Mar 17, 2006

The New World May Move out of America

Immigration, legal or illegal, presents America with a problem and a challenge. Are we having an honest, rational discussion about it? Not really. When did Congress under Republican leadership—since 1994—pass any legislation that actually solved a problem? I can’t think of anything of importance, unless we’re talking about tax breaks and other benefits for the rich individuals and fat corporations.

In a familiar (careless) manner, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) set a March 27th deadline to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. This deadline is not practical, unless the Republicans don’t want a solution to this problem, especially this election year. Realistically speaking—and reality seems to escape the current leadership—there isn’t enough time to have a discussion and examine a multi-faceted issue like immigration within this time framework. Perhaps failing to produce legislation may be more preferable to having an ugly concoction that will do nothing to deal with the problem today and establish a sane policy for the future. I will return to the topic of immigration as soon as we see what comes out of the Senate committee in the next few days. There are good and bad signs for reform, and I hope Congress can do something after talking about reform for more than 20 years.

Who's number one? Depends how you count

We often hear, “we’re number one”, and I sense that many Americans believe that being “number one” is almost a god-given right. Not so, I’m afraid, because the world is evolving around us, and what used to be good yesterday, may not be as good tomorrow. Other countries are more open to modernity, science, and progress than our conservative nation is. What does conservatism have to do with holding a country back?

There are the economic conservatives who have a certain view of human nature, how to organize society, and the role of the government. Many of them realize that our economy needs laborers, and educated people. The social conservatives are another story; for the most part they’re xenophobes. For a nation built on immigration, there is a strong element of “nativism” in much of the country. The fear of diversity (to put it mildly) breeds hostility to new ideas and un-traditional way of life. The social conservatives, and their leaders—who have invented the time-travel machine back to the old ages via Bush’s White House—see the rest of the advanced countries as moving way too fast forward. For example, if Catholic Spain [never mind the other much-more-secular European states] moves to legalize same-sex marriage, then the outside-the-US world can be seen as a threat to traditional conservative values.

We are running huge economic deficits [did I mention that BushCo not only erased a huge surplus left by Clinton by raised the national deficit to record numbers?] but what is not very obvious yet is that our country is running a talent deficit. We are not attracting world talent like we used to; and by this I mean, scientists, engineers, artists, writers, etc. In the last couple decades, some 50% of post-grad students in computer science, biology, and many other disciplines have been foreign-born. But, fewer and fewer talented students choose to come to the United States from abroad today. Europe, Australia, Canada are more attractive because of the policies implemented here and the image we project to the world.

The conservative turn the US has taken is hurting the country. Richard Florida, in his book Flight From America-The Flight of the Creative Class, points to the three “T”s: Talent, Technology, Tolerance. He points out that the US is not producing enough students with interest in science, technology, engineering, culture. We are not being smart about funding and giving people access to education. As for tolerance, well, this isn’t getting any better, not in much of the mainland. The author places emphasis on the cultural aspects of the country, because America has conquered the world primarily via a “cultural export.” This is good for extending influence, making money—all this with much less military force. He provides a breakdown of our economy: 45% service, 30% creative, 25% manufacture. The creative sector (arts & sciences) is very important, especially if you consider that innovation in this sector helps other sectors too.
The "true and tried" ways of the past
In the “good ol’ days”, might produced right, and the big-stick approach was more successful. Increasingly, this is not the case anymore. Therefore, we better re-think our approach and what has made America number One! Unfortunately, not much thinking is taking place but rather lots of shouting. It’s easier to garner votes this way. The conservatives have been exploiting the fear and anxiety, and, while blaming the liberals, they point to a more traditional values-oriented society as the solution. The fundamental Islam has the same approach by the way. Modernity brings so much fear and anxiety and change is a threat to the identity of people who are unwilling or unable to deal with the change. The reaction is to go back to the castle of the “good ol’ days” and raise the gates.

Conservatism in the US has gained because of the post 9-11 reality. Too many Americans were willing to believe anything. Promptly, the Bush administration was happy to oblige in the politics of fear. But, fear breeds oppression. And, oppression is what we’re getting. Our civil liberties are being attacked, our government says it reserves the right to torture and detain people without charge and for an indefinite length of time. Almost half of Americans say that they’re willing to give the President any authority to keep us safe. Any? Who in their right mind would say this? I don’t know, would babies on skewers placed at close intervals along our borders help deter terrorists from entering the country? Anything?!!! Actually, why the surprise? The President argues, ala-Nixon, that “if the President does it, it’s not illegal”, then the public shrugs its shoulders and Congress considers legislation to retro-actively “legalize” such action!

America was attractive because it offered great opportunities and freedoms others didn’t in the past few centuries. Times have changed. It is no accident that cosmopolitan centers and tolerant societies produce technical innovation and culture. It’s no accident that some of the most successful American companies—Google, Yahoo, E-Bay, to name a few—were founded by foreign-born individuals. We still have the northeast and the Pacific west states that attract lots of talent because of their openness to diversity and modernity. Creativity in the arts & sciences needs this air of freedom, and dare I say, a strong liberal democracy!

Just as capital needs mobility so does talent and skilled labor. The US has become a country with concentrated wealth within a tiny segment of the population, but the rich are not patriotic when it comes to money; theywill invest their capital where they can get the maximum returns. Heck, they even place a fax machine in the Bahamas and claim it as their "headquarters" in order to avoid paying taxes here. Talent will move elsewhere as well. Economic growth depends on how much technology you’ve got, and, someone has to drive this technology forward! In the post-911 era, the US has moved to the conservative side: more isolationist, suspicious, less tolerant, increased militarism, anti-immigrant, and to the Big Brother realm. That’s not very attractive. Since this is a big country, there will be ways to be “number one” in something, I mean, if tiny Cuba can be “number one” in producing Cuban cigars, then we can find something to excel at. We used to beat anyone in basketball and baseball and in so many other sports, but now the competition has gotten better than us. Perhaps we should take the hint.

Editor's note: The Comments feature is again enabled, but due to the large amount of comments received that have absolutely nothing to contribute to the discussion, all comments won't automatically post; they'll have to be approved first by an administrator of this blog--which remains a private domain, not a place for the trolls to come in an mess it up. Sorry for this inconvenience, but the alternative would be no comments at all.


Anonymous said...

I think most Americans don't realize that (our)talent can even flow out of the US as well.

Anonymous said...

We have many illusions. This is one of many, that we will be number one for ever

ghassan said...

I am not sure that there are many virtues for being patriotic or nationalistic.Actually, one can argue that we are witnessing the begining of the end of the nation state. Westphalia has outlived its purpose. As a result talentand capital will flow to where conditions are the best.
It might be true that The US is less attractive to highly creative and skilled people because of the conservative policies that we have adopted over the past few decades but we are still the magnet for unkilled , illegal and undocumented labour. This situation will not change anytime soon since most of our business owners are the beneficiaries of such inexpensive labour. Such an influx of illegals will keep the "locals" in line will maintain downward pressure on wages and will help the bottom line. This in turn will make the rich richer and the poor grateful for having low paying jobs.

Samantha said...

The world has become much more, well, global. With a few exceptions of very poor countries, like North Korea, or totalitarian states, interdepenency and intergration is the norm. Getting back to the castle and raising the gates won't do it, I don't think. My worry is that by the time many Americans will realize that this isn't the way, the country will have fallen behind the other advanced countries.

concerned citizen said...

I know people who have graduated their schools with honors and are finding hard to get a visa to do grad studies in the US. They're treated as potential terrorists. I understand some checks are in order, but there has to be some way to expeditite the procedure and attract talent. Being harrassed by the Homies while here isn't good either.

Andros said...

Of course the quality of life is very important, and by this I mean that if I have a choice where to work and live, obviously I'd like to be in a cosmopolitan state/city. I can't live in a repressive, intolerant society. Fortunately, we have many places in the US that are cosmopolitan, but too many others are not. I'm willing to bet that, if it's not so already, there will be an increasingly strong corelation between the economic progress and social progress. The poorest states in the union also tend to be more socially/politically conservative.

Brit said...

All higher ed institutions have been complaining about losing high-quality students to other countries like the ones you mentioned. It's too much of a hassle for a foreign student to study in the US. And, impressions also play a big difference in selecting a place to go, spend lots of money and later work...

elizabeth said...

Being "number one" would imply that Americans are "the best." You are correct to identify this mentallity as part of the problem, because it implies that Americans are the best and the rest of the world has nothing to offer.
Being the best means that we have to know how to cultivate all kinds of intelligence and creativity. And that includes attracting and appreciating talents from around the world.
But I have to mention that it is the process of distilling the pool of potential immigrants to allow only the "good ones," the people who are educated and wealthy and cultured, into this country that has undermined the system.
We must open ourselves to the possibility that we cannot necessarily recognize what will prove to be beneficial. It may, in fact, be the poorest or least educated who bring the talents and diversity that will benefit this country. It is in keeping out the poor and sick of the world that we have bogged down the system and prevented anyone from getting in. But I would propose that perhaps it is within the poor and the sick that we might find our future... who is to know.

Andros said...

This country was built on immigration, much of it through a very harsh policy of abuse, discrimination, and exploitation.

I did not define the "good ones", did I? I was pointing out that the educated, skillful, and otherwise talented people have more choices as to where to go and work than the poor who just need a job, any job, for survival. Their choices are limited. The people who have choices as where to emigrate also tend to have of a more immediate impact in their chosen fields of expertise. We need their skills and we should make our country attractive to this talent.

On the other hand, the vast majority of the poor immigrants in America are decent people, with a great work ethic and an dream that at least their children will do great--and they do! It's no accident that recent immigrants as a group contribute more to the economy than they get out in benefits. And, their children become more educated and do better economically than other "native groups" (several generations old). This hunger, this drive for success must be a good thing for our country and we need it.

Our economy needs more workers. As long as we have space--and we do--every productive worker is also a consumer and part of the greater community. So, any responsible person is good enough for me to be accepted here. Certain sectors of our economy would not survive without the labor of immigrants. It's hypocritical to need these people but keep them illegal. It's a dynamic relationship between the high & low skill workers. Both are needed, but most importantly what we need is to shed our social conservatism because it's taking our country back.

The US is an aging country and not so long in the future the ratio of workers to retirees will be 1 to 1. Not good. Unless there's an infusion of new working immigrant population.

Thinking you're the best by divine right, or being infallible, or having pompus arrogance is a hubris exhibited by others who believe they're "the chosen" ones; it's not the attitude of a secular humanist like myself.

Kelly said...

I too agree with the points made here. I also think that we do need a new immigration policy. It's insane what's going on. The bureaucracy and the way we pick & allow new immigrants in is not serving our country well.

I thought that since the Dems want to reform the system, and many Repubs see the need for legalizing a much-needed labor force, that finally we'd see real change. But, those Repubs who see the need for real reform can't stand up to those fear mongers in their midst. The Repubs are running scared themselves because of their incompetence to do anything right while controlling all branches of goveernment. So, I think in this election year the Repubs will run on issues like "national security" and, wouldn't you guess it, "stop 'em at the border!"

lafayette said...

I have to tell that after talking with people on the subject of immigration, many Americans feel threatened by new immigrants, and this concern comes from all segments. The fear is that the immigrants are willing to work for less wages and therefore an employer will choose them instead of a citizen. Those with specialized skills & education are more at ease because they feel there's ample demands for such talents.

It's a complicated issue. I favor immigration as long as there is demand for skills and labor or any kind. But, we've got to be honest. We can't go after those who are looking to improve their condition by coming to the US, while we ignore those who provide jobs to them. I don't know how many Americans can't get a job because an illegal immigrant has gotten it (and for less wages), but we have to examine this with a cool head.

We know that certain sectors of the economy can't get enough Americans. For example, nurses, farm workers, and so many other places in the service economy. I don't like the hypocricy either, that we wink at the employers who hire illegals but persecute the latter.

Andros said...

This is an interesting poll regarding Americans' views on immigration. Look, I don't blame those who want to come in search of a better future. All of us would probably do the same. Except for the native Americans, all others fall into this category.

Talent and labor from abroad will not be enough in the long run. We have to emphasize good education and excite the younger gen to become scientists.

As for tolerance, the US ranks 20th in the world--however you take the measurement, the fact is that we aren't as tolerant as other societies AND the impression is just that.

This administration, in addition to the very bad job is doing, is making America more xenophobic and anti-cosmopolitan. There is an anti-city federal policy, despite the 10 largest US cities being the 3rd largest world economy. Those big cities have a culture despised by the Cons. Well, I mean the Cons in power who use the rhetoric to motivate and scare their political base, because, like the rich emirs, they enjoy the fruits of a ..decadent society.

Firm said...

One provision that I think is important but the current version being debated today lack is the DREAM Act.

They want the immigrants to integrate and be more productive in our society but they put big obstacles to the education of the immigrants' children. After all, the children of the undocumented immigrants never had a choice, and having gone to American high schools, they should be able to go on to college.