Tuesday, January 03, 2017

How Immigration Beats Government Aid

We saw Meet the Patels recently--a great movie by the way--and an observation a character made got me thinking: she immigrated to the US in 1972 and was commenting to her children that there was not an Indian community to be part of. Indian immigration picked up in the '80s and '90s. This made me think of Slumdog Millionaire, a story about a boy growing up the horrific life of an orphan in Bombay in the '80s, who then competes in the titular game show in the 2000s. You get to see a surprising shift in the nature of poverty between the boyhood scenes and the adult scenes: while there is still injustice and in the interplay of poverty and power in the 2000s portion, the pervasive, grinding, dehumanizing poverty of his youth does not seem to be a cultural norm in the way it was 15-20 years before.

This emergence of India from poverty has several factors, one of which was pointed out by Ravi's mom in Meet the Patels: while part of that emergence was the industrialization of the country, another part was the aid-in-subsidiarity-form of immigrants sending money home. In the film it's noted that Ravi's father came to America because his village pooled their money to send him. In the late 2000s of the film's setting he's a prosperous retired businessman; during a visit to India we see a yearly charity event that he hosts for his home village. This is why the village pooled their money to send him in the first place: it was understood that he'd make good on the investment and help the village out. And this is what millions of immigrants across the country are doing with their wages: sending them hope in the most effective form of aid we could ever dream up.

Because the aid is not being funneled through a rather corrupt and political government system on the Western end, before being handed to an incredibly corrupt and political government on the receiving end where simony still exists (for example, the average "teacher" paid for with aid money hires a less-well-connected, less-qualified person to show up at the school and pays them a fraction of the aid salary for doing so; this practice exists in most positions aid pays to fund*), and where the people that end up with the aid money are the people most likely to be useful to the person in power, and who are benefitted by defending the status quo, the very thing he aid money was ostensibly sent to change. Immigrants sending their money home to family are making an end-run around corrupt officials and targeting their "aid" where it will be most effective at changing the entrenched systems of power and repression.

Now, I'm using movies to point to social phenomenon better documented in studies because it's a lot more interesting for most of us to talk about movies; I just want to note that the research and studies are out there (see, for example, Kim Tan, "Why East Asia has Risen out of Poverty," Acton University, 2016 [conference lecture], and the lectures [with links to additional information] below).

I should note that this doesn't mean I'm advocating either open boarders (i.e. reasonable security, some form of background checks ["is there a warrant out for this passport holder?"], etc. are appropriate), or fast-track citizenship: it makes sense that immigrants be expected to live in a new culture long enough to learn that culture's values and codes before giving them a voice in government; but these are larger questions for a longer post, here I'm just focusing on immigration as a more efficient means of helping the poor (Lev. 19:34, Deut. 10:18-19, etc.).

*See Michael Clemens, "Aid, Migration, and Poverty," George Srour "Education, African Schools, and Building Tomorrow," and James Tooley, "Private Schools for the Poor and the Beautiful Tree" on Russ Roberts, Econ Talk.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Collin Woodard's American Character

First, a word on the book's prequel: I found Colin Woodard's American Nations to be pretty convincing: some slurring of historical specifics, and some occasional weak arguments for interpreting a few events in ways that proved his thesis even when simpler and more cogent solutions seemed available, but that is to be expected in making an argument at the popular level. A chapter on the "first nation" nation would have been nice, but may have been beyond the scope of the book; more of a discussion of how African Americans fit into the proposed nations or if an understanding of an independent, less-geographical African American nation would make more sense--but Woodard acknowledges this.

The basic thesis is that North America, from about 100 miles south of the US/Mexican boarder north, is made up of 11 regional cultures, who's characters, goals, values, ideals and social expectations were largely formed within the first few generations of their settlement, have changed little since, and explain most of the history of the continent better than other paradigms (North vs. South, conservative vs. liberal, urban vs. rural, etc.).

What I find most difficult with the book, however, is how, as the story comes up to the present, Woodard's apparent biases seem to take over the story. While he does a pretty good job of demonstrating in their origins how each nation was behaving in keeping with its national culture, and how this was generally self-serving, by the end of the book it become clear that Woodard sees a direct line from Barbados slavers to modern conservatives.

In his more recent work, American Character, I unfortunately see the same problem as he seeks to tell the story of the conflict in the history of America between individual freedom, and collective interest.

He starts out seeming to set up an important tension between the two extremes, stating early on,
"American Character will argue that sustaining liberal democracy requires balancing those two essential aspects of human freedom: individual liberty and the freedom of the community. Sacrifice one, and you are on the road to oligarchy or anarchy; lose the other and the shadow of collectivist dictatorship looms. You simply can't have one without the other" (pp. 8-9).
Unfortunately, however, by the end we're back to the old problem, as these two paragraphs demonstrate:
"The northern alliance has been the champion of collective action for the common good, consistently favoring the maintenance of a strong central government, federal checks on corporate power, and the conservation of natural resources, regardless of which party was dominant in the region at any given time. (Recall that prior to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the Republicans were the party of Yankeedom.) The presidents it has produced--John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, and Barack Obama--have all sought to better society through government programs, expanded civil rights protections, and environmental safeguards. All faced opposition from the Dixie-led nations even from within their own parties. With the southern takeover of the GOP, Yankeedom, New Netherland, and the Left Coast have become overwhelmingly Democratic in recent years.
"The other coalition has been led by the Deep South, whose oligarchy's agenda has remained consistently laissez-faire and social Darwinist. Deep Southern leaders have fought to control and maintain a one-party state with a colonial-style economy based on large-scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible and a tax structure that pushes much of the financial burden on to those least able to afford it. In office, the Deep South's leaders focus on cutting taxes for the rich, funneling massive subsidies to agribusiness and oil companies, rolling back labor and environmental initiatives, and creating "guest worker" programs and "rights to work" laws to ensure a cheap, docile labor supply. Finding coalition partners for such an agenda hasn't been easy, so the Deep South has had to rely on a common strain of libertarianism as the basis for an expedient alliance with the far more populist-minded people of Greater Appalachia and the Far West" (I forgot to get a page reference before returning the book to the library! This is in the conclusion chapter, within the first few pages of that chapter).
This reads like an argument for the "northern coalition" not a statement of the facts of voting trends, which is just the old, binary explanation of the history and politics of the country again. Woodard would have made his argument much better by making more use of the 11 national cultures thesis as it has the potential to move beyond the binary reading. An example of the potential for such a move away from a binary reading can be seen in Arnold Kling's The Three Languages of Politics, which suggests American political discussion happens in one of three languages: liberal (oppressor-oppressed heuristic), conservative (civilization-barbarism heuristic), and libertarian (freedom-coercion heuristic). From this perspective we begin to see the values of each group, and can understand their stances from within their model of understanding, rather than projecting our heuristic onto their rhetoric. In this way we can move toward actual communication and change.

A critique of Woodard's binary assumption of motivations in the above paragraphs may be found in Thomas Leonard's Illiberal Reformers, which exposes that the initial arguments made for much of the collectivist policy which appears so noble in Woodard's final assessment were based on a eugenic understanding of race and motivated by a desire to protect whites from becoming debased by minority groups. Lenoard explains (in an interview about the book) that the argument put forward for the minimum wage by the progressives who first conceived of it was that,
"[I]f you fixed what we today call a binding minimum wage, you would disemploy idle, inferior workers. The idea was that productivity, we'd say today, was connected with some metric of biological inferiority. So if you set a minimum wage high enough you'd make sure that the Jews and Catholics and Orthodox Christians from Southern and Eastern Europe were kept out; that the Asians, who were vilified as coolies were kept out; and those parasites already in the labor force who couldn't be productive enough to justify a properly-set minimum would be idled and could be dealt with appropriately. So that's an example of the way that progressives harnessed eugenic thinking in defense of something as anodyne as a minimum wage. The idea it was not merely raising wages but it was also performing this incredibly important and valuable eugenic social service."
The tension Woodard proposes early in the book between individual freedom and collective interest seems to me an important tension, and it seems more work should be done here. Unfortunately it appears that American Character is not that work because it allows too much bias to creep into its exploration of motivations.

Friday, August 26, 2016

One of the costs of commuting

This article is insane! (In that, it points out something that's very obvious, but that we somehow miss): http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2011/10/06/the-true-cost-of-commuting/
I didn't do all the math that MMM did, but somehow it stood out to me the first time I went to choose a place to live that I did not want to be stuck in a car for a significant chunk of my life (I was evaluating an apartment option a friend owned that would have involved a 30+ min. commute, and finding something on my own closer to work, so I did look into the time cost: 6+ hrs. per week, times the 2-3 years I expected to have that job... So 600-900 hours!). In seminary I chose to live in an apartment complex 10 miles from school, but there were a lot of other students from the same school so we could share rides and thus build community and save money by carpooling (while avoiding having to live in a soulless suburb near the school...); during grad school we bought a house 2.5 miles from my school, and 2.5 miles from Abby's school; and now we've been able to live about a block from work, and are starting to see the savings of not being auto-dependent (which has also allowed us to ditch the second car).

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The problem with the "spirituality" of the church

"Presbyterian churches in the South strongly opposed any interference in the institution of slavery. They developed the idea of the ‘spirituality of the church’ in which the church’s role was not to speak to political issues but only to evangelize, catechize, and build up the church. 
"This was, of course, an intensified form of the more Lutheran version of the two-kingdoms doctrine, but certainly a departure from the way the Reformed churches of Scotland and the Netherlands had related to society. Nevertheless, this emphasis led many doctrinalist churches in the South to shed the older Reformed culturalist impulse....
"Marsden notes many ironies about the Reformed ‘culturalist’ impulse. While the Old School in the South ostensibly held to an apolitical stance- ‘the spirituality of the church’--in reality it became a strong defender of the Southern way of life.13 In other words, to say (in a ‘Two-Kingdom’ way) ‘I’m against social reform, I just want to preach the gospel’ is to be de facto supportive of the cultural status quo, and therefore to be a cultural conservative. “Spirituality of the Church” proponents like Thornwell and Dabney ended up as de facto supporters of slavery, and so they were culturally engaged after all."

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Blood Oil and free markets

In last week's episode of EconTalk, Russ Robert's interviewed Leif Wenar on his new book, Blood Oil, about the impact of resource trade with tyrants and despots. Wenar argues that the current trade in natural resources, particularly oil, is not a true free-market economy because free markets depend on values such as private property. As Wenar points out, if I took over a corner gas station by force no one would suggest that I had the right to then sell the oil owned by that corner station because I don't actually own those resources. When we trade for natural resources with nations run by despots who separate their state's resources from their citizens--Saudi Arabia, Russia and Equatorial Guinea receive some analysis in the interview as different ways of doing the same thing--we are engaging in an unjust system which rewards pirates who steal resources from their rightful owners and corrupt the market.

Robert's is deeply impacted by Wenar's argument, but brings up concerns about both Wenar's somewhat interventionist-sounding plea that the government ban trade with such despots, pointing out that the criteria for a despot are somewhat subjective: why should we attack Equatorial Guinea's leader's savage exploitation of oil while ignoring China's more mild exploitation of labor? Wenar's main argument is that, while labor exploitation is bad, natural resources present something of a unique case. His arguments for this are good, but I would suggest a couple of critiques of both Wenar's solutions, and Robert's concerns:

First, I'd recommend that, rather than seeking to establish an objective criteria for how much despotism is too much despotism (at which point government sanctions need to take over), we would be wiser to mandate transparency: let the public know what they're buying (i.e. gas stations post what percentage of their oil is purchased from what market - Wenar intends to begin posting such data to his website in the near future).

Second, and this plays into the first answer: we need to acknowledge that there is a spectrum between despotism and ideal economic freedom: Robert's point about how to decide that Equatorial Guinea is too despotic but China is okay can be extrapolated to point out that the US isn't perfect in economic freedom, but it's a lot better than Equatorial Guinea. We need to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good: by not regulating the outcome but requiring transparency from merchants the public can exercise subjective judgement about how much encroachment is too much, and the market can work against truly despotic situations like Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea while exercising more caution in our treatment of China or the US.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Marriage and community in Brooklyn

Abby and I watched Brooklyn last night (a really great film, by the way) and, maybe because I preached on marriage last Sunday, it made me think about the importance of the community in a marriage: we make vows before witnesses because our feelings are remarkably fickle as a means of keeping us true to vows--which are actually the means of keeping us "happy" in the older and fuller sense of the word: fully flourishing. 

[Spoiler alert!] Eilis Lacey and Tony Fiorello took vows in private; she loves him, is most happy with him, should be with him; but when she goes back to Enniscorthy, (Ireland,) to visit her mother she has community pressure to accept Jim Farrell's pursuit of her, take Rose’s old job, and have the local version of the “good life” she may have desired growing up. She hasn’t said she’s married at first because she doesn’t want to let people down: there was to be a public wedding at some future time, maybe when more family could be involved, so she keeps the marriage secret, and the community works against it since they don’t know about it. When Ms. Kelly confronts her about the one shred of community involvement in the wedding (Kelly is distantly connected to the family Eilis and Tony randomly bumped into at the Brooklyn court house) the community does its work [in a way this is like Smith’s invisible hand] even though the connection was so tenuous and the intentions of the person who was the actual instrument were not honorable. Eilis’s declaration “I’m Eilis Fiorello” places her back in her correct place in the universe again; publicly the wife of the husband she loves, bound back to the new home she has made in Brooklyn… 

(The fact that Tony’s family’s plan is to build a neighborhood on Long Island and extricate themselves from the community they are part of and settle in a place that requires ridiculous amounts of infrastructure to maintain, and where there is no community to join seems to actually break the continuity of the narrative since it means their goal is really to escape Brooklyn; but the film is putting authenticity over narrative on this point since it’s a historically accurate—if ultimately unhelpful—goal.)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bible nerd's playlist: Jeremiah 29

I love Jeremiah 29. It's one of my favorite passages (though I'm somewhat skeptical of the value of having "favorite" portions of God's Word since you're implying less preference for others...), and not because of the oft-miss-applied Jer. 29:11, but because of the often-overlooked passage that immediately precedes it (Jer. 29:4-7, especially Jer. 29:7!). "Seek the peace and prosperity of the city... and pray for it"; here's two great sermons laying that out:

Tim Keller, Redeemer PCA, NYC, "[RISE] Serving the City"

Dan Rogers, Christ the King, Dorchester, "The J29 Project"