Consider the present dilemma of Texas governor Rick Perry, whose trajectory as the potential Republican presidential nominee now threatens to emulate the fate of the Challenger spaceshuttle in 1986.
What went wrong?
The necessary political attributes appeared to be in place to please the Tea Party’s foot soldiers whose season of maximum political effectiveness is in the early primaries. His denunciations of the role of government carry the ripe bouquet of Ronald Reagan’s campaign trail sallies back in the late 1970s; his Christian faith is beyond reproach; Bachmann’s batty onslaughts blunted any damage from his HPV vaccination program.
The culprit is not hard to locate. What has elicited raucous heckling from the Republican base has been Perry’s stand on in-state tuition for illegal residents in Texas. Perry is surely wondering what hit him. In Texas his position is not a controversial one, being supported by the major interests in the state. In 2001 there were only opposing four votes in the entire Texas legislature when the relevant law passed in 2001, the same year Mitt Romney vetoed instate tuition for illegal immigrants in Massachusetts.
Perry probably thought he was winning points in debate when he said that his fellow debaters “did not have a heart” when they criticized his stand. His polling numbers swiftly disclosed that extreme heartlessness on this issue is a conspicuous feature of the Republican voters who will determine his fate in the early primaries. Soon he was apologizing: “Well I probably chose a poor word to explain that. For people who don’t want their state to be giving tuition to illegal aliens, illegal immigrants, that’s their call, and I respect that.”
But wait! Is it not a given now that in national and many state elections the Hispanic vote can be of crucial importance and will bulk larger and larger in the years to come as the demographic composition of the United States sends whites into minority status? Already by 2007, 37 per cent of Texas were of Hispanic ancestry. Almost half of all Arizona schoolchildren are now Hispanic.
As with many issues, such as Social Security, tub-thumping in the early primaries has to be balanced by a longer strategic perspective.
Was it not the slurs against illegal immigrants by his opponent that reelected Harry Reid in the state of Nevada in 2010? And what about the awful lesson to Republicans in California after Republican governor Pete Wilson’s rash orgy of immigrant bashing in 1994? Wilson got short-term gain from his demagoguery, but the long-term fall-out from embittered Hispanics was disastrous for his party. California was once a dependable Republican bastion, the progenitor of Nixon and Reagan. Now it is a Democratic stronghold, vital to any Democratic national candidate. When Silicon Valley tycoon Steve Poizner spent $25 million running against Meg Whitman in the Republican primary in 2010 on an anti-immigrant platform he lost by 40 per cent, and Whitman, who spent $180 million, duly lost to Jerry Brown in a tough year for Democratic candidates across the country.
You do not have to be a Sun Tzu of political science or even Karl Rove who famously insisted on cultivating the Hispanic vote for his client George W. Bush, to see that the middle and long-term future of the Republican Party will not be enhanced, may even be doomed to permanent minority status, by bashing immigrants. There have been political parties in history whose ideological colors are so obdurately nailed to rotten masts that ultimately they slide forever beneath the waves. Is this to be the fate of the Republican Party, despite the disastrous consequences of its earlier amours with nativism during the Irish and kindred ethnic immigrations a century and more ago?
Original thinking on this issue is rare, which is why an essay by Ron Unz in The American Conservative is so interesting. Unz is the publisher of TAC, and some readers may recall a Diary I devoted in March of 2010 to his conclusive demolition of the scare stories, promoted by Lou Dobbs and other rabble rousers, about a Hispanic crime wave swollen by brown gangbangers to city-destroying proportions. As I noted back then, I count Unz as a friend, supportive of left ventures such asCounterPunch as well as of The American Conservative, whose tiller he took over in 2007.
As Unz points out, “powerful lobbies within our political system derive important real or perceived benefits from endless population growth. The massive inflow of often impoverished and desperate immigrants tends to weaken unions and drive down working-class wages, thereby increasing corporate profits, a slice of which is then rebated back to the campaign accounts of the elected officials who maintain such policies.”
He then highlights perhaps the single best known current signpost to the shape of America’s political economy – viz., the fact that we are reaching the point at which the top 1 percent possess as much net wealth as the bottom 90-95 per cent. “This same top 1 per cent received over 80 per cent of the total increase in American personal income between 1980 and 2005… much of this economic decline for the 99 per cent has been absolute rather than merely relative. Adjusted for inflation, median personal income has been stagnant for the past 40 years, and a substantial fraction of the population has seen a sharp drop in its standard of living, a situation almost without precedent in American history. Meanwhile, the costs of numerous budget items such as healthcare or higher education have risen very rapidly, thereby forcing more and more families into what Paul Krugman has characterized as a system of permanent ‘debt peonage.’ As a result, nearly a quarter of American households have zero to negative net worth, and a single unexpected illness or economic setback can push them to the brink of destitution.”
Unz remarks at this point that, “It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that this 40 year period of economic stagnation for most Americans coincides exactly with 40 years of rapidly rising immigration levels. After all, the concept that a huge influx of eager workers would tend to benefit Capital at the expense of Labor is hardly astonishing, nor does it require years of academic research into the intricacies of economic theory.
“Consider, for example, the case of self-educated union activist César Chávez, a liberal icon of the 1960s who today ranks as the top Latino figure in America’s progressive pantheon. During nearly his entire career, César stood as a vigorous opponent of immigration, especially of the undocumented variety, repeatedly denouncing the failure of the government to enforce its immigration laws due to the pervasive influence of the business lobby and even occasionally organizing vigilante patrols at the Mexican border. Indeed, the Minutemen border activists of a few years back were merely following in Chávez’s footsteps and would have had every historical right to have named their organization the “Cesar Chavez Brigade.” I think a good case can be made that during his own era Chávez ranked as America’s foremost anti-immigration activist. [CounterPunchers can now order Frank Bardacke’s long-awaited Trampling Out the Vintage on the Farm Workers and Chávez. It has a section on Chávez and the UFW’s activities in attacking migrant workers from across the border.]
“But today’s union leaders have grown almost completely silent on the obvious impact that large increases in the supply of labor have on the economic well-being of ordinary workers. A crucial explanation is that for reasons of citizenship and language, the overwhelming majority of immigrants are employed in the private sector, particularly the smallscale non-unionized private sector. Meanwhile, population growth tends to increase the need for teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other government employees, thereby benefiting the powerful public-sector unions that today completely dominate the labor movement.”
Unz goes on: “The notion that large numbers of immigrants and their families subsist on welfare or that Mexican immigrant mothers often have five or ten children is sheer nonsense. Immigrants actually have very high labor force participation rates and relatively low rates of welfare dependency, while the vast majority of their families stop at two or three children, a number somewhat higher than that of today’s nativeborn whites but really no different from the typical American family during the hallowed 1950s. And since… immigrant crime rates are about average, there is no large additional cost for police or prisons.
“The fiscal difficulty lies not on the expenditure side but on the tax side. Most immigrants, especially illegal ones, work at relatively low paid jobs, and the various taxes they pay simply cannot cover their share of the (extremely inflated) costs of America’s governmental structure, notably schooling. Furthermore, for exactly this same reason of relative poverty, they receive a disproportionate share of those government programs aimed at benefiting the working poor, ranging from tax credits to food stamps to rental subsidies. … the current system amounts to the classic case of economic special interests managing to privatize profits while socializing costs, wherein immigrant employers receive the full benefits of the labor done by their low-wage workforce while pushing many of the costs—including explicit income subsidies—onto the taxpayers. Obviously, all these same factors are equally true for non-immigrant Americans who fall into the category of working-poor, but the large continuing inflow of low-wage workers greatly exacerbates this basic fiscal problem.”
The political reality is that both major parties are enormously dependent upon the business interests that greatly benefit from the current system. So, Unz writes, “we are faced with several apparently insoluble and reinforcing dilemmas. Passing legislation to curtail immigration seems a political non-starter with both parties, and enforcing such legislation even if passed is equally unlikely. Yet as an almost inevitable consequence of the current system, the bulk of the American population—including the vast majority of immigrants and their children—falls deeper and deeper into economic misery, while government finances steadily deteriorate, leading our country to a looming calamity whose outcome appears both dire and quite difficult to predict. Over the last century, the political consequences of a largely impoverished middle class and a bankrupt government—whether in Latin America or in Central Europe—have often been very unfortunate.”
Back in 2006 Michael Dukakis, doomed Democratic presidential candidate in 1988, coauthored an op ed in the New York Times with Daniel Mitchell, linking immigration and the minimum wage, advocating a sharp hike in the latter. After dismissing arguments for rigorous border enforcement, and a national ID card, the two wrote: “There is a simpler alternative. If we are really serious about turning back the tide of illegal immigration, we should start by raising the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to something closer to $8… Millions of illegal immigrants work for minimum and even sub-minimum wages in workplaces that don’t come close to meeting health and safety standards… Americans will work at jobs that are risky, dirty or unpleasant so long as they provide decent wages and working conditions, especially if employers also provide health insurance. Plenty of Americans now work in such jobs, from mining coal to picking up garbage. The difference is they are paid a decent wage and provided benefits for their labor.
“However, Americans won’t work for peanuts, and these days the national minimum wage is less than peanuts. For full-time work, it doesn’t even come close to the poverty line for an individual, let alone provide a family with a living wage. It hasn’t been raised since 1997 and isn’t enforced even at its currently ridiculous level.
“Yet enforcing the minimum wage doesn’t require walling off a porous border or trying to distinguish yesterday’s illegal immigrant from tomorrow’s ‘guest worker.’ All it takes is a willingness by the federal government to inspect workplaces to determine which employers obey the law. “Curiously, most members of Congress who take a hard line on immigration also strongly oppose increasing the minimum wage, claiming it will hurt businesses and reduce jobs. For some reason, they don’t seem eager to acknowledge that many of the jobs they claim to hold dear are held by the same illegal immigrants they are trying to deport. “But if we want to reduce illegal immigration, it makes sense to reduce the abundance of extremely low-paying jobs that fuels it. If we raise the minimum wage, it’s possible some low-end jobs may be lost; but more Americans would also be willing to work in such jobs, thereby denying them to people who aren’t supposed to be here in the first place. And tough enforcement of wage rules would curtail the growth of an underground economy in which both illegal immigration and employer abuses thrive.”
This was a few months after Lee Scott, the CEO of Wal-Mart was calling for a rise in the minimum wage around the same time, since “our customers simply don’t have the money to buy basic necessities between pay checks.”
Unz argues for the same approach. He points out that depending upon the state, the current American minimum wage ranges between $7.25 and $8.67 per hour.
“But is a much higher national minimum wage such as $12 per hour really unreasonable by historical or international standards? In 2011 dollars, the American hourly minimum wage was over $10 in 1968, during our peak of postwar prosperity and full employment, and perhaps that relationship was partly causal. Although exchange-rate fluctuations render exact comparisons difficult, the minimum wage in Ontario along our northern border is currently well over $10 per hour, while in France it now stands at nearly $13. Even more remarkably, Australia recently raised its minimum wage to over $16 per hour, and nonetheless has an unemployment rate of just 5 percent. With the collapse of America’s unsustainable housing-bubble economy of the 2000s, our unemployment rates seem no better and in many cases considerably worse than those of affluent Western countries that have refused to pursue our race-to-the-bottom low-wage economic strategy of recent decades.”
The minimum wage represents one of those political issues whose vast appeal to ordinary voters is matched by little if any interest among establishment political elites. As an example, in 1996, following years of unsuccessful attempts to attract the support of California politicians, disgruntled union activists led by State Sen. Hilda Solis, now serving as President Obama’s secretary of labor, scraped together the funds to place a huge 35 percent minimum wage increase on the state ballot. Once Republican pollsters began testing the issue, they discovered voter support was so immensely broad and deep that the ballot initiative could not possibly be defeated, and they advised their business clients to avoid any attempt to do so, thus allowing the measure to pass in a landslide against almost no organized opposition. Afterward, the free-market naysayers who had predicted economic disaster were proven entirely wrong, and instead the state economy boomed.
So Unz is promoting a higher wage economy, which is all to the good. But what about the immigrants coming north or already in the north, powering the low-wage economy? He himself says explicitly that “in today’s America a huge fraction of jobs at or near the minimum wage are held by immigrants, often illegal ones. Eliminating those jobs is a central goal of the plan, a feature not a bug. Let us explore the likely implications of this simple proposal. The analysis that follows should be regarded as impressionistic and plausible rather than based on any sort of rigorous and detailed research. It is intended to raise possibilities rather than provide answers. Also, let us assume for the moment that these higher wage requirements would be very strictly enforced.”
“The central point to recognize is that most illegal immigrants, and a substantial fraction of legal ones, enter America with the original goal of short-term economic gain, intending to work for a few years, save as much money as possible, then go back home to their family and friends with a nice nest-egg. Frequently, these plans are unrealistic—saving money proves more difficult than expected—and local ties develop. But except for financial factors, even those individuals who have lived here a decade or longer often still dream of returning to their native countries, even after they have married, had American-born children, and put down considerable roots. Among other factors, the cost-structure of American society is extremely high compared with that in most of the developing world, where dollars go much farther. This is the primary reason that substantial numbers of non-Hispanic American retirees have chosen to relocate to Mexico with their pensions, despite considerable barriers of language and culture. Furthermore, as discussed earlier, the fiscal costs to the American government of low-wage immigrant families can be enormous. A couple working jobs at or near the present minimum wage pays negligible taxes, while if they have two school-age children, the grossly inflated expense structure of American public education may easily result in an annual taxpayer burden of $20,000 or more, even excluding the substantial costs associated with all other public services. And if one or both of these parents lose their jobs due to a soaring minimum wage, the fiscal burden grows still more severe.
“The obvious solution, both humane and highly cost-effective, would be for the [U.S.] government to offer immigrants extremely generous financial relocation packages if they return home to their own countries. A tax-free cash payment perhaps as high as $5,000 or even $10,000 per adult plus a much smaller sum per minor child, together with free travel arrangements, would constitute an enormously attractive offer, probably being much more than they had managed to accumulate during many years of difficult low-wage labor. If the legal changes proposed herein had already caused their jobs to disappear, such a relocation offer would become irresistible. (Naturally, the full financial package would require hard evidence that they had already been living in America for a year or more, thereby preventing foreigners from crossing our borders simply to game the system.) Given the massive fiscal burdens inherent in the current situation, even such generous financial terms would probably pay for themselves almost immediately.
“An important aspect of all these proposals is that they are largely self-enforcing. Workers would be perfectly aware of the simple minimum wage laws, and harsh penalties would deter employers from taking the risk of violating them. The disappearance of low wage jobs would remove the primary lure for new illegal immigrants, and generous cash relocation packages would lead many existing ones to eagerly turn themselves in and seek deportation. Although the Border Patrol would still exist and immigration laws would still remain on the books, after a short transition period these would become much less necessary, and a vast existing system of government bureaucracy, business red tape, and taxpayer expense could safely be reduced.”
He tries to head off objections that he has drifted into political fantasy by arguing that: “these days a crucial component of the Republican electorate consists of working-class whites, often strongly religious ones, who tend to live in non-unionized low-wage states or otherwise generally subsist, sometimes with considerable difficulty, on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Proposing a large wage increase to a socially conservative evangelical Christian who works at Wal- Mart and currently struggles to pay her bills would be the sort of simple, clear message that might easily cut through an enormous amount of ideological clutter… I suspect that a very substantial fraction of Michele Bachmann’s supporters fall into exactly this socioeconomic category.”
But this scarcely stops one from envisaging the political firestorm that would instantly ensue over a substantial hike in the minimum wage, let along compensation [$5 billion and up] for repatriation, even if – as he convincingly describes the situation, the Republican Party faces basic issues of effective survival if it doesn’t deal creatively with the immigrant-bashing passions of its base.
Unz does us all a favor by raising important questions about the role of the reserve army of the unemployed or of migrants in sustaining the current low-wage capitalist economy. He poses an escape from the low-wage vortex, which is also all to the good.
He’s got an attentive hearing on the right. The National Review has featured a series of five respectful pieces by Reihan Salam, NR’s chief domestic policy analyst. What about reaction from the progressive side? Unz has this amusing description in an email:
“On many economic issues, today’s prominent “progressives” and ‘left-liberals’ endorse notions that might have appalled the right-wing fringe of the Republican Party during the Eisenhower or even the Nixon Eras.
“A perfect illustration may be seen in a brief discussion of my recent TAC immigration cover-story by the political pundits on MSNBC’s new “Up With Chris Hayes” show. After someone suggested raising America’s current minimum wage to a level between that of Canada and France, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post—founder of the famed Journo-List group and one of the most prominent young progressive journalists in DC—emphatically denounced the notion, arguing that it would lead to a massive black market in labor and wreck job prospects for millions of American workers. His criticism for such obvious nonsense was contrasted with his fulsome praise for the economic policies of Republican presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who had created vast numbers of new jobs over the last decade, failing to mention that a huge fraction of these new jobs were at or below the poverty level.
“Now young Mr. Klein majored in political science rather than economics, but it seems likely he took at least a class or two in the later field, and thereby acquired his understanding of economic doctrines, presumably heavily filtered through the lense of the Milton Friedmanites who today dominate most such academic departments. Given that Klein is a progressive, he obviously rejects the overly conservative idea of eliminating the minimum wage entirely, but simultaneously also rejects the radical-extremist suggestion that America’s minimum wage might be restored to its 1968 level in current dollars. Instead, he realizes that our current minimum wage, less than half that in Australia, is highly optimal and even necessary given that American workers are so greatly inferior to their Australian counterparts. The widespread current prosperity of America’s middle class constitutes tangible proof of such theoretical claims.
“A further sign of Klein’s left-populism is his refusal to endorse an elimination of the eight-hour day, collective bargaining rights, or labor unions in general. Instead, the courage to propose those important remaining steps to American prosperity will surely fall to a youthful successor to Mr. Klein, once the latter has achieved his middle-age triumph of becoming the dogmatically liberal columnist at The New York Times. That is, if the Gray Lady will even take him, given that as far back as the early 1980s the NYT Editorial Board had suggested that the proper American minimum wage was $0.00.
“In recent years, numerous political analysts have pointed out that the Democrat Party has been hemorrhaging the votes of working-class whites. This political development is of great political importance, but remains utterly mysterious to all observers.”
That’s the ironic appeal of Unz’s strategy. The Democrats react like trained Friedmanite seals, eager to head off accusations of fiscal irresponsibility. Republicans capable of thinking further ahead than tomorrow afternoon’s Tea Party may perhaps remember the appeal Reagan’s “supply-side” induced paeans to growth and see that a change of economic horses is essential to their long-term political survival.
(Reprinted from Counterpunch by permission of author or representative)