Monday, November 15, 2010

Whittle Boils It Down, Part Six: Immigration, Assimilation, and the Rule of Law

Here's the Sixth part in Bill Whittle's excellent "Firewall" series on the core ideas of the Tea Parties. Part Five dealt with gun rights, and was the usual cool, rational tour de force, and I do recommend it. But, in my view, it lies a bit to the side of the main thrust of the series, which is to shine a clear light on the dizzying succession of absurdities which are leveled at the Tea Parties by their determined, well-funded adversaries.

The Tea Parties are a heterogeneous assemblage of  groups, still very much finding its voice and finding its feet. They contain a fair share of flakes and philosophers, psychos and statesmen. They differ broadly on methods and on messages. They engage in their fair shares of far-sightedness and folly. They are still evolving. As such, they are easy pickings for those who would "pick their target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it." It's easy enough to pick and decontextualize the dumbass things that are said and done within established political entities, with lobbyists and press handlers and a measure of message momentum. To take a stew like the Tea Parties, still in full rolling boil, and dip the fork of opposition research into it, one is bound to come up with more than one unsavory ingredient.

All of the abject nonsense about racism, xenophobia, theocratic aspirations, and domestic terrorism has either dropped into the pot from fringe elements who are broadly denounced from within the Tea Parties themselves...or have been slipped into it from without. I can only get up so much of a head of steam about the foolishness which comes out of the mouths of some Tea Party adherents. I could really live a whole lot better without the selective harvesting of these mal mots, and their use as cudgels, but if someone said 'em, there's no use hiding 'em. It's the introduction of slanders spun of whole cloth which really chaps my chalupas. One of the real biggies, the great, steaming, nitrate-rich piles of pure felgercarb, is this whole bit about racism.

One may, of course, differ with the small-government, free-market, decentralized politico-economic model of the Tea Parties (the one thing they all have in common). One can, of course, hold to a model of greater intervention in the economy by a more robust centralized government. But all of this non-sense about xenophobia is simply not in code of the Tea Party program. If anything, the meritocratic opportunity society which the Tea Parties envision is one which leaves zero room for the identity politics which form a far more fertile patch of soil for the undue emphasis on differences whose excessive extension leads into the rank recesses of racism.

It is to this last point that Whittle speaks in this latest vid. One of the recurring themes in the Tea Parties' discourse is one of push-back against illegal immigration, and against those government policies which --in effect or by intent-- abet it. Naturally, among Transnational Progressives, any mention of protecting National borders is at best worst, it is a kind of nativist provincialism which is treated as interchangeable with xenophobia. The cult of multiculturalism will not brook any talk of assimilation, treating it as some Borg-like attempt to erase the essence of the soul of the somethingorother. They would have us replace the "melting pot" with a very busy salad.

The problem is that all of this is beside the point. That point is that one of the chief functions of a Nation-State is to guard the borders which, in large part, define it. It is to reinforce the membrane around the organism of State, and thus to preserve the integrity of that entity with respect to its surround. A cell with an overly porous membrane (or none at all) simply melts into a patch of protoplasm, indistinct and quite dead. Say what you will about the Nation State as a concept (sigh, I guess that includes you, Mike), but so long as it exists, it must preserve a certain structural integrity, which includes the regulation of passage across its borders. Ethnicity has nothing to do with this, except inasmuch as given ethnic groups may (lamentably!) be statistically (though by no means essentially) associated with the sorts of failed and failing states from which people show a tendency to want to emigrate, with the US as a prime destination. But (and this is the central point) that ethnicity is wholly incidental to the question of whether their quite legitimate grievances with their countries of origin entitle them to carry with them some of the lawlessness that they strive to escape, and to import it into this Nation by the sheer act of slipping into it extra-legally.

There are whole shadow infrastructures which subtend the passage of illegal immigrants into this country, vast criminal enterprises which I would flatter by referring to them as merely amoral. Emotional appeals about poor families, hoping to make a better life must be held up against clear-eyed acknowledgments of the brutal, lawless cartels which pad their clandestine balance sheets by flouting the legal structures of this Nation and marching those families across the frontier in the dead of night. An insufficiently guarded border is like one big broken window in the neighborhood. It signals a laxity and decadence which invites exploitation like a wounded seal in a school of sharks. The national security implications of poor border enforcement are obvious (or should be!). But there are subtler issues afoot here, issues having to do with the level of order which a Nation can assure its citizens (not so great for the people of border states, who are urged to avoid certain areas so as not to run afoul of well-armed Coyote caravans), and with the value of labor (materially deflated by the presence of an entire underground economy of desperate people willing to take less than a pittance for jobs which would otherwise have to compete for workers in the full light of day).

The leaky bottom of the labor market, as far as I've been able to discern, is the main point of contention within the Tea Party ranks when it comes to illegal immigration. It speaks directly to the integrity of the marketplace as a mechanism for assigning value to economic activity, and the distortions of that marketplace where the value of labor is so unbalanced by a vast pool of undocumented workers, pulling that value artificially downward. Throw in the whole bit about the government failing to act on its Constitutionally-mandated charter to enforce the borders, and there's a whole lot of principled ground for the Tea Partiers to stand on with regard to this issue, and not a bit of it has to do with racism. Fancy that.

Now, I would be the first to be attacked from some quarters of the Tea Parties (and no, not because I am Hispanic. Sheesh!), in that I do support some kind of mechanism for bringing many of the diligent and law-abiding illegal immigrants in out of the cold...though not without penalty, and not in a way which disadvantages those who have striven mightily and waited long to secure legal residency or citizenship. But such measures would be meaningless in the absence of robust border enforcement, and a national will to expel those who game the system and/or commit crimes while they're here (aside from the one about being here in the first place, that is). If this way of thinking appears racist to some, then I submit that their definitions of that word cry out to be revisited.

Anyway, here's Bill's take on the matter:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Per Libertas Ad Astra

In the course of my journey from Big Government Liberal to libertarian-esque Conservative, one of the hardest things for me to let go of has been my hitherto-unquestioned belief that it is the business of the Federal Government to shepherd humanity into space.

It had always been an article of faith for me that only an Apollo-like Project could midwife the hatching of our species, at long last, from its primordial creche at the bottom of the Earth's gravity well, and out into the cosmos, where it belongs. The maddeningly slow progress of that momentous trek, of course, had to be due to an infuriating lack of vision at the top: If only Nixon had not killed the versatile and muscular Apollo in favor of the nifty but limited and cash-hungry (and ultimately lethal) Shuttle (and if only that program had not itself become freighted with the 'all-things-to-all-constituencies' bloat which subverted its initial purpose as a cheap, fully re-usable space truck), we could have expanded Skylab into a proper orbital village. If only Vietnam had not squandered so much of this Nation's wealth on a vain and pointless struggle against somethingorother, we could at least have had a fracking Moon Base. If only the Luddite fetishes of the 70s-era environmentalists hadn't refocused NASA into an operation bent on going around in circles, gazing at its own navel, we would have made it to Mars (and, having been an Environmentalist myself, this last came with no small quantum of cognitive dissonance!). On and on, I gritted my teeth at the absence of a Mission for the agency in charge of our Government's sacred trust to lift us to the stars.

It was only long after I had transitioned from Liberalism to a succession of species of Conservative that I had what, in retrospect, was a rather embarrassingly-belated realization: Why the blazes should mere Government be expected to oversee --let alone monopolize-- the greatest adventure on which humanity would ever embark? Why should it be the (IRS-enforced) obligation of a grain farmer in Iowa, or a Burger King manager in Virginia...or a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia to bankroll our evolution into a spacefaring species? If humans are going to hoist themselves into free space and forge a destiny in its airless reaches, why on earth (pun intentional) must it be left to the grinding Rube-Goldberg mechanism of pork-laden appropriations to make it so?

In an editorial by Iain Murphy and Rand Simberg at The American Spectator, the authors tackle this very question, and articulate the answer in devastatingly clear terms: It shouldn't:
There's something about space policy that makes conservatives forget their principles. Just one mention of NASA, and conservatives are quite happy to check their small-government instincts at the door and vote in favor of massive government programs and harsh regulations that stifle private enterprise. It's time to abort that mission. [...]
It is time for conservatives to recognize that Apollo is over. We must recognize that Apollo was a centrally planned monopolistic government program for a few government employees, in the service of Cold War propaganda and was therefore itself an affront to American values. If we want to seriously explore, and potentially exploit space, we need to harness private enterprise, and push the technologies really needed to do so.
One of the few things that the Obama Administration has gotten resoundingly and unambiguously right was the shift of NASA's priorities from old-school, Manhattan Project thinking on space access, in favor of a less-centralized, free-market approach. I know...right? Here is one area in which the Administration's singular (and in so many other ways extraordinarily dangerous and misguided) focus on a domestic policy of Transforming America tm  has happened to strike precisely the right note. Now, if this is simply a case of doing the correct things for the wrong reasons, then I'll take it just the same.

For, so long as this Administration shows its indifference and disdain for human spaceflight by refusing to bestow upon it a Big Government Project (which, in Obama's world, is the ultimate marker of value, after all), then that endeavor stands a chance of actually getting off the ground. On the one hand you have a set of fixed-funded, results-based benchmark incentives for competing private industries' achievements in developing a viable, human-rated commercial launch and orbital operations system (from which NASA can then purchase flights, while shouldering a relatively paltry share of the R&D costs). On the other, you have the usual cost-plus shenanigans of the usual suspects drawing the usual (voluminous) booty into the usual districts. The pace of the process might not be as gratifyingly brisk as you get when you unleash the jury-rigged juggernaut of State-Sponsored Will on a problem. At least not at first. But as markets are created and exploited through a ratcheting series of entrepreneurial beach-heads, the gains are apt to be more durable (as their funding streams will not be pegged to the American election cycle), and to ramp up more steeply once established (same reason).

So, it took Bigelow and Branson and Musk to make manifest what had previously only been that, in the end, even I got it. I've been able to redirect my geek sensibilities in a direction more in keeping with my larger politico-economic explanatory system (and thus to discover that, even at my advanced age, I am still capable of changing my mind on important matters. Again.). And all this just in time for some most unexpectedly sensible legislation from the last Administration from which I would've seen it coming. Epic win!

And, in the end, once Bigelow builds his station, and clients (including NASA) start lining up, you start to introduce modest economies of scale, which bring down costs to orbit, which opens up new markets...and suddenly the landscape seems a mite more amenable than it ever would have been under NASA to the prospect of my not shuffling off before having seen the blue-white, gracefully-curved limb of the Earth, brightly sunlit under a black sky...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Will on the Limits of Predictability

Here's a nice meditation by George Will in Newsweek, a glimpse of a glimpse of the fringes of the sheer complexity of the ever-shifting topology of the global economy. Commenting on the ideas of Robert Weissenstein, a chief investment officer in Credit Suisse Private Banking, Will highlights “the enormous iterative impact of everything we hold and do.” He points to the unanticipated consequences of seemingly unrelated innovations and how they create (and destroy) opportunities in a manner reminiscent of Burke's splendid series, "Connections."  It sounds what could be a healthily cautionary note for zero-sum, fixed-"pie" static-model economic thinkers with a mind to tinker with the workings of the marketplace in an effort to control it.

The oft-cited example of this unpredictability is the devastating effect which the advent of the automobile had on the buggy whip industry ("Think of the jobs!!"). The point of the article is the non-linear, unpredictable downstream effects of events and innovations, driving new growth, even as they annihilate previous growth drivers. It's the global economy as a dynamic and evolving landscape, in which dynamic and evolving things live. And die.

It is no more predictable than were the consequences of increasing amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere, billions of years ago, which killed off virtually all of the primordial anaerobic life forms that made up the vast bulk of the Earth's biosphere. It was a Disaster! But, of course, aerobic life forms were able to utilize and dissipate energy far more effectively, leading to greater diversification and complexification, ultimately producing the spectacularly successful dinosaurs...

Complex systems like organisms and species and economies are like that: they are inherently unpredictable, dancing always on the edge of chaos. And that's where evolution happens, on the margins.

If we let it, such can be a profoundly humbling perspective on our efforts to predict and control, and on the hard limits with which those efforts will inevitably collide.

I suppose "that's why we have a Tea Party."