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Wednesday, May 31

On the road again

I'm back in Cleveland, to see my advisor, sort out some loose ends before he moves, and move the lab computing cluster. Coming back to Cleveland always does interesting things to my mood—a strange combination of noticing all manner of things I dislike about the place at the same time as having plenty of good memories associated with it too—and all the more so because I'm feeling completely antisocial right now.

Apologies to everyone I know in Cleveland and am not seeing this week. I've been feeling weirdly socially drained lately, and on Friday Barry and I will be heading down to Bloomington for a conference. Conferences are usually fun but also quite draining, so I feel like I need to spend a lot of time on my own this week to recharge, at the same time as getting a lot of work done.

This won't be my last trip to Cleveland: at an absolute minimum there will be my proposal defence and thesis defence, and if work gives me no other reasons to come here I'm sure I will end up making social calls at some point. It is, however, likely to be my last chance to take photos from the old lab. I'm glad the sky put on a nice fireworks display to mark the occasion.
posted @ 8:49 PM -

Tuesday, May 16

Only three years late

Before coming to the US to study, I spent the best part of a year travelling around interesting parts of the world. My original plan was to get to New Zealand and then find a job for about half a year as an I.T. trainer. When I realised that the people who had told me the country had a terrible IT staff shortage were a couple of years out of date, and I really wasn't getting any interest from employers, I decided to give up and do something else. I spent a while doing odd jobs for food and board at a tourist site in the middle of the North Island, then bought a bike and toured a large portion of the South Island.

What started out as a disappointing plan B turned into one of the highlights of my trip, and it's something I still have strong, fond memories of doing. I also took a lot of photos, but never got around to showing them to all that many people. I promised that I'd put them all online, and finally, three years later, I'm done with editing and tagging and have the whole lot where anyone who wants can see it.

So here they are at last: photos from my New Zealand bike tour.
posted @ 11:02 PM -

Wednesday, May 10

Reporting, violence and immigration marches

I just heard an interesting little tidbit from the radio, which I'd love to see another source for if anyone knows. Unless I [or a commenter] can find one, this should be taken with a pinch of salt because it is from a source with an axe to grind, but I thought I'd mention it anyway because if true it's rather telling.

After last week's immigrant march, the Seattle PI [I can't find the article in question now] mentioned in passing that a few people were arrested for firearms offences, and subsequently released because they appeared to have licences for the guns they were carrying. It didn't mention who these people were, or how the police noticed them, which of course left readers open to assume that they were among the protesters.

According to Geov Parrish, this assumption was wrong; in fact so far wrong that the PI was negligent in not mentioning some crucial details. I listened to a short commentary via a KBCS podcast [you should be able to download the commentary for a few weeks at least - it's the May 8th instalment of this podcast]. Parrish's interpretation of events is that the people arrested with guns were known members of a neo-nazi organisation, and they were only picked up because the march organisers had their own security arranged, and march security alerted the police.

Assuming that Parrish's version of events is what actually happened, it lends itself to a radically different interpretation. The PI report encourages the inference that a few of the marchers did something really stupid, and it feeds into the whole 'immigrants as lawbreakers' line. But if the people arrested were actually there with malice towards the marchers, the inference instead becomes one about how malicious and violent some of the resistance faced by immigrants actually is. The importance of that one detail—who the people arrested were—is such that if Parrish's version of events is correct then the PI has been disgracefully negligent in its report.

Update: you should be able to download the 3½ minute radio commentary that this post was about directly from this link for the next few months.
posted @ 9:05 AM -

Thursday, May 4

On lawbreaking

Like my last post, the immediate trigger for this is something Barry posted, but really it's a response to things I've been hearing from a lot of places over a period of time.

In two unlinked debates recently, I've been hearing a lot of invective about lawbreakers, and the word lawbreaker is used as if it were interchangeable with evil person. One has been the debate about immigration, in which one side tends to place what I think is far too much emphasis on the fact that some millions of people are in the US illegally, without making a convincing case that their presence actually does harm. The other was in a mailing list exchange in which most participants were furious about the President declaring himself to be above the law. One of the participants in that exchange [you can identify yourself if you like - I'm quoting anonymously because the discussion wasn't in a public forum] made a point that was relevant to both issues, and I'll paraphrase it here.

The argument was that simply having broken the law is not automatically grounds for condemnation, because one has to differentiate between breaking important and just laws, and breaking laws that are unimportant and/or unjust. To pick a very extreme example, is someone who drives up I-5 at 75 mph immoral in the way that someone who goes around randomly shooting people clearly is? I doubt many people would answer yes, and yet time and time again I hear the simple fact that people are living and working in the US without permission being stated as though that automatically makes their actions immoral and worthy of condemnation.

I think this can be taken a step further as well. To quote the US's most popular moral authority: He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone. In other words, to condemn someone for the act of breaking the law in itself, without being a hypocrite, one must have never broken the law oneself. I sincerely doubt that I know any adult who has never driven faster than the speed limit, or copied an album, or installed software without paying what they were supposed to, or missed a deadline to pay a tax bill or renew a pet licence or submit a census form, or consumed alcohol before their 21st birthday, and so on. [come to think of it, or smoked within 25 feet of a door or window in Seattle] Not to mention that over a third of Americans over 12 years of age have taken at least one illegal drug, and over 10% have taken what most people (myself included) would consider a hard drug.

My point is not to argue that no lawbreaking is bad—the majority of US and state laws do make sense, after all—but simply that pointing out that someone's actions are illegal is not enough to convince me that they are morally wrong. I have to also believe that the law they are breaking is fair and important, and that there are no extenuating circumstances that justify the person's actions in context. For all the reasons I set out in my last post, illegal immigration into a country does not meet the first of those criteria.
posted @ 3:59 PM -

Tuesday, May 2

Immigration: the system isn't working

I don't know how much coverage this is getting internationally, but no-one within the US can have failed to notice that immigration has suddenly become a high-profile issue over the past few months. There have been a few national rallies, and a lot of hot-headed rhetoric, running a gamut from opposing any immigration at all to opposing any immigration controls at all.

The whole thing has me quite frightened, because a lot of things are being said that are flat-out xenophobic, and don't make sense, and I fear 'backlash creep'. For the time being, the reactionary statements I'm hearing are all very much targeted towards latinos who are in the US illegally and work low-income jobs. They're being made for a variety of reasons, from thinly-veiled racism to [possibly fallacious] concerns about competition for jobs depressing wages to [entirely untrue] claims that they cost the government money, through to [illogical, as far as I can tell] concerns about security. One thing that scares me is that this kind of reaction tends to spread, and if current trends continue it's not going to be all that long till I have to worry about reactions to me as a foreigner in the US, especially as I start to see commentators link all manner of unrelated ills to the 'problem' of immigration. My other fear is that the recent protests have actually overplayed their hand, and are going to drive the government to over-react with draconian legislation that will both hurt the economy and make my own life more complicated. Though I disagree with Barry's reaction to the protests, I can see where he's coming from, and I don't think his view is marginal by any means.

Having said all that, I think everybody who cares at all about the issue can agree on one thing: the existence of illegal immigration is a symptom of a flawed system. And when we're talking about 11 million illegal immigrants, that's a pretty badly flawed system.

The issue that is open to debate, and being debated very noisily these days, is diagnosing what the failure is. A lot of the reactionary comments that I'm reading and hearing [I really should stop watching TV news over lunch - it's never good for my mood, whereas taking in the view is always beneficial] is based on the assumption that the law is correct and fair as it is, in which case it does logically follow that the failure is one of enforcement. If people are breaking a just law, then clearly increased policing and heavier penalties are at least part of the appropriate solution.

I disagree with this approach, however, because I think the premise is fundamentally flawed, and the right approach is to make it much easier to immigrate legally. I think this for two reasons: a pragmatic argument about how immigration is a net benefit to the US and a radical moral argument about whether any country even has the right to restrict immigration. I'll start with the pragmatic argument, because that's one to be debated factually, whereas I realise I'm unlikely to ever persuade anyone of the moral case.

The pragmatic argument is simply that the average immigrant, legal or not, brings more to the US than they take from the country. I am convinced this is true in three important respects: economic growth and employment, tax/social security revenue, and culture.

The economic growth issue is one that tends to get muddied by what I've seen elsewhere referred to as the Finite Quantity of Jobs Fallacy, or the Lump of Labour Fallacy. Clearly every person who moves into my area and takes a job that I would take is in the most immediate sense taking a job from me, and increasing the labour supply will, all other things being equal, depress wages in that industry. But all other things never are equal, and this analysis fails to take into account any other effect of that person's presence in the economy. Every wage earner is also a spender of money and a consumer of goods and services, and these activities create demand that in turn creates employment. This in itself won't fully replace that job—particularly for low income earners who are saving money to send back to a family abroad, one employed person does not create a whole person's worth of extra demand in the economy—but it's the first often-ignored factor that reduces the economic cost of having additional workers in the economy.

The other economic issue is more subtle, and it's that a jobseeker here is not only competing with other jobseekers here. We are also all competing with industry elsewhere in the world, and with automation. This will probably be clearest if I ground it in a real-world example: the produce that I buy at the market each morning can come from as close as Woodinville or as far away as Mexico [I'm ignoring the Chilean produce that shows up in winter because that has more to do with seasons than pure economic pressures]. Either way, it's been picked by low-paid Mexican labourers, whether they're the ones who hang out on Western Avenue waiting for day-labour employers to pick them up or the ones who live in agricultural areas of Mexico. Either way, their low pay (low in Mexico because it's a poor country; low in Washington because undocumented cash-in-hand labour evades tax, and these workers will accept low wages by local standards because it's still more than they'd earn back home) keeps prices down, which not only benefits consumers (i.e. everyone - who doesn't consume food?) but also keeps the farms in business. Locally, this is probably the industry with the least US-born staff, and in which the largest proportion of the immigrant staff are here illegally, so let's consider what would happen if all of the immigrant labourers were to disappear. The immediate effect would arguably be that wages for such work would go up dramatically, as the supply of labour has become constricted, but this assumes that demand would be constant. In fact, I am absolutely certain that demand would also dry up, because if the local farms paid high enough wages to get Americans working the fields, the cost of the produce would increase by enough that people would stop buying it, and buy exclusively Mexican produce instead. So that leaves the farms with two choices: either find a way to mechanise the process, thereby employing far fewer people, or if that proves impractical (I don't think the harvesting of every crop can be mechanised, and even where possible it may need more capital investment than a farmer can raise) simply close the farm. The reality is that Mexican labourers in Washington are competing less with US-born labourers than they are with Mexican labourers in Mexico. Meanwhile, the region would be worse off, because instead of having local labourers spending money on local goods and services, the same people would be doing the same jobs in Mexico and spending their money there.

On to the tax revenue versus drain on government services. At the start of this post I linked to a source which claims that a typical immigrant and his or her descendants will pay an estimated $80,000 (in 1996 dollars) more in taxes than they will receive in combined local, state, and federal benefits over their lifetimes. I'll leave the numbers argument aside, because all I'd end up doing is quoting extensively from that same article, but here's an argument about why even illegal immigrants contribute more to government coffers than they take, particularly in the US. It is often pointed out that undocumented workers don't pay income tax, and therefore they must cost the government money. I'm pretty sure the first part of that claim is true—after all, why pay income tax when doing the paperwork just increases the risk that your illegal status will be noticed, and you don't have anything to lose because you're already breaking the law just by having a job and being in the US—but the second part does not follow. First of all, the US is one of the lowest income tax countriesin the world, and the workers being discussed would be paying tiny percentages of their incomes as tax because they're among the lowest paid and we do have a progressive income tax system. When I was on a stipend from the university I didn't even pay a great deal of tax, and I daresay I was earning a lot more money than most agricultural day-labourers, and not claiming the deductions that many of them would be able to claim because they have children. Meanwhile, most illegal immigrants (a quite different picture from legal immigrants, but then legal immigrants also pay income tax) are young (20-something) men, only in the US temporarily, and have left their families behind. These are the people who cost the taxpayer the least money. Statistically it's the group with the least healthcare needs—if their healthcare is even covered by government programmes, considering that the US does not have universal healthcare—they place no demand on the education system, and actually I challenge anyone to come up with an example of a government-subsidised service of which illegal immigrants make heavy use other than public transport. Legal immigrants certainly use more government services, especially as many of them do have school-age children, but they also pay income tax, and their children will typically earn more than they did, paying back the cost of their education and then some.

Then there's the issue of culture, which I'll just touch on briefly by suggesting that any culture is enriched by ongoing close contact with others. I'm not going to go on about this point because it's so much more subjective than the financial arguments. I also don't think that this amounts to an argument against things like pressuring immigrants to learn English: this will help them to integrate into society, to the benefit of both the immigrants and those who are already here. Too many people on the pro-immigration side of the argument seem to confuse expecting something of immigrants with placing unfair barriers to their entry.

Finally there is the more radical point I wanted to make, which is simply that I have as yet to hear a persuasive answer to this question: what gives the people who by accident of birth are already in a particular country the right to close the doors to others coming and joining them in search of a better life; why are the rights of someone who happened to be born a citizen more important than the rights of another human being? I think this question applies to all countries, but it's particularly hard to answer when the country in question is one of whom almost all citizens are themselves the descendants of immigrants within recorded history and where the real original inhabitants are the most marginalised people with the worst quality of life and the least political influence.
posted @ 12:42 PM -
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