spanish tyranny. And perhaps a dash of Emiliano Zapata, the hero of the campesinos in their quest to recover their land, and even a bit of Miguel Hidalgo, the Mexican creole priest who first raised the banner of rebellion against Spain. Oh, and more than a little bit of César Chávez. In a sense, one could say that Jorge Ramos is an archetypal Mexican hero.

A president who has the power to singlehandedly change one law has the power to singlehandedly change another law, and then another.

When he interviews, he easily can be imagined as a matador, poised gracefully, awaiting the charge of the bull, his sword concealed in his muleta, his small red cape, ready to deliver the estocada, the death blow. For example, Padgett relates how Jorge Ramos once asked Fidel Castro if he ever planned to have real elections. Castro’s bodyguard slugged Ramos. Really.

The transcript and video of his acceptance speech at the Press Freedom Awards is here.

IV

On May 28, 2008, in Denver, presidential candidate Barack Obama said this to Mr. Ramos: “What I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I’m promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible.”

On September 20, 2012, in Miami, a disappointed Mr. Ramos pressed Mr. Obama, “At the beginning of your governing, you had control of both chambers of Congress, and yet you did not introduce immigration reform. And before I continue, I want for you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise.”

Ramos was undeterred by the president’s lengthy and somewhat unresponsive answer: “It was a promise, Mr. President. And I don't want to — because this is very important, I don’t want to get you off the explanation. You promised that. And a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”

The Congress did not change the law. The Supreme Court did not rule the existing law unconstitutional. Using the undersized fig leaf of “prosecutorial discretion,” President Obama himself changed the law.

Well. Let’s split a few hairs. Between those two interviews there was a global financial crisis and the start of what some have called the Great Recession. Dealing with those problems and the Affordable Care Act, the president had what might be called a full plate. Sure, the healthcare law was a choice but, in the end, the fact that there was no immigration bill that he could promote or support is really not so surprising.

It is the president’s answer to Ramos’ “broken promise” charge that is of greatest interest:

There’s the thinking that the President is somebody who is all powerful and can get everything done. In our branch of — in our system of government, I am the head of the executive branch. I’m not the head of the legislature; I’m not the head of the judiciary. We have to have cooperation from all these sources in order to get something done.

The quoted passages from the two interviews are in this video; the transcripts are from politifacts and whitehouse.gov.

The president’s response to the immigration question was unremarkable. There’s nothing in it that every high school Civics student isn’t taught. (But is Civics still taught?) He’d said it many times before and would say it many times more. In fact, on Nov. 19, 2014, Matt Wolking, a spokesman for John Boehner, compiled a chronological list of 22 quotations in which Barack Obama states that he does not have the power to reform the immigration laws on his own. Reading them is a bit like watching those old time-lapse photography sequences. At first, in 2008, like the constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago that he once was (OK, Senior Lecturer), he criticizes his predecessor for going outside the boundaries of the powers given to the president in the constitution. (“That’s what I intend to reverse when I’m president.”) Then, you can hear the frustration with Congress grow. (“I’m not a king.” “I’m not an emperor.”) The list is here. It’s worth the read.

And then, on Nov. 20, 2014, Obama expanded his constitutionally questionable DACA program to include parents, thereby deferring the deportation of up to 5 million illegal immigrants.

The Congress did not change the law. The Supreme Court did not rule the existing law unconstitutional. Using the undersized fig leaf of “prosecutorial discretion,” President Obama himself changed the law. And on Nov. 25, 2014, he said exactly that to a heckler urging him to stop all deportations. Watch.

It is said that the president “misspoke.”

It is possible that the president had concluded months earlier that he had the power to change laws unilaterally. Here he is walking with French President François Hollande in February 2014. If you listen carefully, you will hear Obama say, “That’s the good thing about being the President: I can do whatever I want.” Listen.

This comment is sometimes called a “quip” — you know, like the time Louis XIV quipped, “I am the state.” Or when Mel Brooks quipped, “It’s good to be the king.”

Mexico is present within the life of the United States and it will be so more and more through the years to come. By coming to know Mexico, North Americans can learn to understand an unacknowledged part of themselves.” — Octavio Paz, 1990 Nobel Laureate in Literature, from the dust jacket of Mexico: Biography of Power, by Enrique Krauze

V

A young journalist flees a land with an authoritarian presidency that censors his work to go to land that has a Constitution that actually protects his freedom of speech. He then uses that freedom to badger the president of his new home into overreaching his constitutional limits. He encourages the president to singlehandedly change a law that applies to millions of people. That the law needs changing is not the point. And it is not the fault of the now middle-aged journalist that the president succumbs to the goading. The journalist should know, however, that he has, perhaps inadvertently, even innocently, nudged the presidency of his new home in the direction of the authoritarian presidency of the land he once fled. A president who has the power to singlehandedly change one law, you see, has the power to singlehandedly change another law, and then another. Who knows? He may even change the laws governing censorship.

President Obama stood firm when public opinion and electoral results were against him to make these changes, essentially with his own two bare hands.

In 1998, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison crowned Bill Clinton “The First Black President.” It’s sadly ironic that President Obama has disappointed so many African-Americans. The hope for change that filled them has largely faded. Poverty rates, home ownership, household incomes, and net worth have not improved during his first six years. Here are the sad facts.

On the other hand, President Obama did deliver real changes for undocumented immigrants, most of whom, like Mr. Ramos, came to the US from Mexico. President Obama stood firm when public opinion and electoral results were against him to make these changes, essentially with his own two bare hands.

In recognition of the good he has done for these immigrants and because he did it in a way that approximates the “near-monarchical powers” of the presidents of the PRI party in its heyday, it is hereby proposed that Barack Obama be crowned “The First Mexican President.”

¡Viva Obama!

***

Outtake: An interesting passage from the badgering Fusion / Univision interview of Barack Obama by Jorge Ramos, Nashville, on Tuesday, December 9:

RAMOS: But if you — as you were saying, you always had the legal authority to stop deportations, then why did you deport two million people?

POTUS: Jorge, we’re not going to—

RAMOS: For six years you did it.

POTUS: No. Listen, Jorge—

RAMOS: You destroyed many families. They called you deporter-in-chief.

POTUS: You called me deporter-in-chief.

RAMOS: It was Janet Murguia from La Raza.

POTUS: Yeah, but let me say this, Jorge—

RAMOS: Well, you could have stopped deportations.

POTUS: No, no, no.

RAMOS: That’s the whole idea.

POTUS: That is not true. Listen, here’s the fact of the matter.

RAMOS: You could have stopped them.

/em




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Do We Lack Impartial Media?

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Recently I saw a webpage that told the story of a veiled Muslim woman complaining, at the checkout counter of a supermarket in Canada, about Veterans’ Day and Canadian involvement in Iraq. The story ended with the cashier asking the Muslim woman to go back to Iraq, the place she had emigrated from. The cashier even offered to help her pack and finance her ticket back.

It took me no more than a minute to figure out that this was a fake story. The same story, with the scene changed to the US, Australia, and the UK, has been posted during the past eight years on many websites made for the gullible.

There are enough TV channels for people to access information: why don’t they look for balanced reporting?

Within hours of its posting, a couple hundred thousand people had “liked” and shared the Canadian story. Responses, mostly from Americans and Canadians, spewed hatred for Muslims, with a strange combination of extreme arrogance and utter ignorance. “Leave my country. Just go,” said one. My feeling of unease was no different from what I get when I meet Muslim or Hindu fanatics.

Ten years back, I had lunch with a well-known public-policy analyst in Vancouver. In his view, nations have so many conflicts because people do not have access to full information. They are force-fed what entrenched interests in government and big media want them to believe. He told me that our job is to disseminate information in the most balanced way we can, to fight corrupt interests.

My argument was that there are enough TV channels for people to access information: why don’t they look for balanced reporting? He went on arguing that the alternative channels are not popular enough for people to access; our job is to help these alternative media improve their standing.

His charisma and experience convinced me to agree with him.

On another occasion, however, I had a talk with a scholar in which I was able to present a different view. My idea was that there are a large number of people who care nothing about philosophy. They care about their 9-to-5 job, evening beer, and twice-a-week sex. I had no exact number, for there are no statistics on it, but I claimed anything between 50% and 70% fell into this category. These guys don’t have bad intentions. They just want to carry on their lives unhindered. If not provoked and indoctrinated, they don’t have many views of their own. They normally do what the authorities tell them to. They believe what they are asked to believe. They go shopping and buy small cans of Coke — whereas, in their position, I would buy big bottles from Costco. I have nothing against them. Part of me even envies them, for their capacity to live in the moment without worrying about the future.

There is another perhaps 5% to 10% of the population that would have belonged to the above, except that they developed a sort of activist mindset and a high sense of the self and its “rights.” If they went to the university, they never studied; they spent all their time partying and drinking. They never really understood what research is. In a democracy, they have views and truly believe that they matter, irrespective of whether the people who hold them can produce a rational analysis or not. Soundbites are their philosophy. They never bother to look at the major contradictions that lie just below the surface of their ideas. Suffering from a sort of impotence, they also carry hatred toward people who are better off than they are. In an ideal world, none of them would have been admitted to the university. They would have saved resources and allowed the flow of wisdom to be less polluted. But the cocktail of their ignorance and arrogance allows them to speak up very confidently in public. They have the psychology of Marxists, even if they don’t call themselves Marxists. They are modern collectivists but ironically tribal, always with an enemy in mind. They are the ones who “liked” the above story of the Muslim woman in Canada. These are the kind I call fanatics, rabble-rousers.

The fanatics are the agents setting the theme and tone of society’s emotions. They decide who is next to be hated, based on simplistic soundbites of climate change, communism, capitalism, people in faraway places, etc. They don’t really get anything personally out of their unfocused, unexamined agitations; they are pawns in the hands of the warmongers, politicians, lobbyists, pursuers of corporate interests, and so forth, who contribute some of the 5% of clinical sociopaths in the population. Alas, they also agitate and affect the opinions of the 50% to 70% who are basically uninterested in politics and in philosophy.

The scholar convinced me that these people — sociopaths and fanatics — were mere products of their circumstances and that all we needed to do was provide them with love and understanding, to nudge them into a rational way of thinking.

And yet . . .

I grew up in the small city of Bhopal in India, under a socialist system. There were a couple of newspapers, both of them private but for all practical purposes controlled by the state, and two radio stations, both operated directly by the government. I had no concept of what television was until my last year of school. For all practical purposes the outside world did not exist. Our access to information was rare and so extremely difficult that we had developed extreme competencies in looking for rumors, analyzing them for inherent flaws, and filtering out what was likely the truth. After some event occurred, it was often days before we saw the official news reports, but we had usually worked out what was happening with a very high level of accuracy.

There are a large number of people who care nothing about philosophy. They care about their 9-to-5 job, evening beer, and twice-a-week sex.

Today, despite hundreds of TV channels, smartphones, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc., the reality hasn’t changed much. In Bhopal, those who don’t care still don’t know. Those who think they know, but don’t know, look for information to rationalize what they want to believe in — as they did before. The proportion of those who really want to know the truth still know it, and this number hasn’t changed despite proliferation of information.

During the last decade, the situation in Vancouver hasn’t changed either.

I am back to my initial position on whether the media is responsible for our lack of information and our social conflicts. Depending on what our paradigms and worldviews are, we either look for the truth with curiosity to change our views, add to them, and give them more nuances; or we look for what helps us rationalize what we already believe in, unprepared to go through the pain of changing ourselves. Big media and big government may be crooks, but they are merely symptoms of our failure as a society to be eternally vigilant.




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The Berlin Wall

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I often travel between Canada and the United States. Typically, I am asked to line up involuntarily at the immigration counter to be interrogated by the officers. The Canadians and the Americans ask exactly the same questions. Where am I coming from? Am I married (for I have brown skin)? What do I do? Where do I live? What is my name? Where will I be staying? How long will I be there for?

The extremely clever minds of the officers process my tone and responses to decide whether I am a terrorist or not.

In Canada, I am often greeted as “Sir.” And when I am tired — after a 20-hour flight — they show some understanding. I expect none of this in the US. In the US, the herd is constantly shouted at to keep them well-behaved.

It is hard to think that these are actually our (public) servants. But given that an individual cannot really change much, one’s knee-jerk reaction might be a preference for the Canadian way.

I prefer the American way.

A long time back I was mugged when crossing a park in Manchester (UK). They addressed me as “Sir” and were extremely polite. When they found fifty pence in my pocket, for I was broke and hungry those days, they returned it and promised me that they would never stop me again. Then they let me go. Lacking perspective, I was lost and confused. I never reported this event. Were they not nice guys? They could have beaten me if they wanted to. At the same time, I was overwhelmed by an unknown, cloudy anger. How could someone who calls me “Sir” have the right to detain me? How could they touch me, physically molest me while showing respect toward me?

Twenty-five years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, we are proud of the world without it, but now there are many more such walls all around us.

Had they not been nice, at least I would have left sane, with my mind clear, unclouded by conflicting emotions. I would have seen them clearly as robbers.

Do you remember the Internal Revenue Service? Would you not feel clearer about what they did if they did not call themselves a service? No one in his right mind considers it a service department and mostly it incites anxiety, even among the most “law” abiding people.

How many people experience any interaction with “peace officers” without fear?

When I get told what to eat, and what I can do or what I cannot do, should I feel warm about the caring nannies or should I worry about how, through a nice facade, they take over my liberties? Moreover, they attempt to confuse me through Orwellian language and the application of laws that claim to do good to me exactly when harming me.

I prefer the mental clarity and reduced frustration that come from a robber being clear that he is a robber.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western world has become increasingly less free. All our lives are now fully documented and filed in obscure databases. In Canada, if you have a certain savings account (called a tax-free savings account), you don’t even have to file any tax documents. The revenue agency gets all the relevant information directly from the bank. If they don’t like how you run that account, they issue an assessment based on what the bank tells them.

We are repeatedly told that this is all for our own good.

Twenty-five years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, we are proud of the world without it, but now there are many more such walls all around us. It is merely that we don’t see the walls as clearly and find ourselves confused even if we can see them, for they don’t have the rough facade that the actual wall had. We are presented instead with cuddly, warm, fuzzy facades.

I prefer the American immigration and the real walls. At least I see them for what they are. At least they don’t assault my sanity and confuse my understanding of morality.

I prefer that when I am raped, it is done in a way that I don’t enjoy.




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When You Wish Upon a Czar

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Two minutes after President Obama gave his political crony Ron Klain the job of Ebola Czar, I got a text message from a friend. He’s a political scientist, so I was expecting him to complain about Klain’s being nothing but a Democratic Party hack, but he didn’t. His comment took an historical turn. What he said was, “If trends continue, America will have more czars than Russia had in its whole history.”

I saw that as a protest, not against the Russian monarchy, but against the current assumption that words prove their worth, not in use, but in overuse. To my friend, a word is valuable because it’s both appropriate and fresh. To many other people, it’s valuable because it’s capable of being used over and over again, in any possible circumstance.

There’s nothing wrong, in itself, about the use of “czar” to mean something like “an official appointed to exercise full power over a designated matter.” Czar is an admirably brief, concrete, imagistically evocative word to express that meaning. But one can be driven to suicide by other people’s overuse of even the finest words. No one wants to hear “I love you” every minute of every day, and certainly no one wants to contemplate an endless sequence of organization charts in which every position is labeled “Czar.”

We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: it would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

Consider: the United States now has two czars in the same realm. The first was Dr. Nicole Lurie, whose existence no one remembered until the president started being urged to appoint an emergency preparedness czar. Then we learned that we already had one, and it was Dr. Lurie, who is Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for the Department of Health and Human Services. But that made no difference; another monarch was added to America’s ever-growing College of Czars.

In 1908, when Ferdinand I, Prince Regnant of Bulgaria, proclaimed himself Czar of Bulgaria, his action excited much unfavorable comment from other monarchs. There already was a Czar of Russia, and the general opinion was that one was enough. Contemporary Americans are clearly without that kind of taste and discrimination. We want a czar in every pot. We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: they are very hard to get rid of. Even if they’ve finished their job and wiped out Ebola or baseball or whatever else it is they’re supposed to handle, they or their bureaucratic progeny remain in office. It would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

There’s another term that has been spread by the nation’s romance with Ebola — the old but increasingly dangerous abundance of caution. How long those six syllables had, until recently, been incubating deep in our linguistic organs, only the zombies know, but now, suddenly, the contagion is everywhere. Whenever a government official delays some urgent job, it’s out of an abundance of caution. Whenever an American citizen is prevented from exercising his rights, it’s because an abundance of caution led the FDA to deny him a drug, or led the gun suppressors to deny him a permit, or led the cops to arrest him for reminding them of the law, or led the high school principal to tell him not to wear a flag-print t-shirt, thereby offending non-Americans. Once it gets going, abundance of caution can do a lot of damage.

State-friendly terms such as czar, abundance of caution, and of course national crisis have been big winners in this, the Ebola Period of our history. Meanwhile, phrases dear to the hearts of (certain) libertarians have suffered badly — indeed, have virtually disappeared from public use: open borders, freedom to immigrate, right to immigrate, and the like. I confess that such terms have never been favorites of mine. To the disgust of (certain) other libertarians, I have argued at length against the concepts they express (Liberty, October 2006). Those terms will have a difficult time regaining the spotlight now occupied by domestic terrorists, the terrorists’ wacko foreign exemplars, and the Ebola virus. It’s hard to see how a radical immigrationistwould answer the question, “Do you mean that Thomas Eric Duncan had a right to enter America and spread a deadly disease?”, or the obviously succeeding questions, “So you’re saying that the right to immigrate isn’t universal, after all? So why do you think it’s a right?” We’ll see what the friends of open borders do to revive their favorite words. I’m sure they’ll think of something.

Where would we be without "adults in the room" and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis?

While they’re thinking, we await in horror the coming election. The political results may be bad or good — more or less crippling to our actual rights — but the linguistic phenomena are already gruesome. A friend recently asked whether American political commentary could do without stupid sports metaphors. The answer is, Apparently not. Where would we be if elections weren’t up for grabs, if the trailing candidate didn’t need to hit a home run, if the leading candidate weren’t trying to run the clock out, orif one of the two parties weren’t just playing DE-fense, never managing to get across the goal line?

And where would we be without adults in the room and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis? Protestors, for example, never yell and scream; they vent their frustrations; they act them out. Their actions are signals that our communities need healing, and that healing can come only from a therapeutic national conversation or bipartisan dialogue — both parties on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not.

But here I must apologize. At some point in this column, I went out of bounds. I stopped blaming the victims — blaming phrases that started their lives with hope and promise, only to lose it because of community pressure to be something they’re not — and I started displaying my phobias about expressions that were losers to begin with.So I’ll adopt a more proactive stance and pose the challenging question: what would happen if an American public figure actually tried to ignore all insipid current clichés and restore the greatness of the English language, the language of Shakespeare and Emerson and Jefferson, of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and . . . oh, maybe, of William Butler Yeats?

Well, here is what would happen, and did happen, when, on Oct. 3, Vice President Biden spoke at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Forum, “Harvard’s premier arena for public speech.” “Folks,” said Biden,

Folks, “all’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” Those are the words written by an Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the Easter Rising in 1916 in Ireland. They were meant to describe the status of the circumstance in Ireland at that time. But I would argue that in recent years, they better describe the world as we see it today because all has changed. The world has changed.

There’s been an incredible diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability. Emerging economies like India and China have grown stronger, and they seek a great force in the global order and global affairs. . . .

The international order that we painstakingly built after World War II and defended over the past several decades is literally fraying at the seams right now.

Now, let’s see. Yeats did write a poem, called “Easter 1916,” about the Irish nationalist Easter Rebellion. His poem suggests that commonplace people were transformed, at least in imagination, by their participation in that failed revolt:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not. No good poem, and particularly not Yeats’s poem, “describe[s] the status of the circumstance” of something. But does Biden understand his own remarks? Again, clearly not. What terrible beauty could he possibly see in “the status of the circumstance” that he himself describes — “diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability,” an “international order” that is “literally fraying at the seams” (and can ya believe it, “right now,” too)? That’s not beautiful. It’s not even terrible, in the sense that Biden wants to import from Yeats. A person who doesn’t understand that literally means literally, not figuratively, or that something that was “built” doesn’t have “seams” and therefore cannot “fray” . . . this person should stay as far away as possible from other people’s poetry. We’re used to the vice president’s torrent of clichés; must we now be visited with his attempts to be learned and original?

It’s interesting to speculate how many people would say what they say, if they understood it. Here’s a passage that the vice president presumably wouldn’t like; it’s from a political analysis by Jennifer Rubin, issued on Sept. 30 by the Washington Post.It’s about a number of Democratic senators who may not win their elections. I’ll put the most obvious clichés in italics:

They were napping while the Islamic State surged and were asleep during the wheel for other Obama foreign policy flubs. They didn’t raise any objection to zeroing troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were unmoved by the atrocious Iran interim deal. They were quite happy to watch the sequestration cuts wreak havoc on military preparedness. Now the bill has come due for circling the wagons around Obama.

The quantity of clichésis bad enough, but does she really mean to say that the senators were happy to watch even when they were asleep? Is she really able to picture a cut, much less such a passive, somnolent thing as a sequestration cut, wreaking havoc? Does she really think that people who circle wagons get a bill for it? And what picture was in her mind when she thought of people sleeping during the wheel?

Enough. I’m tired. I’m going to find some wheel to sleep during.




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Why Not Keep the Talented?

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As we head into the New Year, there are signs that Congress may finally allow an increase in legal immigration. Specifically, it now appears that Congress is becoming increasingly aware that it is folly to kick out foreign students who achieve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees.

In fact, both Republicans and Democrats have now sponsored bills to reform immigration laws to encourage STEM workers to immigrate here. And a very recent report by the Information Technology Industry Council, the Partnership for a New American Economy, and the US Chamber of Commerce provides ample evidence that the time is ripe for reform.

The report, “Help Wanted: The Role of Foreign Workers in the Innovation Economy,” looked at three questions: Is there a STEM worker shortage? If so, how bad is it and in what fields is it the worst? Does hiring foreign STEM workers take jobs away from native-born workers?

Take the issue of whether there is a general STEM worker shortage. A number of the report’s findings indicate there is indeed such a shortage, and that it is pervasive across the various STEM fields. Remember that economists typically hold that an overall unemployment rate of about 4% represents essentially full employment (with people who are out of work being mainly in transition between jobs in a fluid market). Our current national unemployment rate has hovered around 8% for four years, which is high by recent standards (those of the 1990s and 2000s).

Well, the report notes that the unemployment rate for American citizens with STEM PhDs is only 3.15%. For those with STEM MS degrees it is only 3.4%.

As to whether foreign-born STEM workers are taking jobs from American-born workers, the data the report surveyed show no such effect. While only 6.4% of non-STEM workers with PhDs are foreign-born, 26.1% of STEM workers with PhDs are foreign-born. (For workers with Master’s degrees, the figures are 5.2% of non-STEM versus 17.7% of STEM.) But even though a higher percentage of STEM than non-STEM workers are foreign-born, STEM workers still have a lower overall unemployment rate.

The job market is not a zero-sum game. There is no set-in-stone number of jobs, so that if an immigrant takes one, there is one less for you or me.

In some STEM fields, the figures are especially dramatic. While 25% of medical scientists are foreign-born, medical scientists generally have a 3.4% unemploymnent rate. In fact, the unemployment rate is lower than the general STEM average of 4.3% in 10 out of the 11 STEM fields with the highest percentage of foreign-born workers.

Moreover, the data indicate that immigrant STEM workers on average earn $3,000 per year more than equivalent native-born workers, putting paid to the myth that they “drive down wages.”

The reason none of this should be surprising is that the job market is not a zero-sum game. There is no set-in-stone number of jobs, so that if an immigrant takes one, there is one less for you or me. No, talented immigrants create jobs, by starting new companies, creating new products, or making our industries more competitive than foreign ones.

In this regard, the study argues that every foreign-born student who graduates from an American college and stays here creates an average 2.62 jobs for native-born workers. At the top 10 patent-producing American universities, more than three-fourths of all patents awarded last year were invented or co-invented by an immigrant.

Why can’t the Republicans and Democrats at least agree on removing the obviously counterproductive caps on foreign students who graduate from American colleges with STEM degrees and who want to remain here to work?

In short — why send the most talented and innovative students home — to start businesses that will only compete with ours?




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O Canada!

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“Canadians are the only people who take moderation to an extreme.”

— H. L. Mencken

Cross the border into Canada circa 2005, and the convivial pleasantries of the immigration official would only be interrupted — almost apologetically — by the requisite formalities. “Are you bringing in any liquor, beer, wine, or tobacco?” An honest declaration inevitably rendered a generous individual exemption.

No longer. Today Canadian immigration agents have taken a page — the third-degree page — from US Customs and Immigration: all obdurate business without a hint of foreplay.

“Are you carrying any self-defense devices such as guns, pepper spray, or mace?” The eyes narrowed down suspiciously, homing through the response to detect revealing body language.

We were. Pepper spray.

My wife and I were embarking on a mountain bike ride across Canada along the Trans Canada Trail (TCT), a dedicated, mostly back-country route for walkers, skiers, horseback riders, and bikers that crosses the country and which, in typical Canadian all-inclusive fashion, incorporates every province and territory. Our plan was to ride from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic, camping out along the way. Instead of lugging the more traditional panniers to carry our gear, we were pulling single-wheel BOB (beast-of-burden) trailers each loaded with tent, sleeping bags, cooking kit, etc.

British Columbia, with its accordion folds of Coast Mountains, Rocky Mountains, and subsidiary ranges, is teeming with bears. And pepper spray, the provincial parks’ wardens’ (rangers in the US) preferred bear deterrent, was our only legal protection. Curiously, although capsicum aerosols are legal, they must be labeled “for bears.” Ours were not, so they were confiscated. Perhaps some bears can read; or perhaps the label inhibits its use against other predators. Who can say? We later forked out $80 for two Canadian-made capsicum bear repellents with the proper government labels.

Not one question about drugs or suspicion about illegal stowaways. Canada’s priorities are obvious: first, a mirror image of the US concern over terrorism expressed by the immigration officer as a lack of civility; then a concern about liquor and tobacco smuggling (not only are vice taxes an important source of Canadian revenue but they embody a long tradition of reformist social policy that discourages unhealthy habits); and, finally, handgun prohibition. Canadians are proud of their civil society and deathly afraid of contracting what they perceive as a US epidemic of handgun violence.

Perhaps some bears can read; or perhaps the label inhibits its use against other predators. Who can say?

But a demand for handguns persists. Jock Bigjaw, a Dogrib First Nations (not his real name or tribe) leader and self-styled warrior, wanted a .357 Magnum. Jock was a big-rig hauler, a job that allowed him plenty of time to pursue his real passion — alpinism. We’d met on the flanks of Aconcagua in Argentina and hit it off, laughing ourselves into indignity at the 14,000 foot base camp. Politically, he believed in self-reliance and the Canadian government’s duty to adhere strictly to its treaties. Jock fought many of his fellow Indians’ sense of aimlessness, despair, and alcoholism by setting an example of achievement. He dreamed of being the first Native American to summit the Vinson Massif — the highest peak in Antarctica — and toured Canada’s Indian Reserves giving inspirational presentations at schools and community conclaves. In the world of Canadian indigenous peoples, Jock was a hero.

After the climb he asked me if I’d be willing to buy him a handgun in the US, meet him in Idaho during one of his cross-border forays, and sell it to him. Though he was apprehensive about buying the gun, he was untroubled about smuggling it into Canada. I agreed.

* * *

In spite of NAFTA, “free trade” remains an elusive concept — particularly at entry levels. After completing a guidebook (see About this Author) to sea kayaking the Inside Passage (three-quarters of which traverses the BC coast), I submitted the manuscript to Rocky Mountain Books, Canada’s premier outdoor guidebook publisher. They wanted it. However, because of my US citizenship, it did not qualify for certain subsidies offered by the federal and provincial governments — in effect, a quota system for Canadian authors that makes it hard for non-Canadians to compete (which is its intention). So, in the end, they declined it.

Just before crossing into Canada to start our bike trip, my wife and I stopped at Smith Rocks State Park in Oregon to do a little rock climbing. For this sport, Smith Rocks is a world-class destination. It is the birthplace of “sport climbing”, a relatively safe technique that in the 1980s allowed standards of difficulty to be pushed way beyond what anyone ever imagined.

Though he was apprehensive about buying the gun, he was untroubled about smuggling it into Canada.

Lacking a guidebook, I approached a large group of young climbers in the campground to get “beta” — route information. They were from NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, an outgrowth of Outward Bound. NOLS teaches outdoor wilderness and survival skills. These kids had signed up for a month-long rock climbing course that was to take place at Squamish Chief, BC — Canada’s Yosemite. But a Canadian immigration officer had different ideas.

When asked the purpose of their visit, the instructors responded innocently and honestly. Although tuition had been paid in the US — and was already a done deal — the martinet declared that the NOLS program would unfairly compete with Canadian guide services. He refused entry into Canada to the two trailer-hauling vans with 24 kids and instructors. Smith Rocks was their consolation destination.

* * *

In spite of the border crossing unpleasantness and the high prices, it is alwaysa pleasure to be in Canada. A leisurely civility and understated formality barely conceal an endearing earnestness — about the most trivial of life’s minor curiosities — that disarms even the most irascible visitor. Canadians are patient, tolerant, and egalitarian to the core. While the American Declaration of Independence celebrates “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s founding document promises “peace, order and good government.” As Pierre Trudeau once belligerently declared, “We are in the extreme centre, the radical middle. That is our position!”Nonetheless, to the average American, Canadian politics are an irrelevant baffle mired in minutiae.

Perhaps what makes Canadian politics so unintelligible, frustrating, and yes, even boring to Americans, is the more than usual lack of congruence between political parties and any sort of principled political philosophy. Consistency has been sacrificed to national unity, growth, and development, which — in such a geographically sprawling and climatically extreme country — all parties promote through vigorous federal intervention and subsidies to make settlement and development of its inhospitable extremities more attractive.

While the American Declaration of Independence celebrates “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s founding document promises “peace, order and good government.”

This was all the easier because, unlike the US, which attempted to design a government from scratch based on the latest Enlightenment philosophy hot topic, Canada simply continued being a part of Britain, developing the same structure of government as the mother country, and following its lead in foreign and domestic policy.

Each election seems to be contested by politicians with a big wish-list of concrete promises that expediency and the demands of a fractious confederation often reverse 180 degrees within days of victory. Canada dodged the 2008 financial crisis through fiscal health and well-capitalized banks, with the “Loonie” shooting ahead of the US dollar for the first time ever. The Economist, however, avers that the housing market is frothy and likely to pop.

But we had more practical matters to consider. We drove to a West Vancouver marina and found a safe place to park our van for the duration of the bike ride, spending the rest of the day packing camping gear, tuning up the bikes, and making the myriad arrangements requisite for our trip — with Canadian talk radio in the background.

The controversy du jour was emblematic of Canadian attitudes, politics and the rise of China. A handful of young Oriental men (some of whom couldn’t speak English) had been arrested drag racing on a Vancouver street in Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Alfa Romeos and other such jet engines on wheels. The police had released them without filing charges. Speculation focused on the idea that wealthy and influential parents had pulled strings. Besides the predictable indignity over favoritism, suspected pay-offs, and police malfeasance, callers and host alike were incredulously outraged that common standards of Canadian propriety had been so contemptuously flaunted by drag racing on a staid city street.

Canada, with British Columbia in particular, has had a huge influx of rich Chinese immigrants — crony capitalists and rent seekers who have made fortunes in a changing China that lacks a rule of law and are using every trick availableto get their money out of the country. Unsurprisingly, China has currency export controls. With its lax immigration policy, passports that are virtually given away, comparative economic freedom, and relative proximity to China as a Pacific Rim neighbor, Canada is a preferred destination for Chinese oligarchs.

Our first day out covered 70 muscle-grinding miles through Vancouver and its suburbs, followed by a torrential downpour the following day. We took a rest day. By the end of the second week, we’d hit our stride and required a rest day only every 5 or 6 days. Much of our way was on “rails-to-trails”, old railway beds reclaimed for recreation. When present, these wilderness throughways profiling no more than a 3% grade made pedaling over BC’s mountain ranges a transcendent experience.

I commented to our host that I couldn’t imagine marching into battle to the strains of “O Canada.” She smiled and retorted, “We’re all about peace — and having fun!”

One of the first small towns we passed through, Gray Creek (pop. 125), had a refreshing libertarian flavor. The welcoming sign at the town limits proudly announced, “Gray Creek, still metric free.” When I groused about the $38 one-night, one-tent camping fee and the over-priced stale groceries, the good-humored campground and store owner-manager glibly blamed it all on the government.

Canada’s metric system is a bit of a Potemkin village — but with one real cannon that occasionally lobs a ball and messes things up. For one (as in Gray Creek), revanchists stubbornly adhere to the ergonomic English system. Yet, more fundamentally, the Dominion, surveyed by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, is stuck with the mile-based Range & Township sectional land division, which rears its head nearly every time a property survey is necessary. In agricultural areas, rural roads retain a mile-based nomenclature (“Mile 154 Road”) and are located according to the old distances.

At Castlegar, a town of nearly 8,000 people located in the Selkirk Mountains at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, we decided to splurge on an extended rest at a B&B. When we inquired at the tourist office, the attendant — without a hint of irony — informed us that Castlegar had suitably good motels, two campgrounds, but no B&Bs. Since British Columbia is the most British of Canada’s provinces, and B&Bs are a British invention, and they are common in Canada, I sensed something was amiss.

According to a café owner we befriended, a few years before — during an economic development spurt — the city fathers had invited a large, upper mid-range lodging chain to open a unit in town. In the US, when towns come calling for a local franchise, the chain, knowing it has an advantage, is not beyond asking for tax breaks or demanding a location it covets through the use of eminent domain. In Castlegar the quid pro quo took more of a Canadian turn — the elimination of an entire segment of the competition. In return for a fancy motel, the city council banned B&Bs.

An American can never spend much time in Canada without bumping — one way or another — into its famed health care system, usually (at the very least) as one of the first topics of conversation after an exchange of basic pleasantries. We’d heard of doctors going on strike and actually seen nurses striking (all of them are now public sector employees). In Castlegar, signs urging the government not to close 24/7 emergency medical services at the local hospital because of budget constraints were prominently displayed. These were nearly always twinned with another sign, hung by the firefighters’ union expressing opposition to theproposed closure.

As uninvolved tourists, we were entertained to observe another country’s political minuets without directly being involved. They gave us fodder for discussion as we pedaled up the Selkirk Range — but not enough to get us up the western slopes of the Rockies into Banff, where every breath up the technical single track was so precious it precluded conversation.

The town of Banff (Canada’s Aspen, Estes Park or Crested Butte, take your pick — but better), on the BC-Alberta border, is the center of Canada’s oldest national park: Banff National Park, the anchor for a series of parks that straddle the Rocky Mountains. Typical of such quaint alpine villages, it struggles to balance demand and development with retention of the picturesque ambiance that attracts tourists.

No amount of passing grades, accolades and applause, mortar boards and robes, paper diplomas or false confidence can replace or instill competence.

According to the August 30 issue of the Rocky Mountain Outlook, “Banff’s politicians are poised to revisit the controversial issue of setting quotas to control corporate chain stores and restaurants in the national park tourist town,” not only to preserve the community’s character but also because some homegrown businesses had already gone belly-up due to competition from recently opened national chain stores. Banff is already home to Starbucks (of course), Tim Hortons the coffee-and-doughnut chain(it wouldn’t be Canada without Tim Hortons), McDonald’s (which everyone abuses but patronizes), The North Face (it wouldn’t be a mountain town without The North Face), Tony Roma’s, The Gap, and others.

As with any scheme that preferentially treats one business over another, the details of this one are devilish to draw up and subject to corruption, with arbitrary choices that are based on aesthetics but that fundamentally affect livelihoods. As the newspaper reports:

The question of what level to set the quota is a challenging one. Options include back-casting the quotas to reflect the mix that existed during the 2008-2009 period when visitor surveys were done, capping at current levels or allowing a cushion, like 10% more. Banff’s senior planner said a quota below current levels creates instant pressure on existing situations, including the creation of legal, non-conforming uses, while a quota set too high doesn’t achieve the regulatory goals and becomes a zoning “paper tiger.”

So as not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg — not completely, at least — service stations, hotels and banks are not included in the proposedquota system.

Out of seven Banff City Councilors, only one declared unequivocal support for the free market; while the Mayor — like a good politician — concurred with him, but artfully hedged her position.

* * *

We took another multi-day rest at a friend’s home in Canmore, less than 20 miles from Banff and in just as stunning a location, to attend the annual Canmore Highland Games, an event Canadians take very seriously. It is absolutely nothing like the ersatz, corn-ball, out-of-tune bagpipe-screeching “highland games” not uncommon south of the border, attended by pot-bellied old men with giant calves in tams and kilts who can talk at length about Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie and what Mel Gibson doesn’t know about Robert the Bruce.

Attendance in the thousands, in spite of a prohibitively expensive admission fee; way over 100 pipe bands from all over the country, with electronically tuned bagpipes played by top-notch musicians of all ages, genders and colors; full-sized telephone poles that few men could even get erect for the caber toss; endless imported tap bitters, ales and stouts; more single malt whiskeys than you ever thought existed; haggis to die for (really!) and fish-and-chips with cod, haddock, salmon, and halibut choices. Even the step dancing competitions, from schools from all over Alberta, were top-notch. All on a perfectly turfed, quadruple-size football pitch ringed by giant, blindingly white campaign tents topped by Canadian flags — the whole surrounded up close by the crenelated limestone summits of the Fairholme and Rundle Ranges.

The festivities opened with a Royal Canadian Mounted Police regiment, an infantry division, and its 50-member pipe & drum band marching to the fore under the skirling strains of Scotland the Brave. The M of C then asked the crowd to stand for an a cappella rendition of O Canada, a composition I’d read much about but never heard — so I was particularly curious. Although the young lady did her best, the anthem was underwhelming. I commented to our host that I couldn’t imagine marching into battle to the strains of O Canada. She smiled, posed as if she were step dancing, and retorted, “We’re all about peace — and having fun!”

Descending the Rockies was a roller coaster ride. Nevertheless, we were concerned that once we were on the prairies, the ride would get boring over the flat, featureless terrain buffeted by endless winds. But when one expects the worst, things can only get better. And so it turned out. Our west-to-east direction virtually guaranteed a tail wind, and the artful design and routing of the TCT avoided traffic and kept our interest at ADD levels.

The prairies are cut by water courses carved through deep declivities and bordered by sirenic glens peppered with deciduous and evergreen copses. Quaint, colorful Hutterite colonies and Mennonite and Eastern Orthodox settlements, complete with metallic onion-domed churches incongruously plopped down in the middle of nowhere, enthralled us.

Even the imported oil-boom labor — people from 127 countries speaking 69 languages — can get mired in way-more-liberal-than-the-US Canadian immigration rules.

Still, we were concerned about a couple of routing questions. The TCT — again in typical Canadian all-inclusive fashion — was designed to go through every provincial capital. Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, is halfway up the province — far from the southern alignment we’d been following. The TCT then heads east and (back) down to Regina (rhymes with vagina, source of many a snicker), capital of Saskatchewan. Additionally, urban bike riding, especially with fully loaded BOB trailers, can be very trying. No worries — the TCT tied into extensive riverside urban trails through Calgary and Edmonton that displayed the best of both cities, slicing through downtowns and suburbs with equal aplomb.

We’d taken to eating breakfasts at fast food joints and cafes where the portions — and the clientele — were gargantuan (giving the lie to the old nutritionist’s tale that eating a healthy breakfast inhibits weight gain). The ubiquitous “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” signs posted in US cafes were nowhere to be found — probably too confrontational for Canadians. They were replaced by “Abuse will not be tolerated” signs that seemed to serve the same function — more politically correct, I suppose. These were sometimes coupled (at one Safeway, for example) with a poster of smiling employees — a black, a Caucasian, an oriental, an Indi…er, First Nations member, a Latino, an Inuit, an Indian or Pakistani-origin Muslim (you could tell from the forehead dot or the Muslim kufi), and of course, both sexes — touting diversity in employment practices.

Every one of these establishments in the Edmonton area carried the morning’s The Edmonton Sun with daily reports on the firing of Lynden Dorval, aka “the zeros teacher.” The Ross Shepard High School (part of the Edmonton Public Schools system) physics teacher had been fired after he gave a student a zero for not handing in an assignment.

“If students don’t do the work, they don’t deserve (a grade) and I stand by that,” Dorval was quoted as saying. Students, parents, the principal and even Edmonton Schools Superintendent Edgar Schmidt sported “Real heroes give Zeros” T-shirts in his support. But it was Schmidt, caving in to demands by the school board, who made the final call, stating that the firing was for “insubordinate, unprofessional” conduct.

The Sun, quoting Dorval,claimed that the firing was “for going against school policy by assigning students with a zero, rather than using the code system the school uses to evaluate work.” Both the Alberta Teachers’ Association (the union) and the school board were conducting investigations. Unstated but suspected is that the “code system” assigns some value to all work — including its absence. Perhaps, these people must reason, there is merit to merely being present — like Forrest Gump — when homework is assigned.

Political correctness (PC) run amuck? Definitely. We mustn’t ruin the students’ self-esteem.

I once argued with a couple — both teachers, one in the Pennsylvania Public School System, the other an Outward Bound instructor — about the consequences of failing students. The public school teacher, a union member, supported her school’s policy of never failing or expelling a student. Since “bad” students were usually “at risk” kids, failing or expelling them would just make an already bad situation worse, she argued. Her husband, the OB instructor, agreed.

So I asked them to imagine applying the same logic to instructing in rappelling (a technique for descending a cliff by zipping down a rope). In other words, telling a student who hadn’t mastered the technique that he was actually proficient at it. I said, “If he went out and tried rappelling on his own, the well-intentioned lie could cost him his life.” They couldn’t muster a reply.

The core problem with PC is that it wishfully reverses the order of cause and effect. No amount of passing grades, accolades and applause, mortar boards and robes, paper diplomas or false confidence can replace or instill competence. Moreover, it is condescending and patronizing — visibly signaling that the recipient can’t handle the truth. In fact, PC functions primarily, as David Foster Wallace has so eloquently expressed, “to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker — scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the political implications of language — and so serves the self-regarding interests of the PC far more than it serves any of the persons or groups” who are the recipients of it. It is hypocrisy legitimized.

What’s more, many ofthe“at risk” kids (previously known as JDs — juvenile delinquents) are sharp, with well-developed BS antennae that can see right through the hypocrisy of patronizing, deceptive schemes. And they learn from them, using their new insights to game the system, while losing all respect for adults that are complicit in such manipulative behavior. That’s why they supported Dorval, who, by the way, was soon hired by a private school.

We didn’t run short of conversational topics when we turned east out of Edmonton and headed for the Saskatchewan border. Although the architects’ primary reason for this route was running through each province’s capital, there was a bonus: Edmonton’s latitude approximately coincides with the limits of agriculture.

North of the line, farms and roads disappear and the great northern Canadian wilderness rules. This made for a stunning ride. In places, giant combines were harvesting wheat and rape seed, the source of canola oil (Canadian oil) on farms run by Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. In others, hills studded with evergreens alternated with picturesque lakes surrounded by deciduous trees turning red and gold in the mid-September cold.

Peppering both the fields and the glens were “nodding donkeys” (oil pump jacks) and drilling rigs, while the occasional convoy of “thumpers” (seismic prospectors) tested the road shoulders for underground paydirt. Canada has the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves — most of it in northern Alberta’s oil sands — and 3,400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in its shale beds. BC residents who live near the border nip over to Alberta for a cheaper fill-up.

The new discoveries, advanced drilling and fracking technology, and, as one oil-industry booster puts it — referring to less politically salubrious climes — “no bribes or body bags” are driving a boom no one is able to keep up with.

Several factors are holding back the bonanza. For one, there is no easy way to transport the thick crude out of northern Alberta. The US section of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas has not yet been approved by the Obama administration; while the Northern Gateway pipeline, proposed from Edmonton to Kitimat, BC, on the Pacific Coast (for exports to Asia) is being held up by environmental concerns and First Nation objections. The pipeline would cross aboriginal reserves.

“The other big bottleneck,” the November 17 issue of The Economist reports, “is human capital.” Hardly anyone lives near Fort McMurray, the closest city, and fewwant to move there in spite of the high wages and attractive incentives. Even the imported labor — people from 127 countries speaking 69 languages — gets mired in way-more-liberal-than-the-US Canadian immigration rules. “An Irish worker in Fort McMurray,” The Economist continues, “complains of having to fly to Calgary to sit a test of English proficiency. It’s her native language, and the test is online.”

* * *

When our canteens began freezing overnight, we decided it was time to go home.

At St. Paul we cadged a couple of discarded cardboard bike boxes from Canadian Tire, a megastore that combines aspects of Wal-Mart, Checker Auto and Sears (and whose business model still escapes me), to pack up our bikes for the Greyhound bus trip back to our van.

Next year — in Saskatchewan.

And, perhaps, another report.




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A Classical Liberal Case for Immigration Reform

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1. The Issue that Will Not Die

Once again, immigration emerged in a presidential campaign — when President Obama reversed his position and issued an executive order to allow young (less than 30-year-old) illegal immigrants who were brought here as children to receive a two-year deferral from deportation and the right to apply for a work visa. Governor Romney kept trying to formulate his position on the issue, a position that appeared to be a case for increasing legal immigration while further discouraging illegal immigration.

During the past several decades, our national government has failed to fix a clearly dysfunctional immigration system. The last attempt at comprehensive reform, crafted under the Bush administration, failed to pass Congress despite bipartisan support. Obama may have played a spoiler role on the bill.

In any case, despite having had complete control of Congress for two years, he failed to get any bill passed — indeed, he never even introduced one — though he had promised to push comprehensive immigration reform. Under his administration, immigrant deportations have gone up about 30% from Bush’s second term, and double the rate of Bush’s first term.

In this essay, I will sketch some answers to the following questions: is immigration still vital? Why does our immigration system need reform? Why is getting comprehensive reform difficult? What might a satisfactory solution look like, from a classical liberal point of view?

2. A Conflict of Visions

In the matter of immigration, as in so many other “hot-button” issues in politics, you cannot understand the positions — and the passions — of both sides unless you understand that there is a fundamental conflict between two politico-economic visions, or ideologies, if you will: the populist view and the free market or (better) the classical liberal view.

Populism regards free-market activity as inherently dangerous to society. To this way of thinking, the populace, the masses, aren’t individuals freely living together out of mutual convenience; they form an organic whole — a folk, a community, a people, a culture — that transcends the individuals within it. Free-market activity, based obviously and openly on self-interest, is considered destructive to the organic community.

Despite having had complete control of Congress for two years, President Obama failed to get any bill passed — indeed, he never even introduced one — though he had promised to push comprehensive immigration reform.

Evolution explains this aspect of populism: humans evolved as a species whose members formed small tribes, working together with a degree of cooperation almost unique among animals. Tribalism helped the species flourish; it also produced such problems as intergroup warfare. Populists, however, are bent on protecting the tribe. They feel that the populace, the average people, need to be protected from powerful groups (merchants, capitalists, the bourgeoisie, illuminati, Trilateral Commission members, whatever), or from other tribes (other races, other nations, and so forth).

Populists accordingly tend to oppose free trade (“protectionism,” in the narrow sense). They also tend to oppose large-scale companies (especially multinational ones): “big business.” They tend to oppose the accumulation of large amounts of capital by individuals and especially by investment companies: “fat cats,” “malefactors of great wealth.” And they tend to oppose allowing large-scale immigration, especially of ethnic or religious groups markedly different from the majority of the populace. This is often termed nativism, but because that word has acquired an unfavorable connotation that is in many cases unwarranted, I will use the term “anti-immigrationism.”

Classical liberals usually hold the opposite views, right down the line. They favor free trade. They harbor no opposition to large or multinational corporations or to the accumulation of capital per se. It is, after all, rather difficult to have capitalism without capital. And they tend to favor the free flow of labor, as they do the free flow of goods.

Some have suggested that there is an opposition between populism and statism. I regard this as a capital mistake, when viewed either analytically or observationally.

Analytically: who generally needs to resort to government coercion? It is those who seek to “protect” the populace. Free trade is as natural between nations as it is between people within a community, and for the same reason: we all naturally “truck and barter,” as Adam Smith put it — we all seek the best goods and services we can get, for the lowest price. Coercion is necessary if one wants to block this tendency. When business flourishes, it is natural for wealth to accumulate disproportionately in some hands, but populists suggest that the government block this accumulation. And it is natural that some people will want to move wherever living conditions are better for them. It is typically the populists who want the government to stop new people from coming in.

Observationally: what does history show us? Precisely that some of the most perniciously statist regimes were the fascist and communist ones — regimes typically sold on populist grounds.

In the American context, populist sentiment informs bothmajor political parties, for each is a coalition of disparate groups, and there are elements of each coalition that have populist affinities.

Populism is found in the Democratic Party coalition in several areas. Labor unions — both the rank-and-file members as well as the leadership — almost always deeply oppose free trade. Anti-immigrationism is common among the union rank and file, and also among African Americans, who often view waves of immigrants as direct competition for jobs and political power. (However, we should note that many union leaders support immigration, either to strengthen the Democratic coalition, which supports their empowerment, or out of hope to organize the new immigrants.) Many environmentalists oppose immigration, feeling that overpopulation is ruining the ecosystem. And working-class and poor Democrats tend to envy the rich, wanting to take from them whatever possible.

Who generally needs to resort to government coercion? It is those who seek to “protect” the populace.

Populism is also found in the Republican Party coalition. Many social conservatives, especially evangelical Christians, have been anti-immigration out of a religious aversion to Catholics and Jews. Many social conservatives believe that recent immigrants are refusing to assimilate, with a multiculturalist government acting as their enabler (offering ballots in foreign languages, for example). Moreover, national security conservatives view with alarm the rise in the number of Muslim Americans, fearing potential terrorists. Many so-called “pro-business” conservatives fear multinational corporations.

The fact that the American political system is built around two major political parties, both of which are coalitions containing highly populist major constituents, helps explain why immigration reform has been hard to achieve. It is hard for either party, when actually holding power, to get the job done, because not only will the populists of the other party oppose reform, but their own populist wing will fight them as well.

Let me be clear that while I am an advocate of classical liberalism, I certainly do not believe that every issue can be settled on ideological grounds. For example, feeling comfortable with multinational or huge corporations in general does not mean that corporate crime should be ignored or excused. And specifically, I recognize that a free-market supporter might oppose contemporary immigration, out of, say, the feeling that modern immigrants vote in such a way as to undermine the free market. I address this point at great length below.

3. The Unpleasant History of Anti-Immigrationism

Contemporary opponents of immigration make a fair point: their actual arguments deserve to be addressed honestly and not dismissed on the basis of what past people (who had similar objections to prior immigrants) may have done. In logic, there is a term for the fallacy of dismissing an idea solely on the basis of its origins: the genetic fallacy.

However, if history shows that similar arguments were used in the past and were falsified by subsequent events, that would seem to raise the burden of proof on those making similar arguments now. At a minimum, they have to point to differences that explain why the same argument that failed to prove accurate in the past is likely to hold now.

My point here should be understandable especially to classical liberals, who argue that social and economic problems are usually best addressed by the spontaneous order in society rather than massive governmental intervention. We often argue for this view by pointing to the fact that before the rise of the huge federal welfare state, these problems were solved by private action by private individuals and groups.

Since the history of anti-immigrationism is easy to research on the internet (you can just start with the Wikipedia entry on nativism and move on from there), let me just highlight some points.

  • Anti-immigrationism is a political position or stance that springs up especially in a country or society that faces a rapid influx of people from foreign to it.
  • Countries that are composed primarily of immigrants (such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States) are no less prone to anti-immigrationist movements that are other nations. Indeed, they may even be more so, because a sort of “compassion fatigue” that sets in.
  • Despite the fact that restriction of immigration into the American colonies by the British government was explicitly listed as one of the justifications for breaking away from Britain in our Declaration of Independence, nativist sentiment developed early on.
  • A very big spur to nativism was Protestant fear of the growth of Catholicism. This was behind opposition to some German immigration in the 1820s, and then to the large influx of Irish in the 1830s to the 1860s. During this period, something like 5 million Catholics entered, while the population of the country grew from about 10 to about 30 million.
  • Spurred specifically by the influx of the Irish, in 1850, nativists formed the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (the “Know Nothing” movement). The crucial requirement was to be Protestant. This was the basis for forming a new political party, the American Party. During this period there were intermittent attacks on Catholic churches and individuals, some of which resulted in deaths. U.S. Grant actually joined the party in 1855, feeing that immigrants cost him a shot at being a county engineer.
  • How well have the Irish done? By 2006, Irish-Americans households averaged $54,000 (compared to the national average of $48,000). 31% of Irish-American adults had a college degree, compared to the national average of 27%.[i]
  • One might argue that some immigrant groups have done poorly. For example, if you consider blacks as immigrants — an odd usage of the term, since they arrived with the original British settlers, so were in fact co-founders of the country, so to speak — then, no, they haven’t economically outpaced other groups. But for over a century they were slaves, and even after emancipation were subjected to profound discrimination until very recent times. Over the last half-century, they have done much better. Moreover, recent black immigrants — say, from the Caribbean — have done well economically.
  • Anti-German sentiment lasted from 1840 to 1920, especially with the influx of German Catholics beginning in 1840, with concerns over the Germans’ tendency (then) to congregate separately, have their own schools, keep their language alive, and drink beer(!). In World War I there was widespread suspicion of the German-Americans, and in Australia the Germans were put in internment camps.
  • Opposition to Chinese immigration was pervasive at the end of the 19th century, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. From the vantage point of current anti-immigration sentiment, this is ironic: limiting the Chinese led to an increase in Mexican immigration into the US, as the railroad industry needed the labor to build out its network of track.
  • Even more ironically, blacks — the historic victims of much discrimination — widely opposed Chinese immigration in the 1880s. One black newspaper wrote at the time, “There is no room for these disease-breeding, miserly, clannish, and heathen Chinese.”
  • From 1890 to the early 1920s, the focus of nativist wrath switched to the influx of Central and Southern European immigrants, especially Catholics and Jews. The resurgent Ku Klux Klan exploited this sentiment from its “rebirth” in 1915 to its spread in the early 1920s, and was a large-scale movement, hitting as much as a 5 million enrollment. These voters made their preferences known to the politicians.
  • During this time, nativism and racist eugenics were intertwined, with key players in the eugenics movement pushing against immigration.[ii] The large influx of Italians, Poles, Slavs and especially Jews aroused the ire of those who believed only “Nordic” Europeans were worth allowing in.
  • In 1924, Congress passed an act that lowered the quota of immigrants to less than 165,000, that is, it virtually ended immigration. One of the major arguments pushed by labor unions, among others, was that this influx was resulting in high unemployment and driving down wages.
  • Most waves of immigration did bring in immigrant criminals. There were Irish gangs, Chinese gangs (“tongs”), Jewish gangs, Italian gangs, and so on.
  • More recent waves, such as the influx of Cubans into South Florida after the rise of Fidel Castro, and the Vietnamese influx after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, have also assimilated well on balance.[iii]

Now, in every case, while various other arguments were given, two arguments were constant.

First, “these people” will steal jobs from (or work for so little that they would drive down the wages for) the native-born workers. This argument was used even against the Irish, the Chinese, Eastern Europeans, and many (if not most) other immigrants. Second, they are “strange” or “clannish” people who don’t fit in and whose allegiances are elsewhere (so presumably pose a threat to the country).

However, the historical reality is that the country managed to handle each wave of immigration, and overall per capita prosperity increased dramatically throughout the whole time (within the usual business cycles, of course). In fact, by the outset of World War I, if not before, America was the richest and most powerful nation in the history of mankind.

In the early 20th century, nativism and racist eugenics were intertwined, with key players in the eugenics movement pushing against immigration.

I am not saying that since the immigrants arrived and the economy thrived, therefore the immigrants were the reason why. (I will, however, support separately the claim that immigration does actually help an economy, below.) All I’m suggesting is that the fact that such massive immigration was conjoined with such a massive increase in wealth in the past is evidence against the claim that immigration hurts the economy. Moreover, the elimination of immigration in the mid-1920s did nothing to stop the Great Depression, and it may have helped bring it about.[iv]

In sum, the history of large-scale American immigration is one of broad assimilation accompanied by a rapid growth in national prosperity, albeit with some gang activity — but activity that eventually dies down, even if it doesn’t disappear entirely.[v] So immigration seems to have been broadly benign at worst, and more likely broadly beneficial over the long term. And again, to take consequentialism seriously is to look to the long term. I would suggest that the burden of proof falls on the modern anti-immigrationist to explain why things are so different now that we ought to halt immigration.

To be fair to such folks, they do offer reasons for their positions, ones we will examine in a moment.

4. What the Natural Rights Perspective Shows Us

The history of nativism is a history of exaggerated fears. Many classical liberals would say, “But of course! Open borders allow free mobility of labor, which benefits consumers by lowering prices for the goods they pay.” Yet making the consequentialist case for open immigration turns out to be tricky, as we will see below. So some classical liberals try to short-circuit the discussion by using only natural rights arguments for open borders.

Two such arguments are routinely put forward.

First, some have argued that all human beings have a moral right to mobility, i.e., that all people have an innate right to flee a repressive or otherwise dysfunctional state. This right, it is alleged, entails for the rest of us the duty to let people cross our national borders and settle here. To stop them would be to employ coercion by keeping them in places where they don’t wish to remain.

When I hear this argument from hardcore libertarians, I am invariably puzzled. Such people (who consider themselves the purest of free-market advocates) should be the first to see the flaw in the argument: it confuses negative and positive rights.

In essence, negative rights are rights that entail on others the obligation not to hinder an activity. To say that you have the negative right to free speech means only that other people have no right to stop you from speaking. Positive rights (about the existence of which classical liberals are rightfully doubtful) entail upon others the obligation to, if necessary, give their lives or property to enable some action. To say you have a positive right to free speech would mean that other people would have to buy you a TV station or some other medium to enable you to transmit your views. But that would violate those other people’s right to keep their property.

It seems clear from this discussion that a classical liberal should agree that any person has the right to leave his country, unhindered — but that is only a negative right. It entails upon us only the duty not to stop him. It does not mean that we have the positive duty to provide him residency in our own country. That is analogous to saying that I don‘t have the moral right to keep you from leaving your house, but I surely am not obligated to give you a room in mine.

The second rights argument concerns the right to enter into contracts. If I want to hire Fred to do a job for some price and Fred wants to do it for that price, it is at least prima facie clear that nobody has the right to interfere. Indeed, all free exchanges between autonomous agents are prima facie ethical from any perspective, not merely the natural rights one. Now, hiring people is simply exchanging your money for their labor. What difference does it make whether Fred comes from here or abroad?

But there are several requirements for free exchanges to be ethical. Two are obvious. First, the product or service must itself be ethical or legal (supposing that you take “rights” to be moral or legal). You couldn’t say that my hiring Fred at a mutually satisfactory price makes the hiring within our rights if, say, Fred is a doctor whose license has been revoked and I am hiring him to work in my hospital, on patients unfamiliar with his status. That would at a minimum seem to say I cannot hire Fred if he is an illegal immigrant (under laws morally enacted).

Second, the exchange should not violate the rights of others — should not cause “negative externalities,” that is, harm people not party to the transaction. If I hire Fred to paint my house, and he does a good job at a low price, but dumps toxic waste on Sue’s property, the transaction is unethical from the natural rights perspective (because it violates Sue’s rights to life and property), or any other ethical perspective, for that matter.

In what ways may immigration hurt (in the sense of violating the rights of) others?

This can be tricky. For example, if I am a bricklayer, and after talking to me about what I would charge to do the job you want done, you decide to hire Fred because he charges less, am I “harmed” by the exchange between Fred and you? I am, in the sense that I didn’t get a job I wanted — but then it wasn’t a job I had a right to in the first place. But if Fred is from another country, does that change things? And if so, why?

The historical reality is that the country managed to handle each wave of immigration, and overall per capita prosperity increased dramatically throughout the whole time.

This topic — in essence, how to view nationalism from a classical liberal perspective — is worthy of a book unto itself. But it seems at least prima facie clear to say that my fellow citizens have a moral right to my support in the form of“loyalty.”

Prima facie, the fact that I grew up in this country, that my fellow citizens protected me, together with the fact that I have the right to leave at any time (a right denied to their citizens by a number of other countries), entails upon me the obligation to obey its laws, and to fight for it if it is existentially threatened. These are my duties toward the nation, which is an aggregation of individuals.

You might also plausibly say that my fellow citizens are entitled to preference in some of my actions. If a cruise ship goes down, and I am on a raft, and two individuals are drowning, of whom I can rescue only one, and I know of them only that one is American, and the other isn’t, it is at least plausible to claim that I should rescue the American.

More relevant to the topic of this essay is the question of whether I have an obligation to my individual fellow citizens to give them some kind of preference in my consumer choices (and to expect them to reciprocate). The feeling that we should, as loyal citizens of a country, prefer our fellow citizens in commercial trade is so intuitive that we find it expressed in a bumper sticker: “Buy American!”

If we did have such an obligation, it would seem to provide an argument against allowing immigration — and against foreign trade, as well as automation, for that matter. For it would seem to suggest that since bringing in a competing non-American worker (or buying from a foreign company, or replacing an American worker by a machine) would hurt an American worker, immigration (and free trade and automation) violate our patriotic loyalty.

Yet I don’t think we have any such obligation.I also think it is easy to see why, if we remember a basic maxim of ethics: “Ought implies can.” This means that to say “person X ought to do A” presupposes that X can, in fact, do A. It would make no sense to say that I am morally obligated to end poverty today, because it is utterly impossible for me to do so.

Now let’s consider this concept of “buy American.” Suppose that Fred and Ted, whose sole relationship to me is that they are my fellow Americans, have both built cars. Does the fact that Fred is an American obligate me to any degree to buy his car? No, because in buying his car, I am perforce not buying another American’s (Ted’s) car. To favor Fred is to disfavor Ted, and both are equally American.

Would it make a difference if I were choosing between Fred’s car and Hans’s, if Hans is a resident citizen of Germany? No, because if I buy from Hans, I will have to buy his car with American currency, which means that Hans in turn will (directly or indirectly) have to spend or invest in America, which in turn will give preference to some other (unseen) Americans. As in the previous case, I am favoring one American but disfavoring another — the only difference being that the disfavored person is seen in the one case, and unseen in the other. (I am using terminology borrowed from Frédéric Bastiat, to whom I will return.)

However, we don’t need to think too deeply about such subtle questions, because there are obviously things about modern American immigration that clearly violate the rights of others. One was cited by Milton Friedman, who said, “It’s just obvious that you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” The point is that if you bring Fred from abroad to work for you and he begins drawing welfare benefits, of course this harms other people, to wit, the taxpayers. Specifically, to the extent that Fred takes more out of the welfare system than he pays in, his migration results in violating the property rights of taxpayers.

It seems clear that any welfare state that allows open borders will draw in people who receive benefits at the expense of other residents. Common sense would suggest that under these conditions the poor are most likely to immigrate, and more likely to exploit welfare programs than the average (i.e., native-born) citizen.

Some classical liberals reply that this is a good reason to end all welfare. Perhaps, but it merits two equally quick replies: how likely is it that the modern welfare state will disappear anytime soon? And doesn’t that mean that until all significant forms of welfare are in fact totally eliminated, no immigration, or at least, no people who are possibly going to take welfare of any sort — which, in our society, means everybody, since everybody is covered at least by Social Security and Medicare — should be allowed?

One last point regarding natural rights ethics and immigration should be mentioned: the sword cuts both ways. The right to exclude immigrants — including stopping immigration completely — can be defended on the basis of natural rights, in particular, the right of free association.

If my friends and I decide to form a club, it is prima facie our right to do so, and we have the right to exclude anybody we please. If Fred wants to join, and we don’t want to let him in, it is again prima facie no violation of his rights to say he cannot join. As long as we don’t interfere with Fred’s right to form his own club, or to join other clubs willing to let him join, we are well within our rights.

And it seems prima facie equally justified for the citizens of a democratically governed nation to exclude anybody they choose.

The conclusion is that natural rights ethics does not automatically support the claim that the mobility rights of the downtrodden and suffering poor of the earth dictate open borders. After all, if there were such rights, they would mean that everybody in the world should be perfectly to move here, no matter whether (for instance) they paid any taxes or not. Instead, it tells us that at a minimum, immigration should be legal and not harm the legitimate property rights of others.

So if we are to make a compelling case for free or even heavy immigration, consequentialist considerations must be entertained.

5. Criticism of Recent Immigration

The most recent wave of immigrants, consisting predominantly of Hispanic (mainly Mexican) immigrants, has roused a new wave of anti-immigrationism.

The new anti-immigrationism has more able writers expounding it than older varieties had. They include a group at the Manhattan Institute, such as Myron Magnet, Victor Davis Hanson, Heather MacDonald, and Steve Malanga. Also among the sophisticated anti-immigrationists are Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, and such academics as Samuel Huntington and George Borjas.

Contemporary anti-immigrationists differ in what they want done. Some, such as Peggy Noonan, have called for a halt to immigration to give time for assimilation. Others, such as J.D. Hayworth, have urged deportation of all illegal immigrants. Still others, such as Don Goldwater, have actually called for internment camps for illegal immigrants, who would be used as forced labor to build a fence along the southern border.

Let’s review the major reasons that contemporary anti-immigrationists typically offer to show that widespread immigration should be halted. I will use a nice survey piece on the subject by Myron Magnet. His piece is all the more powerful because, as he notes, the magazine he edits — the estimable City Journal — long supported extensive immigration, before “flipping” a few years back and opposing it. (The Heritage Foundation also “flipped” along the way.)

Reading the piece (and other contemporary anti-immigrationist writings), you see four major areas of concern about the most recent wave of immigrants: the problem of illegality; the problem of the economic costs of immigration; the problem of the social costs of immigration; and the problem of the environmental costs of immigration. Let’s take them in order.

The first problem is that unlike all previous waves of immigration, which occurred in compliance with existing law, most of the recent wave of immigrants is illegal.

  • The total has reached a high of over 12 million illegal immigrants, down recently to perhaps 11 million (since the onset of the recent recession and slow recovery).
  • This illegal immigration followed the compromise bill of 1986, which legalized virtually all the 2.7 million illegal immigrants of the time (i.e., gave them green cards, or permanent legal residency).

Here is an undeniably reasonable point, and I suspect it is a big cause of the anti-immigrationist antipathy that killed the Bush immigration reform bill.

The second problem raised by contemporary anti-immigrationists concerns the economic costs of immigrants.

  • Unlike earlier waves of immigrants, this recent (primarily Hispanic) wave came after the major expansion of the welfare state that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, giving immigrants a myriad of welfare programs that didn’t exist before.
  • Legal permanent immigrants (green card holders) are eligible for a host of welfare benefits (unemployment, aid to families with dependent children, school lunches, etc.), and illegals seem to have little difficulty in fraudulently obtaining these benefits too. Moreover, their children are educated at public expense (though the increased education may later result in those children earning higher incomes than they would if left uneducated, upon which incomes those children will pay taxes if they become legal, as they often do).
  • Magnet reports that Catholic priests in Hispanic areas routinely help sign up Hispanic immigrant families for every benefit possible.
  • Magnet quotes Robert Rector’s famous 2007 study that helped kill immigration reform by showing that low-skilled immigrants (legal or illegal) consume, on average, $20,000 more annually in government resources than they contribute in taxes.
  • Hispanic immigrants are disproportionately low-skilled; indeed, Magnet claims that they are lower skilled even than the immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. But today’s economy is progressively more epistemic or knowledge-based. Only a few industries have benefited from cheap manual labor (nanny services, home repair, agriculture), and even then it has been a “mixed blessing,” since it has “retarded mechanization.”
  • The flood of cheap labor has lowered wages for unskilled native-born workers by 8%. Though Magnet doesn’t tell us where he got this figure, it is more than likely from the work of George Borjas, an economist who has published many papers that seem to show a correlation between extensive low-skilled immigration and the lowering of native-born low-skilled workers’ wages. (See, for example, his paper on how an increase in low-skilled immigrants is correlated with lower wages and higher incarceration rates for blacks.)
  • Recent immigrants notoriously send much of their money back home.

The third problem raised by contemporary anti-immigrationists is the social costs of the recent wave of immigrants. The concerns involve crime, lack of assimilation, and the “swamping” of communities.

  • Magnet claims that recent immigrants are more inclined to crime, and have lower stores of “social capital: strong families, self-reliance, entrepreneurism, a belief in education,” and a belief in the future of America, than earlier immigrants.
  • He notes that 30% of federal prisoners in the year 2000 were foreign-born.
  • In 1998, 30% of California’s population was Hispanic, but 42% of its new prisoners were.
  • Cops in New York report that in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, an estimated 70% of criminals are Hispanic.
  • Hispanics have about double the rate of unwed pregnancies that whites do.
  • Hispanics have moved disproportionately to certain areas of the country and have “swamped” the communities, resulting in whole parts of cities becoming essentially “Little Mexico Cities.” This puts pressure on the local school systems, which are failing in California.
  • Large clusters of foreign-born people in a given area decrease “social capital,” that is, make people less trusting, less willing to help other people, and so on. This is a point most famously explored by sociologist Robert Putnam, whose research shows that areas of high immigrant population have the lowest levels of social trust. (It is important to note that Putnam himself supports immigration.)

The fourth problem that concerns many contemporary anti-immigrationists (though not one mentioned in Magnet’s piece) is that America is running out of room for all these teeming hoards of immigrants. They consume too many resources for our poor land to support. As Jason Riley notes in his pro-immigration book, Let Them In,[vi] there has long been an affiliation between the environmentalists and the anti-immigrationists, one going back to the founding of that über-environmentalist group, the Sierra Club (ironically founded by an immigrant).

6. Rebuttals to These Criticisms

I think the case put forward by Magnet and like thinkers is nowhere near as compelling as it superficially appears to be. Indeed, much of it is just silly. To explain why, let’s briefly review some basic logic and classical liberal economics.

Start with the logic. The correlation of A and B doesn’t by itself prove that A causes B. You have to rule out other possible explanations (preferably by a control group experiment). Otherwise you simply have a correlation fallacy. So, for example, to say that illegal immigration from Mexico accelerated as American welfare programs expanded in no way proves that the latter caused the former. As we will see, there are other more plausible explanations, and the correlation is spurious anyway. (Of course, this does not mean that illegal immigrants never receive benefits, or that it is no problem if they do. As I explain in the final section of this piece, the system I propose would allow more open immigration, but only for those who will not access welfare.)

Some anti-immigrationists have actually called for internment camps for illegal immigrants, who would be used as forced labor to build a fence along the southern border.

Now consider some economics. Bastiat, in his classic essay That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen, suggests that what makes for good economic analysis (as opposed to the economically ignorant thinking of the average person) is the effort to look for the less obvious effects of an action when calculating the costs and benefits it brings. Consider everyone affected, and consider the long-term unintended consequences as well. If a window is broken, you see the owner of the house being forced to give a job to a repairman. It looks as if the broken window had “created” work. But you don’t see that had the window not been broken, the homeowner could have bought a pair of shoes, thus employing a shoemaker. And in that case, the homeowner would have both a functioning window and a new pair of shoes.

Similarly, showing that a nanny from Mexico “took” a job that a more expensive native-born nanny held or might have held doesn’t mean that society has lost anything. The Mexican nanny will have money to spend, and the mom will have extra money to spend on her preferences, which will create jobs elsewhere that native-born workers (possibly including the ex-nanny) can fill.

Let’s now consider the four objections to the recent wave of Hispanic immigrants in order.

What about the first problem, that other waves of immigrants were primarily legal? Well, to the point that we should only allow people to enter this country legally, I wholeheartedly agree . . . that much is clear just from our natural rights analysis. But I would point out some things that lessen the force of the objection.

  • Some prior waves of immigrants faced few legal hurdles, so obeying the law was rather easy for them. Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, you just bought a ticket, took a boat over, and stepped onto American soil; then you were legal. That is one (though of course not the only) reason why our population exploded so rapidly. While there was some risk in making the passage in sailing vessels, with the rise of steamships the risks became minimal. No capital, employment, or other requirements were imposed, except freedom from certain diseases.
  • Even in the early 20th century, when immigrants were processed through Ellis Island, the authorities were primarily looking to turn away people with communicable diseases or a criminal background. Only about 1% were rejected.
  • One reason there is so much illegal immigration is likely that legal immigration levels are set way too low.Until recently, the sheer demand for labor was so great that it drew people across the border. This is an argument for making immigration easier, since the general economy will grow wealthier if productive enterprises can efficiently access labor (which, like capital, is essential for most industry).
  • The reason illegal immigration was easier for Mexicans was that Mexico shares a long common border with us — not some greater innate propensity for law-breaking than was found in earlier waves of immigrants.
  • Maybe one reason Hispanics felt for so long that it was no big deal to cross the border illegally is because there were periods whenwe didn’t think it was either. We didn’t enforce the laws very strictly for many years (following the policy of “catch-and-release”, common in the ’60s and ’70s, though not in the ’50s and not over the past decade or so).[vii] Deportations soared in the second Bush term, then soared even higher during Obama’s term in office.
  • The recent wave of Hispanics appears to be a consequence of factors not likely to recur. It looks like a “one-off” event. As late as the 1960s, Mexican women gave birth to an average 7 children each. By this decade, the rate had dropped to 2.3 per woman, or not much above the replacement level of 2.1. (America’s rate was below replacement levels for quite some time, but recently hit 2.07. About this, more below.) So a rapid build-up of Mexicans, coupled with the weak Mexican economy and their physical proximity to America (in the absence of a mandatory e-verify law, about which more below), is what led to such massive crossing of the border. There is clear evidence that the number of attempted crossings has plummeted in the face of, among other things, more work in Mexico over the last decade.
  • In fact, the number of Hispanic immigrants has been plummeting for a decade (for a graph, see this summary). As a recent amazing Pew Center report (“The Rise of Asian Americans”) notes, 2010 marked the first time that there were more Asian immigrants than Hispanic ones.
  • Most serious crimes such as burglary, rape, robbery, and fraud, have statutes of limitation. It thus seems odd to suggest, as many anti-immigrationists have, that the civil infraction of crossing the border illegally should have no statute of limitation for prosecution. True, the illegal immigrant is committing a civil infraction by remaining here, but the major point remains: if we can cease pursuing a rapist after seven years (even though his victim may still suffer), why continue to seek out those who crossed out of a need to find work, and remain here to work? Of course, once again, this does not mean that we should welcome those who come here to get on welfare.

What about the second problem, regarding the economic costs of immigration to society? Start with the concerns about immigrants’ use of welfare programs.

  • That recent immigrants are able to access welfare benefits that prior immigrants couldn’t is absolutely true, and in a reasonable reform package (such as the one I propose in the final section) that would be dealt with. But there are some problems with Magnet’s conclusions from that point.
  • To begin with, singling out Catholic priests is surely odd. No doubt many do encourage immigrants to take welfare wherever they can. But so does the federal government itself. It runs ads informing people how to get food stamps (actually, more like food credit cards) and encouraging them to do so. I am not arguing that the government should do this — indeed, my proposal for immigration reform would stop everybody from doing this, government or nongovernmental groups. I just resent Magnet’s cheap shot against the Catholic Church. Additionally, the one group most disproportionately using welfare is African-Americans, and they are largely Protestant.
  • Riley notes that when you compare all legalimmigrants to native-born citizens of the same economic level, immigrants use welfare programs less. (NB: in any case, illegal immigrants are not eligible for welfare, though their US-born children, being citizens, are.)
  • And Riley notes that welfare dependency was going down even as illegal immigration peaked, due in great measure to welfare reform passed in 1996. While illegal immigration doubled between 1995 and 2004, welfare caseloads dropped by 60%.
  • From 1995 to 2001, noncitizen enrollment in TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy families) dropped 55%, and in food stamps by 52%. It would appear that the rules governing the ease of getting government benefits along with the general economic conditions determine the number of people on welfare, not immigration law.[viii]
  • Between 1990 and 2004, there has been a very clear inverse relationship between the rate of illegal immigration and that of unemployment — the higher the unemployment, the lower the illegal immigration, and the lower the unemployment, the higher the illegal immigration. This doesn’t suggest that immigrants are coming for welfare.
  • As Riley notes, in 2006, among foreign-born workers generally, labor participation rates exceed those of native-born workers (69% vs. 66%). The unemployment rates for foreign-born workers is significantly lower than for native-born workers (4.0% vs. 4.7%), and among Hispanic males the disparities are even higher. None of this suggests that the immigrants are here for welfare.
  • The Rector study struck many then (and since) as dubious. In essence, Rector added up what unskilled immigrants paid in taxes, then what they cost the government in terms of services, including the education of their children, and showed that on average the latter exceeds the former. But this seems too narrow a measure of how immigrants benefit the economy. It ignores the increase of society’s wealth from the value the immigrants create as well as the reduced prices they bring.[ix] This is surely perverse.
  • Suppose, for example, Fred and his home improvement crew are immigrants, and they offer to add a room to my house for $10,000, whereas Bob and his native-born worker team want $25,000. I go with Fred, saving $15,000. Under Rector’s analysis, society only benefits from the taxes on $10,000. But my savings of $15,000 surely leave me wealthier, and I will either spend the money or save it, thus creating new jobs as well as allowing society to tax it elsewhere.[x]
  • One might object here that in a free market, the wages Fred and his crew would get would reflect what their work is worth. But first, not every actor in a free market will ask for exactly the same amount — some will try for higher than what the market might dictate, hoping the customer is unaware of that true, lower market price. More importantly for this discussion, the presence of Fred is what will eventually make Bob more reasonable in his pricing.
  • Also, the amount of work to be done is not fixed. For example, think of a case such as this: Sue is a trained accountant, raising her children at home. She could earn $800 a week if she could find a nanny, but a native-born nanny costs $800 a week. She decides to stay at home with the kids. Society derives no taxes. But an immigrant nanny offers to mind the kids for $400 a week. Sue employs the nanny. Not only does society get the taxes from the nanny’s $400 per week; it also gets the taxes from Sue’s $800 (or if Sue can write off the nanny costs, the extra $400). Rector’s analysis doesn’t reflect such cases of native-born workers entering more productive work because of the availability of immigrant labor.
  • Rector’s analysis applies only to the very lowest-skilled immigrants, as he himself conceded, but that characterizes only about one-third of all immigrants.[xi]
  • Moreover, it is arguable that illegal immigrants, at least, contribute more into Social Security and Medicaid than they receive, if they are using other people’s Social Security numbers (unless they later get into the system).
  • More generally, Rector doesn’t disentangle the problem of the unsustainable growth of the major entitlement programs from the contributions of low-skilled immigrants to society. The three major entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, have unfunded liabilities in the tens of trillions of dollars. By Rector’s own analysis, the vast majority of native-born Americans aren’t paying their own way in terms of the taxes they pay and the government benefits they receive. If that is true already of a couple hundred million existing citizens, focusing on a million more per year seems overwrought.
  • In case you suspect me of arguing tu quoque, let me point out that my own proposal — outlined in detail in the final section of this paper — would permanently and completely disentangle immigration from entitlement programs.

To the claims about the unfavorable labor impact of Hispanics and their sending money back to their home countries, the rejoinders are obvious.

  • First, notice that this criticism seems to contradict the prior one. If the immigrants are coming here to get on welfare, why would they be stealing so many jobs?
  • If there is little need for low-skilled labor, how is it the immigrants keep finding work in such huge numbers? At the peak of illegal immigration back in the mid-2000s, national unemployment was only about 5%, which was quite, quite low compared with much of Europe.
  • If we are moving or have moved to an epistemic society, then why are we deliberately restricting the number of highly trained engineers who want to come here from abroad? (On this, much more below).
  • If we ban immigrants because they take jobs from native-born workers, should we not outlaw trade with foreign countries and automation, too? Both take jobs from the native-born low-skilled.
  • The point about immigrants retarding mechanization and lowering wages for native-born workers only emphasizes the fact that immigrants generally charge lower prices for their labor. Yes, we could require lettuce growers to use expensive machines or native-born workers at much higher wages, but consumers would pay higher prices for their products. Worse, there would be opportunity costs: the money used for this unnecessary machinery could be used to develop better varieties of produce. And (recalling Bastiat again) we have to consider the unseen jobs created by those lower prices. The money we all save on our groceries, for example, allows us to go out to more movies and restaurants, creating more jobs for higher-skill, native-born workers in those industries.[xii]
  • No doubt this is what led a group of 500 economists to write a letter to Congress in 2006 saying that while a small percentage of workers may be hurt by immigration, on balance it is a net gain for society.
  • It is not clear to what degree, if any, immigrants really lower wages for native-born workers, long-term. Riley notes that Borjas’ initial study (2003), which showed a 8.9% decline in wages, assumed that the number and size of companies is fixed and that immigrants are perfect substitutes — when he removed those assumptions, he got a 5% figure. A study by Borjas and Lawrence Katz two years later showed only a 4% drop, and a later study by Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny found only a 1% lowering of wages and no drop in employment for native-born workers.
  • But other studies show no impact of immigration on wages and employment of native-born workers. David Card’s 1990 study of the Mariel Cuban immigrant influx showed no unfavorable results on wages or employment level[xiii]; so did the Rachel Friedberg-Jennifer Hunt 1995 of the impact of immigrants on native-born labor wage rates; a 2007 study by Giovanni Peri focusing on California, the state most affected by the recent wave of immigrants), showed no job losses when correcting for similar levels of education, and actually a 4% gain in real wages (ranging from a fraction of a percent for high-school dropouts to between 3%–7% for high-school grads).
  • A 2006 Pew Center study of immigration and employment levels from 1990 and 2004 found that the high levels of immigration had no significant impact on employment rates of the native-born. A 1994 study by Richard Vedder, Lowell Gallaway, and Stephen Moore found no significant correlation between the percentage of immigrants in the workforce and the unemployment rate.
  • All this may seem puzzling: how could a large influx of people in a low-skill (or high-skill) occupation not lower wages profoundly and permanently for the native-born workers in that trade? Here it is important to note several important points.
  • First, even legal immigrants are often willing to work for lower wages than native-born workers, in that they are certainly willing to work for low or even minimum wage at many jobs native-born workers won’t do for anything like that wage — picking crops, tending for the elderly and children, working menial jobs in unpleasant environments, and so on. These are jobs native-born workers haven’t taken in sufficient numbers, even in this prolonged period of high unemployment.
  • Second, remember that we are talking about long-term impacts. Suppose Sue is a nanny who will only take care of kids for $600 a week, while a legal immigrant is willing to do it for $400, which is still above minimum wage. Sue may lose her job, but she will be able to move on to more productive work — say, teaching preschool students for $800 a week.
  • Third, the claim that uneducated native-born workers are perfect substitutes for foreign-born uneducated ones is dubious. After all, to be a native-born American without a high-school diploma in a country that has such a massive free public school system may indicate that you have behavioral problems (don’t like studying, bore easily, don’t like taking direction, are of very low intelligence, have anger management issues, and so on). Being equally uneducated from another country may just mean that you were born very poor and nothing else. Moreover, being willing to travel hundreds of miles over ocean or desert likely indicates a reserve of moxie a native-born worker may not have.
  • Again, these studies don’t address the fact that any disparate impact on native-born minorities may be attributable to their being stuck in lousy public schools. Remember, the rise of the teachers unions was in the 1960s, and so the most recent wave of immigrants has attended schools virtually immune to reform, unlike prior waves of immigrants.[xiv]
  • When immigrants send money back to their home countries, it doesn’t just disappear. That money will sooner or later have to be spent or invested here, providing jobs here for the native-born (Bastiat again).[xv]

To the third problem raised by contemporary anti-immigrationists, about the social costs of immigration, a few points need to be made.

  • Robert Putnam, whose work is often cited in opposition to immigration, notes that recent immigrants are learning English at the same rate as immigrants did 100 years ago (though he doesn’t specify the exact rate).
  • The 2000 census indicates that 91% of the children and 97% of the grandchildren of Mexican immigrants speak English well.
  • Riley points out that many articles accusing Hispanics of failure to progress are based on faulty statistics, in that they do not disaggregate the ongoing recent arrivals from early immigrants. Obviously, the rate of English fluency will be higher among immigrants from a decade ago than it would be among new arrivals.
  • If we look at Hispanics as a group, their crime rates don’t seem out of line with their demographics. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports[xvi] that in 2010, of the total 1,550,600 male and female federal and state prisoners, 345,900 were Hispanic, or about 22% of the total. That year, Hispanics were about 17% of the total US population. Considering that Hispanics are a much younger group than Americans as a whole, are typically much less able to attend good schools, and are more likely to be incarcerated for immigration crimes (such as illegal reentry and visa fraud) this seems roughly proportionate. By comparison, blacks accounted for 38% of US federal and state prisoners, while constituting about 13% of the population.
  • Regarding swamping, El Paso (75% Hispanic), which is right across from Ciudad Juárez (a center of drug cartel violence), has the second lowest crime rate of any major American city.
  • Again, if we focus on Hispanics as a group,while the out-of-wedlock birthrate is higher among Hispanics than whites, it is still much lower than among blacks, and more importantly, 80% of all Mexican-American children are raised in two-parent homes.
  • Moreover, 77% of all Hispanic women marry by age 30, only slightly less the 81% figure for white women, and the rate of divorce is the same.
  • Now let us turn to immigrants and crime. As a nicely nuanced study by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has reported, data on criminality rates among immigrants is often unreliable or contradictory. One study they report from 2007 puts the total immigrant prisoner population (legal and illegal) at 7% of all prisoners, while immigrants were reported to be 12.6% of the total population. But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated the total percentage of immigrant inmates in federal and state prisons at 20%, while the percentage in the population was about 16%.
  • Let us take as accurate the much higher DHS figure, though it is debatable. Again, given the fact that immigrants are likely to be younger, less well educated, and obviously much more likely to be imprisoned for immigration crimes (such as illegal reentry, alien smuggling, and visa misuse), this seems about proportionate.
  • I concur with the conclusion of the CIS report, which is that “it would be a mistake to assume that immigrants as a group are more prone to commit crime than other groups. . . . Nevertheless, it also would be a mistake to conclude that immigrant crime is insignificant or that offenders’ immigration status is irrelevant in local policing. . . . [I]n many parts of the country, immigrants are responsible for a significant share of crime.” That is why any comprehensive immigration reform should involve zero tolerance for serious crime, rapid deportation after punishment for immigrant crime, and enhanced background checks of potential immigrants.

The fourth problem raised by modern anti-immigrationists — the idea that America is filling up and has no more room for millions of immigrants — is patently weak.

  • Riley notes that world population growth rate peaked at 2.17% in 1964, has been declining ever since, and will be under 1% in less than four years. It was 1.1% in 2009, so Riley’s prediction seems reasonable.
  • If you moved the entire world’s population into just Texas, the population density would be less than that of the Bronx.
  • Donald Boudreaux notes that even with America’s population of about 310 million, the amount of land taken up by urban and suburban development in the lower 48 states is only 3%, and that figure is likely high. Include Alaska, and that percentage drops even more.
  • Since 1900, we have increased by 700% the land devoted to national and state parks and wildlife areas. The amount of land devoted to agriculture and ranching is no larger than it was back then.
  • Some argue that while we have more than enough space for new immigrants, we don’t have the necessary human support and physical infrastructure for them. Butcompared to what we had in 1920, when the last major wave of immigrants occurred, the US has gained per capita ten times the miles of paved roads, twice the number of doctors, three times the number of teachers, five times the number of cops, and twice the number of fire fighters.
  • Let me add that if you compare countries by population density, America is nowhere near the top, nor even the middle. Bangladesh has 2,957 people per square mile; India 933; Japan 873; the Philippines 811; Vietnam 674; the United Kingdom 656; Germany 593; Italy 518; China 361; and Mexico a rather low 142. America? It has 83 people per square mile, among the lowest.
  • For the US to become as dense as even Britain, it would need to have about 2.5 billion people. There is no way that would ever happen — demographic trends show most countries now stable or even shrinking in population, some (like many European countries) dramatically so. The world population is due to peak at perhaps 10 billion or a little more in midcentury, then decline worldwide. And Britain is hardly overcrowded.
  • To Malthusian worries about overpopulation and the exhaustion of natural resources, economist Greg Mankiw had a great reply, one harkening back to Julian Simon: “Those who fear overpopulation share a simple insight: People use resources. The rebuttal to this argument is equally simple: People create resources.”

7. The Positive Case for Continuing Immigration

I believe the case against immigration has been stated fairly and rebutted squarely. But is there a compelling case, not just that immigration has been good for America, but that we need more of it?

Yes there is. Let us start by observing something important about immigrants: they are remarkably inventive, innovative, and entrepreneurial. Some recent reports offer ample evidence of this.

  • A report by the Partnership for a New American Economy shows that at the ten top American universities for patent production, immigrants accounted for an amazing 76% of patents issued last year. Virtually all (99%) of those patents were in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
  • In the most innovative area of the American economy, foreign-born inventors were especially fecund: they were involved in 87% of the patents in semiconductor device manufacturing, 84% in information technology, 83% in digital communications, 79% in pharmaceutical products, and 77% in optics.
  • Considering that university research constitutes 53% of all American basic research, and that (at least according to Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow) about half of all of America’s economic growth is due to technological innovation, these figures are telling.
  • This report only confirms what has been a long-standing American experience. For example, a recent study showed that in the period from 1901 to 2011, America won more Nobel Prizes for chemistry, physics, physiology, and medicine than any other country by far — 314 in total. Of these, 102 — 32%, or nearly a third of them — were awarded to immigrants. This percentage is far higher than the percentage of immigrants in the population as a whole (which averaged at most around 12% throughout this period).
  • Compare our record to Germany, of whose Nobel Laureates only 17% have been foreign born, and Japan, of whose Nobel Laureates precisely none have been foreign-born.
  • Another example is the report (by economists Jennifer Hunt and Mariolaine Gauthier-Loiselle) published back in 2008 by the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research. They studied patent data by state from the years 1950 and 2000. They showed that the rate of invention by native-born researchers was not diminished by the research of immigrants, and that each increase of 1% of foreign-born college grads in a state increased patents per capita by 15%.
  • Finally, there is the now classic 2007 report by Vivek Wadhwa, AnnaLee Saxenian, and associates that studied data from the World Intellectual Property Organization Patent Cooperation Treaty database. They found that in 2006, 24.2% of all US international patent applications had at least one foreign-born applicant.

One reason immigrants with technical degrees create jobs is by making American high-tech companies more productive, hence more profitable. That is, tech jobs — like all jobs — in America are not a zero-sum game: those talented techies from abroad come up with new ideas, which create new product lines or improve existing products, which in turn increase the profits of those companies, who can then expand operations creating new jobs for native-born workers.

  • For example, Bill Gates recently testified before Congress that at Microsoft, four new native-born workers were hired for every foreign-born one.
  • And Nick Shulze of the American Enterprise Institute has noted that each foreign-born worker with an advanced STEM degree creates an average of 2.62 jobs for native-born workers.
  • Technological inventions then go on to make all other American industries, from agriculture to manufacturing, more productive, and hence more able to expand and hire the native-born workers.

A second reason technically trained immigrants create (or at least retain) jobs is by helping keep American high-tech located in this country.

  • Over 40% of Ph.D. scientists working in this country are foreign-born. And over a third of the engineers and scientists in Silicon Valley are foreign-born.
  • However, the truth is that fewer and fewer native-born American students are choosing STEM majors. In 2009, we graduated fewer computer science students than we did 25 years before, and in chemical engineering, math, and microbiology, we graduated only the same number as we did then. At the present time, over 40% of all Ph.D. students in engineering and science are foreign-born.
  • But high-tech industries — indeed, all industries — need STEM-degreed workers. If we don’t produce them in great enough numbers — which we manifestly are not — and if we don’t allow them to immigrate here, our industries will simply ship operations abroad to countries that are producing those trained people.
  • Steve Jobs made this point directly to President Obama in arguing for allowing more trained immigrants in, pointing out that the 700,000 workers at Apple plants in China are supported by 30,000 engineers, and “You can’t find that many in America to hire.”

The third reason — and it is a major one — why immigrants with STEM degrees have created jobs is that they are disproportionately likely to start new companies.

  • The list of prominent high-tech companies founded or co-founded by foreign-born entrepreneurs is as long as it is impressive: Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Intel, Nvidia, Yahoo!, YouTube and Zappos come to mind.
  • A study done last year by Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy showed that of the top 50 venture-capital backed startup companies, almost half were founded or co-founded by immigrants, and that immigrants held key management positions in three-fourths of those companies. Each immigrant entrepreneur created jobs for 150 Americans on average.
  • The classic Wadhwa et al. study, mentioned earlier, showed that roughly half of all Silicon Valley startups were founded or co-founded by immigrants. It also showed that over one fourth of all American tech firms founded between 1995 and 2005 had an immigrant founder or co-founder. In 2005, those companies — created by just a couple of dozen creative immigrants — together generated over $52 billion in sales, and employed directly 450,000 workers (and probably millions of workers indirectly).
  • More broadly, 40% of all Fortune 500 companies were either founded or co-founded by immigrants or children of immigrants.

But crazily, our immigration system has only made it harder for talented professionals to immigrate here or stay here (if they have a student visa).

  • The main program that allows STEM-trained workers to immigrate from abroad is the H-1B visa program. This year, as in most of the years up to the recent recession, all the allotted slots were taken in a day. This occurred despite the fact that an H-1B visa costs about $5,000 in fees and attorney expenses.
  • The reason for this is that for years, Congress has imposed a laughable cap of only 85,000 such visas a year. And under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, any company that had received TARP funds or new Federal Reserve help was restricted in its hiring of new H-1B visa immigrants.
  • In fact, the number of permitted skill-based visas (H-1B, EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3) dropped from 301,000 in 2000 to 270,000 in 2009.
  • Getting visas for foreigners already working here (L1-B) is another illustration: there are only 250 USCIS caseworkers who evaluate the applications, and they seem to be arbitrary on their rejections.

Clearly, even politicians who should know better still believe in the “zero-sum game” view of technical work.

Let me conclude with a demographic point. While huge waves of immigration are nothing new in American history, the population change we are undergoing is. The baby boomer cohort — people born between 1946 and 1964 — is the largest in American history, numbering nearly 80 million people, or about 25% of the population. These people are beginning to retire now, and the native-born younger cohorts are nowhere near as large. That means the nation will age, unless we allow widespread immigration. As ZeroHedge blogger Tyler Durden has aptly put it, America faces a “demographic cliff.”

Ironically, Steven Malanga, one of the anti-immigrationists at the Manhattan Institute, wrote an excellent piece in 2010 on what the aging of a population does to a country. Birthrates are shrinking worldwide, thanks mainly to economic development. While we are roughly at replacement level, many countries aren’t. Japan is projected to drop in population size by 21% in the next 40 years, Poland by 16%, Russia by 22%, and Germany by 14%. Since innovation and invention typically come from the young, this means that these countries will experience slow productivity growth rates, and hence slower or even no economic growth. He illustrates this with a detailed discussion of the case of Japan, “stuck in the world’s first low-birth recession.”

If the immigrants are coming here to get on welfare, why would they be stealing so many jobs?

An aging population presents many problems. The elderly retire, so society loses their labor. They live off accumulated capital, so less capital is available for new investment. Their medical costs rise dramatically. And they are less inventive than the young — which means that technical research may suffer.

What is richly ironic is that the US is managing to hang on to a replacement-level birthrate only because recent immigrants and their children have a much higher fertility rate than other people in the country. For example, Mexican-American women now have higher birthrates than Mexican women do.

Recently, economists James Stock and Mark Watson published a study (reviewed nicely in an Atlantic piece) arguing that we face a demographic problem, and need to increase our immigration accordingly.

8. One Anti-immigrationist Response: More Command-and-Control

The facts about the value of skilled immigrants are so compelling that many — although by no means all — contemporary anti-immigrationists have suggested that we “shift” immigration away from low- to high-skill labor. Borjas, Huntington, and Rector have all suggested this.

Specifically, Rector has called for:

  • Continuing to enforce the existing laws against illegal immigration;
  • Not granting amnesty to any of the 11 million or so illegal immigrants in this country now;
  • Allowing at most a temporary guest worker program; eliminating birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants (which I suspect would require amending the constitution);
  • Reducing the number of green cards based on kinship; and
  • Increasing the number of H-1B and other visas for skilled workers.

But this proposal presents a number of problems.

  • As economist Gordon Hanson (a co-author with Borjas in a number of articles) has noted, this “would eliminate the benefits to US consumers and employers from low-skilled immigration” (presumably lower prices and greater efficiency of production). As he further notes, “Economic theory suggests that the wage losses associated with immigration are more than offset by income gains to factors that are complementary to immigrant labor.”
  • He also notes that it would induce shifting manufacturing to lower-wage countries.
  • Let me note what I think is an even larger problem. If we are to oppose low-skilled immigrants because they lower wages for native-born low-skilled workers, wouldn’t that argue even more strongly against allowing in more immigrant high-skilled workers as well, because they would lower the wages for native-born ones? Certainly, past attempts to increase the ludicrously low number of allowable H-1B visas have met with fierce resistance from American-born tech workers. There are already organizations of engineers lobbying to halt high-tech immigration.
  • The proposal still leaves an aging workforce, because the number of high-skill immigrants is not huge.

Curiously, none of these contemporary anti-immigrationists who say they are willing to see more high-tech workers actually try to put a number on how high to raise (say) the H-1B limit. This is easily explained: they can’t. The Byzantine crazy-quilt of various visas and immigration venues (H-1B, H-2A, H-2B, EB-1 and so on) is set in a command-and-control way by politicians and bureaucrats trying to figure out the “optimal number” of each type of worker the economy “really needs” (again, as if God writes in stone how many jobs of a given type there will be) — but won’t turn out to be “too many” (meaning enough to lower the existing wages of anybody, as if keeping wages high is what God wants).

In this regard, I am surprised that the anti-immigrationists haven’t mentioned countries such as Canada and others that have actually tried to implement detailed “points” programs to determine just how “skilled” a worker is.

For example, under Canada’s scheme, candidates are rated as skilled labor on the basis of a somewhat complicated points program. Under this scheme:

  • A prospective immigrant applying under the “skilled labor” category gets points for a variety of things, and he has to have 67 total points to qualify.
  • So, for education, the prospective immigrant can get from 5 points for completing high school to 25 points for a Master’s or Ph.D.
  • He can get up to 24 points for being fluent in English or French, up to 10 points for age, up to 21 points for work experience, and up to 10 points for having a job offer from a Canadian employer.
  • He also needs to show funds in a Canadian bank (ranging from $10,000 for a single person to $27,000 for a family of seven or more) or have a job in hand in the country.
  • Moreover, he must have no criminal record.

As command-and-control approaches go, this is certainly sophisticated. But it has all the defects of any such scheme, since all are by definition grounded on a less-than-free market. The more obvious defects:

  • You don’t have to be Mises or Hayek to see that even if the various levels were set by perfectly rational, informed, and disinterested administrators, they couldn’t anticipate the ever-changing market needs. The economy is a chaotic system. How could any bureaucrat keep track of current needs in thousands of different skilled occupations?
  • Worse, the administrators are anything but perfectly rational, informed, and disinterested people. In fact, they are usually of, at best, mediocre intellect, lacking in knowledge of what they aim to regulate, and highly interested in the vested interests of whoever lines their pockets.
  • Why would having, say, a Master’s in Film Studies make you more economically valuable than, say, being a short-order cook?
  • Suppose you are a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, but broke. Aren’t you still a good candidate to become a citizen?
  • Would someone who trained on the job (say, in repairing computers) always be able to document his proficiency?
  • Don’t many very talented people drop out of college because they are bored, they have run out of money, or are forced to deal with a family emergency? Do we really want to exclude such people? Remember: Bill Gates was a college dropout.
  • If this system is so good at picking winners, why isn’t Canada the world leader in high-tech innovation?

I am a practical man. If the matter of just removing the caps on high-skill visas were all we could get by way of immigration reform, I would, like Mayor Bloomberg, support it. But let’s look at some better ideas.

9. Hanson’s Proposal

Economist Gordon Hanson has an approach to the problem that he calls a “rights-based program,” with a number of valuable features worth considering.

Under his plan, the goal would be to increase the ability of businesses to hire immigrants, and minimize the costs to taxpayers by “graduating” immigrant access to public benefits.

His plan includes these features.

  • Immigrants would begin with temporary renewable work visas (say, with 3 year terms).
  • On such a visa, the immigrant would have limited rights to certain public benefits (education, participation in a self-funded pension plan, and in a self-funded medical plan).
  • On such a visa, the immigrant would have no right to access what we normally call welfare (as opposed to “entitlement” programs such as Social Security and Medicare): public assistance (like TANF), food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid.
  • If the immigrant complies with the terms of the visa, it would automatically be renewed.
  • After a “specified number” of such renewals (he doesn’t actually specify the number), the immigrant could apply for a green card, which as now would put the immigrant in the Social Security and Medicare programs, and allow access to welfare programs.
  • The existing illegal immigrants would be allowed to apply for “special pool” temporary work visas, not green cards, perhaps limited to those who have been here six years or more.
  • To get a special pool visa, an existing illegal immigrant would need to have his employer apply. (What to do about people who own their own businesses or are otherwise self-employed, Hanson doesn’t say.) Since this would expose the employer to legal sanctions, some kind of immunity deal would have to be brokered.
  • Those illegal immigrants unable to qualify for special pool visas could apply for the regular temporary visas.
  • To ensure that allowing this many illegal immigrants a path to legitimacy doesn’t encourage more future illegal immigration, Hanson suggests that better enforcement would be needed. He sagely advises converting the Basic Pilot Program, which allows employers to check the validity of a job applicant’s Social Security Number electronically, against the DHS and the SSA, be made mandatory. That would make identifying the employment of illegal immigrants easy.
  • To set the number of temporary visas, the government could require businesses to advertise all their jobs and allow foreigners to apply, and the excess of applications over openings would be a metric the immigration authorities could use to issue temporary visas in the areas where they are needed most.
  • Congress would set a yearly cap on the number of visas to be issued, cutting down the number when there is a labor excess.

The appealing aspects of this system are that it directly addresses the pool of illegal immigrants, it tries to allow for the growth of immigration as needed, it allows for a shift to higher-skill immigration, while trying to limit the impact on the taxpayer. But it faces some major objections.

  • As Hanson concedes, it would create several classes of candidates with different levels of rights. The temporary visas would carry no welfare rights, but the green card had many rights restored to it in 2002 (under the argument that the immigrants were paying taxes for them).
  • He gives no idea of what the self-funded entitlements would look like.
  • It is unclear why any current illegal immigrant wouldn’t just try to get a regular temporary visa, because to get a special pool visa would require asking his current employer to identify himself.
  • The amount of work required of businesses to post openings, keep track of worldwide applications, and submit “special pool” applications on behalf of employees would be enormous, and would be quite a contribution to what is already a massive regulatory drag.
  • It is likely that immigrants would be applying for a large number of different jobs at the same time, compounding the workload for businesses.
  • It would be especially onerous for small businesses, which produce the majority of innovations and new jobs.
  • It would bias the immigration system against immigrants who want to start businesses or be otherwise self-employed.
  • Worse, again, it requires a command-and-control setting of quotas administered by biased and self-interested bureaucrats and politicians, almost all of whom are ofmediocre intelligence.

10. Becker’s Proposal

One economist reasonably labeled “classically liberal” is Gary Becker, 1992 Nobel Prize Laureate in economics. In a recent book,[xvii] he proposed a novel solution to the problem of immigration. As I have already reviewed the book in these pages, I will cover it briefly here.

Becker points out that immigration — both illegal and legal — is driven primarily by two gaps: between the average wage of the poor and the rich countries; and between the fertility rate of the poor and the rich countries.

Suppose you are a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, but broke. Aren’t you still a good candidate to become a citizen?

While he is sympathetic to open borders, he agrees with his old teacher Milton Friedman that immigration into a welfare state is problematic.

His solution to the costs of allowing widespread immigration into our country is bold and simple: allow anyone who wants to immigrate (except for the obvious cases of criminals, security threats, and people with communicable diseases) to do so upon paying, say, a $50,000 fee (which could be adjusted up or down as needed). He points to a number of advantages of this idea.

  • It would automatically tilt immigration in favor of the highly skilled, who can more easily pay the fee themselves or get employers to pay it,
  • It would automatically tilt immigration in favor of the young, because they will have a longer time to recoup their investments.
  • It would attract only the most committed to long-term immigration, because short-term immigrants would be deterred by the loss of their fees.
  • It would lessen nativist feelings, because people would see immigrants contributing tens of billions of dollars to help the government pay its bills.

I like Becker’s proposal, and would certainly take it over the present situation. But I have a few problems with it.

  • Regarding nativist sentiment, again, it ran high long before there were any appreciable welfare programs.
  • To the extent that we discourage the lower-skilled immigrants, to that extent we miss out on their substantial contributions to lower prices and greater productivity.
  • If Rector is right, $50,000 only covers about two and a half years of what immigrants cost society on average.
  • Worse, for high-skilled immigrants, who Rector agrees already contribute more than they take in, the $50,000 would seem to be a violation of theirproperty rights.
  • His scheme would deter some immigrants we especially want, such as young technical graduates who in a recession can only find low-skill work, but stand to get better work in a recovery, or entrepreneurs aiming to start a new company (risky enough, if they don’t have the capital to begin with).
  • Contrary to what he says, it would likely bias immigration towards older workers who have had time to accumulate the money.

11. Another Proposal

Let me try to sketch an alternative plan, based on what I view as the best ideas of Hanson’s and Becker’s plans, and informed by what Milton Friedman had to say about illegal immigration. I can only sketch it, for each part would require a large paper elaborating the policy details, and frankly, I am not a policy wonk. But I would suggest that a satisfactory program of reform would involve the following.

  • Any comprehensive immigration reform must not serve as an inducement for further illegal immigration. We should adopt Hanson’s mechanism for dealing with it: make computer checks of Social Security numbers mandatory for all new employees of all companies.
  • We need to dramatically increase the speed by which people wishing to immigrate legally are processed. I would suggest privatizing part of the process by, say, letting private security firms do the background checks that any applicant should undergo. As it stands, it often takes years for people to be given legal permission to come in. That has surely been a major source of illegal immigration.
  • Like Becker, I favor just junking the byzantine command-and-control visa schemes, and like Rector, I favor ending family preferences (except for minor children) as well asthe “diversity lottery.”
  • Like Becker, I want immigration to be open to all who want to come for work — except, naturally, people with a criminal background, or who pose a security risk, or have communicable diseases. We should have enhanced checks to search for criminals and security risks.
  • Like Hanson, I would issue a temporary work visa and a permanent residency card, but different from the current green card. Call it a blue card.
  • Both the temporary visa and the blue card would carry the same rights. The only difference would be that the blue card would be permanent, and allow application for citizenship in five years. Both would be aimed at eliminating the cost of immigrants to taxpayers.
  • Start with the major “entitlement programs.” Blue cardholders would not be part of the Social Security system. Instead, they would be required (as Hanson suggests) to be part of a defined contribution plan. He doesn’t give a model, but I will: it would be something like the Milton Friedman-inspired plan Chile adopted over 30 years ago, but updated and improved. That is, it would be like a 401k, but with investment limited to low-cost broad index funds and bond funds (so that workers wouldn’t gamble too dangerously with their retirement funds).
  • This would be the personal property of the worker. If he returns home, it would go with him. If he dies before he uses it up, it will be passed on to his heirs or whoever else he wants.
  • He would be required to contribute 10% of his salary before taxes, and that contribution would be deductible from them, with the Social Security contribution from employer and employee eliminated.
  • Even if the blue cardholder later became a citizen, he would never be part of the Social Security system, only of his blue card retirement system — period. Remember, he wouldn’t have been paying taxes to support the Social Security system, so he shouldn’t ever be entitled to it.
  • Instead of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, blue card holders would have a plan such as that advocated by eminent economist John C. Goodman. It is a voluntary subsidy system. In essence, it would give participants a subsidy of $2,500 per adult and $1,500 in addition, to buy catastrophic health insurance (think of it as a catastrophic health insurance voucher), and encourage health savings accounts for routine medical expenses.
  • The program would be funded by taxes on the pool of immigrants and their employers, in lieu of the Medicare tax. If the immigrant returns to his home country, he keeps his HSA, but loses his insurance. If he becomes a citizen, he stays on the system permanently. Again, he didn’t pay for Medicare, so shouldn’t receive it.
  • Regarding what we normally call “welfare,” i.e., means-tested direct government benefits, I would take Gordon Hanson’s plan one step further: neither temporary visa holders nor blue card holders would be eligible for them. Of course, once a blue card holder became a citizen he would be eligible.
  • Finally, recall that the visa and blue card holders would be paying all other local, state, and federal taxes (sales, gas, property, and income taxes) and fees. So their share of the police, fire, defense, and education services would be covered by their taxes, just as those of ordinary citizens are.
  • All illegal immigrants here could apply for temporary work visas, then blue cards. Their penalty for coming here illegally would be that any contributions made to Social Security and Medicare using “borrowed” ID numbers would not be credited to them, and they would pay any past income or other taxes due.
  • How many would accept the new rules? If the most extreme anti-immigrationists are right, none would stay, because those immigrants are all here for welfare. But I suspect that most will stay. Immigrants who accept the new rules will be legal and in the open, paying taxes in full, and paying their own way fully.

To be fair to Becker, he has a legitimate criticism of any proposal such as mine: that, over time, immigrants would grow in total percentage of the population and be able to vote away any restrictions such as I propose.

To this I have several replies. First, even at the peak periods for immigration in the past, immigrants at most came in at about 1.6% of the then existing population, and never constituted more than about 15% of the total population. It seems unlikely they could outvote the native-born.

Second, the restrictions I propose (such as personal ownership of one’s retirement account, and a self-funded medical plan that allows one to choose his own doctor) would likely prove popular with a fairly high percentage of the immigrants themselves.

Finally, the same point could be made about Becker’s proposal. Say we set the price of immigration at $50,000. Why couldn’t immigrants vote later to lower it to $5,000, or even $5?

There are several topics that space prohibits me from addressing fully. Let me just briefly state them, and my opinions on each, foregoing the elaboration and defense.

  • The first is how to handle those who clearly have no desire to work here permanently, but only temporarily — especially in the agricultural industry. Should we have the sort of short-term visas we had on the 1950s? I incline to say yes, but under the same restrictions as for permanent residents on entitlement and welfare programs.
  • Second, what should we do with the existing green cardholders? My view would be that ex post facto changes in the law are ethically (and legally) dubious, so I would let them remain as is. Only new permanent immigrants would go on the blue card program.
  • However, I would allow green cardholders to switch voluntarily to the new program, and it occurs to me that some of them — especially the younger ones — might well want to do that. The thought of not being on the Social Security system, but holding your own account, which can be handed down to your children in the event of your death, and doesn’t disappear when you die, and is not subject to being seized at some future date (i.e., “means tested” away) would surely be appealing to many. Also, as the Social Security and Medicare programs head off the financial cliff, many green card holders might be motivated to switch. If they do, they surrender any past contributions to those programs and any future participation in them.
  • Third, would I extend the waiting period before allowing those permanent immigrant workers who want to apply for citizenship to do so? No. Current green cardholders — who are eligible for many welfare benefits — can apply after five years, and I think that would be fine for blue cardholders. It is unlikely that many people who want welfare will work for five years just to qualify for it. But we could always extend the time required before applying for citizenship.
  • Fourth, to the issue of “anchor babies,” i.e., women who illegally immigrate to give birth to children who are then automatically citizens, while I don’t regard this as a major problem (there are only about 1 million such children, after so many years of a porous border), I would support conditioning the passage of immigration reform on the passage of a constitutional amendment conferring birth citizenship on only those children whose parents are here legally.

We have ample room for many, many more productive people. Let’s let them in, in numbers and skill-sets governed by the free market — but make sure they pay their own way, going forward.


[i] One might quickly reply that the Irish are above average now, but only after 150 years. But the equally quick counter is that their labor helped build this country along the way, especially in building the canals and railroads that were crucial to America’s rapid economic growth. Moreover, they gave not just their labor but their blood, starting most prominently in the Civil War — over 150,000 Irish fought for the Union, often as volunteers, but mostly as draftees. Of course, being immediately subject to the draft upon signing their citizenship papers made many recent Irish immigrants oppose that war, and some rioted against the draft. But the Irish certainly fought in huge numbers in the Civil War, and every war since.
Remember that the imperative of consequentialism is that we look at the costs and benefits over the long term. After all, virtually any economic change (introducing new technology, trading with other countries, or what have you) would always be bad, since somebody is bound to be discomforted in the short term.

[ii] One such worthy was Henry Goddard, IQ testing guru, who argued that 60% of Jewish immigrants came out at the “moron” level on his tests. Harry Laughlin, superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office from its founding in 1910 until 1939, was also an influential advocate for immigration restriction. Congress certainly heard testimony from the eugenicists arguing in favor of the restrictions on immigration. True, Congress hears a lot of testimony, and there is no way to tell how much the eugenicist testimony helped the cause of ending immigration. But the fact remains that their testimony was both solicited and given.

[iii] Hispanic immigrants are now the biggest groups in some Southwestern cities, such as Los Angeles and El Paso. Some argue that they have “ruined” L.A. and its formerly “good” school system, but that is, to say the least, debatable. El Paso, with its 75% Hispanic population, has the second lowest crime rate of any big city, and a decent school system. Streitfeld suggests that Hispanics have helped revitalize parts of L.A. that were hit hard by the earlier recessions the city has undergone. Moreover, the school system in L.A. has been going downhill ever since teachers unions assumed control, decades back.
The best answer to the claim that the influx of Hispanic immigrants has “ruined” the L.A. or California school system is the report by the Goldwater Institute studying the impact of Jeb Bush’s reforms on Florida’s school system. After his far-reaching reforms — which increased standards and genuine measures of progress, ended “social promotion,” instituted merit-based pay for teachers, and most importantly enhanced school choice — Florida’s Hispanic students statewide have the second-highest reading scores in the nation, exceeding the scores for all students in California. What has hurt California’s public school system is manifestly not the presence of Hispanic kids, but the complete control of it by the teachers unions, who block all attempts to reform it.
Obviously, I am not saying that the presence of large numbers of students who do not have English as their native tongue is beneficial to a school system. It is of course an extra burden. I am merely observing that in the past, prior to the advent of complete union control of the US public education system, it presented no insurmountable obstacles, and that where today proper reform has been instituted, it presents no insurmountable obstacles.

[iv] The argument for this is that America prior to this point had high tariffs, thus making markets abroad harder to access, but America during this period allowed virtually unlimited immigration. With the severe anti-immigrationist law of 1924, for the first time in history we had no free influx of labor (and thus consumers) and high tariffs, which were jacked up even more, shortly thereafter. The presence of huge pools of new residents prior to that provided both lower wages (hence prices) for domestically produced goods (which otherwise would be higher with the companies protected from inexpensive labor abroad), and increased internal markets for the produce of the nation. Again, I am not arguing that the immigration was “the” cause of the Depression at all, merely that there is reason to think that it may have played a role, and in any case, ending it did nothing to hold off the disaster.

[v] It might be claimed that the continued existence of Italian-American and Russian-Americangangs shows that not all ethnic groups rid themselves of organized crime. But I don’t find this in the least persuasive. The heyday of Italian-American organized crime was the 1920s–1930s, with lingering power in a few big cities into the 1980s, and pretty much shut down during the 1990s, despite the resurgence of gangster movies during the 1970s and onwards. Moreover, if the Italian-American gangs in their prime were more prominent than prior ethnic gangs, that was because those prior ethnic gangs weren’t given the gift of prohibition. As to the current presence of Russian-American gangs, they are from an entirely different wave of immigrants, viz., post-Soviet immigration.
Again, one might argue that this history suggests that any massive influx of immigrants of the same ethnic class will bring organized crime. Perhaps, but even if so, the history also shows that the costs of this organized crime is minor compared to the long-term benefits of the new groups — especially if you don’t have Prohibition!

[vi] Riley, Jason Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders (NY: Gotham Books, 2008). See pp. 15–37.

[vii] In fact, Magnet seems to suggests this view, when he quotes approvingly his colleague Malanga, who says, “Those earlier immigrants brought in a rich store of social capital: strong families, self-reliance, entrepreneurialism, a belief in education for their children, optimism about the future and belief in their new land rather than fatalism and cynicism. . . . by contrast, the American-born children of Mexican immigrants, two and a half times likelier to drop out of high school than the average American-born kid, earn less than the national average.”

[viii] It might be argued that illegal immigrants do cost society in education, which in California is about $13,000 yearly per student in direct costs alone. But the replies are obvious. First, to the extent those children are or become citizens, which many or even most eventually do, their education pays off in higher earnings to them, hence higher taxes paid to the governments (local, state, and federal). This is likely to be true even for L.A., whose school system processes a disproportionate percentage of California’s immigrant population, unless of course L.A. drives those educated children away by anti-business policies. Second, school expenses are paid primarily by property taxes, which illegal immigrants certainly pay (either directly, if they own their property, or indirectly, if they rent — as landlords build taxes into the rent they charge).

[ix] It might be replied that while reduced prices through lower wages increase society’s wealth, they lower wealth per capita. But this is dubious under a static analysis, and very dubious under a dynamic one. Statically, while some people’s wages may be lowered under immigration (though as I argue later, this is not clearly true), since prices go down, wages buy more, so average real wealth likely stays the same. This is precisely the same point with free trade — allowing cheap foreign goods will lower some wages short term, but the vastly lowered prices increase per capita wealth. Dynamically, by applying more efficient labor, immigration allows the more productive deployment of native-born labor — I point I explore later.

[x] A quick reply is that Fred and his crew may have a whole passel of kids, whose education is a cost to society. However, the equally quick counter is that Rector’s analysis already includes that cost. I am pointing out some benefits of immigration his analysis leaves out.

[xi] “Immigration Heritage,” editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Friday, June 8, 2007. This includes both legal and illegal immigrants.

[xii] It might be suggested that if we bring back the bracero program, and pay immigrants a low wage to (say) pick crops, they will just unionize, and the wages will just rise to what native-born workers would charge. The reply is that this has not happened, and didn’t happen during the period in the 1950s when the first Bracero program was enacted. Moreover, if the new bracero workers did unionize, then mechanization would become cost effective. That would means that the cost would go up for everyone, but that will happen anyway is we do not allow for immigrant labor.
Also, remember this: the rate of private sector unionization continues to decrease even among native-born workers. Only about 7% of private industry workers are now in unions, way down from the 35% or so back in the early 1950s.

[xiii] It might be suspected that the reason the Card study showed no impact on wages is because the Mariel immigrants were in large part insane asylum or prison inmates, so wound up in institutions. But the Card paper addresses this, arguing that only a small percentage of the Mariel immigrants were criminals or mentally ill, and that most of those were soon deported back to Cuba. Perhaps the Mariel immigration was too small for a proper statistical analysis to show the negative effects of the criminal and mentally ill Marielistas on society, but in any case the other studies cited looked at other groups of immigrants, and the general conclusion was the same.

[xiv] Again, one might argue that the presence of large numbers of children of immigrants is a big part of why the public schools are lousy to begin with. To that point, see the study “Demography Defeated: Florida’s K-12 Reforms and Their Lessons for the Nation” (cited above) showing that after reform in Florida, Hispanic students have moved ahead nationally — and so have African-American students. As I noted above, historically, before teachers unions took control of the American public school system, waves of non-native speakers (Jews, Poles, Chinese, Hungarians, Germans, Italians, and so on) were educated rapidly in the American public school system in the dominant language, and it is now being done successfully in schools that have been reformed (under the pressure of school choice in particular).

[xv] Even if the money sent home by the immigrant is converted to the local currency and invested there, the bank or other entity exchanging the American currency for foreign currency would have to spend it or invest it back here, again creating jobs. This is what I mean by the qualifier “directly or indirectly.”

[xvi] See page 13.

[xvii] Becker, Gary. The Challenge of Immigration (London: The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2011).




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