Thursday, May 31, 2007

Most partisan political debates are at least somewhat dishonest, with both sides concealing somewhat unsavory motives behind grand, idealistic rhetoric. The current immigration debate, however, may be setting new standards for bipartisan hypocrisy.

Supporters of the bill--primarily Democrats--claim to be saving millions of poor, oppressed illegal immigrants by granting them legal status (so-called "amnesty"). Of course, amnesty will do nothing of the sort: if the newly-legalized immigrants take advantage of their new status to escape their ill-paid, backbreaking labor, then employers will simply shun them in favor of fresh illegal arrivals, creating not one, but two underclasses--unemployed legal immigrants and their illegal replacements.

That's supposedly why Republicans want any amnesty tied to vigorous "enforcement"--meaning sealing of the US-Mexican border. The premise, presumably, is that once the amnesty is declared, the millions of new illegal immigrants who will rush to take their place must be stopped at the border. In practice, though, border interdiction can at best slow, not halt, the flow of illegal immigrants. (Think of how effective it is at interdicting drug trafficking, for instance.) Eventually, the supply of illegals will have been fully replenished, and "enforcement" will have come to naught.

There is, mind you, a highly effective way of massively reducing the number of illegal immigrants, with or without amnesty. It's no mystery--it's known as "employer sanctions", and it was supposed to be a part of the 1986 amnesty, but was never seriously implemented. The principle is simple: illegal immigrants come to the US because even the awful under-the-table jobs available to illegals are better than their prospects back home. However, if employers are harshly penalized for employing illegal immigrants, then the illegals will no longer be in demand, and therefore no longer have an incentive to come--or even to stay, if they've already arrived by now.

Employer sanctions would require a fair bit of work, of course--establishing a database of citizens, an effective identification system, and an inspection system to catch scofflaw employers. But given that these things have been built for cars and guns, it shouldn't be impossible to do the same for people. And the system needn't be perfect, because employers--unlike, say, gun owners--tend to be affluent and respected enough to want to avoid the risks associated with breaking the law.

One could raise some legitimate, though minor, concerns about this regime, such as whether the database jeopardizes personal privacy, or whether legal job applicants of the wrong ethnicities would come under undue suspicion of being illegals masquerading as legal. Employer sanctions also face opposition from politicians who see partisan benefit in the perpetuation of the illegal immigration problem: Democrats who see the illegals as potential Democratic-voting future citizens, and Republicans who see their employers as potential Republican-donating business tycoons.

But the real reason why serious employer sanctions aren't part of the current immigration bill--and barely figure in the debate at all--is that the perpetuation of the illegal immigration problem benefits many more Americans than just the aforementioned political operatives. In fact, virtually every American pays lower prices for goods and services provided by a host of industries whose millions of illegal workers would have to be replaced by legal workers--at a much higher cost--if employer sanctions were put into place. Indeed, nobody knows where those legal workers might come from, how much they'd cost, or whether customers would be willing to pay the bill. In other words, the exploitation of millions of Mexican workers with no alternative is a massive and crucial portion of the American consumer economy, one that few Americans want to give up.

Of course even fewer Americans want to admit that they depend on the illegal worker system for their low-priced goods and (especially) services. They'd rather engage in pointless arguments about amnesty and border control instead.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

It's a year before the presidential election. The president, a backslapping Texan doggedly pursuing a costly and unpopular war, will not be running again. His party's activist base is rumbling with dissatisfaction at the collection of establishment centrists who are contending to replace him, and itching for a more ideologically pure candidate to enter the fray. The opposing party, meanwhile, is haunted by its own candidate from the presidential election seven years before, a sitting vice-president who lost in a controversial photo finish. He has since rejuvenated his tarnished reputation by reinventing himself completely and winning over his party's angry grassroots. And so we must ask the year's burning political question: is Nixon the one?

No, I don't predict a repeat of 1968, with Al Gore storming to victory, only to resign in disgrace six years later. Nor, however, do I consider the parallels merely superficial. Like the Democrats in '68, the Republican party of 2008 has created enough of a moderate, responsible establishment to alienate its purist ideologues, the latter egged on by a full range of newly-mature, ideologically conservative institutions: think tanks such as AEI, Heritage, Cato, Hudson, Hoover and Manhattan, as well as media outlets such as Fox, and even a large portion of the Supreme Court. The party is thus ripe for the kind of radical takeover that eventually decimated the New Deal Democratic coalition and opened the door for the conservative resurgence of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, today's Democrats are in a position similar to that of the 1968 Republicans: their establishment core is moribund, focused on declining institutions and long-outdated ideology. Its young guard is blessed with (environmentalist) religious fervor and unburdened by the old (race-and-class) political orthodoxies, but has yet to form a coherent coalition based on what it's for, not just what it's angrily against.

History doesn't always repeat itself, of course. The Republicans could avoid a radical takeover, or the Gore and "netroots" Democratic factions could fail to coalesce into a coherent reformist movement. (Or both.) But I would be surprised if the institutional right wing of the conservative movement didn't at least try to flex its muscles over perhaps the next decade or so, seeking to consolidate and even extend the right's recent political gains. And to the extent that it succeeds, it will certainly provide a useful focus for a re-invigorated left, as it evolves from a ragtag coterie of angry outsiders into the next mass political movement.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Michael O'Hare's May Day tribute to several generations of American Communists--including, he makes clear, thousands of loyal Stalinists--is a fascinating study in partisanship. "They were misled by their leadership more than once", he writes, "and there's a lot they didn't understand about how societies and people really work, but they were brave and their hearts were in the right place."

The usual partisan retort to such an encomium is to declare it equivalent to--that is, as unthinkably obscene as--a celebration of, say, American Nazis. But as a committed non-partisan, I find it much more interesting to compare it with an equally unthinkable (for Prof. O'Hare), but rather less obscene, hypothetical: a tribute to supporters of the current American president.

It seems obvious, accustomed as we are to partisanship, that O'Hare would never dream of including contemporary Republicans in such a misty-eyed paean. But in fact he almost certainly has more in common with them, politically speaking, than with at least the most extreme of those he actually chose to celebrate. And this relative affinity goes well beyond the paramount fact that both he (I assume) and today's Bush Republicans prefer democratic politics over, say, a totalitarian revolutionary vanguard's violent seizure of absolute dictatorial power. Indeed, "on the issues", as they say, today's compassionate conservative probably occupies the mushy middle ground between O'Hare and his beloved Marxist predecessors. Let's consider a list:
  • The environment: Pure bourgeois frivolity. The industrialization of the Soviet Union--achieved at a horrific environmental cost--was uniformly celebrated by Communists of pretty much every stripe. In those days, conservationism was the preserve (so to speak) of wealthy brahmins with plenty of free time for birdwatching and the like, and little concern for maximizing industrial production.
  • Immigration: Surely I don't have to review Communist doctrine regarding control of movement of people across borders. The mere idea of allowing wealthy American capitalists to import millions of foreign laborers to underbid local workers would have given any self-respecting Red apoplexy.
  • Welfare: In the Soviet Union, those who refused to work were declared "parasites" and prosecuted.
  • Civil liberties: 'Nuff said.
  • Iraq: This is the only (slightly) tricky one--certainly, 20th-century leftists were generally in favor of deposing fascist dictators by military force, but on occasion (say, when the Soviet Union had entered into a non-aggression pact with one), the most orthodox among them were inclined to waver. Still, it's safe to say that absent a direct Soviet interest, invading a country to replace a fascist dictatorship in which Communists had no hope of seizing power with a democracy in which they were free to organize would have met with the approval of most Communists.

Given this list of sharp disagreements, what could O'Hare possibly have meant when he declared that those old Stalinists "had their hearts in the right place"? He gives a hint in his comparison of his historical heroes to his current enemies:

As the United States slides further and further toward the kind of outrageously unjust income distribution my parents and grandparents fought against, and every day's news has another injustice by the strong against the weak, what's worth remembering is the generations of people who paid some real dues trying to make a better world.

Is this really the root of O'Hare's identification? Shared preference for a more progressive tax policy? Delusion that a self-professed "revolutionary vanguard" seeking absolute power really only wanted to defend "the weak"? Well, sort of. In practice, these shared symbolic ideals are a kind of coded signal, indicating to others that their holders' hearts, as O'Hare would say, are in the right place--that is, that they're "the right sort of people". In this particular case, "the right sort of people" are relatively educated folks of plebeian origin who think of themselves as clear-thinking, truth-seeing intellectuals, and embrace the values such people could be expected to embrace: erudition, rationality, articulateness, intellectual discipline. In their utopia, what counts are these qualities, not wealth or social class or talent or hard work--traits that could elevate people other than themselves to positions of wealth and power (over them).

Other forms of political partisanship are, at heart, similarly constructed out of tribal fraternities of the like-spirited. The nerdy libertarian pines for a world where impersonal markets govern everything, and physical strength and social skills are powerless against (his own self-attributed) raw talent and brilliance. The working-class heartland conservative imagines a country where "values" and "tradition" (that is to say, his values and tradition, since they are, he believes, the dominant version) shape policy more than wealth, social status or education. The self-identified minority group member dreams of a world where his minority is privileged and superior where possible, and otherwise no less favored than the majority. The ambitious, hard-working ladder-climber envisions a world where hard work and ambition are all it takes to get ahead, and lazy bums, busybodies, do-gooders and pointy-heads (that is, people unlike him) can't interfere. And so on.

As I've pointed out before, ideology has always been, for the most part, a cover for the alliance of constituencies with common interests. That today's middle-class intellectuals would imagine themselves in solidarity with a previous generation of middle-class intellectuals--despite disagreeing with them on virtually every concrete particular of public policy--shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, that's what partisanship is all about.