Mexican Productivity and Poverty: a Superficial, Street-Level View

I just spent three and a half weeks in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (summer 2019). Below are some impressions. First things first; I have to give you the severe limits of my field of vision while I was there.

My wife and I stayed in an old-fashioned, 1950s low-rise hotel on the ocean with a pleasant faded kind of glory. (My wife Krishna does not let me go to Mexico by myself, for obvious reasons!) It was very hot throughout so, we did not go out much except that we had to shop for food every day at the mall across a broad avenue. We took taxis to and from the dentist about fifteen times. I always chat with taxi drivers; they gave us the foundation of sociology, I am sure! We spent a little time in the old touristy market district (where we have friendly acquaintances from past visits). We also walked some on Puerto Vallarta’s beautiful and interesting seafront (the “malecon”). I speak Spanish well, I understand everything in the language; I read it with ease. I read the paper a few times; I watched the Spanish language news on television a few times. I read free brochures on this and that.

There is much to like in Mexico, and especially Mexicans. They are low-key, unexcitable, stoical cordial, affable, and eager to help, and not only vis-à-vis this pleasant, well-disposed gringo, myself. Living for a short time in pleasant, clean Puerto Vallarta, it’s difficult to remember that Mexico’s homicide rate is three times the US rate. It takes the occasional sighting of a truckful of the new, nattily dressed National Guard with automatic weapons to jog your memory. (See notes from a previous visit: “Mexicans in Mexico,” 2017, )

Low productivity

My main observation is a repeat from what I recounted the last time I was there (See my “Mexican Underdevelopment: Pop-Sociology.”) It’s about productivity. For most of our stay, there was work going on on a brick path right beneath my windows. It was mind boggling. At one point, there were seven people working on the same two steps, including a master craftsman. They continued by restoring and cleaning a flat brick path. The thought stuck me that,in California, two, or two-and-a-half of the same Mexican workers (the very same guys) would have done the same work in the same time easily. And, yes, I know something about brick laying, both personally (I used to be very poor; now I am moderately poor), and as a customer. I am talking about a more than fifty per cent rise in productivity obtained by simply moving workers into a different environment. Bosses and economic leaders would easily kill for a change of such magnitude!

Of all the guys on the bricklaying and brick cleaning site, only one had a proper power tool, and it was only operational part of the time. The others labored by hand, mostly on their knees. No one had thought of giving them knee-guards. They had not themselves.

Moderate Poverty

The workers told me they were making about US$23 a day, or $115 for a forty-hour week. That’s not bad given that beginning professional positions – that require a university education – in thriving, manufacturing Monterrey are advertised for US$600 a month. Yet, and although most food, housing, gasoline, and health care are all cheaper in Mexico than in the US, this is still not much money on which to rear a family. But, this is also not dire poverty of the kind we used to see, and sometimes still find in India or in Africa. In that part of Mexico, everyone looks healthy, especially the children. Many adults are obese, more or less like in the US. Everyone is well dressed, by the admittedly low standards of central California where I live.

Over-staffing

Here is striking fact: Wherever you go, you find overstaffed shops, restaurants, etc, often very overstaffed. I mean like three shop attendants doing nothing in the middle of the afternoon. There must be a reasonable number of exceptions because my dentist’s office makes good use of its human resources. The same young women who serve as assistants, also act as receptionists. (I know, know, comparative advantage; don’t get me started, this is not the time or place.)

Productivity and Income

Over-staffing and the failure to provide workers with the best tools matter a great deal if you think, as I do, that incomes roughly follow productivity though often with big time lags, and often not in a linear fashion. Although employers sometimes fail to share the product of productivity gains with workers, the fact is that they cannot share gains that have not occurred. Low productivity pretty much guarantees low wages.

Note what I am not saying. The Mexican work ethic is not the problem. The guys who worked in the hot sun of tropical Mexico for eight hours a day don’t need lessons from anyone on that count. Also, those of us who live in California remember well the recession years when the vegetable picking lines remained nearly all-Mexican (with a handful of Filipinos) while poor Anglos lamented the absence of jobs. Now that wages in the field have increased substantially because of a chronic farm labor shortage, still few college students are flooding in, California sky-high rents or not.

Going back to fairly prosperous Puerto Vallarta, where construction is thriving (because of Canadian refugees from the cold, I am told), there is also the mysterious fact of the invisible zealot pounding stakes close to my hotel at 5:30 AM. I am not complaining. I respect this instance of unreasonable industriousness!

Social Structure and Productivity

Mexicans remain poor, the Mexican economy keeps growing but only slowly. This is, at least in part, I think, because Mexicans have normative standards that do not feed high productivity. These standard maintain a permanent social structure that makes increasing productivity difficult. A vicious/virtuous circle is at work. Labor is cheap because of its low productivity. It’s so cheap that, why not hire an additional worker for the same job? The incentive to hire nonchalantly is probably high because of Mexicans’ high connectivity. Mexicans, even in a fairly new city like Puerto Vallarta appear much more interconnected than Californians. (I don’t know much about the East Coast of the US.) There are many more individuals in one’s life there to please by giving their relatives and liege a job than is the case where I live.

Take the lifelong relationship of “compadre” and “comadre” between adults who are usually not kin to each other. The titles denote the link between a man and a woman who are respectively godfather and godmother to the same child. It easily multiplies by two or three beyond actual relatives the circle of individuals to whom one is to some extent obligated. And, it does not end there. Why, there is even a word in Mexican Spanish to denote the relationship of two people who have the same first name! I forgot the word but I was charmed to discover that I was ##### to any number of “Diegos.” I can even imagine situations where someone would succeed in using that tenuous link to extract a small favor from me (with a probable intention to reciprocate).

High Connectivity not a Specific Feature of Mexico, and Over-Staffing

I don’t think this high connectivity is an idiosyncratic feature of Mexican society. I believe rather that something similar prevails in India (that I know a little). It seems to me that high connectivity was visible also, in rural Brittany when I was a child in the forties and fifties. It was largely absent in Paris by contrast where I lived most of the time (Order my book of socio-historical memoirs of that period: I Used to Be French: An Immature Autobiography; avoid the middle person, go through me.). Having obligations to few rather than to many is a salient feature of modernity (that includes also urbanization, small nuclear families, and a search for formal education).

I speculate that Mexicans, even in comparatively modern places like Puerto Vallarta, have a high tolerance for over-staffing because of the large social networks within which they exist. Over-staffing is thus a primary contributor to low productivity. Low productivity keeps many people poor. Poor people need a supportive network more than do the more prosperous. Long and short of it: to break the cycle would require a degree of de-humanization of Mexican society. It’s not inexorable. Mexicans may collectively choose a bearable level of poverty (see life expectancy below) over the destruction of the emotional comfort larger social networks promote.

Not Following in the Footsteps….

It seems to me that a high degree of familiarity with the negative example of American society next door with its low connectivity – in places – may guide them toward such a choice. In point of fact, I have met a strikingly large number of Mexican men who had worked in the US for several years and who had returned home under their own power, by choice, according to their narratives. (I also note with satisfaction that ten years ago, S. Nikiforov and I had evoked precisely that sort of preference in a big article on Mexican immigration: “If Mexicans and Americans could cross the border freely,” in The Independent Review, 14-1: 101-133 [Summer] 2009.)

There is no law of nature that requires the people of less developed countries to retrace all the steps of their predecessors in development. The cellphone shows us that often, they don’t have to: Several African countries have phone landlines only in the center of their major city but 80% of their population has access to a cellphone. Trying to skip stages is the rational thing to do, of course. I would guess it’s most successful when it depends largely on a myriad of individual decisions, as with cellphones. Nevertheless, it seems to work pretty well – for some reason – even with collective decisions regarding health care, specifically.

Perhaps, societies can pick and choose what features of modernity they actually want thanks to a density of available information and a richness in inter-communications that was unimaginable forty years ago. (That was when I was studying underdevelopment with rigorous methods.) I can picture a partial national consensus forming that says, “We don’t need everything the big guys have; a little bit more of this and of that, and we are OK.” If this scenario is realistic, food, schooling, and health care will probably be its dominant themes. The Mexican food situation appears fine (I will consider contradiction on this.). In my subjective judgment, based on its products, on the average, Mexican K-12 is superior to its American public counterpart.

Illness and Health care

One component of socio-economic underdevelopment and also an obstacle to development in its own right used to be widespread illness. The morbidity figures I saw in the seventies about the situation in the fifties were horrifying. Illness also obstructed development indirectly because it destroyed family units through the death of parents or older siblings, even of aunts and uncles who might have provided. This is largely in the past. The present in poor countries is very different, greatly improved from the narrow standpoint of health. And, it turns out, the Mexican health picture, in particular appears fairly bright.

Single Payer Health Care

Something to think about for my conservative friends: Mexico has single payer healthcare for those who want it. It has a pretty poor reputation, it’s true. A private health network subsists side-by-side with it for the prosperous. (I like that.) Yet, yet, the life expectancy of Mexicans is only 2.6 years lower than that of Americans, same as the difference between the US and the Netherlands (WHO 2015, in Wikipedia). Americans live longer than Mexicans in the same proportion as the Dutch live longer than Americans. So, either, it’s possible to get fairly similar results health-wise at much lower cost than do Americans, or health care does not matter all that much, as far as not dying is concerned. (Hate to twist the knife in the conservative wound but the Dutch also spend much less money than Americans on their health care.)

Incidentally, I am well aware that there are non-economic arguments against entrusting what is now 17% of the US GDP to the government, to any government. But, perhaps, conservatives should restrict themselves to combating govt. health care on political and principle grounds alone. (End of digression.)

Where To?

So, where am I going with this, you may fairly ask? I am expressing my doubts that Mexican society – and other less developed societies – will be forced to undergo the dislocating social change that would be required to improve much its (their) productivity, according to the old schemes. I have to stop here, more or less, but it seems to me that Mexico is more likely to improve first its societal-level productivity by having more women join the work force. The preservation of a high existing level of connectivity – with its baked-in child care and food services – would ease, and facilitate such mass social change, of course.

Nightcap

  1. Enchiladas, a culinary monument to colonialism Alexander Lee, History Today
  2. The Marginal Revolutionaries of Austria-Hungary Tyler Cowen, MR
  3. The other side of British India Soni Wadhwa, Asian Review of Books
  4. Old Tokyo, time telling, and the Chinese zodiac Claire Kohda Hazelton, Spectator

Nightcap

  1. Tianxia: a philosophy for world governance Salvatore Babones, Asian Review of Books
  2. Imperialism or federalism? Round Two Notes On Liberty
  3. A new history of the United States Julio Ortega, New York Times
  4. Postmodern politics Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling

From the Comments: Mexican communist art at San Francisco’s public colleges

My college (City College of San Francisco) has a “Diego Rivera Theater” featuring a mural by the artist that spans the width of the building. It is the cultural asset of which the college is most proud. It is very nice to look at. Here’s a picture.

That’s from David Potts, who teaches philosophy at City College of San Francisco and blogs at Policy of Truth.

I’ve seen the real thing. It’s absolutely beautiful. If you’re doing the tourist thing in San Francisco, or if you live there and are looking for something to do, make sure you hit up CCSF.

Afternoon Tea: Frozen Assets (1931)

This is from the communist Mexican artist Diego Rivera:

nol art rivera frozen assets 1931
Click here to zoom

Created during the Great Depression, this one is almost too predictable. It’s beauty alone, though, makes it worthy of an afternoon with tea.

Here is more from NOL on the Great Depression.

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 17): Merit-Based Immigration and Other Solutions

The long-established numerical prominence of immigration into the US via family relations makes it difficult to distinguish conceptually between legal immigration responding to matters of the heart and immigration that corresponds to hard economic, and possibly, demographic facts. The one motive has tainted the other and vice-versa. The current public discussions (2016-2018) suggest that many native-born Americans think of immigration as a matter of charity, or of solidarity with the poor of this world, as in the inscription at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,….”  Many Americans accordingly perceive as hard-hearted those who wish to limit or reduce immigration. Inevitably, as whenever the subject of hard-heartedness emerges as a topic in politics, a Right/Left divide appears, always to the detriment of the former.

It seems to me that conservatives are not speaking clearly from the side of the divide where they are stuck. They have tacitly agreed to appear as a less generous version of liberals instead of  carriers of an altogether different social project. Whatever the case may be, the politically most urgent thing to do from a rational standpoint is to try and divide for good in public opinion, immigration for the heart and immigration for the head, immigration for the sake of generosity and immigration for the benefit of American society. Incidentally, and for the record, here is a digression: I repeat that I believe that American society has a big capacity to admit immigrants under the first guise without endangering itself. That can only happen once the vagueness about controlling our national boundaries has dissipated. Such a strategy requires that the Federal Government have the unambiguous power to select and vet refugees and to pace their admission to the country.

“Merit” Defined

In reaction to the reality and also, of to abuses associated with the current policy, a deliberate, and more realistic doctrine of immigration has emerged on the right of the political spectrum. It asks for admission based on merit, partly in imitation of Australia’s and Canada’s. Canada’s so-called “Express Entry System” is set to admit more than 300,000 immigrants on the basis of  formally scored merit in 2118. That’s for a population of only about 37 million. The central idea is to replace the current de facto policy favoring family relations as a ground for admission, resulting in seemingly endless “chain migration,” with something like a point system. The system would attempt scoring an immigrant’s potential usefulness to American society. In its simplest form, it would look something like this: high school graduate, 1 point; able to speak English, 1 point; literate in English, 1 more point; college graduate, 2 points (not cumulative with the single point for being a high school graduate); STEM major, 2 points; certified welder, 2 points; balalaika instructor, 2 points. Rocket scientist with positive record, 5 points.  Certified welder, 10 points.

The sum of points would determine the order of admission of candidates to immigration into the US for a set period, preferable a short period because America’s needs may change fast. With the instances I give, this would be a fair but harsh system: Most current immigrants would probably obtain a score near zero, relegating them to eternal wait for admission.

There are two major problems with this kind of policy. First, it would place the Federal Government perilously close to articulating a national industrial policy. Deciding to give several point to software designers and none to those with experience running neighborhood grocery stores, for example, is to make predictions about the American economy of tomorrow. From a conservative standpoint, it’s a slippery slope, from a libertarian standpoint, it’s a free fall. Of course, we know how well national industrial policies work in other countries, France for example. (For 25 years, as a French-speaking professor on the spot, visiting French delegations to my business school would take me aside; they would buy me an expensive lunch and demand that I give away the secret of Silicon Valley. First, create a first rate university, I would answer meanly…)

Second, the conceit that a merit-based system of admission, any merit-based system, is an automatic substitute for the family reunion-dominated current policy is on a loose footing. Suppose, a Chinese woman receives top points in the new system as a world-class nuclear scientist whose poetry was nominated for a Nobel in literature. She walks right to the head of the line, of course. But she is married and she and her husband have three children. Can we really expect her to move to the US and leave her family behind? Do we even want her to, if we expect her to remain? Does anyone? Then, the woman and her husband both turn out to be busy as bees and hard workers, major contributors to the US economy, and to American society in general. (They are both also engaged in lively volunteering.) So, they need help with child care. The husband’s old but still healthy mother is eager and willing to come to live with the couple. She is the best possible baby-sitter for the family. The problem is that the old lady will not leave her even older husband behind. (And, again, would we want her here if she were the kind to leave him?)

Here you go, making ordinary, humane, rational decisions, the merit-based admission of one turns into admission of seven! And, I forgot to tell you: Two of the kids become little hoodlums, as happens in the best families in the second generation. They require multiple interventions from social services. They will both cost society a great deal in the end. In this moderate scenario, the attempt to rationalize immigration into a more selfish policy benefiting Americans has resulted in a (limited) reconstitution of the despised chain immigration, with some of the usual pitfalls.

The arguments can nevertheless be made that in the scenario above, the new merit-based policy has resulted in the admission of upper-middle class individuals rather than in that of the rural, poorly educated immigrants that the old policy tended to select for. This can easily be counted as a benefit but the whole story is probably more complicated. In the exact case described above, the US did replace lower-class individuals with upper-middle class people but also with people possibly of more alien political culture, with consequences for their eventual assimilation. I mean that all Mexicans tend to be experts in Americana and that our political institutions are familiar to them because theirs are copy-cat copies of ours. I surmise further that Mexicans are unlikely from their experience to expect the government to be mostly benevolent. Moreover, it seems to me the children of semi-literate Mexicans whose native language is fairly well related to English and uses the same alphabet, are more likely to master English well than even accomplished Chinese. This is a guess but a well-educated teacher’s guess. (I don’t think this  holds true for the grand-children, incidentally.) Of course, if my argument is persuasive, there would be a temptation to down-score candidates just for being Chinese, pretty much the stuff for which Harvard University is on trial as I write (October 2018).

I described elsewhere how the fact of having relatives established in the country facilitates installation and economic integration, even as it may retard assimilation. Note that a point system does not have to forego the advantages associated with family relationships. Such a system can easily accommodate family and other relationships, like this: adult, self-sufficient offspring legally in the US: 3 points; any other relation in the US: 1 point; married to a US resident with a welder certification: 15 points, etc.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 16]

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 9): Non-Economic Objections to Immigration; Assimilation and Stubborn Language Facts

In my area of central California, there are many people with ascendants from Mexico. You are normally in daily contact with some of them. As is the case with most immigrations (plural) of long standing though (notably, North African immigration into France), people of Mexican origins occur at various level of cultural integration. Some live with a foot in the Old Country; others, generations, from their immigrant forebears, only look Mexican, speak only a few practical sentences of Spanish but understand more, and they have Spanish last names. A few only have Spanish surnames and, perhaps, distant cousins in Mexico. I know one dark-skinned utmostly “Mexican looking” man whose acquaintance with the Spanish language is a good ability to pronounce Spanish words. This stratification of people identified as “Mexican” creates a kind of optical illusion with consequences on the native-born’s attitudes toward immigration.

Many conservatives, friends of mine included, are fully convinced that Mexican immigrants don’t “try” to assimilate and, in particular, that they don’t want to learn English. In addition, they often add that this resistance contrasts badly with former immigrants, from another era – usually their own ancestors – from Italy, or Greece, or Eastern Europe – who made the effort to learn English quickly, perhaps in six months or so. This common imagery is based on a fallacy and on a half-truth.

The most casual observation in my area is enough to contradict the view that Mexican immigrants reject assimilation into American life. There are people with Spanish first and last names, and a Spanish accent in all the restaurants (on both sides of the counter), in the movie theaters, at the gym I patronize. The same is true in the churches I don’t patronize, I am told. My granddaughter plays soccer with other girls that include the right proportion of Hispanic girls. Local Hispanic parents (mostly Mexicans) don’t fail to send their children to public school, except when they send them to religious schools alongside Anglo Catholics and Anglo evangelicals.

At the heart of the widespread suspicion that “Mexicans” reject assimilation are several myths, endlessly repeated on conservative talk radio, about immigrants and language. They include the idea that Mexicans, and also Central Americans, fiercely resist learning English. This is an important charge because using the language with ease is obviously a necessary condition to any degree of assimilation. In fact, Hispanics don’t resist learning English because they are mostly rational economic actors. They are perfectly aware that their incomes jump up when they know English. My first housekeeper was a vivacious and fully credentialed Mexican secondary school teacher. With good English, she would have quickly become a teacher in California and doubled her income overnight. She told me she knew it. In fact, offers to teach English in miracle time dominate Spanish language radio advertising. The inexpensive English as a Second Language classes in community colleges are chronically oversubscribed.

It’s fairly easy to form an impression of unwillingness to assimilate in connection with contemporary Mexican immigrants, for two reasons. The first is the seemingly permanent existence of a Spanish speaking population. For those who don’t think much about it, there is the easy illusion that the same individuals who spoke only Spanish in 1970 are those who don’t speak anything but Spanish in 2018. It’s in part an auditory misconception, if you wish.

People of Mexican origin have been present in significant numbers in parts of the US, especially in California, for a long time, since WWII, at least. For the past thirty years and until 2010, Mexicans kept coming into the US in large numbers. They are always within earshot of Anglos, who thus hear Spanish spoken ceaselessly. Every time a fresh batch of Latin-Americans lands, including Mexicans, the pool of Spanish monolinguals is replenished. Those who arrived twenty years earlier and left the pool of the strictly Spanish speaking  did it one at a time, without fanfare or announcement. They are not especially noticeable; they are also taken for granted. Since the second generation usually retains the ability to speak some Spanish, any shrinking of the strictly monolingual pool is not self-evident. This process may account by itself for a widespread impression that Mexicans perversely refuse to learn English. If all Mexican and Hispanic immigrants suddenly stopped using Spanish, it would still take something like thirty years for all people with Spanish surnames to know English well. That’s pretty much an adult lifetime and many Anglos would be able to preserve their misapprehension in the meantime, a lifetime.

That was the fallacy. Second, the half-truth. People of Mexican descent live in those same areas in large numbers. Residence of long standing and large numbers both facilitate the formation of relatively ethnically homogeneous, partly self-sufficient areas. For recent immigrants, living in such areas eases greatly the transition via a culturally and linguistically intermediate sphere. It provides the new immigrants with familiar food, shelter, transportation information, and other practical information, directly and thanks to the presence there of Spanish-language media. It’s a rational choice for immigrants to live there, from the standpoint of short term usefulness. It helps considerably their economic and logistical integration into American life. Note that the current dominant mode of immigration based on kinship greatly helps implement this choice. Relatives easily provide temporary room and board, even small loans. Immigrants have always congregated with their own in this manner whenever they could.

At the same time, living in homogeneous immigrant enclaves must actually retard assimilation, the (obligatory) acquisition of the indigenous language, and a good understanding of the culture, in complex ways. Favoring the extended family for both cultural and practical reasons, Mexicans and their descendants often gather three generations under the same roof. Spanish-only immigrants cohabit with their children who arrived at an early age and who are consequently bilingual although often in  severely limited ways. They also usually live close to the children’s children who were brought up in Spanish at home because that was the convenient thing for all though they attend school completely in English. These patterns of settlement for Mexican immigrants ensure that their descendants take a fairly long time to become Americans indistinguishable from others.

In my personal observation, the third generation is often struck between bad Spanish and bad English but they are able to function superficially with both. (Paradoxically, the grandchildren of monolingual literate immigrants may thus end up nearly illiterate in two languages.) Since they mostly go to public school, this is noticeable to all. That is big news and it’s bad big news. The solution is some forms of bilingual education but all bilingual education is anathema to many conservatives in spite of some shining successes. I know personally of one elementary school that offers a track where all the children -Anglos included – seem to me to be competently bilingual, including in writing and reading, in which they are only a little behind their English-only counterparts. So-called “bilingual education” acquired a bad reputation in California about 20 years ago and it’s very difficult to erase it. Courses of study are like teenage girls living in small villages! Rigorously monolingual native-born tend to believe that sudden immersion in the local language is the best policy. (It’s like teaching a child out to swim: Throw him in the deep water; if he does not drown, he can swim.) This belief is simply unfounded. If you don’t think so, try learning Algebra in Mandarin.

At any rate, there appears to be Spanish-mostly towns within sight of mainstream Anglo areas. Individuals who live there do not resist learning English as many would believe; they are learning, albeit slowly and often not very well. The false impression that immigrants stubbornly resist learning English is much fortified by the fact that the overwhelmingly proudly monolingual native-born Anglos have no idea of how time consuming it is to learn a second language. I am sure -from a good number of spontaneous statements – that many are confident that they would become “fluent” in Spanish in six months or so if they cared to. (Whatever “fluent” means; it’s a fluid concept!) One of the most charitable things I have done in my life is to re-assure dozens of Anglos that it was not shameful to be unable to hold a conversation in French even after studying the languages “for two year” in high school!

The native-born’s language delusion persists although they have been sending their children to college, and now, to high school expensive, “semester abroad,” for thirty years with no palpable results. In my experience, based on 25 years of close and careful observation, undergraduates come back from a school stay abroad – almost always on an American campus – having learned in the relevant foreign language only such rare words as “anti-freeze,” “ski wax,” and “suntan lotion.” Americans being overwhelmingly courteous people, they also know ordinary forms of salutation and several ways of saying “Please” and “Thank you.” I must add that this pessimistic assessment does not exclude the possibility that the experience did the young people some good intellectually, in other, non-linguistic ways. Learning a language is a bit like lifting intellectual weights. It’s good for you even if it’s functionally useless.

In point of fact, I believe that hardly any adult learns a language well outside of a school setting, or  of some other regimented setting. (Again, see my essay on this narrow topic: “Foreign Languages and Self–Delusion in America,” referenced in Footnote Four.) And, for what it’s worth, of the twenty most accomplished bilingual individuals I now know in the US, more than half are Mexican immigrants; none is a native-born Anglo (or, as they say in Spanish, “ningún.”) They do want to learn English, at least, some do!

As I have remarked, to make matters worse, anti-immigrant rants often contrast explicitly the Mexicans’ putative unwillingness to assimilate or to learn English with the attitudes of imaginary, exemplary former immigrants, from a hundred years ago or more, often the ranters’ own forebears. Those, we are told, learned English almost overnight, never looked back at the Old Country, or much lapsed back into its language. This is a romantic tale with no basis in fact, as much American literature tells us. On the East Coast and in Chicago, American newspapers in languages other than English lasted for two or more generations after the wave of new immigrants of the relevant languages slowed to a trickle. They existed much beyond the 1920s when immigration was essentially shut off. (see footnote 5)

A word of caution to end this segment. One must weigh my words with an understanding of my California parochialism. Of course, I don’t know a lot first-hand about other kinds of immigrants in other parts of the country (the US). Dominicans are not Mexicans; Canadians who move to Florida for good are not Chinese; the Detroit area may make different accommodations for its immigrants than Silicon Valley for its own. Nevertheless, on the whole, I doubt that the broad processes by which immigrants are incorporated into American society differ much because they are so broad, precisely. I am open to contradiction, all the same.

Irrespective of willingness, immigrants differ in their capacity both to become integrated and to assimilate. This cold-hearted observation should be at the core of any wholesale immigration reform. I deal with the topic, of immigration reform at the end of this essay. I do not approach here what might be an important facet of the whole legal immigration phenomenon. Today, with fast and inexpensive transportation available, would-be immigrants  often have several opportunities to reconsider, to decide whether they are really immigrants or just visitors. (I spent, myself, two separate years working in France before my final decision to try and stay in the US for good.) A one-way flight to Europe costs only $400 in the low season. A flight back to  anywhere in Mexico costs even less; a bus fare less than half of the latter. It follows that real immigrants, those who remain for good are more self-selected than was true in the past. I expect that the self-selection pertains largely to the subject’s compatibility with American society. Would-be immigrants who have too hard a time in the US go home voluntarily, I expect. American reform efforts are directed at confirmed volunteers. It should matter.


Footnotes

5  You can trust me on this. I know quite a bit about newspapers longevity. A co-author and I practically invented the concept! See: Carroll, Glenn and Jacques Delacroix. “Organizational mortality in the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland: an ecological approach.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 27:169-198. 1982, and: Delacroix, Jacques and Glenn Carroll. “Organizational foundings: an ecological study of the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 228:274-291. 1983.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 8]

Mexican immigration and the Open Border: Mexicans Go Home and Mexican Kindness

I just returned from a two-plus weeks stay in Mexico for the second time in less than five months. A couple of comments to add to my previous essay on Mexican underdevelopment. Plus, some unrelated political sociology comments.

In 2009, my friend and I published a long piece on Mexican emigration to the US in the libertarian periodical The Independent Review. (Nikiforov and I are both immigrants to the United States.) The article is entitled, “If Mexicans and Americans Could Cross the Border Freely (pdf),” and the full text is available through a link on this blog. In that article, we argued that we would all be better off if the southern American border were open to crossing by citizens of both countries with no expectation of a change in citizenship for either.

Well, the politicians did not listen to us then and their inattention led to the recent Republican fiasco whereas, President Obama used an executive order to more or less legalize five million illegal aliens, most of them Mexicans whereas, the Republican Senate called him out and ended up caving piteously. (Do you remember or have you already forgotten? Stupidly, Republicans tried to use the threat to de-fund Homeland Security at a time when aggravated terrorism news fill the airwaves.) As often happens, the Republican leadership confused the issue of constitutional principle with the substantive issue of limiting immigration. Myself, I would chose total firmness on the first and flexibility on the second, for fear of ending up the A.H., no matter what the outcome. The Republican leadership lost the constitutional arm wrestling and still ended up the A. H. Congratulations, guys!

Our article was long and intricate as is normal for a scholarly piece. Here are two highlights from that piece on which I wish to comment after my two recent stays in Mexico:

A We argued that Mexicans – who constitute the largest immigrant group to the US – should be given special treatment over other aliens. Several reasons for this: They are our close neighbors; they have been joined to us through NAFTA for now 23 years, insuring that our lives are tightly enmeshed economically. Then, because of a long series of past interactions some may find deplorable, Mexicans tend to make very good immigrants. Two reasons for this superiority, in turn. First, nearly everyone agree that Mexicans (in the US) tend to be very hard workers. Even their direct competitors in the work place tend to assent to this judgment. Second, sociologically, Mexicans make good immigrants because they are astonishingly familiar with our society, including with our institutions, before they set foot on American soil. In particular, Mexicans don’t find perplexing our fundamental constitutional principle of separation of religion and government. (That’s, as opposed to immigrants from other areas I could name.)

Nikiforov and I argued that Mexican citizens should enjoy unimpeded passage into the US, and the freedom to take any job for which they qualify, all without any path to American citizenship because, Mexicans already have a citizenship, that of Mexico. We point out that the European Union has used this model for more than twenty years and experienced few downsides. (The current ferment in Europe about and opposition to immigration does not involve neighbors from the EU, with one single exception I will discuss if someone asks me.)

B We proposed that many Americans would find it comfortable to spend their last years in Mexico because of a specific aspect of Mexican culture, to wit, contemporary Mexicans tend to be sweet in general and considerate to older people in particular.

This is what I found in twice two and half weeks in Puerto Vallarta in the pas five months that is relevant to these issues.

First, on the matter of Mexicans wanting to work in the US but not necessarily wishing to live there, we were much more right than we thought when we wrote about this. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that this would work. Everywhere I went in Puerto Vallarta , I bumped into people who knew some English that they had learned in the US, mostly as illegal immigrants here working at undesirable jobs. None of those people had been expelled, deported. All had returned to Mexico under their own power after saving some money. Thus, they had chosen to go home because it’s home, just as we predicted in the article.

One middle-aged man sticks to my mind, a taxi driver. He had stayed in the US (illegally) for several years. He had refrained from visiting with his family in Mexico for stretches of two or three years at a time to avoid being unable to return to the US. You might say that he was trapped in the US for longer periods than he wished because of our immigration laws. He finally decided to go back to Mexico and to his family for good after he had saved enough money to build a house for each of his three daughters. He specified that only one of the daughters was of marriageable age by the time he had the three houses standing. To my mind, this is an exemplary story of emigration/immigration. On my query, the man declared himself satisfied with his choice and with his life since his return from the US.

He was earning, driving a taxi, about 1/5 or less of what he earned in the US doing unpleasant work. He liked his job; he enjoyed returning to his family every evening; he liked the schools; paradoxically, he liked Mexican schools. (This is paradoxical because daily life in Puerto Vallarta, including in the schools is much more relaxed, much more genteel than what prevails in the US except in the most elite neighborhoods. In that part of Mexico, the bloody drug traffic-based blood-thirsty banditry is found strictly in the newspapers. It is not at all apparent in daily life. The quality of this daily life is at the antipodes of the impression of Mexico reaching us through the US media. Gangs are not in the school unlike in Salinas, California, for example.)

On point B, the attractiveness of Mexico to older Americans, I find that I tend to censor myself anytime I write about the topic because I fear appearing to be gushing like a teenage girl. During my last stay, of two and half weeks, I did not meet a single Mexican man, woman or child who was not completely pleasant except two. One was a taxi driver and he was morose but, that’s because he was drunk. (Nobody is perfect.) The second was a female merchant who acted displeased because I tried to bargain down an item in which I was interested. Another merchant – from whom I actually bought and whom I befriended – told me later that my bargaining had been reasonable and that the woman was undergoing a painful divorce. Mexico is not perfect and I may have looked like the woman’s soon-to-be ex-husband. You never know; these things happen.

Absolutely everywhere, my gray beard drew the kind of respectful behavior I don’t expect in the US. (And that I don’t deserve, to be honest!)

I can hear the snickering from here: “Of course, he stays in a tourist ghetto were everyone is occupationally obligated to appear nice.” No, I did not spend all my time there; I was forced to go out and I liked to go out. I found that everyone smiles a lot, including at each other, even among perfect strangers, that everybody ceded passage, that waiting lines are always orderly. Being a formerly great social scientist, I yielded, of course, to the temptation to conduct verbal experiment. Unfailingly, I made everyone I wanted to laugh at the drop of a hat. I mean small children, old ladies and adults of all sexes. (Yes, my Spanish is that good. Eat your heart out or learn to conjugate irregular verbs! Those are your choices. There are no others.)

Issue A and B are joined in the strangest way within my latest short stay in Mexico. Puerto Vallarta in the winter is swarming with Canadians. Their flight from the cold may have a great deal to do with this fact but it has a virtuous side-effect. I suspect many flew in to warm up and ended up warmly loving Mexicans for the reasons I depicted above. They beat Americans at it, in that city, at least. Oh, and the only sullen faces around Puerto Vallarta all belong to them. It became a game of pop-sociology for me: guessing from afar who was American and who was Canadian. It soon become embarrassingly easy: The Americans are the loud ones who say hello and who laugh easily. (Besides, I think the presence of Canadians explains much of the bad food there.)

After this last experience, I am very tempted to start a new racist fad: Speaking ill of and persecuting Canadians. It could be fun and they are not (yet) a federally protected minority.

Mexican Underdevelopment: Pop-Sociology

It’s six a.m., I am sipping my first cup of coffee on the small balcony near the tall coconut tree. It’s still dark but I can see a short stocky woman sweeping the ground of the open space in front of the hotel next door. Right away, I detect that something is wrong in the picture although I am not fully awake. The broom the woman is using is too short, its straw end is frayed. She is bending over more than should be necessary; some of her energy is being misspent because she pushes harder than she would have to with a newer broom. No big deal! Except…

Mexico is the kind of country where the dentist kisses you when you leave. (This particular dentist is a pretty willowy blonde.) Perhaps, Mexico is the only country of its kind. I don’t know; I have not been everywhere. No American dentist has ever attempted this maneuver on me, or on my attractive wife either. I have avoided French dentists since 1960. A dentist in Morocco once gave me a root canal with no anesthesia whatsoever. I forgave him long ago but I wouldn’t let him kiss me if you paid me. The universal amiability of Mexicans might color everything I say below. You are warned.

I just spent three weeks in Mexico, in the pleasant resort city of Puerto Vallarta. With a population of 250,000, it does not feel much larger than Santa Cruz, California with its population 4/5 smaller. Still it’s large enough to be considered a real place, not a boutique resort. I was staying in a small hotel on the beach, of course, which limits observation. But my wife and I did most of our own cooking and therefore, we had to shop often in an ordinary supermarket located in an ordinary commercial center. This is important as a kind of regular and forced immersion into normal local life. We did not have a car so, we took taxis several times a day. This is important too because cab drivers everywhere are a rich fount of information if you manage to steer them from small talk. Yes, I know Spanish, and not only in my imagination as described in my masterful “Foreign Languages and Self-Delusion in America” (if I say so myself) but for real. I understand everything that is said to me in that language; I am able to eavesdrop on conversations between strangers; I can read the newspaper; I listen to television news without effort.* In brief, I was in a reasonable good position to observe, interpret and ask questions.

This stay in Mexico was like a refresher course on a topic that occupied me professionally for about twenty-five years: Why some countries are poorer than others. (When you begin thinking seriously about this simple question, you quickly discover that the plausible answers are numerous and complex.) I used to do it in a rigorous, quantitatively based manner, estimating statistical models and the like. This time, I am indulging myself frankly in pop-sociology. It does not imply any rejection of my past endeavors.

Comparisons between the way things are done in Mexico and in the US come naturally because the surface similarities between there and here are obvious. Mexicans want what we want and they work openly for it and, in time, they get it. Material progress usually takes a familiar American form, from shopping malls to cineplexes, to the Discovery Channel…, you name it.

Mexico’s GDP per capita is less than one third of the American equivalent (about USD 16,500 vs 52,000, Purchasing Power Parity, a formulation which makes the two figures comparable) Mexico is a poor country but not one of the poorest by a long shot. Why would it be poor?

Mexicans are not a short on entrepreneurial spirit. Every nook and cranny shelters a business of sorts. I enter a tiny corner shop in a non-touristy part of town selling I don’t know what. A toddler sleeps on a blanket on the cold floor. (It’s hot.) Against one wall, three cramped stalls offer Internet access. The owner, the toddler’s father, tells me he is opened from 7 am to 10 pm. He charges me forty cents to recharge my cellphone battery, not an especially low price considering his cost and the little labor involved. There are restaurants everywhere, also far from the tourist tracks. Some have only four tables. Most are still empty at 8 pm. Two social mechanisms seem at work. One is simple mimicry: The guy across the street has one. What does he know about birria that I don’t know? The other is a version of the Chinese eating place economic rationale: If people don’t come to dine here, my family can always eat the food; I have many children anyway. Nothing is going to go to waste. The economic risk is small. It can’t hurt. Perhaps, rents are low because there is not much  alternative use for the relevant spaces.

Food is everywhere anyway. If someone goes hungry in Mexico, it’s somewhere else. Yet, food prices are low but not very low. Rice is cheap, avocados are cheap; apples are the same price as in California perhaps because they come from afar. This is an undeveloped capitalism, with poor infrastructures; moving foodstuff is still expensive. A cup of reasonable good coffee costs USD 1,40; that’s probably more than in an Arkansas diner. That’s what it means to be poor: Your money does not reach very far.

Three facts of possible economic relevance strike you quickly; two are concrete and easy to verify; the third is intangible, or kind of unsubstantial, but that does not make it irrelevant. First, nearly every shop is overstaffed by a significant factor. That’s easy to see when people perform identical jobs with identical technologies as in the US. There are twice or more salesladies in the clothing area of a department store as there would be in KMart, the perennially failing chain. In the butcher section of the supermarket, employees are waiting for you. That’s nice but it’s probably superfluous. I could wait two minutes instead, so could Mexican housewives. In the restaurants that actually have some business, the waitpersons (waiters and waitresses ) seem to be spending most of their time standing still.

The second observation concerns low individual productivity. It’s not that Mexicans don’t work hard. In Mexico as in the US, Mexicans are remarkable for working hard for long hours. They seem to know no coffee breaks and little even by way of lunch breaks. The problem is that you see everywhere people doing work for which they have received little or no training. I watched with increasing fascination, several times a day, a laborer failing to finish a simple brick path. He did not manage to complete in three days what I am ready to bet an American bricklayer would have done in less than a day. (Yes, I know something about bricklaying too.) That’s a big productivity differential. Even the pharmacists filling my prescriptions seemed hesitant. They did not exude the authority of American pharmacists with an advanced education. Since Mexicans in general rarely lack in personal authority and, by elimination, I am forced to hypothesize that my pharmacists where just sort of learning their job as they went along.

Incidentally, I have reasons to believe that this shortage of training does not extend to superior occupations: Mexican doctors and Mexican engineers are not inferior to their American counterparts, I am guessing. (The fast development of medical tourism into Mexico from both the US and Canada testifies to the quality of the former, I think.)

The third observation, which I called intangible is difficult to render, of course. It’s almost only an impression but one that is redundantly encountered. The information dispensed by the conventional Mexican media seems very thin. The nightly news program on major channel serves poor fare as compared to the Spanish language but American Univision. If there are new or substantive programs on radio, I have not discovered them. (I may very well have missed such.) I mean that I almost missed National Public Radio there ( a difficult admission for me, obviously). Whether you read the daily newspaper or not does not make much difference in your level of information. Here is a test case.

On a weekend day, there is a massive protest march in Mexico City. The demonstration is to protest the disappearance of 43 young people from the same teachers school. Everyone except their parents knows they have been murdered. The demonstration is both very large and quite orderly as compared to anything of the same kind in the US. The police uses tear gas but only sixty people are arrested. There is no mention of anyone seriously hurt.

I buy the Sunday version of what has been designated to me as the best national daily newspaper in the country (“El Excelsior“). A description of the demonstrations and photographs cover the front page, as you would expect. The two innermost pages are devoted to the same events. In addition to eyewitness accounts are included serious interviews of government officials, of protest march organizers and of several pundits. I make myself read every word. At the end, I have learned close to nothing and I have no new perspective on the crime, sociologically, politically or otherwise. I just get confirmation of the fact that the mayor of the town where the young men disappeared and his wife have been arrested. I turn to the “global” page and get a reading of events in Iraq and Syria that I would probably not understand absent my previous familiarity based on American media. In three weeks, I see and hear not a single reference to President Obama’s executive order concerning illegal immigrants about half of whom are of Mexican origin.

I think that Mexicans, including well-educated Mexicans, are not well informed unless the Internet makes up for the obvious deficiencies of the conventional press, which is hard to believe. I would be hard put to explain how this affects Mexican economic development except that it may result in a blindness to new economic opportunities. Mexican entrepreneurs dedicate themselves to old pursuits or they imitate the gringo model late and imperfectly, perhaps (perhaps). Even where a Mexican industry has experienced notable global success such as the brewery industry, it did not innovate much, if at all. No innovation, no temporary super-profits, no generous wages (as we see in Silicon Valley, for example). This is all speculation. Others may have written on the relationship between the general level of information of a population and its overall productivity and it may have escaped my attention or, I may have forgotten it. Maybe readers will come to my rescue on this.

So, here you have it: skimpy training of ordinary workers, inferior tools, a poor physical infrastructure, an under-informed populace, together make for much lower gross productivity than what we are used to in the US. But, overall, in a sort of rough way, wages follow productivity. Mexican workers produce little and they get paid accordingly little. Note that the same factors of poverty interact with one another: Low pay encourages the hiring of a surfeit of workers; modestly paid workers may not be perceived as deserving good tools; an underdeveloped infrastructure buffers business decision-makers from all kinds of competition, including competition for workers, thereby keeping wages lower than they need be. Workers may not be well informed enough to struggle for higher wages. And, of course, workers with low pay make poor consumers. Among other things, they fail to fill the restaurants their entrepreneurially inclined neighbors open for them.

By now, you may wonder why something is missing from this story. I mean corruption, small corruption and especially, big corruption. Two reasons for this absence. The first is that, naturally, corrupt behavior is not readily amenable to casual observation. The second reason is that I am not convinced that corruption of any kind goes much way toward explaining Mexican underdevelopment.

Low level corruption first. In Mexico, it’s common to deal with an ordinary traffic transgression by asking the policeman who stopped you to pay the fine on your behalf because “I am too busy, sorry.” I am told that any amount of cash close to half of the amount of the official fine will do the trick. This sort of practice pervades Mexican life, I am still told. (I have not had a personal experience of it for twenty years myself.) It’s not clear to me that it has any relation to underdevelopment. In the above example, what is basically a tax gets diverted from the government to private pockets. Likewise, when building permits are sold by building inspectors rather than earned and deserved, a relaxation of anti-growth regulations takes place, doesn’t it ?

I don’t know, incidentally, that there is much private corruption in Mexico. I must have taken more than sixty taxis while I was in Puerto Vallarta. They have no meters but rates are fixed by zone. Only one tried to take me, for about USD 3. That’s an extremely low hit rate as compared to say, New York City.

Now, on to big-time corruption. By its nature, it’s hard to observe except if you read the paper carefully and with great, diligent constancy. (See above.) Here is one possible case that came to my attention while I was in Mexico. A big house on a golf course comes up for sale for USD 1.5 million. The seller is a police official described to me as not very high on the totem pole. Someone I know makes an offer. The asking price shrinks to USD 750,000 if he will pay cash. How did a police official get his hands on that house? Did he inherit a pile of money from his father, from a rich aunt? By insisting on cash, is he simply trying to avoid taxes or does he have a more sinister reason? I don’t know and here again, I am not sure it matters. Perhaps, it does in relation to the accumulation of capital; I wouldn’t know which way though.

People of libertarian inclination have to choose: If government is inimical to happiness in general and to economic prosperity in particular then, the suspension of government efficacy, as with corrupt government practices, must be for the better. Or, another, more benign theory of government must be developed.

* If you wonder at my linguistic prowess, don’t. First, Spanish is a dialect of Latin, like French, my native language. Second, I have been studying Spanish for a straight sixty years. It stands to reason that I have made some progress.

Racial Profiling at its Best

Here is a story and a sociological essay all rolled into one.

My son the recent college graduate only thinks about cooking. I encourage his inclination, of course. Compulsion does not work. Most people do well only what they like to do. Besides, I am an immigrant from France. Scabs of French pessimism stick to my brain. I don’t know how long the current economic crisis will last. In Japan, there were ten dead years, a full decade lost. I tell myself that cooks never go hungry and neither do those who are close to them. I adore my son’s girlfriend. I want her to have enough to eat, happen what may. I used to work in kitchens myself, around the 18th century. I believe that even the leavings from the average restaurant kitchen will keep you pleasantly fat forever. Go for it, I tell him.

My son has been cooking part-time since he was a teenager and throughout the embarrassingly long years it took him to complete his political science major. He has experience in a variety of fairly humble kitchen positions. I also think he has some talent. I don’t say this because he is my son. I am a mean father by California standards, a stern figure more or less from the Old Testament, you might say. Not long ago, I thought my son was worse than worthless. I am not afraid to be “judgmental,” bet on it! But he has changed. His brain has caught up with his glands at last. Having finished college, he is naturally looking for a full-time position, or better. He is meeting with an obstacle we did not expect but that was expectable if we had thought about it: He is not Mexican.

In California, where I live, everywhere in California, I think, during the fat cow years, immigrants from Mexico took over nearly all the kitchen jobs, Those are mostly hard jobs, stressful jobs offering low pay. The native-born young shunned them in favor of retail “sales associates” positions that are easy and allow for a fair margin of laziness although they don’t pay any better. The Mexican take-over began with Taco Bells and private tamales stands, and, naturally, taco shops. But immigrants are predictable. Many went considerably further. Continue reading

The French Presidentials and Cinco de Mayo

I have been busy producing a legible and clean copy of my memoirs: “I Used to Be French….” It’s an endless process. By the way, if you are an agent, don’t be shy about asking to read this remarkable and witty document.

While my back was turned, the world continued to turn. The French lost the battle of Puebla and they lost an election, all in the same day.

People in California celebrate Cinco de Mayo with beer and more expensive stuff. Few know what they are celebrating, Anglos, never, children of Mexicans, seldom, Mexican immigrants, often but not always. Myself, I celebrate too because I like beer, Mexicans and Mexican beer. I celebrate discretely though.

In the battle of Puebla, in 1862, under the presidency of Benito Juarez, a Mexican army achieved victory over a French expeditionary forces against all expectations. What happened is that the French thought they were on their way to Prussia to beat on that emerging power before it was too late. They turned right instead of left outside Paris by mistake. Somehow, they ended up in Mexico and the rest is history, mostly forgotten history. They left behind in Mexico, probably pan dulces, and less probably, the name for roving musicians in charro costumes, mariachis (“marriage”). Continue reading