Hello world!

I see the funny — and not so funny — side of current events and politics. This blog records my observations and opinions. I welcome comments if they are well-reasoned and informative. And of course, by all means point out an error if you see one.

Nothing is out of bounds. I don’t subscribe to any political party, finding all to be consistently amusing when they aren’t doing actual damage. My motto in this endeavor comes from my favorite author, Douglas Adams. “Don’t Panic.”

And so we begin …

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Immigration – “I have a plan!”

I should preface this discussion by noting that no solution will be painless or perfect. We need to be pragmatic while recognizing the genuine benefits to our nation from constant immigrant infusion. Our past amply confirms these benefits.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act, the body of law governing current immigration policy, provides for an annual worldwide limit of 675,000 immigrants, with certain exceptions for close family members. I think this is too small by far and that is one source of our broken immigration policy.

Our internal birth rate is well below replacement levels and is trending down. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the total fertility rate for the United States in 2017 was 1,7655.5 per 1,000 women, which as 16% below what is considered the level needed for a population to replace itself. A shrinking population is inevitably also an aging population. Both of these attributes are ominous for our social and economic future.

I would at least triple the legal immigration limits, and even that amount might be larger if professionally conducted studies support the need. One idea that I haven’t sufficiently analyzed is to base the limit on a fixed percentage of the total population so that it would naturally evolve over time. Then I would allocate sufficient funds to process applications within a reasonable time. Part of our current problem is that our processes are underfunded and this subverts their intent.

I would prioritize immigrants who are most likely to fit in to our society and contribute to its well-being. Reasonable criteria for meeting this standard are not hard to construct, though I won’t debate this here. The point is to set our immigration policy for our benefit, not as some well-meaning outreach to the world at large. There should be no conflict between family-oriented immigration and that based on desirable skill sets. Both can contribute to a healthy and productive society. However I would re-establish a rule from the past that worked well. If current residents wish to sponsor family members to join them, they must provide legal assurances that they will not burden our welfare system.

Requests for asylum are simply urgent immigration applications, and we should treat them accordingly rather than as some ad hoc addition to policy. I would only accept asylum requests for any shortfall in the number of normal immigration applicants. These requests, as with all immigration applications, must be made in US consulates abroad, not at our border. The only difference would be that asylum requests would get priority consideration. They would jump the queue, so to speak. In all other respects, asylum requests would be treated and handled exactly the same as regular immigration requests. The process would be as follows. Each year, asylum requests would be limited to the accumulated shortfall under the total immigration limit from preceding years. Thus, such requests would never supersede those who are following the regular process. Fairness would prevail, while giving full recognition to urgent applications.

Anyone attempting to cross our border without permission or proper immigration papers would be summarily rejected, not held for legal proceedings. The lack of authorization would be treated as prima facie evidence of violation of our laws. Instead of capture and release, it would be capture and eject. Moreover, anyone caught in this fashion would be fingerprinted and photographed and would be permanently precluded from legal immigration. I have argued before that no one who is neither a citizen nor an authorized resident of the United States qualifies for any Constitutional protections whatsoever. And this includes due process. Of course, we can voluntarily offer such protections if we so wish.

Finally, but most importantly, I would establish a fair, swift and certain path to citizenship for all qualified illegals who have been living here for a sufficient time, with rules for this to be determined. Once these rules are set, anyone in that category could apply immediately for something comparable to a Green Card – let’s call it a Blue Card – that would signify temporary legal resident status while their citizenship application is processed. This would entitle the holder to Green Card benefits, such as Social Security and the like.

Now I grant that some of this may seen draconian, but I believe that in time it would regularize our immigration process. It should incentivize following the rules, something that our current system utterly fails to do.

I don’t claim this is a perfect plan, nor that it won’t face operational problems. But I believe it is far superior to our current system and better than any proposal I have heard. I definitely disagree with open borders, which seems to be the unspoken concept underlying some proposals by Democratic Presidential candidates. But at the same time, my plan opens our door wider to those willing to follow the rules while barring anyone from climbing in our windows. And most importantly, we can and must know who is living among us.

There is, I think, one important footnote. The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor has come to symbolize immigration, and its pedestal poem, The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, cemented that image. I can personally testify to its impact as an immigrant from England all those many years ago. This has now been taken to symbolize that our immigration policy should be fully open and accepting, especially to poor and suffering peoples everywhere. And this is somewhat in contradiction to the policy I am recommending.

But in fact the monument was never intended for that purpose. Its proper name, as given by the French donors, is La Liberté éclairant le monde which means Liberty Enlightening the World, and it was intended as a celebration of Republicanism. No, that is not our wretched political version. Rather it refers to the French liberal ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. It is somewhat unfortunate that this has been appropriated for a political purpose. Its true meaning is a glorious affirmation of our ideals.

Government Spending and Tax Avoidance

There has always been a conflict between government’s desire for tax revenue and the peoples’ reluctance to give up their hard-earned – or otherwise obtained – dollars. Many seem to believe that this is a new phenomenon, with powerful corporations and the wealthy gaming the system. Not true!

Below is illustrated an example of this conflict going back to the 17th century in England. Notice anything odd about this house in modern-day Southampton?

Clearly some windows have been plastered over. The reason arises from a creative tax by King William III. He needed money and he wanted a progressive tax that was easy to assess, so he came up with a window tax. He reasoned that wealthier people would have bigger houses with more windows, and obviously assessing the tax merely required a walk around. This tax prevailed for over 150 years even though owners and landlords found this simple tax avoidance scheme.

The message is that, no matter how creative the tax basis is, people will find a way around it. This is clearly true for direct taxes, and I suspect it also applies to indirect taxes like the VAT. Moreover, the rich will be more successful in this tax avoidance because they have the resources, experience, and technical support needed.

Democratic candidates for President have very ambitious plans for government action to improve our lives: free college tuition, student loan forgiveness, Medicare for all, infrastructure modernization, subsidized daycare, climate change mitigation, and so forth. These will be very expensive and will no doubt require new or enhanced taxes. To paraphrase Sen. Everett Dirksen’s apocryphal remark, “A trillion here and a trillion there, and pretty soon we are talking real money.” So candidates who are not simply pandering for votes should take King William’s experience to heart. It won’t be easy to pry the needed funds from reluctant taxpayers.

These candidates are generally murky about how they will pay for their proposals beyond simply running Treasury printing presses overtime. I hope they are strongly pressed about this uncomfortable reality during the primary season.

Climate Change – An Uncomfortable Truth

Here’s my take on this subject. There can be no doubt that the world-wide climate is changing – rapidly and for the worse from a human perspective. The impacts are already being felt, but not in a way that motivates the average American to be concerned. Until and if it does so, there will be insufficient voter support for doing anything meaningful in response.

I won’t argue these assertions. They are plain to anyone interested in the facts. I honestly believe that many climate change skeptics either don’t wish to deal with the problem or are scientific dullards who grasp at any straws to avoid reality. I grant that there is disagreement about the influence of human activity on this coming climate catastrophe, but that isn’t relevant to my point. It is coming, and that is all that we need to know.

Now, none of the above is at all remarkable. It is probably the consensus of any competent observers. But there is more. I believe that eventually the impacts will be sufficient to move even a lethargic electorate. They will feel them where it counts, in their pocketbooks. This might happen soon or decades hence. The timing is difficult to predict. Climate requires skill, data and perseverance to understand. But when this does happen, we will come to a very uncomfortable realization. One way or the other, we are facing a substantial reduction in our standard of living. Indeed, this could be similar to regressing a hundred years in time!

I say “one way or the other” because we could do nothing and just let it happen, or we could move aggressively and make the best of it. In both cases, however, the reduction will inevitably occur, although managing it affirmatively should lessen the pain.

Those who currently advocate immediate action really haven’t grasped the consequences. They rightly see the danger but they haven’t thought through what a response might entail. Their plans, like the Green New Deal, are pie in the sky. It isn’t just the astronomical cost, though that should daunt anyone. It is the consequential change in how we live, work, travel, and amuse ourselves. Read any good history describing life in the early 20th century for a flavor of our future.

However, this could be misleading because the intervening years have brought knowledge and progress in many ways that would persist in spite of the changes I predict. For example, we won’t suddenly forget our accumulated medical knowledge, nor will the internet mysteriously disappear. The pace of automation might actually increase. Nevertheless, I suspect that it will be fair to say that our lives will slow markedly and some industries will be curtailed or disappear entirely. Our food supplies and distribution chain will be hurt. That will be far worse in less developed countries, and we are hardly immune from turmoil abroad, as recent history makes abundantly evident.

Tracking these impacts so far in advance is very difficult, though their broad scope is certainly amenable to scientific analysis. That is beyond anything I could do, but I do hope that academia turns its attention to this soon so that plans can be formulated for the time when the political will emerges.

I take no pleasure in these predictions and I sincerely hope that they are overwrought. But what if I am right? Think about it, and review your own attitude towards climate change.

A Political Epiphany

Today I was listening to an author describing his history book when I was struck by something that I knew but couldn’t quite put into words.

In the last 50 years or so, the United States has changed. Of course, that is no surprise. Change has come with circumstances both within and beyond our control. But there is something more fundamental at work, and thus my epiphany …

The American people have changed from citizens to consumers.

Do you think that was always so? Before the end of WWII, the average family income was less than 10% above the poverty line. Moreover, income distribution was even more skewed than today. By and large by most current standards, we were a relatively poor nation. Consumption was strictly for necessity for the vast majority.

Meanwhile, there was a general consensus that “we are all in this together”, though with notable exceptions for some groups, like blacks for example. This grew from the preceding turmoil and stress of the Great Depression and World War II. In my opinion, it is a stretch to label the Americans of that time as “The Greatest Generation”, but they did form a solid basis for citizenship that showed itself in who volunteered for political service.

Now, look around you. Look at yourself. Isn’t it true that the accumulation and consumption of goods and services is what occupies your time and interest? Of course that isn’t everything. Thankfully, there is still family, but even that preoccupation is tainted by a consumerism overlay. Even the most caring parents usually focus their attention upon helping their children achieve financial success, giving short shrift to civic responsibility.

If you asked most American adults for a list of words that define themselves, the word “citizen” would be far down the list or even missing. For those of you with little interest in American history, you will just have to take my word that this was not always true. And we are the worse for this diminution of our cultural identity.

I can’t help adding a personal observation. If you want proof of this change, look at whom we chose as President in the last election. Donald Trump is consumerism personified.

The Robotics Revolution Continues

Some time ago I predicted that robotics and AI will soon supplant humans in up to 50% of current U.S. jobs. By soon, I meant within the next few decades. You can read this ominous prediction here. There have been numerous instances recently that support that bold assertion, and here is another one that popped up in the news today.

London’s Gatwick Airport is planning to deploy robot valets to park cars in their long-term lots. This saves cost in several ways: no need for valets or lot attendants, no lighting in the lots at all, reduced insurance expense, and – most importantly – far narrower parking slots. They expect to accommodate 8,500 cars in the space now allocated to 6,000 self-park slots. The reason for this should be obvious. They don’t need to allow space to open car doors and those clever robots can park very efficiently.

This is but one of numerous examples of the fourth industrial revolution. If you are curious about this, a good place to begin looking is here. And for those of you in professional or managerial roles, you should not suppose that your occupation is immune. It will impact accountants, doctors, pharmacists, teachers, engineers of all kinds, and many first-level managers. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any occupation that couldn’t be more efficiently and effectively performed by robots. But the creative arts will most likely survive intact, even though robots have already demonstrated that they can write, paint and sculpt as well as most humans.

While this coming epic change will also open up new kinds of work for humans, most will require specialized skills that are not easily acquired. It will not simply be a matter of suitable retraining. I do believe that eventually our society will adapt, but meanwhile the disruption will be massive, and never again will we need so many people to be employed in keeping our country running.

So, what do you think life without work for so many will be like? My optimistic side sees marvelous opportunities for a better existence, with less tedium and more free time. However that can only occur if we prepare intelligently and if we don’t surrender to Luddite tendencies. What odds would you place on that?

Constructive Immorality

A major issue for those opposing Trump’s southern border wall is that it is immoral. I will give the benefit of the doubt to those saying this by assuming they really mean that the principle of a border barrier is intrinsically immoral — surely not the concrete or steel itself. Nevertheless this charge mystifies me. I can think of several genuine and persuasive reasons for opposing such a wall. It will have at best minimal impact and it wastes precious resources that could be more fruitfully invested in our national welfare. But what is intrinsically immoral about wanting a physical barrier on our border?

Start with the dictionary definition. Would building a border barrier be wicked, dishonest or dishonorable? Not by any calm and impartial judgment. My best attempt at decoding this peculiar framework for opposition is that opponents see a wall as a symbol of exclusion and perhaps even bias or racism. It wouldn’t surprise me if many supporters of Trump’s wall harbor such disreputable beliefs, but certainly not everyone. In any case symbolism is a frail basis for litigating this issue.

Try placing this in a local and personal context. Does your own home have any walls or barriers surrounding the property? Many estates have quite substantial walls surrounding them, yet I have never heard anyone refer to them as immoral. Yet all such barriers serve essentially the same purpose as a national wall. While they don’t obstruct a sufficiently motivated intruder, they do mark property boundaries and indicate that entrance requires permission.

I suspect that the charge of immorality is really just guilt by association. Opponents of the wall are overwhelmingly opponents of Trump himself, and they almost certainly view him and his actions as immoral. Hence the wall must seem immoral in their minds.

Perhaps there are more sensible reasons for this charge of ‘constructive immorality‘. I certainly hope so. The remaining objections — cost and utility — seem inadequate to justify closing down the government. If that became a common standard, very little that the government actually does would survive.

The Deep ‘America First’ Vein

Many speak of Trump’s racist America First movement as if it were a new phenomenon in the United States. It isn’t. In fact it is no more intense, bigoted and widespread than the last outbreak. Take this photo for example. Do you think it was taken in Charlottesville this year? No, it wasn’t. This was from the 1930s in Anytown, U.S.A.

There is a book coming out soon that provides a scholarly look at this disease on the body politic from three-quarters of a century ago. It is called Hitler’s American Friends. Here is a blurb from Amazon.

Anyone who believes that the movement to prevent America joining World War II against Hitler can be confined to Charles Lindbergh and his sinister “America First” movement will be astounded by Bradley W. Hart’s well-researched, well-written and fascinating book. The truth is that isolationism was not a Mid-Western, know-nothing fad; in fact it fed off a deep vein of anti-Semitic, anti-British and often even pro-Nazi sentiment right across America. For every one of the 800,000 members of America First, there were 23 other Americans who were tuning into isolationist broadcasts just before World War Two broke out in Europe. This superb book lifts the lid on America’s dark prewar secret.” – Andrew Roberts, author of Napoleon: A Life and Churchill: Walking with Destiny

The U.S. population in 1938 was about 130 million, many of whom were children. It is thus likely that at least 20% of the adult population were sympathetic to Hitler’s cause in the period leading up to WWII. Many others didn’t much like either side but were vehemently against entering the war, scarcely two decades after WWI, and thus they aligned themselves with the isolationist clique.

The pro-Nazi German American Bund held great rallies in places like New York City, St. Louis, and Chicago. Today they would dominate the news the way Trump’s incessant rallies do.

Keep in mind that the 40% or so still supporting Trump are not all American Firsters. Many are Republicans who simply oppose Democratic candidates and policies. And in any case, that number applies only to voters, who are no more than about 60% of the adult population anyway.