To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mickey Kaus Says Current Immigration Reform Bill Will ‘Destroy Social Equality;’ Waning Of Liberal Values To Blame

Back in August, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published a New York Times op-ed headlined “Crumbling American Dreams.” The piece focused on the disparity between educated upper middle class winners and the bedraggled working class at the other end of the social spectrum as seen in his Ohio hometown of Port Clinton. According to Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, the most important book on the subject of "community" in America in the last decade, the disparity reflects our “radically shriveled sense of 'we.'”

David Brooks has also explored the waning of the commonweal, though in a more wonkish fashion, describing a study based on a massive google database that allows you to “type a search word into the database and find out how frequently different words were used at different epochs." This, Brooks said, “can reveal interesting cultural shifts." One social science study based on this database found that in the last fifty years “individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.” Words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” have receded in use.” According to Brooks, the study tells “a story about the last half-century,” in which the ethos of individualism and personal autonomy has eclipsed our view of the collective.

In fact, the loss of a broad sense of “community,” as well as the very vocabulary needed to articulate it, can be seen in the way the immigration reform debate has denied or downplayed the adverse effects the current reform bill could very well have on the American middle and working classes. Both of these groups, which represent the center of gravity of our society, have already gotten the short end of the political stick after several decades of policies that have generally helped corporate interests and the rich. While immigration reform might improve the economy for the haves, it will do little to arrest trend lines encouraging sharper class stratification, social inequality and the slowing of upward mobility such as the erosion of median family income, the high costs of health care and higher education and outsourcing, among other things.  

America likes to think of itself as a nation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts: E Pluribus Unum, implicitly at any rate. But in the debate over immigration reform however, there’s a blank space where the broader national interest should be as disaggregated special interests---the GOP, Latino advocacy groups like La Raza, the "Dreamers"--- tell us what would be good for them is good for us. While it’s true the consensus that they’re forged crosses ideological lines as well as the partisan divide, the sum of these positions does not represent what’s best for the nation in total. Their consensus largely dismisses or minimizes what’s best for a significant majority of American citizens, both in the here and now and in the future, where the inexorable forces of globalization are immune from the mythology of Emma Lazarus and the huddled masses, however resonant that mythology may have been in the past. The consensus is an elitist and well-financed projection, one that gives short shrift to the American working class and especially to the working poor---who are often recent legal immigrants, the bulk of them Hispanic--- and ignores downsides to the middle class, even its educated component, some of whom are either still unemployed or underemployed after the recession.   

This class skew is something that has been unacknowledged by both conservative and liberal commentators monitoring the reform effort. One exception is the Times’ Paul Krugman, who has not yet come out for or against the bill, but has not shied away in the recent past from acknowledging the “uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular.”  In 2006, Krugman stirred quite a bit of controversy when he wrote:

Immigration is an intensely painful topic for a liberal like myself, because it places basic principles in conflict. Should migration from Mexico to the United States be celebrated, because it helps very poor people find a better life? Or should it be condemned, because it drives down the wages of working Americans and threatens to undermine the welfare state? … I wish the economic research on immigration were more favorable than it is. 

The net benefits to the US economy as a whole from immigration were relatively small, Krugman noted, while “many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration -- especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans.”  Krugman further maintained that low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel the safety net, straining budgets for essential healthcare and education for their children. Low-skill immigrants, he argues, “don't pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.”  In another column, he observed that “open immigration can’t coexist with a strong social safety net; if you’re going to assure health care and a decent income to everyone, you can’t make that offer global.” (More recently, Krugman has held his fire on the current bill, but he has focused on the high rates of native worker unemployment and underemployment in the “jobless recovery,” so it’ll be interesting to see if he finally endorses the bill or not.) 

Another exception the New Republic’s John Judis, who has pointed to the way that the new bill could hurt the employment prospects of American citizens. According to Judis, the “pathway to citizenship,” included in the bill, combined with the employer mandates of Obamacare might encourage business owners to hire currently illegal immigrants over American citizens since business owners wouldn’t have to offer them health insurance until they become permanent residents, which could take anywhere between ten and fifteen years. The irony is that a provision in the new bill that was meant to deny benefits to illegal immigrants could end up depriving American citizens of jobs.

Still another New Republic writer, T.A. Frank, who maintains that high levels of low-skill immigration “are good for wealthy Americans and bad for poor Americans.” Frank goes on to say:

Far more important, high levels of illegal immigration—when you start to get into the millions, as we have—undermines unions and labor standards, lowers wages, heightens social tensions, strains state budgets, widens income inequality, subverts the rule of law, and exacerbates class divides. The effects go far beyond wages, because few undocumented workers earn enough to cover anything close to the cost of government services (such as education for their children) they require, and those services are most important to low-income Americans. In short, it’s an immense blow to America’s working class and poor.

And then there is Mickey Kaus, one more important voice acknowledging the class disparity involved in immigration reform. Kaus has been especially good at pointing out where the real world implementation of immigration reform, which has long been embraced by the progressive Democratic left, actually works against more traditional progressive and Democratic goals of class fairness and the core American ideal of social equality. 
Kaus’s business card has only the job title of “Blogger” under his name and he is that, penultimately in fact, having pioneered the genre of political blogging under the handle “Kausfiles,” first on his own, then at Slate before moving onto to Daily Beast/Newsweek for a very short time and then to the Daily Caller, where his blog now appears. But he’s also a graduate of Harvard Law School, been an editor at the Washington Monthly, Harper’s and the New Republic, and is the author of the important 1992 book, The End of Equality. Following a tradition of direct political engagement among editors of the Washington Monthly, Kaus was a deputy undersecretary in the Department of Labor during the Carter administration and ran as a candidate the California Democratic Senate primary in 2010, producing a short but very funny campaign television commercial that has had a significant viral afterlife. (“Hi. I’m Mickey Kaus. Unlike my opponent, Barbara Boxer I don’t have $10 million, so I have to talk really fast.”)

Kaus gave an interview to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) this summer, discussing some of the ways that Democrats, in embracing the current immigration reform bill are actually working at cross purposes to their working and middle class base---and are selling out the group they have long been associated with protecting: America’s poor. Amnesty and the huge immigration increases in the Senate bill, Kaus says in the interview, "will make it impossible for someone who does basic labor, at the bottom of the labor market ... to make a decent living and live a life of dignity, because you're going to be competing against all the world's poor.” He went on to say “It is crazy that there are no Democrats who wonder about the wisdom of uncontrolled illegal immigration. It has the effect of driving down wages of unskilled Americans especially, but also possibly in the case of importing high-tech people, driving down the wages of middle class people.“ The failure of Democrats to rally behind the interests of one of its traditional constituencies represents the way a politics based on preserving “ethnic identity” has trumped the larger and more important “civic identity.” 

These ideas were part of the presentation Kaus made last week in midtown Manhattan, at an occasional CIS soiree, which allows interested New Yorker to hear important figures in the immigration debate, especially policy analysts, historians and journalists who don’t get the audience they deserve. The presentation was not recorded, so there’s no link for a transcript. My handwritten notes are not in any way complete, though I’m pretty confident that I’ve gotten the thrust and some of the nuances as well.  I’ve largely paraphrased, using quotation marks only where they are exact. Kaus’ overall point is that the current reform bill really is an “amnesty bill” and that it will not strengthen enforcement in any significant way, which means that is basically sets up conditions for de facto “open borders.” This will push us past a “tipping point” (my phrase not his) which will result in a change in the “tenor” of the country altogether. 

According to Kaus:

The pressure behind immigration stems from a huge sense of entitlement on the part of a generation of Mexicans, who have gotten used to the idea that the border should be “open.”  Most Mexicans ---52% believe that they have a right to be in the US if they want, and 67% believe the US has no right to exclude them by enforcing laws or border controls. “If we pass this amnesty bill, we will only be ratifying” this sense of entitlement.

GNP might improve, we will all get servants but social equality will be lost, becoming a luxury of the past.”  Ronald Reagan said we are all equals in the eyes of God but we what we really should be is equal in the eyes of each other. “ While there is no causal connection between high rates of immigration and the erosion of the American middle class, it’s hard not to see some kind of correlation between historical curves that show a strong middle class and low rates of immigration.  

The reason why there is such a blind spot for this is the way the debate has been almost entirely dominated by special interests which joined together into a formidable coalition. “On one side are the banking lobby, the Chamber of Commerce, the GOP, labor unions, and Latino groups. On the other side: the voters.” With no real institutional identity or power. In addition to well-funded lobbyists throwing cash around the Hill, there are think tanks financed by the same pro-immigration groups, biasing the scholarship that comes out of these institutions. “If people are looking for the ill effect of money on politics, this is the example to use.”

The reason why we are not acknowledging that the bill is favoring citizens from other countries who may want to immigrate to the US over American citizens already here is that ethnic politics have trumped old political dynamics based on class or politics based on civic identity. "As I experienced during my Senate run in California, the whole debate is framed in terms of racism and diversity. Politicians can’t cross that line without paying a heavy penalty. Reagan did it but few others can. “

Unfortunately, underlying the indifference to the adverse impact the immigration reform bill will have on less educated Americans is a “scorn for people who go to work everyday but just don’t make a lot of money." This is an attitude found among many in the educated professional classes. “I hear it from people all the time: ‘These people have made bad life choices. You mean they don’t have high school degrees?’ To which I say: ‘yeah, they don’t have high school degrees.’”  
As much as the “scorn” Kaus refers to reflects rank snobbery, it also seems a reflection of the confusion we, as members of a democratic nation, have in determining the moral obligations we have to our fellow citizens, as opposed to citizens of other states. The communitarian view that one's ethical obligations should be imagined as "concentric rings" starting with the individual and moving out through family, community, and nation seems the natural order of progression. While it's fine to view the dilemma of American immigration through the lens of what might be called "humanitarian internationalism," it's morally grandiose to do this while people here are in need and the American Dream is receding right before our eyes. With the middle class so besieged and the machinery of American social mobility seizing up, we could be facing a dystopic future, as William Galston suggested in the Wall Street Journal this week in a book review with the headline “Visions of a Permanent Underclass.” Opening the door wider than the 1 million immigrants we already naturalize legally will only accelerate trends at odds with what’s best for most of the nation, and will only boost the position of an economic elite who are already more dominant than what’s good for an egalitarian democracy. 



1 comment:

  1. It all makes sense. People who have a legitimate reason to request legal residence should not worry at all.

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