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.
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.
This is from the communist Mexican artist Diego Rivera:
Created during the Great Depression, this one is almost too predictable. It’s beauty alone, though, makes it worthy of an afternoon with tea.
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.
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]
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.
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]
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.
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.