Mischievous imps blowing invisible darts that stoke human passions and spin them out of control, moving twigs a few inches across the forest floor providing links in conflagrations that would not otherwise occur, plucking the strings of nature to produce crescendos of catastrophe. Zen-mathematician wizards dancing in their ice spheres high in the Vaznal Mountains, solving ever-deepening riddles of sound and sight and sensation, weaving order from the chaos the Loci imps foment. Winged muses carving sensuous stories from the clouds and celebrating the lives of those from whose dreams and tribulations they were born.
A fiery giantess is held captive in a hollow mountain. A sea serpent’s breath inspires the priestess of an island oracle poised above a chasm beneath which it sleeps. City-states are at war; slaves, led by a charismatic general, are in uprising; dictators and warlords are vying for power; neighboring kingdoms and empires are strategically courting local clients in pursuit of regional hegemony or outright conquest. Human avarice has strained the natural context on which it thrives. And ordinary people in extraordinary times, caught within the vortex of the powers that both surround and comprise them, navigate those turbulent currents.
Follow the adventures of Algonion Goodbow, the magical archer; Sarena of Ashra, the young girl at the center of this epic tale; their friends and mentors, guides and adversaries, as they thread the needle of great events, and discover truths even more profound than the myths of legend and lore. Discover the truth of fiction and the fiction of truth; celebrate the fantastic and sublime, in this magical tale laden with rich echoes of world history and world mythology, informed by blossoms of human consciousness from Chaos Theory to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, from Richard Dawkin’s Meme Theory to Eastern Mysticism, enriched by the author’s own travels and adventures.
A prophesied Disruption is upon the land of Calambria, causing the Earth to quake and societies to crumble. The Loci imps are its agents, but, according to Sadache mythology, it is Chaos, one of the two Parents of the Universe, who is its ultimate author. As Chaos eternally strives to make the One Many, Cosmos, the other Parent of the Universe, strives to make the Many One. The Sadache people view themselves as the children of Cosmos, whom they worship, and the lowest rung of a hierarchy of conscious beings opposing Chaos and the Loci imps. Above them, both of them and apart from them, are the drahmidi priests of the Cult of Cosmos, founded by the hero and conqueror Ogaro centuries before. Above the drahmidi are the Vaznallam wizards, Cosmos’s agents, just as the Loci are Chaos’s.
As the Great Disruption begins to manifest itself, Sarena of Ashra, a peasant girl from a village on the outskirts of the city-state of Boalus, flees an unwanted marriage to an arrogant lord and in search of freedom and destiny. She meets a young vagabond on the road, coming from the seat of the ceremonial High Kingdom, Ogaropol, fleeing his own pursuers. Together they form an alliance that leads through adventures together and apart, and binds them into two halves of a single whole.
Swirling around them are the wars of would be dictators and cult-leaders, of neighboring empires and kingdoms; the adventures of young Champions engaged in the prophesied Contest by which the Redeemer would be chosen and the Realignment realized. But, in both different and similar ways, the culmination of centuries of history flows through these two people, Algonion and Sarena, on haphazard quests of their own. And both the past and the future are forever changed by their discoveries and deeds.
(This essay originated as a response to a Libertarian commenting on another Libertarian’s Facebook page, making the familiar argument about why Jeffersonian democracy, emphasizing minimal government, was both the intention of our Founding Fathers, and is the best form of government possible.)
As you might have gathered, I like the dialectic, so here’s both the antithesis to your thesis, and the synthesis of the two:
Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton wanted stronger central government than Jefferson did (thus, the first incarnation of our perennial, unintended and undesired,l two-party system was Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans v. Hamilton/Adams’ Federalists, the latter pretty much meaning the opposite of what it does today: a strong federal government). The country was a product of these competing views, and has continued to be carved on the lathe of a similar dichotomy throughout its history, to excellent effect. The Constitution itself was the first victory for the “stronger federal government” side, requiring convincing a population that considered each state a sovereign…, well, “state,” in the original and still used sense of a sovereign political unit.
These arguments to a reluctant public were made, most cogently and famously, in The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay arguing for the need to create a sufficiently strong central government. This was in response to the failed Articles of Confederation, which did not provide a sufficiently strong central government.
The history of the country ever since has been one of a punctuated growth in power of the central government. I know that I just stated your major contention, but I don’t see it as a necessarily bad thing, or a betrayal of our founding philosophy: It is, rather, the articulation of lived history with founding principles, since the latter guided the process and form of the former. We retained strong protections for individual rights within the context of that strong federal government: Free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to organize, freedom of press, freedom of religion, protections from police (i.e., state) overreach into our private lives.
In fact, the stronger federal government has been primarily responsible for, and grew in response to the demand for, the extension of those protections of individual liberty; extending them to categories of people to whom they had been denied, and extending them to protect people from the overreaches of individual states as well as the federal government.
The genealogy of Libertarianism, and the argument on which it depends, while exalted by its association with Jefferson, is in fact characterized more by its defense of inequality and injustice (see also The History of American Libertarianism). From the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil War, it was the argument of slave owners resisting the abolition of slavery, the southern statesman John C. Calhoun famously arguing in Union and Liberty that a commitment to “liberty” and to the protection of “minorities” required the protection of the “liberty” of the “minority” southerners to own slaves! This argument was the argument of the “states’ rights,” small federal government ideological camp. That camp lost by losing the Civil War and by the abolition of slavery.
From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era, the states’ rights, small federal government ideology was invoked to preserve Jim Crow and resist the enforcement of Constitutional guarantees to protect the rights of minorities (in the modern sense of the word), especially African Americans. That camp lost by a series of Supreme Court holdings (most notably Brown v. Board of Education) and the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (by which President Lyndon B. Johnson knowingly and willingly lost southern whites, who had until then formed a major branch of the Democratic Party, to the Republican Party, where they have since resided, and continue to comprise a large portion of the adherents to this perennial ideology).
Contemporary Libertarianism is the logical next step in this progression, after having resisted the abolition of slavery in the name of “liberty,” and the passage of Civil Rights legislation and Court holdings in the name of “liberty,” it now opposes the further confrontation of the legacy of that racist and discriminatory history by insisting, falsely, that “we’re all equal now, so any attempt to address, as a nation, the injustices still embedded in our political economy and culture is a deprivation of the liberty of those against whose interests it is to do so.” In other words, just as in those previous incarnations throughout our history, this particular concept of “liberty” still means “my liberty to screw you.”
Libertarians, conveniently, don’t see it this way, because it is a passive “screwing,” one that involves leaving in place institutionalized, but not legally reproduced, inequities and injustices. It is, as it has been before, the insistence that “we’ve done enough, and need do no more,” just as the defenders of slavery considered acquiescing to a national constitution was enough, and the defenders of racism considered acquiescing to abolition was enough, modern Libertarians think that acquiescing to a formal, legal end to racial discrimination is enough,and that it is an affront to their “liberty” to attempt to address as a nation, as a polity, the non-legally reproduced but deeply entrenched inequality of opportunity that persists in our country (see, e.g., The Paradox of Property).
This national commitment to ever-deepening and ever-broadening Liberty, including equality of opportunity without which liberty is, to varying degrees and in varying ways, granted to some and denied to others, involves more than just the African American experience: It involves women, Native Americans, gays, practitioners of disfavored religions (such as Islam), members of ethnic groups who are most highly represented in the current wave of undocumented immigration (such as Hispanics), basically, “out-groups” in general. It’s no coincidence that Libertarianism is so closely linked to Christian Fundamentalism and militant nationalism: It is an ideology that focuses on a notion of individual liberty that is, in effect and implementation, highly exclusive and highly discriminatory. (There are, it should be noted, branches of Libertarianism which are more internally consistent, and, at least, reject these overt hypocrisies, while still retaining the implicit, passive, retention of historically determined inequality of opportunity described above.)
History has demanded increasing centralization of powers for other reasons as well: an increasingly complex market economy with increasingly difficult-to-manage opportunities for centralized market actors to game markets in highly pernicious ways (due to information asymmetries); increasingly pernicious economic externalities increasingly robustly generated by our wonderful wealth-producing market dynamo (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems and Political Market Instruments); in general, a complex dynamical system that is highly organic and self-regulating, but not perfectly so, and without some pretty sophisticated centralized management is doomed to frequent and devastating collapse.
(This is why, by the way, every single modern developed nation, without exception, has a large administrative infrastructure, and had in place a large administrative infrastructure prior to participating in the post-WII explosion in the production of wealth. The characteristic that Libertarians insist is antithetical to the production of wealth is one of the characteristics universally present in all nations that have been most successful in producing wealth.)
The tension between our demand for individual liberty and minimal government, on the one hand, and a government adequately large and empowered to confront the real challenges posed by our increasingly complex social institutional landscape on the other, is a healthy tension, just as the tension among the branches of government is a healthy tension. We don’t want one side of any of these forces in tension to predominate absolutely: We want the tension itself to remain intact, largely as it has throughout our history. Through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it to constraints imposed on state and local as well as federal government, recognizing through our experience with the institution of slavery that tyranny doesn’t have to be vested in the more remote locus of government, and the resistance to it doesn’t always come from the more local locus of government. And through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it through the lessons of history and the pragmatic demands placed on our national self-governance by the evolution of our technological and social institutional context.
The pragmatic, moderate, flexible, analytical implementation of our ideals that has resulted, protecting the true liberties that we treasure, extending them to those who were excluded, deepening them in many ways for all of us, and allowing, at the same time, for us to act, as a polity, through our agent of collective action (government), in ways that serve our collective interests, is what serves us best, and what we should remain committed to, with ever greater resolve.
This Week With Christiane Amanpour hosted an excellent debate this morning, with conservative pundit George Will and Congressman Paul Ryan on one side, and Congressman Barney Frank and Clinton Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich on the other, over the fundamental, perennial issue of the optimum size and scope of government. First, please note that I did not frame it in the conventional way, with “small government” (SG) on one side, and “big government” (BG) on the other, because that is the frame created by SG advocates to mislabel their opposition. The real debate, as I see it, isn’t between SG advocates and BG advocates, but rather between SG advocates and advocates of “No Presumption Pragmatism” (NPP).
The legitimate concern is that NPP may tend toward limitless growth in government, but it is not therefore the case that those who are advocates of “no presumption pragmatism” are advocates of big government. Rather, it might be that there is an un-met challenge facing NPP that, if met, is a preferable path to either dogmatic SG advocacy or a careless, unrestrained-government growth version of NPP.
But there is an inherent tension between wanting government to perform an endlessly growing list of functions, and wanting government to be a minimalistic agent in our national affairs. ABC News’ John Donvan summed up that aspect of the debate nicely:
In the following introductory comments and opening salvos in this incarnation of The Debate, the participants lay out the parameters nicely, challenge some assumptions, redefine some positions, and offer some compelling insights and arguments:
Paul Ryan does an impressive job advocating his position, arguing that adhering to strict principals that generate optimal outcomes is superior to overreliance on government to take care of all challenges and address all issues, the latter error leading to a sprawling and cumbersome burden on human creativity and enterprise rather than an effective reduction in social problems and increase in human welfare. Barney Frank and Robert Reich respond that the government is too big in some ways and too small in others, and that reducing one’s position on the issue to an anti-government presumption fails to address the real challenges of managing a popular government.
Frank points out that many SG advocates are perfectly happy to rely on government to impose their will on others, advocating restrictions on women’s reproductive rights and a lack of definition of civil rights for gays and lesbians, while opposing the use of government in the productive manner of addressing “public goods” and “public bads,” not defined by arbitrary moral convictions, but rather by the real effects of our inevitable interdependence on our individual well-being. Reich reiterates that the question isn’t the size of government, but rather what factions of the population government is assisting or failing to assist.
Paul Ryan’s argument that smaller government is inherently more efficient and more effective than big government simply ignores the inevitable fact that any government function costs money, that, in a complex modern economy, there are a plethora of inescapable and quite expensive government functions that must be performed (e.g., regulating information-intensive markets such as financial and energy markets, which are easily gamed at potentially catastrophic public expense, but costly to monitor effectively); that the majority of the government programs targeted by SG advocates (with the notable exceptions of Social Security and Medicaid) actually involve piddling expenditures in relation to these large inescapable costs that government must be able to meet; that advocacy not to meet those inescapable costs is advocacy for a wildly self-destructive public policy; and that many of those piddling expenditures are in programs which research strongly demonstrates reduces far larger future costs that occur in their absence (such as those we currently incur in our enormous criminal justice system, far larger and more expensive, per capita, than those in other developed countries, incarcerating a far larger proportion of our population).
Since, in reality, there are expensive functions that a modern government must perform, and since, in reality, some social welfare programs have been strongly demonstrated to be cost effective over time, all things considered, what we as a polity really need to do in this debate is to transcend both the “big government is bad” platitude and the “every problem has a direct government solution” habit, and move into thinking more systemically, more intersectorally, and engage, in ever larger numbers with ever more commitment and knowledge, in the real challenge of using government as a disciplined and effective agent of our will, a portal into the organic processes of which we are a part, through which the essential functions of consciousness, of collective decision-making, of necessary oversight, of intentionality and value-driven intervention, can be implemented.
The debate in response to the audience question at the end over bailouts v. limiting the size of banks so that none are “too big too fail” is, as Robert Reich pointed out, an example of an information-intensive issue on which the relative positions of “conservatives” and “liberals” is not quite clear. The conservatives in this debate favored limiting the size of banks, while Frank on the liberal side argued that we require a different paradigm that allows for the existence of big banks in order to be internationally competitive. Though this Great American Debate historically began, in many ways, over a very similar question (should we have a national bank or not?), in its modern incarnation, it’s less ideological than technical, both sides admitting to the need to rely on economic analysis rather than blind ideology, neither side having the definitive solution to what is in reality a very complex problem.
The next segment deals with economic inequality and collective responsibility:
Elizabeth Warren’s introduction to this segment of the debate is, I believe, a very eloquent expression of the fundamental truth undermining the extreme SG/Libertarian argument: We are interdependent members of a single society, our political economy not being, never having been, and simply not capable of being, a mere market place for exchanges among atomized individuals, but rather an arena of coexistence in which some aspects of our shared lives are coordinated through market exchanges, but some aspects are necessarily coordinated in other ways as well.
These “extra-market” aspects of our shared existence aren’t just cultural, aren’t just a matter of family relationships and community relationships and voluntary organization memberships, but are also political and economic, involving our collective decision-making apparatus, our laws, and the ways in which a modern capitalist economy is populated with corporate actors whose own internal structure is hierarchical rather than “free market” based, and which wield enormous political power as a result.
The distribution of wealth and opportunity in America is clearly not a function of some mythical perfected meritocracy, but, as in all times and places throughout human history, is primarily a function of historical injustices reproduced through the chances of birth and the inherited opportunities and burdens that come with them. Our current legal system, evolved through periodic cleansings of the codification of those injustices, has certainly diluted the effects of those historical injustices, but their remaining legacy is clear to see, and is, in fact, a statistically undeniable current reality. Whatever policies we implement or decline to implement today, doing so with blithe disregard for the realities that currently exist is indefensible on both pragmatic and moral bases.
Paul Ryan’s response to Christiane’s opening question about economic inequality bordered on disingenuous: He blamed “current economic policies” for that growing disparity, despite the fact that the disparity has grown with the greatest acceleration, as it has in previous historical epochs, with the growth of deregulation and the success of SG political advocacy. This trend can clearly be seen in the three eras of most obscene concentration of wealth in America: The era of “The Robber Barons,” the “Roaring Twenties” of the Hoover Administration, and the current Reagan and post-Reagan era.
Ryan also, as he did throughout this debate (and as is an endemic deficiency in his ideological camp’s position), acted as if there is no other nation in the world with which we can compare our policies, to determine which kinds of policies really do increase social mobility and decrease economic inequality, and which ones really do exacerbate the lack of social mobility and the increase in economic inequality. The inconvenient fact is that a comparison to the social democracies of Western Europe and Canada demonstrates what the historical record I mentioned above also demonstrates: Social mobility is increased through social democratic government interventions in the economy, economic inequality is decreased, and prosperity is not undermined.
Paul Ryan argues that any attempt to decrease social inequality inevitably serves only to impoverish the wealthy rather than enrich the poor. This is an assumption and a fallacy. Historically, in fact, our political economic institutions have evolved in large measure to decrease social injustice (including economic inequality) without undermining the productive engine from which we all benefit. We’ve been successful enough at the latter goal that we consider merely slow growth to be economic failure, and periods of economic stagnation to be a crisis, and have, on average, maintained a fairly constant and sustained continuing growth in overall economic prosperity. While we’ve met that side of the challenge rather soundly, we not only have failed to address the increasingly inequitable distribution of the wealth thus created, but have actually devolved into a debate over whether we should care about that failure or not.
Ryan and Will represent the more “urbane” branch of their ideological movement, counterfactually insisting that their position decreases inequality and increases social justice, rather than that inequality and social injustice don’t matter. Unfortunately for Ryan and Will, the history of our own nation, and a comparison to other nations, demonstrate that the truth is the precise opposite of what they are claiming it to be.
Robert Reich added the observation that both the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest, and economic growth, were astronomically high under Dwight D. Eisenhower, debunking the assertion that they are antagonistic to one another.
George Will argues that Big Government always favors the wealthiest and most powerful, because it is most responsive to those who can pay expensive lobbyists and make large campaign contributions. Well, yes, government is skewed in favor of those with greatest political economic power, which is why the anti-government, deregulation movement has been so successful: It favors those with the greatest political economic power. To argue against using government to favor the interests of the less powerful on the basis that any government action is somehow inevitably going to favor the more powerful is a bizarre tautology, especially given the historical fact that disenfranchised groups have with some regularity successfully organized to gain power and legal protections throughout our history (e.g., women, African Americans, workers, environmental activists, etc.)
George Will then brought up the interesting observation that (therefore) the welfare state in America is primarily a transfer of wealth from the poorer young to the wealthier elderly (in the form of social security and Medicare). But this is a surprisingly sloppy representation, since neither the young nor the elderly are monolithic in their economic condition. I do agree, however, that social security and Medicare should be means tested; as a nation, we simply can’t afford to subsidize the wealthiest with public programs designed as safety nets.
But it is completely disingenuous to argue that the primary reason for that intergenerational disparity in wealth is due to Social Security and Medicare. The fundamental reason is insufficient government regulation of a market successfully exploited by a small minority of citizens over the course of their lives, such that they accumulate astronomical wealth by old age, creating the disparity that Will cites.
Ryan, however, made a potentially good point that Big Federal Government concentrated in Washington creates a convenient geographic and institutional nexus of power for corporate America to influence the political class. However, ironically, the policies that are most implicated in anti-BG advocacy are those policies that are most antagonistic to corporate interests, such as improved public health and safety standards, improved environmental standards, and expanded social services and programs for the neediest. The success of corporate lobbyists isn’t primarily the increase of government action to their benefit (though there is, of course, some of that), but rather the decrease of government action to their benefit (i.e., deregulation).
I do believe, however, that we need to move toward a paradigm of government facilitated public empowerment to carry out some of the functions currently embedded in governmental bureaucracies. Government can serve best to channel resources and pass legislation that will fund and guide local efforts. We need to think and act more systemically, in a more decentralized way, rendered coherent and conscious through our central agency of collective action (i.e., government), but utilizing all of the social institutional material on the ground in pursuit of social problem solutions and social institutional improvements.
The audience question that opens the next segment is very timely for me, since just yesterday I received my first “photo surveillance” ticket in the mail:
Paul Ryan’s repetition of the notion that economic equality automatically grows with economic growth is well answered by Barney Frank, who pointed out that economic growth is a necessary but not sufficient condition of wide-spread economic well-being
In fact, aggregate economic growth and economic equity (distributive justice, which is one aspect of social justice) are neither diametrically opposed nor perfectly compatible. There is a tension between them, in which some policies could indeed increase aggregate growth at the expense of distributive justice, some policies could increase distributive justice at the expense of economic growth, and some policies increase both economic growth and distributive justice at the same time. Obviously, the last category has the most to recommend it, but there are also times to accept trade-offs between aggregate growth and equitable opportunity to partake of the wealth produced by it.
As a thought experiment, consider the extremes: Few would support an arrangement by which one person accumulates ten times our current GDP every year, but everyone else is left in abject poverty. And, similarly, few would accept an arrangement in which there is absolute equality of abject poverty. There is clearly some balance to be struck between these two values.
Of course, Paul Ryan is right on target in the gist of his last remarks at the end of this segment: We need to end crony capitalism, eliminate subsidies to the rich, and address our economic challenges systemically. Those observations, however, do not belong to the larger ideological package that he is advocating, and, in the final analysis, are not compatible with it.
And on to the closing arguments:
Diminutive Robert Reich’s joke during his closing argument, reminding the audience that he has worked in government most of his life and then standing up and asking, “Do I look like Big Government to you?” struck me for a moment as funny but irrelevant, until I reflected on it a bit: Government is a human institution, comprised of human beings, acting in human ways. It is how we use it (and how we fail to use it), and what we do with it that defines its value. It is a vehicle of human will, not an external imposition, and it is, and should be, exactly as “big” as we are.
But, despite all of my arguments above, the take-home lesson from this debate, for everyone, should be that there is a legitimate debate to be had. From there, we can begin to acknowledge that no platitude suffices, and that the question is not one that can or should be answered with a slogan or reductionist philosophy. The responsibility of popular sovereignty, of self-governance, is that we govern ourselves wisely, succumbing to the manias and oversimplifications neither of the left nor the right. The more of us who take that step, who seek to transcend blind ideologies and embrace the challenge of being reasonable people of goodwill working together in a complex and subtle world, the better off we all will be.
(The following is a slightly extended version of my response to an op-ed by Vince Carroll, Putting Fat Cats In Their Place, in today’s (10/30/11) Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19211159?source=bb.)
Vince Carroll is absolutely correct that we must consider not only the distribution of wealth, but also the absolute growth of wealth, when discussing issues of our economic well-being as a nation and a people. Certainly, if everyone is getting wealthier, then why should we worry if that is accomplished by means of a system in which the wealthiest get astronomically wealthier while the further down you go along the spectrum of income and wealth, the less robust the growth of wealth becomes (less robust even as a proportion of existing income and wealth, meaning a lower percentage of a lower base number)?
There are several reasons why:
1) The growth in household incomes that Carroll cites is due to an increase in two-worker families, and a decrease in stay-at-home moms. In reality, there has been a decrease in real individual average income in that same time period, an anomaly in the modern era of ever-expanding wealth which corresponds precisely with the rise of income-concentrating deregulation.
2) We have an economic system demonstrably less efficient than some others in existence (e.g., Germany, the Netherlands, etc.) at striking an optimal balance between absolute growth and distribution of the fruits of that growth, resulting in far greater levels of impoverishment, infant mortality, homelessness, violent crime, incarceration, mental health problems, and numerous related problems, than have been achieved by other nations that have struck a more sensible balance.
3) Extreme income inequality reduces economic vitality by constricting the breadth and depth of economic activity. The more concentrated wealth is, the less disposable income, in the hands of fewer people, is available to contribute to the consumer engine of our economic vitality.
4) Carroll disregards the role of deregulation (from the 1980s onward) in generating this economically debilitating concentration of wealth, how that deregulation has been implicated in every major economic crisis since its inception, how it has now undermined the consumer engine of our economy in dramatic and enduring ways, and how, as a result, our economy is in a period of stagnation following contraction, with a no-longer-growing pie still obscenely concentrated in far too few hands.
5) Carroll disregards the various costs not measured by traditional economic indicators, referred to in the economic literature as “externalities” (those costs and benefits of economic transactions that affect those who were not parties to the transaction, in either positive or negative ways), which, while helping to author the huge concentration of wealth in America over the past 30 years, also have helped to do so on the back of the population at large by reducing public health, safety, and welfare, and placing increasing burdens of accumulating and devastating negative externalities on future generations across the globe.
6) Extreme income inequality has many other socially destructive consequences, even aside from the ones listed above. It undermines national solidarity and cultivates inter-class resentments, creates subjective feelings of relative poverty, and undermines democracy by concentrating both the means of affecting public opinion (and thus determining the outcomes of elections) and the power to determine the economic well-being of the vast majority of the people of the nation into the hands of a small, corporation-beholden-and-embedded economic elite.
One must look not only at this “snapshot of reality,” but also at the trends revealed over time, and the consequences of such trends. Even if all of the present reasons for considering how equitably distributed wealth is did not exist, a trajectory of accelerating concentration of wealth is clearly untenable in the long run.
Today, 1% of the nation’s wealthiest command 40% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80% command less than 15% of the nation’s wealth. In 2007 (see http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html for an overview of 2007 income distribution figures), the top 1% commanded slightly less than 35% of the nation’s wealth (already considered an indicator of astronomical inequity). The current growth trend in capital concentration has been underway since 1980, coinciding precisely with the Reagan-coined “government is the enemy” paradigm of the right; in 1979, the top 1% commanded just over 20% of the nation’s wealth, having fluctuated since WWII between 20% and, in a rare outlier in 1965, 34%.
The last time the concentration in wealth in the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the population exceeded 40% was in 1929, on the eve of The Great Depression, when policies similar to those advocated by the Libertarian Right today had been successfully championed under the Hoover Administration.
If the challenge is to “get it right,” all things considered, then our grotesque and accelerating concentration of wealth in America, accompanied by the highest-among-developed-nations rates of poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, incarceration, and other social ills, is indeed an indicator of having failed to do so.
Yes, we do not want to seek “equality” in a vacuum, engaging in the folly of imposing an equality of impoverishment. But we as a nation are not teetering on the edge of that particular folly; rather, we are over the edge of the opposite folly, which we insanely avoid addressing by pretending that it doesn’t exist.
As I’ve frequently written, the fundamental ideological dichotomy in American politics today is not the right/left dichotomy (or “statist”/libertarian, or pro-corporate/anti-corporate), but rather the rational-people-of-goodwill/irrational-people-of-ill-will dichotomy. Perhaps that latter dichotomy is always the real dichotomy in politics, in all times and places; or, if not the real dichotomy, then at least the real poles of perpendicular axes, with various specific ideological orientations falling within the space thus defined. How reasonable are the various positions being advanced? How much in service to humanity?
As is usually the case, people at opposite ideological extremes are oddly similar, obsessed with oversimplistic panaceas in a complex world, angry that others fail to recognize the one absolute truth of which they are so prematurely and impenetrably certain. Just as fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims share a tendency toward theocratic moral tyranny, the extreme right and extreme left of political ideology share a failure to recognize that we are embedded in a complex dynamical social system, that the reality with which we are coping and the ways to do so effectively are organic rather than mechanical in nature, and that dogmatic assertions about what single change or doctrine need be advanced, without adequate consideration of that complex organic whole, are counterproductive.
What we need instead of these sweeping reductionist ideologies is a commitment to systemic understanding and systemic action. Not surprisingly, extreme ideologies tend to be anti-intellectual, either explicitly refuting the value of applying our minds to the challenges we face as a people (as is frequently evident among some factions on the far right today), or implicitly eschewing the value of skepticism and scientific methodology as applied to social and political issues by clinging to blind ideological certainties instead (as is too often evident on the far left as well as the far right).
We see this commitment to systemic understanding and action emerging from time to time in what to many are counter-intuitive positions being advocated by responsible representatives of otherwise highly opposed ideological orientations. I recall, for instance, the ubiquitous public relations push of a couple of decades ago for continued investment in space technology, putting various pairs of ideological opposites on screen together lauding the benefits of doing so. For many, the notion that we should invest significant amounts of our limited resources in aerospace research struck many as counter-intuitive: We have so many problems to address here on Earth, why should we be squandering precious resources on something so frivolous as the development of exotic technologies for use beyond the Earth’s atmosphere?
Of course, the case for investing in such technologies is that, by doing so, we create a constant flow of valuable off-shoots with very significant applications here on Earth. Simply by trying to understand and work with some highly complex aspect of our surrounding reality we benefit ourselves, even if the focal aspect of our surrounding reality seems remote or irrelevant.
A similar, also to some counterintuitive, example of a policy position that all reasonable people support is the need for Americans to invest in our infrastructure. There are those, lost in the error of linear thinking in a non-linear world, who insist that we cannot invest in infrastructure because we have a huge and growing national debt, and that therefore no investment is justifiable. This is simply an economically illiterate position, not understanding how economic growth occurs, both as a historical fact and as a basic systemic reality (see, e.g., Real Fiscal Conservativism, The Economic Debate We’re Not Having and The Real Deficit).
To underscore the degree to which investing in infrastructure is a no-brainer, the presidents of both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce AND the AFL-CIO have teamed up to encourage Congress to pass the president’s call for investment in infrastructure (http://www.uschamber.com/press/releases/2011/march/us-chamber-afl-cio-urge-infrastructure-bank, http://blog.aflcio.org/2011/01/26/union-movement-business-back-obamas-call-for-infrastructure-rebuild-and-other-sotu-reactions/).
The right has long claimed that government is inefficient because it doesn’t create wealth, and doesn’t act in ways similar to how private enterprise, the engine of wealth production, acts. The first point is a red herring, because the only sector of our economy that “produces wealth” directly is labor; all other sectors perform auxiliary functions (e.g., management, capital investment, etc.). Government, in a modern capitalist economy, imperfectly performs vital functions for the production of wealth, including reducing transaction costs and internalizing externalities (see, e.g., Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems and Small Government Idolatry).
The second point, that government doesn’t act like private enterprise and so fails to perform as well, has some validity in some contexts, but is mere misdirection when, at those times when government is indeed employing sound economic principles in ways very similar to private enterprise, the same critics obstruct rather than applaud such efforts. Investing in infrastructure, and even doing so through deficit spending, has long been a hallmark of successful private enterprise in a modern capitalist economy. Businesses large and small depend on credit as the lubricant of economic growth, and it makes perfect sense for governments to do the same.
Just to put our debt into perspective: We currently owe an amount equal to our annual GDP, and are paying interest on new debt that is about equal to the rate of inflation (that is, when adjusted for inflation, we’re paying zero percent interest on new debt). An average homeowner, conversely, borrows about four times their annual income in order to purchase their home, and pays a far higher interest rate on that debt. Without this form of credit commonly in use, very few people would be able to afford to purchase their own homes. Credit, even proportionately far larger than our national debt, and at a far higher interest rate, is clearly not by definition a bad thing.
The problem is not our current debt, or even any immediate additional debt we undertake, but rather our ability to make economically sound policy decisions as a nation, including implementing a plan to control the long-term rise in debt (without which our national debt will eventually become the problem that some, erroneously, consider it now to be). One aspect of such economically sound policy making is the ability to use deficit spending to grow the economy in order to produce both greater individual prosperity and greater future public revenues in order to reduce our national debt and increase our national prosperity in the long run.
It’s time to leave the blind ideological noise on the margins of our public discourse, where it belongs, and bring well-informed analyses in service to human well-being front and center. When the leaders of organized labor and big business are both advocating the same policy, and when that policy has been proven by both world history and private enterprise to be a sound one, all reasonable people should have the good sense to rally around it.
Paul Krugman on This Week this morning made a good point about the issue raised concerning the money pouring into Republican campaigns from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, some of which is from foreign countries: It doesn’t really matter whether it comes from multinational corporations based elsewhere or in the U.S., but rather just that it comes from multinational corporations. It is not, in my opinion, that multinational corporations have interests that are entirely inconsistent with the interests of ordinary Americans; it is that multinational corporations have interests that are not entirely consistent with the interests of ordinary Americans. That is the nature of the non-zero-sum world in which we live. And while pluralism is based on the equitable competition of imperfectly aligned interests, in a political process in which money often plays a definitive role, the vastly disproportionate aggregate wealth available to multinational corporations in their attempt to influence elections means that their interests are better represented and better advanced than other competing interests.
I would add that the problem also isn’t what people, I think mistakenly, interpret to be the significance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen United: That corporations have been defined as people. First, I don’t think that’s what Citizen United means; my reading of the opinion is that the First Amendment says that speech is protected, not any particular kind of speech or source of speech (in other words, it’s not that corporations are people, but rather that it doesn’t matter whether their people or not). Second, all speech is made by people. Corporate speech is speech made by people, through the agency of a corporation. Corporations cannot act other than as vehicles for the will of people. If a corporation speaks, people are speaking through it.
That may sound like a defense of Citizen United, but it’s not. It’s a suggestion that we focus on the real issue, rather than get distracted by a chimera whose resolution would not resolve the actual problem (i.e., if we managed to pass a law defining Corporations as not being people, it would neither change the impact of Citizen United, nor reduce the dysfunctional role that the virtually unlimited influence of money plays in our democracy). The real issue is how to allow less well financed voices to be heard above the megaphones that those with the most money can buy. We need to find ways to refine our vast public forum, such that a well-reasoned debate can take place, rather than a mere competition of marketing strategies and the degree to which they are financed.
If we viewed a time-lapse map of the world across geological history, we would see mountains rising and falling, seas swelling and drying up, continents drifting and colliding, climatic regions expanding and contracting, in a complex, uninterrupted flowing pattern over the surface of the Earth. I imagine it would be a beautiful sight. If we viewed a less condensed time-lapse map of the world across human history, we would see nations rising and falling, empires swelling and drying up, cultures drifting and colliding, borders expanding and contracting, in a complex, uninterrupted flowing pattern over the surface of the Earth. I imagine it would be a beautiful sight.
The world is in constant flux, geologically and anthropologically. Even in my lifetime, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia dissolved into smaller nations, and the European Union consolidated into a new political entity not quite belonging to any category that had existed before. South Africa managed a remarkably peaceful transfer of political power from the white minority to the indigenous majority. Japan evolved from exporting cheap trinkets to exporting state-of-the-art high tech gadgets. China, India, and to a lesser extent Brazil are on a path of accelerating economic growth, poised to become economic powerhouses in short order.
Rewind the human historical map to prehistoric times, and watch homo sapiens emerge from, and eclipse, closely related species, pouring out from the African savanna and spreading over the face of the globe, differentiating into a plethora of local cultures, coalescing here and there into larger civilizations, fracturing here and there into smaller ones; languages, cultures, religions, ideas developing, splintering, cross-fertilizing. Fast-forward, and we’ll see something similar in our future, accelerated, respecting the borders between polities and forms only in their fluidity.
We are cognitive prisoners of our moment in history when we treat the frozen frame in which we find ourselves as if it were the moving picture itself. The human world is not reducible to sovereign nations as its immutable units; it is reducible to individuals (or, in another sense, “ideas”). We need to confront the challenges of a world composed of human beings, not one composed of nations.
One example involves global poverty. Foreign aid from wealthier countries to help address global poverty, reasonably enough, is channelled to poor countries. Except that it’s not countries that are poor, it’s people. An increasingly large portion of the world’s most poor reside in countries that are now classified as middle-income countries (http://www.economist.com/node/17155748?story_id=17155748).
Another example involves human migration. Let’s view our time-lapse map again, and watch the way in which an enclave of disproportionate wealth was produced in the northern portion of the American continent, a continent on which (to simplify slightly) the Spanish conquered densely populated, highly developed indigenous civilizations and intermarried with the indigenous population, whereas the English settled less densely populated tribal lands, intentionally and unintentionally exterminating the indigenous population. Inhabitants of the African continent were imported in many regions as chattel to be used beasts of burden. As we watch the time-lapse map play, we see that the distribution of wealth continues to favor the conquerors and to disfavor those with more indigenous blood and the descendants of those who were imported as slaves.
A land grab and an opportunistic war in the American Southwest in the first half of the 19th century led to the shift of the border in favor of the United States, and at the expense of Mexico. Combined with differences in the social institutions inherited from the respective European conquerors, these various dynamics led to a continuing polarization of wealth and poverty on the two sides of that border. As is natural in such circumstances, those to the south of the demarcation sought to migrate toward opportunity, and those to the north sought to exploit their desperation.
Those who reduce our immigration issues to “criminals” “illegally” crossing a border, and “violating” our sovereignty, engage in a convenient conviction that the present is all there ever was and all there will ever be. The disproportionate wealth to one side of the border, in this ahistorical self-justification, is deserved (despite the history of conquest, enslavement, opportunistic warfare, and just plain dumb luck involved), and those to the south have no right to migrate across our militarily imposed line in the sand. Few on the wrong side of such mythologies have ever, or will ever, adhere to them. Poverty is everyone’s problem, because poverty respects no borders in a variety of ways.
Pandemic disease, economic crises, climate change, terrorism all are problems that do not respect borders. The United States has retreated from international partnerships in which we participate in good faith, and has regressed into an attitude of uncooperative ideological insularity. We stood poised a couple of generations ago to lead the world in its inevitable and necessary gradual transformation into one with more permeable borders and more transnational social institutional cohesion. We have now become, instead, the hegemon with a comb-over, clinging to the past rather than embracing the future. And the future will be far less kind to us as a result.
As I was reading today’s Denver Post article (http://www.denverpost.com/news/marijuana/ci_16239152) on the journey of Medical Marijuana legalization in California, Colorado, and elsewhere, and the journey of Proposition 19, to outright legalize and tax small quantities of marijuana possession or growth, on this year’s ballot in California, I was struck by one surprising parallel: That between the current illegal growers, and the 18th century American colonial tea smugglers who were major catalysts of the original “tea parties” in major cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard. You see, many illegal growers (particularly those in Humbolt County in the north, long a major haven of illegal pot cultivation) oppose Proposition 19, because, though it serves everyone’s interests but their own, it promises to cut into their profits and alter their familiar and preferred way of life. And that’s exactly what motivated the smugglers (closely intertwined with the original “pirates of the Caribbean”), who happily smuggled Dutch East India Tea Company (“Dutch”) tea to the colonies, in order to avoid the taxes and mark-ups that accumulated on British East India Tea Company (“British”) tea on its journey from India to London, and from London to America, passing through various brokers’ hands. It was when the British cut out the London middlemen, and lowered (not raised) the taxes on British tea (which the colonists had always been legally obligated to buy), that the smugglers helped stir up the more idealistic rebels (like Sam Adams), and whip the coastal elites, with which the smugglers had close ties, into a frenzy.
I doubt that the Humboldt County growers will have quite the same impact, but the similarities are striking.
That’s not the only thing I noticed about the article. I also noticed another example of the ecology of human social institutional change (see “The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia”). You see, once medical marijuana became legalized, it became big business, creating “money and friends,” as the Post article put it. And once it became big business, it meant jobs, creating union friends. And the promise of profits and jobs while still mired in “the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression” means hope, political hay, and a lot of others saying “what the hey.” On top of that, the NAACP got on board, reasonably enough seeing the unnecessary and destructive incarceration of (often African American) youths for a crime that shouldn’t be a crime as an afront to civil rights and the creation rather than deprivation of opportunity. With a “budding” industry promising profits and jobs, a growing familiarity with legal marijuana in more and more communities, and a potentially robust economic activity and public revenue generator, what seemed very distant in the mid-90′s became close-at-hand at the end of the 00′s. Such is the nature of realignments; dominoes falling in branching succession, as more and more people find change to be in their own interests.
But such ecosystems of mutual reinforcing interests aren’t without predators and prey, and other conflicting interests in competition. And so we come back to our Humboldt County growers, who are concerned that legalization will put them out of business, or at the very least depress prices and reduce profits. Like the real interests behind those face-painted Sons of Liberty before them, their fortunes lie with the illegal and untaxed T, not with the legal and taxed variety.
President Obama addressed The United Nations earlier today (Wednesday) to announce a continued, if more vigilant, U.S. commitment to provide foreign aid to developing countries ( http://www.denverpost.com/ci_16141218). Way back in the last millennium, I was a student of Development (political, economic, cultural), and the various competing theories (Modernization, Dependency, World Systems). Modernization theorists tended to see nations as autonomous units, undergoing their own history, developing or not developing according to their own endogenous variables. Dependency and World Systems theories saw the world as more tightly intertwined, the relations among them affecting the fate of each.
The descriptive value of Dependency and World Systems theories is hard to deny: Due to client state and economic dependency relations to powerful nations, the small ruling classes in less developed nations are, more often than not, in either explicit or implicit league with the larger wealthy classes in some more developed nations, benefiting together as islands of wealth and comfort in a sea of suffering. To be sure, that’s not the whole story: Nationalism and other allegiances exist as well, with the ruling classes in those less developed nations generally identifying more with their own people of their own class at home than with those of their own class abroad, and sometimes even with the poor of their own country more than the rich of others. There are cross-cutting solidarities involved.
And it is overly simplistic to argue that the poverty of much of the world is a direct artifact of the wealth of some enclaves. Much of that poverty is, in reality, due to a lack of indigenous development, and would have existed with or without the rise of other wealthy and powerful nations. It’s also important to recognize that, in some ways, “a rising tide” really does “raise all ships”, and the wealth and institutional and technological innovations of the developed world have contributed positively as well as negatively to the development of less developed countries.
It’s hard to measure exactly to what extent that’s the case, and to what extent the rise of the European world empire did indeed suppress development elsewhere. Certainly, the history of colonization, of imposing inequitable trade relations, of dismantling sometimes diverse and vibrant indigenous economies in order to turn whole countries into plantations growing low value-added tropical crops and primary natural resources for the benefit of the lords across the seas or to the north, has to at least some extent exerted a suppressive developmental force on the late-comers. There is some mixture of both truths in play.
But let’s look at the world through the Dependency lens for a moment. We can as easily see the world as one divided by separate international classes as one divided by national boundaries. And a comparison of modern history to Medieval and ancient history bears out such a view. Ruling classes within nations or continental cultures developed historically from the descendants of warriors becoming landed nobility on the estates that their ancestors stole in conquest, with the former inhabitants reduced to serfdom. And global ruling classes began developing in the early modern era when European conquistadors found new lands to conquer, new native inhabitants to reduce to serfdom or other forms of marginalization, and new expropriated wealth to enjoy as a result. Our smug (and historically conveniently amnesiatic) belief that our relative wealth has no connection to the relative poverty of others in our own and other lands is simply not borne out by an honest survey of world history.
And that’s why foreign aid, and much else about the modern world, reminds me a bit of a scene from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Madame Defarge, eager to spill the blood of any members of the hated aristocracy, was testifying at the trial of innocent aristocrat Charles Darnay during The French Revolution, recounting how Charles’ father had once carelessly run over and killed a peasant child with his carriage, and stopped to toss the distraught parent a coin. Needless to say, Charles was sentenced to be guillotined, a fate only averted by his look-alike barrister, the down-and-out Sydney Carton, who redeemed his own squandered life by taking Charles’ place, and thus doing “a far, far better thing than (he) had ever done before.”
As Charles Dickens said of that era in his opening lines of the novel:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Some things never change.
The only thing uglier than tossing the peasant parent a coin after running over her child is having your hand held back by a member of your household in the moment of doing so, admonished not to waste “our” hard earned cash on such lazy riff-raff.
I don’t know the answers to the vexing problems of our age. Development happens when and where it happens for reasons other than foreign aid, and independently of most of our theories. Some have successfully instituted export-driven growth, finding niche markets, and developing on the capital thus generated. Others have successfully leveraged the wealth derived from natural resource endowments. Occasionally, targeted protectionism for nascent industries has helped those industries acquire the breathing room necessary to become competitive in the long run. Infusions of capital from the developed world can certainly help (as it did in The Marshall Plan), and can also hurt (as it did in the Latin American debt crises of the 198o’s). But one thing’s for sure: In the long run, there is no “Us” v. “Them”; there is only an “Us”.
We may find the Madame Defarges both past and present to be hateful individuals. But those who are their enemy have always helped to create them. You run over enough peasant children in your carriage, and people start to want to send your adult children to the guillotine, or fly airplanes into your skyscrapers. You draw enough lines in the sand with opportunistic military conquests, lines above which to prosper and below which to languish, and the desperate mass of humanity you locked out will eventually come flooding through.
We live in a world increasingly acutely locked into an anachronistic global political landscape. Sovereign nations, which were on the slow path to gradually compromising their sovereignty to some form of weak global federalism throughout much of the twentieth century (during the breaks from their extraordinarily destructive demonstrations of why it was absolutely imperative that they do so), have now, under the decreasingly enlightened leadership of The United States, begun backpedaling once again into global balkanization and mutual antagonism (except in the cradle of modern civilization, Europe, which has coalesced into the most vibrant of all supranational entities, and has tried to march proactively into the future despite, once again, the absence of an American willingness to see past its own nose and do the same).
But as the United States discovered early in its history, a degree of shared fate, of shared challenges, of shared opportunities, requires a commensurate degree of effective shared governance. And as I’ve said elsewhere, it is inevitable, and pragmatically necessary, that whatever form that takes, it does not simply wish away or disregard the real distribution of political and material power in the moment preceding its creation. That distribution of power has to be leveraged, to create something better from the soil of what preceded it. America has to be a major player in the creation of a functioning world order, whether Americans or non-Americans find that an attractive prospect or not.
As President Obama rightly noted in his speech, foreign aid is an act of self-interest. But that interest is best served when those aided are perceived to be less foreign, and instead are recognized as fellow human beings in a world too small for some to hide from others behind walls and across oceans. We can’t close our eyes and plug our ears and expect to live unmolested in our enclave of relative wealth and comfort, while horrors are the norm in so much of the world. That won’t protect us from the tsunamis that will continue to hit, with increasing force, all of our shores and borders. We are a part of this world, whether we like it or not. And it’s time to take our noblesse oblige seriously.
Colin Powell spoke out on immigration reform recently (http://www.denverpost.com/nationworld/ci_16119612). He said what every reasonable person knows: That we have to provide a road to legal status for the roughly 12 million who are here illegally, and that we have to recognize that fairly massive immigration is still part of the life-blood of this country.
As Powell recognizes, leaving intact an underground undocumented population that constitutes over three percent of the entire population is simply untenable. Identifying, detaining, and removing a significant portion of that population is prohibitively costly, inhumane, and destructive to our own economy. The only reasonable course of action, by any measure, is to provide a path to some kind of legal status, and to make it more attractive than remaining undocumented.
Also, as Powell realizes, those millions of undocumented immigrants are fully integrated into our economy, into our culture, and into our society. Simply removing them, even aside from the incredible inhumanity involved, would send shock waves through all three. It would undermine our economic vitality, disrupt our social systems and networks, and impoverish our culture.
Virtually everyone agrees that some kind of immigration reform is necessary. The argument is over what form it should take.
A few quick facts to keep in mind:
1) The United States has historically exploited the permeability of our southern border, and the relative poverty south of it, to create a membrane through which cheap disposable labor can pass (sometimes assertively imported) when it is convenient for us, and can be blocked and removed when it is inconvenient for us.
2) The true economic impact of illegal immigration is far more complex, and far less large, than the xenophobes contend. Most analyses conclude that there is either pretty much a net nation-wide economic wash, or a small net nation-wide economic gain due to illegal immigration, though the distribution of costs and benefits does lead to real strains on local social services. Illegal immigrants pay far more taxes, and are far more obstructed from collecting the benefits funded for by those taxes, than some people realize. Most importantly, they are paying into social security to support current retirees, but are not accruing social security benefits upon which they can draw.
3) Human beings have always migrated away from poverty and toward opportunity, and always will. Any responsible parent would place greater weight on their children’s future than on the prohibition to cross a line drawn in the sand by historical (and opportunistic) military conflicts. To villify people for doing so is simply reprehensible.
4) The more factors of production can flow freely, which includes how open borders are, the more global wealth is produced, and, in this case, the less inequitably it is distributed.
5) We rely on massive immigration demographically, with a burgeoning retired population and a shrinking working-age population supporting them. Immigrants come to work, redressing that imbalance.
Here’s my analysis:
From a global economic efficiency and distributional justice point-of-view, the ideal is the free flow of people and goods across borders. From a global leadership and fairness in distributing the burden point-of-view, the US should be in the lead on moving the world in the direction of that ideal.
I’m both a global humanist and a realist: I recognize the ideals we should be striving for, and the current realities that force us to compromise our efforts. One of the realities of the world is that people are locally and immediately biased: costs and benefits closer to home and closer to the present are weighted much more heavily than costs and benefits farther from home and farther in the future.
I’m less sympathetic to the reactions of people who resent (though are only marginally burdened by) the unstoppable flow of people from poverty and destitution toward opportunity than I am cognizant of its inevitability. For that reason, more than any other, we need federal laws that are enforceable, and that are a reasonable compromise between who and what we should be, and who and what we are.
The history of immigration law in America is a lot uglier than a lot of people realize, more often racist than not, and still somewhat brutal in the fierce protection of what’s ours, even against the most innocent and vulnerable victims of a cruel world. It’s hard to admire that, when the vast majority in America are walking around with i-phones, and pay cable subscriptions, and live comfortably and eat well. And here’s one of my objections to some in my own party: the branch of American labor that does not recognize any international responsibility beyond protecting our own wealth against foreign intrusion is as odious to me as any aspect of right-wing ideology.
Furthermore, we are capable of restructuring our priorities, and investing in our future, in ways which will provide native-born Americans with better opportunities to fill higher-paying, more information-intensive positions in our national (and the global) economy, leaving those eager souls from beyond our borders with the opportunity to fill the lower-paying, unskilled positions that Americans no longer want. This is, to a limited extent, the nature of illegal immigration today; in reality, the demand for low-paid foreign labor exists because Americans want, and can usually find, better opportunities (and the demand for highly paid, highly skilled foreign labor exists because we are failing to educate our own children to be able to satisfy it). But to the extent that there still is some competition for jobs between those born here or here legally, at the bottom of our economic ladder, and those who are newly arriving illegally, a greater commitment on our part to robust and effective public education, and provision of affordable, varied higher educational opportunities, will mitigate this problem, by moving those already here up the economic ladder, and leaving the rungs at the bottom to those newly arriving.
Even so, the use of immigrant labor to depress wages and to displace higher paid American labor still exists. Despite our relative wealth and comfort, the pressures and anxieties of an uncertain economy, of an uncertain future, of family responsibilities and assumptions about what we will be able to give to our children, all make our protectionist reflexes understandable, if neither ideal nor admirable. I’m not unsympathetic to the worker whose livelihood is made less secure by the competition of desparately poor people elsewhere, nor to the folks in border states and communities whose local resources are strained by undocumented waves of humanity pouring in.
But I’m a human being first, and an American second. The problems and stresses of Americans are nothing compared to the problems and stresses of those against whom we are protecting ourselves. And our mythologies and rationalizations with which we reassure ourselves that that is just and right do not in any way actually make it just and right. Furthermore, our own long-term interests are best served by including massive immigration in the equation, and creating a context in which those who enter fill positions that those who are here no longer need to settle for.
So that’s the nature of the challenge, as I see it. How do we negotiate all of those imperatives, all of those needs, all of those legitimate concerns? I don’t know. But the first step is to achieve a higher degree of honesty about the nature of the world in which we live, and the nature of the role we play, and could play, in it.