Immigration: Not Opinions, Facts

Immigration is in our newspapers and on our screens every day. Yet, between the factual confusion of most Republicans and the insult-laden cheery irresponsibility of Democrats, little of substance is being said. Here are two central facts that are routinely ignored:

1 In practice, there is no legal path to immigration for 95% + of illegal immigrants. Asylum is a possibility for a tiny number among them. Poverty is not currently grounds for asylum. (See reference below.)

2 A forty year-old single immigrant from India with an engineering degree is unlikely to take more out of the public trough than he puts in. He is also very unlikely to commit a serious crime, especially a serious crime of violence. Now, consider younger immigrants from Central America, who have have few or no skills, who don’t know English, who may be semi-literate, or even illiterate in their own language. If they are female, they will probably cause a draw on the public treasury, if nothing else by sending to school children with special (linguistic) requirements, while contributing little to the financial maintenance of the same schools. That’s the optimistic case, where the children are healthy and normal.

If they are male, they will add to American crime, especially to violent crime because that’s the way it works: Younger, poor men, of no or low literacy are responsible for almost all of the violent crime in America. Note that this pronouncement does not contradict the findings of the excellent article by Michael T. Light and Ty Miller “Does Undocumented Immigration Increase Violent Crime?” published in the Journal Criminology, March 18th 2018. The study on which they report finds that an influx of illegal immigrants does not correspond to a higher crime rate. (Note: It’s a good study by any criteria – I am credentialed to judge.)

The point – beyond the sterile debate about immigrants’ crime rates – is that immigrants of the “right” (wrong) characteristics do not replace the native born one-for-one, including in the commission of crimes. They contribute their own deeds. Take the young California police officer named Singh who was murdered by a crime recidivist illegal alien in early 2019. If Officer Singh had not encountered his particular illegal alien killer, does anyone think that a citizen, or a legal alien would have stepped in to murder him?

This is an abstracted summary from my longer, informational essay on immigration: “Legal Immigration Into the United States.”

In Search of Firmer Cosmopolitan Solidarity: The Need for a Sentimentalist Case for Open Borders

Most arguments for open borders are phrased in terms of universalized moral obligations to non-citizens. These obligations are usually phrased as “merely” negative (eg., that Americans have a duty to not impede the movement an impoverished Mexican worker or Syrian refugee seeking a better life) rather than positive (eg., that the first obligation does not imply that Americans have a duty to provide, for example, generous welfare benefits to immigrants and refugees), but are phrased as obligations based on people in virtue of their rationality rather than nationality nonetheless.

Whether they be utilitarian, moral intuitionist, or deontological, what these arguments assume is that nation of origin isn’t a “morally relevant” consideration for one’s rights to immigrate and rely on some other view of moral relevance implicitly as an alternative to try and cement a purely moral solidarity that extends beyond national border. They have in common an appeal to a common human capacity to have rights stemming from something metaphysically essential to our common humanity.

Those arguments are all coherent and possibly valid and are even the arguments that originally convinced me to support open borders. The only problem is that they are often very unconvincing to people skeptical of immigration because they merely beg the question of that moral obligation is irrelevant with respect to nationality. As one of my critics of one of my older pieces on immigration observed, most immigration skeptics are implicitly tribalist nationalists, not philosophically consistent consequentialists or deontologists. They have little patience for theoretical and morally pure metaphysical arguments concluding any obligation, even merely negative, to immigrants. They view their obligations to those socially closer to them as a trump card (pardon the pun) to any morally universalized consideration. So long as they can identify with someone else as an American (or whatever their national identity may be) they view their considerations as relevant. If they cannot identify with someone else based on national identity, they do not view an immigrant’s theorized rights or utility functions as relevant.

There are still several problems with this tribalist perspective, given that nation-states are far from culturally homogenous and cultural homogeneity often transcends borders in some important respects, why does one’s ability to “identify” on the basis of tribal affiliation stop at a nation-state’s borders? Further, there are many other affinities one may have with a foreigner that may be viewed as equally important, if not more important, to one’s ability to “identify” with someone than national citizenship. They may be a fellow Catholic or Christian, they may be a fellow fan of football, or a fellow manufacturing worker, or a fellow parent, etc. Why is “fellow American” the most socially salient form of identification and allows one to keep a foreigner in a state tyranny and poverty, but not whether they are a “fellow Christian” or any of the many other identifiers people find important?

However, these problems are not taken seriously by those who hold them because tribalist outlook isn’t about rational coherence, it is about non-rational sentimental feelings and particularized perspectives on historical affinities. Even if a skeptic of immigration takes those problems seriously, the morally pure and universalizing arguments are no more convincing to a tribalist.

I believe this gets at the heart of most objections Trump voters have to immigration. They might raise welfare costs, crime, native jobs lost, or fear of cultural collapse as post-hoc rationalizations for why they do not feel solidarity with natives, but the fact that they do not feel solidarity due to their nationalist affinities is at the root of these rationalizations. Thus when proponents of open borders raise objections, be it in the form of economic studies showing that these concerns are not consistent with facts or by pointing out that these are also concerns for the native-born population and yet nobody proposes similar immigration restrictions on citizens, they fall on deaf ears. Such concerns are irrelevant to the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment: a lack of solidarity with anyone who is not a native-born citizen.

In this essay, drawing from the sentimentalist ethics of David Hume and the perspective on liberal solidarity of Richard Rorty, I want to sketch a vision of universalized solidarity that would win over tribalists to the side of, if not purely open borders, at least more liberalized immigration restrictions and allowance for refugees. This is not so much a moral argument of the form most arguments for open borders have taken, but a strategy to cultivate the sentiments of a (specifically American nationalist) tribalist to be more open to the concerns and sympathies of someone with whom they do not share a national origin. The main goal is that we shouldn’t try to argue away people’s sincere, deeply held tribalist and nationalist emotions, but seek to redirect them in a way that does not lead to massive suffering for immigrants.

Rorty on Kantian Rationalist and Humean Sentimentalist Arguments for Universalized Human Rights

In an article written by American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty called “Rationality, Sentimentality, and Human Rights,” he discusses two strategies for expanding human rights culture to the third world. One, which he identifies with philosophers such as Plato and Kant, involves appealing to some common faculty which all humans have in common—namely rationality—and claim all other considerations, such as kinship, custom, religion, and (most importantly for present purposes) national origin “morally irrelevant” to whether an individual has human rights and should be treated as such. These sort of arguments, Rorty says, are the sort that try to use rigorous argumentation to answer the rational egoist question “Why should I be moral?” They are traced back to Plato’s discussion of the Ring of Gyges in the Republic through Enlightenment attempts to find an algorithmic, rational foundation of morality, such as the Kantian categorical imperative. This is the sort of strategy, in varying forms, most arguments in favor of open borders try to pursue.

The second strategy, which Rorty identifies with philosophers such as David Hume and Annette Baier, is to appeal to the sentiments of those who do not respect the rights of others. Rather than try to answer “Why should I be moral?” in an abstract, philosophical sense such that we have a priori algorithmic justification for treating others equal, this view advocates trying to answer the more immediate and relevant question “Why should I care about someone’s worth and well-being even if it appears to me that I have very little in common with them?” Rather than answer the former question with argumentation that appeals to our common rational faculties, answer the latter with appealing to our sentimental attitudes that we do have something else in common with that person.

Rorty favors the second Humean approach for one simple reason: in practice, we are not dealing with rational egoists who substitute altruistic moral values with their ruthless self-interest. We are dealing with irrational tribalists who substitute more-encompassing attitudes of solidarity with less-encompassing ones. They aren’t concerned about why they should be moral in the first place and what that means, they are concerned with how certain moral obligations extend to people with whom they find it difficult to emotionally identify. As Rorty says:

If one follows Baier’s advice one will not see it as the moral educator’s task to answer the rational egoist’s question “Why should I be moral?” but rather to answer the much more frequently posed question “Why should I care about a stranger, a person who is no kin to me, a person whose habits I find disgusting?” The traditional answer to the latter question is “Because kinship and custom are morally irrelevant, irrelevant to the obligations imposed by the recognition of membership in the same species.” This has never been very convincing since it begs the question at issue: whether mere species membership is, in fact, a sufficient surrogate closer to kinship. […]

A better sort of answer is the sort of long, sad, sentimental story which begins with “Because this is what it is like to be in her situation—to be far from home, among strangers,” or “Because she might become your daughter-in-law,” or “Because her mother would grieve for her.” Such stories, repeated and varied over the centuries, have induced us, the rich, safe and powerful people, to tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people—people whose appearance or habits or beliefs at first seemed an insult to our own moral identity, our sense of the limits of permissible human variation.

If we agree with Hume that reason is the slave of the passions, or more accurately that reason is just one of many competing sentiments and passions, then it should come as no surprise that rational argumentation of the form found in most arguments for open borders are not super convincing to people for whom reason is not the ruling sentiment. How does one cultivate these other sentiments, if not through merely rational argumentation? Rorty continually comments throughout his political works that novels, poems, documentaries, and television programs—those genres which tell the sort of long sad stories commented on above—have replaced sermons and Enlightenment-era treatises as the engine of moral progress since the end of the nineteenth century. Rational argumentation may convince an ideal-typical philosopher, but not many other people.

For Rorty, the application of this sentimental ethics had two main purposes, the first of which is mostly irrelevant for present purposes and the second of which is relevant. First, Rorty wanted to make his vision of a post-metaphysical, post-epistemological intellectual culture and a commonsensically nominalist and historicist popular culture compatible with the sort of ever-expanding human solidarity necessary for political liberalism; a culture for which the sort of algorithmic arguments for open borders I mentioned in the first half of this article would not seem convincing for more theoretical reasons than the mere presence of nationalist sentiment. Though that is an intellectual project with which I have strong affinities, one need not buy that vision for the purposes of this article—that of narrowly applying sentimental ethics to overcome nationalist objections to immigration.

The second, however, was to point out a better way to implement the liberal cultural norms to prohibit the public humiliation of powerless minorities. The paradigmatic cases Rorty says such a sentimental education has application are how Serbians viewed Muslims, how Nazis viewed Jews, or how white southern Confederates viewed African-American slaves. Though those are far more extreme cases, it is not a stretch to add to that list the way Trump voters view Muslim refugees or Mexican migrant workers.

A Rortian Case against Rortian (and Trumpian) Nationalism

Though Rorty was a through-and-through leftist and likely viewed most nationalist arguments for restricting immigration and especially keeping refugees in war-zones with scorn, there is one uncomfortable feature of his views for most radical proponents of immigration. It does leave very well open the notion of nationalism as a valid perspective, unlike many of the other arguments offered.

Indeed, Rorty—from my very anarchist perspective—was at times uncomfortably nationalist. In Achieving Our Country he likens national pride to self-respect for an individual, saying that while too much national pride can lead to imperialism, “insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.” He defended a vision of American national pride along the lines of Deweyan pragmatism and transcendentalist romanticism as a nation of ever-expanding democratic vistas. Though radically different from the sort of national pride popular in right-wing xenophobic circles, it is a vision of national pride nonetheless and as such is not something with which I and many other advocates of open borders are not sympathetic with.

Further, and more relevant to our considerations, is he viewed national identity as a tool to expand the sort of liberal sentiments that he wanted. As he wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

Consider, as a final example, the attitude of contemporary American liberals to the unending hopelessness and misery of the lives of the young blacks in American cities. Do we say these people must be helped because they are our fellow human beings? We may, but it is much more persuasive, morally as well as politically, to describe them as our fellow Americans—to insist it is outrageous that an American to live without hope. The point of these examples is that our sense of solidarity is strongest when those with whom solidarity is expressed are thought of as “one of us,” where “us” means something smaller and more localized than the human race.

It is obvious why many critics of immigration restrictions would view this attitude as counterproductive. This type of description cannot be applied in many other scenarios at all relevant to questions of immigration at all. Liberalism, in the sense Rorty borrowed from Shklar (and also the sense which I think animates much of the interest in liberalized immigration policies), as an intense aversion to cruelty is concerned with merely ending cruelty as such. It wants to end cruelty whether it be the cruelty of the American government to illegal immigrants or suffering of native-born African-Americans as a result of centuries of cruelty by racists. This is surely something with which Rorty would agree as he writes elsewhere in that same chapter:

[T]here is such a thing as moral progress and that progress is indeed in the direction of greater human solidarity. But that solidarity is not thought of as recognition of a core self, the human essence, in all human beings. Rather, it is thought of as the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared to the similarities with respect to pain and humiliation—the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves in the range of ‘us.’

Surely, that moral progress doesn’t stop at the unimportant line of a national border. The problem is that appeals to national identity of the sort Rorty uses, or of mythologized national histories, do stop at the border.

Rorty is right that it is easier for people to feel a sense of solidarity with those for whom there are fewer traditional differences, and that no amount of appeal to metaphysical constructions of human rationality will fully eclipse that psychological fact. However, the problem with forms of solidarity along national identity is it is much easier for people to stop there. In modern pluralistic, cosmopolitan societies such as America, it is hard for someone to stop their sense of solidarity at religion, tribe, custom and the like. This is because the minute they walk out the door of their home, the minute they arrive at their workplace, there is someone very close to them who would not fit that sense of solidarity yet someone for whom they would still feel some obligation, just based off of seeing the face of that person, off of mere proximity.

Stopping the line at national identity is much easier since many Americans, particularly those in the midwestern and southeastern states which gave Trump his presidency, will rarely interact with non-nationals on a regular basis while they will more likely interact with someone who is more distant from them in other ways. While other forms of solidarity are unstable for most because they are too localized, nationalism is stable because it is too general to be upset by experience of others while not general enough to be compatible with liberalism. Moral progress, if we pursue Rorty’s explicitly nationalist project, will halt at the national borders and his liberal project of ending cruelty will end with it. There is an inconsistency between Rorty’s liberalism and his belief in national pride.

Further, insisting “because they are American” leads people to ask what it means to “be American,” a question which can only be answered, even by Rorty in his description of American national pride, by contrast with what isn’t American (see his discussion of Europe in “American National Pride). It makes it difficult to see suffering as the salient identifier for solidarity, and makes other ‘traditional’ differences standing in the way of Rorty’s description of moral progress as more important than they should be. Indeed, this is exactly what we see with most xenophobic descriptions of foreigners as “not believing in American ideals.” Rorty’s very humble, liberalized version of national pride faces a serious danger of turning into the sort of toxic, illiberal nationalism we have seen in recent years.

Instead, we should substitute the description Rorty offers as motivating liberal help for African-Americans in the inner city ,‘because they are American,’ with the redescription Rorty uses elsewhere: ‘because they are suffering, and you too can suffer and have suffered in the past.’ This is a sentimental appeal which can apply to all who are suffering from cruelty, regardless of their national identity. This is more likely to make more and more other differences seem unimportant. As Rorty’s ideas on cultural identity politics imply, the goal should be to replace “identity”—including national identity—with empathy.

Thus, in making an appeal to Rorty’s sentimentalism for open border advocates, I want to very clearly point out how it is both possible and necessary to separate appeals to solidarity and sentiment from nationalism to serve liberal ends. This means that the possibility of nationalist sentiments of seeming acceptable to a non-rationalist form of ethics should not discourage those of us skeptical of nationalism from embracing and using its concepts.

Sentimental Ethical Appeals and Liberalized Immigration

The application of this form of sentimental ethics for people who merely want to liberalized immigration should be obvious. Our first step needs to be to recognize that people’s tribalist sentiments aren’t going to be swayed by mere rationalist argumentation as it merely begs the question. Our second step needs to be to realize that what’s ultimately going to be more likely to convince them aren’t going to get rid of people’s tribalist sentiments altogether, but to redirect them elsewhere. The goal should be to get people to see national identity as unimportant to those sentiments compared to other more salient ones, such as whether refugees and immigrants are suffering or not. The goal should be for nationalists to stop asking questions of immigrants like “Are immigrants going to be good Americans like me?” and more “Are they already people who, like me, have suffered?”

This does not mean that we stop making the types of good academic philosophical and economic arguments about how immigration will double the global GDP and how rights should be recognized as not stopping with national identity—those are certainly convincing to the minority of us to whom tribalism isn’t an especially strong sentiment. However, it does mean we should also recognize the power of novels like Under the Feet of Jesus or images like the viral, graphic one of a Syrian refugee child who was the victim of a bombing which circulated last year. The knowledge that Anne Frank’s family was turned down by America for refugee status, the feelings of empathy for Frank’s family one gets from reading her diary, the fear that we are perpetuating that same cruelty today are far more convincing than appeals to Anne Frank’s natural rights in virtue of her rational faculties as a human being.

Appeals to our common humanity in terms of our “rational faculties” or “natural rights” or “utility functions” and the like are not nearly as convincing to people who aren’t philosophers or economists as appeals to the ability of people to suffer. Such an image and sentimental case is far more likely to cultivate a cosmopolitan solidarity than Lockean or Benthamite platitudes.


Rorty, Richard. “American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey.” Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010. 372-388. Print.

Rorty, Richard. “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010.
352-372. Print.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.


The Enforcement Costs of Immigration Laws are Greater than Alleged Welfare Costs

As I mentioned in my note yesterday, the common argument that immigration is significantly costly through welfare is mostly empirically falsified. The fact of the matter is immigrants usually aren’t qualified for such programs, illegal immigrants mostly cannot and do not receive them, and immigrants as a whole wind up contributing more to the government’s balance sheet through economic growth and tax receipts than they take through welfare transfer payments.

However, there is one fact I neglected to mention yesterday worthy of its own post: if those opposed to immigration on the grounds of welfare costs were really sincere in that argument, they also need to consider the fiscal costs of enforcing their beloved immigration laws. As the New York Times editorial board pointed out yesterday, these costs are not insignificant:

The Migration Policy Institute reported in 2013 that the federal government spends more each year on immigration enforcement–through Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol–then on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. The total has risen to more than $19 billion a year, and more than $306 billion in all since 1986, measured in 2016 dollars. This exceeds the sum of all spending for the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Secret Service; the Marshals Service; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

These fiscal costs get worse when you consider that Donald Trump wants to expand ICE’s budget even further and, of course, the $8-$12 billion dollar wall.

Further, if you are a civil liberties type concerned with the social and fiscal costs of mass incarceration, immigration enforcement looks even bleaker:

ICE and the Border Patrol already refer more cases for federal prosecution than the entire Justice Department, and the number of people they detain each year (more than 400,000) is greater than the number of inmates being held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for all other federal crimes.

The war on immigrants makes the war on drugs look tame.

Of course, these costs are pretty small when compared to the welfare state, but immigrants are not the ones driving up those welfare costs and they might even reduce it with more tax receipts. The truth is that furthering immigration restrictions and enforcement is truly fiscally irresponsible, not respecting the right to freedom of movement and contract.

Welfare Costs are not a Good Argument Against Immigration

Note: A version of this was initially posted on my old, now defunct blog. However, has become increasingly relevant in the age of Trump, and is worthy of reconsideration now.

It’s one of the most common arguments against looser immigration going back to Milton Friedman to Donald Trump. It is commonly claimed that even though loosening immigration restrictions may be economically beneficial and just, it should be opposed due to the existence of the welfare state. Proponents of this claim argue that immigrants can simply come to this country to obtain welfare benefits, doing no good for the economy and adding to budget deficits.

Though this claim is on its face plausible, welfare is not nearly as much of a compelling reason to oppose immigration as so many argue. It is ultimately an empirical question as to whether or not the fiscal costs of immigration significantly outweigh the fiscal benefits of having more immigrants pay taxes and more tax revenue economic growth caused by immigration.

Before delving into the empirical studies on the matter, there is one very important fact that is too often neglected in these discussions: there are already heavy laws restricting all illegal immigrants and even the vast majority of legal ones from receiving Welfare. As the federal government itself–specifically the HHS–notes:

With some exceptions, “Qualified Aliens” [ie., legal immigrants] entering the country after August 22, 1996, are denied “Federal means-tested public benefits” for their first five years in the U.S. as qualified aliens.

If we were to allow more immigrants, there are legal mechanisms stopping them from getting welfare. There are some exceptions and even unlawful immigrants occasionally slip through the cracks, but this is already a major hole in the case that welfare means we should hold off on immigration reform. The vast majority of immigrants cannot receive welfare until years after they are legalized.

However, for the sake of argument, let us ignore that initial hole in the case against increased immigration. Let’s generously assume the majority of immigrants–legal and illegal–can somehow get their hands on welfare. There is still little reason to expect that additional immigrants would be any more of a fiscal drag on welfare programs for the vast majority of our population simply because they are not the type of people who typically wind up on welfare. Our welfare programs are primarily designed to protect a select few types of people: the sick and elderly (Social Security and Medicare), and women and children (SCHIP, SNAP, TAMPF, etc.) If one looks at the demographics of immigrants coming into the country, however, one finds that they do not fit in the demographics of those who typically qualify for welfare programs. According to the Census Bureau, the vast majority (75.6%) of the total foreign-born population (both legal and illegal immigrants) are of working age (between 25 and 65).  Most immigrants, even if they were legal citizens, would not qualify for most welfare programs to begin with.

On the other hand, poverty rates are higher among immigrants and that means more would qualify for poverty-based programs. However, most immigrants are simply not the type to stay in those programs. Contrary to common belief, immigrants are mostly hard-working innovators rather than loafing welfare queens. According to Pew Research, 91% of all unauthorized immigrants are involved in the US labor force. Legal immigrants also start businesses at a higher rate than natural born citizens and file patents at almost double the rate of natives. As a result, immigrants have fairly high social mobility, especially intergenerationally, and so will not stay poor and on welfare all that long.

Put it together, and you find that immigrants generally use many major welfare programs at a lower rate than natives. Immigrants are 25% less likely to be enrolled in Medicare, for example, than citizens and actually contribute more to Medicare than they receive while citizens make Medicare run at a deficit. From the New York Times:

[A] study, led by researchers at Harvard Medical School, measured immigrants’ contributions to the part of Medicare that pays for hospital care, a trust fund that accounts for nearly half of the federal program’s revenue. It found that immigrants generated surpluses totaling $115 billion from 2002 to 2009. In comparison, the American-born population incurred a deficit of $28 billion over the same period

Of course, nobody would advocate restrictions on how many children are allowed to be born based on fiscal considerations. However, for some reason the concern becomes a big factor for immigration skeptics.

If you are still not convinced, let us go over the empirical literature on how much immigrants cost fiscally. Some fairly partisan studies, such as this one from the Heritage Foundation (written by an analyst who was forced to resign due to fairly racist claims), conclude that fiscal costs are very negative. The problem, however, is that most of these studies fail to take into account the dynamic macroeconomic impact of immigration. Opponents of immigration, especially those at the Heritage Foundation, generally understand the importance of taking dynamic economic impacts of policy changes into account on other issues, e.g. taxation; however, for some (partisan) reason fail to apply that logic to immigration policies. Like taxes, immigration laws change people’s behavior in ways that can increase revenue. First of all, more immigrants entering the economy immediately means more revenue as there are more people to tax. Additionally, economic growth from further division of labor provided by immigration increases tax revenue.  Any study that does not succeed in taking into account revenue gains from immigration is not worth taking seriously.

Among studies that are worth taking seriously, there is general consensus that immigrants are either a slight net gain fiscally speaking, a very slight net loss or have little to no impact. According to a study by the OECD of its 20 member countries, despite the fact that some of its countries have massive levels of immigration, the fiscal impact of immigration is “generally not exceeding 0.5 percent of G.D.P. in either positive or negative terms.” The study concluded, “The current impact of the cumulative waves of migration that arrived over the past 50 years is just not that large, whether on the positive or negative side.”

Specifically for the United States, another authoritative study in 1997 found the following as summarized by David Griswold of the Cato Institute:

The 1997 National Research Council study determined that the typical immigrant and descendants represent an $80,000 fiscal gain to the government in terms of net present value. But that gain divides into a positive $105,000 fiscal impact for the federal government and a negative $25,000 impact on the state and local level (NRC 1997: 337).

Despite the slight negative impact for states, as Griswold notes, there is no correlation between immigration and more welfare for immigrants:

Undocumented immigrants are even more likely to self-select states with below-average social spending. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the low-spending states grew by a net 855,000, or 35 percent. In the high-spending states, the population grew by 385,000, or 11 percent (U.S. Census 2011; NASBO 2010: 33; Passel and Cohn 2011). One possible reason why unauthorized immigrants are even less drawn to high-welfare-spending states is that, unlike immigrants who have been naturalized, they are not eligible for any of the standard welfare programs.

The potential fiscal impact of immigration from the Welfare state is not a good reason to oppose it at all. There are major legal barriers to immigrants receiving welfare, immigrants are statistically less likely to receive welfare than natives for demographic reasons, and all the authoritative empirical evidence shows that immigrants are on net not a very significant fiscal drag and can, in fact, be a net fiscal gain.

A Note on Trump, Immigration, and Healthcare Reform

Hopefully, the US election will start getting out of the he-said-she-said of assassination attempts and badmouthing parents of military personnel and start being about actual policy issues. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen at all, but in a minuscule and futile attempt to help get us there, I’m going to blog about some policy issues for a minute.

Trump’s campaign released a brief memo about his healthcare positions recently. For the most part the positions—though not quite detailed enough to really call a “plan”—are fairly decent. They contain most of the reforms free-market analysts have been proposing for decades such as opening insurance competition across states, allowing for Health Savings Accounts, and streamlining Medicaid funding. Notably missing was abolishing the employer mandate to reduce price fragmentation, as Milton Friedman proposed, although Trump proposes taking steps in that direction by introducing a tax deduction for individual insurance plans.

But what stuck out to me was that Trump, surprise, surprise, made xenophobia an element of his health care proposal by furthering the myth that immigrants are a further drain on our healthcare and welfare programs:

Providing healthcare to illegal immigrants costs us some $11 billion annually. If we were to simply enforce the current immigration laws and restrict the unbridled granting of visas to this country, we could relieve healthcare cost pressures on state and local governments.

Meanwhile in reality, undocumented immigrants actually contribute more to Medicare than they withdraw. It is unclear where Trump is getting his $11 billion figure, but he is ignoring the increased payroll taxes undocumented immigrants pay into these programs. A 2015 study found that, in fact, between 2000 and 2011 immigrants paid up to $3.8 billion more into Medicare than they took out. From the results of the study:

From 2000 to 2011, unauthorized immigrants contributed $2.2 to $3.8 billion more than they withdrew annually (a total surplus of $35.1 billion). Had unauthorized immigrants neither contributed to nor withdrawn from the Trust Fund during those 11 years, it would become insolvent in 2029—1 year earlier than currently predicted. If 10 % of unauthorized immigrants became authorized annually for the subsequent 7 years, Trust Fund surpluses contributed by unauthorized immigrants would total $45.7 billion.

Poor immigrant children, both legal and illegal, are also less likely to be enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP than citizens.

Thus Trump’s campaign is being factually dishonest by claiming that restricting immigration will help fund government healthcare systems, it will actually make Medicare go insolvent sooner. Which is especially concerning given that, until this memo, Trump has shown no interest in any meaningful entitlement reform.

This refrain—that immigrants are a fiscal drag on America’s welfare programs—has been among the most common refrains from Trump, and has even been popular among libertarians who are otherwise sympathetic towards immigration. But, as I’ve argued extensively in the past, it is completely false. Almost every major study shows that immigrants, at worst, pay as much into welfare programs as they get out of them.

Local Citizenship

In his latest blog over in, my usual stamping grounds, Nathan Smith discusses the need for citizenship to be voluntary. I agree with Nathan Smith wholeheartedly here. What value is citizenship if a man is forced to have it? A fellow citizen is someone you should be willing to share a meal with during the bests of time. A fellow citizen is someone you should be willing to trust in the trenches during times of war. A meal is never pleasant when your company is forced to be there, and I for one wouldn’t want to fight alongside an unwilling ally.

If citizenship is to be voluntary however the offer of citizenship should also be voluntary.  That is to say that a polity should be able to decide who it wishes to offer citizenship to. United States immigration law currently adds new citizens without much consultation to current citizens on whether they wish to accept newcomers. This is a plain violation of the right to free association.

It is for this reason that I disagree on granting US citizenship to its current illegal alien population. It is true that on occasion a majority of the US public favors granting a pathway to citizenship to the illegal alien population, but even during the best of times a substantial portion are opposed to it. I cannot see a justification to force someone to associate with another in political union when alternatives exist. To be fair, I also oppose granting citizenship to newborn babies regardless of whether their parents are recent Pakistani migrants or from Nebraska.

I favor instead replacing national citizenship in the United States with local citizenship. Cities are small enough that disgruntled minorities can easily move to somewhere more favorable to their views. City formation is also fluid enough that they can be broken up much more easily than their larger counterparts.

By no means is my proposal to radically change citizenship. The concept of citizenship was born in the Greek polis, and carried into the modern era through the Italian city-states and, to a lesser extent, the Swiss cantons and the Hanseatic League cities. Movement towards local citizenship would be the return to tradition, not a departure from it.

It was only after the French Revolution that we saw the rise of national citizenship as an idea in the western world. Arguably in the United States local citizenship was important up till the passage of the 14th amendment, which allowed the federal government to effectively nationalize citizenship.

We can already see early signs of local citizenship regaining popularity. In my home city of Los Angeles local citizenship is offered to residents who can prove they have a ‘stake’ in the future of the city. Stakeholder status is independent of migrant status and allows one to both vote and run in local elections. Stakeholder status can be achieved by showing that one lives, works, or owns property in Los Angeles.

Article 9, Section 906 of the Los Angeles City Charter readers:

“(2) neighborhood council membership will be open to everyone who lives, works or owns property in the area (stakeholders);”

In New York State there is a proposed bill, ‘The New York is Home Act’, that would grant New York state citizenship to those who have paid state taxes, have no substantial criminal record, and lived in the state for a certain number of years. This proposal is independent of one’s federal migration status.

The European Union also offers a model on how local citizenship can exist in union with federal citizenship. I favor this model the least as the EU regulates the obligations of member states towards federal citizens so heavily that the difference between local citizenships are becoming increasingly marginal. I fear that the ultimate outcome will be that, as in the United States, federal citizenship in Europe will simply become national citizenship.

My ideal world is composed of three pillars (1) local citizenship, (2) open borders, and (3) a common market. Cities could elect who they wish to grant the privilege of being involved in political life, and individuals themselves would be free to decide which city, if any, they would wish to join. There would still be those who felt they were being forced to politically associate but, an open borders regime coupled with fluid city formation and a common market, should allow this number to be minimized.

In his latest blog post on world government Brandon Christensen implicitly discusses world citizenship. I have previously aired my disagreement with Christensen on the issue of world government, but feel obliged to point out that the matter of citizenship is also one of the areas that leave me skeptical of world government. Namely my concerns are that:

(1) World citizenship would force all of humanity to associate politically, even if we rather not.

(2) World citizenship would create free rider problems among political actors. Why should one forgo the costs of becoming informed on political issues if their marginal effect on world issues is close to nill? Meanwhile larger governments, even if initially federal in nature, have a nasty tendency to increasingly take over local affairs. We need only look at the progression of transportation and education in the United States from being local affairs to federal ones.

On my to do list is to explore what the optimal amount of citizens is and a more detailed response to Christensen on the issue of world government. On the off chance that I should die before I can write the latter response, let me state for the record that I am actually quite supportive of international agreements such as NAFTA that bring us closer to a common market. I am even in favor of formalizing the loose federation that composes the western world. Where I stray is that I prefer an international order where powers like the Chinese and Russian spheres are strong enough to compete with the west.

P.P.S. I offer apologies if I drop off here and there. I lurk the consortium daily, and if I don’t reply it is because I’ve not yet mastered time management as well as others.


This is a story about Mexicans but before I get to the topic, I need to make small political commentaries.

Most of the time, I abstain from describing myself as a libertarian for several reasons. One is the current and recent libertarian leadership that I can’t stomach. Another, possibly more durable set of reasons for my reluctance is that I am keenly aware of the contradictions between some of my positions and because some of my positions are incompatible with fundamental libertarianism. Incidentally, I am not the only libertarian (small “l”) with such contradictions in his heart; I just have the great merit of being aware of the fact. (If I say so myself.)

One of my un-libertarian positions consists in repeating without hesitation that every national society has a moral right to control its borders. We can’t just have different kinds of people bringing unchecked into this society their habitual laziness, for example, or their propensity to disorder, and worse, their concept of order, or again, their ethical idea of the proper relationship between religion and government. (Feel free to put national names and other stickers on each of these four categories.) The fact that I am an immigrant does not make me more mindlessly “tolerant” on such issues. On the contrary, I believe I am better able than most native-born Americans (or than all of them) to judge that those who live in this society, such as it is, are exceptionally lucky. Not that it’s that hard to figure out, at any rate. Poor people from everywhere want to move here but also many prosperous people from prosperous countries. Millions have voted with their feet. Even more millions are trying to, many at great cost to their safety.

Among the latter, of course, are many Mexican nationals. I have argued elsewhere (pdf), in the Independent Review, that the Mexicans should be given special treatment by American immigration laws. With my co-author, fellow immigrant Sergey Nikiforov, I have argued that the key to an overall solution to the problem posed by Mexican illegal immigration specifically lies in the separation of freedom of movement from citizenship. This, for both Mexicans and Americans. I also argued, in that article, that Mexicans, our next door neighbors, should receive special treatment, privileged treatment, treatment over and better than that we extend to other foreigners. And no, it is not the case that “foreign” is a dirty word. And, as some wit remarked years ago, about the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, and I wish it had been me: “If they want to have affairs, they can damn well have them at home!”

Not much more than a couple of years after our article was researched and prepared, we learn that net illegal Mexican immigration into this country probably approximates zero. (That’s illegal Mexicans coming in minus illegal Mexicans leaving the US.) The current worldwide and American economic crisis is of course a sufficient explanation for both changes, for the decrease in comings and for the increase in goings of Mexican illegals. Incidentally, the fact that illegals are leaving in large numbers pretty much gives the lie to the idea, lamentably common in conservative circles, that they cross the border mostly to take advantage of our social services. In this country recently, jobs have dried up while social services have expanded but Mexican illegals are still leaving. Ergo, they were not here for social services but for jobs. As Nikiforov and I argued all along, they come to work. Since they are mostly young, while they are in the US, many also commit crimes, as the young tend to do everywhere, and many mate and have children, as young adults do everywhere. All this criminal activity and all this productive mating places a burden on social services of course. It’s a normal burden, not the parasitic blood-sucking in some conservatives’ nightmares. If all works well, some of those Mexican illegals, or many, stay here, they pay taxes here for a long time and they support my adult children later with their Social Security contributions.

Notwithstanding the sufficiency of the economic crisis explanation, there is an alternative explanation to the quick reduction in the in- flows of Mexican nationals across our southern border. Or rather, there are two explanations that combine to produce this decrease, aside from, independent of, the American economic crisis. First, Mexican fertility rates have declined precipitously to the point that they now approximate American rates. On the average, Mexicans have only slightly more children than do Americans and the trend is downward. Secondly, after many years of severe economic trouble, Mexico is finally achieving the kind of economic growth that is considered normal at its moderate level of development. The latter is of course systematically higher than American economic growth. After a severe contraction in 2009, Mexico achieved a mean GDP growth of 4.2 for the past three years, 2012 included, against 2.2 for the US.

Now, I want to evoke a subjective side of Mexican immigration. Namely, I want to assert that Mexicans make very good immigrants to this country (This, even if like most immigrants in the past, they tend to vote Democratic at first.) And then, I make the specific claim that Mexicans, illegals as well as legal immigrants, contribute a high degree of graciousness to American culture, a culture produced largely by the grandchildren of the English, Germans, Irish, Poles, and Slovaks. (See what I mean?)

Here are some reminders about Mexicans in the US:

Mexicans work hard. Everyone agrees on this even those who suffer most from their presence as job competitors. Unlike some European immigrants for example, they don’t ask for directions to the welfare office a couple of days after they arrive. They come from a work-oriented culture, like American culture used to be many years ago.

Very poor Mexicans are more socially acceptable, less socially disruptive than equally poor native-born Americans. There are Mexican “homeless” encampments on my river. You never hear about them. You would have to know they are there. You can’t say the same of Anglo homeless squatters in Santa Cruz. (Some kill people, not many, just some.)

Mexican immigrants arrive here well informed about American institutions, about American culture, about American habits.

Mexicans immigrants come from a country rent and terrorized by the blowback of our war on drugs. Yet, they have the good grace never to mention here that we are nearly entirely responsible for the horrors their country has to suffer on account of our stupid policies. I mean, of course, that if the US announced the legalization of all drugs, the massacres, the beheadings, the cutting off of hands and feet would stop in Mexico within weeks or days. I am simply assuming that making the supply of a product in high demand illegal is certain to make the product prodigiously profitable. Hence the bloody turf wars among Mexican suppliers. Legalize or ignore drugs; let the price of marijuana drop to where it belongs, somewhere between the prices of tobacco and of carrots. The massacre in Mexico will stop.

Mexicans are also courteous and endlessly gracious, in my considerable and lengthy experience. Below are three illustrations.

There is an old-style diner I frequent about once a week for breakfast. (I have immortalized it in a story: “Radio Free Santa Cruz” published in le libertarian periodical Liberty.) I go there often, usually thrown out of bed by the insomnia that plagues the aged who feel guilty for old but good reasons they may not want to go into publicly lest they be charged with bragging. The same crew of two Mexicans is always in the kitchen. It’s an open kitchen. You can see them and you can hear everything they say. No matter how early I get there, I find these two guys guffawing and joking loudly. That’s often in the middle of breakfast rush-hour. This is worth commenting on because, the world over, cooks are given a pass for being assholes at the height of their rush-hour. The rule does not apply to Mexican cooks. If you don’t believe me lend an ear next time you are in a cheap restaurant. In California, that’s an easy study because all cooks in such restaurants are Mexicans, have been for ten years or more. (Some are legal immigrants!)

One slow day, my wife and I enter a small Mexican-owned shop on the edge of town. My wife is from India. She is looking for tropical fruit that are still uncommon in mainstream grocery stores, in the years right after the signing of NAFTA. Her attention gets drawn to a cinenovela being played on a TV set hanging from the shop ceiling. Observing that she is craning her neck, the young man behind the counter brings a box for her to stand on. His buddy who has been hanging out in the shop with him approaches and offers my wife his hand to help her climb on the box. The guy has dark skin and very short hair. He appears to be somewhat over twenty-five. Intricate tattoos sally forth from the neck opening of his shirt and climb all over his neck in thick masses and then curl into the external faces of both his ears. There is only one place in the world where you can afford the time and the expense of such dense tattoo-art: prison. The thought imposes itself on me inexorably: This young Mexican jailbird is much better bred than all the white middle-class young of the same age we know. Of course, I will be accused by the pedantly naïve of “generalizing.” Not so; as soon as you open your eyes a little, you will observe that, in California, people with Spanish last names and skin a shade darker than average are systematically more polite than the rest of the population. As I write this, I am trying to gather some recollection of one rude Mexican or child of Mexicans I have met. I come up empty.

Now, in connection with the next story I have to say something quick and historical about myself: I was born in Paris, France. When I was two, the soldiers who marched down the Champs-Elysees were not French. How do I know? The French are incapable of orderly goose-stepping.

There is a woman in her late twenties who works as a cashier in a pan dulce bakery I patronize every so often. She has grown on me. The reason is that early in our fleeting relationship, she discovered that I was a special kind of Anglo, one who actually understands Spanish and who actually speaks reasonably well. This is a digression: California is full of people who have taken multiple vacations in Mexico and who brought back fluency in how to say, “Two more beers, please,” and, “Where is the restroom?” They are gringos who embarrass the local Mexicans who don’t know how to let them know politely that their’s, the Mexicans’ English, is much more serviceable than their’s, the gringos’ Spanish, and that therefore they, the Anglos, should keep their primitive Spanish where it belongs, in their back-pockets, for a dire emergency.

So, anyway, soon after discovering my comparative fluency (comparative!) the young cashier began addressing me casually as “.” This flatters me, of course, because California Mexicans, as is the wont of immigrants in many places, mark their belongingness with each other through the use of a familiar form of address. Mexicans who would go on calling each other, “Seňor” and “Seňora” in Vera Cruz or in Guadalajara all their lives, instantly begin using the “” when they live in a sea of gringos. The young woman does me honor whenever she returns change addressing me the same way, as if I were one of her affectionate uncles, for instance. And yes, I understand that she may be simply engaging in a commercially valid practice. All the same, she does not call “” others who look like me.

And, it’s time to say that my grand-daughter often accompanies me to the pan dulce shop. It’s true that her looks may have facilitated this process of instant assimilation. I don’t want to tell here this long and interesting sub-story but the child, three at the time, is no more related to me by blood than say, a gopher. Instead, she is very pretty (I may brag since we are not genetic kin) in a bronzed sort of way that might well look Mexican to a Mexican eye. At any rate, I often enter the pan dulce shop with the child in tow. She is smart, talkative and loud, like Grandpa, and she wins hearts everywhere she goes (also like…). So, anyway, one day, I show up at the shop without that beautiful child.

“And where is the little one?” asks the young cashier.

“Oh,” I say, “she is with her Mom.”

“I see,” retorts the cashier, “she is with her mother one week and with you the other week.”

“No, no,” I exclaim, “she is not my daughter, she is my grand-daughter!”

The young woman raises her head, looks at me intently. I swear, disappointment in me is written all over her face.

What’s not to like?

* brothers

Ugly Conservative Sacred Cows

Sometimes, it’s wrong to be right. Here are three issues where conservative Republicans seem to this conservative Republican to be wrong, from a practical standpoint, at least. That’s at least from a practical standpoint. They may also be morally wrong. I won’t deal with this today. Those three issues are sacred cows of contemporary conservatism, ugly cows that hardly anyone dare slaughter. I will just have to do it.

Illegal immigration

The thought that some immigrants begin their lives in this benevolent, generous country by violating our laws is infuriating. It’s especially infuriating to the American and legal resident relatives of candidates to legal immigration who stand politely in line, often for years, sometimes to no avail. (I have a short essay on [my other] blog on legal immigration into this country. Here is a summary: for most people in the world, it’s completely impossible. I address this matter succinctly in the second half of a piece on Social Security: Bizarre Conservative Ideas About Immigration). And, incidentally, if you don’t know it already, I am an immigrant myself, a legal immigrant. (You may even want to read excerpts from my memoirs: “I Used to Be French…”)

The question is what to do about illegal immigration? Many conservatives declare that they favor muscular responses. Chief among those are militarizing the border with Mexico and mass deportation of illegal aliens in this country (most of whom are Mexicans).

The first time a member of the armed forces kills a twenty-year old Mexican trying to cross in order to buss tables in San Jose will also be the last time. We are not like that. Those who claim to want to put the military on the border have not thought things through. The military does most good when it’s shooting and when it gives the impression that it will shoot if necessary. Do you really expect them to shoot peaceful young men, and worse, women who commit an illegal act in order to make a living? (Said illegal act was only a misdemeanor for years, like illegal parking, by the way.)

I don’t care how tough conservatives they think they are. It does not sound credible. If you keep declaring that you want to do the inhumanely absurd and the absurdly inhumane it makes you lose credibility. You need your credibility for other struggles, struggles we might actually win quickly.

The severe determination to evict millions of illegal aliens sounds like bad science fiction the minute you think about it seriously. There are probably more than ten million of them, maybe more. They are concentrated in certain states such as California. Texas and Illinois. Nevertheless, there are illegal aliens in every state by now. They go to school with our children; they work in the businesses we patronize; they share our exercise machines; they worship in our churches. One immigrant who told me he came here illegally from Mexico is now president of the local branch of my bank. He is a good bank president, by the way. In part that’s because he possesses the common immigrant vigor. In part it’s because he is Mexican by culture. But I am getting away from my topic.

And, of course, if you think about it (please, do) you will soon figure out that many illegals, who came as babies, don’t know well any language other than English. Many have American brothers and sisters. You are not going to round them up. The very popular attempt to expel the small minority of illegals who have committed crimes is not even going well. And, no, it’s not all Obama’s fault. The logistics alone are daunting.

Moreover, if you polled a hundred “tough on illegal immigration” conservatives, you would find the following:

A small number would claim not to know any illegal alien. Most of those would be factually wrong. A larger number, when pressed, would request exceptions to the mass deportation order, exceptions for illegal aliens they know well: for Maria or for Luis. Maria and Luis would be their own illegals, their special lawbreakers, who happen to be good and meritorious illegal aliens. It’s the other guy’s illegal aliens they really object to! Those other illegal aliens are rabble. (Personally, I hate the Mexican who uses a leaf-blower every Monday morning at 8 on the dot. I want him deported, whether he is illegal or not.)

I develop these arguments extensively with respect to Mexican illegals specifically in an article co-authored with another immigrant, Sergey Nikiforov, published in The Independent Review.

In brief, this is not a good time (2/21/12) to argue about illegal aliens. It will invariably make you sound callous, inhuman and thoughtless plus impractical. Wait until you have the power to deal with the issue in a compassionate, humane, thoughtful and rational way.

You don’t need to die for every hill all at once.

Homosexual Marriage

First, don’t bother to correct me. I know that the politically correct term is “same-sex marriage.” Political correctness interferes with my rational thought. And by the way, it’s not two guys who just happen to be good friends who are itching to get hitched! Let’s not be ridiculous.

Don’t let your visceral revulsion masquerade as rational argument. Don’t allow yourself to push your religiously-based condemnation on me who is not religious. Don’t push it on others who might otherwise make good allies in the conquest of power. Doing either is un-conservative. It makes you look like the worst of Communist totalitarians. (Fidel Castro used to put homosexuals in prison until some of his rare smart advisors talked him out of it.)

And don’t make absurd and devious arguments by naming laws directed against homosexuals getting hitched: “Defense of Marriage Act.” Whatever homosexuals do in private, or even on the public street may be disgusting to you but it does nothing to undermine heterosexual marriage. That particular institution does not need external attacks. It self-destructs from within every minute of the day. What do you expect any way? Do you really think that if the door were terminally slammed on homosexual marriage, the percentage of first heterosexual marriage ending in divorce would slip from, say 50% to 49%? Please, take the five seconds it takes to answer this question in your mind.

And, it you think about what you already know concerning the fragility of heterosexual marriage, you must know that banning alcohol – with the death penalty for the second offense, perhaps – would almost certainly do more to preserve the institution than any prohibition applied to homosexuals.

Think through that one too, please.

My own opinion on the issue: I think no group should be allowed to use the armed force of government to change the meaning of a common word, such as “marriage.” That’s essentially what militant homosexuals are trying to do. I am completely opposed on principle. However, I don’t think it will create a precedent if they succeed. The acceptance of the idea that marriage may involve two women, or two men, or three, will not usher the day when “lie” comes to mean “truth,” by government decree and under threat of jailing.

Conservatives need to be mature enough to fight in important battles and not to pick fights based on unreasoned rage.

And, incidentally, in case you are wondering, I am not one of the brave conservative homosexuals forced to stay in the closet. I am not a homosexual but strictly a normal, vulgar T&A kind of guy.

Imposing standards of performance on schools

There are many different reasons to be appalled at the whole educational establishment, K through high-school senior and beyond, including the university, and even some graduate and professional schools. I don’t like the word “appalled.” It sounds effeminate and left-liberal. So, in truth, I am not appalled but I am really pissed off. And, as a former teacher, I could tell you stories that would make your hair stand on end. And your hair wouldn’t come down until the next morning at best. What you know is not the half of it!

To pare down the causes of our disillusionment, to get down to its core:

The more numerous the national educational establishment and the more loaded with benefits, the more unassailable its privileges, the less Johnny knows how to read.

It began with elementary school that promoted “students” who couldn’ t spell their name; it’s crept to the colleges that now offer numerous remedial classes for freshmen they admitted under their own power. I can testify personally that I know an expensive university that awards degrees each year to people who cannot line up two grammatically correct sentences in any language. Some of these same students major in a foreign language. They can’t line up anything in the foreign language either. After four years and tens of thousands of dollars, they end up illiterate in two languages. N.S. !

There is a natural tendency to want to remedy this rolling disaster with a formula that seems to succeed in business:

Evaluate, punish or reward

There are several reasons why this is likely to be counterproductive.

First, the evaluation is not as easy as current plans seem to assume: It’s for schools as for computers: Give the best schools very bad students and they will only turn out mediocre students. Give mediocre schools excellent students, they will turn them mediocre. It’s not easy to figure out what does what although it’s possible to do in principle. Children are not like so many pounds of flour. They are intensely reactive and they come into the school system with built-in strengths and built-in defects. The relevant research would be quite expensive and it would take a long time to conduct.

It’s true that liberal teachers unions use these very arguments to protect their members from scrutiny and from accountability. This does not mean that this view is incorrect. You don’t want to create a worse situation by punishing good teachers that work with difficult human material and by rewarding bad teachers that are able to pick the low-hanging cherries.

Second, don’t be surprised if teachers sabotage evaluations done by existing school hierarchies. They will do this even when they approve of the fact of being evaluated and even if they approve of the evaluation tools. Education has been a rotten, intellectually corrupt field for so long that the hierarchies it generates cannot be seen as respectable by respectable teachers.

The solution to this last problem often seems to be to use “objective” evaluation tools, mechanical evaluation devices that do not make room for supervisors’ corruption. I agree that it’s possible in principle to develop such evaluative devices. By administering them according to a “before and after” pattern, it’s also possible to remedy at once the first and second objections I raise above.

Doing so creates a third problem that is so serious that it may be worse than the original problem any evaluations are supposed to remedy.

As someone who devised hundreds of tests, let me say that I don’t see how it would be possible to reformulate the evaluation tools for any area or especially, nationally with much frequency. Doing so would be extravagantly expensive, too time-consuming. So, the teachers and their school “superiors” would quickly become aware of the contents of the tests, of what, very precisely the tests are actually testing. If the rewards and punishments were not significant, see above. If they were significant, you can be completely sure that most teachers, 80%, 90%, 95 % would immediately start teaching narrowly to the test.

How would you not expect teachers to do more or less this since their welfare and that of their children, even their retirement would depend exactly on their teaching to the test? I mentioned their retirement because economic self-advancement is normally done on a percentage basis. The raise you did not get this year will stay with you your whole life, literally. It will increase in relative size with every year. (I know how costly this sort of purity is because I followed such a strategy throughout my teacher career and I never caught up economically with my lackluster but conformist colleagues.)

The best possible outcome of this scenario is that after a while, American kids would read and write pretty much as well as say, Koreans, or Estonians.

Do you see where I am going? This is something very valuable that the current disastrous American education promotes or, that at least, it avoids destroying. For lack of a better word, that’s called “creativity.’ Americans have more of it than others. Look around from the Internet to giant double rolls of toilet paper in public facilities to country music!

Ideally, we would have a Johnny who would know how to read and write and who would also remain occasionally creative. I am afraid, we don’t know how to produce such a result. It does not mean that it cannot be done. It does not depend on a drastic, sudden reform though, It’s not a matter of getting tough, no more Mr Nice Guy!

Note that I am evoking here the possibility of a successful endeavor. I have not even begun to discuss the real likelihood of massive, systemic cheating in and ill-implemented “evaluate, punish, reward “ program. Look at the Atlanta school system for an example of how massively wrong this strategy can go.

I have no conclusion for this butchery proposal in three parts. I don’t need to know what ought to be don’t to stop doing what I shouldn’t do. I hope you will offer one conclusion or more.