Why would you be upset about immigrants?

I’m always really bothered by anti-immigration rhetoric and views. I have never understood that. There are quite a few things I’ve evolved/improved my views on, but I don’t remember a time in my life where I ever opposed immigration or easier paths to citizenship. I remember in 4th grade we spent a lot of time discussing genealogy and immigration, including a visit to an immigration-themed museum in Boston. And there were quite a few people in my class who were immigrants themselves and were hoping to become citizens and were still many years away from citizenship despite living here nearly their whole lives. That made no sense to me. I guess maybe that stuck with me. That year, my parents also took me and my sister to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York — where we saw how cramped the Sephardic immigrants had been — as well as the museum at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The poem at the base has always resonated with me.

My parents both emphasized my multi-ethnic immigrant backgrounds although my mother is 4th generation American and my father is a classic New Englander with multiple Mayflower ancestors (in addition to an American Revolution-era Irish branch). Although my maternal grandfather has become pretty xenophobic and anti-immigrant, he and his extended family also all still identify very heavily with their grandparents’ Azorean Portuguese culture and celebrate that heritage each year. My dad — the old-school Yankee — may still not be as progressive as I would like on some other identity issues, but he certainly backed my 4th grade teacher’s pro-immigration lessons, even if he dismissed some of the other lessons as “politically correct nonsense” or whatever, at the time. That was definitely an influential year for me, and I don’t really remember the subject coming up very much before then.

Honestly, I just don’t know why folks would oppose immigration, generally speaking. It’s what made America the country it became, and it was a major source of our economic strength. It still is today, particularly when we compare our labor markets and entitlement program integrity to those of most of the other industrialized nations — but that’s often due to undocumented immigration resulting from onerous legal immigration paths and unreasonable quotas/caps. Ideally, I would support a much more flexible and welcoming immigration policy with very few limits and a much faster path to citizenship for everyone. Pragmatically, I generally support one of the many “comprehensive immigration reform” plans discussed in Washington over the past decade. I even wrote a summary of one such plan on my first campaign job, so the candidate would be prepared on the off-chance someone asked him what his views were on the subject. It was certainly more moderate than my own views, but I understand that it’s pretty unrealistic to assume we’re going to throw open the gates and welcome all the non-felons of the world with open arms — and it would probably have a deleterious effect on wages and the broader labor market if there were a sudden and uncontrolled, massive influx of immigrant labor of all skill levels after a long period of heavy restrictions. But in general, I see immigration as an economic and cultural positive, and I also (broadly) favor global and transnational integration of societies and the formal or informal elimination of borders wherever possible.

In any case, the knee-jerk reactions, the xenophobia, and the tired lies and exaggerations about immigrants — and particularly undocumented and lower-skilled immigrants always really get under my skin. How does it negatively affect you or any of us, really? We’re the melting pot and we always have been. Let’s keep putting stuff into the stew! We should be welcoming the cultural, economic, and other contributions to American society that immigrants have brought and continue to make, instead of dismissing and insulting them. I think vocal, bitter opposition to immigration says a lot more about the folks saying that stuff than it does about the people coming here.

US setting up Niger drones base

President Obama is sending 100 US military personnel to Niger, to set up an aerial surveillance drones base at a Nigerien military airfield for the purposes of assisting French operations in northern Mali (as previously announced). The troops will be armed for their own security, but they will not be in a combat zone. Niger, which borders Mali, has faced some of the same issues with its separatist Tuareg population in the Sahel zones of the country. The nation is quite poor and not especially resource-rich, like Mali, with the major exception that it has extensive (if recently dwindling) uranium mines in the north. France recently deployed special forces to protect the Nigerien uranium mines during the intervention in Mali following a retaliatory hostage crisis in Algeria at an oil refinery. 80% of French electricity in nuclear-generated and much of the requisite uranium comes from Niger. Both Niger and Mali are former French colonies.

America As Number Two — We’d Try Harder

In 1962, Avis Rent a Car adopted the slogan “We’re number two. We try harder.” The message of the ad campaign was clear: Avis was not the number one company in the rental car industry, but its underdog status made it better than the top dog, Hertz.

While Hertz was complacent at the top, Avis was trying to climb toward first place by outperforming its chief competitor with superior service. The corporate culture at Avis quickly evolved to match these heightened expectations, as employees did begin to “try harder.”

Fast forward nearly half a century. It is still a core part of the political lexicon of either party in the United States to praise America as “the greatest nation on earth.” President Obama did so in his 2011 State of the Union address, and senators and congressmen certainly are never bested in their reflexive laudatory stance. Amid all this over-the-top self-praise, it’s hard to step back and look critically at things we could do to make the country better.

In 2009 and early 2010, during the U.S. debate on healthcare reform, many reform opponents repeatedly said that America “has the best healthcare system in the world.” There are two problems with this statement.

First, it is not true by any objective standard, except perhaps with regard to specialty care. America spends a larger share of its GDP on health care than any other industrialized nation, yet on broad measures of health, such as life expectancies and mortality rates, the United States falls behind other large rich countries.

Second, even if it were true that the United States has the best healthcare system in the world, there would still be room for improvement. Declaring our healthcare system the world’s best does not tell us anything about whether it is the best it could be.

More broadly, the United States faces serious problems — including poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, an increasing wealth gap, long-term underemployment and unemployment, an obesity epidemic and slipping literacy and numeracy proficiency.

Some of these problems are inter-related and show no signs of improving. Indeed, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects unemployment will remain high until at least 2016 if no further government action is taken (which is expected to be the case under the country’s divided Congress).

There is little motivation to solve these chronic societal problems, some of which have been on the back burner for decades now, if the country pats itself on the back in the face of all objective statistics showing an America that is drifting further and further away from first place.

Any constructive answer to this problem requires citizens and political leaders alike to accept that the United States is no longer the leader in many areas. Once the country has accepted this reality, it can take the “Avis approach” and try harder to solve its problems and regain first place on as many fronts as possible.

Most of these problems are not insurmountable or unaffordable, but political will is absent without the push to compete against other nations. Since so many U.S. political leaders in both parties are determined to insist that America is the greatest, most innovative, most productive country on earth right now, the country is not actively trying to compete to make these statements true again.

Democrats and Republicans have cited the economic and military rise of China to rally their bases to support various policies, but in other areas where China is actually ahead of the United States, like the manufacture of clean energy technology, there is generally silence.

It should be troubling to the “America is number one” crowd that China is a leader in solar panel construction and is financing, manufacturing and building wind farms in places like Texas — but the reaction has primarily been indifference.

When China finally surpassed the United States in greenhouse gas emissions, the Chinese government responded last year by announcing plans for a cap-and-trade system, even as plans for an American one stalled in a U.S. Senate committee.

Many political advisers would tell candidates, especially in the race for president, that campaigning on a “we’re number two” message spells automatic political disaster. However, a truly savvy candidate could acknowledge America’s slide from first as fact and propose an ambitious program to regain first place as a matter of restoring national prestige and regaining a competitive edge.

Consider John F. Kennedy’s successful 1960 presidential campaign, in which he claimed that the Soviet Union had surpassed American nuclear missile capacity, and that it was crucial to close “the missile gap” immediately. Not only was Kennedy stating that America had fallen behind, but his claim was, in fact, incorrect. At the time, American voters accepted the claim and elected the candidate who had pledged to put America back on top.

More broadly, during the early stages of the Cold War, fierce competition with the Soviet Union extended far beyond military capabilities and encouraged government investments into diverse civilian areas such as general education, math and science, NASA and even to physical fitness.

These investments paid off immensely over the long term, resulting in an even more economically powerful nation. Although the United States led the Soviet Union in most areas for many years, the fear of sliding backward into second place kept the nation’s leaders focused on national improvement.

Today, the United States lacks a struggle with an equal superpower to promote economic and social development that could alleviate many of America’s chronic problems. The solution in the post-Cold War era is to acknowledge that the country’s problems are real — and that it is not actually leading the world by many indicators.

Only then can the United States build political will to fix the problems. If being in first place is indeed a worthy goal, as the rhetoric would suggest, then Americans must accept that America is not number one — and start trying harder.

This piece first appeared at www.TheGlobalist.com. It was moved here in November 2013.

The Nigerian Republic of Royal Dutch Shell

I didn’t have time write about this when the relevant cable first came out, but I was reminded by a CBS roundup of “How WikiLeaks Enlightened us in 2010” to go back and take a look. It’s disturbing but not particularly surprising to longtime observers and critics. Royal Dutch Shell has essentially become, according to the company itself, the industrial octopus inside Nigeria’s government, even in the “democratic” era:

Cables from Nigeria show how Ann Pickard, then Shell’s vice-president for sub-Saharan Africa, sought to share intelligence with the US government on militant activity and business competition in the contested Niger Delta – and how, with some prescience, she seemed reluctant to open up because of a suspicion the US government was “leaky”.

But that did not prevent Pickard disclosing the company’s reach into the Nigerian government when she met US ambassador Robin Renee Sanders, as recorded in a confidential memo from the US embassy in Abuja on 20 October 2009.

At the meeting, Pickard related how the company had obtained a letter showing that the Nigerian government had invited bids for oil concessions from China. She said the minister of state for petroleum resources, Odein Ajumogobia, had denied the letter had been sent but Shell knew similar correspondence had taken place with China and Russia.

The ambassador reported: “She said the GON [government of Nigeria] had forgotten that Shell had seconded people to all the relevant ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries.”

 

What are some of the consequences of this level of control in Nigeria by an oil company? Here’s what I looked at back in June, for example:

How much is being spilled or is leaking? Well, right now there are about 300 incidents a year, and that has added up over the decades.

One report, compiled by WWF UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian federal government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, calculated in 2006 that up to 1.5m tons of oil – 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska – has been spilled in the delta over the past half century. Last year Amnesty calculated that the equivalent of at least 9m barrels of oil was spilled and accused the oil companies of a human rights outrage.

According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites, many going back decades, with thousands of smaller ones still waiting to be cleared up. More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell alone.

Last month Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009. The majority, said the company, was lost through two incidents – one in which the company claims that thieves damaged a wellhead at its Odidi field and another where militants bombed the Trans Escravos pipeline.

[…]

Caption: An oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. Wellhead 14 was closed in 1977 but has been leaking for years, and in June of 2004 it finally released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude. Above: Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company clean it up. | photo & caption by Ed Kashi, via citisven

 
Nigeria is now America’s third-largest oil supplier, even beating Saudi Arabia, from which we get about 40% of our oil. It’s time to do something about this.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Death penalty primarily in cases with white victim

Sociological Images just posted about how the race of the victim determines whether the perpetrator gets the death penalty.

Even though half of all homicide victims are black, 77% of cases that result in the death penalty have a white victim. That’s a pretty clear indicator of what kind of lives we value.

The data is since 1976, and an Amnesty International report from 1990 shows similar patterns. Things might be improving (or they might not; it’s hard to find this kind of information), but they are still pretty bad:

A January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland concluded that race and geography are major factors in death penalty decisions. Specifically, prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American.

A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.

 
But let’s be cautious in how we handle this information: the solution should not be to give more people the death penalty, but to give fewer people the death penalty.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

They hate us for our oil spills

The United States gets over 40% of its oil from the Niger Delta region. We get more oil from Nigeria than from Saudi Arabia. But there’s a lot of oil being pumped that’s never making it to any refinery because instead it’s ending up smothering the landscape across the region, which is always slick with oil, as I wrote in June…

How much is being spilled or is leaking? Well, right now there are about 300 incidents a year, and that has added up over the decades.

One report, compiled by WWF UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian federal government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, calculated in 2006 that up to 1.5m tons of oil – 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska – has been spilled in the delta over the past half century. Last year Amnesty calculated that the equivalent of at least 9m barrels of oil was spilled and accused the oil companies of a human rights outrage.

According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites, many going back decades, with thousands of smaller ones still waiting to be cleared up. More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell alone.

Last month Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009. The majority, said the company, was lost through two incidents – one in which the company claims that thieves damaged a wellhead at its Odidi field and another where militants bombed the Trans Escravos pipeline.

 

 
While still images coming out of the region are shocking enough, intrepid Current TV correspondent Mariana van Zeller went into the Delta to get video footage of the literally omnipresent oil slicks and spewing wellheads, as well as to interview locals.

While rebels or other individuals damaging pipelines to steal or disrupt oil may be a problem, as the oil companies claim and the Western media dutifully repeats, one local Ogoni activist tells her simply that “the greatest problem we have is that these facilities are too old” and they just corrode away and start gushing oil into the surroundings. And in fact he believes that the violence against the oil companies and the government is probably a result from, not a cause of, the many crude spills. The organization he works for helped bring down the Nigerian dictatorship in the 1990s, ushering in a new, ostensibly more democratic era, and yet they still face the same problems from the oil, which is killing their people. The military government was unresponsive and often downright cruel, as my background post explored, and in some ways this aspect has improved under democracy, but “security” thugs hired by Shell and the other offenders continue to deter local efforts to seek justice. (I want to note that my post was at one point apparently being circulated on an internal corporate server of Shell Oil, according to my site statistics data.)

We made a huge deal out of the large multi-month oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico — and rightfully so — but we as a nation don’t bat an eye over the reality that Nigeria’s delta people have been experiencing what is tantamount to a pervasive, multi-decade oil slick in the same supply chain that is attempting to slake America’s oil thirst and led to that smaller oil catastrophe in our marine back yard. (Yes there was actually less oil going into the Gulf this summer than has been spilled almost continuously in the past five decades in the Niger Delta region!) But these days, as is often the case, it is “un-American” to question our consumer demands and resulting detrimental overseas policies, to suggest that we might be causing well-founded distrust and dissatisfaction from our fellow global citizens, or to propose that we alter the status quo to improve the lot of others and thereby secure ourselves.

1.5 million tons of oil spilled over a half century. God bless our SUVs, every one.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside and was featured by Boston.com.

Refudiated

The Prop 8 ruling is obviously last week’s big news, but I wanted to touch on an issue that I didn’t get a chance to write about yesterday. On Tuesday, a New York City panel rejected efforts to grant landmark status to a building near Ground Zero slated to be built into a mosque. The mosque had become the latest outrage du jour for conservatives concerned about the impending Muslim takeover of America. Republican heavyweights Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin took a day off from demonizing city dwellers to instead speak on their behalf by bashing the mosque and claiming it is an insult to all those who died during 9/11. I know it is political silly season right now, but I think this is an important issue because of just how blatantly the conservative arguments about the mosque fly in the face of basic American values.

Gingrich, in addition to basically comparing peaceful New York Muslims to Al Qaeda hijackers, had this particularly cutting argument for why we shouldn’t allow a mosque.

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.

 
Yup, Newt is basically saying that we should throw out our commitment to religious pluralism and nondiscrimination because the Saudis don’t allow freedom of religion. When the hell did Saudi Arabia become our standard for freedom? Lets get rid of women rights too, while we’re at it! America is a better country than Saudi Arabia precisely because of these freedoms and it would be ludicrous to hold ourselves to their standards.

Not only is the Ground Zero Mosque not really a mosque (it is more of a community center that has prayer spaces), it’s also not on Ground Zero. Everyone is talking about how insensitive it would be to built a mosque on ground zero, but it’s located several blocks away from the former site of the Twin Towers and would be only the second mosque in lower Manhattan (I don’t have really any first-hand knowledge on this, but I can only really find one other on google maps). We are talking about prime real estate in a city with thousands of Muslims who might appreciate having a place to pray close to their work.

I definitely understand that 9/11 was a traumatic experience for all Americans and New Yorkers especially. And because the terrorists attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, it is not at all surprising that some Americans would feel uneasy about other members of that religion. But the pain of that day should not blind us to the fact that Islam is the second largest religion in the world and the vast majority of its followers are not terrorists and do not wish to kill innocent Americans. Our prejudices, not matter how understandable they may be, should not allow us to deny fundamental rights to other Americans. In this case, having the government prevent the mosque would violate both the religious rights and property rights of the Cordoba Initiative (they own the building and are mostly free to do whatever they choose with it). Maybe the Cordoba Initiative could choose to stir less controversy and outrage by building the mosque somewhere else. But if they want to build the mosque there, they have the right to. Don’t like it? Too bad, we live in a free country.

This all brings me back to another point I have touched on several times before: every time we compromise our fundamental rights in the name of fighting “terrorism,” we are in fact advancing the terrorist cause. Religious pluralism, one of the foundations of American democracy, is antithetical to the jihadist ideology and when we compromise our ideals we create an America less free and more like the nation Al Qaeda would like to create.

But none of this really about Ground Zero and 9/11. That’s just a cover. How do I know this? There is a trend from Tennessee to Wisconsin to California of opposition to mosque construction. Along with silly fears about “creeping sharia law” there’s a feeling among conservatives that Islam is not a religion, but rather a “political ideology” or a “cult.” Since our Founders recognized “Mohammedans” as a religion that deserves the protection that other religions enjoy, I am going to side with Thomas Jefferson and his Koran on this one (Never mind that the only real difference between a cult and a religion is the number of followers they have). In a time of economic recession, this type of xenophobic bigotry is certainly not unprecedented. That, however, does not make it any less shameful.

Finally, I want to give out to some cheers and jeers in this saga. Jeers to the Anti-Defamation League for condemning the mosque and, well, defaming Muslims. Having followed the Anti-Defamation League’s antics surrounding the Armenian Genocide and the Israeli-Palestinian Debate, however, I can’t say I am surprised. Cheers to Fareed Zakaria for returning an ADL prize in protest. Here’s an excerpt from his letter:

The ADL’s mission statement says it seeks “to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” But Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, explained that we must all respect the feelings of the 9/11 families, even if they are prejudiced feelings. “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted,” he said. First, the 9/11 families have mixed views on this mosque. There were, after all, dozens of Muslims killed at the World Trade Center. Do their feelings count? But more important, does Foxman believe that bigotry is OK if people think they’re victims? Does the anguish of Palestinians, then, entitle them to be anti-Semitic?

 
Cheers again to Michael Bloomberg for an eloquent speech defending religious freedom and the right of the Cordoba Initiative to build the mosque. I recommend watching the whole thing.

This post was originally published on Starboard Broadside.