Island of Attainment

Kenneth Piper, August 21, 2014

II. The larger the island of attainment, the longer the coastline of desire – Procter Thomson.

This one works on so many levels and for so many subjects. Let’s consider the island of the United States of America.

The conservatives think that the answer is simple – build a bigger wall. Make the borders impenetrable, put more agents on the border – but don’t let that bust the budget. And make it illegal to hire undocumented workers.

Liberals want to let those that are here stay. Of course, the liberal politicians are counting on them to be supporters down the road. And those newcomers will be happy to take the low-pay menial jobs that no one else wants.

The reality is that there is no way to make the border impenetrable. Think of it like a permeable membrane in a science experiment or a reverse osmosis water filter. If the desire to get through is high enough, they will find a way. So, why do they come?

A friend of mine used to work at a factory in Oxnard that hired undocumented workers. There was a man who had been there 18 years, and in all that time had not seen his wife or children. He was happy to know that the money he was making was allowing his children to attend good schools in Mexico. But, he could not go back, because he would not be able to come in again and he could not make enough money in Mexico. He was a virtual slave here, because the employer knew he was an illegal, so he would not quit, no matter the poor salary or working conditions. He was getting old and his productivity had dropped off. My friend’s boss told him he needed to fire the man. He would not do it, and he quit rather than do it. They had no care for the workers, just wanted them for cheap labor.

My friend says, if a his family were hungry, he would do anything to feed them. If he can’t get work, there is a ready market here for drugs – dangerous, but his family is hungry. Sure, the drug lords are rich, but the drug runners are like all the others – desperate.

I work with some people from Iran. They came over in the 1970’s, one for college, another for a job opportunity. But when the Ayatollah took over, they could not go back. The Ayatollah put out the word to all Iranians – come back, we welcome you, we need you and the skills that you have learned. But those who went back were never seen again, never even got out of the airport upon their arrival.

So they come for opportunity, for freedom, for safety from persecution – the same things that have brought immigrants throughout our history. But now the door is closed, the ship is full. If we let them in, we will surely sink. But in they come, through that permeable membrane, and all the money we throw at it will still not make it hold back the throngs.

A different perspective, recalling the permeable membrane of science experiments: What does it take to prevent movement through that membrane? If conditions are the same on both sides, there is no net movement through the membrane. There is the occasional molecular passage, but equal in both directions. The greater the difference on the opposite sides, the greater is the movement through the membrane.

So back to the border – what can we do? Should we keep throwing money at making the barrier more impenetrable? Should we just let them all through? Should we make our living conditions and employment prospects the same as in Mexico.

I like to think that most people would rather stay where it is home, if there is not something driving them away. I have known many people from other countries, and I often ask them whether that is true for them. They have come for many different reasons, and it is not an easy question to answer. But those reasons are always the same as for generations before – something at home made them leave. If I am right, then maybe we should be helping to make conditions better in those emigrant nations.

Our government has sent lots of money to foreign governments, to buy their friendship. But, other than programs like the Peace Corps or Red Cross where we help build something or deliver food, most of the money goes to the leaders. Whether to make them richer, or buy more weapons, that money is wasted. I know this is not a popular idea right now when our own joblessness is high, but outsourcing of labor makes a lot of sense, at least if done humanely. I believe the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is still in effect.

So, how about if we stop badmouthing companies that build factories in Mexico or other places where conditions are driving the people out. After a string of American made water heaters that leaked before the warranty was out (or even when new) I am happy with my American-brand, but Mexican-made water heater. And Saturn automobiles were recently made in Mexico, until the federal bailout required GM to abandon Saturn. The key is to avoid exploiting those people for our own selfish desires. Corporate responsibility and, lacking that, public awareness and public pressure can make the difference. For example, when people became aware of the conditions faced by Chinese workers making Apple products, Apple got involved to try to make things better.

I recently read that 2/3 of the 5 ½ million jobs that President Obama bragged about creating were taken by immigrants; most of those were newly arrived. And the new Oakland Bay Bridge was built by a Chinese company. Neither of these is helping solve the unemployment problem. I would rather see companies investing in other countries than giving tax dollars to the leaders of those countries to buy influence.

What do you think?

Greed is good?

Kenneth Piper, August 19, 2014

Procter Thomson was an Economics Professor at Claremont Men’s College. He had a dry humor, and I liked him a lot. But I was not an Econ major, and it was not the economic theory he taught us that stayed with me; it was “Thomson’s Laws,” a group of universal truths that he had come up with over the years. Some of them seem trite, some profound. But he had a reason for them all. In some cases, I even remember the explanation.

I. Greed is good. – Procter Thomson

Now I must admit that this is one that I never really embraced. I realize that he was talking about economics, but I am not an economist and it just gets in the way with my ethical beliefs.

Everybody wants something for nothing. The rich liberal establishment wants to institutionalize charity. Tax everyone to give to the poor, and they can feel justified in their wealth. Conservatives say that individuals and corporations should give charitably with compassion for those with less – but they may not do as they say. Libertarians might say, “Don’t tax me and don’t make me give to someone else either.” The poor, and many others, just want something; they don’t care from where.

College students and their parents want to tax others so that their tuition can be subsidized. Spread that burden around to include those who do not benefit from it. I know. I turned down a full Navy scholarship, which came with a four-year commitment after graduation, in favor of a state scholarship that only paid tuition. That seemed like free money. Of course, that was during the Vietnam War. I have sometimes wondered whether that was the right thing to do – not because I felt guilty about accepting the free money, but because I could have seen the world (forty years later, I have still not seen much of it).

But I have come to realize that getting something for nothing is not very satisfying. I do good work, but have often felt that what I worked on during my government career is of little value. Nobody really cares about most of it, at least outside of the government agency I worked at. I made a decent salary, so sometimes it felt like I was getting something for nothing.