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.” (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!

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