Peace Corps Writers
America’s Role in a Post-American World (page 4)

America’s Role in a Post-American World

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Immigration
Finally, I come to the hot button issue in this year’s Republican Presidential primaries — immigration. Immigration deeply divides Americans. We are handling it in a way that ensures that it will continue to divide us — and I’m going to argue that we could do much better if we thought about it differently.
     
We can’t ignore that some Americans are uncomfortable when the ethnic, linguistic or racial composition of their community changes. Most research suggests that this discomfort goes up dramatically when people are economically insecure — but still, diversity is a challenge, even for a country with a long history of assimilating immigration.
     
But why is immigration suddenly such a huge issue? Quite simply because current economic policy ensures lots of immigration AND low wages — and rightly or wrongly, people make the connection. The wage problem is particularly acute in the unorganized construction and service sectors, where outsourcing and trade are not the big problem. If our trade strategies have destroyed the manufacturing middle class, our approach to wages is undermining the ability of construction and service workers to improve their lives — and we have positioned immigrants to take the fall.
     
The US generates more new jobs than its own citizens can fill — US labor markets need some level of immigration. The US labor market does not generate enough jobs for all of the desperate people in China, Mexico, India and Africa who, if we had truly open borders, could make their way here and would choose to do so. We cannot be the world’s employer of last resort. Finally, the current mix and level of legal and illegal immigration appears to many observers to be higher than US labor markets can absorb without putting downward pressure on wages. We don’t really know how much, because lots of other things put downward pressure on wages.
     
So under today’s economic policy immigration may be driving down some wages. But immigrants get blamed disproportionately for the failure of the American economy to sustain the middle class dream.
     
So what should we do?
      
One faction in the current debate insists that we should, somehow, find and deport ten million illegal immigrants and seal our border against future illegal immigration.
     
The other camp, more thoughtfully, says we ought to give the existing illegal population a pathway to citizenship, try to decrease the flow of future illegals, and hope that the problem becomes manageable.
     
Economic columnist Robert Samuelson summed up this second approach in a column in which he argued that the first step should be to “build a real fence or a wall along every foot of the 1,989 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border.” Then, he suggested, employers would have to raise wages to fill the jobs left vacant by the decline in illegal immigration.
     
Samuelson is right, our present policies are creating an underclass. But if we think about this as a problem of economic policy, not immigration policy, Samuelson’s suggestion is bizarre. He argues that we want higher wages. To get those higher wages his first step is to spend billions of dollars building a wall on the Mexican border to slow down the flow of excessive immigration, shrink the labor force, and thereby, indirectly, put upward pressure on wages.
     
But why not just raise wages?
     
After all, immigration policy is only one influence on wages. Tax policy, minimum-, prevailing- and living-wage rules, labor relations law, and health care policy are just a few of the other governmental decisions that also shape wage levels. Why build a wall when we could make it easier for workers to unionize? Why not establish living wage laws for all workers, and enforce them on all employers?
     
If employers knew that we would allow as much legal immigration as our labor markets needed to fill good jobs, but that they had to pay, and treat, all workers well regardless of immigration status, they would have no particular incentive to hire undocumented workers.
     If workers knew that the flow of immigration would be the result of wage policy, not a driver of it, then they would be reassured that they would benefit from an adequate, but not excessive, rate of immigration. And if migrants knew that there was no pool of jobs waiting in the US if they snuck across the border, we wouldn’t need a fence.

In conclusion
So my quick survey suggests that in none of the four areas that shape our engagement with the world is the national debate heading us towards the restoration of a sense of common destiny.
     
During the peak of the Japanese boom, Jim Fallow wrote an article in the Atlantic in which he hinted at our dilemma. Japan, he said, was trying to win the global race by ensuring that the bottom half of its society was the best prepared. America was competing with the best top half. Since he wrote, it seems to me that we are increasingly focusing on a smaller and smaller segment of our society. This is the truly big story of the past thirty years of globalization — our leaders, not impersonal global forces, made choices that drove a wedge between America’s investors and most fortunate knowledge workers and everyone else.
     
At the beginning of this talk I was tempted to assert that the last generation of Americans leaders took advantage of globalization to make American society less inclusive and to undermine “e pluribus unum” – that notion that we are all in this together. But I am already making a large claim. And I have to confess that while for some actors on the American political stage a winner takes all, every man for himself society was a desirable and intended goal, for many others the corrosion of social solidarity was the result of unexamined assumptions and muddied thinking.
     
Which is hopeful. If America’s leaders — as a group — simply don’t care much about whether globalization hurts most Americans while profiting themselves, nothing anyone points out is likely to change our national strategy. We are then truly Rome in decline, and will suffer a similar, if more spectacular, fate. But if we are suffering from unintended consequences, we have a better shot at pulling ourselves together.
     
Which brings me back to Bali, and global warming: I said that America negotiates its internal relationship with the world in four major arenas — but it may be time as Friedman suggests, to add climate and environmental policy as a fifth. Certainly UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has taken the issue as one of his signatures. And rarely has there been an issue on which the US isolated itself in the world so early and consistently.
     
But here again the pattern holds. There is no doubt that an American commitment — a decade ago or today — to a less carbon intensive, more innovative energy economy would be good for most Americans. Leave global warming and the environment aside. Every tanker that comes from the Persian Gulf raises the risk of military engagement. We are importing oil, and exporting jobs. Clean energy technologies will be one of the job growth engines of the 21st century. America has pioneered most of the basic technologies for wind and solar, the real manufacturing pay off has almost all been accrued in Europe and Asia.
     
We didn’t change energy course, even though most of us would have benefited, and most of us have said for a decade that we wanted a new energy future — because a powerful segment of the governing elite, Big Carbon, ensured that we negotiated not for America, but for America’s insiders.
     
The other big factor in America’s reluctance to join the world in Kyoto or any other solution to global warming is, symbolically, critical. For many conservatives, admitting that global warming is a problem worthy of solving runs onto the rock that any likely approaches will be governmental, global, and communitarian — values that modern American conservatism despises.
     
But we are obviously moving beyond the era of Kyoto denial. The Republican candidates this year who tried to cling to the Bush-Cheney approach to climate — US exceptionalism and voluntarism — did not do well. The two finalists — John McCain and Mike Huckabee — both accepted that America had to rejoin the world and act on global warming. And McCain iced his victory with support from the Republican party’s two most prominent global warming hawks — Florida Governor Crist and California’s Schwarzenegger.
     
Their Democratic opponents, to a man and woman, took extremely strong stands, and as the campaign went on they talked more and more about the issue, even though political reporters continued to ignore it.
     
So the next Administration will have a mandate to act on global warming, and a chance to do so in a way that begins to engage America with the world in a way which unites, rather than dividing us.
     Certainly the public mood, as expressed in both the Obama phenomenon and the rebirth of John McCain, suggests that people want to be brought back together, domestically and globally.
      
Environmentalism is, in my view, a key strand in any long-term tapestry to restore America’s sense of common vision. It captures an essential truth: there is only one ozone layer, only one global carbon cycle, only one biosphere. These commons — that great collective inheritance of humanity — are the strongest argument I know of for restoring America’s sense of solidarity and common destiny, not only with itself, but with the world.

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