Friday, June 26, 2015

My Job Made Me Racist

There's a common assumption in our culture that immigration is always good. It is usually cast in a flattering light in the mainstream media and generally regarded as a boon to the economy as well as the culture. While I'd say the cultural effects of immigration are largely beneficial, the economic effects are often damaging. The problem is, in order to address these issues, one must first confront taboos central to our society.

In its currently popular neo-liberal Capitalist conception, the economy is believed to have the potential for infinite growth. The only obstacle to economic expansion is government regulation, according to this view. Ergo, immigration should have no effect on employment or wages, since the economy can always expand to provide everyone with good-paying jobs. Unfortunately, this belief no longer conforms with reality.

In reality, the U.S. economy has been shrinking for about a decade, and the discretionary income of most Americans has been in decline for four decades. Since the 70's, economic growth has been slowing. But government regulation has been almost completely captured by Big Business. The reason for our economic malaise is the depletion of natural resources, fossil fuels foremost among them.

This is an extremely difficult idea for most Westerners to wrap their head around. We've been trained to believe that Science and Technology can overcome any physical limits. But this is a fossil-fueled delusion. Coal, oil and natural gas provided us with a bonanza of energy that allowed us to think we had conquered Nature.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. economy grew by leaps and bounds, providing enough labor and wealth to keep Americans and the millions of immigrants pouring into the country each year employed and well-paid. This spectacular growth was subsidized by our prodigious deposits of hydrocarbons. Our technologies merely harnessed this one-time jackpot.

But, as fossil fuel reserves have dwindled, the price of those fuels has skyrocketed, and the pace of economic growth has slowed and, now, reversed. As a result, population growth and immigration are dividing a shrinking pie into smaller and smaller pieces. We of the middle and working classes are left to fight over scraps while the rich (thanks to government bailouts) get richer.

This has led many Americans to lash out against immigrants, demonizing the ethnic groups most closely associated with immigration. I fell victim to this impulse at my last corporate job. My employer brought in dozens (maybe hundreds) of people from India to work at their headquarters in downtown Minneapolis. I even shared a cubicle with an Indian guy. He was really nice, which was a good thing, because if he hadn't been I might've borne a monstrous grudge against him.

Even with our congenial daily interactions, I often resented the Indians' presence. The jobs they were doing were jobs that millions of unemployed Americans could've easily and happily done.

So why did the company contract with a foreign (presumably, Indian) company to bring in people from halfway across the world to perform tasks that hundreds, if not thousands of people in the Twin Cities could've done just as well? Because the employer can pay the Indians much less than they could pay Americans and treat them a lot worse. The Indians looked so happy to be there that I'm sure they would've put up with almost anything to keep those jobs and stay in the U.S.

Early on, my Indian cube-mate was regularly berated by his American boss. It wasn't vicious, but it's not something that the American employees would've tolerated. In fact, the two Americans in the cube across the aisle from us were bothered by his treatment. They mentioned bringing it up with their boss, and they may have, because his supervisor lightened up thereafter.

My cube-mate told me that he lived with the other Indian workers in a complex of apartment buildings in a nearby suburb. The accommodations sounded somewhat austere, but that's just conjecture (like most of this essay). His wife, child and mother eventually joined him, and his wife gave birth to a second child. He seemed quite happy, but even the life of an overworked, underpaid corporate drone in the U.S. must've been a big improvement over his life back home.

He was seeking U.S. citizenship, and I didn't begrudge him that, but I still resent the company's decision to bring in workers from abroad to do jobs for which there are, literally, millions of qualified, unemployed Americans. That's just greed, pure and simple, and it's not benefiting anyone but the company's executives (and, apparently, the Indians). The Americans who, in a previous era, would've done those jobs are either unemployed or working worse jobs for less money.

Sadly, raising any objections to immigration is a sure way to invite opprobrium from academia and the mainstream. South Park has featured stereotypically stupid redneck characters who insist with vehemence that immigrants are "takin' our jobs," their charge becoming angrier, louder and less coherent with each repetition. This is the main counter-argument, that any opposition to immigration must arise from xenophobia, racism and bigotry.

That's a difficult stumbling-block to overcome. It effectively ends any attempt at debate. Accusing Americans of racism is a sure way to piss us off. The discussions that follow such an accusation rarely rise above the level of name-calling.

The truth is that, so far, it's been easy for the middle class to dismiss the working class's objections to immigration on the grounds that "they're takin' our jobs." That's because the immigrants were only taking blue-collar jobs before. Now they're taking white-collar jobs, and I doubt the middle class will find as much humor in the rednecks' status anxiety as South Park did.

So what's the answer? Send all the immigrants home? No, but I would eliminate the economic policies that make job-offshoring and worker-importation attractive to American companies. How about withholding public subsidies for corporations that engage in these practices? We could actively penalize those firms, but, given our likely resource-constrained future, I favor a conservative approach.

There are many trade policies that could be altered or repealed to level the labor playing field. For instance, we could demand that corporations importing products to the U.S. meet the same labor and environmental standards to which we hold corporations operating within our borders. That would repatriate millions of jobs overnight.

These are the same policies that have impoverished the Third World, shipping their wealth to the First World for our enjoyment. It's only now that many of us formerly affluent Westerners are being adversely affected by those policies. By hiding the rationale behind "free trade" deals, the elite has mostly succeeded in pitting workers from different countries against each other.

But we workers are all on the same team. To paraphrase Marx, we need to unite and reform the system that has indentured us. I say "reform" in the hope that there's still time to save the system. Things may seem bad now, but a true revolution usually makes things much worse.* For historical examples, see the French and Russian Revolutions.

(*I don't consider the American Revolution a true revolution. I'd call it an evolution.)