French Africa

This is a meandering essay; although it’s about history, it’s a bit personalized, for effect. In other words, it’s far from straightforwardly scholarly history but I think it’s all or mostly true. Be patient, at one point it will become about the former French African colonial empire and socio-cultural strata it deposited in France, and there to this day.

Acting Uncool

Often, in my dotage, I sneak a look at TV5, the French language cable channel. Often too, I fall asleep on the couch while watching its usually – but not always – insipid programs. One day, a short documentary catches my attention. It’s about sexual harassment of French women on the public way. It catches my attention because it’s not obvious to me what would pass for sexual harassment in France, I mean, this side of grabbing and such. So, it turns out that the makers of the documentary had placed a man with a hidden camera near a cafe on a street with a bad reputation. The street is near to one of the main railroad stations in Paris, guaranteeing a two-way flow of commuters, including women, of course.

In the course of twenty minutes, the documentary displays about thirty episodes of “sexual harassment.” I am only a man, of course, and thus limited, and a skeptic, but the worst harassment I witness takes the form of annoying mouth noises that I am not talented enough to reproduce with words. Mostly, there are gauche invitations to have a cup of coffee. The documentary ends with the expected boring, trite lamentations, blah, blah. There is zero mention of a striking fact: All the harassers without exception sport a thick North African accent.

I say a “thick” accent to signify recent arrival in France. The accent normally erodes in a few years or months. I imagine the harassers were young immigrants from small villages in Algeria and Morocco trying artlessly to deal with the knowledge that they were now in a society where sex could theoretically be had outside of marriage and outside of prostitution. Some may have been merely lonely and naively hoping to make a French friend. Political correctness clashes with political correctness: Harassing women, even if only verbally, is terrible but mentioning that the harassers all proceed from Muslim countries is terrible too. So, make the documentary and shut up about the obvious!

This is not a very interesting story, of course; I know this. Would anyone expect probably poorly educated rural young men from sex-segregated societies to learn to be cool with women as they are stepping off the boat? It will take quite a while, at best. For some, it will never happen; they will remain uncool forever. Then, they will marry an immigrant woman from their area of origin. Again, it would be absurd to expect anything else. In the same vein, would it be reasonable to imagine that all those immigrants would quickly come to appreciate the importance of the separation of religion from governance (of “church and state”) when it’s anathema in Islam?

Is it possible that a few will never appreciate at all the beauty of such separation? Is it possible that their ignorance, or their hostility, will be passively transmitted to their offspring, together with pork avoidance, for example? Will (would) that transmission have a cumulative effect on French society? France contributed more than its share of apprentice terrorists to ISIS, even would-be war brides, even young women ready for the sexual jihad. The one thing may have little to do with the other. And, it’s true that a startling number of the above are converts from Christianity or, more likely, from atheism.

French people who are not racist, or even “Islamophobic” in any mechanistic sense, carry this sort of question on their minds all the time. Some French people who have been in France for a long time but have Muslim names become themselves attached to secularism (la laïcité). They also discreetly worry about the very same issue. Those who will actually talk about it appear more worried than their fellow citizens with names like mine, or like “Pierre Dupont.” This is all impressionistic, of course. There is no survey. For one thing, it’s illegal in France to gather data about ethnicity.

How did it come to this, you might wonder. Why are these guys in France at all, the ones acting uncool in every conceivable meaning of the word?

Quitting Algeria

In 1962, the French Republic and the Algerian nationalists of the Front de Libération Nationale (“FLN”) came to an agreement about Algerian independence. That was after 130 years of French colonization and eight years of brutal war, including war against civilians, from both sides. The colonization had been in depth, with hundreds of thousands of French settlers convincing themselves that Algeria was a kind of second France, resembling the original in every way. Except, that is, for the inconvenient prior presence of numerous exotically dressed people who were neither Christians nor free-thinkers. Except for the fact that many of the French settlers were newly minted poor immigrants from Spain and Italy.

At Independence, I participated in the evacuation of large number of French civilians from the country as a little sailor. I mean “French French.” By that time and belatedly, the presumably Muslim population had been granted citizenship. Too little, too late. Probably in an an effort to divide to conquer, the numerous (Arabic speaking) Algerian Jews had all been granted citizenship in the 1880s. In the days of evacuation, the number of (old) French who wanted to leave was much greater than French authorities had planned for. An aircraft carrier – emptied of its planes – had to be used. It was a pathetic show, complete with broken, uncomprehending old grandmothers who had probably never set foot in France. There were no deluxe suitcases in sight but there were used mattresses. Some factions within the FLN were threatening the French with death if they did not go immediately; others would have liked to keep them, or some of them. The death threats prevailed.

It was too bad that the French left in such large numbers. It made the transition to independence technically more difficult than it could have been. It gave the upper hand in Algeria to those who had the best guns rather than to those who could govern, or to the people. It was a pity for all concerned. The French refugees faced an uncertain and harsh future in France, for the most part. For the Algerians, many positions were left for a while without competent personnel, including a budding oil industry in the Sahara. There was a shortage of medical doctors for many years.

Make a mental note of this fact: The French French were not the only ones fleeing. They were accompanied by tens of thousands of families with Muslim names and whose native language was other than French. They were Algerians who had chosen the wrong side in the war of independence and who feared to be massacred in the new Algeria (correctly so, it turned out). Those joined the other hundreds of thousands who had been living in France for economic reasons beginning with WWI.

I think of those events as a double tragedy or a tragedy leading to a tragedy. The Algerian independence fighters who had prevailed by shedding quantities of their blood were definitely not (not) Islamists. In most respects, intellectually and otherwise, they were a lot like me at the time, moderate, democratic leftists. In fact, I once spent a moving three hours drinking coffee with a convalescing FLN soldier my age, in a third country. He and I had most things in common, including the French language. (More needs to be said about communities of language.)

The true Algerian revolutionaries were soon replaced in power in Algiers however by the professional soldiers of an army that had never really fought because it had been formed outside Algeria while partisan-style forces battled the French army. The military is still in power, fifty-five years later. I think of their regime as a classical but fairly moderate kind of fascism. It has bloodily fought Islamism to a standstill on Algerian soil so, everyone pretends to like them.

The Poor Politics of Colonialism

I went back to Algeria – as a tourist, a spear fisherman, believe it or not- six years after independence. I was warmly received and I liked the people there. They felt like cousins, the sort of cousins you played with in childhood but have not seen in adulthood. I think now, as I thought in 1962, that the nationalists were on the right side of the argument but I miss Algeria nevertheless. It’s like a divorce that should not have happened if someone had been more reasonable. Even such a short time after the events, events I had lived through as an adult, it was difficult to comprehend what had gone wrong. It was difficult to find any trace of hatred for the French. A young man I wanted to thank for a favor done asked me to take him to a restaurant where he could eat Brie, made expensive by a tariff. (Do I have the talent to make up this anecdote?)

I blame the astonishing incompetence of a French political class that failed in the course of 130 years to invent a form of citizenship that would have accommodated a large and fast growing Muslim population. At the time, it was widely argued that the Muslims insisted on being ruled by a mild form of Sharia insofar as their personal affairs, such as marriage and divorce, were concerned. Such an arrangement was incompatible with the strictly secular laws of the French Republic, of course, they were told. The Muslim numerical majority thus had to remain subjects, with only individual access to citizenship, more or less like any Finn or any Bulgarian. I don’t know if this was a genuine obstacle or an excuse for a simple case of yielding to the local French population who did not wish to live under Muslim rule, even if only for local affairs. In spite of their well publicized humanitarian and liberal values, French parties of the left played a prominent part in colonization and in the attendant repression of native populations. The late Socialist Pres. Mitterand, for example, was vigorously policing Algeria when he was a young politician (who had had one foot in the Resistance and one foot in Vichy, earlier, another story, of course).

A brief history of imperialism

After completing the military conquest of Algeria in 1847, which had been arduous, France soon developed a vague appetite for easy territorial gains overseas. The age-old British rival’s imperialism probably inspired the French. By WWI, France had placed under its control, Algeria’s neighbors Tunisia and Morocco (the latter, split with Spain), and the present countries of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and the Congo (the small one, next to the Belgian Congo). During World War I, France also took Togo, and the southern half of Cameroon from Germany. We must add Djibouti on the Red Sea and the large island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

Most – but not all – of the population in the colonies was Muslim. Possibly close to half were native speakers of Arabic dialects. However in North Africa, large minorities knew no Arabic but were speakers of several varieties of Tamazigh (“Berber”). French colonial power did not fail to utilize this linguistic dichotomy, as you might expect. Be it as it may, at the close of WWII, you could travel straight south from Algiers on the Mediterranean to Pointe Noire, (across the river Congo from Kinshasa in the larger and better known Belgian Congo) without ever leaving French control.

The possession of a colonial empire seems to have generated monopolistic profits for a few French people, the extraction of which were accompanied by routine atrocities in some parts. The horrors of French rule in the equatorial colonies where hevea -rubber trees – grew, was documented by the great writer André Gide in his travel narrative Un Voyage au Congo. National possession of the empire gave the average French person much psychic income, I think. At least, it facilitated fantasizing – under the gray French skies – about palm trees and warm seas. And adventurous but skill-less young Frenchmen could always find jobs easily in the southern colonies, overseeing native (black) labor just for being white, French, and knowing the common language (French) well.

All the sub-Saharan African countries achieved independence peacefully in the late fifties or early sixties. Morocco and Tunisia had preceded them in 1956. Before that, in Sétif, Algeria, a peaceful demonstration against the French government was put down in 1945 in a massacre where thousands perished. In 1947, an attempted insurrection against French colonial power in faraway Madagascar was ended with another bloodbath. One concrete objection to colonialism is that it regularly places mediocre men in charge of the destinies of many others, some of whom are not mediocre. Those who gave the order to shoot in both Sétif and Madagascar where low level public servants.


There is an intuitive tendency to view colonialism largely or completely in terms of the culture of the colonial power. This is probably wrong. What matters is the circumstances of the colonial acquisition and the use to which it was put. The contrasting cases of Algeria and Senegal are instructive in this respect.

Algeria was conquered militarily between 1830 and 1847 in a thoroughly ravaging war. Note that 1830 was only 18 years after the Waterloo defeat. The Napoleonic era’s stupendous French military victories (excepting Waterloo) were fresh in the collective consciousness. Plus, the political entity centered in Algiers had been far from a bucolic and peaceful place before the French conquest. Its economy relied heavily on piracy and various forms of slaving. It made a likely prey. No one or almost no one was going to miss it. (It’s a mystery why Thomas Jefferson ran out of breath before he got to that Barbary state.) Algeria always mattered because it seemed a likely colony of settlement. It became one, a good one, in spite of the existence of a large native population.

The balance of France’s African colonies – with the exception of Tunisia that was wrested from nominal Ottoman rule by a brief military invasion – was acquired without much purposefulness and with little fighting. A large swath of land near the Equator was taken without a fight by an Italian adventurer, a naturalized Navy officer, a contemporary of Stanley. Brazza was usually accompanied only by a handful of native troops. Wherever he went, he cheekily raised the French flag and abolished slavery. The capital of the Congo bears his name to this day (indicating that he left a pretty good memory).

The smallish country of Senegal in western Africa is a special case of French colonization. French political presence there dates back to the 17th century, first in the form of slave trading posts. Later, the four main cities of Senegal were re-formed as French political municipalities. This, in the absence of a significant local French population. The inhabitants of those cities obtained French citizenship in 1792, that is, earlier than many inhabitants of France. They were eligible to vote and to be elected. French power over the countryside extended slowly from those four towns meeting little resistance.

This special case matters because the assimilationist current in Senegal was strong before independence in 1960 and it continued after independence. Today, it’s difficult to find a Senegalese who does not speak good to excellent French. The unknown percentage who can write do it in French. Interestingly, the casual racism guiding the interaction with the natives of the few French administrators and military personnel, plus a handful of businessmen, was largely suspended when they dealt with the Senegalese. (Personally, I think labels matter, “citizen,” for example. Obviously, that’s another story.)

The narrative of the colonization of Senegal is fairly important because it shows one case where a Muslim country (95%) is explicitly friendly toward the West and well informed about it (via the French language). It is also politically stable and democratic although it is poor (GDP/capita of only about $2,600 around 2015). It’s a case of successful intellectual colonization. I have even personally heard English-speaking Africans accuse Senegalese intellectuals of the same sins of arrogance and obstinacy that usually stick to Paris Left Bank intellectuals. Something went right in Senegal.

By the time of WWII, much of public opinion – including the still-large officer class – was enamored with the notion of France as a great Muslim power.

Colonial strata within France

Every new acquisition of territory in Africa generated a new wave of emigrants to France: students, low-level civil servants climbing the bureaucratic ladder, and some laborers. Public school teachers of native extraction – a large number – would go to France for training through what was intended as a revolving door. There, some would find true love, marry and stay. Every loss of a colony did the same as every acquisition because – as I have mentioned – not everyone knows how to choose the right side in a conflict. Every war also brought Africans to France, as soldiers and as laborers both. Many won French citizenship and remained too. Over the twentieth century that African-originated population grew inside France because immigrants, mostly from rural areas, usually multiply faster than the more urban host population. All immigrants and all their children and all their grandchildren attended the Republic’s schools, or, more rarely, the few Catholic schools.

There was comparatively little true racism, racism by color. (Read the subtle observations of the black American writer Richard Wright, for example.) The existence on the soil of Metropolitan France of a long assimilated black West Indian population may have contributed to deny conventional racism much traction. Despised cultural traits and a condition of economic inferiority on the one hand, and skin color on the other, just did not coincide well enough.

The relative rarity of color sentiment and its shallowness, does not mean that the French were or are free of prejudice, of course. For more than one century, the worst jobs in the country were occupied by immigrants from North Africa, mostly Algeria. Those were people from deeply rural, primitive regions, literate in no language. For most of that period, they lived in ghettos, while their wives and children remained behind in a Maghreb that was always fairly near.

Those people were subject to systematically poor treatment. It was made much worse by the Algerian war of independence that was fought partly in France, with numerous acts of terrorism. French French people never knew enough about Islam until recently and they were too religiously indifferent to call that prejudice “Islamophobic,” I think. What is now the largest political party in France, the Front National, used to be overtly anti-Muslim. Under new leadership, it has cleaned up its act in this respect, avowedly because that stance was doing it more electoral harm than good. It’s now against all immigration. In the current (2017) presidential campaign, some people with Muslims names have said publicly that they would vote for the Front. (They remain a curiosity, I am guessing.)

I am trying to be fair and descriptive here. Two relevant stories. When I was a teenager, I worked part time in an expensive hotel in Paris. Luxury hotels are like theaters; they have a public stage and a backstage. There was a middle aged guy who was the fix-everything man. He was knowledgeable and he had all the tools of most trades. His name was “Ahmed” backstage but it became magically “Jean” when he was in the public area. The great and luminous French movie star Isabelle Adjani (b. 1955) kept her half Algerian origins in the closet for half of her career. To be fair, when she disclosed that she was the daughter of an Algerian Amazigh (a Muslim) a consensus quickly formed that her secrecy had been silly. It’s also possible that she feared the nude scenes in her movies would meet with dangerous disapproval from her father’s group of origin.

In the end, there is a large sub-population in France today that traces its ancestry to various parts of Africa, north, west, and central. By American standards, some are black, some are white. Many or most are citizens. Many are not but have a legal right to live in France by virtue of some international post-colonial agreement or other. Some almost have that right. Many – and still coming – don’t have any such right at all but their cousin lives there. Their children all attend school. They all arrive knowing some French from the schooling in their countries of origin. Given the comparatively effective (comparatively) French school system, and given the unsmiling, generalized French contempt for multilingualism, they all end up “French” in some sense, knowing the French language well, familiar with the fundamentals of civics, well versed in basic French history.

Muslim identity

The only trait that consistently differentiates some, or probably most people of African origin from the rest of the French population, is their presumed Muslim identity. (Notably, you almost never hear of people of African descent who are Christian, or even nothing at all.) Islam matters as a cultural fact, even irrespective of genuine religious sentiment, because it prevents mixing to a large extent, and especially, intermarriage. Previous immigrants, from Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, and more recently, Portugal all tended to marry French. Even more so did their daughters. Muslims from Africa mostly don’t except that a few men marry non-Muslim women.

I say “presumed” Muslim identity because there is no rigorous way to estimate the current Muslim population in France. That too, is forbidden. Going by names – which is often done – is sure to give bad results. It’s likely that most French people with a Muslim name are like the bulk of other French people, religiously indifferent.  Hence name counting inflates the number of Muslims in any meaningful sense. Still, there are many mosques in France and many recriminations about their being in insufficient number. There is a large, monumental, highly visible mosque near central Paris. It shelters the headquarters of the official national organization that represents the interests of French Muslims with the government. I don’t know how representative that representative organization currently is, of course.

People with Muslim first names and last names are everywhere in France, over the latitude and longitude of the territory but also from the bottom – sweeping the streets of Paris – to the top of the socioeconomic pyramid. (A while ago, I was half in love with a French woman named Rachida Dati. She was a minister in Pres. Sarkozy’s cabinet. It did not work out!) The first French soldier to die in the NATO expedition in Bosnia was named El Hadji. The Paris cop terrorists killed outside of Charlie Hebdo also had a Muslim name.

There are many other markers of long-term African presence in France. Here are some, pell-mell: Best couscous in the world. The North African Arabic word for “fast” is commonly used in French, including by people with 32 ancestors born in France. One of the many vocables for the male appendage in French, also one of the most commonly used, is straight from Arabic. (Don’t count on me to satisfy you salacious curiosity; do your own research.) Paris is the world center for the promotion and recording of rich West African music. Same for most fiction and poetry in French, including a significant production from Africa. The strange, often baffling intellectual movement “la négritude“(“negroeness,” I think) developed in France. The largest or second largest collection (after that of the British Museum, maybe) of black African art in the world is in a Paris museum, etc.


Those who know me, in person or through Notes On Liberty, or Liberty Unbound, those who spend even a little time on my blog (, or on my FB page will have heard me lamenting loudly the sterility of contemporary French culture. I cry torrents, especially over the impoverishment and the muddiness of the current French public French language, I mean, as spoken in France, specifically.* For the past fifty years, the French have had precious little to show by way of visual arts, or music and much of their contemporary literature projects the very cold of the grave. Aided by endless government subsidies, the French make many mediocre movies whose slowness and technical imperfection passes for intellectual depth, especially among a certain category of Americans.  (On this topic of government help to the French movie industry, you might read Delacroix and Bornon: Can Protectionism Ever Be Respectable? A Skeptic’s Case for the Cultural Exception, with Special Reference to French Movies.” [pdf])

French public figures talk like teenagers and they generally don’t know how to finish a sentence. If a member of the French intelligentsia speaks to you about Iraq, for example, say a journalist at prestigious Le Monde, you know no more about Iraq when he is finished than you did when he begun; you may know less. It was not always like this. (And, I will not insist that the decline of French culture and language are due to my emigration to the US at age 21 but the dates coincide pretty well.) Incidentally, the museums are still good; actually, the whole country of France is like an attractive museum that would have a superlative cafeteria attached. But I digress. This is all to let you know of a certain critical pessimistic state of mind of mine.

Still, there are French cultural phenomena that continue to interest me. One is a “culture” TV show with a strong political component that’s tougher on politicians than anything we do in the US. (It’s called, “On nest pas couchés.“) Another is a pure political show, also hard on the politicians interviewed there. (It’s called simply, “L’ Emission politique.“)

So, another time, I am watching French TV intently because there is a retrospective show on the anarchizing singer/composer George Brassens who died in 1981. Brassens is the closest thing France has – except for Edith Piaf –  to a secular modern saint. He wrote elegant poems addressed to ordinary people that the intellectual elite also admired. He also put to music Victor Hugo and even the medieval poet François Villon. He sang all with a distinctive stage presence.

That night several current stars of French popular song have been gathered in one setting to each sing one or more of Brassens’s songs. A man named “Slimane” takes one of the three or four most popular, most familiar of Brassens’ pieces and sings it in a deliberately Arabized manner. When he is finished, the eyes of several women singers sparkle. I am strongly moved myself. Slimane has given new life to a classic. No one will ever forget his hybrid rendition of the song.

This is yet another time, I am dozing on the couch (again) after a good French political show I mentioned elsewhere. The TV is still on, of course. Something stops me from falling right asleep; something drags me back to consciousness. This has never happened to me before. What’s waking me is the clarity of the language used by a youngish man being interviewed for one of those culture/literature shows that abound on French television.** The man to whom the voice belongs enunciates precisely; his words are well chosen without being precious; his grammar is impeccable; he finishes every one of the sentences he begins; he does not stutter. He speaks like a man who has thought of what he is speaking about.

Soon, I am alert enough to realize that the fine speaker of French is on the show to flog his newly published book. The book is about conversations he has had in his mind with the writer/philosopher Albert Camus. Now, Camus died in 1960, by the look of it, before the current writer on Camus was born. Camus has a special place in the minds and hearts of several generations of a certain category of French men that used to include me. He is one of the fathers of popular “existentialism.” (I have to use the qualifier and the quote marks to avoid the predictable correction by pedants who will push quotes in German into my email to prove that Camus is in no way a real existentialist. WTF!) Camus received the Nobel in literature in 1957 but that’s not why we care about him. I cannot describe here in detail the particular category of French men who revere him but here is a pointer: Early on in his fame Camus broke up very publicly with his good buddy, the better known Jean-Paul Sartre because Sartre would not denounce Stalinism.

The young writer on TV is black. I am told he is a well-known rapper in France. His name is Abd el Malik. Anecdotal evidence about nothing, some will say. Will it influence me in the future in spite of my good social science training? You bet. How can I avoid it? How can millions of French people ignore this kind of episode irrespective of their views on immigration? That man’s short presentation was like a ray of sunshine in a uniformly dark forest. Why should they not let it impress them?

The story does not end here, Camus himself was a Frenchman from Algeria, obviously not a Muslim. He was born to a widowed, half-deaf and illiterate Spanish immigrant woman who cleaned houses to support herself and Albert. The French are not so much confused about the legacies of their former colonial Empire as they are faced with a confounding reality.

* French is well spoken in various places, in Senegal, first, in much of urban Morocco and Tunisia, and among the Haitian elite, of all places. Romanians and Lebanese also tend to speak a very classical French as a second language.

**I say this with a little bitterness because, as someone who is still practicing being a commercially unsuccessful American writer, I regret strongly that we don’t have a plethora of such shows in the US of A.

First year in California for good, as an immigrant

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

I met other interesting characters at the Moulin Rouge (a bar in San Francisco where I spent much of my time after immigrating for good). One was a Frenchman in his early forties who told me he was a pirate on vacation. He said he owned an old surplus US Navy PT boat armed with a machine gun he used to prey on Chinese ships in the Celebes (Indonesia). “How come you are not in prison for 20 or 25 years? How about the police, the local coast guard, the navy?” I asked. “Nobody cares about the rich Chinese in Indonesia; besides, we never, never kill anyone. We wave big guns at them, my crew and I, and they always pay up. Sometimes, they bargain a little with me. I am not unreasonable,” he explained. He invited me to join him in a piracy campaign on my next summer vacation. I told him that I would like to but I would probably have to study in the summer, too. Even at a young age, seasoned as I was by military service, I had my values straight: junior college first, piracy second, and the latter, only if there was time.

Immigration and Jobs

A couple of thoughts about immigration. It seems that there is a widespread belief in the US that immigrants take jobs from Americans. It makes superficial sense if you also assume that the number of jobs to be filled is fixed and that just about anyone can do any kind of work.

Both assumptions are mostly false. Here is an example that illustrates why.

I keep hearing native-born Americans trained in various high-tech fields who claim that they are unemployed because of competition from low-cost H1B visa holders. H1B visas go to foreigners with skills deemed to be needed by the American economy. A large number of H1B visa holders are from India and many are from China; they also come from a wide variety of other countries, including Russia, France, Bulgaria, etc. The implicit affirmation is that were such visas stopped completely, those who complain would step right into the vacant jobs.

Two things. First the claim that foreign H1B visa holders work for less is largely unsubstantiated although it should be easy to investigate such abuse. Second, I think it’s illegal to pay H1B holders less than Americans. Why would many employers risk a distracting lawsuit? Of course, a few might because there are irrational people everywhere.

Next and last: Hundreds of thousands of high-tech jobs are going begging as I write. Are employers so vicious that they would rather have the work not done at all than to give it to a credentialed American? Or is it more likely that the unemployed native-born high-tech workers have skills that do not match demand? If the second supposition is correct, ending the H1B visa program would cause even more high-tech positions to remain empty. Of course, this would have a negative effect on everyone, on every American’s prosperity.

Missing from this narrative: the possibility that high power, accelerated re-training programs would bring unemployed Americans the skills the high-tech sector requires.

I have to begin a confession that’s going to make me even more unpopular locally than I already am. I mean unpopular among my conservative friends. I taught in an MBA program in the middle of Silicon Valley for 24 years, two quarters each year. It was an evening program squarely directed at the ambitious hard-working. During that span of time, I must have had 150 students from India. I remember only one who was a bad student. I was intrigued, so I made inquiries. Sure enough, he had an Indian first name and last name, and the corresponding appearance but he was born in the US.* I cannot report so glowingly about other, non-Indian students that sat in my classroom through the years.

This little narrative proves nothing, of course. Consider it food for thought. Do it especially if you voted for Pres. Trump – as I did.

Reminder: H1B visas are awarded to individuals with an occupational qualification deemed to be in short supply in the US. Right now, it’s likely that most of those who get an H1B are trained in some IT area but that’s not all. For a long time, farriers from everywhere could easily get one. (If you don’t know what a farrier is, shame on you and look it up.)

There are other – presumably non-specialized – categories of immigrants who are widely suspected of taking jobs from Americans. The truth is not always easy to discern, not even conceptually. Five or six miles from where I live in Santa Cruz, there are growers who are tearing off their hair. Their problem is that they can’t figure out who is going to pick the crops they are now putting into the ground. As I have said repeatedly, the Mexicans they counted on in years past have largely stopped coming.

A quarter of a mile from where I live, and in the same direction, there are dozens of perfectly healthy US-born Americans who are working as “sales associates.” The apparent conceptual issue is this: sales associates earn $10/hr while a moderately experienced crop picker earns $15. The question arises of why we don’t see a full exodus from the sales positions to jobs that pay 50% more?

I think it’s lazy to call the US-born sales associates “lazy.” The reality is that the Mexicans who came, and are still coming, to pick vegetables and fruits in California overwhelmingly came from a rural population. They were reared under conditions where almost everyone around them labored in the fields. When they arrive in the US – legally through family reunion – or illegally, they are ready to take picking jobs. They then just do here more or less the same work they would do at home but for five times the pay or more.

In American society that kind of population disappeared several generations ago through mechanization and, of course, through the importation of foreign labor, precisely. Native-born Americans won’t do the work because it’s alien to their background. I think US-born people of Mexican ascendancy whose parents labored in the field won’t do the work either. Their parents do what they can to make their own work experience alien to their children. I am not surprised, that’s another expression of the American dream. It’s  what many would do back in Mexico but then, why emigrate?

I am pretty sure that any immigration reform should include a temporary agricultural program, a sort of H1A ( “A” for “Agriculture”) visa. It would allow foreigners to come to the US legally, just to work in the fields and for a set period only. It would not lead to permanent residency, nor, of course, to citizenship. Such a program existed between the forties and the early sixties, if memory serves. It was called the “Bracero program.” I don’t know why it was terminated. (Perhaps a reader can tell us.)

Mexicans would be the first to take advantage of such a program. As Mexico’s economy develops, they may be replaced by Central Americans and, eventually, by Africans. Such a program would sidestep the kind of assimilation problem France, for example, is facing right now with its North African population.

PS Personally, I think Mexicans make good immigrants to the US. I would bet than in ten years we will be begging them to come.

* Disclosure: I am married to an Indian woman. She is not in high-tech unfortunately.

Immigration, Cultural Change, and Diversity as a Cultural Discovery Process

I have spent a couple of posts addressing various spurious economic and fiscal arguments against looser immigration restrictions. But, as Brandon pointed out recently, these aren’t really the most powerful arguments for immigration restrictions. Most of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric revolves around strictly alleged cultural costs of immigration. I agree that for all the economic rhetoric used in these debates, it is fear of the culturally unfamiliar that is driving the opposition. However, I still think the tools of economics that are used to address whether immigration negatively impacts wages, welfare, and unemployment can be used to address the question of whether immigrants impact our culture negatively.

One of the greatest fears that conservatives tend to have of immigration is the resulting cultural diversity will cause harmful change in society. The argument goes that the immigrant will bring “their” customs from other countries that might do damage to “our” supposedly superior customs and practices, and the result will be a damage to “our” long-held traditions and institutions that make “our” society “great.” These fears include, for example, lower income immigrants causing higher divorce rates spurring disintegration of the family, possible violence coming from cultural differences, or immigrants voting in ways that are not conducive to what conservatives tend to call “the founding principles of the republic.” Thanks to this insight, it is argued, we should restrict immigration or at least force prospective immigrants to hop through bureaucracy so they may have training on “our” republican principles before becoming citizens.

There are a number of ways one may address this argument. First, one could point out that immigrants face robust incentives to assimilate into American culture without needing to be forced to by restrictive immigration policies. One of the main reasons why immigrants come to the United States is for better economic opportunity. However, when immigrants are extremely socially distant from much of the native population, there a tendency for natives to trust them less in market exchange. As a result, it is in the best interest of the immigrant to adopt some of the customs of his/her new home in order to reduce the social distance to maximize the number of trades. (A more detailed version of this type of argument, in application to social and cultural differences in anarchy, can be found in Pete Leeson’s paper Social Distance and Self-Enforcing Exchange).

The main moral of the story is that peaceable assimilation and social cohesion comes about through non-governmental mechanisms far more easily than is commonly assumed. In other words, “our” cultural values are likely not in as much danger as conservatives would have you think.

Another powerful way of addressing this claim is to ask why should we assume that “our” ways of doing things is any better than the immigrant’s home country’s practices? Why is it that we should be so resistant to the possibility that culture might change thanks to immigration and cultural diversity?

It is tempting for conservatives to respond that the immigrant is coming here and leaving his/her home, thus obviously there is something “better” about “our” cultural practices. However, to do so is to somewhat oversimplify why people immigrate. Though it might be true that, on net, they anticipate life in their new home to be better and that might largely be because “our” institutions and cultural practices are on net better, it is a composition fallacy to claim that it follows from this that all our institutions are better. There still might be some cultural practices that immigrants would want to keep thanks to his/her subjective value preferences from his or her country, and those practices very well might be a more beneficial. This is not to say our cultural practices are inherently worse, or that they are in every instance equal, just that we have no way of evaluating the relative value of cultural practices ex ante.

The lesson here is that we should apply FA Hayek’s insights from the knowledge problem to the evolution of cultural practices in much the way conservatives are willing to apply it to immigration. There is no reason to assume that “our” cultural practices are better than foreign ones; they may or may not be, but it is a pretense of knowledge to attempt to use state coercion to centrally plan culture just as it is a pretense of knowledge to attempt to centrally plan economic production.

Instead of viewing immigration as a necessary drain on culture, it may be viewed as a potential means of improving culture through the free exchange of cultural values and practices. In the market, individuals are permitted to experiment with new inventions and methods of production because this innovation and risk can lead to better ways of doing things. Therefore, entrepreneurship is commonly called a “discovery process;” it is how humanity may ‘discover’ newer, more efficient economic production techniques and products.

Why is cosmopolitan diversity not to be thought of as such a discovery process in the realm of culture? Just as competition between firms without barriers to entry brings economic innovation, competition between cultural practices without the barrier to entry of immigration laws may be a means of bettering culture. When thought of in that light, the fact that our cultural traditions may change is not so daunting. Just as there is “creative destruction” of firms in the marketplace, there is creative destruction of cultural practices.

Conservative critics of immigration may object that such cultural diversity may cause society to evolve in negative ways, or else they may object and claim that I am not valuing traditions highly enough. For the first claim, there is an epistemic problem here on how we may know which cultural practices are “better.” We may have our opinions, based on micro-level experience, on which cultural practices are better, and we have every right to promote those in non-governmental ways and continue to practice them in our lives. Tolerance for such diversity is what allows the cultural discovery process to happen in the first place. However, there is no reason to assume that our sentiments towards our tradition constitute objective knowledge of cultural practices on the macro-level; on the contrary, the key insight of Hayek is it is a fatal conceit to assume such knowledge.

As Hayek said in his famous essay Why I’m Not a Conservative:

As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about. It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance.

As for the latter objection that I’m not valuing tradition, what is at the core of disagreement is not the value of traditions. Traditions are highly valuable: they are the cultural culmination of all the tacit knowledge of the extended order of society and have withstood the test of time. The disagreement here is what principles we ought to employ when evaluating how a tradition should evolve. The principle I’m expressing is that when a tradition must be forced on society through state coercion and planning, perhaps it is not worth keeping.

Far from destroying culture, the free mobility of individuals through immigration enables spontaneous order to work in ways which improve culture. Immigration, tolerance, and cultural diversity are vital to a free society because it allows the evolution and discovery of better cultural practices. Individual freedom and communal values are not in opposition to each other, instead the only way to improve communal values is through the free mobility of individuals and voluntary exchange.

Illegal Immigration: Pres. Trump’s New Measures

I can’t wait for the raging assaults by the pseudo-cultural elite and by the media against Pres. Trump to stop to begin criticizing some of his decisions, as I would with any other president.

I have heard and read reports that the president intends to launch a policy of accelerated repatriation of illegal aliens. It will single out criminals for priority deportation (as was the case under Mr Obama). At this point, almost everybody agrees about getting rid of illegal aliens who are real criminals, especially the violent ones. Again, the new policy sounds a lot like Mr Obama’s, with a few details different. The details often matter when it comes to human lives, also when it comes to traditions of government. Here are two such details.

First, I have heard that even traffic tickets qualify an illegal alien for quick deportation. Make a wrong u-turn and your life gets broken up.

Second, I have heard and read that even being merely charged with a crime places you at the head of the line for deportation. Someone who looks like you steals a car. You get charged by mistake. You are gone.

The first detail seems awfully rough to me. I would feel better if the word “recidivist” were included. A person who breaks driving rules repeatedly is a trouble-maker we can do without. A guy who is too distracted to interpret the U-turn sign (could be me – once) is not exactly a criminal in the real sense of the word.

It’s true that such extreme severity would improve the driving of all illegal aliens. The claim is probably also correct however that it would interfere with aliens’ (legal and not) willingness to cooperate with the local police. Aside from this, I would bet it would involve significant law enforcement costs just to process traffic tickets through to the Immigration Service. I am a conservative, I am against big government, even against big government at the local level. I don’t want tax money, federal, state, or local, to be wasted processing a U-turn violator. It seems irrational to me.

The second, detail concerns the treatment of people only charged with a crime. It’s simple. I just don’t want any of them to be included in the priority list. Having any branch of government treating the accused as guilty simply goes too strongly against everything I believe. It’s un-American.

Yes, I have not forgotten that the subjects have no right to be in the country in the first place. I don’t care. It’s not about illegal aliens’ rights. Immigrants, legal or not, have no rights as a category as far as I am concerned. They only possess the ordinary human rights of anyone under American jurisdiction.

It’s about a slippery slope for all. If we begin officially thinning out the traditional wall between “charged” and “guilty,” where are we going to stop?

I understand that a lawyer would argue that the person is technically not being deported for the imaginary crime of being charged but because he has no right to be in the country, period. Do you know the one about the lawyer….

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.