"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 3, 2013

Drugs, Immigration, Sequester And The Art Of Bad Politics

President Obama went recently to Mexico to discuss with that country’s new leader how to improve economic and political cooperation.  Obama wanted to focus on economics, but President Enrique Peña Nieto wanted to talk about security.  He said that the bi-lateral war on drugs was not working, and that thousands of innocent civilians had been murdered in the brutal battles between police and the drug cartels.  The US policy of targeting drug lords and killing them and their lieutenants was folly, he said.  Because of US perennial and increasing demand for drugs, there will always be five new, even more hungry and bloodthirsty aspirants to take the drug lords’ place:

The security policy of Enrique Peña Nieto prioritizes the reduction of violence rather than attacking Mexico's drug trafficking organizations head-on, marking a departure from the strategy of the past six years during Felipe Calderón's administration.  Peña Nieto has set up a number of conceptual and organizational changes from the past regime policy, and one of the biggest contrasts is the focus on lowering murder rates, kidnappings, and extortions, as opposed to arresting or killing the country's most-wanted drug lords and intercepting their drug shipments. (Wikipedia)

There is a great deal of legitimate skepticism about Nieto’s policies, especially because he has not specified exactly how he intends to accomplish his goals; and many others have said that his polite request for the Americans to go home is nothing more than centuries old Mexican nationalism and anti-Americanism and a thinly-veiled attempt to shore up his new presidency.  However, he at least has admitted something the US Administration has not – the War On Drugs has been a dismal failure.  Nieto has uttered an anathema – reducing the number of murders of Mexicans is more important than inciting more and more cycles of violence through decapitating the cartels.  In other words, the lives of Mexican citizens are more important than helping out America to deal with its drug habit.

Drug War Mexico Cocaine Murder Smuggling Gangs Cartels Drug Lords

(Photo by Anthony Suau Time)

The old Calderón-US cozy deal meant that Obama (and Bush before him) could demonstrate America’s muscular response to the drug problem.  Just as Obama crowed over the killing of Osama bin Laden – an act that felt good, satisfied America’s desire for justice and exacting the death penalty, but did nothing to diminish the influence of al-Qaeda throughout the world – the killing of Mexican cartel kingpins made good TV.  It was a calculated political move to shift attention away from the seemingly insatiable American demand for Mexican drugs.   It is not our problem, Obama and Bush said.  It is the Mexicans’. Politics had nothing to do with reality.

The American policy of drug interdiction has been as much of a failure as the targeting killings of drug lords. No matter what programs have been put in place, the border is especially porous when it comes to drugs.  Drug dealers have known all along that there are thousands of ways to ship product to the United States, and they have always managed to stay one step ahead of the DEA and Border Patrol. 

America’s immigration policy is just as flawed as its drug policy.  The demand for undocumented workers is, like that for drugs, insatiable.  Low-paid Mexican workers mean low food prices on supermarket shelves.  If the price of lettuce, carrots, or broccoli suddenly went up by 50 percent or more because California producers had to pay the minimum wage and benefits, low-income consumers would be up in arms.  If homeowners in leafy Northwest DC suddenly had to pay double for leaf-blowing, grass-cutting, house-cleaning, yard work, and house painting, high income residents would be just as outraged. 

The reasons why there have been no teeth in the laws that penalize American businesses for hiring undocumented workers is because no one really wants to pay the consequences or face the facts – illegal immigrants are not the drain on public resources so often presented; and legalization will promote mobility, increased economic opportunity, and higher wages for both immigrants and Americans.

The Cato Institute recent sponsored a study on use of public services:

In a recent Cato Institute Study researchers Leighton Ku and Brian Bruen looked at social welfare programs ranging from Medicaid to the food stamp program to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Their findings: Poor immigrants consistently use welfare programs less than their native-born counterparts. Furthermore, when poor immigrants do participate in welfare programs, the cost is less, resulting in a lower bill for the taxpayer. (Immigration, Labor Markets, and Productivity; Cato Institute 2012)

Cato sponsored another important and comprehensive study on the economic value of immigrant labor:

* Comprehensive immigration reform generates an annual increase in U.S. GDP of at least 0.84 percent. This amounts to$1.5 trillion in additional GDP over 10 years. It also boosts wages for both native-born and newly legalized immigrant workers. The effects would generate a $5.3 billion increase in California, a $1.9 billion increase in Los Angeles County, and a $1.68 billion increase in Arizona.

* The temporary worker program generates an annual increase in U.S. GDP of 0.44 percent. This amounts to $792 billion of additional GDP over 10 years. Moreover, wages decline for both native-born and newly legalized immigrant workers (Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, Cato Institute, The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform 2012)

An immigrant with legal status can move where job opportunities are best – i.e. where the demand for his labor is the greatest and where wages are higher.  He no longer has to stick with the lowest-level agricultural jobs near the border and continue to be in the thrall of food producers.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that immigration reform can ultimately benefit Americans, US administrations have been consistently opposed to it.

The current immigration bill in the Senate, however, is a joke – another political compromise and electioneering posturing designed to gain (or not lose) votes rather than address the facts. Billions of dollars will be spent on border security when immigrants, like drugs, find their way into the country no matter what measures are taken to keep them out. Fencing the border has always been a bad idea, and no one has seriously considered constructing a high barrier from California to Texas.  Even if the US persisted in this folly, illegals would simply come in by sea.

The ‘E-Verify’ system proposed to assure that all businesses hire only documented workers is another political sop which both parties hope will take the pressure off migrants (and satisfy legal Latino voters) and put it on employers.  Determining legal status has never been the issue for business.  They have always been able to ask to see a job applicant’s papers, but never do; and a new electronic, computerized system would therefore be irrelevant. The small business owners I know would not be fazed one bit by the new E-Verify program.  They know that even if they continue their own Don’t Ask Don’t Tell approach, no agents of La Migra will come busting down their doors.

Then comes the punitive aspect of the Senate bill.  Politically, it seems, no one can simply give amnesty to illegal workers; for that would send the wrong signal to their brothers and sisters South of the Border; and would be a slap in the face of hardworking Americans.  So the law imposes fines, fees, and back taxes on anyone who declares themselves illegal.  Not only that, it imposes a 10-year waiting period for a green card with the stipulation that the applicant speak English.  How many undocumented workers do you think will come forward under these restrictions?

I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. It is not the first time that politicians have avoided facts and acted on false principles.  Among other things, the Law of Sunken Costs always seems to prevail.  We couldn’t get out of Vietnam because if we did it would be an admission that our strategy was wrong and that thousands of American soldiers died for no good reason.  We stayed in Iraq far longer than we should have because leaving early would have been an admission of failure – wrong to invade, wrong in post-war half-hearted occupation, wrong in political judgment, wrong in assessing local ethnic and religious politics.  We are still hanging around Afghanistan because we know that as soon as we are gone the Taliban will take over, Karzai will be an openly rich man thanks to American cash, and Pakistan will finally admit their love for their Afghan brothers.

It is this same venality and political expediency which governs government policy at all levels.  Despite billions of dollars spent on failing schools, they are not only failing but failing miserably.  If municipalities were to pull the plug on inefficient, misguided, and expensive public programs and face the fact that poor inner-city educational performance has more to do with dysfunctional families and the communities in which they live than more teachers, facilities, or special programs, learning might improve.  However local politicians cannot face facts.  Throwing money at the problem, particularly when the entire educational establishment pigheadedly refuses to accept defeat and the need to try new approaches, is the easiest solution.  Who cares how the $30,000 per child expenditure in the District of Columbia is spent as long as teachers have their jobs and ‘progressives’ are content that “something is being done”. 

Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute did a comprehensive study of the real cost of public education in America (2010) and found that when all costs of education are factored in (benefits, debt service, capital improvements, etc.) the figures are significantly higher than  National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) estimates. All major metropolitan areas suffer from same budgetary bloat.  Yet, despite reams of evidence on the failure of these school systems, local politicians refuse to change course.

All of which brings us to the latest fiasco of political spinelessness – rolling back the sequester for one privileged government agency – the FAA.  The sequester is not the draconian nightmare predicted by pundits of both parties.  It effects cuts of 5-7 percent, virtually insignificant given currently bloated public sector budgets.  Nevertheless, it is a step forward if for no other reason than for its educational value.  The lesson has been learned – at least up until last week – that overspending is a problem and must be curtailed.

When Obama rolled back the cuts to the FAA on the grounds that “a bunch of folks are hurting” because of it, he discredited the entire enterprise.  As soon as he caved in to the political realities of long security lines at airports, even longer waits on the tarmac, and even fewer airport services than in already straitened times, everybody piled on.  “What about Head Start?”, yelled some. Poor, needy children certainly need a break even more than harried travellers.  Every government program’s cuts suddenly were put on the President’s desk for review.  The entire purpose and principle of the sequester were dissolved in one stroke of his pen.

What should we take away from all of this? Only that government can never be relied on to face facts. Once government has set a policy and has engineered a coalition of lobbyists and interest groups, it is almost impossible to change direction regardless of what the facts show.  Support for programs derived out of policy becomes entrenched and objective analysis is seen not as critical review but an attack on principle.

We should also realize that even when government should stick to principle – such as in the case of the sequester – political expediency prevents it.  In other words, government can rarely, if ever, be trusted to do the right thing.

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