...Archive for October 2022

Immigration, exploitation, and social democracy

A simple, amoral, model of an immigrant is a pair of hands attached to a mouth. From the selfish, amoral, perspective of incumbents, in aggregate, immigration is desirable if the value produced by the pair of hands is greater than the value eaten by the mouth.

However, as always in social affairs, the phrase “in aggregate” is home to many devils. From the perspective of many incumbents, immigrants are undesirable not because they are lazy scroungers, but precisely because their hands are willing to work so hard relative to what their mouths are fed. Exploitable, exploited, immigrants compete with domestic workers, and threaten labor bargaining power writ large. Exploiting immigrants domestically then comes to parallel exploiting comparative advantage internationally (where, of course, comparative advantage often means exploitable labor in foreign lands). It creates a bigger (domestic) pie “in aggregate”, but creates winners and losers. In a political system that enfranchises the potential losers, especially one with lots of veto points, exploitative immigration that would be valuable in aggregate may be blocked.

This can be understood as a kind of coordination problem among incumbents. If the winners from exploitative immigration would compensate the losers for their loss of bargaining power and so income, then all incumbents could be made better off. But institutionally, what kind of mechanism could be made to do that? Well, suppose we tax the increment of real income that employers gain from both exploiting new immigrants and hiring native workers on more favorable terms, and use the resulting revenues to fund benefits for the poor? No, that wouldn’t do it. Domestic full-time workers, even under somewhat less favorable terms than they might have faced without immigration, are unlikely to qualify under the society’s definition of “poor”. Households anchored by such workers define the bulk of the public. In relative terms they are typical, median. So a state that redistributes from the richest to the poorest won’t solve the coordination problem that prevents incumbents in aggregate from seeking to exploit new immigrants. A “liberal welfare state” isn’t enough.

Suppose instead we tax the increment of real income that employers gain from both exploiting new immigrants and hiring domestic workers on more favorable terms, and use the resulting revenues to fund universal benefits? These do reach, and so can compensate, the incumbent workers whose bargaining power has been reduced by exploitative immigration. States that redistribute into universal benefits, rather than help for the poorest, we describe as social-democratic.

Often social democracy and immigration are thought to be in tension with one another. The assumed basis for the tension, however, is that social democratic benefits will enable immigrants’ mouths will eat more than their hands produce. When immigration and immigration policy are framed in humanitarian terms, and if immigrants are provided social democratic benefits immediately and on the same terms as incumbent citizens, then yes, there are tensions between social democracy and immigration.

But if immigration and immigration policy are framed in selfish terms, then soft, pink social democracy becomes a hard-nosed solution to the coordination problem that prevents enrichment of incumbents by exploitative immigration. The mistake made by actual social democracies, with respect to immigration, hasn’t been their openness to it. On the contrary, it’s been their passivity, allowing mass immigration to be defined in reaction to humanitarian crises elsewhere rather than designing voluntary pathways for large numbers of people to migrate under terms that support rather than undermine the social democratic benefits enjoyed by incumbents.

What might these pathways look like? First, in order to minimize their effect on incumbent worker bargaining power and so discontent, immigrant workers might be employed in domains that are distinct from the occupations of incumbents, “they only do the work that we don’t want to.” Then, in oversimplified, completely amoral and antisocial terms, you might imagine a permanent, growing corps of guest workers, who come voluntarily to be employed on openly exploitative terms, because despite the exploitation they still earn more when employed productively in developed countries than they would earn at home.

We do see this kind of policy, in Middle Eastern countries especially. However, wiser polities will not craft policy in completely amoral and antisocial terms. Antisocial policy might make a polity wealthier temporarily but also weaken it, increasing the costs (economic and social) of maintaining domestic security and cohesion, while creating reputational and diplomatic vulnerabilities. Social democracies in particular flatter themselves as solidaristic and virtuous polities. Policy that undermines that often self-fulfilling self-perception should be scored as very costly.

So a canny social democracy will craft institutions of gradual integration. New immigrants would begin highly exploited in sectors of the labor market segmented from incumbent workers, but over time the exploitation and segmentation they face would decline. Second generation immigrants, or those who migrate as children, would be integrated as fully and quickly as possible. Incomplete integration and continued exploitation of second generation immigrants is a source of social instability and often a security concern, as unlike first generation immigrants, second generation immigrants have not chosen their status and have no lived experience of opportunity or escape, gratitude for which might compensate for the fact of exploitation.

Slow integration out of segmented, exploitative labor markets into the more comfortable mainstream is a tried and true formula for value extraction by immigrant-accepting nations. It’s been the formula the United States has used, when it has best succeeded as a “nation of immigrants”. Interestingly, it is also a formula urban China has stumbled into, accepting internal migrants from rural areas on exploitative terms, but working increasingly to integrate their children. Usually this strategy is tacit rather than open. In the United States, some categories of legal immigrants have full rights, but nevertheless wield limited bargaining power due to language barriers and various forms of ghettoization. Some categories of legal immigrants (seasonal workers, H-1B visa holders bound to a sponsoring employer) face formal restrictions that limit their bargaining power and constrain the domains in which they work. Illegal immigrants, of course, lack nearly all legal protection and so work under extremely exploitative terms.

It would be better for all concerned if de facto policies of exploitative immigration were formalized and their terms rendered explicit. So long as immigration into developed countries is perceived by incumbents as costly and altruistic, the large fraction of such countries’ populations that struggles to afford the costs they face already will oppose it. While the terms of exploitation-until-slow-integration remain tacit and denied, societies will be needlessly riven by conflict between justice-oriented activists, who will point to the exploitation and proclaim it illegitimate, and business interests whose capacity to benefit from exploitation drives the opportunity to immigrate in the first place. Developed country populations should understand how accepting and in fact competing for immigrants is in our direct material interest. With segmented labor markets and social democratic benefits, that “our” can include the whole incumbent population. Immigration is what makes universal health care affordable, one might point out, if inexpensive nurses’ assistants are drawn from the new arrivals. Migrant construction workers let us build social housing. Immigrants should understand in advance the exploitation they will encounter, but also its duration and limits. If the terms of both temporary exploitation and eventual full integration are explicit, they become a basis for competition among destination countries to attract migrants. New immigrants might start off enjoying somewhat threadbare public benefits, but graduate into full citizenship with full benefits over an agreed period of time. A path to full citizenship is essential on social grounds, for societies that do not wish to become divided into oppressively sustained permanent castes.

Under this policy regime, developed countries come to compete over the rate of exploitative immigration they can attract and tolerate. Since the surplus from exploitation declines over time with each cohort of immigrants, sustaining the surplus requires continual new entrants. Different countries’ social capacity to accommodate or integrate immigrants will always be a limiting factor, and quite legitimately. But countries that find ways to ramp up their capacity to continually accept immigrants with minimal social or cultural disruption would benefit, directly and visibly, from doing so.

We began with a simple, amoral model of an immigrant, a pair of hands attached to a mouth, and a very economistic view of a polity as an aggregation of people seeking material value. We might add to our model of an immigrant a soul. An immigrant is not a mere object that produces surplus or costs, but a subject whose welfare we care about and whose fellowship we enjoy. Our polities are not mere aggregates of selfish people but also nations, groups that seek to thrive together and forge a common future. Accepting immigrants in ways that materially strengthen our polities is good for both the humans that join us and the nations that we constitute together. Obviously we can get it wrong. If we are too exploitative, or fail at our promise to integrate over time and (especially) generations, we can harm both migrants and the fabric of our societies. If we are too generous, or if we fail to distribute widely the surplus that immigrants generate, accepting newcomers may not be politically sustainable, and rather than integration we may end up with interethnic recrimination. But between those two hazards lies huge potential opportunity, for migrants, their children, and for the societies capable of accepting and, only temporarily, exploiting them.

Update History:

  • 30-Dec-2023, 4:20 p.m. EST: “but over time the exploitation and segmentation they face”

Peace as war by other means

I remain adamantly in favor of ending the war in Ukraine now. I also adamantly favor Ukraine in the war. Despite apologetics from various quarters, Russia is straightforwardly the aggressor. A just settlement would repel the Russian Federation entirely from Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, including Crimea. Russia plainly is not going to agree to a peace under which it slinks away from the territories it has just flamboyantly claimed to annex, let alone from Crimea, which it claims to have annexed in 2014. So how can I reconcile my continuing call for peace now with a just outcome for Ukraine (and the world)?

Let’s start with a commonplace. War is a profoundly negative-sum game. It kills and destroys. Whatever might be contested between the parties, if there were a form of adjudication that would yield the same distributional outcome as prosecuting the war, but without all the destruction, that would be strictly better for all parties. Of course, in real life, we never know what the outcome of warfare will be. When we think we know how a war is going to go, we often find ourselves catastrophically surprised. War is unpredictable. It compels an adversarialism so determined, our models are confounded. The contours of rationality itself curve like space at the edge of the event horizon.

We do not have some magic form of single combat guaranteed to yield the same outcome the war would have yielded, except without the mess. Alas. However, what we sometimes do have is a party with an upper hand. When one party in a conflict seems to have the upper hand, an extrapolatory expectation, unreliable and oversimplistic in fact, becomes nevertheless psychologically compelling. Party A has momentum! With determination, grit, time, and attrition, surely, say Party A partisans, we will win completely! Party B, during these times, is demoralized. Party B partisans cannot openly accede to extrapolatory logic. Instead, they must constantly work to persuade their publics, and their soldiers, that a corner is about to be turned. Somehow this darkest hour can portend a brilliant dawn. It’s hard work, for Party B propagandists. It often doesn’t work very well as, day by day, territory and lives are lost, national symbols are desecrated. Party B struggles to resist the gravitational pull of a joint consensus, the die is cast, we will lose, Party A will rout us.

It is during times like these that Party A has an opportunity, not to impose a victory but to propose a new, less terrible, form of conflict. From Party B’s perspective, this is a lifeline. We were losing the war, now here’s an alternative game, maybe this one we can win, at least maybe we will have a better shot. But of course this alternative proposed by Party A must be one Party A believes they are capable of winning. As long as Party A is pretty sure, they lose little in terms of the final outcome by shifting from war to this less destructive form of conflict. But they gain a great deal, because there will be much less destroyed when they eventually do win.

So the opportunity for peace here is not to propose a final settlement, or some precarious armistice that might, like the one that “ended” the Korean War, suppress hostilities cross-fingers indefinitely. The opportunity is to propose a new form of conflict, an alternative to and replacement of the war, by which the same issues can be adjudicated.

At the moment, in the current conflict, it is Ukraine that is Party A. Ukraine is the party that is winning and so can hope that some alternative game they propose will be accepted. So it’s Ukraine that could propose this sort of “peace”. But what would it look like?

I think it could be very simple. First, Ukraine and the West have a for-this-moment redline that Russia should not have gained by force any territory relative to the February 24, 2022 status quo ante. Russia has a for-this-moment redline that Crimea will not be surrendered. So, for this moment, we should revert to the February 24 status quo.

Russia claims that, by virtue of referenda, a merger into the Russian Federation of Crimea, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk is legitimate. The first point to make is that even if those referenda were free, fair, and expressive of the “will of the people” (which, whatever that means, they were not), secession is not any people or geography’s unilateral right. Secession, like divorce, implicates long-standing commitments and investments by the broader nation-state, not just the prerogatives of the local population. Referenda may be a part of a secession process, but they are never sufficient to force one. Ultimately reorganization of national borders must be mutually agreed by all of the parties to it. A nation-state’s obligation is to uphold the rights of all of its citizens, in every geography and of every ethnicity. A nation-state has no obligation to accede to secession, although it may choose to agree to part ways with a territory under mutually negotiated terms.

I think that Ukraine, Russia, and these territories should negotiate something like the following terms: For a period of ten years, administration of the contested territories will be according to the February 24 status quo ante. Crimea and the portion of the Donbas then controlled by separatists will be administered by Russia. The rest of the disputed territory will be administered by Ukraine. Citizens of all of the territories shall have the right of dual citizenship. They can obtain Ukrainian passports, Russian passports, or both.

At the end of the ten-year period, the UN will supervise referenda as to the final status of the territories. As part of the settlement, Ukraine and Russia agree upon how that will work for each territory under either result. If Crimea chooses Russia, under what terms does Ukraine supply the peninsula with water?, for example. It might be prudent to merge Crimea and Kherson into a single territory for the purpose of the eventual referendum, in order to foreclose the possibility of a discontiguous Ukrainian Crimea, which would be provocatively vulnerable.

The war over territories and populaces then reverts to a war between the parties for hearts, minds, and bellies over a period of a decade. If Ukraine, with help from the West, is redeveloping into a new Poland or Czech Republic while Russia stagnates, then the territories, including Crimea, will likely choose to be a part of Ukraine. Russia, if it wants to actually win the territories it claims are its own, will have to compete with the quality of its own development, or else make its taunts of cultural superiority to the decadent West extraordinarily compelling to the publics it would rule. The terms of the conflict would now be positive sum. As with the war, eventually some party will win and some party will lose each of the territories. Whatever the outcome, it won’t be fully just from the perspective of parties who have mutually irreconcilable conceptions of justice. But the fight to win the territories will render the territories themselves and the countries that mean to host them better off, rather than catastrophically worse off. The parties will have to compete in their effectiveness at doing good, rather than doing evil, and either side might win.

Security arrangements will have to be negotiated, so that a party losing the fight for hearts and minds is not tempted to reneg in favor of what they perceive to be an easy military workaround. Ukraine will not be demilitarized. Ukraine will require reparations, given the destruction that Russia has wrought on its territories. Fortunately, there are hundreds of billions of dollars of Russian assets already seized by the West, already lost to Russia indefinitely absent a settlement. It should not be too hard to persuade Russia that surrendering these now hypothetical assets to Ukraine as reparations would be in its interest, if that will purchase an end to this war that is bleeding them and help restore tolerable relations with its most important historic trading partners.

The competition for territories between Ukraine and Russia will not have ended. Indeed, it will have just begun. This peace would not be the end of the Ukraine war, but rather its continuation by other, much better, means. It would only be the end of the killing.

Update History:

  • 15-Oct-2022, 2:20 p.m. EDT: “It would only be the end of the killings killing.”

Liberalism vs democracy

It’s a habit, almost a tic, for many of us to put liberalism and democracy together. We live, or like to think we live, in a “liberal democracy”. This combination has seemed so natural that Francis Fukuyama famously argued it might be “the end of history”, the telos towards which human affairs are inevitably drawn. In our current politics, it is people who think of ourselves as liberals in a broad sense of the term who feel like democracy is under attack by a motley mix of populists, reactionaries, post-liberals, integralists, and fascists. We are the democrats. They are threats to democracy.

Within the vanguard of that they, there are intellectuals and leaders who gleefully accept that role. Everything they say we are we are and we are very proud of ourselves. The neoreactionaries are overt monarchists. It is the law that must teach the public, rather than the other way around, according to “common good constitutionalists”. Right-wing pseudohistoricists proclaim “We are a republic not a democracy.” Peter Thiel, who bankrolls so much of this stuff, declared democracy and freedom incompatible, and that he was for freedom, as early as 2009.

This colorful troupe of outcasts and intellectuals would matter very little but for the fact that much of the public votes for political candidates enthralled by their ideas. But the vast majority of these voters — let’s call them the Trumpists — are not overtly antidemocratic. On the contrary. Trump doesn’t proclaim, as some of those intellectuals might, that democracy is a feeble system that should be discarded so that our betters can rise to the service of rule. Trump appeals to his supporters in the name of democracy. The election was stolen! The voice of the people was muzzled by the ventriloquism of a shady and, yes, liberal elite.

Many Americans, I think, perceive liberals as the enemies of democracy, and quite plausibly, because liberalism can yield plainly antidemocratic outcomes! Who voted for shutting down the mills and factories of the midwest and sending that work to China? I didn’t. Did you?

Liberalism, or at least the version of liberalism to which we’ve subjected ourselves over the last few decades, stands in real tension with democracy. In both economic and social affairs, it valorizes and places above interference by the demos certain freedoms that have profound effects beyond the individuals who consent and choose. The state could not pick winners and losers, with respect to the location of industry. That was for business leaders and shareholders to decide. Then they were the winners, and the rest of us losers. The state should not impose parochial norms over gender identity, and now the most basic stuff we used to take for granted — this is the Ladies’ Room, this is the Men’s Room, you are either he or she — is overthrown. Nothing makes sense and the governor says they are mutilating our kids. “If you like what you have you can keep it” is the claim liberals always make, you do you but let other people make very different choices. Fine, you said. It’s a free country! But we are not in fact atoms, we live in a society. The domain of privacy that liberalism constructs is artificial and always leaky. It is not neutral. Some freedoms are assiduously protected, while others must give way. It turns out you can’t actually keep what you had, you never can, even though you liked it. The bathrooms are changing. Aspects of humanity so fundamental they are embedded in the very structure of language are obsolete and offensive. Now you must learn new language or be relegated a bigot, by your own children even, whose schools (that your tax dollars paid for) have assimilated them into this brave new world you do not recognize and cannot navigate. That seems weird, ugly, just plain wrong. What happened to your freedom? Your choice? Your rights? Did some majority actually vote for this? No they did not, as far as you can tell.

The issue, to be very clear, isn’t that there is anything wrong with trans rights. It’s that what begin as private rights claims under liberalism carry social implications that create wedges between outcomes and democratic preferences. This divergence becomes especially acute subnationally, within communities upon whom the rights claims themselves are imposed in the name of universality rather than embraced democratically. Illiberal political entrepreneurs will predictably polemicize these ruptures between democratic choice and outcome, rather than work to manage and reconcile them.

Liberals say they — we — are the democrats, on procedural grounds. Yes, we had the elections and wanted everybody to vote. But we constructed a system that took much of what the demos might care about out of reach. Vote for whom you like, it’s a free country! But whomever a majority chooses, government has no right or capacity to deliver the society that a majority actually wants. In both the economic and social sphere, every liberalism (many are possible) carves out particular, critical domains and makes them exempt from deference to the public. Liberalism emasculates democracy even while it sanctimoniously attends to the bureaucracy of it. Should this really count as democracy, or just a fig leaf for its opposite? The system is rigged. Perhaps Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy” is the more natural conjunction after all, and “liberal democracy” an oxymoron?

I don’t think so. I am still a strong enthusiast of liberal democracy, and would argue that “illiberal democracy” in practice collapses to ugly autocracy. But we have to continually work to reconcile these ideas, liberal and democracy. They are not mutually reinforcing. Quite the contrary. Respecting and celebrating individual choice while also tethering broad outcomes to the interests and (evolving) values of the demos is, I think, achievable. But it is not automatic or preordained. We have to be clever, and much more careful than we have been, if we hope to mitigate and manage the contradictions. Who knew that preserving the end of history would demand from us so much agility?

But if we don’t do this work, much of the public will perceive liberals to be the real threat to democracy. And they won’t be entirely wrong.

Update History:

  • 9-Oct-2022, 11:55 a.m. EDT: “But whomever a majority chooses, government has no right or capacity to deliver the society that a majority actually wants.” [comma inserted]
  • 11-Oct-2022, 11:20 a.m. EDT: “…what begin as private rights claims under liberalism carry broad and powerful social implications that create wedges…” [too wordy (ha!)]