A Bridge to Nowhere

My family has been in America a long time.

My first descendant was a Dutch immigrant to New Amsterdam in the 1630’s named Wyckoff. He was an indentured servant who rose to become a colonial judge after the Dutch lost the territory to the English. His immigration marked the start of an American family line that can be tracked nearly four centuries to my children. The original family house in Flatbush is still standing. It’s the oldest structure in New York City.

My wife’s American family is older. They were at Jamestown. Her earliest American descendant was a woman whose first husband was killed in a Native American raid. She later married a ship captain that brought supplies to the colony from England. His name was Bennett, my wife’s maiden name. My oldest son’s first name.

Those two old American lines married into recently arriving Irish Catholic and Mexican families in late 20th century in unions that, for most of history, would have been unimaginable. Centuries of war and bloodshed had to solve the conflict of Catholic and Protestant and Mexican and American so that one day our parents might have an uneventful ceremony at city hall.

In my house, the Age of Religious Wars was reenacted and anticlimactically decided by the local Catholic school and its choice to have the only all-day kindergarten in the city. That was the tie breaker. I was raised Catholic.

2800 miles away, on the opposite coast, my wife was half Mexican with an English last name. She didn’t speak Spanish. And so she was raised white as far as anyone knew. Including her.

Today, my wife and I are two mostly white 40 somethings with three mostly white children in the Southern California suburbs. Hundreds of years of English and Dutch and German and French and Irish and Native American and Spanish cultures and religions have mostly been paved over. Until we did DNA tests and logged onto Ancestry.com to do some research, my wife had no idea she was a quarter native American. And I had no idea that I was entirely Northwestern European. Neither of us had any idea our American roots went back four centuries.

I was raised with no pride in my genetic heritage. Nor any shame. I identified as American; an identity that I was told in school and by my parents was a mixture of immigrants. I was a melting pot. And I drew pride in my identity from that distinction.

This is a common American pattern. Hundreds of years of cultural differences assimilated into a common, contemporary American one. This is how cultural assimilation works.

If one is allowed to assimilate, that is. 

For most of American history, what has been allowed to assimilate into American mainstream culture are white people. And so that seamless transition that my family and my wife’s family, from one local or religious culture to another, was reserved for white people. And so, until recently, American mainstream culture has had an over-representative white identity.

African American history dates back to 1619. Latin American history is rooted in the 16th century. They are deep and rich cultures. But they were kept undeniably separate from white American culture for centuries, with great care and effort.

Two weeks ago a white supremacist drove ten hours to the border town of El Paso in Texas to murder 20 people in a mass shooting at a Walmart. Prior to the shooting, he published a manifesto railing against the “great replacement” and drawing on references from and language used in recent white supremacist mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Christchurch, New Zealand.

In his speech condemning the shooting, President Trump called for unity. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”

I applaud the President’s condemnation. But I struggle to dive deeply into the cognitive dissonance it takes to be moved by it. The hard reality Americans are struggling to reconcile in the modern identity politics environment is that hate does have a place in America. And our history is riddled with white supremacy.

Our founding documents originally reserved voting rights for “white persons of good character.” It took four scores and seven years and thirteen amendments before the 14th granted citizenship to black Americans. Asian immigrants weren’t granted citizenship until the 1940s. Interracial marriage was illegal when my parents married. Candidates who ran on segregationist platforms served in the Senate until the Obama administration. And from 1920s to the 1960s, immigration quotas were designed to allow mostly English, German and Irish immigrants into the country.

Policies that forwarded white American interest at the expense of other races are undeniably ingrained in our history.

This history is important to remember. Not because white people like me should walk around with heads hung low in shame. Like all histories, America’s has both shame and triumph. And though the sins of the father shouldn’t be visited on the child, we can’t ignore the past. And we have to understand where America came from. And where we are going. And where we are on the arc of that journey.

America will lose its majority white demographic in my lifetime. This is reasonably certain. Most of the people that will be alive then are alive today. And most of the people that are alive today that won’t be then are already known. Demography is easy to predict.

If we closed the doors to immigrants tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the fate of the white American majority. If we left immigration open only to white people from developed nations, it wouldn’t change it either as they don’t come here in large enough numbers anymore. At current inter-marriage and birth rates, over time, 25 years or so, there will be fewer white only Americans than non-white only Americans. The shift has already happened. It is inevitable.

The only questions we need answered are who are the right leaders with the right policies and the right new American ideas to lead us through it.

Four years ago, when then candidate Trump launched his campaign for president, railing against Mexican immigration and riding a wave of anti-immigration sentiment towards a wire to wire victory in the Republican Primary and a general election in which he won every contested state, I was concerned. My concern was that we’d unlocked an undercurrent of populous anger that was motivated by an impossible aim; to keep America frozen in the cultural and demographic glory of the past.

We danced around issues like the economy and  manufacturing jobs. We played lip service to trade and an America first policy. But what both research and a cursory view of any Trump rally will tell you is that what binds the most vigorous Trump supporters together the most are two characteristics. 1-Views on immigration. 2- Views on politically correctness.

The new GOP led by President Trump isn’t content with simple indifference towards the plight of minority populations in America. They’ve given voice to the anxieties of a majority population living through demographic shift in real time. President Trump has taken aim at the institutions of the media, academia and the liberal leaning tech sector who have worked to anchored American cultural norms of intolerance towards racism. And he’s made impossible promises to try to hold together a strong political base, at all costs.

Ethnic majorities that live through demographic shift behave predictably. They are susceptible to populous demagoguery. Fringe ideology of racial purity escalates. Violence against minority populations escalates. Negative attitudes towards immigration and immigrants become more salient.

In the past, when America hit 13% foreign born population, as we are today, the nativist Know Nothing party swept state and local elections in the 1850s. In the 1920s when it did again, emergency immigration quotas were passed to ensure an ethnic majority. Today we have both relatively high immigration, a changing ethnic demographic and an information and social media age that breaks down regional separation.

As the pattern shows, President Trump was right on schedule.

His message though, is a loser. And the fear it runs on, is unfounded. There is no replacement of people. Only some mix of assimilation and diversity that makes for a richer, no less American, America.

I live in a minority white region. And it looks mostly like the majority white one I came from with more food choices and more reasons to throw a party. We still drink beer and watch football and baseball. And there’s plenty of conservative non-white folks here. Because when you make conservative views about something other than maintaining a past white culture, you’ll find that conservative views are universal across peoples.

Faith. Family. Tradition. Personal liberties.

We’re living through change. And we need strong civic leadership to bring us through it. The Trump message is a bridge to nowhere trying to stop a shift that can only be stopped through coercion or violence.

What’s the 20-year plan in that direction? Be 20 years angrier? Be 20 years more afraid? That way lies pogroms. There are strong indications that they’re already here.

It’s time to change course.

We Have No Excuse

I came down to my kitchen yesterday morning and realized that I was running short on the lion’s mane, Scandinavian made mushroom coffee that I drink. I spoke a few words into the air and the robot speaker on the counter next to my refrigerator responded, called me by name and told me that the coffee would be on its way shortly. Later that day a van drove up to my house and dropped it off. That robot cost $39. The delivery was free.

49 years and 349 days ago three men climbed into a 363 foot rocket filled with half a million gallons of liquid oxygen and kerosene and flew a 150 ton payload to the moon, landed on the moon and flew back. The launch alone cost a billion dollars in today’s money.

Today, Alex Tabarrok reminded me, on his blog Marginal Revolution, that America once housed 400 thousand German POWs from the Nazi Afrika Korps in 48 states. The standards of humane conditions set by the Geneva Convention were met. Many of them decided to stay. It was all accomplished under a constrained timeline as the war only lasted another two years after they had surrendered.

We, the American people, are capable of incredible, unimaginable, spectacular things when we decide they are worth doing. That we don’t have sufficient living conditions for migrants who show up on our borders is a choice. That people are dying in them, children are separated from parents and basic living standards are not met, is a choice. That the facilities we have available are full, is a choice.

Change the immigration laws if we must. Make it harder to enter the country if that’s the agenda of the democratically elected government. Shut the doors and lock everyone out if that’s the America we want. I’m sure many do. But meet the standard required of civilized nations on how we house those we’ve detained. No excuses. No politics.

There are organizations responsible for solving this problem:

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and the Department of Health and Human Services are responsible for the plan and its execution.

Congress is responsible for funding it.

And the President, who builds luxury hotels for a living for Christ’s sake, is overall accountable for the performance of the civil servants in the employment of the federal government.

Do your jobs. Yes, this is your job.

It’s not unreasonable to expect that we have a durable solution to meet an influx of migrants at the border that accounts for humane treatment of them. One might even consider it a core responsibility of those living behind the wall to have a plan that accounts for meeting a humane standard when those trying to get over it, show up.

Sometimes might can make right. We are a land of vast resources and unmatched wealth on a historical scale. We could do this without breaking a sweat. We have no excuse not to. And when we do, maybe we can start having a debate about what sort of immigration policy reform we need. Instead of a debate about what sort of monsters we are.

Life on The Border

I can see Mexico from my backyard. It shows up as a bright band of twinkling lights on a hill to the south a few miles away.

I live on the east side of a suburb on the southern side of San Diego called Chula Vista. I’ve lived here about twenty years; my entire adult life. San Diego was my first duty station in the Navy. I met my wife here and stayed, like thousands of veterans do every year.

On the border.

There’s a wall between those twinkling lights on that hill and my home. But like any border town on any border in the world, the wall divides the material much more than it does the cultural. On the other side of that wall is Tijuana, one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. There’s a drug war raging there right now. Murder rates are soaring. Poverty and the drug and sex trade paint a picture of life very differently than where I live as outcomes on the two sides of that wall diverge. There is not much of a sense that the people are different there. Just the opportunity. And the outcomes.

About 60 percent of the people where I live are Latino. My wife is one of them. I’m just as likely to hear the cashier at the Target down the street from my house speaking Spanish to a customer as I am English. They switch back and forth seamlessly.

The food here is amazing. I grew up in a place where there was a family owned pizza place on every corner. Here it’s burrito shops. The restaurants serve beer in the morning and have raucous crowds for soccer games more often than they fill for Monday night football. But make no mistake, they love their Chargers, even if they did move 100 miles up the I-5 to LA.

It’s not obvious to me that I’m close with anyone that’s here illegally. In fact, the way one normally finds out that someone was, is that they get deported. The fallout is brutal. They have kids that go to school with my children and spouses left behind. The negative outcomes are more obvious when they leave than when they were here. That’s not a political statement. It’s a material reality. The pastor of the Tijuana branch of my church is one of them. After he was deported and spent time in prison, he found faith. And planted a church on the other side of the border where he lives now. It serves in some of the poorest parts of one of the poorest cities in the world.

People have homes and families and businesses on both sides of the wall. To them the wall marks a boundary of expenses. And institutions. And laws. Something to be crossed for their benefit.

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is present the way normal police and first responders are in other places. People generally don’t view them with fear. Most of the border patrol where I live are from where I live. I once watched the coverage of the caravan “crisis” on the TV in a burrito shop with my friend Jose who had just finished his shift near the wall.

There isn’t much unique border political tension. Some people are conservative. Some are liberal. Here, though, where most identify ethnically as Latino, the lines are less clearly divided along culture. There are progressive Latinos. And there are conservative ones. And they think the same way about immigration that conservative and progressive folks do. It’s not about race here. It’s about control of who enters or doesn’t enter where you live.

Some want strict. Others want liberal.

Few here think much about the wall that divides the two economies and legal systems in philosophical terms. I’ve never heard anyone say it was immoral. I’ve never heard anyone say it needs to come down. I’ve never heard anyone say it needs to be higher. It’s a geographic function that defines parts of the culture and economy here, the way the beach or the mountains do in other places.

The main concern is that the border crossing stays open. The economy here depends on it. I have friends whose livelihoods depend on the orderly passing of people and goods through the port of entry.

There is crime and there are gangs here. Less than where I grew up, 2800 miles to the northeast. Some of it comes from Tijuana. Most does not. It’s safer now on our side of the wall than it has been for decades from a crime perspective. The contrast across the border is clear though. Things are murderous down there right now. They are not here. And in that regard, the physical border matters.

Last night the President addressed Americans in a live address from the Oval Office. He expressed that there was a humanitarian and national security crisis at the southern border. He delivered a list of statistics. And read a list of crimes that “illegal aliens” had committed and then he asked me to”imagine if it was your child, your husband, or your wife whose life was so cruelly shattered and totally broken.”

There’s volumes to be written about the state of political decay in America. And how two sides are fighting for two outcomes–to build a wall or to not build a wall–that matter far less in the grand scheme of things than the choice to shut down the government or signal to the world that we’re the type of democracy that simply doesn’t work any more. Many others will take that to task. For me, down here on the border, it’s sufficient to say that the crisis isn’t obvious. And that it’s not much different now than it has been for 20 years.

And as for the question of how I would feel if it were my child or my wife so cruelly shattered? It’s not obvious how much more broken my heart would be if whatever happened to them involved someone who was not here in America legally. It’s a bit of an odd question. The type asked by someone unfamiliar to personal hardship and loss. I find no comfort in the horrors committed every day in America being committed only by Americans.

Presently the American government has been partially shut down. And our leaders are reserving prime air time to address America they way it does when we go to war. Or when we take emergency government measures to avoid economic crisis.

And it’s not obvious to me why. And for the reasons stated, it should be.

 

Identity Politics and Immigration

I am pro immigration.

I wrote a chapter in my book about immigration being a consistent political boogeyman throughout American history. I wrote an article in Playboy (yes they really have articles) about the reality of the underlying fears about immigration.

Spoiler alert: they’re ethnocentric.

Economically, culturally and morally, allowing people to come to America, assimilate and add to our culture is a societal positive. The American pie is not fixed. Our native population is aging. Our birth rate is too low. Immigration is a non-optional part of a thriving, growing, prosperous and free 21st Century America.

I live within clear view of our southern border with Mexico. I’ve observed, researched and written at length about immigration and I’ve come to a clear and unambiguous conclusion. America is not in the midst of an immigration crisis. Not in any observable way.

Full stop.

We are, however, in the midst of a political crisis. And our current immigration laws and border security make it worse.

For the last fifty or so years, the progressive political agenda has been to advocate for equality of opportunity and increased access for marginalized populations of Americans.  The conservative political agenda has been to advocate for decreased regulation, free trade and lower taxation to advance corporate interests. Working-class America, specifically white working class America, once represented by the the pro-union progressive labor agenda that predated the progressive shift towards advocacy for marginalized Americans, found themselves without political representation. They became, politically invisible.

And then, on the heels of deep economic crisis, someone noticed them.

Someone who wasn’t afraid to appeal to their specific in group characteristics. Someone who couldn’t be persuaded that advocating for that group, over others, in light of our country’s long and troubling past of the oppression of those others, was taboo. And now, we’ve got a political debate with identity politics on both sides of the ledger. A fixed pie, fight over the scraps, we win only when you lose political sickness.

The current administration didn’t cause it. But they know how to use it. And their temperament is uniquely suited for the kind of fight they’ve picked. It’s a fight that can’t be won; only marketed.

They have their targets.

The media leans left because that’s who pays to consume their content. Deep studies confirm their slant and their motivation. It’s not nefarious. It’s simply the market they’re in. Coastal, metropolitan areas insist on political correctness because we have to figure out how to live with different people and it’s better if we’re not pissing each other off all the time. Academia is full of left leaning academics because that’s who self selects into that profession.

And one other thing.

We have a two thousand-mile border with an entire hemisphere of poor people who come from homelands accurately characterized by extreme crime, drug trafficking and even communism. Presently our southern border is semi-porous. Our laws are extremely difficult to enforce. And we have 11Million people who have entered our country illegally and stayed.

We are not in crisis. But we’ve got some things to address.

Regardless of how you feel about immigration, it’s fair to concede there’s work to be done. We won’t do it though, because it’s a wellspring for identity politics. As long as we’ve got this sickness, we’re going to be having unproductive conversations about immigration.

Caravans of thousands of people should not be let across our border. It’s actually one of the president’s stated charters not to allow it to happen. They also don’t need to be exaggerated or sensationalized at campaign rallies when they’re a thousand miles away and walking slowly away from violence and poverty in plain daylight.

Allowing for stronger border security and enforcement, within bounds of human decency (a wall is fine…caged kids isn’t) and providing a path to citizenship for those already in our country is a solution that meets both sides “stated” goals.

That we won’t ever attain either of those goals is a function of our political sickness.

If we can’t say border security, without confusing it with racism, we can’t solve problems. If caging children because we don’t care a Goddamn about anyone outside of the people who look like the people in our base, then people are going to credibly claim that what we mean by border security is caging children, and then they’ll be justified in calling us racist. And we’ll go round and round and grind our political will to do hard things down to the nub.

And the parts of the world who don’t embrace our principles of western liberalism will rejoice at our relative weakness.

One of the things I learned serving in places where people actually were fighting and killing each other is that if you draw rings around groups of people and make it a fight between the rings, all it takes to win is the biggest ring. And by win, I mean get the biggest slice of a fixed or dwindling pie that won’t grow for fear of strengthening the other rings.  The small rings don’t join forces against the big ring. It doesn’t work that way. They eventually just fight over what’s left over among themselves.

The only way out is to find the ring we can draw around all of us.  It used to be the promise of the American dream. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For the most productive times in America, that’s what we’ve been about.

When I started thinking about immigration as an issue, I originally believed it to be a fringe concern. One thrown on top of a populist rant to add some emotion. The fears aren’t grounded in reality after all. It’s marketing. Like rolling out Christmas decorations in the mall before Halloween. It’s annoying that someone thinks we’re stupid enough to buy into it and be influenced by the mania. But it’s not a real problem.

What I didn’t realize was how central to our political debate it is. In areas where border security is much more difficult, and laws are much more complicated like in the European Union, immigration as a central, defining political issue is producing extreme right wing candidates and political movements.

I’d like to see a candidate run on strong border security to ensure we maintain control over who/what enters our country but also insists on humane treatment of and a path to citizenship for those already in our country.

I understand why a Republican can’t beat that drum.

By why can’t a Democrat?

Something There is that Doesn’t Love a Wall

I’ve been reading Robert Frost poems my whole life. There was a giant book of them on the dusty book shelf in my mother’s living room next to the record player, just to the right of the 1985 World Book Encyclopedia set she was always pulling off the shelf.

Before “Alexa” there was an index finger along the spine of neatly rowed, alphabetized knowledge. Then thumbing through gilt edge pages to discovery. Or disappointment. Continue reading

The road that lies ahead

I spent a summer some years back in the waterways near the northern end of San Francisco Bay, where the Napa River marshland meets up with Vallejo. The sloughs, as they’re called, were ideal for getting ready for the waterways of the Euphrates River Delta in Southern Iraq. That’s why we were there. Because that’s where we figured we were going.

That summer I packed up my boats and my team and all our weapons and gear and loaded them onto tractor trailers and hauled them up 500 miles of interstate from San Diego. I was 26. And it was my first time doing it. And as the detachment commander, I was in charge and responsible for all of it.

When you’re in that line of work in Special Operations, the small boat teams, and you’re working with the “boat guys” as they’re called, you do it all yourself. You don’t hire a shipping company or a driver to haul your crap. You start in point A. And you get it all to point B. And when you get there, you set up shop and get to work. Most will tell you that the getting there part is often the hardest part of the mission. So when we train, we train the whole way, from the time you kiss your wife goodbye on the way out the door, to the time she hands you the screaming baby when you walk back in a month later.

The key thing to remember when you’re on that kind of haul is that you stick together and you keep moving. No matter what happens. You just keep going through the brutal L.A. rush hour traffic. Keep going over the grape vine pass through the mountains on the I-5. Don’t stop for long.

Not even when something bad happens. Especially when something bad happens. Because it will.

This time, we burnt out the brakes on one of our trailers and had to coast off an exit and roll into a field to let them cool off. The look on the face of the 19-year old kid in my detachment from Idaho, who was driving, when my chief and I rolled up next to him in the chase van to tell him to slow down was priceless. After getting an earful from Chief through the wind between open windows, without blinking or any sense of panic, he barked back, “You first. I got no breaks.”

We sat for an hour in a dirt field with the stink of burnt brake pads in the air laughing about it. It scared me to death though. The weight of responsibility was new for me. And I didn’t want to fail. Or worse, get anyone killed.

Something happened not too long after that’s stuck with me nearly fifteen years later. Cruising up the highway in one of the long rural stretches of the great agricultural mecca of America that is Central California, we passed three cars that had just been in a gnarly accident. Two of them were smashed up badly. The other less so. There were suitcases and boxes strewn all over the side of the road. People were wandering around in a fog, disoriented, hazy. There was a woman holding a crying child. A man with a bloody nose sat next to one of the wrecks staring out in to space.

No one looked like they were too badly injured. At least not from a half mile away at 70 miles per hour. But the police weren’t there yet. And we were fifty miles from civilization. The first thing that popped into my mind was, man, I’m glad we weren’t in the middle of that.

My leading petty officer in one of the trailers popped into my ear over the radio.”You see that LT?”

“I see it.” Was all I said back. And we kept trucking. I heard him key the mike on the radio again, but he didn’t say anything else.

A hundred miles up the road when we stopped for gas, the door of the one truck swung open. My leading petty officer charged across the parking lot at me tattoos and muscle flying. He jammed his finger into my chest.

“Why the fuck didn’t you stop LT?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. In the two hours since, I’d forgotten all about it. I’d forgotten about the accident. I’d forgotten that we drove past people who may have been in need with three trucks full of food and medical supplies. At least four of my guys were trained EMTs. One was a hospital corpsman. And we were all field medical trained. I’d forgotten.

But he hadn’t.

The truth was, I didn’t forget. Because it never really occurred to me to stop. We weren’t obligated. I assumed they were fine. They looked fine. But most importantly, I was laser focused on the road ahead of me and the destination I had been assigned to reach and the very real risk that the road and the environment had just shown me when we burned out of the mountains. I’d closed out everything from my mind that wasn’t about keeping my team safe and getting us to our destination.

For me there was never any decision to be made.

It was one of the great teachable failures of my life. And in the 14 or so years since it happened, I’ve thought about it often.

As bad as I feel about that decision, or lack of, and as much as I’ve tried to make up for it with my actions ever since, there was more than just my own character failure at play all those years ago on that highway. I was behaving like a human.

In 1973, psychologists John Darly and Daniel Batson conducted the experiment that would eventually be known even outside psychology academic circles as the Princeton Good Samaritan Study. Darly and Batson took a bunch of students studying theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary School and gave them a questionnaire to establish their level of religiosity. Then they sent them to another building to go do one of a number of different tasks that varied by participant. One of the tasks, ironically, was to give a talk on the story of the good Samaritan from the New Testament. On the way, the team placed someone in their paths who needed help. Before they left though, they gave the students differing levels of urgency. Some were told they were late and had to hurry. Some were told they needed to hurry or they’d be late. And some were told they had plenty of time.

What they found was interesting. And has served as a bit of an anchor for me in understanding some important limits about people.

Darly and Batson found that the only thing that really mattered, relative to whether or not these seminary students wanted to help, was whether or not they were in a hurry. It didn’t matter how religious they were. Or even if they’d just prepared a talk on what the bible says about the virtues of helping others. Students who thought they had plenty of time usually helped. About 2/3 of them stopped what they were doing and helped the stranger. Students that thought they were late, even really religious ones who were about to give a talk on what Jesus said about helping others, didn’t. Nine out of ten times they just walked past. Once they even stepped over the person laying in need. Because we’re humans.

We’re wired to get where where going and get done what we want to get done. We are not wired to stop and help. The road ahead of us is all consuming. We keep our eyes on the ball. We put one foot in front of the other and get going. We’ve got shit to do and places to go. And we’ve got to put America first…

You get the point.

There’s a trap here though. It’s this. I can tell you today that we got to San Francisco on time. And that we completed the training mission. I don’t remember much about the day we got there. I remember nothing about the hour we got there. Chances were, we stretched our legs, bullshitted a little about the drive and then got to work. And, if that hour happened an hour later, it wouldn’t have mattered much. And if it had to happen that way because we helped people in need, no one would have given a rip. And if they did, they would have been wrong.

Here’s the lesson: When it comes to helping people who need help, our default setting needs to be consciously set on yes. Because if it’s not, we’re programmed for no. And if we throw something into our very near consciousness that feels like danger or fear, like losing your breaks in an 18 wheeler while screaming down a 6% incline, or stories on the news about people who look like the people in need harming the people that look like us, then we get even less willing. We close our doors. We turn inward. And we turn our backs. No matter how good a people we think we are. We are human.

And then we do the next very human thing. We regret.

Some of the deepest regrets we have as people, or as a people are when we’ve refused to recognize the needs of others. When we’ve refused to recognize their need as legitimate, their cause as worthy or their type as human. And we either end up regretting them materially because the outcomes are materially bad. Or we regret them because the pain and suffering of others, ignored, over time erodes our humanity.

There’s power in submitting to the painful truth that other people’s problems are worth solving. Not just when they can’t solve them alone. But when we can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Trump Trilemma

Dani Rodrik, the Turkish born Harvard Economist states that a nation may have two of the following three things: national sovereignty, democracy, or deep, global economic integration. It can have any combination of two. But it cannot have all three.

This is “Rodrik’s Trilemma.”

The logic behind why is somewhat complicated but can be reasonably explained as three forces pulling on one rope. Only two can pull at once to balance it. The third has nothing to grab on to.

One force, economic integration or, globalization as it’s called in the political world, is created when we reduce the barriers for trade of goods and flow of capital between nations. In order to have it, we reduce transaction costs; tariffs, import/export quotas, etc. When we do this, we inherently weaken some aspects of the control of the nation state and strengthen the input of global regulatory bodies in the sovereign affairs of the participating nations. The two sides pulling on the rope in this scenario are globalization and the sovereignty of a state.

If a nation desires globalization, it has to give up some power in determining its trade policy. If it wants more control over trade policy, it should be prepared to lose bargaining power in a globally integrated economy. The ebb and flow can be rationally managed and balanced to meet the best outcomes of the nation.

The trilemma comes in to play when that nation tries to do this while maintaining the accountability of democracy. In a deeply integrated global trade environment, an electorate has to have a focus beyond the nation’s own borders to ensure that it governs and makes policy in a way that effectively facilitates the global flow of goods and capital. In order to do this, the electorate must be willing to surrender, through democratic process, some sovereign power to global regulatory entities. They need to be able to do this in all circumstances even when, or especially when, the near-term outcomes of trade policy negatively impact the outcomes of the electorate.

Rodrik maintains that electorates don’t do this.

As a result, a nation wishing to maintain global trade integration and democracy must give up sovereign power to the global regulating entity lest the unwashed masses of democracy break the global economy with a tariff to protect their jobs. The tug of war then transitions between global trade outcomes and democracy. The more power the democracy has, the less integration we’ll receive. Sovereign control sits it out, surrendered to the electorate or the global regulatory entity.

We could continue the analogy through all the potential combinations but the one material to the Trump-ism discussion is where we’ve insisted that global economic integration sit out the contest and let democracy and sovereign control of trade policy have a go at it.

Let the people pick the leader. Let the leader pick the economy that delivers for the people. Everyone else get in line behind America.

America First.

This path is sold easily after hard times like the Great Recession. Trump and Brexit are textbook Rodrik’s Trilemma occurrences. Globalism is the casualty.

Most economists agree, if not in magnitude at least in direction, globalism is a net economic positive. It increases GDP, decreases the cost of goods, and makes the world an “overall” more stable place. The global margin increases.

People don’t vote on the global margin. In America today, they don’t vote much on their individual outcomes either. They vote on their culture. And that makes globalism an easy target.

Much of the Trump-ism message is about transitioning the economics of globalism into a cultural message of nationalism. One of the great tricks of Trump-ism has been to align the negative economic outcomes for its political base with the culture of toleration.

About halfway through the first quarter of the 2017 Super Bowl, I began to get the feeling that the American consumer, or at least the corporations that sell to the American consumer, were not big fans of the inward anti-globalism focus voted into office with the Trump administration.

The global cultural mindset was everywhere.

Coca-Cola ran an ad with people from all over the world singing America the Beautiful in their native tongues. Budweiser told the story of Adolphus Busch’s immigration. 84 Lumber showed the first half of a story that had to be cut off and shown on the internet because it actually showed Trump’s dubious great wall of America.

The message was loud and clear. Americans associate positive sentiment with a modern, compassionate, global perspective. We feel warm and fuzzy about the idea of diverse cultures all longing for and participating in the American dream. That message was market tested and executed by multi-national corporations who spent $160K a second on airtime to deliver it. It was not an unintentional endeavor.

The commercials we were fed were about people and culture and diversity. And tolerance. They filled Americans with the positive sentiment ad companies love to attach to the brands they represent. Inclusion sells. The sentiment, though, is a classic example of a problematic progressive globalism trap.

The progressive globalism trap pushes the notion that globalism is about people and tolerance. And if you’re about people and tolerance (I am), then you are a fan of globalism. In reality, globalism as we know it, the globalism that’s actually materially impacting Americans, has almost nothing to do with people and cultures and everything to do with trade and money. The standards enforced by the World Trade Organization and the outcomes that reducing barriers to free trade have coincided with an era of tremendous global growth. It’s drastically reduced economic inequality across nations.

But at a cost.

That cost has been the re-distribution of wealth and the increase of income inequality within already wealthy nations like America. It’s a firm reality of economics. We grow other place’s middle class at some difficult to quantify expense to our own.

Additionally, the opening up of the international flow of capital allows money to move seamlessly from country to country. But that’s come at a cost too. That cost has been a financial interdependence that fuels global recessions without alleviating the need for sovereign nations to bail out institutions deemed “too big to fail.” The global community didn’t bail out the American financial sector or our automakers. America did.

At the same time, the open flow of capital has also allowed open competition for corporate earnings to drive the corporate tax rate down globally almost 50% in just a few decades in a way that makes America less competitive for internal investment.

The fair point that Trump-ism makes is that global growth and stability hasn’t come without a cost to America. And the cost has fallen heavily on an American working class that hasn’t realized that we transitioned from a manufacturing and production economy to a services economy two generations ago. While the benefits of that global growth of the second half the 20th century exist, the costs are easier to point to in the wake of the recession.

By aligning the economics of anti-globalism with the cultural phenomenon of nativist nationalism, Trump-ism trapped their opposition in a reality where one is either for diversity, or one is for America. One can’t be for both and have the economic interests of Americans as a priority. The only counter Democrats found in 2016 was a departure from capitalism all together of Bernie Sanders.

And we know how that went.

Crisis of Faith

When you say the word Christian, do you mean your faith? Or do you mean your tribe?

Let me ask that question in a different way. When you hear the word Christian, do you see a person? Or do you see a way of life?  Is it a noun? Or, an adjective?

It’s an exercise in semantics right? Well, in as much as the teachings of the Christian Bible are semantics, I guess it is.

Our world is full of semantics. “Our country is great” can mean a lot of things. Great means powerful. It means rich and full of opportunity. Great could mean familiar and sustained. Great can mean free from tyranny and overburdensome rule. Great could mean a place where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness win out. Or, it could just mean a decent place to live in peace and quiet with the space to live with your own thoughts.

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For me, great means the place that every living human soul in the world wishes they were born, but even more, wishes they could die in. Or die for. That’s what great means. And once, not too long ago, maybe even last week, that’s what America was.

The dreams of the world happen in American. My first ancestor came here as an indentured servant, to Brooklyn before it was even a British colony.  My last came here over two hundred years later, from Ireland, working in the steel mills of Pennsylvania. For centuries, people came because of the promise of great. Because greatness meant one simple thing. All were welcome.

We wrote it down and it changed the world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We screwed it up from the start. We didn’t include everyone. And we paid the price. We fought like hell over the last 240 years to get us to equal. And welcome. And we’re damn close. At least we were. It’s changed though.

Why?

About that first question I asked. When you hear the word Christian, what do you hear? I’ve heard the wasteful debate over whether or not we are a Christian nation with Christian values. We are. But we are more than that too. At our very core, we are a nation built on the fundamental value that all are equal. It is not at odds with my faith. My faith tells me all are loved. All are forgiven. All are welcome.

We are every bit in the middle of a great crisis of our faith and culture. But for a different reason than perhaps they’ve led you to believe. Our way of life isn’t at risk because more people want to come and live it. Our way of life is at risk because we’ve answered that first question wrong. Christian isn’t a thing. It’s not a tribe or a people to be protected. It’s a beautiful word that describes a bold fearless way to live. And the crisis isn’t that the knock on the door came and keeps coming from those in search of our shelter. The crisis is what we’ve decided to do when we heard it.

The teachings of my faith are clear and unambiguous. Matthew 25:

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.’

In my faith, my God doesn’t ask. He commands. And he does not qualify my safety as a condition to obey. You can fool yourself into thinking that closing the door is protecting us. Maybe for a little while. And maybe from outsiders. But it can’t protect our way of life from the only enemy who could ever take it away for good.

Us.

This is not our way.

Fear and Immigration: A Journey Through America’s Sense of Self

The American story is one long continuous struggle to expand our sense of self. Our charter identifies our union as an establishment of the people, by the people, for the people. In that we have been universally consistent. The grand internal struggle has been and still is answering one question.  Who are the people?

The great civil rights saga of the past 230 years has played itself out in the form of protest, legislation and even war. Nowhere is this more clear than in the evolution of our immigration policy.   Few things serve as a more accurate proxy of our collective efforts to include or exclude than how we guard access to our most sacred gift of citizenship. One underlying theme flows through our past though.   Exclusion gives way to inclusion, and our country grows in strength and relevance. We’ve long since determined that the eligibility for the honor of being ordained American lies not in one’s specificity of race or national origin. Hundreds of years of painful, sometimes violent, change has beaten back that particular call for nativism into the dark corners of our society. Instead we have but one more hard question to answer. And this question sits at the heart of our 21st century immigration debate. How should one become one of “We the people”?

Understanding that we Americans have varying degrees of comfort with the concept of inclusion, it may be hard for some to accept the theme that exclusion giving way to inclusion is universally positive. Taking a little time to study the language of our legislation and the light it sheds on the horrifying ideologies that motivated it can help with that. Here’s what happened over the first 180 years or so.

The United States Naturalization Law of 1790 granted citizenship to free white persons of “good character.” The emphasis of course being on white.  We were less specific about the metrics of good character. We added all people born in America with the 14th Amendment 80 years later after we killed about 600 thousand of each other to solve the question of slavery.

In 1870, we included “aliens of African nativity and persons of African decent” but excluded “all other non-whites” from citizenship. It’s not particularly clear what is included in “all other non-whites” but it was implied that it meant everyone else…in the world.

By the 1890’s we opened the floodgates at Ellis Island and started to realize that we needed a national strategy for immigration. After all, our citizenship laws were pretty basic. White’s and blacks are in.  All others are out.  There were a lot of other people out there though so we needed to take action. Enter the immigration Act of 1917. The act was specific in barring, “homosexuals, idiots, feeble minded persons, criminals, epeleptics, insane persons, alcoholics, professional beggars (amatuers were fine), all mentally or physically defective, polygamists and anarchists”.  And one other group….all Asians. Previously only Chinese were not allowed to immigrate. We let them back in 1943.

By 1921, we shifted to an emergency quota system, which allowed up to 3% of any given national origin, as documented in the 1890 census, to immigrate to the United States. This sounds on the surface to be an equitable approach. Though somehow people of Asian decent still weren’t allowed to be citizens yet. Since most people in America in 1890 were of German, Irish or British decent, from 1921 to 1965, 70% of all immigrants came from those countries. We did make progress though. The Luce-Celler Act let people of Asian decent be real live American citizens in 1946. It also allowed for 100 immigrants a year from each Asian country.   Yes….100

Enter the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. This actually, for the most part, is our current policy of record. It focused on skills based Visas and immediate family of American citizens.

Oddly, there’s little mention at all in any of the immigration policies aimed specifically at Latin America.  Which is interesting because the term immigration in 2015 is almost entirely about Latinos.  Referring to the United States Census Bureau adds to the confusion because Hispanic is actually not a race according to them.  It’s an ethnicity.  I encourage anyone to read their explanation of the difference and make heads or tails of it.

If you’re confused and amazed and potentially outraged by this collection of facts and timelines, don’t fear, that’s normal. If anything, it strengthens my resolve in the belief that applying high level intellectual thought to the categorization of human beings isn’t a great use of our time.

So what does it all really tell us.  It tells us that our history on immigration and citizenship is not a straight line. Our preferences and policies bounce from one crisis to another with knee-jerk reaction to whatever hysteria is happening at the time. Without question though, when you read out loud the actual words of exclusion in our policies, it sounds ridiculous. Because it is. Nowhere in our history does it show a period of inclusion followed by horrifying social or economic outcomes as a result. Since we broadened the scope of our immigration allowances, we have seen a massive influx of people from around the world of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We are not, however, overrun by foreign-born people.   By 2013, 13% of people residing in our country were not born here. With the exception of the 30 years following WWII, 13% is entirely aligned with our historic norms. It’s usually been about 12-13%.  Certainly since 1965, innovation and economic growth have not been impacted. We have been and are still as relevant, profitable and prosperous as we’ve ever been. So what’s the problem? It relates back to our original question. How does one become one of “We the people”? In this, we actually find two problems. One of them isn’t hard at all, if we’re honest about it. The other is tougher.

The first problem: What do we do with the 12M undocumented immigrants presently living on our country?   This is not going to be a popular answer in certain circles but it’s pretty clear if you look at it through a historically contextual lens.  Which is what you do when you want to make a good decision. What we do is we find a way to make as many of those who are not here in a legal status, legal residents with the fastest path to citizenship possible. And we do it quickly.  They are already here and participating in our economy and our society.   60% of them are located in six states, Texas, California, Arizona, New Jersey, New York and Florida. Which means that for 44 of our 50 states, this is an issue in principle only.  This isn’t about skills either. They’re already doing the work that others won’t.  The engine of an upwardly mobile society fires best when those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are there because they just arrived; not because they’ve been held there by generations of exclusive and divisive policy (see Jim Crow).

I am also not forgetting that this group of people “broke the law”.   One of the wonderful bi-products of military service over the past 15 years or so, is that you get to see the world, one destitute wasteland at a time.  In doing so you truly appreciate the beacon of hope and progress that is the first world. Having had that experience, I will not begrudge any person who, assuming they’ve broke no other laws, simply does exactly what I would do if I were born into the hopeless poverty that these people come from. When we’re truly honest with ourselves, most people can find a way to accept that. Unless of course they are in the throws of the second issue.  Good old fashion fear. That issue will be more difficult to crack.

The fear of foreigners in our country is as old as our country. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, all the way up through our modern debate about undocumented residents, it has been present.   The level of fear, like the common ebb and flow of modern opinions tends to be related to our reactions to whichever event we’re closest to in our history. To highlight just how different our views can and have swung, check out a comparison of two national party platforms.

Platform 1:

We believe there should be local educational programs which enable those who grew up learning another language such as Spanish to become proficient in English while also maintaining their own language and cultural heritage. Neither Hispanics nor any other American citizens should be barred from education or employment opportunities because English is not their first language.

Platform 2:

To ensure that all students have access to the mainstream of American life, we support the English First approach and oppose divisive programs that limit students’ ability to advance in American society.

Surprisingly, both of these platforms come from the same party; The Republican Party. The first one was what Ronald Reagan ran on in 1980. The second is the one Mitt Romney ran on in 2012. By definition, both highlight the conservative view on the most basic of cultural identity aspects, language.   They also show that, even in the conservative circles, our points of view are highly subject to our national mood. And right now, our mood is still very afraid.

We’re 14 years beyond the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and quickly approaching, I hope,  the back slope of a fear peak. As we approach the great political debate that will be the 2016 presidential election, how can we have the most effective outcomes relative to immigration? Take the fear out of it. If we don’t we’ll get something that resembles the “birther” debate,  which has a special place in my heart.  I’ve actually lived in Kenya. Any person who is one generation removed from someone who figured out how to get out of there should be celebrated, not forced to show their birth certificate or called a religion that they’re not. Kenya, by the way, is about 70% Christian. As an independent, nothing turned me off more to the conservative cause during the 2008 presidential election than the layers of stupidity that was the “birther “debate.  So when it comes to immigration, let’s not do that.  When it comes to immigration, let’s be fearless. Because in war, business and policy, the motivation of fear is an absolute killer.   Replace your fear with thoughtfulness and perspective. The history shows it’s the path to prosperity and progress.