Immigration: The Search for Internal Cohesion

This is a (long) proposal that seeks to build a framework in which to discuss immigration policy. My goal was to keep it to 1500 words, but given the depth of the topic, I ended up with 3400 words. I finished this at Starbucks with electronic dance music in my ears, and a blond roast coffee at my side.

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A Concise Proposal of a Broad-Brushed Immigration Policy

My elevator speech for an ideal immigration policy would look like this: the state ought to enforce strong border control while taking into strong consideration people’s right to freedom of movement, basic human rights for refugees who seek asylum due to self-preservation, and consideration for the cultural and economic impact upon the host country. These are noble considerations because they serve to protect the internal cohesion of the state through the self-determination of its people. These considerations are elevated for the sole purpose of demonstrating that solidarity through citizenship is a treasured ideal over and above an indiscriminate open border policy. For the immigrant, a process toward citizenship serves the purpose of civic integration into the culture at large. In doing so, a reciprocal relationship is created between the citizen and the state by which the citizen is enfranchised with basic rights and liberties to thrive while also assuming obligations to abide by the laws and policies of the state and participating in the democratic process.

In essence, this is an argument for what is called weak moral cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism is defined as belonging to all the world; but not limited to just one part of the world. Thus, ‘weak’ cosmopolitanism places some restrictions on the free movement of individuals. The word ‘moral’ is added because immigration policy has principles that cross the threshold into rightness and wrongness. For instance, denying refugees completely when their lives are at stake is an example of the moral implications an immigration policy may have. Enough of defining terms, let’s move on.

Therefore, the state needs strong borders along with a pathway to citizenship that seeks to foster solidarity and national identity through civic integration. The reason is that the internal cohesion of the state is of utmost importance.

Hiker’s Analogy

Suppose you are hiking through Yosemite National Park and come upon a stranded hiker in need of water and suffering from severe dehydration. To turn away and say that her plight is of no concern to you would be immoral. The basic point is that you owe her some consideration; you cannot ignore her. Now let us suppose that having her thirst slaked, she sees that you are carrying your personal journal in hand, and she requests to have it – outright. Do you oblige her newest desire? Not necessarily. You are justified in feeling obligated to nourish her back to good health if you have the means, but in no way are you obligated to give her your personal journal.

This illustration serves to highlight how we can approach immigration. For starters, states must consider the impact of the policies they pursue on both those outside and inside of their borders. With the recent diaspora of refugees fleeing their war-torn countries, it’s a matter of self-preservation and human rights. With economic migrants, it’s a matter of fleeing poverty. For others, it’s simply a search for something new, or to be near friends and family, or work and career. Going back to the analogy, the slaked hiker is akin to the refugee, in that there is an urgent need in which one’s life is at stake. The hiker’s request for the personal journal is akin to the Filipino person wanting to join her cousins in San Francisco – permanently. Thus, we are obligated to open our borders to refugees whose lives hang in the balance, but we should have restrictions for others whose human rights are not at stake.

Furthermore, we must always consider the effects of our actions on all those who will bear the consequences, no matter who they are or whether they are in any way connected to us. Second, if there are no relevant differences between people, we should afford them equal consideration. Immigrants are human beings, thus deserving of a moral standing just like us. We cannot act toward them in ways that violate their human rights, and in many cases, we have positive duties to help protect those rights. It also gives us reasons if we decide to refuse people’s demands or requests, even when no rights are at stake.

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The Goal of a Good Immigration Policy: Internal Cohesion

Strong borders, a judicious state, and civic integration can act as a lever to control the flow of immigrants. This paramount for the pursuit of internal cohesion of the state. I discuss the need for strong borders and the judicious state later in the essay, but for now, I want to highlight the crucial element of civic integration.

Civic integration has to do with the ‘bringing together’ of people to a common understanding of the hosts country’s expectation and obligations for civility. This may sound like tacit paternalism, but it need not be if, and when, the host country adheres to the democratic process and respects the self-determination of its citizens. Civic integration helps immigrants understand the culture and values of their new society.  This is crucial for any country that sees the virtue in a unified homogeneous society.

Critical to civic integration is an agreement (based on recognition and respect) that the immigrant makes with it’s host country. First, the immigrant must possess proficiency in the language of the host country. I note this first because communication is a vital element for building social bonds within a civil society. Second, the immigrant should have knowledge of how the government functions. Within a liberal state, voting rights and the legislation of laws help the immigrant gain a voice within the democratic process. Third, the immigrant should understand the laws and policies of the host country. Quite often, the liberal state has freedoms and liberties that are not embraced by most illiberal countries, thus, an understanding of laws and policies helps immigrants know what is expected for a well-ordered liberal society. Fourth, the immigrant should possess recognition of the cultural values. Families coming in that believe in, for example, arranged marriages or polygamy will need to learn the lay of the land in order to coexist within the liberal state. Given that every society has a unique culture with particular values, recognition of host country’s culture helps the immigrant understand what is important to the culture around them.

I’d be remised if I didn’t call upon a distinction between integration and assimilation. In considering civic integration, it is not expected that the immigrant abandons their culture and values and adopt the culture and values of the host country. For this is what assimilation assumes. To the contrary, my argument for civic integration assumes the immigrant holds on to what is dear to them, while also recognizing and respecting the new culture they find themselves in. The is not paternalism, rather the goal is for a society that aims at the internal cohesion for the good of all people that inhabit the country.

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Immigration Policies that Promotes and Protects National Identity

Integral to the internal cohesion of the state is the concept of national identity. In today’s parlance, national identity is equated with white chauvinism. This is in part due to a postmodernist attempt to deconstruct ‘white colonialism’. However, I choose to use national identity to describe the solidarity felt and expressed by a diverse group of citizens. Strong borders, a judicious state, and civic integration help control the influx of immigrants while keeping a watchful eye on the resentment or hostility felt with the change to culture.

Germany serves as an example of how a sharp spike in multi-culturalism actually erodes national identity. With thousands and thousands of accepted refugees – without much burden-sharing from neighboring countries – Germans are now brewing with resentment. I am sure that talk of anti-multiculturalism strikes many as inherent racism, but this is a misnomer. The reality is that human beings have proclivities to be around people who are like them. For an in-depth study on this subject, please see: “Who Trusts Others?” Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara (Journal of Public Economics). We are disposed to sympathize with, help, trust, and take responsibility for those with whom we feel we have something in common. A sense of identity creates this feeling of likeness even with people with whom we are not in direct contact. The evidence shows that those who adhere to a richer, and therefore potentially more exclusive, understanding of what it means to belong to nation X are also likely to identify more strongly with X – and therefore more willing to display solidarity with other members of X, provided they see them as members in good standing.

Solidarity is the aim of national identity. As David Miller notes, “a nation-state has a more communitarian character by virtue of the way that its members identify with each other, making it easier to adopt policies that favor the less well-off, especially those who are able to make little or no contribution to the productive economy (Strangers in our Midst).” It seems true that the states whose citizens have been most ready to promote egalitarian forms of social justice, such as the Scandinavian social democracies, have also been those in which national identity is at its strongest.

Why Not Completely Open Our Borders?

One can begin with the idea that the earth as a whole is the common property of all the human beings who inhabit it, from which some draw the corollary that it is wrong to refuse anyone access to part of what they own. This idea of common ownership has a long history that can be found in classical sources from Hugo Grotius and Kant. The idea rests on the premise that God has given the world to mankind as a common inheritance, which means that each person is entitled to take the natural resources that he needs to sustain himself on the assumption that this is not to the detriment of anyone else.

A lot can be said in refuting the complete open border policy, so I will limit my response to three short arguments. First, open borders could very well lead to a “tragedy of the commons.” Let’s face it, people want to live where people are thriving, the quality of life is high, and there is ample opportunity for success. What meets these criteria? Liberal democracies. Thus, if everyone emigrates their homeland to, say, the United States or the Scandinavian countries, there will be an overuse of resources in that particular area. Imagine millions and millions of Syrians and Eritreans descending upon New York City or Zurich. Think not just of the overuse of resources, but also of the upheaval to the economy, infrastructure, employment, and culture.

Second, open borders will lead to brain drain. In other words, a rapid depletion of the brightest minds. This argument has to do with the notion that many poorer countries best and brightest will leave for greener pastures. Many of the West African, especially India, are experiencing this now with their best doctors and engineers leaving for the United States.

Lastly, open borders will change the cultural landscape which will negatively impact social cohesion and instill distrust. A rapid population spike with one or several groups from the outside will be almost impossible for the host country to immediately embrace. For such growth will result in a clash of cultures and values, thus causing the host country to lose its social equilibrium. A slower integration policy may be more manageable for a host country. As I mentioned earlier, research demonstrates empirically that multiculturalism can foster distrust and undercuts the social capital in communities with a shared identity (A. Alesina, E. Ferrara, “Who Trusts Others?”). Throughout history when we see large swaths of one culture descend upon another culture who already possesses engrained values and norms, hostility and suspicion become the ‘new normal’. One need only look toward the West Bank to see the net result of multiculturalism. This argument rests on the premise that we are disposed to sympathize with, help, trust, and take responsibility for those with whom we feel we have something in common.

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Why Not Completely Close Our Borders?

If we are going to discuss closed borders, then we need to consider two key points that are tied together. First, a closed border policy is completely antithetical to a liberal society. Intrinsic to a liberal society are freedoms and liberties that embolden the self-determination of its citizens. By closing borders, the state would function less like a liberal one and, potentially, more like a totalitarian state with many protectionist measures that forces compliance and uniformity. Second, a closed border system violates our freedom of movement and freedom of association. To be fair, restrictions can often at times be justified given the consequences of have large swaths of people flooding a country. However, the reasons often given for closing one’s borders often cloak a whole host of illiberal ideas. Here are some common arguments for closing our borders followed by a quick rebuttal:

“We need to maintain our distinctive culture.”

If you think so, then to maintain a liberal culture, you should also in principle be willing to censor certain points of view or forbid or ban certain religions. You might favor forced indoctrination into liberal ideas. Again, if that’s a good reason to close borders, why is it not also a good reason to censor certain ideas, ban certain forms of music, or ban certain religions? Why not mandate that people support and participate in certain cultural practices?

“We need to prevent domestic wages from falling.”

This has minimal credence based on the Migration Observatory which concluded: “Evidence to date suggests little effect on employment and unemployment of UK-born workers, but that wages for the low paid may be lowered as a result of migration, although again this effect is modest.” (Dr Martin Ruhs, Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva, The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford). We may ought to be careful building a doctrine against open borders when the impact is “modest.”

Even so, this argument can still lead to a worse notion, for example, in forbidding women from entering jobs because of their effect on the wages for men. If domestic wages are the concerns, then the argument can be played out to highlight the economic impact between numerous groups and classes.

“Immigrants will eat up the welfare state.”

This is one argument that does lack empirical evidence. It also leaves out the vast population of (white) citizens who are unemployed and impoverished that eat a greater percentage from the welfare state. Furthermore, is this not also an argument for restricting births, or forbidding internal migration, or even requiring some people to give birth?

“Immigrants will cause crime.”

Isn’t this also an argument for eugenics or for internal migration restrictions? For instance, should Vermont ban young black men from moving there? If banning rap music reduced crime, would you favor that?

The Liberal Concept of Territorial Jurisdiction

A better argument that moves away from absolute closed borders is one that favors the state’s right to territorial jurisdiction. I contend that this is the best form of governance for immigration because it (1) helps with social order, (2) takes basic human rights into consideration, and (3) ensures the security of self-determination through democracy.

Before moving on, what do I mean by territorial jurisdiction? I mean having rights of jurisdiction over a given territory implies having the right to control the movement of people in and out of that territory, so that where a state can legitimately exercise jurisdiction it is also entitled to exclude immigrants if it so wishes. Territorial jurisdiction means the state possesses and exercises rights to make and enforce laws through a corpus of law that is applied uniformly to everyone. Having made clear that important distinction, I will now defend the three points above regarding why territorial jurisdiction works best.

First, territorial jurisdiction helps with securing social order through enfranchising the democratic process to all citizens as opposed to coercing individuals into submission. I will not speak any more about this point since I believe the democratic process is self-evidently better than coercion by the state. Second, territorial jurisdiction helps with consideration of basic human rights through a well-functioning legal system sets parameters of protection so that individuals can go about their lives without the threat of personal violence theft, and destitution. Third, territorial jurisdiction ensures the self-determination of its citizens by putting the power in the hands of the people rather than the state. A key feature to this point is that territorial jurisdiction gives it occupants representation from the state.

Closing borders may give inhabitants the feeling of security and protection, but ultimately it can potentially nourish totalitarian ideas. Liberalism, while only several hundred years old, provides us with a useful template to see how the expansion and extension of individual rights creates a diverse population with more opportunities to express their autonomy under a legal system that seeks to harness criminal behavior for the protection of its individuals. Territorial jurisdiction is thus intertwined with liberalism and acts as a lever to control population increases while keeping in mind social order, basic human rights, and the self-determination of its citizens.

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Closing Thoughts

One of the basic freedoms that we ought to possess is freedom of movement. But with all freedoms, comes distinctions that need to be made, along with consequences that must be considered. I have attempted to lay out an argument for weak moral cosmopolitanism that defends the claim that while people have the right of freedom of movement, it ought to be limited because of its consequences. Furthermore, immigrants are deserving of a moral standing as the citizens in the host country. Thus, basic human rights mean that any refugee fleeing terror ought to be given a country that affords them the basic rights to survive. Granted, there should be burden-sharing between countries so that, for example, Germany isn’t the only country that is willing to accept refugees.

The reason why I began with a thought experiment of the hiker is because it’s an oversimplified picture that helps us see the raw elements of immigration. There is an element that shows that we are obligated to do something when someone’s life hangs in the balance, and another element that shows that we are completely justified in saying “no” when, for instance, the hiker asked for your journal.

The current hot button topic revolves around economic migrants. The sad fact is that their undocumented status has created un under-class of Mexicans and Central Americans who are work hard but have such limited rights for basic care. The economic migrant is the person whose life is not in peril but simply wanting to flee an impoverished environment in the hopes of better opportunities somewhere else. It should be noted that economic migrants bring value to their host country if they go through the process of becoming a citizen. After all, it is expected that they will integrate with the ideals of their new country through work, pay taxes, and engage in the democratic process. And this is where the state, through the democratic process, ought to consider the consequences and benefits of the economic migrant upon the society at large. What we are seeing today are corporations exploiting the cheap labor of economic migrants, thus creating an under-class, all the while profiting with no repercussions to the suits and ties. Perhaps instead of using federal money to build a wall, we should discuss penalties for corporations that continue to exploit economic migrants.

Turning people away may seem harsh and unfair. However, the ideal of solidarity and national identity are crucial for the well-being of any country. An immigration policy that is built on the pursuit of solidarity is one that is deliberate about upholding the culture and values that engender pride for one’s country. My simple claim is that strong borders, a judicious state and civic integration can act as levers to control the influx of immigrants in order to allow solidarity to thrive.

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The 2016 Election: Meritocracy and the Illusions We Believe

Written and finished at Los Gatos Starbucks with a light roast coffee at my side and Hitler’s favorite composer in my ear: Wagner. This essay was inspired by recent readings of Thomas Frank, and personal contemplation of the 2016 presidential election.

These are some questions that have been on my mind as of late:

  • How did the current era of American meritocracy begin? And who started it?
  • What changes should liberals make to become relevant with more people?

Before addressing the questions, there is a current context that needs to be exposed. It’s interesting to sit back and listen both to the laments and rejoicing of the 2016 Presidential election. Given that I live in California, there is much more lamenting. What has been most noticeable, is the psychological manifestations that pervade both camps of liberals and conservatives. It’s as if both camps have chugged the cool-aid of their respective ideologies and dwell solely in the echo chambers of their media outlet of choice. Confirmation bias rules the day with both camps. Liberals tune into CNN and devour their daily dose of fear mongering; inculcated with the implications of a Hitleresque President elect Trump, in all of his racist, sexist, authoritarian ways. Conservatives, on the other hand, have been spoon fed the idea that a billionaire business man actually cares for the poor and disenfranchised. Astonishingly, middle America believes that a Republican congress will bring more jobs and economic freedom. So, what if the best solution is to step away from both camps and expose the deeper problems?

During this election, I have become more of a dissident rather than a ‘team player’. I have no party, I have no team. Taking the stance of a dissident, affords me the opportunity to critique both sides of the election, candidates and policies from a (more) neutral perspective. I was not wedded to Hillary’s presidential persona or her ability to discuss policy, or her legacy as a successful policy maker. Moreover, I am not lured to the Republican rhetoric of anti-establishment, nationalistic, and protectionist talk. Rather, I choose to take on the philosophical responsibility of deconstructing and identifying the political power systems that lay insidiously under the duplicitous marketing of both “stronger together” and  “Make America Great!”.

What we see in the 2016 election is millions of working class people voicing their distrust in political institutions, Wall Street and the Clinton dynasty. Perhaps most notable is that both east and west coastal urban regions, in all their blueness, have shown almost zero interest in the economic inequality that many red states have been facing. What has become clear is that while liberals have been pushing for progressive ideals for gay marriage and a multi-cultural America, they have completely ignored the fact that we have a bigger problem: a financial sector that increases the wealth of the top ten percent of the country while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Welcome to the age of meritocracy.

This is the era in which you get what you earn, and you earn what you get. It’s the professionals and managerial class of affluence and education that are the winners. And if you don’t like that you live in an impoverished area of Oklahoma, then stop whining and get an education. Meritocracy is about winners, so we celebrate the innovation and entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley while forgetting the dustbin of the Rustbelt. The meritocracy credo is the conviction that the successful deserve their rewards, that the people on top are there because they are the best. It is an ideology that tells the Ohioan who has lost their house while making minimum wage: you have no one to blame for your problems but yourself.

The age of meritocracy was ushered in during the 1972 Democratic convention. The tumultuous 1972 convention gave birth to the McGovern-Fraser Commission which shift the Democratic party from a representative of the working-class to representing the professional class. In Thomas Frank’s recent book, “Listen, Liberal,” he describes the result: “The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another—in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals.” A different set of issues mattered to younger Democrats: the rights of disenfranchised groups, the environment, government corruption, militarism. In 1971, Fred Dutton, a member of the McGovern Commission, published a book called “Changing Sources of Power,” which hailed young college-educated idealists as the future of the Party. Pocketbook issues would give way to concerns about quality of life. Called the New Politics, this set of priorities emphasized personal morality over class interest.

McGovern’s campaign manager were two young intellectuals who shared little interest in the working class. One was a young Yale-educated lawyer named Gary Hart and the other a Yale law student named Bill Clinton. As George Packer states in the New Yorker, “The McGovern rout left its young foot soldiers with two options: restore the Party’s working-class identity or move on to a future where educated professionals might compose a Democratic majority. Hart and Clinton followed the second path. Hart emerged as the leader of the tech-minded ‘Atari Democrats’, in the eighties; Clinton, the bright hope of Southern moderates, became the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a position that he used as a launchpad for the Presidency in 1992.”

And there you have it; the Democrats pivot from the working class to the educated professional. No longer would the Democrat advocate for the laborer in Toledo Kansas, rather, the liberal would give all the power to Ivey leaguers on Wall Street. These are the men and women that would fill the cabinets of both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama: highly educated professionals who would jump on the globalization train headed straight towards profit. Having laid a quick foundation, it is here where we can proclaim the credo: the successful and educated deserve their rewards. What about everyone else? Well, who cares.

Three Suggestions for Reflection  

First, it’s time that Democrats stop putting all their eggs in the civil liberties basket. Issus of multi-culturalism and gay rights are important, but when it becomes the end-all-be-all, the result is a fractioning of a vast part of America. It’s difficult to ignore the pervasiveness of economic inequality, especially how it penetrates most families no matter their race, creed, or religion. As economist Joseph Stiglitz notes, “A young male in his 30s today has an income, adjusted for inflation, that is 12 percent less that what his father was making 30 years ago.” Some 5.3 million more Americans are living in poverty now than were living in poverty when Bush became president. America’s class structure may not have arrived there yet, but it’s heading in the direction of Brazil’s and Mexico’s. Perhaps there are some concerns that are weighted much heavier than current battles that the liberal wants to fight. A tolerant America, even with all the civil liberties, is still a scary thought if it continues to be wrought with increasing economic divide.

Second, it’s time for Democrats to stopped relying on band-aids such as education, job training and infrastructure. This was the rhetoric of Hillary in 2016, but it’s a ruse. Hillary was in full support of her husband’s polices during the 90s in which the same rhetoric was employed but went a different direction: in the direction of Wall Street. She supported Bill’s policies on deregulating derivatives and telecom, repealing Glass-Steagall, and ramming NAFTA through congress. A 2010 report showed almost 800,00 jobs lost due to NAFTA. Most devastating of all, the Clinton’s pact with Wall Street helped America snowball into the 2008 recession, all the while duping American’s into thinking that the Clinton’s are the voice for the disenfranchised.

The problem is much deeper than education, job training and infrastructure – it’s deeply economic. Pumping money into education and job training will not assuage the current system that hands all the negotiating and bargaining power to corporate interests. In 2012, the United States spent $11,700 per full-time-equivalent student on elementary/secondary education, which was 31 percent higher than the OECD average of $9,000. At the post-secondary level, the United States spent $26,600 per FTE student, which was 79 percent higher than the OECD average of $14,800 (National Center of Education Statistics). Democrats need to move away from band-aid solutions and shift to the systemic problems that plague our society. The systemic problems revolve around a concentration of power at the very top filled with corporatists and lobbyists that rig the system for themselves. If you don’t believe me ask yourselves two questions: (1) Why is it that the median income (when adjusted for inflation) has plateaued since the 1970s and (2) why is it, that since the Great Recession of 2008, the top 5% have become wealthier and everyone else is still stagnate (or poorer)? Education, job training and infrastructure will not solve these problems that are deeply rooted in a rigged economic system.

Lastly, liberals need to admit the huge failings in policy with the Clinton’s, rather than the perpetual genuflecting before the Clinton dynasty. It is paramount that liberals accept the history and facts that surround the Clinton regime. Besides the economic policies already mentioned, she supported her husband’s 1994 crime bill that created the largest gulag in the world. Astonishingly, 8.7 billion dollars was spent on constructing numerous prisons that would house a criminal population caught in the Clinton vortex. Furthermore, besides the abysmal three strikes initiative, Hilary supported Bill’s signing off on in the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The former drug was thought to be scourge of the planet – and 88 percent of the people arrested for it were black – while the latter even though it was essentially the same thing, was regarded as just another harmless yuppie crime. Handing down prison sentences of many decades for one drug but not the other was both racist and insanely cruel.

Do liberals possess the wisdom to admit these egregious acts by the Clinton’s? When it comes to the 90s, it’s as if Liberals highlight the Clinton’s banning assault weapons, balancing the budget, and (phony) economic growth – and that’s it! Open-minded liberals have a duty to possess the cognitive fortitude to pull the wool from their eyes.

I’ll conclude this section with the Clinton’s 1996 repeal of welfare. The welfare system was deeply unpopular in the 1990s. Its centerpiece was a 1935 program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) that dispensed case assistance to impoverished single mothers. AFDC was one of the basic guarantees of the American Welfare State, but it was also a program hated both by resentful taxpayers as well as by the poor themselves, because it made no provision for employment or training. As Thomas Frank notes, instead of fixing the system, Clinton deleted the AFDC and replaced it with a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) that leaves welfare up to the states – and gives the states plenty of incentive to kick people off the rolls. What’s more, it bars hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants—including many who have worked in the United States for decades and paid a considerable amount in Social Security and income taxes—from receiving disability and old-age assistance and food stamps, and reduces food-stamp assistance for millions of children in working families. What was the result of all this? The continued attempt to keep the ceiling low for minorities and the poor.

Concluding Remarks

There is a myth and meme that believes that Democratic ideals are for the poor and disenfranchised, contra to Conservatives. My contention, however, is that both Conservative and Democrats on Capitol Hill are for the banks and Wall Street, while the poor and disenfranchise are left out of the conversation. I’ll conclude with highlighting the past eight years of the Obama administration, and you tell me if Obama’s compassionate and eloquent speeches match his policy – or rather, lack of policy.

Ask yourself this: what did Obama do to help resuscitate America after the 2009 financial collapse? He was able to get a $800 billion stimulus package through congress, but it was the tax payer who paid the debt of the banks! Moreover, the biggest single part of the stimulus was wasted on tax cuts designed to lure Republican votes. Another chunk was wasted on coaxing state governments to embrace charter schools and to open their education systems to consultants and entrepreneurs. For fear of frightening the men of lower Manhattan, the Obama team dared undertake none of the serious measures the times obviously called for. No big Wall Street institutions were put into receivership or cut down to size. No important Wall Street bankers were terminated in the manner of the unfortunate chairman of General Motors.

The classic and most direct solution to an epidemic of corrupt bank management and fraudulent bank lending is to use the authority that comes with rescuing failed banks to close those banks down or to fire those banks’ top managers. This was evidently never seriously considered by Obama’s team of geniuses. When it came down to people or Wall Street, Obama choose the ladder.

Obama could have done something, but he didn’t. As Thomas Frank notes, the most notorious example was a Democratic proposal that would have allowed judges to modify homeowners’ mortgage debt when they filed bankruptcy – a process called “cramdown” that would have been extremely helpful for millions of homeowners but would have been unpleasant consequences for whoever it was who owned the mortgages. In 2008, Obama had announced he was in favor of cramdown, but when it came up in the Senate in April of 2009, the president and his team, in the concise description of Obama biographer Jonathan Alter, “wouldn’t lift a finger to help.” With the banks lobbying energetically against it, the measure naturally failed.

And what did Obama do for the average worker? Workers got the same treatment. As a presidential candidate, for example, Obama had loudly denounced the still-unpopular NAFTA; as president, he let such talk drift away. In Obama’s early days, labor’s highest priority in Washington was a legislative proposal called the Employee Free Choice Act., which would have made it easier for workers to bargain collectively with management, and might even have reserved the long slide in the unionized percentage of the workforce. Again, Obama declared himself in support of the measure; he had even voted for it as a Senator. Again, though, as Wal-Mart and the Chamber of Commerce mobilized their lobbyists against the measure, the president’s audacity seemed to disappear. The White House simply chose to let it go. One detail that was astonishing at the time, was the amazing number of liberals that business interests had hired to their lobbying on this matter: former assistant John Kerry, to Rahm Emanuel, to several Democratic senators, even to the secretary of labor.

I’m simply wondering if the average Democrat is even willing to critique and scrutinize their own beloved President and party? Of course, the Democrat will always go back to the wonders of Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) as the crowning jewel. With all the problems of Obamacare, we can hardly call it a success with its ever-rising costs for the poor. This is hardly a success for America. The past eight years have not been a success. Since the recession, the situation for working class people has continued to deteriorate. Since the recession ended in 2009, the country’s gross domestic product has grown by 13.8 percent; in that same period, salaries and wages have gone up a mere 1.8 percent. The economic clout of labor unions has continued to shrink, as the percentage of private sector workers who were members of a union has dwindled form 7.2 percent in 2009 to 6.6 percent in 2014. The “labor share” of the nation’s income declined sharply from its old postwar average; during the Obama presidency it has stumbled along at or near its all-time lows.

We need to stop making excuses and look at policy. We need to stop bifurcating Conservative and Democrat politicians as ‘evil versus good’. The truth is, both parties on Capitol Hill are advocating for Wall Street, while the lower strata sits and waits for its turn at the table. The proof is in the pudding, and the continued growing inequality in America is all the proof you need. Perhaps it’s better to avoid picking a team, thus the blinders of your own bias and prejudice is a bit freer. Perhaps stepping back, looking at history, and scrutinizing both sides will yield a clearer picture of reality. Or we can continue being duped by empty rhetoric, from both sides.

-Wes Fornes

Social Immobility

Written over 3 hours at Starbucks in Los Gatos with The Prodigy blasting in my ears. I did not cite any of the stats, but will provide source if you email me. Most of the data points are from the Brookings Institute, economist Robert Reich, Joseph Stieglitz (“The Great Divide”), Naomi Klein (“Shock Doctrine”) and several Elizabeth Warren interviews.

Justice for the Few

The Declaration of Independence provides hope with the admonition of securing our unalienable rights, which includes life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Why should children be excluded or at least start their life with an insurmountable deck stacked against them? This is indeed a moral problem facing the US that will either seek to argue for spreading opportunities to all, or a consolidation of opportunity for those born to wealthy parents. Within this narrative, the onus is on us to think through the complexion and contours of justice and fairness.

When considering the distribution of basic rights and liberties, children are the worthiest candidates for equality. They are a special group given they have no control over the parents or the environment they are born in to. In the US today, kids born into poverty have the slimmest opportunities of transcending poverty when compared to other developed countries. The unfortunate reality is that most children born into poverty in the US are sucked into a viscous cycle that entraps middle-class families. Consider that median income is lower than it was in 1978 (adjusted for inflation), while median housing/rent has increased since 1978, and our government continues to financially gut our education system, while college tuition has increased by $9,000 compared to 1980-81 (adjusted for inflation). America carries the unprivileged honor of being a country where the life prospects of an American are more dependent on the income and education of a child’s parents than in almost any other advanced country for which there is data. Probably the most important reason for lack of equality of opportunity is education: both its quality and quantity.

A key point in this discussion is that no one makes it on his or her own. The senseless Conservative jargon of rugged individualism that expects you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps is meaningless when you have no straps on your boots. The truth is that those at the top get help from their families compared to those lower down on the ladder. This opportunity gap is seen near where I live in the Silicon Valley within the city of Palo Alto. On the west side of highway 101 you have an upper class with school kids gaining access to a plethora of top schools with top tier teachers, highly educated tutors on every corner, SAT prep courses in every shopping center, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs to name a few. While next door in east Palo Alto, you have an underserved non-white population with children surrounded with above average homicide, crime, and gang rates. But’s let keep things in perspective with regard to California overall, it is still a state in which last year more money was spent on prisons than in than the education system. When it comes to the development of children, it really does take a village.

Another reality to the inequality gap reveals troubling systemic implications. Externalities are the side effects or consequences – often covert – that are the results of the economic policies in place. Such systemic externalities with regards to income inequality are correlated with inequalities in health, access to education, and exposure to environmental hazards, all of which burden children in more segments of the population. Indeed, nearly one in five poor American children are diagnosed with asthma, a rate that is 60% higher than that for non-children. Learning disabilities occur almost twice as frequently among children in households earning less than $35,000 a year than they do in households earning more than $100,000. The externalities of the enormous income gap we see in the US serves to entrap children from social mobility. Joseph Stiglitz points out that 42% of children who are born into poverty (in the US) will remain in poverty as adults; which is more devastating than any other advanced country- even Great Britain which has a history of class structure (where only 30% of their children remain in poverty as adults).

“In a recent study that looked at Americans in selective colleges, only around 9 percent come from the bottom half of the population, while 74 percent come from the top quarter.” Robert Reich

Social mobility in the US has been stifled with the advent of colleges serving as cash cows rather than bastions of development. College graduates earn more than $12,000 more per year than those without college degrees; the gap has almost tripled just since 1980. While colleges ought to serve the purpose of equipping future innovators, it has nevertheless turned into big business for banks salivating over collecting student loans. Student debt for seniors graduating with loans now exceeds $26,000, about a 40 percent increases (not adjusted for inflation) in just 7 years. But an “average” like this masks huge variations. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, almost 13 percent of student loan borrowers of all ages owe more than $50,000, and nearly 4 percent owe more than $100,000 – these debts are beyond the abilities of the student to pay; and this is evidence by the soaring delinquency and default rates. Some 17 percent of student loan borrowers were over 90 days or more behind in payments at the end of 2012. And tuition? Well average tuition, room and board, at four year colleges is just short of $22,000 a year, up from $9,000 (adjusted for inflation) in 1980-81. And even more startling, in 2013, the total student debt came to around one trillion dollars, which surpassed total credit card debt for the year.

At what point do we say something needs to change? The ethic that needs to be advanced is not equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity. I am not saying that a heart surgeon ought to earn the same income as a school janitor. I am simply stating that both should have equal opportunity to carve out their future careers from whence they exit the womb.

To accomplish this task will take a vast change in our government’s economic policies. Before I am charged with being a socialist, you must consider the period of shared prosperity between 1945-1970’s. You had tax rates that never crept below 70%, a GI Bill, and strong unions that breathed life into a bourgeoning middle class. But the tipping point came in the Nixon and Reagan era that has brought about a destabilizing form of unrestrained capitalism that is rigged for the wealthy. With tax cuts for the elite igniting the myth of trickle down economics, massive de-regulation, lack of accountability between banks “too big to fail,” and an inept government that did not adapt to globalization and technological advancements.

My point is this: There comes a tipping point when moral principles need to be addressed and parsed. We have already reached the tipping point. When it comes to equality of opportunity and social mobility, it’s time we pull the wool from our eyes and consider economic policies that benefit the whole rather than the few. We are all better off, when we are all better off.

~Wes Fornes

(Part I) America’s Immoral Morality: A Sociopathic Foreign Policy of the Founding Fathers

Written over two days and finished this morning at Starbucks by my office in San Jose with a grande mocha (no whip) and my Pandora station set to Lady Gaga.  

“Blessed are the cynical, for only they have what it takes to succeed.” C. Wright Mills

Sociopathy is anti-social behavior by an individual or institution that typically advances self-interest, such as making money, while harming others and attacking the fabric of society.

I find it interesting that if an insane man guns down 20 kids in a school we are horrified at the maniacal act, yet when we hear of nascent American conquest of genocide and mass killings of Native Americans we simply shrug our shoulders. If you have ever had somebody break into your home or car, then you know that visceral feeling of having been violated. Now think about how natives of Hawaii felt in January of 1893 when America initiated a coup d’état of Queen Liliuokalani and instituting an American regime that took over the land and proceeded to profit from Hawaii’s sugar plantations. Again, while we have all experienced the feeling of disgust from being taken advantage of we nevertheless function almost as sociopaths when it comes to over 200 years of conquest by the United States.

If you think hard about it, it is mainly psychological distance that propels us to either rage or to yawn at atrocities. As an example, most individuals will feel more moral outrage at witnessing first-hand the torture of a man rather than simply hearing a CNN report of a man being tortured 6,000 miles away in, say, Japan. That is psychological distance. So if 19 maniacs steer 2 planes into the Twin Towers killing thousands of Americans we are outraged at the injustice. Yet if thousands are killed abroad so that we can control the 2nd largest oil reservoir in the world and maximize profits by setting up private businesses in the Middle East then we sit back and drink another latte inside an air conditioned Starbucks comforted by the lie: we’re bringing democracy to a bunch of savages. Because there is distance, our morals crumble. But when it hits close to home, we become pious moral philosophers pontificating on theories of justice. We’re sociopathic in our thinking when we kill 4 year olds in the Middle East, but become protective righteous Messiahs flooded with empathy when it involves our children. And this begs a crucial question: should the mere psychological distance of an immoral action be the chief arbiter?

A sociopathic society, paradoxically, creates dominant social norms that are antisocial – that is, norms that assault the well-being and survival of much of the population and undermine the social bonds and sustainable environmental conditions essential to any form of social order. It is here that we are confronted with the United States’ murderous conquest and relentless expansionism. We can either shrug our shoulders like sociopaths or we can be intellectually honest with our past which continues to wreak havoc and chaos in the Middle East today – thanks to a sociopathic foreign policy led by the U.S.

I will highlight the sociopathic 5 Empires of the United States, beginning in 1776-1828 and ending with our current empire, World Domination 1991-Present. My inspiration of this text comes from respected political scholars such as Noam Chomsky, Stephen Kinzer, Charles Derber and Immanuel Wallerstein.

First Empire: The Constitutional Empire 1776-1828

In 1776, Americans began a revolution to free themselves from the British Empire and to recreate themselves as an independent and great power. What can be called “Constitutional Code,” would concretize the ideology of the Founding Fathers. Here are 5 key principals that highlight the Constitutional Code:

(1) Americans are a free people on a free land.

(2) The Constitution is sacred and may have been sanctioned by a higher power.

(3) All Americans have the constitutional right to freely contract with others and to protect and accumulate property.

(4) Freedom requires prosperity. Resources must expand, and the state must be prepared to help citizens acquire, trade, and market their goods everywhere.

(5) As a beacon to the rest of the world, America has a manifest destiny to extend from seas to sea and, in fact, beyond the oceans.

The United States constitution would prompt George Washington to see America as a “new and rising empire.” The ideology of the Founding Fathers constructed an empire built upon a Constantine foundation where expansion plus conquest would equal ultimate power. Alexander Hamilton would go on to state his desire to see the thirteen colonies unite to create one big empire, “One great American system, superior to the control of all trans-Atlantic force and influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and new world.” Hamilton sentiments were widely felt among American leaders, and morphed into concepts like White Man’s Burden and American Exceptionalism. The result was the idea of American as a city on a hill, a beacon of light in the midst of a world of savages. It was precisely this new American Empire that saw as its God ordained duty to bring civility and order to the natives. Truly a sociopathic conception.

Two things are needed for this sociopathic behavior. First, we have to develop a language that dehumanizes the “other.” So the indigenous Natives were commonly referred to as “savages” and “ignorant.” Second, the ends will always justify the means. Even though the “ends” are almost always built on utopian lies with regard to American interventionist policy, it will nevertheless justify the “means” no matter how brutal they are. John Adams words personified this so-called altruistic utopian quest when justifying conquest in his reference to “the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind.” It’s like we are doing them a favor. So a murderous conquest is justified if it emancipates the ignorant Native Americans.

This type of sociopathy is realized in the way that expansionism and brutality was justified with such righteous ease. The justification for the expansionist doctrine goes like this: killing, exploitation, and the enslavement of millions is justifiable if, and only if, the greater good results in an empire that promotes the values of the wealthy White nobles in power. Again, the ends justifies the means. This is usually where most American high school history teachers shrug their shoulders and then in the next breath express moral outrage at Adolf Hitler’s end goal of a pure race by means of a genocidal regime.

In what I call consensual hallucinations, here is the sociopathy of over 200 years of American politics: America’s interventions and foreign policy are always carried out with noble intentions. This is the consensual hallucination, whether it’s driving out 12 million Native Americans in America’s infancy, initiating coups that gave U.S. support to tyrannical dictators like Pinochet and Pol Pot, or even the 1953 coup that disassembled Iran’s government and has since created monumental blowback and collateral damage in our relations with the Middle East. The consensual hallucination moves us to say such ridiculous things like, “but the Founding Fathers were trying to bring peace to a barbaric land,” and, “It was necessary to invade a third world Iraq because they were going to take our freedom away,” and of course, “We need to invade in order to keep us safe and establish democracy in other countries.” Perhaps it’s time that we become intellectually honest with ourselves and take off our red, white and blue colored glasses that has blinded us to over 200 years of walking on the backs of people whom we think are “lesser” than us.

Going back to the Constitutional Empire, the empire required two main ingredients: land and resources. As early as 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote that expansion for surplus land was crucial to creating prosperity and liberty and to avoid domestic corruption. So in 1783, in the Treaty of Paris, Britain ceded its territory south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River to the Americas. In 1803, President Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, the largest expansion in the New Empire’s history, adding 526 million acres that constitute 22 percent of the land territory of the modern United States. In the War of 1812, the United States tried to take all of Canada from the British but failed. In 1821, Andrew Jackson conquered Florida since slaves were escaping there to gain Spanish protection. With the accumulation of such vast territories, markets would later establish trade and maximizing profit for wealthy land owners and businessmen that would bolster the next two empires in American history.

All the ingredients were there during the birth of America for expansion at the expense of innocent natives. Empires never become empires through altruistic and humanitarian means. History has shown that empires only flourish when a rising nation has its combat boot to the neck of smaller nations. Knowing this, the Founding Fathers created a blueprint that would pursue world hegemon through conquest and exploitation. The correlation I draw between early American policies and sociopathy is meant to expose how catastrophic harm can be justified when people are just objects used as means to an end with an end goal that is strictly self-interested.

The onus is on us as to whether we simply shrug our shoulders at this type of sociopathy or do something about it.

~ Wes