“To be a Frenchman is a fact; to be an American, an ideal”
is a 30+ year new media development pioneer & differentiator who served several years in the US Peace Corps. His earliest political memory is arguing the merits of RFK, McCarthy, and Humphrey on the playground with his 2nd grade classmates in West Lafayette, IN. Ask him about his avatar (or maybe not).
Carl Friedrich was/is my grandfather. Born to a father who invented the surgical rubber glove and a countess of the von Bulow family, he received an elite German education focused on classical languages and literature, studying under the brother of Max Weber at the University of Heidelberg. Nevertheless, he emigrated to the United States in 1925, forty years after Friedrich Drumpf made the same journey, though not for the same reasons, to take a position as a lecturer in Government at Harvard, where he became one of the world’s leading authorities on constitutional government and law. When Hitler came to power in his homeland, he decided to become an American citizen, and spent much of the 1930s in a classically American way, spiriting Jewish scholars, lawyers, and journalists out of fascist regimes to resettle in our country, though not Jewish himself. Among those he helped was the pianist Rudolf Serkin, whom he persuaded to play a concert at his farm in Brattleboro, Vermont, which led to the creation of the Marlboro Music Festival.
Part of our Like A Prayer series, a big tent where we can fill ourselves with American faith, what American faith, faith as Americans, means today, what it means to be American, what values and rituals are implied, and how best to practice what we’ve preached in our policies. It’s a place where soapbox isn’t an epithet–let us give you one…
After the war, he helped write the constitutions of both West Germany and Israel, as well as many other countries striving to emulate our system of government, and became one of the early advocates for a united Europe, modeled on the success of our federal system, as a way to ensure ongoing peace and prosperity for a continent dominated and hamstrung by division for centuries. How strange and disappointing he would find what’s happened to our country since his passing, as a German who saw the American way as the future for the world, and a definitive answer to the totalitarianism he saw arise where he was born.
We agree with him, and while many of our compatriots are made uneasy by the spectre of nationalism, we believe that a nationalism actually based on our values as a nation could usher in a new American century that would be to the benefit of all. Here would be its pillars:
What could be more American than being blunt? The efforts being made to decrease legal immigration to our country are flat-out economic malpractice in the current global economy, and shocking coming from a self-made billionaire who knows more about business than everyone else in the world combined. Our ability to assimilate immigrants from all over the world has been our not-so-secret competitive advantage over every other nation literally for centuries, and is especially so now. We take in more immigrants than any other country in the world, we have throughout our history, and we’re one of a small handful of nations–and by far the largest–where all but a small fraction of our citizens can trace their ancestry back to immigrant forebears. As the most recent Republican president observed, “every immigrant makes our nation more, not less, American.” Instead of closing the gates, the American way, Americanism, would be taking in as many hearts and minds as possible.
This would seem to be obvious, but let’s break it down in ways that even those standing behind the (former) Occupant at his rallies can understand:
Defusing & confusing the bomb
Let’s begin with some good, albeit head-slapping news (given our long sustained levels of social angst): the greatest nativist fear about immigration–the “spectre” of a “majority minority” nation–is a demographic myth, driven by the Census Bureau’s unconscionable use of a standard far too close to the Nazis’ “one drop rule” (which the Reich borrowed, in turn, from the Jim Crow South) to determine ethnicity. The reality? In testament to the unique and now autonomous sociological force graced to us by our history, an epiphenomenon most often referred to by its Latinate scientific name, e pluribus unum, the real story of ethnographic dynamics in our country is not Black, White, Asian, or brown, but all of the above: mixed race families are rapidly becoming the norm and powering our population growth, such as it is.
But that does not mean all is well in American demography. Thanks to slowing birth rates and, in China’s case, its one-child policy, virtually all the largest economies in the world–the US, western Europe, China, Japan, Korea–face a “demographic time bomb,” meaning their populations appear destined to age to the point where there will not be enough workers actively in the workforce to support those who have retired out of it, which, if you’re a Trump supporter, may well include you.
Other countries understand this, and further verstehen that immigration may be the only way, short of turning their nations into Gilead, to avoid a long economic decline that ends in the fiscal equivalent of palliative care. Historically great a leader as Angela Merkel is, for example, she didn’t take in all of those Syrian refugees just because she felt bad about the Holocaust. Yet only the US of A has the experience and expertise to hoover up an epochal cornucopia of huddled masses, entrepreneurs, artists, and engineers from around the world. Case in point: three years after so much of Syria washed up on German soil, They Might Be Nazis has been charting with bullets among the Volk there, albeit with a current pause for the pandemic while the neue-reich works up the proper messaging to blame it on the new folks. As we now know from having to brush up on our German history lately, they’ll just need a superspreader anecdote or two–or a political infection traveling back across the Atlantic–to get that old-time xenophobia rolling again. Not so here. Despite Donald Trump’s best/worst efforts over the last four years, or maybe because of them, Gallup recently found support for immigration at an all-time high.
Still, well-spoken critics of increased immigration like David Frum feel even we will be chasing fool’s gold like the Germans if we view immigrants as a solution to our demosclerosis; we’ll only be kicking the can down the road a generation at most, he believes, because the new immigrants will get old, and then we’ll be right back where we started. We admire and respect Mr. Frum for seeing the modern Republican Party for what, sadly, it has become, but he really needs to get out and break more bread. He’s making the huge assumption that immigrants–in a single generation, no less–are going to adopt our own current lack of fecundity, a point it took us 200+ years to reach. The reality is that the cultures we’re most likely to draw immigrants from (as opposed to Norway) all place far more value on family than our society does, some taking these beliefs to almost appalling extremes. Views held that strongly are not going to just disappear in a generation.
In any case, there are nearly eight billion people in the world now, and there will be nearly 10 billion by 2050. Our share of the population is 4% and falling. Immigrants are responsible for 75% of our current population growth, which means that if we truly declare our nation “full,” by 2050 only 3% of the world’s population will be American. Can we be the dominant economic superpower, with the only fiat currency (accepted everywhere, allowing us to spend our way out of any debt), with only 3% of the world’s population? Ask Germany and Japan–that’s about the proportion of people in the world who were German or Japanese after World War II.
And the world is not standing still in other, potentially much more economically significant ways, either–three times as many people have been lifted out of poverty in the last twenty years than live in our country. By 2015, the world was five years ahead of schedule in eliminating extreme poverty entirely by 2030, and given how much better literally the entire rest of the world has handled the current pandemic, that’s likely to be only a pothole in the still unpaved road to progress, even as our own poor performance narrows the gap in reverse. In short, there’s a reason why even then-Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted–just before he was axed–that “we are desperate–desperate–for more people.”
Time to stop playing whack-a-mule
Immigration opponents like to seize upon lurid, sensational instances of illegal immigrants’ involvement in grisly crimes to cast visions of hordes of criminals carrying new quantities and levels of criminal activity like viral load. Reality: study after study from the most credible and conservative of sources has shown “illegals” are actually much less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. Which makes sense–if you came here illegally and wanted to stay, why would you want to draw attention to yourself by engaging in criminality? It makes even less sense, btw, for the undocumented to even try to vote, let alone succeed–the idea that more than 3 million did so in the last presidential election, besides being not supported by a chad of evidence, is a complete violation of “common sense” that conservative friends used to plea for, often with good reason.
Even the right’s favorite nightmare, the notorious Salvadoran gang MS-13, all 10,000 of them (less than 1% of gang members in the US, and responsible for a similar proportion of gang crimes), started in Los Angeles decades ago, not Latin America, and initially took form as a group of delinquent heavy metal fans. They only radicalized into a gang as a result of the racism they witnessed and experienced against a Salvadoran community that only washed up on our shores to escape a burgeoning civil war. And their mini-cartel only gained the strength they have today when we deported many of its leaders back to the old country–in other words, we created and exported the MS-15 problem to San Salvador and the rest of Latin America, not vice versa. Maybe they should have built a wall.
In any event, if you’re still genuinely worried about bad hombres, you should be in favor of more legal immigration, not less. By closing off so many venues for legal immigration, the current administration has created a scenario where, pre-pandemic, hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants, more than a few of them ‘good people,’ felt compelled to cut through the 10% of the wall that’s actually been built with $100 power tools in the places where it hasn’t fallen over or been blown over by the wind. Your bad hombres were using them for cover, in effect as human shields against the Border Patrol, as they poured across the Rio Grande. By opening up legal immigration pathways for the innocuous, the innocent (until we criminalize them at our borders) to pursue–paths that criminals will be unable to follow–we can reduce the flood of illegal crossings from a hundred-year flood down to something more like the Rio (not so grande, in other words). Which will greatly assist our overwhelmed border agents in doing what they signed up for–find, pick out, and interdict those who really do have criminal intent. The alternative? Well, we could continue to treat mask-wearing and social distancing as political statements, and as long as there’s no vaccine or treatment for COVID, we probably won’t have to worry about any new caravans on the Yucatan horizon any time soon. We’ll just have to wonder whether today’s the day that That Dry Cough begins.
Better to fight them here
The old adage internationalists use to convince isolationists–that it’s better to fight them there than here–couldn’t be more mistaken in today’s global economy. Our workers’ competition isn’t the undocumented, it’s the millions of skilled workers around the world who would love to come here but can’t because of current restrictions on legal immigration. Pre-pandemic, there were hundreds of thousands of jobs sitting idle they could have filled that our own workers couldn’t or wouldn’t; in fact, it’s been estimated by Moody’s that our immigration curbs are costing us as much as 4% GDP/year–or more. If you’re a Trump supporter, you surely believe that post-pandemic is coming soon, and with it, all those jobs again. How would you like to see 4%+ GDP growth as your extra scoop or cherry on top, something your man in the White House promised you, but has never come close to delivering?
If you’re in the manufacturing sector, you may think these new workers are going to take your jobs and depress your wages, and you’re right. As long as they’re working in places like China, Vietnam, or Malaysia, they surely will. Overseas they’re being paid pennies on the dollar, and the companies they work for likely don’t have to spend a dime on protecting them or the environment they live in. Unless your company makes something in the supply chain we’ve just realized we can’t safely offshore, it’s likely going to tell you it can’t compete unless you take wage and benefit cuts, and then, sure as winter follows fall, that it can’t compete at all operating out of our country.
Furthermore, the 2017 tax bill, which was supposed to end offshoring in every form, actually made this an even more likely outcome. Formerly, companies founded in our country had to pay American corporate taxes on all their worldwide income, in recognition that they couldn’t have built their businesses from start-up to worldwide empire to the extent they have anywhere else in the world, accomplishments to which all of we, the people, contributed to. Of course, gratitude is not a strong suit of international conglomerates, so predictably companies had been subverting this obligation by simply never bringing any profits they made overseas into the US where they could be recognized as income and taxed.
To its credit, the GOP tried to fix this problem in their bill, but to paraphrase “your favorite president,” their cure–eliminating US taxes on monies earned by the subsidiaries of US companies–is likely to be worse than the disease, because it incents companies to move operations to wherever tax rates are lowest. Perhaps this is why this new salvific has brought back only a fraction (25%) of the money we were told it would, despite a “one-time” (if you don’t count the last one, in 2004) “repatriation holiday” that lowered the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15%, a.k.a. the same rate individuals making $9,000–$38,000 were forking over before the law passed. Unfortunately for the haphazardly-scribbled plan, 15% is still a lot higher than 0% on either side of the dateline, a tax rate plenty of countries and “countries” are willing to offer. It could also be why, after a brief sugar high, the manufacturing sector resumed its steady decline–even before the pandemic hit–not just in jobs, but in hours/week of employment.
The bottom line (before we hit bottom) is that if you want a fair fight with your foreign counterparts, the best way to get it is to bring them here, onto our home field and court. As a side benefit, consider this: one global advantage we’ve continued to enjoy is that our workers are substantially more productive and skilled than those in the sweatshops we’re now surrounded by. If we open our doors in an orderly fashion, rather than holding them shut for would-be citizens to spill over and around them, 300+ years of experience tells us it will be almost exclusively the best, the brightest, the most ambitious who come walking in (or we can arrange for this to be so, because we’ll be in a position to better exercise quality control), creating a brain and productivity drain from their countries to ours that will potentially re-widen our advantage to the point where the difference between “Made In China” or “Made In Vietnam” and “Made In the USA” begins to become economically dispositive once more.
Want a competition that’s even fairer? To the extent immigrants are taking away jobs and income today, it’s the undocumented who are doing so, because they work in a shadow economy, often off the books, and get paid less than minimum wage, without benefits, because who are they going to complain to? Legalizing immigration, like legalizing drugs, should bring many more of these workers into the light of a level playing field, but to reduce its tilt to zero will likely require a stick to accompany the carrot: laws against hiring undocumented workers need to be enforced and made significantly more prohibitive. If you’re as concerned about criminal activity as the typical Trump supporter, then you surely know why the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed (except in the eyes of police departments funded with confiscated property). It cratered because it focused almost exclusively on disrupting the supply without eliminating the demand for mind-altering substances. In other words, Economics 101; as long as there’s demand, supply will find a way to satisfy.
So no more fines–those can never be made punitive enough without hurting a lot of innocent employees and customers; senior executives at the companies engaged in these practices need to be held criminally liable, with no Club Fed at the end of their moral arcs. As we like to say, a high-level perp walk is worth a thousand pages of regulations (and the costs of enforcement that go with them).
They’re the new, new thing
The reason why immigrants are capable of driving such literally incredible increases in GDP is that they don’t just fill jobs, they create them. For decades now, every net new job in our economy has been created by small businesses, not big corporations, though you wouldn’t know this from the way they’re treated by policy-makers. And, whether out of naive fresh-off-the boat enthusiasm or, more likely, the steely self-selection that’s imperative to leaving everything you know behind, immigrants start more than a quarter of all new businesses. In our fastest growing and most globally competitive industries, they’re even more literally vital: for example, more than half the tech start-ups valued at a billion dollars or more have at least one immigrant founder.
And this is only one of the reasons why rigorous state-by-state analyses are showing that the net effect of immigration is not just GDP but jobs, jobs, jobs. In addition to starting new businesses, immigrants increase consumer demand for products produced by the native-born. By providing daycare and other services, immigrants free-up citizen moms to get better jobs and increase their earnings. More generally, the jobs immigrants “take” from Americans often result in shifts of our citizenry to better, and better-paying, jobs–addition by subtraction. The willingness–and expertise–of immigrants in taking on manually intensive work Americans don’t want, especially at the wages available, keeps many corporations, who would otherwise offshore, firmly planted with both feet (remember, they’re people) on our soil, with attendant economic benefits that we–rather than some other country–get to enjoy.
Overall, researchers at the University of Virginia and Indiana University estimate that every immigrant creates an average of 1.2 new jobs; in other words, an influx of 1,000 immigrants into a community is likely to result in 1,200 new jobs there, which is more than many a sweetheart deal states and localities have given to big corporations to lure them to relocate or build new facilities in their communities actually end up producing, and at much lower cost. Compare Wisconsin’s incredible shrinking FoxConn deal, for example, with its six figure (and climbing) cost per job, with the 250,000+ working class jobs alone that immigrants created in the Great Lakes region between 2010-15.
As more and more of the world approaches middle class status, how is America going to continue to differentiate itself and stay ahead of the pack? Populous economic rivals like China and India are avidly seeking ways to disrupt, disintermediate, and dislodge us from our current status. They see our entrepreneurial culture as the missing piece of their puzzle and are seeking, as a result, for example, to adopt innovations like project-based learning our educational system used to be known for, even as we’ve rushed to adopt the centralized standardized testing regimes they’re fleeing.
The good news is that, as high-end business research has shown, the real key to an entrepreneurial, creative business culture is diversity. In fact, in every domain from high finance to elementary schools, it’s been found to be fundamental not only to innovation, but more fundamental cognitive, social, and emotional development, in ways the justices of 1954 could never have imagined. Which really shouldn’t surprise us–all over the planet, in every part of the kingdom of plants and animals, diversity has been evolution’s Rosetta stone, its easel, brushes, and oils–even amoebas “get it,” even if 40% of our fellow citizens don’t, yet. The political economy (a.k.a. the invisible hand/the wisdom of crowds), to the extent we can view it as an organism with a life of its own, not only “gets” the value of multiculturalism, it seems to be mainlining it like adrenalin–diversity has been flowing through the country like water over the course of the last 40 years. It’s an advantage authoritarian capitalists won’t be able to replicate with a few educational diktats–unless it’s an advantage we choose to throw away.
All that said, in fairness to David Frum and any Trump supporters who may be reading this, the case for immigration is not as QED as we’ve just described it. But that’s a good thing. If it were fácil chícarosy, it would be easy for other countries to follow our playbook and wipe out our advantage. What’s always distinguished immigration to America from any other nation is assimilation, the extent to which immigrants become fully part of our national fabric, which is, in turn, driven by the extent to which this tapestry has become a blend of their cultures with “ours.” A few examples:
Japanese culture has driven both our love of gadgetry and movements towards minimalism, simplicity, decluttering, and miniaturization; inspired the strong trend towards greater collaboration and teamwork in business; provided vision to futurism; impacted the layout of our homes (and, with other cultures, persuaded many of us to remove our shoes when we enter them), influenced the Arts & Crafts and Prairie movements of design; inspired the use of asymmetry and deliberate imperfection in fashion (as well as specific, now-standard fashion elements such as the v-neck–derived from the kimono), pushed the development of animation and graphic novels as art forms, introduced us to much of what we consume from the sea, and so much more.
Leaving aside foundational inventions such as paper, gunpowder, pasta, moveable type, porcelain and a dizzying portfolio of others that collectively made the Renaissance and Enlightenment possible–and an equally dizzying array of products in our everyday life today that were made partially or completely in China, the first oil derricks used Chinese deep drills as a model; the manufacture of American steel was based on ancient Chinese not-so-secrets; the concept of meritocracy, and credentialing, especially by exam, the professions of scholar and civil servant all have Chinese roots, as do both Zen states and every fight scene in every Hollywood movie you’ve seen since the 1970s, much of what we’re willing to put in our mouths, the therapies we’re willing to endure, etc. etc. etc. (actually that’s not Chinese, it’s Thai–no, English)
A taste of the impact of Indian culture on America, ideally with all manner of spices for seasoning, can perhaps be best expressed by some of the Indian words in our language, including atoll, avatar, bandana, bangle, bazaar, bungalow, cashmere, catamaran, char, cheetah, chintz, chit, cot, cummerbund, curry, dinghy, dungarees, guru, hullabaloo, jodhpur, jungle, juggernaut, jute, khaki, loot, nirvana, pariah, pashmina, polo, pundit, pajamas, sari, shampoo, shawl, swastika, teak, thug, toddy, typhoon, veranda, and yoga.
The influence of African culture on our own is arguably too ubiquitous to be worth describing, except in those uniquely satisfying cases where it includes objects, arts, and practices white supremacists typically consider to be their own: bluegrass, rock, and country music, for example, the banjo, the fiddle, Southern cuisine (which is virtually synonymous with soul food), the speech patterns of Southern English, the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, the Jitterbug, swing, the sermon style and many of the more dramatic elements of Southern evangelical services, and we could go on…
So it’s perhaps both surprising–and not–that the primary reason so many in the nation of immigrants have turned against immigration, and its transformational powers have begun to wane, is that every element of true–meaning bilateral–assimilation, starting with who we admit into the country, is broken, and it will take the village of all of us to fix it. The solution that Frum and others would propose is to go slow, but we don’t have time; we’re going to have to become an assimination.
We believe that every element of what we’re calling Americanism should ultimately please anti-immigrant Trump supporters and others, and if you’re one of them, what we’re about to say should be bluegrass samba to your ears. It bothers you that so many immigrants ‘don’t speak good English?’ You’re right. You despise what your leaders have cleverly labeled “chain migration?” Right again. You think we need to be more selective about who we admit into the country? Yup. What you may not realize is everything you’re upset about is hurting immigrants too.
Off The Chain
Chain migration is a relatively recent phenomenon, a policy developed post-9/11 to reduce the risk of imported terrorism. The theory was that if we admitted more immigrants on the basis of their relationship with folks already here (i.e. people who presumably had shown they could keep their noses clean), then by both nature and nurture, these new arrivals were less likely to be individuals inclined to start trouble. And with prefab support systems ready to kick in as soon as their feet touched down on American soil, they’d be much less likely to be radicalized by the rough, tumble, and culture shock of our country.
Subsequently, it’s become clear that we’re really not concerned enough about terrorism to justify this policy. After all, the main target of the Patriot Act has turned out to be environmental groups, so-called “eco-terrorists,” who have yet to take a single human life. Meanwhile most radical right-wing groups–white supremacists, anti-abortion groups that assassinate doctors and blow up clinics with people inside–who have killed many more Americans than Muslim extremists on our soil since 9/11–can’t even get on the waiting list for most watchlists, because it turns out these racist groups are surprisingly accurate in their grievances. It’s often said, with more than anecdotal evidence, that Black Americans have to be twice as good as Whites to advance as far in their careers, yet alt-right White domestic terrorists can’t seem to get taken seriously even when they commit more than 90% of the political violence in our country. On close inspection, it appears, like immigrants, they are the victims of cultural disconnects. In particular, unlike coastal elite environmentalists, race terrorists have yet to understand that, in the eyes of the powers-that-be, generating property damage is a much more serious crime than the taking of human lives, unless those lives are unborn, of course.
So putting terrorism aside, how is chain migration as an immigration policy, assuming the ultimate goal is a rapidly growing, healthy society? In a word: terrible. A shared language is absolutely fundamental for a country to function as one nation, let alone function at the peak efficiency, productivity, and creativity required to remain the leader of the global economy (while we’re at it, we’d also like to point out to the rapidly growing number of flat-earthers that the earth is, indeed, round). Learning a new language in general, and English in particular, can be challenging, though many immigrants come to this country already multi-lingual–between 60-75% of people in the world are bilingual (the average student I taught in Cameroon could speak 3-5 languages)–which research has shown makes it easier to pick up a new lingua than it would be for most Americans. But in a multigenerational or extended family immigrant household, it’s often only necessary that one household member speak English well enough to be able to function independently in our country, and humans, like all living things, gravitate towards the path of least resistance, which limits the extent to which these families are integrated into our culture.
This not only comes at a cost to us as a society, but to immigrants themselves. To maximize their opportunities here, it’s not only necessary for immigrants to be able to understand, read, write, and speak English, it’s necessary to speak the language well, with a rich understanding of American idiom and ideally with as little accent as possible (unless that accent is English, of course–we’ll apparently always be the U.K’s little baby America where that’s concerned). To be employed in this country without English is only a few steps up from being employed by someone who’s holding your passport. It leads to a permanent underclass, which is fino y elegante for employers, but unhealthy for our nation.
As a related matter, unless there’s compelling evidence that bilingual signage helps, rather than hurts, English language acquisition–and does so better than the pure immersion US civil servants are put through when posted to a new country–frankly, within the limits of public safety and other true necessities, such signage should be removed, not increased. Or better yet, we should be using display, mobile personalization and location-based technologies, combined with evidence-based best practices, to make these signs teachable moments rather than crutches.
In particular, we need to be certain that justifications like “making people feel more welcome” or “helping with socialization” aren’t just rationalizations for some combination of employer convenience and what W famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (there were no such signs to “help” previous immigrant waves), especially when research is showing acquisition of a new language actually strengthens, rather than erases, a speaker’s native tongue. More generally, our vision of “assimination” is not aimed at wiping away immigrants’ culture, as we’ll make clear, crystal shortly. Rather it’s what we’re doing now, packing newcomers into ethnic ghettos, seen and heard only when necessary, largely unintelligibly to most, that truly disrespects and stifles cultural expression from which we could all potentially benefit, beginning with more expansive views of the concept of family.
Instead of continuing to glide along their own path of least resistance (and dumping the problem into our schools and the next generation), employers should be funding English instruction in whatever form it takes, using unemployment insurance as a model, though only after some high profile pilot work that convincingly demonstrates (which it will) an immigrant workforce that understands and can speak English is more efficient, productive, and innovative than one kept voiceless, that these educational programs more than pay for themselves, and quickly. It’s not as if the newcomers are unwilling to learn–quite the contrary.
La realidad is that the more immigrants are fully integrated into the workforce, the stronger the economy will be, and the fewer unemployment insurance claims–native and non-native alike–will likely be filed. Which–given how much more expensive these claims can be, over the course of an employee’s workspan, than the one-time cost of teaching men (and women) how to say fish–will even result in a lowering of their tax burden. But to be sure employers make that connection, as well as see beyond the time horizons most firms are necessarily limited to, governments should make this bet on the future for them and include explicit related offsets for full participation, thus avoiding the more typical result of regulation that’s clearly been in play when it comes to enforcement of immigration laws in other contexts.
More than 150 million people from around the world would immigrate to the US if they could, primarily from economic powerhouses–established or emerging–like China, India, and Nigeria. At least they would have before Donald Trump, and God willing, Who is definitely not on his side, those days will be ending, with extreme prejudice, very soon.
If we’re not just going to admit entire extended families from these tens of millions yearning to be free, what should we do instead? We recommend a return to the sifting and winnowing that worked so well for us before 9/11, informed by the latest technologies for greater accuracy and scale. To its credit, the Trump administration, when it’s not shutting off legal immigration entirely, has itself been pushing for a more meritocratic system. No more chain migration, no lottery either.
Unfortunately, whether due to the current regime’s general lack of technical sophistication greater than 140 characters or, more likely, its natural instinct to game the electoral system in every way possible, the crude criteria it’s proposed, based on a 30 point system, might be summed up as “Make America More Republican Again,” with heavy emphasis on prior accomplishments–especially accumulated wealth–but not too prior: its apotheosis is the whopping 25 (out of 30) points it grants to “Olympic gold medalists” who want to grace our shores, but only if they’ve earned their latest lucre “within the past five years.”
What’s wrong with this, Trump supporters might reply with genuine indignation? Aren’t Democrats trying to do the same thing, flood our country with new donkey-lovers? That might be some liberals’ fantasy, though if so, it beggars understanding why the Republican Party from Reagan through George W was so pro-immigration, with union-dominated Democrats opposed. But in the main, it’s merely yet another of many such questions reflecting the tragic lack of imagination and faith in itself that marks the modern Republican Party. Most of the next wave of applicants will come from Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, all of which are socially conservative. Yes, they’re also likely to be economically liberal, but so was the electorate that selected Donald Trump.
Moreover, a return to a more merit-based system of any kind will tilt strongly toward the entrepreneurial applicant–more economically liberal in the classical sense than socialist. It’s likely such sojourners will recoil from any political candidate, whether “socialist” or not, who is authoritarian or corrupt, because so often those are characteristics of the governance they’re fleeing. Republicans in good standing are supposed to recoil from such candidates too, and once did, even more than the Dems.
Still, merit needs to be properly defined. When the Trump plan emerged, TIME Magazine provided a little widget readers could use to learn whether they–or others they know/love–would be granted admission into Donald Trump’s America. My father is an immigrant from East Germany; using TIME’s algorithmic representation repeatedly, I was able to tally up as many as 7 points out of 30 for him. Ever the competitor (like so many who come to our country), he says he’d have qualified for a few more ticks on the exam sheet, but we both agree he’d have been far short of the required number. The problem with this is that my father developed the mathematics that underlies all computer graphics, and therefore everything from the efficient design of cars to CGI (he insists I write that he only helped with this, but he was awarded the National Medal of Science during the Bush administration for his work, so there). Is that the kind of talent we’d have been better off leaving in the hands of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War?
The bottom line for the bottom line is that these decisions need to be based at least as much on potential as on past accomplishments–looking ahead, not behind, is what America is all about. A scholarship to an institution of higher education, which is currently not on Stephen Miller’s migrant wish list, would be an easily verifiable start, but only dabs at the surface of what’s possible in our digital world, not only to measure intelligence and skills, but creativity, entrepreneurship, and that ineffable quality so many of our best new citizens share–call it grit, perseverance, persistence, determination. In Ellis Island days, the journey itself was so fraught from start to finish that simply reaching the Port of New York could reasonably be considered a pass–with honors–of the gumption test. Today it’s easy to imagine our best game designers developing worlds and simulations of ungameable depth to separate those with listeza from the rest.
In 2014, University of Chicago researchers conducted an experiment that would have had the late William Proxmire, originator of the infamous Golden Fleece awards, rubbing his hands in glee. “A study to determine whether rats are racist,” he would have called it, and for once, he would have been right. Yet the results were literally profound. In the work at hand, neurobiologist Peggy Mason wanted to build on prior research showing rats to be altruistic Samaritans, helping others they had never interacted with before out of traps set up by the investigating teams. All previous experiments had been done with rats all of the same strain; Mason wanted to know if the animals would help others that looked different from themselves.
At first the answer was as depressing as one might expect. But then the team had an idea: what if they raised the two strains together, and then tried the experiment again, with rats of one strain needing assistance from rats of the other, albeit still not individuals they had ever seen before? Under these conditions, the rats readily helped each other. In fact, if a rat was raised only with rats of another strain, it would instead refuse to aid its own kind. In humans, this result is considered confirmation of what’s known as “the contact hypothesis,” validation of the theory right down to the bone, as only psychological studies on rats, mice, and other animals, free of the miasma of confounding variables ever spinning around in our heads, can do.
Anecdotally, we’ve seen Mason’s results replicated often in the present turmoil of immigration, where the citizenry of small towns normally expected to be extremely conservative and hostile to newcomers, places like West Frankfort, Illinois and Poplar Bluff, Missouri, lament the potential or actual deportation of an undocumented immigrant who had become ‘one of us.’ Not coincidentally, the vast majority of small and rural towns like these lie within the boundaries of Donald Trump’s “forgotten America” that the 21st century left behind. Hold that thought.
Today when most immigrants come to our country, they tend to settle in our cities; they’re more likely to find a critical mass of their diaspora there, feel more welcomed or more welcome to disappear into anonymity, whatever their preference. But the vast majority of modern-day immigrants and potential immigrants are, at most, one generation away from the land, with many of the same understandings and values as small-town and rural Americans. The fiercest opposition to free trade agreements comes from our exurbs, where it’s believed “that giant sucking sound” is, indeed, the sound of American jobs pouring down the drain through Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros thanks to NAFTA. Do they know that NAFTA was also responsible for the Great Migration from Mexico as Mexican markets were opened up to US agriculture, driving millions of Mexican farmers off their land? Seems like a couple of communities that might have a thing or two to talk about, if anyone were really trying to bring them together, rather than pit them against each other for fun and profit.
At a minimum, infusing small town America with immigrants would reverse the population drain that’s been killing vast swaths of the nation, creating new markets for local businesses in the process and labor to rebuild them. If forgotten America doesn’t think they’re “American enough,” let forgotten America teach them how to be, teach them English and about our culture; let that work become the conscious crest of the first wave of good-paying jobs returning to the heartland in many a year.
Steering, herding, and/or incenting immigrants to hit the road to the hinterlands may sound too close to the fictional but nightmarish Just Folks program to Americanize the Jews in The Plot Against America, but that’s certainly not its intent and definitely won’t be its effect. Every teacher discovers sooner or later than they’re learning more from their students than they’re teaching. Even the migrants compelled to come to the States by economic or political hardship are self-selected risk-takers with above average hardheadedness, allergic to indoctrination. In the more relaxed and familiar environment of the countryside, they will invite their native-born American guides into their culture as they would if we were visiting their homelands. And by participating in their charges’ path to citizenship, their erstwhile instructors are likely to learn much about our country, and reify much more that they’ve forgotten about what’s truly made–and makes–our nation great; they won’t be able to help but be inspired by the journeys traveled and the drive these often quiet, humble people exude to become Americans like themselves.
Our forgotten might even come to realize that “American” is the only identity they need to know they’re special, or at least unique in a way they can be proud of, and throw off the shackles that have been diabolically inculcated in them by the real darkys since the Civil War, wasting away their ability to move forward. No American’s sense of self should ever be defined by others, especially if it’s made to come to rely on being more equal than still others. The dark money elite, the military-industrial complex, whatever we choose to call them, killed Bobby Kennedy because he was the first and only politician bridging the divide between the white working class and minorities; this here program is about building hundreds of thousands of little bridges, each a tiny ripple of hope.
Does this sound like a hookah dream? It’s already happening by socioeconomic osmosis. Nearly a third of new rural residents are immigrants or refugees, and in the one in five rural areas now actually experiencing population growth, it’s entirely the result of immigrant influxes. Immigrants are providing the critical mass to keep rural schools and medical centers open (not to mention the doctors and nurses to staff them), filling vacant housing, reviving rural Main Streets with new businesses, and providing the capacity needed for labor-intensive local industries such as meat-packing, dairy, fruit, and vegetable farms. An in-depth study of one rural area, California’s Napa Valley, found that immigrants contribute $1 billion to the local economy, generate tax revenue proportional to their population share, make up 33% of the workforce even though they represent only 23% of the population, and provide 73% of the agricultural workforce, which is the valley’s primary export.
Imagine what could be done with some intention.
Today 75-80% of all venture capital is invested in just three states–New York, California, and Massachusetts. Common sense tells us the most salient marker for talent is not willingness to move to CA, NY, and MA (or prior residence there), and in any case, if willingness to relocate is a consideration, immigrants have all the native-born in our country beat. In fact, not only are there huge reservoirs of untapped talent in the rest of the nation for new businesses, which have created nearly every net new job in our country for decades, but collectively the flyover zones have a much greater diversity of talent and perspectives, including the traditional kind–i.e. parts of the upper Midwest may be a whiter shade of pale, but while you wouldn’t know it from looking at the state government or its representatives, nearly 40% of Mississippians are Black.
Forgotten America has a much lower standard of living than NYC, Boston, or the Valley, which means much lower costs in general, and much greater opportunities to compete for profit as a result. The heartland has the historical industrial memory that will be required to take tech integration to the next level and, on the flip side, often the most start-up friendly local policies. From an industrial policy perspective, it’s a truism that decentralization is better for the economy over any time horizon, providing the most comprehensive and accurate assessment of market needs and maximum flexibility and adaptability against system shocks. The Internet itself was built on this principle, as was federalism (a.k.a. states’ rights) as envisioned by the Founders, which has long been a secret competitive advantage for our country (provided there’s competent national leadership to go with it) by creating a political marketplace of ideas that can then percolate up nationwide.
There’s been a school of thought, pioneered and popularized by Richard Florida, that the concentration of innovation in specific locales is inevitable and futile to fight. That idea was bound to be dated the moment that America Online took off, and nailed in its coffin by the Web browser a couple of years later. Today, one of the rare silver linings of the COVID pandemic is that millions of Americans and their companies appear to be discovering the viability and advantages of decentralized organizations connected remotely. Nearly half a million people left New York City and took up residence elsewhere in the first two months after the virus hit, and though many were wealthy and could easily come back, many of these many also appear to be dug in. More broadly, COVID has also been responsible for the boom in home sales as increasing numbers of American families–and their employers–have decided that they want to work more from home going forward, but need more living space to do so.
In the go-go late ’90s, many Internet entrepreneurs found ourselves shut out of venture capital markets because venture firms were only interested in making investments of $5M or more, and we couldn’t figure out any way to declare with a straight face that we needed that much money for our ideas to take off. Those who did so notoriously ended up buying Super Bowl ads with it. Since then, many venture capitalists with an interest in the Net have realized that placing a large number of small bets across a broad network of opportunities is the best way to interact with the sector. As the Internet becomes not just a sector, but integrated into and tying all sectors together at core levels of business, it requires no more than a slight shuffling of the feet to realize there’s even more benefit to be had by spreading that network across the country. America is a nation of transients and transience–why wouldn’t/shouldn’t our money be as well?
Much of what we’ve just written is not just a coaxial dream; it’s not even terribly original. Since 2017, Steve Case and Ted Leonsis’s venture firm, Revolution, has been walking the talk through their Rise Of The Rest initiative. Backed by a who’s who of top tier investors, Rise of the Rest has pulled together more than $300M that’s so far been invested in more than 140 companies in nearly seventy metro areas in thirty-two states plus DC and Puerto Rico. The fact that this money has been raised in multiple rounds is notable, because it means that data from previous rounds has shown the strategy to be viable enough to justify further investment. Which isn’t surprising: though the program is only two+ years old, 40% of the companies it has invested in have already received follow-on investments from the venture community, nearly a dozen now have valuations exceeding $100M, and two, Provo, UT-based Qualtrics and Ann Arbor-based Duo Security, have been sold for $8B and $3B respectively, which, Steve notes dryly, has been “helpful in getting peoples’ attention.”
So… what if the government partnered with Revolution, its investors, and the rest of the VC community to scale this initiative up and out to cover more of the country with more investment? Government has been trained like a Skinnerian pigeon not to even appear to pick winners and losers, so why not let those who actually do this for a living, in a capitalistically acceptable way, carpe diem? With the proviso that they have some skin in each investment, and benefit from its success, so as to make their investment decisions the same as any in their normal course of business.
Given that coronavirus relief money is mainly supposed to help Americans deal with the consequences of lost employment and up to 40%+ of the jobs lost are likely never coming back, why not carve out a substantial portion of that money going forward and dedicate it to supporting start-ups, the part of the economy that’s done nothing but create jobs, jobs, jobs as far back as the eye can see? Why not take away the obscene tax on the poor and struggling the banks that we, the people, rescued in 2008 have been dining out on ever since (i.e. overdraft fees) and compel them to do what’s supposed to justify their existence as private firms instead: invest? Surely, they can find a better use for $34 billion (and climbing) that would more benefit the communities they claim to serve.
While representing less than 14% of our population, immigrants have started a quarter of all new businesses, nearly a third of all venture-backed companies, almost half of the Fortune 500, and half of all the tech startups that will lead the next wave of our economy. But in forgotten America, having The Man be a newcomer with an accent could generate resentment that could undo much of the unifying effects assimination is intended to create. So what if this investment program were instead used to cement the bonds between heartland and immigrant communities the educational approach we’ve described above will form, by requiring that all start-ups receiving investment must have (and maintain) both immigrant and native-born founders/owners?
While we’re certainly inclined to chuckle at the ironic possibility this would result in conservative white men and women receiving affirmative action (and no longer be able to credibly deny it to others who likely need and deserve it more, no matter how well-off they seem to be), the truth is that, as successful as immigrants have been in starting new businesses in our country, it’s more than reasonable to expect they could be even more successful if native-born Americans, with a greater breadth and depth of understanding of our culture, were involved in key/fundamental decision-making at a peer level, not just as marketing or biz dev window dressing.
In part two of this series, we’ll discuss how immigration is a microcosm of the larger values that must drive what we’re calling Americanism, and why Americanism is not only good for the nation, but for the world.
Creative Politics is the world’s first community-based political incubator, synthesizing the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk.
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