Monday, February 20, 2017

Musings on the mysteries of mortality

Musings on the mysteries of mortality.
- It is a short ride really
- Upon entering the house of a close friend who has recently died at a young age - your age. You know he is gone, but the unconscious mind still uncontrollably “expects” see him sitting where you last spoke – his eyes, his expression, the timber of this voice, his special sense of humor, all as they ever were – it cannot accept the notion that all that he was has now somehow suddenly stopped – he has not left the room – he is gone forever. Sadness and frustration overwhelm you.
- 50 year high school reunion. You show up expecting to see your classmates and all you find there are old men and women.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

An early stocktaking

The two issues I identified in my early evaluation of the prospects for the Trump administration also seem to be the most polarizing. I refer to immigration and trade. Educational reform runs a close third. I discuss them in reverse order.

I believe education is the one with most potential for rapid and large benefits. The federal government plays only a minor role in public education, but, if owing to the change in philosophy at the top, one or two states adopt a state-wide voucher program, the dam protecting the public school monopoly will burst (this is Milton Friedman’s metaphor). In very short order, a flurry of entrepreneurial activity will enter the K-12 education industry and parental energy will be mobilized in the interests of their kids. Within a few years a variety of better options for American school-children will be routine. I expect vigorous opposition at every turn, highlighting everything that even smells vaguely like a mistake, suggesting that the less than perfect condemns the better, as if it could be any worse for kids in the inner city than it is now. But the benefits will be huge and not only for the children via better education and earning opportunities, but also for their families and for the whole country, to put America back into the community of nations with high levels of proficiency across the board. Dare one hope?

On the matter of trade, it seems to me unambiguous. Restricting trade that is peaceful is uniformly a very bad idea. Trade is the engine of growth. We should never restrict trade to make something at home that we can import at five times less the cost - as with Mexico. One would think that any successful businessman would know that. How much of this is posturing for political purposes and how much trade and international investment in the U.S. and by U.S. companies abroad will actually be affected, remains to be seen. Again fingers crossed.

So to the matter of immigration. This is by far the most difficult issue and the one I feel most confused and sometimes isolated about. Movement of people across borders is, of course, related to movement of goods and services, and investments, across borders. In general this is an unambiguously good thing – a win-win situation – though of course those whose wages are protected by the absence of low-wage immigrant workers could be hurt. I believe, in the case of Mexican immigration, the number of losers and the extent of the losses are very small, because Mexican labor is complementary to, not competitive with, workers already here. More than thirteen million illegal workers do jobs that the rest of us are very happy to have them do. I cannot see that illegal immigration of this kind hurts anyone. It saddens me greatly to read in the Dallas Morning News this morning of the rounding up of hundreds of undocumented people for deportation. Who gains from this deportation? It diminishes us all. (And this is not new with Trump. Obama was a big deporter of illegals.) 

Whatever violence is associated with this immigration is most likely connected to the drug trade. It is not an immigration problem, it is a drug-enforcement problem. The best way to deal with that is to decriminalize the drug-trade. The drug-war cannot be won. Time to abandon it. And immigration on our southern border is simply not a problem, it is an opportunity, an opportunity to turn an apartheid situation into a integrated labor market with extensive immigration reform. The last thing we need is a wall.

But there is a difference between movement of things and movement of people across borders. People bring attitudes and intentions with them, they can get sick, they can die, they are animate. It cannot be denied that not all immigrants are alike in this regard. As I see it, there are two problem sub-cases connected to immigration, dependency and danger.

Dependency  - it cannot be denied that when people attempt to cross borders out of extreme need, desperation, into a welfare state where those with resources are forced to share those resources with the immigrants a serious moral dilemma exists. This is a really problematic second-best situation. It is fundamentally a problem of the welfare-system itself. But, given the existence of automatic mechanisms to force some to pay for the needs of others, a large influx of needy people could spell economic ruin. And, even if such mechanisms are altered to deny immigrants welfare assistance, the potential exists that the large numbers of immigrants may arrive anyway and constitute a humanitarian crisis beyond the capacity or willingness of private individuals to deal with – as we saw in Greece, Hungary, and other places recently as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis. Who can blame a population for collectively trying to respond to this by setting up some sort of barriers? The origin of the tragedy lies not with them but with the chaos in Syria. There are no simple answers in this kind of situation.

Danger – by the same token it cannot be denied that there are people in the world who are committed to the destruction of everything we hold dear. It cannot be denied that these people are dangerous. So the risks associated with allowing such people to immigrate may be real and one cannot fault an attempt to assess and deal with this risk. My condemnation and alarm at the recent travel ban imposed by Trump is not that this danger does not exist, but that, at the present moment, in America, it actually is not very great, and that danger will not likely be decreased by the kind of shot-gun approach of an across the board ban that affects all Muslims (including students and green-card holders and refugees) from those selected states. True they are states that sponsor terrorism, and for that reason greater scrutiny is already applied to people coming from there, directly or, more likely, indirectly. The harm done to innocent people by this ban is simply not justified.

Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of candidate Trump was his refusal to be politically correct. I imagine many people voted for him because they were just fed up with the patronizing, whining refusal of the Progressives, personified most visibly by Barak Obama, the refusal to confront simple realities for fear of offending people; specifically to confront the issue of radical Islam, calling it by name, and examining its connection to Islam more generally. No one was served by this condescendingly evasive attitude, and, in fact, it probably played a large part in the election of Donald Trump. So when thinking about Muslim immigration, one should, for example, confront the reality that now exists in France, with its lawless Muslim ghettos openly radical and hostile to the very nation that took them in. Surely it is legitimate to ask, what did they do wrong, and what are the chances that we could suffer the same fate? What makes us different enough to believe that it will end better here?

I actually do think we are different and that it would end better here. I look at the large Muslim population we have already and how integrated they are into American life, not poor, isolated and hostile, especially the next generation. But the conversation is certainly worth having. If I am right, what explains the difference?

And the conversation is worth having undeniably because of the very nature of Islam itself. There are problems there. If we don’t talk about them the dangers of Islamophobia are greater. I think many Muslims understand this. Many non-Muslims need to be reassured.
As a world-view – according to its law-codes – Islam strikes most Americans (and “westerners”) as terribly problematic. Despite deflections by its apologists, it is full of violent, misogynistic, deeply anti-individualistic ideas and commands, and overt anti-Semitism. And the radical version of this accentuates those very elements that we find repugnant and ignores those we find reassuring. The very problematic nature of Islam as a set of doctrines needs to be counterpoised to the reality that Muslims in America do not seem to abide by them – though polls show that, worldwide, most Muslims affirm them. In North America, the vast majority of Muslims, in spite of the severe law codes of their religion, are peaceful and, in varying degrees, open to assimilating western ideas. The everyday lives of moderate Muslims when they work and play and pray, do not make the news. There is very little intellectual activity of a theological nature grappling with the severity of fundamental Islam and how a modern Muslim might live with them without denouncing Islam. The most common response appears to be to ignore those strictures that are not perceived to fit with a modern life, but not to talk much about it and perhaps take offense when asked about it. By contrast, Jews and Christians have no problem distancing themselves from the excesses of their fundamentals (Jews) or their history (Christians). Islam has not come to terms with the modern world in the same way. Islam in the west appears to be just beginning to deal with that.
Donald Trump is right about one thing. The real-world terrorism that emanates mostly from the middle-east and from Pakistan, is inspired by Islamic teachings. When people naively say “Islam is a religion of peace” they are ignoring serious internal contradictions within the fabric of Islam - at the very least that it is a religion explicitly dedicated to world domination by violence if necessary. What they mean to say is that Muslims are by and large, like the rest of us, peaceful people. I am sure that is true. And when Islam is able to make its peace with the world, when it is just another lifestyle choice, a tradition among many, then the world will be a better and more tolerant place. Those Muslims living in the west can and are helping to bring this about in an environment of free and open discussion.  Perhaps that will be a coincidental benefit of the age of Donald Trump.