Thursday, July 20, 2017

The California Schism Widens

When the Bill of Rights was passed and implemented in 1789/91, the population of the United States was overwhelmingly rural and only slightly more than 2 million people. Its army – citizen soldiers constituting a “well-regulated militia” – demanded and got the right to keep their own weapons in their homes as a constitutional right. The Second Amendment (part of that Bill of Rights) was never intended to be a generic right to bear arms, but over the years, courts (many claiming to be “strict constructionist”) stretched that basic law to a logical breaking point. That “right to bear arms” indeed became generic and no one paid much attention to the opening phrase of the Amendment. Guns in 1789 were pretty much relegated to flintlocks and muskets.

Today, the United States is just shy of 330 million people and is overwhelmingly urban. Especially California, even with its vast tracts of farmland. The United States has more guns among our general population today than we have people, ranging from simple revolvers and hunting rifles all the way up to military grade semi-automatic rifles and pistols with one clear purpose: to kill as many people as possible in the shortest time. Our headlines have become a jaded history of gun homicides and mass shootings. We are the most violent developed nation on earth, with murder rates far exceeding other modern democracies. And there most definitely is a profound difference between living on a farm and having a gun and living in a crowded apartment block in a dense city with a firearm. Most of Iowa vs Los Angeles, San Francisco or Oakland.
The loudest voice in support of this stretched interpretation of the Second Amendment is the massively well-funded National Rifle Association, a long-standing gun advocacy group that was founded in 1781. Initially focused on gun owners’ common interests and promulgating gun safety, marksmanship and instruction, about 83 years ago, the NRA responded to the heavy donations of gun manufacturers and began push its membership into the mainstream “gun rights” political discussions. By 1975, the NRA was a full-blown lobbying organization, one that few politicians dared oppose… notwithstanding the outrage that followed one serial mass shooting after another. Gun manufacturers relied on the NRA to make sure no one would interfere with their very profitable industry.
Built on the back of such inane slogans as “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the NRA made and broke political careers of elected officials across the land. They never explained that an angry person with a knife didn’t have the ability to kill as many people as a shooter with a modern semi-automatic rifle. They failed to articulate the “test” for a “good guy” or a “bad guy” with a gun until the homicides occurred.
But what scares the NRA the most are national gun statistics that would clearly negate their message, numbers that officially identified wrongful gun shootings kept by government agencies. Numbers from agencies like the Centers of Disease Control, the FBI or the ATF that would keep the public informed as to the real risks and realities of too many guns in society. Very threatening to the NRA falsehoods. More than a couple studies have gathered statistics from local reports and records (there are no central federal statistics, as we shall see). The Washington Post (6/19/15), for example, looked at 2012 as a pretty typical year. For every one justifiable gun homicide, there were 35 murders-by-gun, 2 accidental-killings by gun, and 78 gun suicides. I might add that no one disputed these numbers at the time, and these statistics continue today in roughly the same ratios. But we need official statistics!
Red states have all-too-frequently loosened gun laws into “stand your ground,” “open carry” and easy permitting permissiveness… where a using a gun to kill another human being now has lots of “justifications” and carrying guns is increasingly permitted into almost any building. On the other side of this philosophical curve, California is one of the blue state leaders deeply concerned with the spread of guns within its borders. Crime in big cities in California is all-too-frequently peppered with guns, victims and collateral damage.
Since the federal government is subject to an NRA lobbied statute that precludes the feds from keeping official gun homicide statistics (more below), California has decided that it still needs those numbers to understand the problem better. The NRA opposes such information-gathering as one of its top priorities. But California is determined to get answers, recently mandating the creation of the Firearm Violence Research Center, which launched in the first week of July at UC Davis under the aegis of Professor Garen J. Wintemute, 65. He is a nationally recognized expert on emergency medicine with a strong reputation in the field of gun violence.
“‘I am not an anti-gun person… I enjoy using the tool. But I’m not a fan of violence.’… Growing up in Long Beach, Wintemute was surrounded by weapons, including his father’s Winchester carbine and .22 rifle. Young Garen became a good shot — he once was offered a job teaching riflery — but he had no taste for training his sights on wildlife.
“The center’s interest, he says, ‘is not in satisfying some predetermined political agenda, but in understanding the problem so that what’s done about it is based on solid evidence and can make a difference.’
“The center continues a California tradition of stepping into policy vacuums resulting from federal actions or inaction. The state created its $6-billion stem cell program in 2004 after President George W. Bush effectively ended federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. California’s vehicular fuel efficiency and emissions standards have become a model for other states and the federal government itself. And the state is poised to go it alone on climate change policy as the Trump administration becomes a haven for climate change deniers.
“The vacuum in federally funded gun violence research dates to 1996 , when Congress passed a measure by then-Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), a cat’s-paw of the National Rifle Assn., forbidding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to spend any funds ‘to advocate or promote gun control.’
“A succession of pusillanimous CDC directors decided that the safest course bureaucratically was simply to spend nothing at all on gun violence research — even when they were specifically ordered to reenter the field by President Obama, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.
“One project that faced termination with extreme prejudice post-Dickey was a Wintemute study of whether handgun buyers with prior misdemeanor records are more likely to be charged with new gun- or violence-related crimes than those without such a history.
“Wintemute’s $292,000 grant was axed, though he was able to complete the work with funding from the California Wellness Foundation. (He also has contributed some $1 million in personal funds to gun violence research over the years.)
“Among his findings : Handgun buyers with more than one conviction for a violent offense were more than 15 times as likely to be charged with murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault than those with no prior criminal record.” Los Angeles Times, July 16th. Will the NRA be able to stop the center? Time will tell, but California seems to be rife with irreconcilable differences with that GOP vision of “Middle America.”
California is on the direct opposite side of many of the issues that got Donald Trump and a Republican Congress elected, from immigration (California is mostly a “sanctuary state” where the backbone of its massive agricultural industry is built on undocumented labor), women’s/minorities’ rights and healthcare, to climate change and gun control. But even with that huge agricultural presence, like New York State, California is defined by its large cities, its diversity. It is exceptionally uncomfortable with policies and laws from Southern and Southwestern gerrymandered state districts pushing rural values with Evangelical self-righteousness, a direct conflict with California’s wildly-successful, science-based tech centers heavily focused in her urban centers. Even with a respite acknowledging the need for a “few” undocumented farmworkers (acknowledged by the Departments of Labor and Agriculture), Washington just does not get who or what we are.
You can see California’s pride in her litany of excellent colleges and universities, from private universities like Stanford, USC and Cal Tech to its public universities like Berkeley, UCLA, UC-Irvine and UC-Davis, where higher education is both cherished and a hot ticket to a solid career. And while California may tolerate moderate (liberal) Republicans now and again, she is deeply a Democratic state. Her stature as America’s leading tech-driven state has moved the vast majority of its residents to value learning and research. Yet how Americans feel about higher education is increasingly a product of their religious and political leanings. As we know so-painfully, California values are not that common in the conservative heartland, where the GOP rules with an iron if not often ironic hand.
A July 10 Pew Research Center Report explains: “While a majority of the public (55%) continues to say that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days, Republicans express increasingly negative views.
“A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.”
This is who we Californians are. Jerry Brown vs. Donald Trump. Many of our values are shared among our West Coast neighbors and the Eastern Seaboard.  But as this country splits and fractures along these ideological fissures, as heels dig in, I am increasingly pessimistic that this nation can hold together. Millennials and Zs, are you listening? Are you getting political active or just letting the old folks wreck your future… even though you may share some of those polarizing thoughts? It’s your country! Do something about it! You tend not to vote. That has to change! Here’s your power, according to the July 17th BBC.com:
“In eight years' time, America's white population is expected to start falling, as the number of people dying exceeds the number of births… Already, the number of white under-18s is falling - a pattern which will continue because of a decline in the population of white women of childbearing age.
“Most striking of all, perhaps, is the speed at which the white population is ageing… By 2030, the number of white over-65s will have grown by 42%... In the near future, the majority of children born in the US will be from ethnic minorities.
“Already, minorities make up nearly half of American youth; and, as white baby boomers retire, minorities - particularly Hispanics - will account for all the growth in the US workforce.” Just do it! Now! Before it is too late! Get politically active!
I’m Peter Dekom, and if we are angry at facts and rail against change, exactly what will we do when those same facts and the obvious massive changes all around us decimate every wall and slogan we have erected to deny and oppose them?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

“Let Obamacare Fail”

That every major piece of seminal social legislation in modern American history – from Social Security to Medicare – has been amended and updated by Congress multiple times is simply a realistic reflection of what needs to happen when complex legislation is enacted. There is no possible way to get it right the first time. Additionally, the first pass of a law that reflects these seismic shifts almost always relies on catering to special interests fearful of the change.
When the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) passed in 2010 through a Democratic Congress and was signed by a Democratic President, there was no exception. The “just expand Medicare and offer it to the people” faction was shot down by the big insurance carriers who did not want to face additional competition from a government-provided alternative. That universal insurance “mandate” was both (i) a necessary part of creating a sufficiently large risk pool and (ii) to placate insurance carriers that they would grow their business as a result. The big pharmaceutical special interests were terrified that large new health insurance exchanges would have the effective bargaining power to force those behemoths to drop their prescription drug prices. So the ACA exchanges were barred from challenging those hyper-expensive drug prices; they had to pay full price.
To make matters worse, with a strong undercurrent of racism, anti-government-healthcare-system conservatives only needed to call the program Obamacare – calling up the same anti-Obama vitriol that gave rise to the “birther” challenge, to extract waves of right wing rage at the program. Videographers were having a field day interviewing constituents who stood the most to gain from the ACA. Biased interviewees seemed to approve of the provisions of the ACA when described without a title. But once the system was called “Obamacare,” they turned and trashed the statutory schema with extreme anger. But they still wanted the “benefits” of that “other” healthcare program. You probably will never hear a Republican candidate call the ACA anything but “Obamacare” for obvious reasons.
During the waning years of the Obama administration, the newly-installed GOP-dominated Congress has voted well over 60 times to repeal or defund the ACA but never to fix its obvious short-comings, some stemming from the very compromises made in favor of special interests to get the law passed in the first place. It was easy to sit in the peanut gallery, cast aspersions and issue threats against the ACA, and point out clear failings of the program that that GOP majority never lifted a finger to fix. They could criticize without having to provide a program that would work. While Democrats were committed to patch these ACA holes, the GOP simply wanted that program to fail so that they could point out how it was never a well-structured healthcare alternative.
The extreme right wing of the GOP joined with libertarians to demand that the government simply abandon any notion of a statutory program to cover more Americans with healthcare coverage. Let the marketplace determine who gets covered and how, they screamed. Meanwhile, moderate Republican governors, supported by their legislatures, actually took advantage of the ACA’s “expand Medicaid” option to cover more of their constituents, almost always a locally-popular choice.
And then it happened. A Republican candidate – with a basic platform of “repeal and replace” the ACA with a program that would provide better coverage at a lower price – became president. Conservatives in Congress “wink-winked” each other with the belief that they could either get rid of the ACA entirely or replace it with a deeply eviscerated alternative that would allow them to shift the savings into a tax reform package aimed at cutting tax rates for their richest constituents, their mainstay contributors. And hey, the GOP now controlled every facet of the federal government they needed to pass that “eviscerating” legislation. Woohoo. This should be easy.
Donald Trump could not be truly committed to his workingman pledge – effectively to phase in universal healthcare – and still be the leader of the Republican Party, they reasoned. They were obviously correct as the President championed House and Senate versions of a “repeal and replace Obamacare” bill that would throw millions of currently-insured people out without any healthcare and effective toss those with preexisting conditions onto rocky shoals that threatened their very survival. A reality repeatedly that was made clear by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office with devastating projections on “repeal and replace.” “Repeal only”? Worse. The CBO tells us 32 million folks will lose coverage and premiums will soar by 25% within a year should that occur!
Insurance companies, doctors, hospitals, and healthcare organizations at every level joined millions of constituents to decry the each of these GOP proposals. Town hall meetings became intolerable venues for Republican member of Congress visiting their home base. Many GOP governors raised their voices in protest, literally making it impossible to pass the GOP “repeal and replace” or even a naked “repeal” bills; the necessary GOP Senate majority would never materialize.
But the Donald Trump administration has been anything but subtle in their commitment to make sure that the ACA fails. The President’s sabotaging tools include refusing to reimburse insurance companies for reducing low-income customers’ out-of-pocket costs to making sure that the Department of Health and Human Services fails to enforce the mandate that most Americans have health coverage, thus decimating the basis for insurance companies to remain in the system. By constantly trashing the ACA and threatening its extinction, Mr. Trump creates an atmosphere where insurance companies can no longer plan their own futures, an intolerable situation for them. Trump believes that no matter why the ACA might fail (even if it is through his overt sabotage), (a) he can blame the Democrats and (b) therefore, Americans will eventually beg for the inferior healthcare package that was so soundly rejected by the Senate in recent days. So he is simply going to make sure it fails.
Even with the ACA, a dramatic improvement from what preceded passage of that statute, here’s what we still face today, even with more people covered under the ACA: “In 2015, the United States spent almost three times on healthcare as the average of other countries with comparable incomes, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, also known as OECD, a group of 35 countries, the majority of which have advanced economies, that works to promote economic development.
“And despite spending more, the U.S. results don’t necessarily yield better health. Both Italy and Britain, for example, spent at least $5,000 less per person than the United States on healthcare, and yet the population of each of those countries has a higher life expectancy at birth than the United States…
“[The] the United States spends more on healthcare than any other country, including those belonging to the OECD… ‘[But] we definitely have worse health outcomes,’ said David Squires, president of the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation based in New York that carries out independent research on healthcare issues.
“‘It doesn’t appear that people in the U.S. use more healthcare in general. We go to the doctor less often than people in other countries and get hospitalized less, so it’s not like we are making greater use, but we are paying more for the things we do use,’ he said…. Despite investing heavily in healthcare, Americans live shorter lives than people in 30 other countries, data from the World Health Organization showed.” Los Angeles Times, July 19th. We spend a whole lots more for the same treatments and prescriptions. Without greater access to controlled healthcare, we will continue to fall in those comparisons. Let the ACA fail and those negative statistics will overwhelm us. But that Trump’s plan: make sure the ACA fails, with more than a push and a shove from his administration.
However, there are a series of political realities that are going to stick that failure to those who pushed it over the edge. Sure, Trump’s base will probably believe whatever he tells them to believe, but most Americans are not that easy to convince. Generally, the administration and party in power at the time of a political failure owns that failure, even if the seeds of that failure were planted earlier. Barack Obama was often charged with the economic failures and never-ending military losses in the Middle East that were rather clearly caused by policy choices from preceding administrations. And so it will be with Donald Trump, assuming the Democrats can get it together and speak with one clear voice.
Further, as cited in my July 14th New and Improved Death Panels blog (based on a study from the prestigious Kaiser Family Foundation), despite the confusion, the ACA is beginning to stabilize and generate a sustainable economic path. Additionally, the Democrats (led by a bi-partisan group of governors) have been prepared to sit down and work out either a new statute (that probably will look a lot like the ACA) with more than a few “fixes” that are desperately needed. Like allowing sparsely-populated states to combine with other such states for bigger and more coordinated multistate healthcare exchanges or allowing those exchanges to use their bargaining power to force pharmas to cut their prices (or even to allow consumers to buy their prescriptions from preapproved foreign markets). What the GOP probably cannot get from the Democrats is the substantial reduction in healthcare coverage needed for them to fund their pledge of tax cuts for the rich.
But political novice, Donald Trump, believes he can sabotage the ACA and blame the resulting failure on the Democrats. His White House statement on July 18th, knowing that the GOP Senate could not muster enough votes for either “repeal or replace” or simple ACA “repeal” says it all: “It’ll be a lot easier… We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it. I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail, and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”
What should the Democrats do? Continue to build bi-partisan support as they have, starting with those moderate Republican governors. Tell the world exactly what they intend to “fix” in the existing legislation (including my fix-it-notes above). Be specific and talk costs and coverage in detail. Repeat an ongoing willingness to sit down with their GOP counterparts to craft a “healthcare solution” that will work best for most Americans. And most of all, repeat until it wears American ear drums out: “Hey Mr. President, if you continue to sabotage the ACA and it fails, you will OWN IT, OWN IT, OWN IT!” Are we tired of winning yet?
I’m Peter Dekom, and the Democrats better start standing for something with a clear unified voice, and healthcare is the obvious and most important starting point.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Here They Come

With China’s new role as the new global economic power – the superpower that has taken over the pro-globalization mantle now abandoned by United States – comes a reversal of a long-standing commitment to avoid international confrontations outside of her borders. Even before their very recent ascension to the top spot in global economic leadership, there were strong signs that China was already planning a new expanded role under the leadership of President Xi Jinping (who assumed his leadership role on November 15, 2012). Donald Trump’s withdrawal or announced withdrawal from numerous global accorded and trade agreements simply allowed China to accelerate her plans and simply step into the shoes vacated by the United States.
Xi has been different from his PRC predecessors. While he still struggles with corruption and pollution issues back home, when the United States pulled out of its commitments under the Paris climate change accords, he jumped at the opportunity to replace the United States as environmental leader under that almost uniformly-accepted commitment (195 nations signed, 3 nations – Syria, Nicaragua and the United States refusing to accept that accord). A chemical engineer by training, President Xi stepped up his country’s commitment to manufacturing alternative energy power generators.
As the United States has pulled back its foreign aid commitments, reducing State Department staffing and budgets while leaving major appointments in that agency unfilled, China has redoubled its global outreach. It has stepped in to replace U.S. aid commitments – sometimes getting lucrative economic access (with some military overtones) in exchange – and has become the largest builder of global infrastructure as part of that effort. China has even assured Mexico that if the United States and its NAFTA renegotiation create economic shortfalls, the PRC would make up the difference.
While China has had its share of territorial disputes – the last major struggle was in 1958 between Taiwan and the PRC over two small islands (Quemoy and Matsu) in the Taiwan Strait – it’s recent foray to enhance land mass by manmade expansion of an island (within the Spratly chain) in the South China Sea has become both an international and regional bone of contention. Now built to handle military aircraft, “China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims. China has backed its own claims with expansive island-building and naval patrols.” BBC.com, June 28th. The United States periodically tests the limits of PRC control with flyovers by U.S. military aircraft and penetration of nearby waterways by U.S. naval vessels.
That PRC Spratly claim represents a major military turning point for China. And with the rather clear withdrawal of the United States from many levels of international responsibility – despite having a military that constitutes over 40% of the global military budget – China has every reason to accelerate the growth of its military to parallel its newfound economic power… still far behind U.S. expenditures.
Beijing's defence budget still remains smaller than that of the US though… While China plans to spend about 1.3% of its projected economic output in 2017 on defence, the US spends roughly 3% on the military. Given that the US economy is larger, the dollar value difference is enormous… US President Donald Trump has also proposed a 10% increase in the military budget.” BBC.com. But that PRC military spending is accelerating, and some of the new weapon systems – including PRC’s April launch of its first domestically-constructed aircraft carrier (pictured above) – are ultra-modern and startlingly effective.
China is strongly asserting that their part of the Pacific Rim, including all the regional waterways, is now their arena of exclusive sphere of influence and that the United States can no longer claim that supremacy in their own backyard. It is enhancing its naval capacity to deter air, sea and under-sea military deployment against their interests. What is essential to their naval power is a fast-attack, stealth capacity with the latest in ship-to-ship, anti-aircraft and subsurface weapons, the definition of a modern destroyer.
Well, PRC fans, China has developed its own, home-grown version of this vessel, first with smaller modern 52C/D class destroyers… and now with a craft that is very competitive with our best. A small ship with a huge punch. Launched in late June, “China's new 10,000-tonne destroyer will undergo extensive testing… The warship ‘is equipped with new air defence, anti-missile, anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons,’ China's official news agency Xinhua said… According to the state-run Global Times, the vessel type is thought to be the first type 055 destroyer - a successor to the smaller type 052D destroyers.” You can expect a whole lot more of these vessels along with more carriers. Fortunately, China is not ramping up to match U.S. levels or capacities, but then they are not yet globally deployed like U.S. forces. Yet.
As Donald Trump pulls back from trade agreements and global commitments, as China and Russia now step into our place, these non-U.S. superpowers literally have to expand their military to cover this growth. We’re are effectively motivating their expanding that capacity. Their military industrial complexes will grow, military trade with their global partners will increase, and in the end, we will either slip further down the global power and influence ladder or, at some time in the future, force ourselves back into an infinitely more expensive competitive struggle to reassert our economic and political power everywhere. It’s not enough to have a huge military – not to mention that the cost of sustaining a large military does require parallel global economic reach, which we are rapidly abandoning. But that would require a long-term view of political analysis and an understanding of history… and we know those components are rather lacking in the Trump administration.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I keep repeating that George Santayana quote that “those who do not study history are condemned to repeat its mistakes”… like us.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The New American Values: Denyin’, Lyin’, Blamin’, Bullyin’ and Puttin’ Off

I remember when those values looked more like inventing, innovating, building, competing, expanding, growing, making and using science and cold-hard-facts to make us the most powerful, influential nation on earth. We were leaders. At the cutting edge of change and technology. Giants like FDR and Eisenhower built our industrial, economic and political power such that no other nation could begin to compete with the American machine. But that was then.
Lots of folks put the blame on Donald Trump, but that’s just too easy and suggests that our accelerating decline in competitive drive and spirt only started with his election. Trump is most certainly not a primary cause, only an accelerant, of our slip-sliding away. Donald Trump railed at our obvious demise, campaigned on that growing weakness, but instead of facing reality, all of his programs are focused on moving us back to a time when we had the chops to compete, not realizing that his main policy thrust, putting smoke back into the bottle, is and always has been a non-starter. But The Donald is merely a symptom, a pretty un-American one at that. Protectionism trumps high quality competition? Really?
In the years that preceded Trump’s election, we engaged in unwinnable wars (we have not won a major conflict since WWII) that sapped our strength, made us the target of choice for horrible people everywhere and created deficits that we are seemingly never going to stop. Despite a military that sucks down over 40% of every military dollar spent on earth. Gridlock froze Congress into near irrelevance, and a failure to understand the difference between “investment” (where there is a hard dollar return on that investment) and simple “spending beyond our means” led to a false value of austerity against the building blocks of economic success: education, research and infrastructure.
China truly understands the difference, and even with all of her problems, she has exploded from the outer margins of global relevance to becoming the second most powerful political and economic power on earth… heading rather obviously to displace the United States in the not-too-distant future. The worst part of it all is that it is United States that is taking itself out of that competitive race. It is our struggling government that is shackling us at the ankles. Not China. Not Russia. Not the European Union. Not terrorists. Us against ourselves.
Even though we are living on the prudent investments of past generations, we seem unwilling to follow their legacy and invest in our future. Large swaths of our population want to stop change, even reverse it in its tracks. Like our coal miners, whose numbers have been steadily declining since the 1920s through both GOP and Democratic times. It’s a way of life, a source of pride, they scream. Probably much like the folks who made horses and buggies and horse/oxen-drawn farm equipment and got legislation passed to ban cars (they scared the horses) in too many small American backwater towns. Going back to school? We work with our hands, they say with strong dignity. Year in and year out. In an automated and highly mechanized world? Change scoffs at those who think that can stop progress. Always has. Folks with bows and arrows were all shot to death. But lots of politicians get elected on the “back to the good old days” empty and unachievable slogans.
Today, even with Trump, more coal mines close than open! Coal is a global commodity, so we do not set the price; the world market does. There’s a strong initiative against fossil fuels in general (how many years has oil stayed low?) and coal very specifically. Change. It’s not going away. Can’t deny that reality. Can’t blame environmental regulations, which are aimed at keeping most of us alive anyway. Putting off the inevitable, not planning for the obvious future, has its price.
How about those Americans who believe that all those undocumented workers are taking away jobs from American citizens. Lyin’, denyin’, and blamin’ at the highest level. With crops rotting in the fields, trees dripping fruit that falls to the ground as bird and insect fodder, undocumented field labor is either running scared, returning to points south of the border or flat out is getting deported. They have (had?) been the masters of the harvest for a very long time. The conservative farmers who voted for a man who pledged to round up and expel those undocumented workers are surprised that he is actually doing just that.
That American farmers stand to lose billions, that American consumers are beginning to see a very steep rise in food prices, well, at least many believe Americans will take those jobs… Really? Seriously? Some folks in the Trump administration get the issue, but the suggested solution not only does not go far enough, but it will be impossible to decide which undocumented workers really get to work on our farms and who, stupid enough to step forward, get deported.
“The U.S. government is allowing 15,000 additional visas for temporary seasonal workers to help American businesses in danger of suffering irreparable harm because of a shortage of such labor, the Department of Homeland Security said on Monday [7/17]. U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly found after consulting with Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta that there were not enough qualified and willing American workers available to perform temporary nonagricultural work, the department said in a statement.” Reuters, July 17th. Not even a small dent in what is needed.
Think the construction industry is going to find American citizens for lovely “need-to-dig-by-hand” openings and other really hard construction labor? Hey coal miners, you can work with your hands here. Want a job bussing tables as a viable career path? How about killing livestock and then dressing it in a slaughter house?
Take this little vignette from the July 14th Los Angeles Times: “Swift & Co. opened the meatpacking plant here [in Grand Island, Nebraska] in the 1960s and it quickly attracted hundreds of Mexicans and Guatemalans, who dominated its workforce… The first big attempt to crack down on illegal immigration came in 2006, when immigration agents stormed the plant and five others across the country, detaining 1,300 people.
“The complaint then from anti-immigrant politicians was that undocumented workers were taking local jobs, and the promise from the federal government was that the immigration raids would open up jobs for Americans. Local municipalities would thrive.
“But in the intervening decade, that assurance has proved hollow… The native-born population in Grand Island did not take the jobs opened by the deportation of Latino workers, nor are those Americans particularly better off.
“Instead, the deported Mexicans and Guatemalans were replaced by Somalis, some whites and yet more Latino workers. Cuban and Mexican migrants with legal working papers were recruited with bonuses and relocation costs.” American citizens never take those jobs. Never. Any more than they yearn for stoop labor work to pick lettuce and strawberries. Politicians may say otherwise, but – as the expression goes – they are lyin’… their lips are moving.
It’s not an issue unique to the United States either. “A common worry among farmers in California, Florida, Texas, Michigan and elsewhere is that they won’t have enough migrant labor for their fruit and vegetable harvests. Some years they are downright desperate for help. Worse yet, the future of migrant labor is uncertain because immigration law needs reform.
“Farmers used to be criticized for not hiring the unemployed. This isn’t so much the case anymore. The public has come to understand that farmers have tried with little or no success. Americans enjoy eating strawberries, blueberries, cucumbers and tomatoes; they just don’t want to pick them … unless it’s for an hour or two at a U-pick farm.
“Come to find out this is not an American phenomenon. Other countries like Australia and New Zealand are having the same problem. New Zealand started its kiwifruit harvest in April and needed thousands of seasonal workers. It will get most of them from neighboring Pacific islands.
“Before he resigned in December, Prime Minister John Key was asked to explain why unemployed Kiwis (as New Zealanders call themselves) can’t be enlisted to harvest crops and do other work that is falling to immigrants, migrants and even tourists.
“In remarks on Radio New Zealand, Key said, ‘Go and ask the employers, and they will say some of these people won’t pass a drug test, some of these people won’t turn up for work, some of these people will claim to have health issues later on.’
“In New Zealand, the unemployed are referred to as ‘beneficiaries,’ and farmers have found them to be unreliable and unskilled when it comes to any kind of farm work. They seem to have better luck with backpackers who trek through New Zealand and like to make a little money along the way.” Fb.org (the U.S.-based Farm Bureau), April 19th.
At a higher level, our cutting-edge tech firms, heavily reliant on the ability to recruit the best and the brightest from whatever country they may come from, are watching new immigration rules cut those numbers, but, more importantly, remind potential foreign workers that they might actually not be happys, actually might face discrimination and hatred, working in the “new” United States. Besides, there are lots of other countries ready to welcome them with open arms.
It took decades to get here. And of course we have to be sensitive to those workers displaced by global trade and technological progress. But policies that are built on fear, bullying and pushing back progress are ineffective and downright stupid. Some of these political “course corrections” are undoable. Some might be reversed but would take decades to fix. Undoubtedly, we will see an increasing reliance on robots doing what we once thought only humans could do. In harvesting. Construction. Food services, etc. That of course makes the folks who own those robots richer while not doing anything for the rest of those who work for a living. Income inequality on steroids. But what we are not doing is highly damaging for us all. We are not investing in our future and wasting time on “pretend” measures that cannot work.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we have met the enemy and he is us!