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Everything I Know About Walls

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I wrote this article, which appeared yesterday in the (Minnesota) Star Tribune paper.


"Everything I know about walls: Let the poet Robert Frost be your guide:
Timothy Taylor
August 17, 2018

Walls are rising all over the world: on the U.S. border with Mexico; on India’s borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar; between China and North Korea; on Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia; between Botswana and Zimbabwe; between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And more. 

But at the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie or a folk song, the more important walls are in our minds. American attitudes toward immigrants, for example, are not primarily about a physical wall at the border. 

Everything important that I know about walls I learned from Robert Frost and his 1914 poem, “Mending Wall.” Here is my list of Frost’s Eight Laws of Walls:

(1) If walls are not periodically reinforced, they tend to crumble. As Frost wrote: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.”

(2) We often cooperate in building walls, even when we aren’t sure it’s a good idea. “I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;/And on a day we meet to walk the line/And set the wall between us once again.”

(3) Walls don’t just block outsiders; they also enclose insiders and can heighten grievances. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offence.” (Frost seems to make the quaint and outdated assumption that giving offense is a negative thing.)

(4) Building walls can be, among its other functions, a pleasant game. “We have to use a spell to make them balance:/‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’/We wear our fingers rough with handling them./Oh, just another kind of out-door game …”

(5) When considering wall-building, one should distinguish between wandering cows and stay-at-home apples and pine cones.

(6) Good fences are not the basis for good neighbors, although that idea seems deeply comforting to many people. “He moves in darkness as it seems to me,/Not of woods only and the shade of trees./He will not go behind his father’s saying,/And he likes having thought of it so well/He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

(7) Even when people seem incapable of looking beyond their walls, they need to figure out the alternative on their own. “I could say ‘Elves’ to him,/But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather/He said it for himself.

(8) Even when others are eager to build walls, you can still meet with them — now and again — and chat.

Along with the physical walls, both around countries and around local gated communities, intangible walls come in social and economic versions.

Social walls are built along many boundary lines: political party, race or ethnicity, neighborhood, nationality, religious affiliation (or lack of it), immigrant status, gender, sexual preference, education level, job status and others. The problems arise when we hunker down behind the barricades of our own group, secure in the presumption that there’s nothing to be learned from listening to those we have consigned to the other side.

Economic walls include those along national borders affecting international trade, but also the many ways in which the well-to-do and the nearly-very-rich limit access to the neighborhoods in which they live, the schools their children attend, the credentials and social networks that lead to many jobs, the health care providers they use and more.

In the June issue of the Atlantic, Matthew Stewart offered a provocative essay about economic walls built by “the 9.9 percent” — that is, not the top 0.1 percent, but the rest of the top 10 percent.

He writes: “[A]round the world and throughout history, the wealthy have … taken their money out of productive activities and put it into walls. Throughout history, moreover, one social group above all others has assumed responsibility for maintaining and defending these walls. Its members used to be called aristocrats. Now we’re the 9.9 percent.”

“But wait a minute,” I hear you say. “Of course, other people build walls because of close-mindedness, lack of empathy, bigotry and selfishness.

“But the walls are completely different that I erect between myself and those belonging to other political, religious, racial, ethnic, neighborhood, national, gender, sexual preference, and economic groups. My walls are a necessary act of self-defense.”

Such an argument isn’t always wrong, but it often seems lacking in self-reflection. It reminds me of one of the philosophical paradoxes of self-defense arguments.

Long ago, when an invading army was attacking a walled city, it would gather up noncombatants from the countryside and force them to march ahead of the army. When the leaders of the walled city saw the huge mob arriving, they would fire in self-defense, hitting the noncombatants in front. The (previous) noncombatants in front would then fire back, in their own self-defense.

Presto! You have a battle between two groups who both have a legitimate claim to be fighting in self-defense.


Before you push back twice as hard, it’s worth considering the possibility that those who bumped you were being pushed as well, by some combination of social and economic forces, together with charismatic leaders. And those who ultimately benefit from the battle are standing back behind the scenes.

I’m not a fortune cookie or a folk song, so I won’t blow the trumpets for all the walls to come a-tumbling down. We all need our boundaries, and sometimes the boundaries need defending.

But building walls has costs, and should be done only after due consideration. It’s not always the better angels of our nature that encourage us to build walls.

Wall-building often begins with bricks of authenticity, honesty and virtue, but at some point the construction materials shift to an exuberant and exhibitionistic boorishness. Are your walls giving you cover for searching out the motes in the eyes of others, while ignoring the beams in your own eye?

Are you building a wall or an echo chamber? Are you building a wall or a fortress? Are you building a wall as part of a base camp for future aggression?

Walls that are built with enthusiastic participation from both sides will be the strongest. When you build a wall, you might want to contemplate those who are most actively helping to construct that wall from the other side — and the extent to which you really wish to cooperate with them.

If you have an uncomfortable feeling that your walls are causing you to move in darkness, perhaps you could try letting them slide into disrepair — just a little, just for awhile — and allowing elves to sneak through the cracks.

Timothy Taylor is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, based at Macalester College. He blogs at http://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com.
_____________________


“Mending Wall”


By Robert Frost (1914)


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”


From the Poetry Foundation website 
(www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall).

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DGA51
19 hours ago
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Are you building a wall or an echo chamber?
Central Pennsyltucky
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The Abyss of Time

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The Abyss of Time
On a boat at a rocky promontory in Scotland, farmer James Hutton made an argument that changed our understanding of Earth’s age and helped establish the science of geology.

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DGA51
6 days ago
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Central Pennsyltucky
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Foxconn Gets a Pollution Pass for Its Wisconsin Factory

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Trump and Walker OK Plant Pumping Clean Lake Michigan Water and Then Dumping Polluted Water Back

Get paid to pollute!

That’s the unspoken new policy of the Trump administration and its ally in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker. Their administrations are giving environmental protection waivers together with billions of dollars in subsidies to Foxconn, the giant Taiwan manufacturer best known for assembling iPhones.

Foxconn will be allowed to suck up to 7 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan and then dump that water, which may be laced with pollutants from making liquid crystal display panels, back into the lake.

Local officials are aghast. They understand the dangers to health and tourism if America goes back to the pre-Nixon policies of treating the Great Lakes as an industrial toxic waste pond.

Foxconn has not revealed what toxic metals and chemicals will be used but said it plans to distill the water it uses to decrease water use and recycle water.

The Trump administration helped arrange a $10 billion deal for Foxconn, which has started construction in Mount Pleasant, a Racine County village of about 26,000 people. If fully built out the industrial complex would be three times the size of the Pentagon.

Gov. Walker exempted the Foxconn factory from any major environmental review. Last-minute changes by Trump political appointees at the EPA could keep Foxconn from making expensive improvements to reduce smog.

Action Box/What You Can Do About It

Call EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler at 202-564-4700 to tell him your thoughts about protecting our Great Lakes or write him at EPA Headquarters / William Jefferson Clinton Building / 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW / Mail Code: 1101A / Washington, D.C. 20460

Midwest Environmental Advocates can be reached at 608-251-5047 or advocate@midwestadvocates.org

“We can protect our natural resources and support job creation at the same time,” said Ann Hasenberg, a Walker spokeswoman.

These pro-pollution favors are being challenged in court by Lisa Madigan, the Illinois attorney general.

Walker met with billionaire Terry Gou, the chairman of Foxconn Technology Group, in April 2017 in the office of Trump’s chief of staff. That meeting came just days after a White House aide called an executive at a Wisconsin economic development organization. The meeting between the two has been portrayed as part of the romance between Foxconn and Wisconsin that the company and the state claim will bring up to 13,000 jobs to Wisconsin. Notice that “up to.”

But the legalese and fine print underlying the deal suggest that Gou was more interested in how best to exploit our nation’s Great Lakes, home to a fifth of the world’s surface fresh water. Mount Pleasant is a “straddling community” only partly in the Great Lakes basin. Such communities can tap water from the Great Lakes provided the water is used “solely for public water supply purposes.”

Wisconsin, known under Walker for rarely enforcing its own standards for industrial water pollution, approved using water from Lake Michigan for the 22-million-square-foot industrial complex’s water needs.

Local officials understand the dangers if America goes back to treating the Great Lakes as an industrial toxic waste pond.

An LCD plant coats glass sheets with dozens of layers of thin material that conduct electricity. Washing the glass as each layer is applied uses millions of gallons of water.

Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources brought in a manager to oversee quick environmental permitting for Foxconn.

“We can get these jobs going on the ground and still have the environmental protection – and I will even say enhancement – as a result of this project,” Cathy Stepp, then the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said in 2017.

Stepp, who campaigned for Trump, later joined the EPA and is now a regional administrator in the Midwest for the EPA where her duties will include overseeing some of the chemicals used at Foxconn. The former deputy secretary at the Wisconsin DNR, Kurt Thiede, is now Stepp’s chief of staff.

Trump’s Army Corps of Engineers said it had no jurisdiction over wetlands that would be filled. Wisconsin gave up state authority over wetlands on the Foxconn property.

“Right now, we don’t have any authority on the site,” said Todd Vesperman, a Corps section chief.

Featured image: Polluted water at a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China (2012 photo by Jordan Pouille)

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DGA51
6 days ago
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Dumping waste into Lake Michigan
Central Pennsyltucky
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Economics, Trumpism and Migration

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It’s obvious enough by now that support for Trumpism in the US and elsewhere is motivated primarily by racial and cultural animus, and not (or at least not in any direct way) by economic concerns. Still, to the extent that Trumpism has any economic policy content it’s the idea that a package of immigration restrictions and corporate tax cuts[1] will make workers better off by reducing competition from migrants and increasing labor demand from corporations. The second part of this claim has been pretty thoroughly demolished, so I want to look mainly at the first. However, as we will see, the corporate tax cuts remain central to the argument.

For this purpose, I’m going to start with estimates presented to the US Senate by the restrictionist Centre for Immigration Studies, which draw mainly on the work of George Borjas at Harvard. These estimates have been the subject of vigorous criticism, but, AFAIK, no-one has suggested that they overstate the benefits of migration. So, for the sake of argument, it makes sense to start here.

The CIS estimates that the effect of migration is ” In short, the winners from immigration gain $594 billion and the losers lose $531 billion, for a net gain for $63 billion.” The winners in this estimate are business while the losers are native-born workers. The losses in the estimate are concentrated on low income workers, while some of the benefits probably go to high income workers like finance professionals (whose incomes will generally be correlated with profits). All gains and losses are in terms of annual income.

As would be expected, the CIS calculation disregards benefits to non-native born workers and their families, whether they are naturalized US citizens, legal residents or undocumented. In the CIS view, if you weren’t born in the US, you don’t count for anything.

To understand what’s going on here, it’s critical to observe that the discussion isn’t about migration flows but about the cumulative effect of migration, represented by the entire non-native population. That is, up to a first approximation[fn1], the CIS is comparing the current situation to one in which immigration had been held to zero throughout the lifetime of the current workforce (say, since the 1950s).

Now let’s look at the Trump corporate tax cuts. They benefit companies and high income earners to the tune of $2.3 trillion over 10 years or about $230 billion a year. That’s nearly half the amount transferred from workers to capital from all the immigration in living memory, as estimated by the CIS. And, of course, Trump’s tax cuts come on top of a string of tax cuts and other policies all of which have harmed labour and helped capital.

On the other side of the coin, suppose that Trump succeeded in deporting all undocumented workers and banning new immigration altogether. The estimates I’ve seen suggest that about 20 per cent of non-native workers are undocumented and that legal immigration (around one million per year) is equal to about 1.3 per cent of the current non-native population (around 60 million). Relying on the CIS estimates, it would take 20 years of such draconian policies just to offset the Trump tax cuts.

In practice, nothing like that is likely to happen. Anyone who voted for Trump on the basis of economic concerns about migration, or globalization more generally, has been taken for a ride. The same is true of voters for Brexit and for the anti-migrant forces that are now taking over, or marginalizing, old-style hard neoliberal parties on the political right around the world.

Turning the argument around, the CIS estimates suggest that immigration is hugely beneficial to corporations operating in the US. That implies that a combination of expanded immigration and higher corporate tax rates, along with higher minimum wages, would leave corporations better off, while also benefiting workers and allowing for higher public expenditure. The usual arguments about capital mobility don’t apply here. The only way corporations can benefit from migration to the US is to operate in the US.

I don’t suppose arguments of this kind will make a lot of difference given the prevalence of overt racism on the right. But, to the extent that racial appeals are being used to divide the working class, it’s important to be clear about the fact that, economically, the common interests of native-born and immigrant workers far outweigh the potential competition between them. This is an argument that the left has had to make repeatedly throughout the history of capitalism, and that we will probably have to make again in the future.

1. This doesn’t take account of the US-born children of immigrants. However, given that US immigration peaked around 2000, most children of immigrants are still too young to be in the workforce, while representing sources of demand for goods and services produced by US workers.

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DGA51
10 days ago
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The Truth Behind Trump’s Economic Lies

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How Soybeans Explain What’s Wrong with His Claim the Economy Is Booming

David Cay Johnston

There’s good economic news, Donald Trump declared July 27, with the economy growing 4.1% in the second quarter of 2018. That number is accurate, for the moment, provided you don’t look beneath the surface or back at past economic performance or to a horizon about 60 days out.

Let’s take a look at the results of Trumponomics at 19 months by examining Trump’s statements about the facts on economic growth.

That 4.1% growth in the economy, or Gross Domestic Product as its formally known, is the best so far under Trump. But initial quarterly reports are notoriously inaccurate. Maybe growth was more and maybe it was much less.

“The first-to-final estimates of quarterly GDP lately has had a lot of volatility,” noted Professor Robert Eyler, chair of the economics department at Sonoma State University in California. He said the revised data may show just 3.5% growth, which would still be a good number.

Facts are never enough for Trump, who has to exaggerate even when he has good news. So we get this from the Embellisher in Chief: “We’ve accomplished an economic turnaround of historic proportions.”

Nope. Not even close.

Obama did better in four of the 32 quarters he was in office. So did every other president back to Harry S Truman.

The GDP growth champ was Jimmy Carter with 16.4% real growth–four times Trump’s best–back in 1978, as the graphic accompanying this article shows. The red line in the graphic marks 4.1% over the last 71 years so you can appreciate how unreliable Trump’s remarks were.

The important takeaway from the chart above—notice that real economic growth was often above 4.1% until the start of the Age of Reagan in 1981. That’s about when real wages stopped growing for the bottom 90% of Americans.

The long-term decline in wages tracks with the decline of union membership. Reagan, the only union president ever to become president, worked hard to weaken unions. Trump wants to get rid of them.

Trump also declared that the economic growth was not a one-time blip. “These numbers are very, very sustainable,” Trump said, reading uneasily from a prepared text and stumbling over some economic concepts. “It’s not a one-time shot.”

Indiana soybean farmer (USDA)

Trump’s best turns out, in good part, to be an artifact of his trade war with China. In the second quarter, America experienced a massive spike in sales of soybeans. Sales and purchases of other products also soared as “business stockpiled inventory ahead of the impending import duties,” according to a Reuters survey of economists.

Soybean prices in late July stood at $8.72 a bushel, half their June 2012 peak of $17.375. That’s before adjusting for inflation, which would make the 2012 price more than $19 per bushel.

No wonder Trump wants $12 billion of welfare for soybean farmers in areas that favored him in the 2016 election because he promised to put their interests first. If he doesn’t reach into your pocket to give money to those farmers they may be out with pitchforks and many of them certainly will not reward him again at the ballot box.

That soybean welfare, by the way, works out to about $37 per American, assuming it lasts just one year.

Back out the one-time boost in economic growth from soybeans and some other hurried up exports and Professor Eyler may well be right that routine revisions will show growth was actually about 3.5% and the 4.1% rate will not be replicated this year.

American farmers grow about 119 million bushels of soybeans, nearly a third of which had been going to China. Brazil produces almost as much of the versatile crop. Since Trump announced his trade war with China the price of Brazilian soybeans has soared as Beijing orders from our Latin American competitor, punishing the farmers who backed Trump.

“As the trade deals come in one by one, we’re going to go a lot higher than these numbers,” Trump said.

Only time will tell, but it’s not wise to count soybean profits before the harvest.

China had been spending about $20 billion a year on American agricultural products—with soybeans accounting for nearly two-thirds of those sales. Add Canada and Mexico, two more countries where Trump has called for economic warfare, and Trump has put at risk almost $60 billion worth of farm exports, 42% of the total of American farm sales overseas.

China and Mexico, by the way, account for half or more of American exports of pork, poultry, dairy products, cattle hides, sorghum and soybeans, though only soybeans involve billions of dollars.

“We have accomplished an economic turnaround of historic proportions,” Trump also said outside the White House.

When Trump assumed office the economy was growing steadily, not collapsing.

July will mark 94 consecutive months of growth in the number of American jobs–of which only 19 months will be on Trump’s watch. Let’s hope the number of jobs keeps growing, but let’s not get dragged into the ahistorical nonsense that Trump inherited economic disaster in 2017.

That was Obama. When he took office in 2009, the country was losing up to 750,000 jobs each month. But when he left the nation had added more than 15 million jobs from the low point.

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DGA51
20 days ago
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But the Make Farmers Great Again hats have sold out.
Central Pennsyltucky
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Quod Erat Demonstrandum

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I judge people based on their capability, honesty, and merit.
-- Donald Trump


Give me what I want, or I'll punish the whole country!


image

I would be willing to 'shut down' government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall! Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our Country!

That’s what Trump said this morning. We need great people coming into our country.

Great people.

And you get those people, apparently, with a "merit" based immigration system.

Immigration based on merit.

And not just immigration.

Merit is important to Republicans, to Trump. He says it quite a bit. Merit. In all caps, so apparently he means it this time.

Merit. This is a common theme with Trump, judging people based on “merit.”

What merit? And who decides?


Who decides which immigrants have merit?


No, I mean it. Tell me, who decides which immigrants have merit?

Who decides which people have merit, which human beings have merit and which ones don’t. Who decides that?

See, it’s one thing for an individual, a private businessman, to apply some personal, arbitrary measure of merit to others in his personal interactions. Perhaps we all do this to some degree.

It’s another thing entirely for the government to decide the merits of a human being.

And Trump is no longer a private individual, for the moment, for better or worse, he is the government.


Who decides which immigrants have merit?


Hell, before we even get to that, you'll have to define what "merit" means in this context.

What is human merit? Is there a standard set of criteria? An agreed upon list of traits which constitute merit? Is merit measured in degree, with precision, a scale perhaps from 0 to 100? What is the minimum amount of merit to allow entry? How do you measure it? Who measures it? When do you measure it – i.e. when a person is an infant? A child? A teen? An adult? When? After they’ve had some education. After they’ve made a fortune? After they’ve gained some proven worth? Or is it raw potential?

The inherent merit you’re either born with or not. Is that it? Is it?

People change, they grow, and they sometimes diminish with time – you have only to look at those those we once though had great merit until they suddenly didn’t. Bill Cosby comes to mind, along with myriad other entertainers, politicians, and wealthy entrepreneurs who’ve fallen from grace in recent memory.

Merit?

How do you measure that? Because we’ve never been able to do so in any quantifiable manner.

Instead we use vague subjective terms and questionable metrics: Happy. Well adjusted. High IQ. Studious. Smart. Above average. Well educated. Talented.

Take this guy, does he have merit?  The smartest kid in class. 167 IQ. Skipped ahead in high school, National Merit Finalist, graduated at 15, accepted into Harvard at 16, full scholarship for advanced mathematics. PhD by 25. A genius by every measure. His potential for greatness and merit? Unlimited. Trump says, "We need great people coming into our Country!" Great people. Great. Well, then what are the things that make a person "great?" Does that guy, the one just I described have merit? Is he the kind of 25-year-old we’d want helping us make America great? If you met him at the border, would he be the type you’d let in?

Yeah?

That’s Ted Kaczynski, the Unibomber.


So, who defines human merit in the context of greatness?


Trump's own mother was an immigrant.

When she immigrated here at the start of the Great Depression. She was a teenager, 18 years old. Her first language was Gaelic, her English nearly incomprehensible to Americans. She had no education, no trade, no special skills, no unique abilities, no money. She was a dirt-poor economic immigrant, one of tens of thousands from Scotland during the depression. She ended up a domestic servant in New York, scrubbing the toilets of the more well-to-do.

Now, what "merit" did she have?

It's not as if America needed another dirt poor non-skilled toilet-scrubber during the Depression. We had plenty of natural born Americans of our own who needed jobs and would have done anything to get them, including scrubbing toilets. What merit did Mary Ann MacLeod have? Why should she been allowed to come here and take a job, money, a desperately needed livelihood, from an American?

What greatness did she have?

Other than being young, and pretty, and white, and eventually married to a rich guy, I mean?

Much the same could be said of the President's current wife. What greatness did Melanija Knavs have? What merit? Her father was an Eastern Bloc communist. There's nothing special about her education or her experience, she has no unique abilities, no special skills. She did have a trade when she came here, true, but "model" is hardly something great that America needs and can't produce for itself. Her looks got her here, true, but they're fading now and she'll never walk a runway again -- so what merit does she have? Other than being attractive and white and married to a rich guy?


Who decides which immigrants have merit?


How do you define "great people."

What is it that makes an immigrant great?

Who decides what greatness is?

It matters. Very much.

For example: Trump and numerous Republicans have said, or implied, more than once, that immigrants – and in particular, Latinos – tend to vote for Democrats, or at least this is the assumption. And thus, many outspoken Republicans seem to suggest that alone should be enough to bar them from the country. And you don't have to look very far or very hard to find them saying so.

So does that mean we let people into this country, and eventually grant citizenship, to only those who have the "merit" of voting for the political party we like?

Who decides that?

Those currently in power? The same way we decide gerrymandering and voting districts? Yeah?

Or do we compromise? Balance it out? Sure, like before the Civil War when the Union granted statehood only in pairs, one Slave State and one Non-Slave State had to be admitted together in order to maintain balance in Congress.

Like that?

Is that a template for immigrants? We only grant citizenship in pairs, one liberal and one conservative at a time, so as to maintain the balance and assuage Republican fears?

Silly?

Perhaps.

But we've made many such ridiculous compromises in the past, or worse.


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Who decides what human merit actually is?

No, seriously, who decides?

Is skill with a scalpel more valuable to America than the skills of a warrior? No, I'm not being facetious here. We have holidays to honor the military, Trump himself wants to see soldiers parade through the Capitol. We have no national holidays to honor doctors and nurses, Trump hasn’t ordered a parade for those who save lives rather than those who take them. So, which has more merit, the doctor? or the warrior?

Is ability with complex math more meritorious than, say, facility with music? And we’re back to Ted Kaczynski again, aren’t we?

Some kid, say, hyperactive, no education, no experience, behavioral problems, only skill is screwing around on skateboards. He shows up at the border, you gonna let him in?

No?

No merit. No special skills. No useful education. Just another punk kid, just another troublemaker on wheels. No merit.

That’s Tony Hawk. Pro-skateboarder at 14. World Champion twelve years in a row. Today he’s a 50-year-old man, who still does little more than screw around on skateboards – and he’s recognized the world over, a hero to tens of thousands, a star, a leader in a billion dollar industry, and business is lined up twenty deep for his endorsement.

What merit to America’s supposed greatness does skateboarding have?

Well, that depends on how you define merit, doesn’t it?

How many Tony Hawks didn’t have the luxury of being born here? How many future sports stars are right now six years old and locked in cages on our southern border? And what if those skills, that merit, develops only after someone immigrates to America? What if it's America itself, the opportunities here, that create greatness in a person and not the other way around? What if it's both? I mean, how do you know? How can you know? How can you predict human nature, human potential with any degree of fidelity?

How do you tell the Ted Kaczynskis from the Tony Hawks?

 

Who decides what merit is?


Isn't merit subjective?

Dependent on the moment? Subject to change?

Merit. Human merit. I came from the military. From the Navy to be specific. I spent most of my adult life there. I joined up, at least in some part, because I didn’t know what merit I might have. I had some education, a bit. But I wasn’t a warrior. I wasn’t an egghead. I didn’t fit in much of anywhere. I didn’t have a lot of direction, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself.  The military gave me that, direction, purpose, education, perspective.  I learned something about human worth. You see, turns out I was selected for something special. Intelligence work. And back in the day, back during the Cold War, my specialty was pretty damned important. And the prestige of my profession was very high in the military. No one knew what we did. We were special, important, and we were regarded – at least we thought so – with more than a bit of mysticism and respect, and maybe a little awe. It made you feel a cut above the average sailor. Unique. Imbued with special merit, perhaps, greatness even.

But, see, here’s the thing.

Out there, on the pointy end, far from home, onboard a warship, you learn a little something about merit – and maybe something about your own relative worth.

Us? We spooks, those of us who worked behind locked steel doors, well, out there we were no more special – and lot less so – than the rest of the crew. Merit? Let me tell you about merit. Out there, far, far from home, the unnamed and unknown sailors who carried the mailbags to the helicopter in some distant port, the men who flew those machines over the sea and landed them on a pitching deck, the clerk who sorted that mail and handed it out at mail call, well, let me tell you those son of bitches had merit. Because a letter from home, back then before email and satellite network connections at sea, that guy was your lifeline to home. The ship’s servicemen, who washed your laundry every day, down in the bowels of the ship, who sweated their asses off in steam-filled compartments so that you could have clean skivvies, those men had merit.  If you crossed them, you might spend the next three months of your deployment free-balling it. The mess specialists, the ones who cooked your breakfast and served your lunch and made your dinner, those guys had merit, and one hell of a lot more than some codebreaker like me up in the spook-shack, because the qualify of navy chow determines in very, very large part the morale of a ship. Bad cooks are a special misery at sea. Merit? There was no glory in sorting mail, in washing clothes, in cooking up dinner, or in the hundred other jobs done by the unnamed and unknown sailors out there everyday, but the ships won’t move without them and it sure doesn’t take you long to learn just how important they are to your quality of life.

That’s America.

Merit? What has more merit? A dentist when you need a cavity filled or the garbage man when your cans are overflowing? The person who waits on your table when you’re hungry or the one who cuts your hair? Those people, the ones who turn up whenever you need help, the ones who stop alongside the road to help you with a flat, the ones who always turn up to help look for a missing child, the ones fill the sandbags when the water is rising and the winds start to howl, what merit do they have?


Who decides the merit of a human being?


Is merit education? Experience? Skill? Intellect? Able bodied? Ability? Something you’re born with or something you learn?

Or is merit your Race? Religion? Language? Wealth? Health? Politics? Age? Attractiveness? Breeding potential? Skull shape? Eye color?

Who decides what constitutes human merit? What makes a human being great or not?

You know, there have been nations throughout history who have attempted to define exactly that, define greatness, define merit. Measure it. And set human beings on a scale, their worth measured against each other.

Universally, history regards those societies as monsters and we hold them up as examples of horror and the ultimate villainy.


Who decides which people have merit and which ones do not?


You?

Me?

Donald Trump?

Congress? Voters? The mob? Some faceless bureaucrat? A secret committee? Do we contract it out? Outsource the decision to a company in Bangladesh? Who decides?

And how long, once we begin assessing immigrants on their supposed merit, their unmeasurable and unknowable potential contribution to our alleged national greatness, how long before we likewise begin dividing up natural born Americans into categories of relative worth? How long before we begin separating those with merit from those judged to have less, or none?

And what do we do with those who have no merit to our society? What happens to them?

When the state grants itself the power to decide which humans are worthy and which ones are not, then slavery, genocide, absolutism, war, and horror follow almost immediately. Every time.

Every. Time.

Every. Single. Time.

Power corrupts.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And there is no power more absolute, or more corrupting, than a government who declares itself the arbiter of human worth.


Since I have difficulty defining merit and what merit alone means – and in any context, whether it's judicial or otherwise – I accept that different experiences in and of itself, bring merit to the system.
-- Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States.

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DGA51
22 days ago
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One thing is sure, poor people don't have merit or they wouldn't be poor. Yeah, right.
Central Pennsyltucky
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