The Shutdown

Well, I thought that something important might have really happened on our way to the Mueller Report: the shutdown of the federal government because the Congress and the President couldn’t agree on a bill to fund the government. But Chuck Schumer decided he would prefer a shaky promise from Mitch McConnell to anything Trump might say, and so backed down. And it is not surprising that Schumer offered to build Trump’s wall in exchange for a deal on the Dreamers. Democrats are prone to think they can arrive at some grand bargain with Republicans if they put something they care about on the table. Remember that Obama wanted to create a grand bargain with Boehner which would have included entitlement reforms. Democrats are willing to sacrifice their interests to get the government functioning again, but Republicans are not, and the Republican wisdom, as that is verified by election results, is that the American people don’t care if the government functions (so long as nothing changes in their own lives). So a shutdown seemed like a dynamite blast to shake the government loose, and so people like me, who opposed the last government shutdown, were in favor of it. Do something.

Another reason a continued shutdown to bring Trump to his senses would have been a fine thing was because, for a change, the issue that was front and center was not silly, like the wall, nor phantom, like illegal voters, but something that has always been front and center in American politics and which is an issue that can only be resolved by politics: the issue of immigration. The Democrats want to protect the Dreamers, and the Republicans are reluctant to do that, although they may concede on the Dreamers if they get the other things they want on immigration, such as an end to chain migration and a merit basis for granting admittance to this country, while the President and many of his supporters also want an end to what he inelegantly calls immigrants from “shithole countries”, which means places in Africa and the Middle East and the Caribbean. The issue is more or less open immigration versus more or less closed immigration, and Liberals and Conservatives line up fairly clearly on one side or the other.

Immigration has been a contentious issue since the resistance to the Irish immigration in the 1840’s. Immigration was largely open, however, except for Asians, until the 1920’s, when national quotas of the sort favored by Trump, in that they granted favoritism to white, European countries, and those quotas were not lifted until the 1960’s, when Asians and Latin Americans were added into the mix of people who could come. Now, we are engaged in a war to see whether we can restore the quotas so as to keep this a white majority nation, however little chance there is of that, given the fact that the natural increase of the domestic black and brown population will make this a majority minority nation in a generation or two. Trump’s views therefore have little to do with the dreamers, who are neither criminal nor foreign, but just have Hispanic surnames, as it is with non-white immigration in general.

Those of us in favor of a very open immigration policy do not like the idea of restricting immigration to those with advanced degrees. Just show a little patience. The migrants may be uneducated but soon enough their grandchildren will be graduating from MIT, because that is what happened in the past. Nor is there any reason to stem family related migration, since the family bringing the migrants over can be held responsible for their support for a period of time, and so the migrants would be no drain on the government, though it is clear there is more than enough money to finance those migrants given that the federal government gave out a trillion dollars to rich people without requiring anything in return. The federal government clearly has money to burn. Moreover, the vast inland plains of America are underpopulated, having lost their populations to the coasts. They are ripe for the development of new factories and industries fueled with immigrant labor. The United States could probably carry two or three times its population. Canada which, despite its size, has ninety percent of its population living within a hundred miles of the United States border, nonetheless has a more lenient immigrant policy than does the United States, even as its original settlers, aside from the French, were of the Scot and Irish and English stock, the same people that made up the original American settlers, as those were supplemented in the late Nineteenth Century, as they were in the United States, by Italians, Jews and other Eastern Europeans. Why have we abandoned that commonality of North American openness to immigration?

The argument against an open immigration policy is often made as an economic one. Letting in too many immigrants means that the surplus labor pool is so large that the price of labor goes down and so people who are citizens, who are the ones to which the nation is responsible, will get paid less. Moreover, the industrial revolution may have been able to absorb the doubling of the American population through immigration that took place between the 1840’s and the 1920’s, but that is no longer the case. We have had no great innovation to goose the economy since Bill Gates and the computerniks changed the economy some thirty years ago. But, first of all, there either is or is not a surplus labor pool in that you just need a few unemployed to keep workers in a manufacturing system without labor unions worried about keeping their jobs, and manufacturers, having thwarted or worked around collective bargaining, are able to hire people at very low wages, however many extra workers might have been available. Second of all, this still remains the most stable growth economy in the world, and we should not count out our ability to produce yet another next new thing, some new innovation, that will create a new sector for the economy. Third of all, we have, at the moment, full employment, in that there is just enough flexibility so that people can shift jobs and that most anyone who wants a job can get one. Fourth of all, immigrants take up jobs that Americans do not want to do and so are by and large not in competition for jobs. This is an observation of long standing. Texans in the 1950’s wanted to allow what were then called “wet backs” to come in from Mexico to harvest the crops so long as they would go back after the need for their seasonal work was past. Back then, liberals wanted those admitted to work here eligible to stay. That hasn’t changed. If we need Mexicans to mow lawns, then let them stay.

So what is the main issue that drives those of us who favor mass immigration? Why give a break to people to whom we owe nothing because, after all, they weren’t born here? It could be an appeal to a trans-national universalism which suggests that all people in the world should be able to move anywhere they want to. But I don’t want to go that far. I don’t want to see the importation of 300 million Chinese because that would indeed shift the balance of what makes America American away from the Constitution to the beliefs that motivate the Chinese, who do not have a tradition of civil liberties or democratic government. It is the same reason Israelis can’t allow a one state solution, a single nation from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, one person one vote, because that would  cease to be a Jewish State, and so break the tie between Israel and its founders, and Israel would also cease to be a democratic state, in that it is now the only democracy in the midst of an Arab region. I want American immigrants to go through the American school system and be American teenagers and so get onto that combination of individualism and materialism that makes America great.

But what is it that makes mass immigration something of interest to Americans and not just to universalistic values? It is the idea on the Statue of Liberty: Give me your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. That is what became the American creed or, as Lindsey Graham puts it, why America is an idea rather than a race or a nationality. That is the basis of American exceptionalism. We need the migrants so as to renew ourselves as an ever new nation, welcoming the strivers, comfortable with people who speak different languages living next to us. I don’t mind people in shops I go into speaking Spanish. Maybe they are talking about me. Let them. Such behavior is polite because it shows people are out to spare my feelings.