Restrictionist/ Relaxationist

In a widely discussed column in Monday’s New York Times, David Brooks said that he’d like to be a moderate on immigration policy, but that he can’t find any good arguments for the restrictionist position. I find myself in something of the opposite position. I’m basically a relaxationist, but the arguments for relaxing immigration policy never stand up very well to any sort of rational scrutiny.

Take the main argument Mr Brooks sets forth in his column, that native born Americans show an increasing disdain for the sorts of activities necessary to keep capitalism growing:

Over all, America is suffering from a loss of dynamism. New business formation is down. Interstate mobility is down. Americans switch jobs less frequently and more Americans go through the day without ever leaving the house.

But these trends are largely within the native population. Immigrants provide the antidote. They start new businesses at twice the rate of nonimmigrants. Roughly 70 percent of immigrants express confidence in the American dream, compared with only 50 percent of the native-born.

Immigrants have much more traditional views on family structure than the native-born and much lower rates of out-of-wedlock births. They commit much less crime than the native-born. Roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males between 18 and 39 wind up incarcerated compared with 3.3 percent of the native-born.

Rod Dreher amplified this point in a blog post about Mr Brooks’ column. Mr Dreher focuses specifically on anecdotes suggesting that native born American youth show an increasing disdain for physical labor:

Around 2007, I think it was, my late father, who lived in rural Louisiana, had some brush he needed clearing in a field he owned. He usually did this himself — or, when I was a kid, with me — but by then he was long retired, and was physically unable to do it. I was living far away.

When I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, it wasn’t hard to find high school kids to do this kind of work. Our parish was 50 percent black, and 50 percent white. We had almost no Asians or Latinos. White kids, black kids, you could hire kids to do this work. As I said, I did this kind of work for my dad. I hated it. It was hot, and it was demanding. But this is what you did.

Not by 2007. No white teenage boys wanted to do that kind of hard physical labor. My father drove into a black neighborhood and found groups of young men — men in their 20s — sitting around with nothing to do. He offered them several times the minimum wage to come clear brush for him for a day. They all declined. They were all out of work and doing nothing that day, but it wasn’t worth it to them. He was a retiree on a fixed income, and couldn’t pay anything more than that. But when I was a teenager, any number of young men would have jumped at the opportunity. Not anymore. Neither whites nor blacks would do physical labor.

(That’s not strictly true — I know a handful of both white men and black men there today who do exactly this kind of work, but at the time my dad needed it, they either weren’t in business, or were too booked up.)

Anyway, my dad didn’t know what to do. One of his friends said that a few Guatemalans had moved into the parish recently. If I recall correctly, they had come with a large contingent of Central Americans who had moved to New Orleans to work on post-Katrina reconstruction. My dad’s friend put him in touch with one of them. They were eager to work. My dad hired the three Guatemalan men who were in town. They cleared the brush in a day, and did a great job of it.

My father was grateful, and he ended up hiring them on more occasions when he needed that kind of work done. My dad was an old white Southern man, and though we never talked about immigration, I imagine he held the usual prejudices about outsiders from Latin America. But I know for a fact he was impressed by those Guatemalan men, and came away with a very positive impression of them. As I’ve mentioned here on other posts, my dad grew up poor, and had a very, very strong work ethic. He judged men based on their willingness to work. As far as he was concerned, those Guatemalan men proved to him their worth that day.

Here’s the thing. In that time, and in that place, there was physical labor to be done. My father, who was very conservative, tried to hire native-born Americans, both black and white, to do the work. He struck out. Over the past 40 years, the cultural attitude towards hard physical labor has changed, for both blacks and whites in our parish. The only men he could find who were willing to do the work were Latino immigrants. Ours is a relatively poor part of America, so the wages he offered them for a day’s labor were standard.

Now, you could say that the immigrants were undercutting the locals by being willing to work for less. You might be right about that. But in my recollection, the locally born young men, white or black, would not even name a price. They simply didn’t want to do the work, even though they had no work otherwise. My pensioner father, being a rural man of the Depression generation, read that as moral decline.

I offered this comment in response to Mr Dreher’s post:

If native-born youth are coming to regard physical labor with disdain, delegating physical labor to a foreign-born underclass will surely do nothing but accelerate that process.

Which, the more I think about it, seems to be entirely sufficient to explode Mr Brooks’ case. If the native born population were going to compete directly with new arrivals, then the new arrivals might remake them in their image. We could then decide that we prefer that image to what native have been showing us, and consider that a point in favor of a relaxationist policy. But everything Mr Brooks and Mr Dreher have said indicates that this will not happen, that the natives will respond to immigrant industriousness by priding themselves ever more intensely on sloth.  Friends of mine who have spent time in the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf have told me that a dynamic like this can produce a singularly unattractive sort of young man. So Mr Brooks’ column and Mr Dreher’s post, while they may not make a case for any particular form of restrictionism, certainly do make it more difficult for those of us who would like to make a case for a relaxationist position.

I should mention that Mr Brooks’ case has been systematically dismantled by the hated Steve Sailer. Say what you will about Mr Sailer, there isn’t much he hasn’t heard when it comes to immigration, and he is very well-prepared to defend his position.

Going to press before Mr Brooks’ column appeared were a piece by Damon Linker complaining that the American center-left is having some kind of collective nervous breakdown over immigration at precisely the moment when the public most needs them to think about the issue calmly.

Also appearing before Mr Brooks’ column was a piece by Ishmael Reed, “Using Immigrants to Shame American Blacks.” Mr Reed comments on the high rate of educational attainment among Nigerian and other African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the USA. This comes with a downside for African Americans, not only because whites use the success that some immigrants from those countries enjoy in the USA to justify their denial that African Americans face unfair burdens, but also because many people from those countries are themselves prejudiced against African Americans. Mr Reed writes that “for some Black Americans, immigration means the arrival of more racists to add to the ones already here.”

A point Mr Reed does not make is that Nigeria, Haiti, and other countries he mentions as sources for highly educated, highly capable immigrants to the USA are themselves in need of the services of such people, and the brain drain to the already-developed world is one of the major obstacles to starting the process of rapid economic development.

For this reason, it is an act of war for a rich country to maintain an open border with a poor one, and such economic warfare can be justified only in extraordinary circumstances. For example, when Daesh was in control of much of Syria many people in the West proposed lifting all restrictions on immigration from Syria to Europe and North America. If Daesh were going to win its war and become the permanent regime in that country, such a policy might have been justified. It would have stripped Syria of its educated professional class and of its most industrious entrepreneurs, thereby reducing the country to extreme poverty and limiting the ability of that extremist sect to pose a long-term threat to the peace of the world. As long as there was a chance that Daesh would be defeated, as it now seems to have been, such a policy would have been unconscionable. Since neither Nigeria, nor Haiti, nor indeed any country anywhere in the world is in the position that Syria would have occupied under the firmly established control of Daesh, it would be equally unconscionable for the USA to adopt a policy of open borders towards any of them.

Anyway, that isn’t something Mr Reed talks about.  However, the fact that so many on the center-left are so utterly oblivious to the impact on sending countries of the brain drain that high levels of immigration of highly-skilled workers implies can be explained only if Mr Reed is right and the boosters of ultra-relaxationism have derived their ideas from racism.

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Four reasons why quoting the Bible rarely settles political disagreements

I spend a fair bit of time hanging out with mild-mannered progressive Christians.  One thing that I like about the members of that group is that they don’t often try to spring Bible quotes on you as a means of settling political disagreements.  The last couple of weeks, though. there has been a tremendous amount of backsliding among progressive Christians in this regard. As a result, I’ve been avoiding social media lately.* So many of my friends have been quoting passages from Leviticus and the Gospel According to Luke as if those passages made it obvious what policies the United States of America and the European Union should adopt towards refugees and migrants from southwest Asia, and have been calling down fire and brimstone on those who are unconvinced, that my news feed on Facebook and my stream on Twitter have started to feel like a tent revival with an especially dyspeptic preaching staff.  Quite a few people whom I know to be committed universalists, believers in a doctrine holding that all souls are destined for salvation, have posted statements that those who do not share their position on this issue will be going to Hell.

There are many hazards to attempts to use the Bible to settle political disagreements.  Some are more obvious than others.  For example:

  1. Not everyone agrees that the Bible is authoritative. This is a sufficiently familiar point that I can hardly imagine it needs elaboration.
  2. Not everyone who does agree that the Bible is authoritative agrees on how it should be interpreted.In connection with border policy, relaxationists like to quote two excerpts from the Gospel of Luke. These excerpts are the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  The Samaritan is good because he shows hospitality to a non-Samaritan, the shepherd chooses those who perform such acts of mercy as welcoming strangers and rejects those who do not.  Advocates of a relaxationist stand on border policy trot these verses out in confidence that they will clobber restrictionists into silence.

    And so they may.  But beware.  One Samaritan is good to the beaten man; three Jews are bad to him.  That story could as easily be called “The Parable of the Bad Jews” as the “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”  And so on with the rest of the Gospel of Luke, including the sheep and the goats.  The consistent, overarching theme of the whole thing is that early first century Jews are hypocrites, unworthy of their divine heritage, and that they will be punished unless they join the movement forming around Jesus.  Progressive Christians reflexively identify themselves and the church as the heirs of this rebuke, and say that the strictures that Jesus lays upon the superficially pious Jews of his day apply to the superficially Christians of our day.  But that is not the only interpretation Luke has received over the centuries.  Plenty of readers, among them people wielding whatever form of sacred or secular authority you may find impressive, have read Luke as a mandate for every form of anti-Jewish activity, up to and including genocidal violence.  If that’s the road you’re bent to follow, nothing in the Bible will stop you traveling down it.

  3. The Bible is a complex book, political disputes are complex situations, and overlaying the one complexity on top of the other leads to more confusion than enlightenment.  It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone really does not accept that a book like the Bible, 36,000 verses in a variety of languages and literary genres, produced by the work of untold numbers of people over more than a dozen centuries, can provide a reader with support for any position that reader would like to see supported. Still, people do seem to lose sight of this.Here’s a tweet that exemplifies the problem:https://twitter.com/owillis/status/666345924013252609

    To which a smart-aleck might reply that the command to uproot the seed of Amalek is limited neither by the liturgical calendar nor by the passage of centuries, and inquire if that is the model Mr Willis would have us follow.

    If we do want to stick with something specifically called for by the liturgical calendar, in the impeccably progressive Episcopal Church this morning’s Daily Office reading from the Old Testament was from the prophet Joel (chapter 3, verses 1-2 and 9-17.) It includes a call for the Jews of the Diaspora to reverse what Isaiah had seen, to beat ploughshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears, to stand in the valley and do battle for the heritage of Israel.  It concludes with the lines “And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it.”

    I’d certainly rather we lean towards a relaxationist line than a restrictionist one, and if we have no choice but to cite Bible verses in defense of border policy, I’d always prefer a sanitized view of Luke to a full-throated version of Joel, or Exodus, or Deuteronomy, or Samuel, or Joshua.  But I think a wiser use of the Bible starts with verses 26.4 and 26.5 of the Book of Proverbs:
    26.4. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
    26.5. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

    Do these verses contradict each other?  Obviously they contradict each other; that’s the point.  The Bible is a reliable companion, and can be a wise counselor, if we listen to it in the right mind.  But it doesn’t make our decisions for us.  We’re still responsible for living our lives.  We need our own judgment to tell us whether any particular group of people are fools or not.  Having decided that they are fools, we need our judgment to decide whether, in a given situation, it is more important to keep ourselves distinct from their foolishness or to try to persuade them to leave it behind.  Once we’ve made that decision, the appropriate proverb will tell us the consequence of our decision.  Holding aloof from folly, we must abide it in silence.  Trying to correct folly, we must ourselves become somewhat foolish.

    In regard to border policy, I think the Bible is useful to us only after we have decided whether we, like Moses and Joshua and Samuel and Joel, are members of a community that is called upon to establish itself as a distinct people with a distinct destiny in the divine drama of history, or whether we, like the contemporaries of Jesus as described in Luke, are members of a community that has gone as far in that drama as distinctiveness will take it and so must set our distinctions aside and embrace a new kind of identity.  I tend to lean toward the shedding distinctiveness side, and rarely read the violent passages of scripture without horror and revulsion.  But my progressive friends, in their spasms of self-righteousness, have managed to take their immigration relaxationism so far that I am coming to see value even in the injunctions to smite Amalek.

  4. One theme the Bible makes abundantly clear is that God will surprise us.  The Bible time and again tells us explicitly that God will surprise us; it articulates a world-view every portion of which implies that God will surprise us; it tells the stories of hundreds of people, all of whom are at some point God surprises; and readers of the Bible, every time they turn to it with their ears and minds open, will be freshly surprised by its contents.  Sometimes the surprises the Bible tells us to watch for will be pleasant. God will answer prayers, make miracles, and provide evidence that we are right and the other fellow is wrong.  These are very agreeable surprises.  Other times the surprises are extremely disagreeable.  Among the consequences of disagreeable surprises is the realization that all of our beliefs have been ill-founded.  Therefore, citing the Bible in order to justify one’s certitude that one’s beliefs are well-founded is likely to exasperate those daily readers of the Bible who have internalized its injunctions to accept that God alone is wise, that God alone knows in full what God’s plans are for us and for the world, and that God’s ways are not our ways and cannot be searched by our lights.

*WordPress is an unsocial medium, an online hermitage, as witness the fact that it’s almost indecent to blog under your real name here.

Illegals

On October 15, linguist Neal Whitman wrote a piece on his blog in which he conceded that there are several good reasons to avoid the term “illegal immigrant.”  He cites three of these:

  1. It is politically divisive or inflammatory.
  2. It presumes guilt before due process has been done.
  3. It is inaccurate in characterizing people who entered legally but overstayed their visa, or did not come here of their own accord.

Mr Whitman accepts all of these arguments, and grants that the term “illegal alien” is dehumanizing and should be avoided at all times.  He does register a dissent from a fourth argument, however:

[The phrase “illegal immigrant”] is nonsensical, because illegal refers to acts, not to people.

Mr Whitman categorizes this claim as “just plain silly, and grasping at straws.”  He explains:

When the noun is the agentive form of a verb, and the adjective is the morphological analog of a manner adverb, there is a common, productive rule of semantic composition that gets you to the accepted meaning. Let me illustrate with an example unburdened by controversy. If I were to say, “Sandy is a deep thinker,” it would be willfully obtuse to say, “Hey, wait a minute! People can’t be deep!” If I were to tell you, “Lee is a beautiful dancer,” I could be telling the truth even if Lee’s face, when covered by a paper bag, could still make clocks lose two minutes per hour. In short,

dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker :: immigrates illegally : illegal immigrant

Object to the term illegal immigrant on ethical, political, or legal grounds if you want to. But don’t resort to claiming the term embodies sloppy semantics, when it’s the most natural way to refer to someone who immigrated illegally. That just makes it look like you’ll accept any old argument that favors your side, and weakens the more valid ones.

On October 17, I commented on Mr Whitman’s post as follows:

I have a reservation about “illegal immigrant.” It is a long, awkward expression (six syllables, two lexical items, several highly abstract notions embedded in it,) so people will naturally want to shorten it. And the form to which it always seems to be shortened is “illegal.” As in, “How many illegals are in the USA?” That usage doesn’t exactly invite the full range of opinions as to what our policies should be with regard to immigration. Granted, a phrase like “undocumented worker” also signals a strong preference in the same regard. Using either term suggests that the speaker has set his or her face firmly against one side of the discussion. Perhaps if we as a society declared both expressions off-limits in polite conversation, people would come up with a truly neutral term. Of course, there would always be the danger that one or both of the expressions would sneak back into the language and steel American jaws, but that’s just something we’d have to guard against.*

On October 22, functional linguist Daniel Ginsberg wrote this comment:

Full disclosure: I’m a functional linguist, so I tend to be skeptical of people talking about what “words mean” in the absence of a person who used those words to encode a specific message. Also, I’m pretty far to the left of mainstream in American politics, and I’ve spent years working with immigrants, so you can guess what my personal choice of phrase is.

That said, my intuition is that the problem with “illegal immigrant” isn’t as much in the semantics of adjective-noun compounds as in the associations with the word “illegal.” The top hits of a COCA** search for “illegal [*nn]” are “immigrants, immigration, aliens,” and after that we get into “drugs, weapons, substances, acts, dumping, gambling, arms,” as well as “workers,” which seems to be a euphemism for “immigrants.” Going down the list, other collocates that refer to human beings are always other terms for *ahem* undocumented workers: “residents,” “entrants” (into the U.S.), “population.” The top 100 collocations in COCA don’t show any “illegal” + person pairings except for “illegal immigrants” and synonyms.

So the question becomes, if the language permits “illegal N” to mean “person who did N in an illegal way,” why is N nearly exclusively reserved to signify “immigrate into the United States”? Why isn’t Bernie Madoff an “illegal banker,” or Jack Kevorkian an “illegal doctor,” or Lance Armstrong an “illegal cyclist”?

The CDA*** researcher in me says, we’re making a class of “illegal things” here, that is implicitly expressing an ideology about the nature of illegality. The contents of that class include assault weapons, addictive drugs, the pollution of waterways with industrial runoff, cutting trees on protected land, running a casino out of your basement … and sneaking across the US border because conditions in your home country are so dire that you have no hope for a better life there.

Mr Whitman’s post and the discussion appended to it presaged a news story that broke a few days later.  On October 19, the Associated Press released a statement announcing that it would continue to use the phrase “illegal immigrant” to refer to people who have entered and established residence in the United States without the permission of the legal authorities.  The wire service‘s defense of this decision reads eerily like what Mr Whitman had posted a few days before:

Finally, there’s the concern that “illegal immigrant” offends a person’s dignity by suggesting his very existence is illegal. We don’t read the term this way. We refer routinely to illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors and so forth. Our language simply means that a person is logging, mining, selling, etc., in violation of the law — just as illegal immigrants have immigrated in violation of the law. (Precisely to respect the dignity of people in this situation, the Stylebook warns against such terms as “illegal alien,” “an illegal” or “illegals.”)

The press release goes on to describe circumstances in which the AP would avoid the phrase or add qualifications to it, descriptions which again recall Mr Whitman’s agreement that the first three arguments he cites constitute good reasons for using another expression:

The first thing to note is that “illegal immigrant” is not the only term we use. The Stylebook entry on this subject was modified a year ago to make clear that other wording is always acceptable, including “living in the country without legal permission.”

In fact, there are cases where “illegal immigrant” doesn’t work at all. For instance, if a young man was brought into the country by parents who entered illegally, he didn’t consciously commit any act of “immigration” himself. It’s best to describe such a person as living in the country without legal permission, and then explain his story.

There are also cases where a person’s right to be in the country is currently in legal dispute; in such a case, we can’t yet say the person is here illegally.

But what about the cases where we do write “illegal immigrants”? Why not say “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants,” as some advocates would have it?

To us, these terms obscure the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law. It’s simply a legal reality.

Terms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized” can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork. Many illegal immigrants aren’t “undocumented” at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver’s license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.

Without that right, their presence is illegal. Some say the word is inaccurate, because depending on the situation, they may be violating only civil, not criminal law. But both are laws, and violating any law is an illegal act (we do not say “criminal immigrant”).

Mr Whitman’s blog is titled “Literal-Minded“; its tagline is “Linguistic Commentary from a Guy Who Takes Things Too Literally.”  So when he argues that the rules of English semantics permit a construction like “illegal immigrant,” it is quite believable that his agenda does not go beyond the explication of those rules.  The sheer fact that the phrase is well-formed does not mean that anyone should ever use it, and so his argument is by no means a defense of its use.  He recognizes this; the AP does not.  Its press release offers no defense of the phrase beyond its formal admissibility as a semantic structure, and does not answer any of the objections Mr Whitman had so readily acknowledged.

On October 31, Slate magazine carried a piece by Kerry Howley, associated with the title “Is Saying ‘Illegal Immigrant’ Like Saying ‘Illegal Logger‘?”  Ms Howley reports on the AP’s decision; a photo accompanying the piece carries the caption “Support for undocumented immigrants at the Democratic National Convention. Supporters of illegal loggers never showed.”  Neither Mr Whitman nor the AP had mentioned any particular group or individual that had asked the wire service to discontinue use of the phrase “illegal immigrant”; Ms Howley links to a website associated with the campaign known as “Drop the I Word.”  In response to the AP’s observation that “[t]erms like ‘undocumented’ and ‘unauthorized’ can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork,” Ms Howley argues:

“Illegal” suggests fault with immigrants rather than the system of laws in which they are ensnared. It’s possible that illegal loggers are illegal because of poorly drawn statutes about public land—maybe they’re really freedom loggers—but that’s not the connotation.

“Undocumented” places the burden on the bureaucracy rather than on the moral integrity of any particular person. That’s the correct position in my view, and I reveal prior judgments when I use the word “undocumented” just as restrictionists do when they say “illegal.” What’s bizarre is that the Associated Press, having deemed “undocumented” a loaded term, thinks “illegal” to be perfectly descriptive, sprung from nowhere, privileging no side of the debate. It may be that there is no objective term with which to describe people guilty of being in a particular space without state permission. You have to pick one and own it, which “Drop the I-word” seems to recognize. They suggest you start saying “NAFTA Refugee.”

Here Ms Howley echoes my comment of the 17th, though without my suggestion that we might try to invent a new term that will be neutral.  Of course, I made that suggestion in less than total earnestness- there doesn’t seem to be any great demand for detached, objective discussion of immigration policy, much less for new vocabulary to promote such discussion.  All sides of the debate are driven by people who favor policies which they regard as indispensable to their livelihoods.  In that position, people look at words as weapons with which to fight the enemies who threaten them, not as laboratory equipment with which to gain understanding.  So when you choose your words, you choose your battles.

*None of the subsequent commenters said anything about “steel American jaws,” a line of which I was somewhat proud.  I would have been happy if they had said it made them laugh, but I’m not upset that they didn’t. 

**COCA = the Corpus of Contemporary American English

***CDA = Critical Discourse Analysis

Where left and right meet

In the October issue of The American Conservative, Ron Unz asks what high levels of immigration from Latin America to the USA mean for the future of the Republican Party.  Mr Unz, the magazine’s publisher,  disagrees with sometime American Conservative columnist Steve Sailer.  Mr Sailer has argued that as whites become a numerical minority in the USA, they will vote more like other minority groups.  That is to say, all but a small percentage of them will vote for a single party.  The Republican Party already enjoys the support of most white voters; indeed, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote since 1964.  So if Mr Sailer’s prediction comes true, the Republicans will by midcentury routinely receive 80% or more of the white vote.  To support his prediction, Mr Sailer typically refers to the states of the southeast, where throughout most of American history whites have represented the lowest percentage of the overall population and where today vast majorities of whites vote Republican.  Since in the USA whites are likelier to turn out and vote than are most nonwhite groups, and the regions where whites represent the highest percentage of the population are overrepresented in the electoral system, bloc voting by whites could keep Republicans in power for decades after whites become a minority, even that party makes no inroads with any other ethnic group.  Mr Sailer isn’t particularly happy about this scenario; in a piece about the 2010 elections, he wrote “You’d prefer not to live in a country where whites vote like a minority bloc? Me too! But maybe we should have thought about that before putting whites on the long path to minority status through mass immigration.”

In his response to Mr Sailer, Mr Unz points out that the longstanding racial makeup of the southeastern USA is quite different from the situation emerging in the country today.  The southeast has long been populated by a great many whites, many many African Americans, and a tiny smattering of people of other ethnic groups.  By contrast, neither the people coming to the USA from countries to its south nor their descendants born in the States tend to identify strongly as either white or African American.  So if we want to see what the future might hold for the Republicans, Mr Unz suggests we turn to New Mexico and Hawaii, two states whose demographics are similar to those which are likely to prevail nationally if present trends continue.  The good news is that there isn’t much racial tension in New Mexico or Hawaii.  Whites there do not feel embattled, and do not vote as a minority bloc.  What Mr Unz considers bad news is that the Republicans are definitely the second party in each state.   Mr Unz concludes that the Republicans are likely to fade into irrelevance unless steps are taken to reduce immigration. (Steve Sailer replies to Mr Unz here and here.)

What steps does Mr Unz advise to achieve this result?  He does not suggest fortifying the border, or covering the country with armies of immigration officers, or deporting everyone who speaks Spanish, or requiring everyone in the USA to show that their papers are in order every time a policeman needs a way to pass the time.  He proposes instead a substantial increase in the minimum wage, from the current rate of $7.25 per hour to $10 or $12 per hour.  After all, immigrants come here to work, and those who come from countries where the prevailing wage is significantly lower than the prevailing wage in the USA can improve their standards of living and send substantial cash remittances back to their families by accepting jobs at less than the currently prevailing wage.  So it’s no surprise that in recent decades, as immigration to the USA has increased, median wages in the USA have declined.  Set a floor to wages, and you limit the ability of employers to arbitrage wage differences between the USA and the countries to its south.  Mr Unz writes that “The automatic rejoinder to proposals for hiking the minimum wage is that “jobs will be lost.” But in today’s America a huge fraction of jobs at or near the minimum wage are held by immigrants, often illegal ones. Eliminating those jobs is a central goal of the plan, a feature not a bug.”

Mr Unz’ proposal is quite intriguing.  Defenders of high levels of immigration often point to the harsh measures by which anti-immigration laws are enforced and posit a choice between open borders and a police state.  Raising the minimum wage doesn’t play into that trap.  Indeed, by raising the minimum wage and limiting public benefit to legal residents, it might be possible to scrap all other restrictions on immigration.  That would do away, not only with compromises to civil liberties and inter-ethnic harmony, but also with a great many perverse incentives.  Nowadays, immigration laws increase employers’ power over their undocumented workers, so that they dare not complain to legal authorities when employers violate their rights, lest they face deportation.  So policies that would enforce the immigration laws with more deportations actually weaken employees vis a vis employers, thereby further depressing wages.  Do away with the immigration police, raise the minimum wage, and enforce the minimum wage with jail time for employers who underpay, and you reverse that power relation.  Employers who tried to pay less than minimum wage would be subject to blackmail from their employees.  Nor would there be any need for a Canadian-style points system to ensure that only people with needed skills migrate to the country.  If employers are paying high wages to immigrants, that is a surer sign that those immigrants have skills the employers need than are the results of any government evaluation.

That the publisher of a magazine called The American Conservative would argue for a substantial increase in the minimum wage as a way of reducing the number of nonwhites immigrating to the USA suggests that the far right has circled around the political spectrum and found itself occupying the same spot as the center left.  Indeed, elsewhere in the issue this idea is developed explicitly.  An article by Michael Tracey (subscribers only, sorry) carries the title “Ralph Nader’s Grand Alliance: Progressives Find Hope– in Ron Paul.”  The dash in the subhed acknowledges the unlikelihood that the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman would inspire anything but dismay in lefties, but no less distinguished a campaigner for a more egalitarian America than Ralph Nader has spoken out forcefully for a left-right alliance as the logical outcome of the movement in which Dr Paul is a leader.  Mr Tracey writes: “‘Look at the latitude,’ Nader says, referring to the potential for collaboration between libertarians and the left.  ‘Military budget, foreign wars, empire, Patriot Act, corporate welfare- for starters.  When you add it all up, that’s a foundational convergence.  Progressives should do so good.'”

I admire Mr Nader.  I’m glad to say I voted for him for president in 2000, and I wish I’d had the guts to vote for him again in 2004.  But I don’t quite agree with him on this point.  Our difference can be summed up in his use of the word “foundational.”  To me, saying that there is a “foundational convergence” between two groups would suggest that they are pursuing the same goals and using the same standards of judgment.  That clearly is not the case here.  Left-wingers and libertarians may oppose many of the same things, but they are not for any of the sane things.  A traditionalist conservative like Mr Unz may be for an increased minimum wage and a less intrusive immigration police, but his goal is to keep America’s racial demography from changing.  That’s hardly a goal any leftist could endorse.  For my own part, I would be quite happy to see an America with a much larger Latino and Asian population, especially if that meant that the confrontational racial politics that have long characterized the states of the southeast and many cities in the northeast would lose their tension and follow the relatively easygoing path of Hawaii and New Mexico, even at the price of continued growth in income inequality.  Of course, I would much prefer to reduce both racial hostility and income inequality, and there is a limit to the amount of one that I would accept as a price for reducing the other.  I would be very reluctant to endorse any politics that forced a choice between those evils, and I think most left-of-center Americans would be equally reluctant to do so.  That isn’t to say that the left and the “Old Right” of libertarians and antiwar traditionalists are so far apart that cooperation between them is impossible, but their goals and ideological premises are so utterly different that a coalition between them would be doomed unless it were very modest in its ambitions.

Speaking of race relations in the southeastern USA, I should mention that at the moment, The American Conservative‘s website carries a rather beautiful blog posting on that topic from Rod Dreher.  Mr Dreher is responding to a short piece that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic‘s website about white people who refer to African American neighbors of theirs as “our blacks.”

In the same issue, Samuel Goldman’s review of Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right praises Professor Eagleton’s exposition and defense of Karl Marx’ philosophical theories.  Mr Goldman is obviously not a Marxist, but commends Professor Eagleton for putting to rest many canards that his lazier critics have flung at Marx over the years.  On the other hand, Mr Goldman takes very sharp exception to Professor Eagleton’s attempts to defend the economic record of Marxist regimes.  Towards the end of his review, Mr Goldman discusses Professor Eagleton’s analysis of Marx’ place as an inheritor of classical political theory, stretching back to Aristotle.  He points out that this discussion is not original, but that it treads a path through territory very well explored by Alasdair MacIntyre.  Professor MacIntyre is one of my favorites; I’m always glad to see his name.  The magazine published Mr Goldman’s review under the title “Baby Boomers Make Their Marx,” and Mr Goldman does make a few remarks here and there disparaging “the post-1968 left.”  The idea of Professor Eagleton’s book as a generational statement is the main theme of another review of Professor Eagleton’s book, one that was linked on Arts and Letters Daily earlier this week.  That review appeared in Quadrant, an Australian journal that shares a number of contributors with The American Conservative.

The Political Stupidity Index; or, What separates the USA from the world to its south

Some US presidents not powered by petroleum

The July issue of Counterpunch just showed up in my mailbox; I suppose I could have read it weeks ago if I subscribed to the email version rather than the paper-and-ink one.  If I did that, however, I wouldn’t be able to leave old copies in laundromats and doctor’s offices and wonder who is getting a shock from them. 

There are three pieces remembering the late and much lamented Ben Sonnenberg, founder of the (alas, equally late and much lamented) literary quarterly Grand Street and a longtime eminence of the American Left.  I want Alexander Cockburn and Jo Ann Wypijewski to write my obituary.  As they went on about Sonnenberg’s historical greatness, profound learning, unfailing humility, inexhaustible compassion, and cheerful lovable-ness, I started to wonder why he hadn’t risen from the tomb on the third day.  Still, they do show that Sonnenberg devoted his life to celebrating and advancing the achievements of the human intellect, and that he was fearless in bringing reason to bear when entrenched interests intimidated others into accepting the official story.  

Two muckraking pieces tackle official stories which claim that the US government protects its citizens from menaces approaching the country from the south.  Jeffrey Saint Clair’s “How BP and the Obama Administration Have Been Joined at the Hip” tells how Mr O has overseen “a profound bureaucratic lethargy that ceded almost almost absolute control over the response to the spill to BP.”  While he might have invoked powers under the 1968 National Contingency plan and “seized control of both the well and the cleanup operations,” leaving BP’s officers with nothing to do but “sign checks for billions of dollars,” Mr O in fact sidelined all advisors who showed any sign of independence from the oil giant, instead relying on former lobbyists for and executives of BP.  The administration did little to nothing to contain the damage the leak would do to the Gulf coast, its wildlife and fisheries, but a great deal to help BP contain the damage to its public relations.  Most of Saint Clair’s facts are also reported in this Rolling Stone piece.   

Frank Bardacke’s “Why the Border Can Never Be ‘Secured'” introduces the phrase “the Political Stupidity Index,” which Bardacke defines as “the difference between the words politicians say and the way we actually live.”  Bardacke argues that the national debate about immigration registers a remarkably high level of this sort of stupidity, taking it to a level where “the words at the top have nothing to do with life at the bottom.”  “Despite what may be said in the public debate, people know there is no way to stop Mexicans coming to the USA, as long as Mexico remains poor and the USA relatively rich,” writes Bardacke.  More enforcement at the border only means more corruption among border patrol agents and more power for criminal enterprises that have set out “to make border crossing a big, corporate business.”  Amnesty for undocumented workers, whether marketed under the label “a path to citizenship” or under some other brand name, will only increase the rate of illegal immigration, as the upsurge in immigration after 1986 legalization definitively proved.  Guest-worker programs are “a bad idea all around,” as the experience of the Bracero Program showed.  By the mid 1960s, the poor working conditions to which braceros were subjected had raised the ire of liberals who objected to the program because it was a form of indentured servitude, while conservatives were alarmed by number of braceros who left their places of indenture to blend into the general population of the USA. 

I’m not at all sure Bardacke is right that the border cannot be “secured.”  Israel has certainly shown that walls can keep highly motivated people from crossing borders, and enforcement of citizenship requirements at points of employment need not be any more difficult than enforcement of laws  that require employees to be at least a particular age or paid at least a particular wage.  In order to implement those measures, the US government would have to confront the people who profit from the current system.  Considering the absurd timidity our current government has shown in its dealings with BP, it is rather difficult to imagine a future government that would be prepared to take on all the interests that benefit from keeping US wages from rising too far above the Mexican average.  Difficult though it may be, it is hardly impossible that such a thing might happen, and therefore unjustified to say that “the border can never be ‘secured’.” 

Whether it should be secured is of course another question.  If a government ever does come to power in the USA that has the backbone to stand up to the low-wage lobby, that government would likely be the result of a profound change in the country’s whole political culture.  If that change ever does come about, it might reveal more attractive possibilities for the US-Mexican economic relationship than fortifying the border and adding a new layer of policing in employment.  Maybe if working people get hold of real political power they will find ways to work together to develop the US and Mexico in tandem, rather than submitting to policies that exacerbate economic inequality and hollow out industry on both sides of the border.