On “Completing The Circle”
by Aaron Michael Gordon
July 2nd, 2007
This past weekend, I got into a highly spirited debate about immigration with a couple of my peeps (lawyers, no less.) What I love about conversations with intelligent, educated people is that they typically bring more to the table than your usual ‘bubba,’ looking at an issue through eyes without the shade of prejudice. When you’re talking immigration, it helps to have the blinders off (and this is exactly why one should not talk minority rights in the Deep South.)
Unsurprisingly, the lawyers debated the legality of the situation with our illegal alien workforce. On the one hand, how do you tell zillions of people (who have been breaking the law for decades) that we, the people, are going to actually start to enforce that law? On the other, if you’ve broken the law, you should pay for that transgression…whether that’s a criminal penalty or deportation… the law is the law is the law.
This second viewpoint opened up the next phase of discourse regarding the current crop of immigrants. While some have come here to make a better life for themselves, to become American citizens and take on all that entails, many others are merely here to work, to send money back to the homeland, which is the default mode of Mexican immigration northward today. In the Cuban fortresses of Miami, there’s a critical mass of legal citizens of the country who view their time in Florida as merely temporary, a tropical waiting room until the current regime is overthrown. “Entonces todos regresaremos a Cuba!”
Again, this is not to say that all people coming here for their shot at “The American Dream” believe this. Indeed, many immigrants have become citizens and view the United States as their home, now and forever. What’s interesting is that we, the people, tolerate those that don’t.
In our history, this is unprecedented. We’ve been an immigrant nation since the Spaniards built St. Augustine, since we gave the Indians smallpox blankets and took their land. My ancestors came from Europe to build a better life to become Americans. Generations of people, fresh off the boat, worked their asses off to learn English, to become citizens, to melt into the pot. Special mention goes to African-Americans, who were forced onto that boat, and still struggled to transcend the horrors of slavery to decisively imprint America with their culture. If you’ve listened to Rock ‘N Roll, you’ve listened to a distillation of black culture (and if you’ve heard Justin Timberlake speak or sing… like, really! He’s from Orlando by way of Memphis or something, right? Anyway…)
The argument that the new crop of immigrants doesn’t do this is quite powerful, especially if you’ve been exposed to a flashpoint city on the frontlines. Miami, widely touted for its ‘diversity,’ is anything but. If everybody is Spanish, how is that fucking diverse? Moreover, if one doesn’t have to learn English to survive, and if there is no badge of shame placed on not embracing the overarching culture of the United States…how is that productive? (The argument thrown back to me is that we, the people, should learn Spanish. Really? Did I move to South America? No? Then shut up! En los estados unidos, nosotros hablamos ingles.)
One of the reasons many people, including Hispanic-Americans, left Miami-Dade County is this ongoing refusal to become a part of the United States — to melt, already! Mind you, the paradox at work here is that while Miami (and some other cities) offers the ability to remained entrenched in the land, language and culture you left behind, it’s also a prison. You can only live there…or parts of LA, Texas and San Diego. To put it another way, if you don’t speak much English, getting a job in Asheville, Chicago or Boston is going to be much, MUCH more difficult. The fact that so many illegal immigrants work in low-paying, backbreaking jobs that Americans won’t take…illustrates this jail completely. If you don’t sprekkin’ the English, how can you be an art dealer in New York City? Or attend one of our universities (where the classes are…even in Florida, taught in English?) Or become attorney general?
The answer is, quite simply, that you can’t; so you’re left locked in a Wal-Mart overnight, or working in a slaughterhouse, or shucking sugarcane, or picking strawberries, or cleaning toilets. Granted, this is similar to what recent arrivals have done since we all started coming over here…shit work for shit pay, usually for racists who wish you’d just go home. But the contemporary difference lies in the acknowledgment that in order to move up in the Great American Food Chain, one needs to… well, make a damn effort to become an American! This has been demonstrated with every group to come before: Puritans, Jews, Asians, Russians… from Skid Row to Main Street, we, the people, worked our way up the ladder… by learning the language and culture, which opened up doors of possibilities: education, employment, and geographic relocation.
In short, not becoming us is effectively limiting you. It’s hardly the land of opportunity if the spheres of influence where one can function are so small, and opportunities available are threadbare in their scarcity. More than that, America is riddled with examples of cities that lost their diversity and their economic power as a result. Birmingham hasn’t recovered from their white flight (and the violent hosing of their black populace, of course.) Miami, for all its glitz, is one of the poorest cities in the country, specifically because the middle class left behind a monoculture of Latin America.
This is an example of not ‘completing the circle.’ By refusing to assimilate, one also refuses the benefits and possibilities of citizenship. By creating a facsimile of the country you just left, do you really ever leave it behind? By making the rest of the journey, what you lose will be more than made up for with what you will gain.
But we, the people, have to complete the circle as well. We don’t want illegal immigrants swarming across the Mexican border, but we also don’t want to support a living wage (or even the minimum wage) for American citizens to pick the berries, shuck the corn and implode the cattle. Do we, the people, want to pay the real market price for a hamburger or just the $1 charged at your local fast food joint? Because that’s the price for American workers doing these jobs.
And that’s the catch in the American immigration issue. It’s more than taking the jobs that Americans don’t want…it’s not paying them an American wage in order to reduce the cost of the things they produce. This is the same abstraction done with regards to American manufacturing jobs. You can’t buy something ‘Made In America’ unless you are willing to pay for it. We, the people, aren’t, and that’s why China makes all of our stuff. All we see is ‘higher price’ versus ‘lower price,’ but that increased cost may be due to a local origin. To paying a living wage to a United States citizen. Complete the circle.
Back to the immigrants. Take sugar. Migrant workers, mostly from Latin America, illegally cross the border to harvest the cane that makes the sweet stuff we crave as our waistlines expand into infinity. They earn basically nothing… like $4 a day. Now, imagine what sugar would cost if we paid citizens to pick it at $6.00 an hour. You can’t have it both ways…you can’t get rid of the immigrants and have low prices on American crops… and thus, food. Either we get rid of the immigrants and pay more for the food, or we outsource growing our food to other countries, which means that nobody gets the agricultural jobs in America, and we continue our transition to imaginary economy.
That’s completing the circle. Just like immigrants to the Unites States can’t enjoy the full range of experiences that the country has to offer if they continue to replicate the hellholes they left, the citizens of America can’t buy cheap produce if they expect all work in this country to be held by American citizens.
But we, the people, don’t see, or more accurately, don’t want to see the realities present here. For some, the immigration issue is really a racial issue. They may dress up their rhetoric in the clothing of “American Purity” and the like, but it’s really about sending all those Hispanic people home (I’m sure there’s another term they use, far less politically correct. I’ll give you a hint, it sounds like ‘lick.’) Of course, a great many of these peeps also buy their groceries at a Wal-Mart Supercenter; and whose labor do you think is keeping the cost of produce down?
I’ll give you a hint: it’s not theirs. It’s not a WASP, that’s for damn sure.
CNN’s Lou Dobbs takes a more holistic approach in his anti-illegal stance and to his credit, his semantics are correct: it is not fair nor just to have illegal immigrants become guest workers, while their brethren have busted their asses to become Americans. He also takes on global outsourcing for cheap labor, noting the dramatic decline in United States jobs across all sectors, and again, his conclusions are on the money: we are sending our manufacturing base, and our knowledge overseas, leaving us with a hobbled and weakened system to foster innovation.
And yet… nobody has finished the thought; in that you have to pay to play. Clearly, we would rather move our industries overseas than compensate our fellow citizens with a living wage. Clearly, we’d rather have even college-educated people pursuing professions in engineering, computers and telecommunications lose their jobs to Asia than build a culture that nourishes and supports them. We, the people, bitch about the employment losses and still demand low, low prices!
Complete the circle.
We’re a country dependent on illegal immigrant labor to keep the cost of growing agriculture down. We’re a country dependent on outsourcing to keep the costs of manufacturing and technology down. We’re a country that favors big box, bulk retailers to keep the costs of conspicuous consumption down. Yet, we’re pissed off that the dollar is worth less and less than before. I mean, how is this possible? Are we not the richest, most powerful country in the world?
Maybe not. Here’s a number for you: $8,803,230,044,006.93.
Do you know what that number is? It’s the total debt of the United States.
OK, let’s be clear. I hate math, and even I can see the insanity of our debt load. That’s nearly nine trillion dollars on the corporate credit card.
Now, here’s the population of the United States: 302,181,562 people and counting (I’m sure the number has changed since I checked.)
Let’s say all of the individuals, companies, countries and other entities cash in tomorrow on the nearly nine trillion dollars of debt we, the people, owe.
Each of us would pay $29,132.25.
Yeah, each person in the United States right now, owes nearly thirty thousand dollars to pay off our national debt.
Can somebody explain this to me rationally? How is having this much public debt good?
Indeed, one could argue that our debt load and the corresponding devaluation of the dollar, has basically required that we outsource and migrant farm, just to keep the damn costs down.
Here’s what I mean: the more debt we accumulate, the more the value of our money goes down. For currencies with a higher value than the dollar, this is great news, at it lowers the cost on American goods and services. For example, I met a working-class couple from England in Las Vegas this past New Year’s Eve, and they were quite happy that the Euro was worth more than the dollar: a less affordable vacation in Sin City became a bargain basement deal. More whores! More craps! More booze! Less cost!
For citizens of the United States, however, the devaluation of the dollar means that our money now purchases less than it once did. Let’s say that twenty years ago, to buy one ‘widget’ cost $1. Now, that widget sells for $2, if we continued to purchase them in the same way, from the same manufacturer, built by the same hands. American hands.
Well, the widget company isn’t happy with this. There is a potential loss of sales due to the higher price. So, two causal effects come into play: you have large, hypermart retailers enter the picture, using volume purchasing (and bully tactics) to lower the price. These megastores disperse with the niceties of intimacy, experience and décor, basically leaving forklifts with boxes of widgets in the middle of the sales floor. But this only lowers the cost of a domestically produced widget down to $1.50 (and entirely ignores the ‘cost’ of putting those intimate, experienced and decorated stores out of business.) How will they drop the price of that damn widget back to $1 or less?
By moving the factory overseas, of course. Now the cost to manufacture and ship the widget is $0.80. Add in $0.10 for marketing and $0.05 for profit, and the price has effectively dropped by a nickel. Ninety-five cents for your precious widget.
In effect, this solves two problems: we, the people, can continue to build up the national debt and lower the value of our money because we, the people have maintained, or decreased the cost of the widget through off-shore labor and manufacturing. Our cash may be worth less, but the widget now costs less, so who cares, really?
So, we, the people, can’t really stop outsourcing our vast manufacturing, technology and services base overseas unless we pay down the national debt and make our money worth more. We, the people, can’t pay down the national debt unless we increase revenue to the federal government, probably through taxes (you know, those pesky things that provide stuff like public schools, better roads and mass transit… even vanity projects like the space program.) And we, the people, can’t pay our citizens a living wage in many sectors of the economy, unless we accept that the cost of ‘buying American’ may be higher than the cost of buying Chinese, Indonesian and Mexican.
Complete the circle.
Sadly, I don’t think this is really going to happen. This is not the culture of the United States at present. Examining an issue from a place of measured reason, and taking the time to connect the dots for a portrait in its entirety just doesn’t fly in the land of snippets and sound bytes. Moreover, there’s a downright war against intellectuals and people who think in spurts longer than thirty seconds, as if somehow shunning and ignoring our smarty-pants peeps will elevate and progress the populace as a whole.
As a result, the ‘debate’ over immigration reform is reduced to a shouting match between one-sided ideologues representing the worst extremes of tolerance and racism. The ‘discourse’ over global outsourcing is merely a competition of trite, useless slogans. The ‘concerns’ over the national debt are simplified into black and white, correct and incorrect, left and right. One large, complicated (and pressing) situation is shredded into a multiplicity of issues, where discussion of one piece rarely, if ever recognizes the whole. Circles are segmented into straight lines.
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