Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Why we need Immigration

Immigration is one of the hot button issues of the day.  Unfortunately, like most "hot button" issues, there are far more partisan opinion and all or nothing perspective, than fact based discussions.  And, even when purportedly non-biased articles appear, there still seems to be a filter through which those articles are processed, a filter effected by politics, self interest, and even race and national allegiance.

So, where to turn for an honest debate about immigration?

Sadly, there is no place on earth for such a debate.  We are all biased in some way, either by our own prejudices, or by our place of residence, or by our economic priorities.  As responsible citizens, we must seek information on this, and any important topic, with an acknowledgment of these biases, and those of whom we watch and listen to on our various media outlets, and, most importantly, be able to separate "facts" and messages which appeal to our emotions from those which appeal to our minds.

Yes, I know, a very tough task.

A simple example, which I have used before, is one of employment.  As a population increases, at any given time, it may be possible to cite a statistic that claims more people are employed than ever in history, and, at the same time, that more people are under employed, or unemployed, that at any time in history.  Both can be true if the population of that country is increasing.  Each statistic can be used, by opposing sides of a debate, to prove the greatness of its side or the failure of the other.  Only the discerning listener knows that neither statistic means anything in and of itself, without other information, especially percentage information, as opposed to an aggregate number.

That being said, I will present my opinion as to whey we need less stringent immigration laws, and an increase of immigration into America.  I will present information and facts to back this opinion, but the reader must remember that I am biased.  My family is only two generations removed from Europe so without immigration I would not be writing this blog from America.  In addition, I have visited the Statue of Liberty, read its words of invitation, hope, and encouragement to the "huddled masses", and believe it is that spirit of acceptance that contributed to America's greatness.  And finally, I seek out and read the stories of today's immigrants and refugees, understand that their desire to come to America, even if it means entering by illegal means, are the same stories that drove my ancestors to this country.  That we are the children and grandchildren of people just like them, and that by rejecting and demonizing them, we reject and demonize our own past.

One of the more compelling arguments against immigration today, is an economic one.  This argument states quite simply that as long as there is a source of cheap labor, employers will be able to suppress wages.  Removing that source, will force employers to pay higher wages.  Further, that it is the business community that supports immigration, legal and illegal, which is why there are so few prosecutions for businesses who hire undocumented workers, while the workers themselves are painted as the problem.
My bias, against big business, makes me open to such arguments as I have a deep seated problem with the power of corporations in America.  It would be easy for me to latch onto this argument and eschew articles which debunk it.

However, over the weekend, I read such an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, business section.  This article presented facts about employment that counter my bias.  Did you know that upwards of 10,000 baby boomers retire every day?  And that this trend will continue for another decade, at least, as the baby boomers, as defined by those born between 1946 and 1964, continue to retire?  America is, statistically speaking, operating around 1% above full employment, where full employment is defined at 3%.  (Current unemployment, nationally, is 3.8%).  In other words, we need more workers, not less.  And, since the birth rate for America has been in decline for decades, despite the higher birth rates of immigrants, it is clear that we will need more immigration, not less, in the near future if we intend to run our businesses, fix our infrastructure and encourage more entrepreneurship.

Now, this information does not necessarily counter the belief that wages will stay low, as it is generally believed that immigrants tend to enter the work force at the bottom of the economic ladder.  However, my family being an example, within a generation or two, a large percentage of those immigrants have children who move up the economic ladder.  This should not be surprising as stories abound concerning immigrant parents (of all nationalities) who sacrifice so their progeny can live better than they did.  Seeking a higher standard of living for one's children exists across all races, cultures, and ethnic origins, and is cited in countless "success" stories by the children and grandchildren of immigrant parents when asked for their inspiration.

The fact that employers seek to pay the least amount of money, whether to legal or undocumented workers transcends generation and position in life, and will continue whether the employer resides in one's community or in the White House.  What is important is that new blood, immigrant blood, refreshes a nation.  It has done so for America for its entire existence, and will continue to do so if we consider immigration in ways which reach beyond our prejudices.

Does that mean open borders?  Of course not.  Just as we prefer to prosecute and incarcerate the small percentage of native born American citizens who pose a threat to society, we need a process to filter out those who intend nefarious activities once they cross our border.  This is a difficult task, as it is difficult to know beforehand, who will respect our laws and who will not.  But is is also true that just because a desperate person crosses into America illegally, it means they will break other laws as well.  The percentage of illegal immigrants who commit serious crime is no more, and depending on what stats you use, even less than the percentage of natural born Americans who commit those crimes.  Undocumented people tend to avoid legal issues, even to the extend of not reporting those who commit crimes against them, for fear of drawing attention to their illegal status. 

If we are to presume that those who risk their lives to come to America, do so for the best intentions, then we must continue to give the majority the benefit of the doubt, and reinforce our belief in them, and their belief in America, by rewarding their good behavior, just as importantly, by removing those among them who are not up to the standard which we expect. 

Serious crime is not to be tolerated,  However, just as we presume innocence until proven guilt, we can not pass laws that exclude all peoples from only specific countries because they look or worship differently, or were merely born in a foreign land.  If that had been the case when the Mafia was first exported to the United States, all Italian immigration to America would have been halted, to the detriment of both Italy and America, and the citizens of both countries.

The other article I recently read concerned refugees, specifically those from countries such as El Salvador.  These people are fleeing horrible situations where death or life seem to be the only choices.  That they choose life which includes leaving everything behind to travel hundreds, even a thousand miles for America, should make us proud that our reputation is of such high esteem.  Risking it all, to provide a better life for one's children is one of the most noble motivations, yet I see these very same parents lambasted for risking their lives and those of their children, by people who prefer to reject them out of fear and prejudice rather than to understand their plight.  Talk about sad!  When America purposefully demonizes refugees whose only crime is to be born at the wrong time in the wrong country, it reflects most negatively on our supposed Christian values. 

And, to me, it leads to the continued degradation of our national soul.  When wealth is all we seek, when the yardstick for a family carrying all its belongings to travel a precarious route so as to live in a free country, is whether they are the wrong skin color, or look just like our preconceived notion of a drug dealer or rapist, then America suffers right along with those refugees. 

History is such a great teacher, yet in some ways so predictable as to be ignored by most of us.  People who looked different from us have been feared in America from the very first day a white European encountered the real native Americans.  Every succeeding generation, after first being looked at askance by the residents of their new world, did the very same thing to the next wave of immigrants.  And so, without being able to see our situation from a distance, we accept hateful words which reinforce our prejudices, and pretend that those we prefer to ignore or demonize are somehow different from our own ancestors.  We ignore the hundreds of stories which resemble our own past while repeating the one story of someone who does disservice to his race or nationality as if that person represents them all. 

We need to find a balance in our discussion of immigration, and a plan to treat immigrants and refugees as people who are eager to share and contribute to the greatness of America.  We need this, for economic reasons, but just as much for our spiritual health, especially if how we treat the least among us is used to separate those bound for heaven or hell.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Woman's Worth

The Spring Edition of Lapham's Quarterly arrived recently; it is called Trade.  Have only just started it, but so far the tone reminds me a bit of the tone of last year's Law, in that both remind us that the big forces which control and effect our lives, laws and money, are so often manipulated by those with the most power and resources.  Or, to put it more succinctly, the rich and powerful so often direct their propaganda which confuses and perverts the thinking of the everyday man, by appealing to our respect for the law and desire (need?) for money, when they defend their immoral acts, or demonize those who look, worship, or love, differently from us. 

Along that line were two essays I just read.  Both were written in the 19th century.

The first was written by Maria Edgeworth and was taken from her novel "The Grateful Negro".  The excerpt in question relates a conversation between two plantation owners, one whom was expressing sadness to the other who had just lost one his best slaves, arrested by the local sheriff.  As they discuss the plight of the slave, it is clear that the plantation owner who did not own the slave has been questioning his participation in owning slaves, whereas the other man accepts their existence as not only an economic necessity but as a reflection of the "natural" order (black men being inferior to whites), and of the current laws which allow their existence.  Regardless of the arguments put forth by the hesitant plantation owner, arguments which question the assertion that slaves in America are "happier" than those in Africa, and that question why the economic need for "free" labor justifies the enslavement of a race and disintegration of the families of that race, the second plantation owner has little interest in changing his thinking or the current status quo.  Even when the hesitant plantation owner purchases the offending Negro from the sheriff's office (a situation in itself that causes concern), the original owner of the slave accedes to the request, not out of any concern for the slave but as deference to the "gentleman" for whom he had great esteem.

The second excerpt comes from Charlotte Perkins Gilman from Women and Economics, and is more directly related to the title of my post.  (Although it is not all that far-fetched to suggest that for the vast majority of history, a woman's worth was valued in much the same way as a slave's).

Gilman's excerpt begins in a backwards fashion as she begins by questioning the economic value of a wife as part of the partnership within the marriage.  Gilman logically defeats the rationalizations that, in terms of a business partnership, the wife is of any value via the comfort she provides her husband, or the contributions she makes by running the household or raising the children.  She somewhat easily replaces the wife with other people, not married to the husband, who could provide those same services, for free or for a fee and then dismisses the notion that the husband "saves" any monies that he might have to pay for the house service of his wife, and that therefore she helps him in a business fashion by reminding the reader that he does not pay his wife.  That her value, while certainly important, is not part of the man's business worth.

At this point, it seems that Gilman might have been a man with a woman's nom de plume.   But this is where she applies the knife.  Her point is not that women can be easily replaced in the home, but that "whatever the economic value of the domestic industry of women is, they do not get it."  Further, that "the women who do the most work get the least money" in reference to women who have married a man of modest or low economic fortune, and that "the women who have the most money do the least work", in reference to those who "manage" a household of servants.  Gilman further reminds us that even those women with the most money, are claimed as such because of their connection with their husbands, not because they are paid for their management of the house servants.  That nowhere on earth would there be a "rich woman" by those means.

Which brings us to the conundrum of a woman's worth.  (I know, just referring to it is a bit misogynist, but give me the benefit of the doubt from a strictly economic viewpoint). 

We hear talk all the time of family values, the decline of the family, the effect of feminism on the family unit, the role of a woman in today's society, etc, etc.  Of course, much of it is hogwash!  Frequently family "values" arguments are made by (especially) men who prefer women to be barefoot and pregnant. leaving the manly chores of running the world of politics and business to the gender best suited to do so. 

No, you say, we are evolving past that!  Perhaps, slowly, but one just only needs to review the percentage of women CEO's and women in politics, or to review the white male backlash that is emboldening laws governing women's reproductive rights and their bodies, and the antics of the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who, at best is a three time philanderer and unapologetic pu$$y grabber, and it is clear that we have a long way to go.

But if you still believe that the gender pay gap is non-existent, and that equal rights, like civil rights, is a battle already past, suggest the proposal that women be paid for their house services.  That a universal basic income be set for women who maintain the home and raise our children.  You most likely won't see people behind this idea who had been the most vocal against women in the workplace, and the decline of our family values.

Or, if that is too far-fetched, that once a women who performs such activities for 12, 15, 20 years, she is granted free training, via college or some type of certificate program, so she does not have to face the prospect of retail or service industry or childcare work (a natural extension of what she has been doing, maintaining the home and raising our children, and yes, Virginia, a good indicator of how we actually value her contributions, and by extension, "family values"). 

Get on board with that concept, and I might grant you that we value a woman's contribution for her "house service" years.  Otherwise you reflect the general assumption of history, that a woman's place is in the home where she performs inestimable duties, but rather than actually determining the value of those duties we give only flowery words and compliments, condemning the very people that we laud on TV as the backbone of our culture to dead-end jobs when they finish their "duty".  Or much worse, poverty and suffering when their husbands jettison them for a newer model, leaving them with the valueless titles of mother and ex-wife along with the reduced income producing skills that are really important in our materialistic, wealth-driven culture.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Climbing, and Falling

I had read a brief account of famed free solo climber Alex Honnold's successful attempt to be the first to climb El Capitan without a rope.  Honnold's feat is both inspiring and a reality check, as he demonstrates what we are capable of, when we chase a dream with a single minded sense of determination, but also presents a stark realization that so many of the daily obstacles that we face and so often complain about are, in fact, inconsequential.

I watched the documentary last night, having taped it (sorry for that revelation of my age) over this past weekend.  While i was prepared for anxious even hair raising moments, and incredible scenic views, I was not prepared for the roller coaster emotions that Honnold's story evoked.  His relationships with his family, and his current girl friend, his ability to isolate the possibility of his death as an idea rather than as his physical ending, the feelings as portrayed by those in his life who both admired and feared for him practically every day, not to mention the aborted attempt to climb El Capitan in the fall of 2016 where he listened to his instincts and "bailed", all created a gut wrenching 2 hours of television.

The obvious fact that Honnold is different from most of us, not only in his perspectives about what is fun and what is challenging, but even in his basic concepts of what life is about, are revealed throughout the documentary through his reactions to his accidents in the year before his climb, his newfound love, and his seemingly nonchalant acceptance of the death of his colleagues, especially one in particular. 

We admire him for his focus, perhaps envy him for his ability to succeed, no matter how long it might take, yet also, perhaps, chalk it all up to someone who we can never be.  Someone who is willing to risk it all, at any particular moment, to achieve his goal.  Risk it all. 

Think about that.  Have you ever even contemplated risking it all, let alone actively pursued an action that entailed that very thing?

There are a few scenes in the film related to Alex and his girlfriend buying a house.  (Alex lived in his van for much of the previous decade).  They are walking through the empty house, envisioning how they will furnish it.  Later, they are shopping for a new refrigerator.  I found myself wondering how Alex could focus, or frankly care, about such decisions, when, in the forefront of his mind, he was always seeing the hundreds of moves he would have to make, in perfect succession, to climb that rock without falling, without dying.  Yikes!  I commented to my wife that I wondered if his girlfriend often thought about how she was caging a lion with talk of future domestic bliss. 

If Alex is the ultimate example of a person who understands that we get only one chance, so why not make the most of it, even if dying while doing what you love and are good at, is the price to be paid, what do we make of the thousands of Americans that have died in our current opioid crisis.  Do they possess the same DNA that makes everyday pleasures seem parochial?  Alex seems to move through his day with an understanding that the reward will come, but will take time.  It is certainly not instant gratification, as he reveals that he has thought about conquering El Cap for many years.  It is as if he can take all his need for that climbing high, let it out a bit at a time with "easy" climbs, knowing that the big high, the ultimate high, will come as long as he stays the course.  Contrast that with those who cannot move through life waiting for their next good feeling, but must experience it now. 

Of course, it is quite possible, perhaps inevitable, that Alex will die some day in his quest for the next ultimate high, just as so many addicts of opioids and other drugs die when chasing their next high.  Two sides of the same coin?  Perhaps though, the difference is that Alex has something to live, and die for, while addicts have nothing to live for which is why they pursue such a dead end path.

And what of America's path?  Is our country best reflected by Alex or the faceless victims of those who die of opioid abuse?  Is our true national emergency the soullessness of wealth accumulation?  Our willingness to tolerate all kinds of unethical behavior, policies which enable those with the most to treat those with less as non-human?  Is the fact that we are losing citizens to the ravages of drug dependency at rates 10, 20, even 25 times more than that of other "developed" countries, a sign of our climbing, or falling?

I would like to think that we are at a crossroads, and that we will make the right decisions in the next decade so that we are again a nation that is climbing.  Setting the bar higher, reaching for goals that might seem hard to achieve but can only be attained if we start the process, not give in to a defeatist belief that it is just too hard, or that we have not quite evolved enough yet.  Alex would never have stood atop El Cap if he had succumbed to those feelings at any time in the past decade.  His accomplishment was considered impossible not that long ago, even by those at the top of the rock climbing profession.

Climbing, risking it all, or falling, dying with spittle at the corners of our mouth, eyes bulging with the knowledge that life was wasted.  It is not as easy a decision as one might think, both individually and collectively as it assumes the risk of coming up short, not quite making it.  But oh, the joy of living an attempt that is greater than the everyday! 

I guess that is the question, to succeed in mediocrity or to risk failing while attempting greatness.  The question for each of us, and the question for America.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Night Sky

I finished reading the Winter Edition of Lapham's Quarterly called Night.  It was an interesting read, not because of the information that I gained, but because of the seemingly all or nothing aspects of the essays and articles about the Night.  All or nothing from the standpoint of fearing the darkness and uncertainty that we can feel with an absence of light, or reveling in the quiet and stillness that night time can provide in contrast to the hectic lifestyle which encompasses our every waking second.

Perhaps not unexpected, there were more than a few commentaries about the pleasures of the night hours by people one might label as artistic, and/or non-conforming.  Society has long looked down its collective noses at those who labor at night whether in nefarious or service occupations.  The daylight people have long held those who find the hours between standard sleep time and dawn an interesting or productive time as "different" at best, too be avoided or scorned at worst.  As I read the efforts of people so labeled in their time or today, I sometimes wondered if it was us daylight people who should be looked at askance, as there appeared to be so much less judgement, so much more living, reflected in the lines of those who preferred the night over the day.

Of course, the advent of the gas light also marked a significant shift in the opinions of the night seekers and those who preferred sleep.  In many communities, the artificial lights which began to appear on houses, storefronts, and in the streets, doubled down on the perception by those who stayed indoors after dark about those who ventured out and about.  Even people, especially the young women, who began working in the factories and offices that were now open due to the availability of light, still found themselves the focus of side chatter and innuendo for their presence at this time, as there was still such a strong association between those who worked at night and those who robbed, stole or walked the streets.

It is certainly hard to imagine the depth of the blackness of a moonless night in today's world of abundant electric streetlights, 24/7 shopping centers, and obscenely lit car dealerships.   Still, my brief experience with life outdoors between the hours of 3 AM and dawn, was very pleasant, despite the lack of sleep and occasional frigid mornings.  During the eighteen months in which I delivered newspapers just 5 or so years ago, I was often struck with the difference in the neighborhoods of my town as compared to those same areas in the light of day.  The moon, if in the right phase, seemed so much brighter, the scent of the fields so much stronger, the streets generally devoid of other cars, but still full of the life of nature whether it be deer, fox, rabbit, groundhog, bird or even turkey.  There are most likely thousands of people living in my small town who have no idea of the number and variety of animals that walk across their lawns and over their roads when they sleep.

Sadly, while the prevalence of artificial light has enabled all sorts of productive activity to prosper, it has also significantly reduced our ability to see the stars in the night sky.  A few months ago, I saw a TV show which depicted the various land masses at night, from above.  Naturally, much of the developed work was bathed in light, while parts of the African continent, Antarctica, the Arctic, etc was dark.  Also, which was the point of the show, was much of North Korea.  So again, light is good, dark is bad.  And certainly, I would prefer to live in a place where we have the choice to light a lamp, work a night shift, or drive home safely.  But oh, the views of the night sky that we are missing!  (Perhaps Kim
Jung-un might want to consider a way to make his dark country a tourist hot spot for night sky viewing!)

In "The Fading Stars: A Constellation" by Holly Haworth, one of the end-of-the-edition essays within Night, Haworth touches on a number of topics related to our perception of the night sky.  She establishes the creation of the telescope in the early 17th century as the beginning of our organized attempts to order the night sky.  I say organized, because throughout history, various cultures had contemplated the night sky, named the stars (before they were called stars), saw pictures in their arrangements.  But now that European Man was on the job, new names were established, while the older ones were ridiculed and pushed aside. 

Oddly, when Galileo created his own "spyglass" and began investigating the sky with a mathematician's eye, he realized that the science of the night sky was all wrong.  His publication of Starry Messenger inspired other men of numbers and science to look upward, eventually resulting in a number of theories at odds with the views of the Catholic Church which espoused scientific views based on religion, and the Church's belief that to properly lead its flock, the Earth must be the center of the solar system.  Perhaps it was just cosmic revenge that one of the great thinkers of all time was imprisoned in his own home for the last decade of his life, punishment for being born just a few decades too early, just as the work all those "ancients" who had come to their own conclusions without the aid of a 'far seeking" device, had their work dismissed by those wielding their new tool.

In some areas, with the prevalence of light pollution, one might say that our perception of the night sky has come full circle.   New Mexico, the self named Land of Enchantment, is one of the many places where laws designed to push back against light pollution, have gained a foothold.  In 1999 New Mexico enacted The Night Sky Protection Act.  Its purpose is to "regulate outdoor night lighting fixtures to preserve and enhance the state’s dark sky while promoting safety, conserving energy and preserving the environment for astronomy." 

Believe it or not, it is possible to properly light one's property without sending your light into the night sky or onto the neighbor's yard.  Amazingly, these lights generally save energy in addition to directing the artificial light where it needs to be.  It is the best of both worlds, yet the regulations which foster such lights, are actively fought by various industries, while being scoffed at by small government advocates and people who believe in "freedom" but have less concern for responsibility.

When I was a young adult, my friends and I were occasionally invited to a cabin owned by the parents of one of our group.  The cabin was in upstate Pennsylvania.  Your typical one traffic light town in rural America.  The cabin itself was at the top of a dirt road up the side of a mountain.  Outdoors latrine.  An extra-large table for games and meals plus a few bedrooms downstairs where the adults slept.  An upstairs the length of the cabin with numerous cots for the kids.  At night, in the clearing in the front of the cabin, if you looked up at the sky, it could make you dizzy with the number and beauty of the stars above.  I don't believe I have seen such a Night Sky since and I wonder if my children have seen anything like it in their lives.  Worse, I wonder if they even know what they are missing.

When asked why it matters if we can see the stars at night, an advocate for protecting the Night Sky responded that it was possible that while not seeing the beauty of a star-filled sky in itself, is a shame, and that while not even knowing that such beauty existed is a travesty, it might also be possible that without the inspiration of the night sky, humanity might lose one more reason not to explore our universe.  And, by losing that desire, have less motivation to understand our place in that universe.