The Pope: Enough Already

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Everywhere in the American media, Pope Francis is lauded as a “humble” man. The evidence? He sometimes has himself driven in a Fiat, rather than a Mercedes, and he has abandoned the papal apartments in the Vatican for a smaller residence. Isn’t that a waste of money, by the way? The magnificent papal residence will still be maintained (I hope), despite the Pope’s refusal to sleep in the bed provided for him.

The real problem, however, is that no one seems to be asking whether he is humble in any other way.

Certainly he isn’t humble about throwing his weight around. He isn’t humble about broadcasting his opinions on global warming and what should be done about it. He isn’t humble about attacking capitalism. He isn’t humble about demanding that Europeans provide free livelihoods for as many Islamic immigrants as want to force their way across the borders. He isn’t humble about addressing the United States Congress and dispensing his views about America’s duty to welcome its own illegal migrants.

I have a proposal. Politicians should curb their tongues about religion, and priests should curb their tongues about politics.

Of course, there is no reason why any of this should be of any more interest than the views of any other individual who (1) knows little or nothing about science, (2) knows little or nothing about economics and history, and (3) will not be paying for the policies he recommends. When one weighs the Pope’s moral pretensions against his intellectual abilities, the thud on one side of the scales is deafening.

It is noteworthy that the very Democrats and other leftists who are always demanding that Christmas be called the Winter Holiday and political candidates refrain from religious utterances have gone completely over the top in pushing the Pope to endorse their own positions on immigration, “climate change,” and welfarism. The Republicans have been equally giddy about welcoming the Pope to the spiritual feast that is Washington politics. On September 24, Speaker Boehner was so overwhelmed by the Pope’s political presence that he broke down in tears.

I have a proposal. Politicians should curb their tongues about religion, and priests should curb their tongues about politics: no pols addressing the crowds at Sunday services, and no Pope addressing Congress. The very idea of inviting a religious leader to lecture American legislators is a nightmare vision to anyone who actually values the separation of church and state.




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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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