Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, March 27, 2006

Paul Krugman gives a new angle on the immigration dilemma
(column, New York Times, March 27, 2006)

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," wrote Emma Lazarus, in a poem that still puts a lump in my throat. I'm proud of America's immigrant history, and grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.

In other words, I'm instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration. But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If people like me are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.

First, the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small. Realistic estimates suggest that immigration since 1980 has raised the total income of native-born Americans by no more than a fraction of 1 percent.

Second, while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, 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. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8 percent more if it weren't for Mexican immigration.

That's why it's intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do "jobs that Americans will not do." The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays — and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

Finally, modern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should — and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net.

Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they're here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote about his own country's experience with immigration, "We wanted a labor force, but human beings came." Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don't pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.

Worse yet, immigration penalizes governments that act humanely. Immigrants are a much more serious fiscal problem in California than in Texas, which treats the poor and unlucky harshly, regardless of where they were born.

We shouldn't exaggerate these problems. Mexican immigration, says the Borjas-Katz study, has played only a "modest role" in growing U.S. inequality. And the political threat that low-skill immigration poses to the welfare state is more serious than the fiscal threat: the disastrous Medicare drug bill alone does far more to undermine the finances of our social insurance system than the whole burden of dealing with illegal immigrants.

But modest problems are still real problems, and immigration is becoming a major political issue. What are we going to do about it?

Realistically, we'll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration. But the harsh anti-immigration legislation passed by the House, which has led to huge protests — legislation that would, among other things, make it a criminal act to provide an illegal immigrant with medical care — is simply immoral.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush's plan for a "guest worker" program is clearly designed by and for corporate interests, who'd love to have a low-wage work force that couldn't vote. Not only is it deeply un-American; it does nothing to reduce the adverse effect of immigration on wages. And because guest workers would face the prospect of deportation after a few years, they would have no incentive to become integrated into our society.

What about a guest-worker program that includes a clearer route to citizenship? I'd still be careful. Whatever the bill's intentions, it could all too easily end up having the same effect as the Bush plan in practice — that is, it could create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers.

We need to do something about immigration, and soon. But I'd rather see Congress fail to agree on anything this year than have it rush into ill-considered legislation.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Lion Forgives Tonight

An amazing and disturbing story has been unfolding about the author of the famous song now best known as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." This blockbuster song known throughout the world was first made famous by Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio and others. The song hit escape velocity as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in the Disney movie The Lion King.

The song was written in 1938 by an illiterate black man in South Africa, Solomon Linda. He signed over the copyright (not knowing what he was doing) for 10 shillings in 1952. His wife, also illiterate, signed it away again in 1982. From that day to the present he and his family received only pittances from royalties for the song. Mr. Linda lived in a hut with a dirt floor in Soweto; his family slaved at menial jobs while Disney raked in profits. Finally a South African author and songwriter named Rian Malan published an article in Rolling Stone exposing this blatant injustice. The article inspired two South African copyright lawyers to take the case. After years of litigation the suit has now been settled.

From a portion of the New York Times article on March 22:

A representative for Disney would not discuss the circumstances behind the lawsuit, but the company said in a statement that Walt Disney Pictures... was pleased that the litigation had been resolved "to everyone's satisfaction."

Some injustices cannot be redressed: in 2001, Mr. Linda's daughter Adelaide died of AIDS at age 38, unable to afford life-saving antiretroviral treatment.

"I was angry before," said Ms. Nsele, who, as a government nurse, is one of the few of Mr. Linda's descendants who is employed. "They didn't ask permission. They just decided to do anything they wanted with my father's song."

"But now it seems we must forgive, because they have come to their senses and realized they have made a mistake," Ms. Nsele said. "The Bible says you must try to forgive."

"Not 'try,' " her 17-year-old daughter Zandile corrected. "It says 'forgive.' "

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Confessions of a former neo-con

by Francis Fukuyama, New York Times Magazine, February 19

We should be aware that a leading neo-conservative, Francis Fukuyama, who made quite a splash a few years ago with his book The End of History, has changed his mind about a lot of things. He has recently explained.

The first sentences of his article are:

"As we approach the third anniversary of the onset of the Iraq war, it seems very unlikely that history will judge either the intervention itself or the ideas animating it kindly. By invading Iraq, the Bush administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, a training ground and an operational base for jihadist terrorists, with plenty of American targets to shoot at. The United States still has a chance of creating a Shiite-dominated democratic Iraq, but the new government will be very weak for years to come..."

He then offers a detailed history of neo-conservative support for the war, in the process explaining why he is now distancing himself from positions he once held. He argues that the Bush administration and its advisors oversimplified lessons learned from the end of the Cold War. He takes them to task for "naive Wilsonian idealism," for an insufficient grasp of the complexities of the Middle East, and for expecting fully grown democracies to come into being almost by default.

"After the fall of the Soviet Union," he writes, "various neoconservative authors like Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol and Robert Kagan suggested that the United States would use its margin of power to exert a kind of 'benevolent hegemony' over the rest of the world, fixing problems like rogue states with W.M.D., human rights abuses and terrorist threats as they came up. Writing before the Iraq war, Kristol and Kagan considered whether this posture would provoke resistance from the rest of the world, and concluded, 'It is precisely because American foreign policy is infused with an unusually high degree of morality that other nations find they have less to fear from its otherwise daunting power.'"

Fukuyama comments sardonically, "It is hard to read these lines without irony in the wake of the global reaction to the Iraq war, which succeeded in uniting much of the world in a frenzy of anti-Americanism." He concludes, "Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support."