Friday, February 13, 2009

Open the gates: Immigration as economic recovery?

As so many of us, I am attending to economic issues these days.  In truth, I just can’t escape them.  I read a description of the “Obama plan” and pay careful attention to what the plan might mean for schools (through support to states and special ed funding).  Or I watch Congressional hearings with overpaid and unsuccessful CEOs and am appalled.  (Is “appalled” strong enough?)  Or I check the weekly email that my investment company sends and simply refuse to wrap my head around what that means for my personal (lack of) net worth.  Mostly,  I remember that I am being paid for a job I love, lock into an attitude of gratitude, and remind myself to be more generous than I ever have been in a time when many others have little to give.  Sometimes, though not often, I read something sensible.  I read something sensible the other day and it resonated with some Dewey “discovery” I was doing for another project.


Tom Friedman’s NY Times column on February 11th ( suggested that one answer to our economic woes was to loosen immigration limitations, especially for those who are highly talented in skills and ideas that can fuel entrepreneurial efforts and spark new industries.  He says he got this idea from an Indian national who notes that many Indians, Chinese and Koreans have the educational background and the will to work hard in the American tradition.


Friedman says this:


While his tongue was slightly in cheek, Gupta and many other Indian business people I spoke to this week were trying to make a point that sometimes non-Americans can make best: “Dear America, please remember how you got to be the wealthiest country in history. It wasn’t through protectionism, or state-owned banks or fearing free trade. No, the formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat.”


After reading Friedman’s editorial, I happened to delving into Dewey’s Correspondence.  I came across this from a letter in 1919 to Professor Raymond Moley, a recent Columbia Ph.D.  Dewey was talking specifically about the Polish Study in Philadelphia but more generally about attitudes toward immigration:


"My own conclusions, personal, are not optimistic, and I don’t think there will be any improvement till the Americans get over their optimistic complacency, and their unwillingness to tell the truth in writing about the immigrant question.  The complacency consists in regarding the immigrants as constituting the problem and Americanization simply as a problem of assimilating them.  Going by what we learned as a sample, the following problem is almost wholly one of reforming the environment of America into which the foreigners come.  This isn’t easy because the church and the big business interests cooperate with the politicians to keep the immigrants isolated and therefore in easy subjection …”

Friedman and Dewey are both asking us to reform “the environment of America” and to understand that immigrants are not and have never been the problem.  I confess that I resonate to Friedman’s “solution.”  I want to open the borders, not control them, and certainly not to shut them.   I don’t understand how “free markets” can be the answer to improving schooling within the US but not the answer to improving economic functioning.   Open up the borders, grant the visas, and let’s see who can create new businesses and new jobs.   The people who emigrate to the US will come because there is opportunity here.  That’s what we represent.  And those with the energy and ideas to create opportunities for themselves will almost surely create economic possibilities for those among us who simply want to work for a wage.


Oh, and on a slightly different, but surely related topic, I came across this from a letter Dewey wrote to his children from Japan in 1920 about social and economic conditions in that country:


"There is no doubt a great change is going on, how permanent it will be depends a good deal upon how the rest of the world behaves.   If it doesn’t live up to its peaceful and democratic professions, the conservative bureaucrats and militarists who of course are still very strong will say we told you so and there will be a big backset.  But if other countries and especially our own behaves decently, the democratizing here will go on as steadily and as rapidly as is desirable." 


Here’s how I read it … and I agree.   The best (and first) thing the United States can do to encourage democratic interaction and economic freedom is to model that in every way possible.  We have some work to do …

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